Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Few Words on "Grit"

To start with, I did see the 1969 version of True Grit when it first played in theaters. Considering I was 13 at the time, I only recall a few things from the film, such as the title song performed by Glen Campbell, John Wayne with his eyepatch and Kim Darby as Mattie not using a single contraction in her speech (come to think of it, that's a decent amount to remember after 40 years, I guess.)

So I went into the Coen brothers' remake of this film with open eyes; I could judge this film on its own. My verdict? Outstanding photography, a very good screenplay, but only so-so direction. This is certainly watchable, but except for the last 30 minutes or so, hardly compelling. After seeing the film, you wonder why the brothers bothered remaking this particular piece of work.

It's a pretty straightforward piece of entertainment, at least in terms of the Coens (straightforward for Hollywood these days is usually pretty lame, so I at least give the brothers credit for giving us films that don't insult our intelligence). By now, everyone must know the storyline of how 14 year-old Mattie Ross turns to US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (cranky, lumbersome Rooster Cogburn) to find the man who killed her father. I do like the way the screenplay is organized here as first we are introduced to Mattie (wonderfully played by 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld) and her stubborn ways (nicely spelled out in a lengthy scene where she negotiates a fee for her losses) and then to Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in a typical charming performance) and his rough and tumble manners (the initial view we have of Cogburn is on a witness stand; his answers and muffled delivery are a nice insight into his character).

But after this opening, things tend to move along from point A to point B in a fairly conventional manner. That might work for some film makers, but one would hardly make the argument that the Coen brothers are conventional. The plot lines are all eventually tied up, but I expected more, especially visually. I say that even as I marvel once again at the remarkable work turned in by director of photography Roger Deakins, who has been the filmmakers' cinematographer since 1991. Is there a more accomplished cinematographer working today? Certainly no one captures low light photography better than Deakins and this visualization is exactly what this story of revenge and murder call for. It's also interesting to see the desaturation of colors in the outdoors scenes, certainly a change of pace from the usual brightly lit skies of a typical Western.

The last half-hour of this film is captivating, as the direction improves, especially in a visual sense. The scene where Rooster takes Mattie for medical help on horseback is quite remarkable; under a star-filled sky, the two characters take on an otherworldly identity. This is one of the most memorable images from any film by the Coens; it's a shame that they couldn't provide more moments such as this in this film. (There is also a marvelous shot of the couple on horseback that leads into the nighttime action, as we see them in silhouette under the setting sun.)

Given the theme of redemption, you understand why the Coens became involved in this project. But at the end of the day, you wonder what drew them to this particular work. It's got it's moments and it's always a pleasure to look at, but it just doesn't have the inventive moments of their best work. They've shown their own true grit often in the past - too bad more of it isn't on display on this occasion.

P.S. I'm quite certain that Roger Deakins will once again be nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film. If this does indeed happen, it will be his ninth nod - he has yet to win an Oscar. He will, I am happy to report, receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 2011.

I am also predicting an Oscar nomination for Hailee Steinfeld for Best Supporing Actress - she truly deserves it!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

"Sometimes it's easier living a lie." - Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks)

Living a lie is the primary theme of Steven Spielberg's wonderful 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can. On the surface level, this dramatization of how teenage Frank Abagnale, Jr. became one of America's most wanted con men of the 1960s, is about the big lie he lived for several years. But on a deeper level, the film is concerned with the lies between a father and his son, a wife and her husband, a mother and her son as well as a law enforcement officer and his wife and daughter. Ultimately this film has a rather dark message that family values are often hollow and lead us to a road of deception - at the end of the day, how do the lies we encounter in our family lives change our behavior?

Interestingly, the two main combatants of the story, Abagnale (Leonardo diCaprio) and Hanratty, the FBI agent assigned to catch him, have the most honest relationship in the film. Their bond is based on several factors, not the least of which is that neither one can stop what he is doing - Abagnale passing bad checks and impersonating a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot with Hanratty obsessively pursuing Abagnale across the country and even into Europe.

While Hanratty initially treats this case like others he has been involved with in the past, it becomes much more than everyday work for the agent. He soon deduces that Abagnale's behavior is not necessarily prompted by the need to make money and stay a step or two ahead of the law, but in reality to try and save his father from prison. His father had IRS trouble and when his plush suburban house is repossessed, he must move his family into a rather modest apartment. Soon, his wife, bored with her surroundings, cheats on him with one of his friends, no doubt punishing her husband for his lack of success.

Divorce soon follows; this is a shattering moment for the young Abagnale, who is forced to choose which parent he will live with for the remainder of his life (he selects his father, of course, whom he greatly admires). This is a beautifully edited scene by Michael Kahn, as shots of a confused Abagnale in the apartment are intercut with images of him wildly running down a street, away from the family chaos and toward a train station that will offer him a journey that will take him to situations he never imagined.

Abagnale uses his wits to manufacture phony checks and then pass them, making several million dollars illegally. His motive at first is to help his father pay back his debts as well as achieve a better life, but he soon realizes that his father is becoming more distraught as well as a bit unstable. He treasures his father's love and though his father never really abandons him, their relationship becomes frayed.

Missing his father's attention, Abagnale turns to Hanratty, via a series of phone calls, many of them on Christmas Eve. These scenes are among the most touching and deeply felt in the film, as they show the isolation of the two characters, with Hanratty often alone in his dark office late at night and Abagnale by himself in an anonymous hotel room or at a bar. Abagnale contacts Hanratty, not only because he needs someone to talk to, but because he respects his honesty as an authority figure. Hanratty soon welcomes these calls, not only as they help him track down Abagnale, but also as he feels a connection to the teenager; the relationship between his former wife and daughter having been greatly diminished.

In one of the most revealing moments of the film, Hanratty tells Abagnale over the phone that he (Abagnale) called because he had no one else to talk to on Christmas Eve. Hanratty laughs at this and is proud of this sudden discovery, but for Abagnale, this is an affirmation of his loneliness and it scares the wits out of him. Spielberg gives us a reaction shot of a clearly dazed Abagnale that is beautifully composed, with half of his face covering the top of the frame with the phone (out-of-focus) in the bottom half. John Williams' mournful cue, performed here as a saxophone solo, perfectly communicates Abagnale's isolation; this is a turning point for the criminal, who suddenly realizes how his life is not presenting the true freedom he so greatly desires.

Spielberg has always surrounded himself with some of the best technical talent in Hollywood and that craftsmanship is brilliantly on display in this work. Janusz Kaminski, who had become the director's regular cinematographer since Schindler's List (1993), has given us a complex pallette, ranging from the muted browns and yellows of the Abagnale apartment to the kitschy, glowing yellow and orange of Miami and the south in the mid-1960s. Costume designer Mary Zophres performed marvelously here, capturing a large range of looks from the dull colors of corporate world suits to the bright pastel shades of the stewardess uniforms. Kahn's editing keeps this 140 minute film flowing beautifully.

