Wednesday, September 11, 2013

War Horse - A re-evaluation

When I saw War Horse during its opening week of December, 2011, I recall liking the film very much. Yet, I didn't review the film at that time, probably as I was busy trying to see several other "big" films that month, released during the holiday season for Oscar consideration. Those other movies included The Artist, The Descendants, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, making it a pretty good month for cinema.

Maybe though, I didn't review the film as it didn't impress me as much when I thought about it a few days later. I was definitely moved by the beauty of the film as well as its message, but I was soon fascinated by a few of the other works I mentioned, especially Tinker Tailor, Hugo and The Artist.

But seeing a film a second time can be an eye-opening experience, no matter what Pauline Kael wrote many years ago. That was certainly true for me with War Horse when I recently saw it again for a second and third time. This is far from a great opus, as the film does have some problems, especially in certain parts of the screenplay. But it is immensely watchable and deeply moving and to me, this is a film that Steven Spielberg was born to direct.

I'm sure everyone by now knows the story of this film, that of a horse named Joey, a thoroughbred, who we follow from birth to a few years of age working on a British farm to a few years later, employed by the German army in World War One to pull tanks. Linked in spirit with this horse is a boy named Albert, who is a witness to Joey's birth (there is a marvelous image of Albert watching through a fence; we see his face framed by this, as in a portrait) and feels an emotional link with him, especially after his father buys the horse at auction. Joey the horse is the spirit that will drive Albert to discover that there are far greater things in life than simply existing.

The opening auction and the sequences where Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains Joey, first at simple tasks and then, arduously, at wearing a harness and plowing a rock-strewn field (this set near Devon, England) are beautifully and precisely directed by Spielberg. When Albert's father Ted (Peter Mullan, in a very natural performance that is sadly underrated), sees that his son is having trouble getting Joey to move, so as to start plowing, he mutters, "It'll take the whip to move him." As he recites this line, Spielberg dollies on him, which is immediately followed by a cut to Albert's face, as we see that he realizes he must take the whip to his beloved horse. This coupling of father and son is a subtle moment, one that is very effective, especially as the son saves his father from financial ruin in this scene, much as the father opened up a new world for his son when he purchased the horse.

After some misfortune, Ted must sell Joey to a captain in the British cavalry, in order to save the farm; this over the protests of Albert. We follow Joey in his life as a war horse, from practice runs to actual battles in open fields against the Germans. The first battle in the story is magnificently directed, filmed and edited (by Spielberg and his long time collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn) as we see the soldiers atop their horses rise up out of the wheat fields, first individually and then as a group (in some beautiful overhead and side shots). They take a German batallion by surprise at first, but are eventually overwhelmed; their defeat means that Joey and a few other horses that survived the carnage will now be working for the German army.

Throughout the film, Spielberg's compositions are first-rate. Along with the sequence described above, there is a striking sequence in which two young German soldiers who have left their ranks with Joey and another horse are captured and then shot. Spielberg films this scene from above, as we look down on a windmill the soldiers stand along side of. As the fatal shots from the firing squad are squeezed, one of the blades of the windmill covers our view of the young soldiers at their instant of death. It is truly a haunting image, one that has a powerful impact in its simplicity.

Another beautifully filmed scene is the gas attack in the trenches, as the British soldiers are completely taken by surprise. Kaminski shoots this so that the clouds of gas emerge rapidly in this claustrophobic environment, with the screen eventually turning to white. Is this white light a reflection of heaven, as these will be the final moments on earth for some of these young men? This scene, like the ones mentioned above, brilliantly display the random and sudden nature of the finality of war.

Kaminski certainly contributed a great deal to the overall effect of this film, his images varying from the sun-kissed hills of Devon to the dark earth tones of the battlefields. In keeping with the historical look of this work, the cinematographer - who has been Spielberg's director of photography since Schindler's List (1993) - has done his best to recreate the Technicolor images of the Golden Age of Hollywood. While I think he went too far at times with the dramatic, deeply saturated clouds, I will admit to being impressed with his filming of the final scene, complete with its hommage to Gone With the Wind, especially with the deep orange/russet skies. It's a marvelous moment, one that some may see as a bit over the top (especially critics who viewed this film as too sentimental), but I thought the visuals here were quite remarkable and perfectly fit the moment. (A note: Kaminski shot this movie with actual film and NOT with a digital camera. There's nothing wrong with someone using digital technology these days, even on the most expensive productions, but today when almost every film is shot via digital, it's refreshing to see that at least one great cinematographer continues to use film.)

