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Alistair Sim is by far and away the best Ebenezer Scrooge.  He is hardened and fierce yet he carries a barely perceptible regret and tenderness that makes his eventual transformation more of a de-icing than a bullet-dodged.  His exhilaration and mirth upon redemption are infectious, his realization he can play some awesome practical jokes on the likes of his housekeeper and clerk is hilarious, and his heartfelt apologies are actually very moving.  This is my favorite of the film adaptations.  DVR at once.

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A movie only an Irishman could love. I don’t know what to say. John Ford’s classic starts off as a cartoon, with Irish folk so spritely and impish you half expect a pot o’ gold around every corner. They are there to welcome Yank John Wayne, who comes to the land of his birth and immediately falls for spinster Maureen O’Hara. I expect she was supposed to play as a fiery and obstinate redhead, but really, she’s the first truly bipolar heroine in American film. At no point is she satisfied, and poor Wayne has to subjugate himself again and again for this loon. To the point he is labeled a spineless coward, primarily due to O’Hara’s chemical imbalance.

Wayne’s reticence is borne of a dark secret (the flashback provides the few memorable, even iconic, images in Ford’s film). And Wayne is surprisingly good in the role. But he’s stuck in a film with so many bizarre caricatures, it seems especially cruel to see him work.

There’s humor here, and some sweetness, but the picture doesn’t travel well, unlike other films that seem out of time, like Gone With the Wind. There’s also a strange mix of lush photography of the countryside and just awful soundstage footage too clumsy for its year (1952).

The lesson is also a little peculiar.  Let your harridan of a psychotic wife drive you to violence, with an entire drunk and backward town offering a stick to beat her with, and she’ll finally have sex with you.  Actually, that’s really the best part of the picture, and for all its faults, what makes it kitschy fun.

Good to see a young Jack MacGowran, the director Burke Dennings (the one who got his head twisted completely around) in The Exorcist.

And those stars go to Alfred Hitchcock’s deft hand and Cary Grant’s irrepressible charm. Grant plays a society cad who gloms on to spinster Joan Fontaine, who impulsively marries him out of rebellion and passion. She soon learn Grant, charming though he may be, is a liar, a thief and a lay-about gambler, and his debts may be propelling him to more capital crimes. The essential tension, however, is wasted. The deck is so stacked against Grant that when he professes “it was all a misunderstanding”, you’re left disappointed at the expenditure of time and contemptuous of Fontaine, who just seems like a ninny. If Grant could not commit the capital crime, the studio sure did by insisting their star male lead could not play a wife murderer.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Fontaine won Best Actress for her very delicate, frail but stagey performance which does not travel, and in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock summed it up when he reported the actions of a producer who initially took every scene out that indicated Grant was a murderer, leaving a 55 minute product.

Anyone interested in Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock, enjoy.

 

Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

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Robert Altman’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) isn’t a hard-bitten cynic but rather, a seemingly scattered, chain-smoking hippie in a suit (his mantra? “it’s okay with me”), as bemused by the conservative cops who roughly bring him in for questioning (“Someday all the pigs are gonna’ be in here and all the people are gonna’ be out there. You can bet on that. You’re not in here. It’s just your body”) as the perpetually stoned yoga nudists who are his neighbors (“They’re not even there. It’s okay with me”). The truth is that much is decidedly not okay with Marlowe, in particular, his being used by old friend Terry Lennox (former NY Yankee pitcher and baseball whistleblower Jim Bouton) after the mysterious death of Lennox’s wife.  As Marlowe floats through a Los Angeles that feels desolate and burnt out, he moves closer and closer to the truth, navigating the authorities, hangers-on and brutes while standing by his friend.

Mark Rydell, who later became a decent director (Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond), stands out as a particularly chilling gangster who peppers his threats with loopy new age nonsense and boasts about his physical fitness regimen and the fact he lives near Nixon.

Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett aggressively revamp the source material, but Marlowe is still Chandler’s in many ways.  He needles the cops (“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”), can shake from his seeming fog to register a keen read on the situation, and when he arrives at the end of the journey, he is all Chandler’s Marlowe, with his own unyielding code.

Critic David Ehrenstein once told me that The Long Goodbye “was” Los Angeles and while the film doesn’t figure prominently in Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have Hollywood in its marrow. Movie memorabilia can be found in Marlowe’s otherwise bare bones apartment (which was just recently available for rent), presumably from a prior occupant.  The security guard at a gated ocean community specializes in impressions, from Barbra Stanwyck to Jimmy Stewart to Walter Brennan.  The score is some version of the torch song “The Long Goodbye”, be it Muzak in a supermarket or a cocktail lounge piano number, the same ditty re-packaged as only Hollywood can.  Son of Old Hollywood Robert Carradine shows up as a jailhouse prophet and Altman exhibits prescience in his casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mute thug.  LA itself seems an otherworldy ghost town, where everything seem to be trying to pass as a facsimile of the real thing.  As Ehrenstein noted, “Back then the city was a sprawling, sleepy, empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye capturing its ultra-casual look and feel perfectly.  ‘But there’s nothing there,” my east coast friends would say”).

This is a seminal picture, and a prime example of reinventing a genre.

It is a blessing to have children who like movies. We watched this classic John Huston film last night with my daughter, a movie I saw with my father in the theaters in the 70s. Based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, Michael Caine and Sean Connery are old vets in British India, cynical, loyal to each other and avarice. They make a compact to traverse Afghanistan to its upper northwest, into the wilds of Kafiristan, with provisions and weaponry to lend their talents as mercenaries. In doing so, they brave avalanches and the warring locals, and after allying with one in particular, Connery is deemed a god by virtue of an arrow that failed to pierce his heart and a Mason’s necklace.  It all goes to his head.

The sweep of the film is broadly romantic, though, visually, it suffers in comparison to today’s epics due mainly to technical advancement. Caine and Connery are very well-matched, and though Connery’s seduction and their estrangement is a bit rushed, their bond at the end is actually quite moving. This is a throwback adventure film, deliciously retrograde in attitude; the Brits are charming rogues and everyone around them is a cowardly or fundamentalist savage. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time, “Gloriously old-fashioned in its approach – right down to the characters’ politically incorrect attitudes toward anyone who isn’t one hundred per cent British – The Man Who Would Be King is pure entertainment in the grand tradition of Gunga Din.” The film would never be screened on an American campus today, but oh what fun if it were.