John Williams, who had been composing music for Spielberg's films since Jaws (1975), delivered one of his most distinctive scores that recalled the jazz influences of his early years; the opening theme is a jaunty one featuring saxophone, vibes and even finger snaps! Coming from a composer who wrote so many famous blockbuster themes for full orchestra, this more intimate sound is a nice change of pace. Additionally, the opening theme perfectly suits the wildly inventive animated title sequence that recalls the great title designs of Saul Bass in the 1950s and '60s. (This opening is worth watching in its own right; it was designed by Nexus Productions. I saw this design parodied a few years ago on an episode of The Simpsons - how many title sequences have been so honored?)

There are several excellent performances; Hanks is especially good as the humorless FBI agent who has to put aside his no-nonsense approach for awhile if he is to finally catch his prey; his Boston accent is flawless and you can tell he must have thoroughly enjoyed himself on this film. But it is Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr. who steals the show here (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for this role). Walken beautifully underplays his role, moving from self-confidence to utter dismay at his poor fortune in life. So often the actor has gone over the top in his on-screen portrayals and given his image as a unique, slightly oddball individual, no doubt many directors let him do as he preferred. It is to Spielberg's credit to a certain degree that Walken reined things in for this role.

As for Spielberg's direction, it is as subtle and and self-assured as he had delivered to that date (and perhaps since). He is able to find small moments of humor (such as the shot of dozens of model airplanes in a bathtub or the scene where Hanks does his laundry) and glides his camera across sets effortlessly. There is plenty of irony in this story (drying a forged check in a hotel Bible, for example) and the director again communicates this with much less bravado than he had displayed in the past. His direction of the scene when Abagnale is arrested at his mother's new home on Christmas Eve (again, that night!), while Nat King Cole's rendition of The Christmas Song is heard on the soundtrack, is quite touching and sensitive, without the maudlin one might have expected.

Catch Me If You Can is often a light-hearted piece; certainly the mood is often humorous, especially in the middle of the film when Abagnale falls in love with a nurse (innocently played by a young Amy Adams) and then tries to impress her socialite parents. Despite the feel-good way the story resolves itself, this is hardly a film with a joyous message. The repeated shots of Abagnale tearing off a label off various ketchup, soda and champagne bottles point to an unmasking of the truth. Placing a logo on a check will give the appearance of reality, but it is of course, a lie.

The two characters are presented in much the same way - the surface level tells us one thing, but their inner truth reveals something else. In the case of Abagnale, the supposed joy and power of conning others succumbs to a cry for help, as deep down he wants to be caught (hence the retention of his first name Frank for all of his phony identities). For Hanratty, the solemn edge he brings to his work is a mask for the unease and loneliness he feels every day (he cannot bring himself to laugh at his partner's jokes). Catch Me, reads the title, but who is that person?

Photos ©Dreamworks

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Goofs on Goofs



1) to blunder, make an error, misjudgment, etc.


2) a foolish or stupid person

One of my favorite websites - and I'm guessing one of the favorite of many film bloggers - is I use the site for many reasons, whether it be checking the filmography of an actor or director or finding a lot of valuable information about a particular movie, as to when it was released, the complete cast and crew as well as images from the film. Often I find myself watching an old film at home and then see a character actor whose face is familiar, but whose name is not. I immediately go to the site and look up his or her name. That's a neat benefit of this site and one can then follow up and see a list of other films this actor appeared in over the course of his or her career.

There are other features on and some I love - such as the trivia section as well as memorable quotes - but there is one section that drives me nuts. That is the "goofs" section, where mistakes in a particular film are pointed out. Some of these mistakes are in continuity, while others are visual, such as a microphone being visible in part of the shot or an historical error, such as current automobiles in the background of a scene set in the 1930s or '40s.

This listing of mistakes is supposed to be all fun and games and let's face it, this has been going on for years, even before the internet was with us. Books have been written about film gaffes, so this is nothing new. Yet it's never been as detailed as this, which of course comes as no surprise, given the sensory information overload we deal with via the internet (as well as media outlets) these days. So of course, every possible mistake is singled out for a listing.

Except some of these mistakes really aren't mistakes at all. I noticed this the other day when I saw this listing for a few of my favorite films. Let's start with L.A. Confidential. Here is an actual entry from the goofs section on the site:

At the end when Ed Exley received his medal, he walks Lynn outside. When they are walking outside to the car, Ed doesn't have his medal throughout the end of the movie.

Ok, you've caught the filmmakers in a continuity error here. While it's possible that Exley removed his medal, he'd realistically have no place to put it (it's a large medal worn around his neck), so this is most definitely a mistake. Congratulations, you caught this one.

But then we have this gem:

When Jack Vincennes finds Matt Reynolds's body, there is a close-up shot on Matt's face. In that shot you can clearly see that the vein in his neck is still moving.

I went ahead and watched that scene several times and have yet to see this. Seems to me this is a very realistic shot of a dead man. But if they say they saw it, they must have seen it, right? Perhaps some wishful thinking here?

No movie escapes the wrath of the people looking for goofs, not even a classic such as Chinatown. A few trivial mistakes (such as the sound of the 1930s police siren!) are written about, but here's one that boggles the mind:

When Gittes is driving through the orange groves, the sign says "No Trepassing." "Trepassing" should be spelt "Trespassing."

Did the person who wrote this ever think that the sign was written that way on purpose? That the misspelling of the word "trespassing" as "trepassing" was deliberate to show that the individuals who took care of the orange groves were farmers and perhaps not that well educated? This is listed on the site as a "possible deliberate error by the filmmakers", so the site does realize this, but why even list this at all?

Then there are the goofs for the film Key Largo, the classic Bogart/Edward G. Robinson film directed by John Huston. Now this is one of my favorite films and I've probably seen this at home more than 20 times. I love the film (obviously), but watch just about any film that often and you're bound to notice a few errors, such as the string supporting the model palm trees in a hurricane or the length of Robinson's tie in several continuous scenes. These are pointed out on the site, so they've done their job.

But consider this one:

Describing the summer heat in the Keys, Mr. Temple says that it will cool down in November: "The thermometer will drop to 100 (F, about 38C)", implying that summer temperatures are consistently above 100. This is incorrect. The climate is humid, but the adjacent waters moderate the temperature. Average summer high is 87F (31C). According to the Keys official tourism website, "The hottest it's ever been in Key West is 97º F (36º C), and that was way back in 1880."

Ok, you've done your research on this, good for you! But come on, this is a movie about a gangster taking control over guests at a hotel, it's not a documentary about the climate of Key Largo. When Mr. Temple says that the temperatures will cool down to 100 F, it's a line the audience or viewer can idenitfy with; in other words, it's extremely hot during the summer. Would you rather have him say, "The thermometer will drop down to 87 degrees"? Imagine that line and how it would sound! Please, lighten up here will you?

Finally, the critique I couldn't believe I was reading:

The hurricane passes by unrealistically quickly.