War Horse generally received positive reviews (it's listed at 77% recommended by critics at the website Rotten Tomatoes), yet there were few raves about the film. Maybe the film wasn't serious enough for most critics; while a film about the brutality of World War One would seem to be a "weighty" subject, I'm guessing that most critics saw this as a story of a boy and his horse. In other words, this was a work that had some of the classic heartwarming overtones of many of Spielberg's works, a la E.T. or Empire of the Sun. Interestingly, Spielberg did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work on War Horse. When you consider that the two Best Director awards he did win - for Schindler's List and Saving Prviate Ryan (1998) were for "serious" war films, maybe the snub was not a surprise, given the human and his beloved animal angle. When you consider that he was nominated for Best Director for Lincoln the following year, it seems evident that the Academy - along with many critics - expect a virtuous film from Spielberg and will shower praise on him when he undertakes works of that tone. But make a "warm" film, well, that's not the Steven Spielberg those individuals fawn over.

This review is not to say that War Horse is a great film or even one of Spielberg's top three of four achievements. But it is a beautifully made, lovingly directed film that deserves a bit more respect than it's been awarded. Take another look at this film, as I did, and see what you think. At this particular point in his career, Steven Spielberg made a film he believed in and brought all of his skill and energy to this project; I think he succeeded admirably.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Film Noir - The View from a Devotée

Alan K. Rode

"People hunger for a good story. Film noir resonates a vibe in people." 
Alan Rode, member of the board of directors of the Film Noir Foundation

Recently in Chicago, I attended two films shown at the Noir City festival at the Music Box theatre. Before each screening, Alan K. Rode one of the programmers of the event, gave a brief introduction to the movie, detailing not only the plot and production details, but also the film's historical signifigance. Rode was extremely well prepared and organized; he is also a highly engaging speaker and his seven to ten-minute speeches were models on how these things should be done.

I spoke with him briefly before one of the films (The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 1948, Paramount, directed by John Farrow) and asked him if I could speak with him at greater length about his work as well as film noir in general. He graciously agreed and I spoke with him in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Tom Hyland: Is there a typical fan that attends these Film Noir festivals? Why do people come to see these films? Is it because they are starved for a well-crafted film considering all the garbage that dilutes movie screens these days? Is there an element of nostalgia? Or is there a dark side to all of us that we want to see on the big screen?

Alan Rode: I think it's a combination of all of them. Certainly at the Noir Festival in Palm Springs (Rode hosts the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival there), there is an older audience, so nostalgia is part of that. These are people that grew up watching these films.

It's really encouraging to see young people come to the films. But more so, people hunger for a good story. Film noir resonates a vibe in people. Scenes of men in fedoras or people talking on phones with big, clunky dials might be hard for modern audiences to understand, however the themes of treachery, lust and greed are viable in modern life. Everyone can identify with noir.

People can identify with a well-told story. They're tired of special effects. Hollywood has settled on a certain type of model and a certain type of audience.

Film noir was made during the post-World War Two years when America lost its innocence. People of different age groups are drawn to this.

Also, these films are 70 and 80 minutes long, unlike the two and two and a half-hour films of today. The makers of these film noirs told their stories with brevity and sharpness.

Marie Windsor and Charles McGraw in The Narrow Margin (1952, RKO), one of Rode's Top Ten Film Noirs

TH: This may be a difficult, if not impossible question, but how do you define film noir?

AR: When you have a situation where people are doing something that is wrong and they know that it's wrong, but they do it anyway. 

There are other aspects, such as the immigrant directors that came to Hollywood to make these films, the photography - day for night - for example. Film noir is a combination of ingredients. 

It's not a genre, like a western or a musical, where you can identify it right away. Noir is like beauty - it's in the eye of the beholder. Noir does have some demarcation markers, from the 1940s to the 1960s. It's definitely a post war phenomenon.

TH: If a contemporary film wants to be known as a film noir, does it have to be set in the past?

AR: Noir is a style that people use in modern day films. It doesn't have to have a story that's set in 1937, as with Chinatown. In large measure, the strains of the noir style that we see in present day films originate from those timeless dark films from the classic noir era: Double Indemnity, LauraOut of the Past, to name a few. Many films have borrowed from those works and improved upon them.