Approximately two minutes of the film are scenes of the height of the hurricane. Apparently whoever wrote this wanted 15 or 20 minutes of hurricane footage. Note to this individual - this is a movie - it's not actual footage of a hurricane! Do you criticize Spartacus for only taking three hours to cover the slave revolt? We all know that took years, right?

Also, did the person who wrote that the hurricane paased by too quickly notice that dissolves were used in the editing? In case you don't know film grammar, a dissolve is used to denote a passage of time. Thus the two minutes of screen time showing the hurricane actually represents a much longer time, perhaps 20 or 30 minutes.

One thing to remember here is that the people who watch these films for goofs (I'm convinced there are people who deliberately look for mistakes) are watching on DVDs, where they can freeze frame or watch at half speed. That's just a bit different than watching this movie in real time in a theater or even at home. Do you think that the filmmakers of the 1940s or even the 1970s knew that their films could one day be watched in this manner? I compare this to baseball umpires who have to instantly judge a bang-bang play at first base and rule safe or out. Watching on tv, we get the luxury of seeing the replay, as often as three or four times, slowed down to a freeze frame. It becomes a little easier this way, doesn't it? The umpire doesn't have this option and it's amazing how often they get it right.

So can we stop this over analysis of every detail in every film? Can we instead focus on what's truly important, such as the film's themes or whether the screenplay is well written and the acting is special? To the goofs who write about goofs in movies, here's a suggestion - get a life!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Study in Kindness

Lilith (Dir. Robert Rossen, 1964) is a film that deals with the world of mental illness in a most remarkable manner. Unlike too many works that have focused on "lunatics" screaming and acting in an angular way, this film quietly examines how a young female patient changes the life of a wet-behind-the-ears therapist. It's an intelligent film that hasn't received the attention it deserves; it's one of Rossen's most challenging films and it's one of his finest.

The story begins as a young man named Vincent Bruce (cooly played by Warren Beatty) looks for a position at an East Coast mental institute. This is not a location with dungeons and dark settings, but one located amidst the splendor of a lovely forest; this setting is meant to act as a settling influence for these patients, many of whom are diagnosed as schizophrenics.

Vincent has recently returned from the service and is, as many movie characters are at the beginning of dramas such as this, "trying to find himself." But lest you think this film is going to repeat so many clichés, strong writing (one of Rossen's strengths, he adapted the screenplay from a J.R. Salamnaca novel) presents us with a marvelous story as Vincent meets Lilith (Jean Seberg), a beautiful woman in her mid 20s, who appears very normal and rather quaint on the outside, but is a bit of a devil on the inside.

One of the things I like about the screenplay and the way the story unfolds is that we are not told in specific detail why Vincent wants a job as a therapist, especially as he had had no experience. "They'll train me," he tells his grandmother at dinner, in one of the many quiet, relective scenes of the film. It is at that point we learn that Vincent's mother died. A scene soon after has Vincent meet his old flame Laura (Jessica Walter) who is now married (we assume she married during his time away in the military). So we are going to follow a young man, clearly uncertain of who he is and what he wants to be, try and learn about his identity by studying mental patients. I like this conception and it's well managed throughout the film.

Though he has no experience dealing with mentally ill people, Vincent uses his kindness as a way to their soul and it's this quality - and the ease in which he does his work - that makes him a success at his job. He is able to win over Lillith's trust and soon takes her on adventures outside the institute's grounds, where the two of them become more emotionally attracted and attached.

Lilith is not schizophrenic, but rather a nymphomaniac, something we learn over time. Her initial love scene with Vincent is quite erotic, as they embrace near a stream, just a few yards from other patients. Their encounters become more passionate over the course of the film and Rossen films these scenes in a highly charged emotional, yet quiet, manner. Their final love scene is a stunning moment in the film as it takes place in her highly claustrophobic room at the institute. Rossen films the scenes in extreme closeups and there is no music; the only sounds we hear are breathing and other utterances by the actors. At one moment, Lilith lets out a quiet hiss like that of a cat in heat; she is on the prowl here with Vincent lurking next to her. Their kisses here are deeply passionate with tremendous raw energy, much like that of two animals. This scene in particular is aided by the stark black and white photography of Eugen Schüfftan, whose overall work here is excellent in expressing the gray moods of the characters.

Lilith is also carrying on an affair with Yvonne (Anne Meacham) another female patient at the institute. Lilith is also the object of the affections of Stephen (Peter Fonda), a tender, but confused patient; she leads him on, but is clearly not interested in his passions. In one peculiar scene midway through the film, Lilith kisses a young boy of no more than nine or ten years of age when she cannot pay him for a treat he is selling. The young boy is quite happy to kiss her, but she then whispers something in his ear and he pulls back, clearly embarrassed by what he has just heard (thankfully we don't hear what she says, so we can use our imagination). It's a subtle touch that helps us understand how mischievous - and clearly troubled - Lilith truly is.

Jean Seberg's performance in this film is marvelous. It's quite a surprise to see her on screen here, especially if you are used to her pixie haircut and baby face, as witnessed in previous films such as Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. In this film, she has grown into a marvelously beautiful young woman with her glowing eyes and long, blonde hair (she is especially beautiful in the first scene she has with Beatty, wearing a pretty summer dress with an attractive floral pattern). While she admittedly was frightened by her inital experiences on screen, she developed into a talented actress and she gives a very special performance here. This is the type of role that could easily slip away into parody, but Seberg is always cool and under control here, even in the one scene where she vents her anger at Beatty. Her performance is among the many high points of this film and it's not a stretch to say that the film largely succeeds because of her presence.

(It is a shame that she was not given more challenging roles such as this, as she was a gifted actress, as the French had discovered a few years earlier, when Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his film Breathless (1960). She would never have similar acting challenges again after Lilith; tired of the inconsequential roles she was given, she soured on her career and sadly, committed suicide in 1979, at the age of 40.)

The film ends on a troubling note, as Vincent must face the consequences of his actions. The film's final shot and line are memorable in summing up the subtle path this film takes in its efforts to take us into the minds not only of the mentally ill, but the so-called sane individuals (we, the viewers) as well.

Postscript: Lilith was the final film of Robert Rossen, who had one of the more unusual Hollywood careers. An exceptional screnwriter (The Roaring Twenties, The Sea Wolf), he turned to directing in the 1940s and became a success in both fields, most notably for All the King's Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). Both of those films dealt with the downfall of a man and how that decline came via a woman's charms. While the downfall of Vincent in Lilith - due largely to his interaction with the title character - is not as rapid as that of Willie Stark and Eddie Felson in these other two films, it is nonetheless, just as emotionally shattering.

Final note: Rossen was twice called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1951 and 1953. At his second appearance before the commmittee, he divulged more than 50 names of former or current Communists. Because of that, his name was removed from the blacklist in Hollywood and was able to continue to make films. As mentioned before, Lilith was his last film, He died in 1966.

I've often wondered why Elia Kazan, who gave the same committee names at his appearance in 1952, has been vilified by some in Hollywood for his willingness to name names, yet Rossen who did the same thing, has been spared this criticism.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oliver Stone - Back in Form

"It's ugly versus ugly and it's time for ugly to get going."

That quote, uttered by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) about two-thirds of the way through Oliver Stone's latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has to do with a plot twist in the film that I will not give away. However, once I heard it, I couldn't help but think of the effect Oliver Stone has on film critics. He certainly has brought out the beast in a number of critics in his career, and while this work does not have the obvious political overtones that previous works such as JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) had, the Stone bashers are once again outraged.

I mention this as I've seen mixed reviews of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, with a few writers extolling this as an insightful look at the stock market meltdown of 1998, with most reviewers knocking the film for its clumsy story lines or lacking the edginess of his original Wall Street (1987). While there are a few flaws in the film, I loved it and I started wondering what these critics were looking for? Once again, the very mention of Stone's name attracts the naysayers like a porch light attracts moths.

What few of these reviewers bother to mention is how entertaining this film is, especially visually. Throughout the years Stone has worked with some of the finest technical talent in the business and that professionalism is evident in this movie as well. Thanks to Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto, this is one of Stone's most visually arresting films, with dazzling views of the Manhattan skyline (occasionally shot in time-lapse, one of Stone's favorite approaches) along with beautiful high-key shots of brokerage offices.

Two scenes in particular are stunningly shot and composed by Stone and Prieto, one a gala affair inside a museum with muted browns and reds as the camera pans among the millionaires, often highlighting a particular necklace or pair of earrings worn by one of the society women, while the second is a lovely shot of the story's main couple, Winnie, Gekko's daughter (Carey Mulligan) and her finacé, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), side by side in their loft at night with the Empire State Building beautifully lit up in the background in the middle of the shot. Prieto has become one of the most accomplished cinematographers in recent years (Babel, Alexander, 21 Grams); this is one of the most impressive realizations of cinematography that I've experienced over the past few years.

The editing by David Brenner (who won an Oscar for his work on Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, 1989) and Julie Monroe, is equally brilliant. There are all sorts of visual tricks here from split screen to iris in, but even without these sights, the editing conveys the rapid pace that is part of the world of the New York Stock Exchange. I loved, incidentally, the way one character's suicide scene is edited, as it unravels slowly, as he buys the morning paper and a small bag of potato chips from a vendor and then heads down into the subway. He then sits on a subway bench, nonchalantly munching a potato chip or two, before his ultimate decision. The tempo of the film rises and falls with the characters' motives and deeds and that's a credit to the editing team as well as Stone's direction.

If there is a flaw in the film, for me it's the fact that there's just too much going on; certainly the character of Jake's mother (Susan Sarandon) isn't necessary. The only reason I can think of as to why this character is present is to show us the mounting problems in Jake's life, but it seems to me that he's got enough to worry about, given his on-again, off-again relationship with Winnie as well as his encounters with Gordon Gekko; we don't need any more situations to embellish the fragility of his life. Also, while I think Sarandon is an extremely talented actress, her Jewish accent here is way over the top. (As a contrast, I love what Sylvia Miles does with her brief scene- she's got style!)

I don't quite understand all the goings-on with the brokers here; nor did I get everything in the original Wall Street as to the financial decisions. But while that bothers some critics, I don't have a problem. This is a movie, not a documentary and how much is Stone supposed to explain? Do you want a two and one-half or three hour movie? I see these scenes as intrigue and what's most important is not every detail in these transactions, but the emotional decisions undertaken by the characters. There's a real nice evil versus good theme here, but it's not dumbed down. Rather, this comes out over the course of the film, so we can enjoy this as it unfolds. Of course with most of these characters (especially Gordon Gekko), they're walking a fine line between good and bad; it's a complex life these people lead. "So I double dipped?", remarks one character. Stone and his writers seems to be saying that almost everyone in this game leads dual lives.

Again, I just don't see why the film has received such lackluster press. Perhaps in the eye of many critics, Stone is supposed to condemn everyone in the world, and by not doing so, these reviewers may feel that he hasn't brought the hammer down. Of course, if he did that, then some commentators would declare that he's delivered a heavy-handed film- the guy can't win. Say what you will about Oliver Stone's visual style and messages, but would you prefer a hack such as Michael Bay or Brett Ratner at work on some faux epic or dumb comedy? Let's be thankful that Oliver Stone continues to make thoughtful films about important stories in our recent history; after all, few other directors want to seem to make that commitment.

P.S. Very smart decision of Stone and his casting directors Kathleen Chopin and Sarah Finn to use Eli Wallach to portray the character of Jules Steinhardt (last photo above). Though Wallach has only a few lines, he brings a stern presence to his role and I love his little business with the bird chirps!

Wallach also had a small role in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, back in the spring, so what a wonderful year for this 95 year old actor. How many people even live that long, much less get to work in two films by celebrated directors in the same year? To top it off, Wallach will receive an Honorary Academy Award in a few weeks. Great for him!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Scores to Settle

Max Steiner

I've been a big fan of original movie music scores ever since the age of 14, when I saw the film Patton and heard Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant composition. Like most great works of music for the cinema, his score added greatly to the overall quality of the film, especially in the way it highlighted the emotional state of the title character.

Goldsmith was one of the greatest composers to ever write for the cinema and his work was honored with 17 Academy Award nominations, winning one Oscar for The Omen (1976). However, there were a dozen or so scores for which he was not nominated, which I think deserve recognition.

This is not an isolated situation as many other talented composers from Max Steiner to John Williams and several in between were passed over for some of their finest work. For this post, I'd like to call attention to some of my favorite scores that were not nominated for an Academy Award.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Max Steiner (1948)
Max Steiner, who came to Hollywood from his native Austria, is a beloved figure in the history of film scoring, so much so that he is known as "the father of film music." He won three Academy Awards for his scores (The Informer, 1935; Now Voyager, 1944 and Since You Went Away, 1946), although he did not win for what is arguably his most famous score for Gone With the Wind (1939). In total, he was nominated for 26 Academy Awards.

Yet it's difficult to believe he did not receive a nomination for his score for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), especially when you consider the acclaim for this film, as evidenced by Oscars for director John Huston and his father Walter for Best Supporting Actor as well as a Best Picture nomination. Steiner did receive a nomination that year for Johnny Belinda, but his failure to earn a nod for Treasure is a strange omission.

Steiner's main theme, scored for full orchestra, is bravado and triumphant, moving to a quick tempo after a few introductory notes; it sets the tone for this film's sense of adventure beautifully. I also love his brief dramatic theme for the mountain, which we hear several times. The composer also incorporates Mexican themes, my favorite of which is a jaunty cue played by mandolins.

This is a multi-layered score that shifts moods often (joy, sorrow, weariness). It is an accomplished effort that serves the film beautifully; it deserves to be remembered as one of Max Steiner's finest works.