Richard Conte and Jean Wallace in The Big Combo (1955, Allied Artists), another of Rode's Top Ten Film Noirs

TH: Do you have a favorite line of dialogue from a film noir that offers classic wisdom or advice on life?

AR: In The Big Combo when Richard Conte says, "First is first and second is nobody." That line also describes Hollywood.

Also in The Killers (1946, Universal), at the beginning of the film outside the diner, the young man (played by Phil Brown, who later was Luke Skywalker's uncle in Star Wars) asks Burt Lancaster why two hitmen are going to kill him. "I did something once," is Lancaster's reply and we spend the rest of the film finding out what that was.

Thanks to Alan Rode for his time and his wonderful stories (a few of which I can't repeat here!). Rode has written a marvelous book on Charles McGraw, one of noir's greatest actors, entitled Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (see information here).

He is currently finishing a biography of the famed director, Michael Curtiz, who best-known for classic films such as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, also made film noir, the most notable being The Breaking Point (1950), his retelling of the Ernest Hemingway story To Have and Have Not, starring John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter. Rode calls it, "the last great film Curtiz made at Warner Brothers. Information about the book, Michael Curtiz: A Man For all Movies can be found here.)

Article ©Tom Hyland

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Cracking Good Yarn

I didn't plan it this way, but over the Labor Day weekend, I saw an excellent film about the troubles of one working man in England and how he overcomes his daily struggles. Hell Drivers is the picture, released in 1957 and while it was a relatively low budget B-film, it's a heckuva film, a "cracking good yarn," as they'd say in England.

The film was directed and co-written by Cy Enfield (John Kruse was co-writer of the screenplay). Enfield was an American who was named a Communist at an HUAC meeting in 1951 and was summarily blacklisted; he moved to England soon after and wrote and directed several films, his most famous being Mysterious Island (1961) and Zulu (1964).

Given Enfield's political ousting from America, it's easy to understand the motives that were at work in Hell Drivers. It's a deceptively simple piece of work - I say that as a compliment - about a young man named Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) who, upon being released from a year in prison, looks for any sort of decent job to get back on his feet. As the film opens, he is inquiring about a job as a truck driver for a company in the gravel business - their fleet of drivers transports ballast over short distances several times during the day. Seems simple enough, but a necessary requirement of the job is to make as many runs in a day as possible - 12 is a minimum - but one driver, "Red" Redman (Patrick McGoohan) regularly completes 18 in a single day. Of course, the only way to approach that level is to drive as fast and as loose as possible, often with potentially dangerous results, as the drivers' route shares a few roads with local country traffic.

The title sequence, filmed from the P.O.V. of a driver's seat, puts us front and center into what these men face on a daily basis, as they maneuver twisty, narrow roads on the way to their destination. Filmed in stark black and white by the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (who would go on to be the director of photography on such films as 2001: A Space Odyessy and Cabaret - he won as Oscar  for the latter), this brief introduction to the trucker's perils is edgy and a little rough around the edges in its approach, which is an ideal way to draw us into this world. This is followed a few minutes later by a test run that Tom takes with the assistant of the company boss, who gives him tips on how fast he must drive and how he needs to take turns. He narrowly survives more than one serious accident along the way - this is the first day, mind you -but as he needs an income, he takes the job.

Patrick McGoohan as Red (l.) and Stanley Baker as Tom

The conflict of this story involves how Tom has to deal with the rough and tumble attitude of Red. The latter not only makes the most runs per day (he fittingly drives truck number 1, while Tom works with truck number 13, an intriguing psychological quirk, to say the least), but also runs roughshod over the other drivers, who look upon him with a mix of fear and respect. You don't tangle with Red, as Tom is soon to discover and it's this subtext of the story that gives us a rooting interest in Tom. 

There's also a nice subplot about an Italian immigrant named Gino (beautifully played by Herbert Lom), who hates Red and befriends Tom in his quest to become the top driver. Gino has a girlfriend who happens to be keen on Tom; this piece of business is always in the background, but it quietly simmers, giving the film an even sharper edge.

What I loved about Hell Drivers is the straightforward, no nonsense way in which this story is told and how it unfolds. The character of Red is a bit clichéd, but thankfully McGoohan stops short of portraying him as a monster. The bottom line here is making the proper choice between greed or honor; combine that with a smart screenplay and pinpoint direction and you've got a B-film that makes the grade on just about every level. Maybe it was the humiliation of the blacklist that got Enfield to write this story/fable, but he definitely set about to right some wrongs and in doing so, he gave us a marvelous entertainment.