David Raksin - The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Raksin will always be remembered as one of Hollywood's finest composers, if only for his beloved theme to Laura (1944) a composition that has probably been interpreted by more jazz musicians than any movie theme in history. The fact that he was not nominated for The Bad and the Beautiful is as curious as Steiner for Treasure, as this was a very celebrated film, capturing several Oscar nominations.

Raksin's theme that opens this film and is heard in various reworkings throughout, is memorable as having one of the longest melodic lines of any movie theme. It is at once bravura, touching and bittersweet. The first time we hear it, string dominate, while in the brilliant final scene, when the three principals listen to their old nemesis on the phone, Raksin has a solo saxophone play the theme, giving it a racy edge that matches the nervous uncertainty of the scene.

My favorite cue is when the lead actress Georgia Lorrison (portrayed by Lana Tuner) visits the set and her dressing room on the eve of the first day's shoot on her initial film. Raksin introduces the main theme, this time with a solo muted trumpet. This is a brilliant choice as the tone of this music matches her loneliness and unease with making her first movie. Raksin then has the strings swell in joy, as she opens a small gift in her dressing room; just as quickly, the composer introduces a counter theme in a minor chord. This is jarring to the senses and is a perfect accompaniment to the emotional state of Georgia, who suddenly feels her inadequacy as an actress. As her producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) rescues her from her self-imposed misery a few days later, we hear the main theme again, this time with a few bars played by a single saxophone; this gives the soundtrack a nice edginess as well as a touch of sexiness.

Raksin not only wrote gorgeous themes for his films, but was also one of Hollywood's greatest orchestrators; his talents are on display in brilliant fashion in this work. How sad that Raksin never won an Oscar and was only nominated for the Academy Award for two of his scores: Forever Amber (1947) and Separate Tables (1955). He deserved better, even if he will be remembered for one of the most famous movie themes of all time.

Bernard Herrmann - Vertigo (1958)

I could write an entire post about how Herrmann, who was arguably the most extraordinary film composer of the 20th century, failed to receive his proper due from the Academy. It is hard to believe that after winning an Oscar for his score for the 1941 film All That Money Can Buy (beating out his superior score for Citizen Kane that year), Hermann was only nominated once (for Anna and the King of Siam in 1946) until 1976, the year after his death, when his final two scores, Obsession and Taxi Driver, were among the final nominees. That means no nominations for such accomplished and memorable compositions as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a lush, romantic score considered by some critics to be his finest work; The Day The Earth Stood Still, with its use of electronics (1951), the playful The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) or the haunting score for François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Then of course, there is his body of work for Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps the finest collaboration between a composer and director. His highly charged theme for North by Northwest (1959) sets the frenzied atmosphere for that great adventure, while his shrieking violins for the shower scene in Psycho mark one of the most famous musical cues in the history of cinema. Let's also recall his quirky, dark score for The Trouble with Harry (1955), his complex work for Marnie and of course, his apperance as conductor at Albert Hall in the stunning assassination attempt in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

That leaves his score for Vertigo (1958) as his finest work that did not receive an Academy Award nomination. There are two main themes here; the first, which opens the film, is a nervous-edged blend of strings and brass that is at once jarring as well as heart pounding; it is a beautiful match for the kaleidoscopic images of the Saul Bass-desgined main titles and a notable prelude to the psychological trappings of the film. (Hermann continues this mood as the film opens with a chase across rooftops in which one character falls to his death - this is a superb marriage of visuals and music).

The other theme is the famous love theme, also known as "Scene d'Amour." This is a lush, romantic theme with gushing strings that also has minor chords that bring in a mournful, heartbreaking feel. Hermann uses this theme several times during the film with the most memorable being the James Stewart and Kim Novak characters embracing as the Pacific Ocean waves roll and crash behind them. The theme ends with a short burst of brass followed by a quiet passage for strings. It is one of the loveliest and most haunting themes in the composer's remarkable career.

It would be impossible to imagine Vertigo without its music - that is as high a praise as any score can receive.

Rudy - Jerry Goldsmith (1993)
Jerry Goldsmith, as mentioned above, was nominated more than a dozen times during his 40-plus year career; some of his most famous works include his music for Patton (1970), Chinatown (1974), Star Trek (1979) and Basic Instinct (1992).

But there are several other scores from Goldsmith that should have been nominated; my favorite is his score from Rudy (1993). The title theme is a quiet one, with a solo flute playing the sensitive, very pretty melody that heightens the lonely battle the title character must endure to make true his dream of playing for the Notre Dame football team. The theme slowly adds a few voices followed by strings, but it always remains rather subdued and is always poignant. As many themes for sports films are highly charged, this is a unique take by Goldsmith.

The other theme, entitled "Tryouts" is the cue for the spring football practices; this is a masterpiece. We see the early morning mist and the breath coming out of the player's mouths on a crisp, cool spring day and Goldsmith gives us a bright, snappy theme mixing a simple percussion melody soon joined by brass and strings. Startling slowly and quietly, this is perfectly matched to the drills the players go through, such as stepping through the ropes for improved footwork. Here the brass plays the driving theme that immediately communicates to the viewer the intensity of the practices. It's probably likely that you've heard this theme over the years - the NFL used it in some of their commercials a few years back - and it's a perfect moment where the music matches the actions and emotions on the screen.

I never get tired of hearing this score or watching the scenes of the final game, where Rudy finally gets to play. Goldsmith blends the two main themes together and the effect is marvelous!

The Terminal - John Williams (2004)
After 45 Academy Award nominations (and five awards), it's difficult to believe that John Williams would have written anything that wasn't nominated. But there are a few and my choice is his wonderful score for Steven Spielberg's film The Terminal.

Williams is of course best known for his rich symphonic sound, especially as embraced in such epics as Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Superman (1978) and countless other films, from the Indiana Jones series to those of Harry Potter.

But Williams could also write a quiet, more reflective score and that's what we get in The Terminal. This is an offbeat story about a foreigner named Viktor Navorski from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is forced to spend his time in Kennedy airport when his country goes through a civil war - thus he becomes a man without a country whose passport is meaningless. William's main theme has a jaunty lively, almost comical nature, played by solo clarinet which is then joined by full orchestra; it's a nice beginning to this work.

His romantic themes for the "Fountain Scene" and for his cue entitled "Gupta's Deliverance" are in a word, delightful. This love theme is one of the composer's most beautiful compositions and it is especially touching in the latter cue, where the strings play a counter theme that is all about loneliness. When the two main characters (Viktor and a stewardess he met in the airport) kiss in front of the fountain he has built as testimony to how he feels about her - well, love conquers all, doesn't it? What a lovely moment!

John Williams even went so far as to compose a national anthem for Krakozhia for this film - who else has been asked to do something like that? What a fun, original and unpredictable score by John Williams!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn: 1922-2010

I just finished uploading my latest post when I read the news that Arthur Penn passed away at the age of 88. I'd like to share a few thoughts on this most individualistic director:

Penn will forever be linked with his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, the film that changed the look of gangster films as well as introducing contemporary Hollywood cinema to sudden, brutal violence. Who can forget when Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) shoots a man hanging on to the rear of his getaway car after a bank robbery? Filmed from inside the car, Barrow fires through the window directly into the man's face; this was clearly a shocking scene that had not been seen in American films to that date.

The final shootout when Texas Rangers fire hundreds of bullets into the two title characters is another horrible scene, yet the beauty of Penn's direction (along with Dede Allen's brilliant editing) lifts this scene above the normal killing of bad guys as depicted in most movies. We see in separate shots Bonnie and Clyde moving toward each other as though to embrace and show their love for each other. The sequence ends as we fade to black - chilling.

For me, Penn would never quite match this intensity again, though I believe his Night Moves (1975) is another highlight in his career. A brooding, film-noirish detective story with a wildly complex plot about smuggled goods that was more concerned with the frustrations of its characters, the film displayed a bitter edge that Penn often brought to his finest work. This is a film that takes you on a journey where you share many of the same emotions of the main characters who worry about the paths that had been taken by America.

Penn never took the easy way out, as evidenced by these two films as well as others - Little Big Man was not the usual "the white man has been brutal to the Indians" story; rather it dealt in great degree with the brotherhood of the Indian and how they dealt with their outside troubles. Penn, in his best films, always challenged us to look at these characters - gangsters, detectives, Indians -in a new light and constantly challenged us - the audience, to see things things anew. We could be entertained by an Arthur Penn film, but often, we came away confronted with our own faults (especially true with a film such as Four Friends (1981)) This may not be what everyone wanted from a movie, but Penn went there in an honest fashion.

Great Movie Quotes - Part Four

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka

Here is part four of my list of favorite movie quotes - not the "Here's looking at you, kid" type of lines that everyone knows by heart, but great lines that deserve to be better known.

"I always felt a little hurt when our swallows deserted us in the winter for capitalist countries. Now I know why. We have the high ideal, but they have the climate."
Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) – Ninotchka (1939)

"You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a love affair. But he doesn’t know which."
Mae Doyle D’Amato (Barbara Stanwyck) to Earl Pfieffer (Robert Ryan) – Clash by Night (1952)

“I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. And that’s what I try to do. Sometimes I lean to one side of it and sometimes I lean to the other.”
Hud (Paul Newman) to his father (Melvyn Douglas) – Hud (1963)

I reserve the right to be ignorant. That’s the Western way of life.”
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) to Fiedler (Oskar Werner) – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

“Are you an assassin?” – Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando)
“I’m a soldier.” - Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen)
“You’re neither. You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” - Apocalypse Now (1979)

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) – Godfather lll (1980)

"I don't wanna badmouth the kid, but he's a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse. And I say that with all due respect."
Danny Rose (Woody Allen) - Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

“I’ll tell you something, kiddo. You couldn’t find big time if you had a road map.”
Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) to Vince Lauria (Tom Cruise) - The Color of Money (1986)

“Son, in 35 years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard and incontrovertible facts. There is a God and I’m not him.”
Father Cavanaugh (Robert Prosky) to Rudy (Sean Astin) – Rudy (1993)

"Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven't got any wings."
Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) to an anonymous suspect being interrogated. - L.A. Confidential (1997)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Emerging from the Darkness

The Letter (1940) is one of Warner Brothers' finest melodramas of that decade, a subtle study of deceit, murder and self-revelation that is supremely acted by the entire cast, eloquently written, beautifully photographed and effortlessly and stylishly directed by William Wyler. It is a film that deserves to be better known.

Set in a rubber plantation in Maylasia, the film immediately grabs the viewer with the opening image of a full moon lighting up the night. Wyler shows us a lovely image of sap slowly dripping from a rubber tree and then cuts to show us the workers in their outdoors living quarters playing checkers or musical instruments or sleeping. As he pans off these people, we see the house of the film's main couple, Leslie and Robert Crosbie (Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall). Suddenly we see a man emerge from the front door and stumble down the porch stairs, as Leslie is in the act of shooting him at point-blank range; she even empties the gun's chamber of the final few bullets as the man is already dead, laying on the ground.

The story quickly unfolds after that as Leslie tells her husband and her lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) why she shot this man, Mr. Hammond. Leslie explains that he suddenly appeared at her door, asking to come in and talk and as she knew him for some time, agreed to have him come into the house. According to her version, they had an argument, he had too many drinks and then threatened her; her murder was self-defense in her eyes.

The others are satisfied, even proud of her courage, but it soon emerges that a letter that Leslie had written to Hammond has been located by his widow. The letter was written on the same day of their encounter and detailed Leslie's desire to have Hammond visit her. These details of course, place doubt on the truth of Leslie's original story, so her lawyer must make plans as to the best way of convincing a jury that she is not guilty of murder.

He is told by his assistant Ong (Victor Sen Young) that Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) is willing to sell the letter to Leslie and him for the sum of $10,000; in exchange, the widow will keep her silence. Against his better judgment, Howard goes along with this plan. The trial is held, Leslie is acquitted and we are then given the final act of Leslie and her husband trying to work out the rest of their lives. The film ends on a somber note, which I will not go into for those readers who have not seen the film.

All througout the film, Wyler emphasizes the theme of emerging from the darkness. Much of this is done visually, and much credit must go to the superb black and white photography of Tony Gaudio, who captures the murky mood of this story superbly. We see several images of the moon being hidden by the clouds and then reemerging, as darkness and light are interchangeable in only a few moments. This is initially seen in the first sequence as the plantation workers, awakened by the gunshots, are seen with the moon's light on their faces; a few seconds later as the moon hides behind the clouds, their faces are covered in darkness.

Wyler continues this visual metaphor later on in the scene in a prison office when Leslie tells Howard her plan to buy the letter. He agrees to do so and tells her that he will do everything he can to save her life. As he says this, he becomes the dominant figure in the scene, as he moves in front of Leslie, obscuring her face from the light entering the room's windows. It's a subtle visual touch and a nice way of showing the darkness into which Leslie must descend to be acquitted.

The major characters must also materialize from the darkness as well. Leslie must admit to her lawyer and then her husband that she lied about the reason she shot Hammond. She must also reveal her love for the dead man, not only to her husband Robert but also to herself. Her husband must figuratively see the light of her deception and Howard must reconcile the dark nature of his decision to buy the letter, even though this is in contract with his moral code. The way that each character's decision affects the others' is a strong underlying theme of this story.

Wyler also works with the theme of frailty, especially with Leslie's character, who is shown on several occasions knitting lace. The delicate nature of lace is in keeping with the emotional fragility of Leslie, while the needle she uses is sharp, just as the knife she will encounter in the final scene. Her needle is a source of creation, while the knife will represent destruction.

Wyler films most of this in long takes; editing and closeups are kept to a minimum. It's a treat to see a master director at work, as his camera setups and compositions serve the story beautifully. But his direction of actors is just as impressive. Herbert Marshall as Davis's husband is first-rate, as he keeps a stiff upper lip, even after learning of his wife's betrayal; it's a thoughtful, charismatic performance. Stephenson received an Oscar nomination for his role as the lawyer; it's a challenging role, one in which his character is not even afforded the luxury of a smile and he delivers brilliantly. Also worth noting is the small gem of a performance by Victor Sen Young as Howard's assistant. All of these roles are underplayed; clearly Wyler wanted this effect as the details of the plot were startling enough on their own.

Then of course, there is the performance of Ms. Davis herself. This was Bette Davis at her finest; in other words, this was Bette Davis, the actress and not Bette Davis, the Star. This was clearly a vehicle for the actress, as her name appears before the title, but thankfully, Davis decided to put her histrionics on hold for this performance and the film is all the better for that. She acts in this film instead of emoting, something which we've all seen from time to time. Davis also gave a wonderful performance the following year in The Little Foxes, also directed by Wyler; apparently he knew as well as anyone how to get the finest work from this iconic actress.

Howard Koch, who would go on to co-write Casablanca at Warners a few years later, adapted this story from W. Somerset Maugham's play of 1927; his screenplay is beautifully structured and a model of efficiency. His words sound natural and are never forced. I loved this particular exchange between Davis and Stephenson, when he asks her about her knitting:

Davis: I find it soothing.
Stephenson: Does that mean it takes your mind off other things?
Davis: Is that a legal question?

Additional credit must go to Orry-Kelly for his costume design (especially Davis' and Sondergaard's outfits), the layered art direction of Carl Jules Weyl and the impressive score of Max Steiner. The composer, who could be a bit intrusive at times with his cues, adds emotional depth to the story with his subdued themes.

The Letter is a story with a sensational theme that was handled with great finesse and style by William Wyler and his collaborators. This is a film that should be mandatory study for today's filmmakers who could learn a lot about film language and the elegance of telling a story in a cinematic way.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

John Huston's "Badge" Under Fire

John Huston's version of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), based upon the famous Civil War novella of Stephen Crane, is one of the director's most visually inventive films. At times, it's also one of his most gripping. But as for being one of his finest all-around works, the jury is out, as we'll never see the director's intended opus.

In his engaging 1980 memoir, An Open Book, Huston tells the story of how this film was first turned down at MGM, then later approved and finally edited by the studio after a poor initial reaction by the public (this despite very good critical acceptance). During post-production, Huston had to begin filming The African Queen, so he was not present while the studio executives decided to add narration as well as trim the film down to a mere 70 minutes. (Huston does not mention how long his version was, but we can imagine that at least 20-30 minutes were dropped for the final cut.) Years later after a reappraisal by English critics, the studio asked Huston for his copy of the film, as they wanted to rerelease the original version as the director had intended. But as Huston points out, he didn't have a print, as it didn't exist. Because of this, Huston would stipulate in his future contracts with studios that he receive a 16-mm print of the first cut of any film he made.

Yet despite the studio interference, this is a strong film. Given that the screenplay is rather sparse and the action focuses on only a few sequences, Huston's direction is the principal reason why this work is so memorable. His visuals are quite striking, especially in several shots where he has one character in the foreground of the frame - usually at the extreme left or right - with another in the background. This shot is used more than once with the two main characters, Henry Fleming, also known as The Youth (portrayed by World War ll hero Audie Murphy) and Wilson, also known as The Loud Soldier, portrayed by war correspondent and editorial cartoonist, Bill Mauldin.

Bill Mauldin (l.) and Audie Murphy

Some of these shots are the two of them sitting and talking, as during the morning of the final battle, where each confesses to the other their fears as well as excitement over the upcoming attack. In one shot however, Huston places The Youth in the extreme right foreground and has The Loud Soldier walk from rear left to front left, stopping a few feet away from his friend, as both faces fill the screen in closeup. Huston ends the scene with Mauldin walking back to the rear left of the frame, away from the camera and from Murphy. He never moves his camera and it's all done in one continuous, economical shot.

Huston films this work primarily as a series of closeups, as we identify with the various Union soldiers who march before our eyes. He wants us to see the fear and nervousness of these individuals in circumstances none of them have ever faced; they clearly have no idea what lies ahead. For the most part, Huston does not give us wide panoramas of battles or shots with long lenses to compress the view of two opposing sides in a skirmish. We rarely see the Rebs in this film, with the one exception being a few shots of captured Confederate soldiers talking to their counterparts after the film's final battle. This is an achingly simple scene, as one soldier on each side asks the other his name and what state they are from - the soldiers fight for their cause, but they share the same emotions.

This is one of the quietest war films ever made; battles are few, while the forced marches from one location to the other are the focus - again, so we can learn of the soldier's fears and hopes. There is a beautiful overhead crane shot of the Union troops asleep at night in camp; the camera pans from one soldier to another and composer Bronislau Kaper adds a remarkable cue, at first slow and solemn and then jarring, as he writes a short outburst of brass that communicates the nightmare one commanding officer has during his sleep. This is a haunting and eleoquent scene that tells us the uneasiness of the lives of these individuals.

One can only wonder how good The Red Badge of Courage might have been, had the studio not gotten in the way. Yet Huston gave us a stirring, wonderfully humanistic look at soldiers under pressure in this film that even non-approved editing could not eliminate. This is a film that does not take sides nor does it condone or condemn war. It is simply, an important film about the quiet struggles soldiers face in war. The fact that we identify with these subjects is a sign of the clarity and beauty of John Huston's direction.


I promised Adam Zanzie at IceBox Movies, who is hosting a John Huston blogathon, that I would share my encounter with the director, so here goes - Adam, I hope you love it!

I was flying back home from Ireland in late September 1985 and had just settled into my seat, when John Huston boarded two rows directly in front of me. I immediately recognized him, given his height and that wonderful white beard he sported for so many years. Accompanying Huston was a female assistant who took care of his needs, which included an oxygen tank that he was hooked up to - at this stage in his life, he was suffering from emphysema. But if his health was causing him any agony, he certainly didn't show it this particular day, as I soon discovered.

About 30 minutes into the flight, the lead flight attendant, standing only a few feet from Huston, announced on the intercom that the movie that day was Prizzi's Honor. I couldn't believe my ears, as here was Huston's latest film - it had been released only a few months earlier - and I was going to watch it with the director as part of the audience.

When the flight attendant finished her remarks, Huston, who was in fine voice, barked at the woman, "Stewardess! Who books the movies on these flights?" The poor woman, obviously flustered at the demands of this man whom she did not know, said sheepishly, "I'm not sure, sir. But I can find out for you."

Huston smiled and then addressed her. "Well, you tell them, this is the worst movie I've ever seen!" All she could do was try and be helpful.. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I'll let them know."

I was doubled over in laughter in my seat, but looking around, no one else seemed to get the joke. It didn't matter, as Huston, even in his advancing years, hadn't lost his sense of humor.

Although I didn't get the chance to speak with Huston given his condition, I'll never forget the spark he displayed that day. No wonder so many great actors wanted to work with him. How could you not love someone who enjoyed that type of mischievous fun?

Monday, August 2, 2010

John Huston's War Documentaries

Still from Let There Be Light

In early 1942, just as John Huston was wrapping up principal photography of Across the Pacific, he was given a commission as a Lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and assigned to a meaningless job in Washington. After a short while, he managed to get himself transferred to the Aleutian Islands and once there, made the first of three documentaries for the Army. Seen together, they represent very different views of the war and the effects combat had on the soldiers. They are fascinating chapters in the director's register.

This 43-minute film, shot in color, was narrated from start to finish by Huston himself. The opening shot is of a map showing the viewer exactly where the Aleutian Islands were, west of Alaska, with one island, Adak, located only 250 miles from Japanese-held territory.

Huston's film details the primitive airstrips and missions taken by the young pilots, many of whom were far too inexperienced in the air. Worse yet, they had to deal with flimsy planes with no radar, often battling rain and fog. Many planes did not come back and even for the ones that did, crashes on the airstrip were a routine occurrence.

Huston shows us the faces of these young men as well as the isolation of their surroundings. The missions were the emphasis here and the director was on several of those, along with a team of five or six other cameramen, capturing some remarkable images. One of the most striking is an over-the-shoulder shot behind the pilot as their plane flies head on into a rainstorm. Other images of the bombs being dropped have a eerie beauty to them.

Huston's job was to make a propaganda film, of course, and at one point, the narration has him saying, "The Japs were dug in like so many moles." However, these emotions were kept to a minimum, the result being a well-made, if straightforward record of the bravery of these isolated men. Few recall this part of World War ll, so we have Huston to thank for these memories.

This 33 minute film is one of the most beautifully realized works in Huston's canon. Detailing a particularly fierce battle for a small strip of land near the town of San Pietro in southwestern Italy (population 1412, as Huston proclaims in his narration), this is a gripping, visually rewarding film that retains its power today and was no doubt, an inspiration to filmmakers who made war films in Hollywood several decades later (Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, for one).

Shot in black and white, Huston opens the film with a brief speech by a nameless commanding officer who describes the importance of the Allies gaining hold of this small territory known as the Liri Valley, some 60 miles northwest of Naples and 40 miles southeast of Rome. This is a nice touch and reinforces Huston's belief in the bravery of these men; names are not important, only deeds.

Huston goes to painstaking detail to explain the various stages of the battle with intricate maps, showing where various regiments would be stationed and what their exact orders were. Seeing these plans acted out bring special impact to the film, especially seeing soldiers advance through the terraced groves of olive trees.

The hand-held camera work, much of it done by Huston himself, is thrilling and at the same time distrurbing to watch. As we see two or three soldiers advance amidst the dirt being tossed up by nearby grenades, Huston pans to the right as we watch a soldier being felled by enemy fire; this is still a bit shocking to watch. But even more disturbing are the brief images of the faces of a few soldiers being put into body bags; Huston does not show their entire face, but only a part, which gives these images a haunting quality.

Haunting and beautiful are the shots of the townspeople emerging from their hiding places once the Allies have secured victory. There are several lovely shots of children's faces with their innocent smiles as well as visuals of women washing clothes and men digging out from under the rubble. One of the best shots is of a local woman, balancing on her head, not a basket of clothes or food, but a casket.

This is a no-nonsense film that depicted the brutality of war as well as the simple beauty of the emotions of the local residents, grateful for their final plight. Huston recalls in his wonderful autobiography, An Open Book (1980), that at a premiere of this work for Army brass in Washington, several generals walked out on the film. Later, it was explained to Huston by an Army official that the film was to be shelved as it was "anti-war." He told the Army that if he ever made a pro-war film, "someone should take me out and shoot me." Thankfully, Gen. George Marshall, aware of the film's reception, asked to see the film and declared it as worthy of the heroism of the American soldier.

This is a must see film for anyone interested in John Huston's work.

This is clearly the most controversial of the three Huston documentaries. The subject matter - the study of what was then called psychoneuroses on soldiers returning from the battlefront - guaranteed that, but it is the intensity of Huston's direction that makes this 58-minute film so troublesome to deal with for so many people.

Huston and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) filmed soldiers at the Mason General Army Hospital on Long Island, focusing on a few specific cases, ranging from one soldier upset at the loss of his girlfriend to another who could not walk due to neuroses. The cure is often hypnosis as well as a shot of sodium amathal; a drug that is referred to a having a "shortcut to the mind" by removing symptoms that could impede the patient's recovery.

Narrated by Huston's father Walter, the director focuses on the behavior of these troops who dream of the "torments of fear, uncertainty and loneliness." Some patients have mild problems, others are more serious cases. The most talked about scene in the film is that of a fragile soldier who can barely speak, as he can only manage to say a few words, often stuttering. We are told that the man is not a chronic stutterer, but someone who is suffering from battle fatigue. After he lays down on a cot and is given medicine, he suddenly recovers, saying in a voice that becomes louder and louder, "I can talk! I can talk! Oh god, listen I can talk!" The doctor then slowly converses with him about the specifics that caused this situation and soon the soldier is cured.

The film continues with Q and A sessions between a group of soldiers and a doctor; as a group, they are in fine shape after their treatment. We then see shots of them playing softball and enjoying life, presumably for the first time in years.

All in all, while this does have a few marvelous sequences, the film lacks the dramatic punch one would expect. It is watchable and informative, but this is not the end-all study of war illness it could have been. This makes the Army decision to ban this film puzzling, as the end result of the film is seeing the expertise of the Army doctors who have cured the patients. These soldiers walked in with frazzled nerves, but the leave as relatively normal human beings, free of neuroses (for the most part).

The film was finally given a public showing in 1981 and is available on the internet (as are the other two films mentioned above). Huston wrote in his book that he believed the decision to ban this film was the Army's way of maintaining the "warrior myth" of the American soldier. The Army has said that the filmed interviews were invasions of privacy of the specific soldiers, but Huston writes that he had each individual sign a release, allowing him to film them, so Huston's explanation that he showed the troops at less than zealous heroism, is probably as good as any.

One final note: many reviewers of this film have written that Huston staged much of the film, especially so Cortez could get the proper camera angle and lighting setup. This may have happened - who's to say for sure - but I believe Huston when he wrote that:

"the cameras ran continuously, one on the patient and one on the doctor. We shot thousands of feet of film... just to be sure of getting the extraordinary and completely unpredictable exchanges that sometimes occurred... As the men began to recover, they accepted the cameras as an integral part of their treatment."

While I wanted an even more detailed look at these soldiers, this is a fine film and recommended not only as a historical document, but also as a look at the unglamorous side of combat, a side too often forgotten by filmmakers.