Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Young Indiana Jones" and D.W. Griffith

One of the delights of George Lucas' Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was that its creators had an obvious love of the movies that was apparent throughout the series, which was unusually cinematic for a television program at that time. One of the later made-for-TV movies, Young Indiana Jones and the Hollywood Follies (1994) was built entirely around Indy's brush with silent era Hollywood, being tasked by Irving Thalberg to keep Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives from going over-budget, and joining John Ford and his company on location during the shooting of a Western. This episode was clearly made by people with a real knowledge of the people, places and and films of old Hollywood.

But earlier in the series, in the first two-part episode that aired in 1992, there is another silent film reference to be found. The episode, "The Curse of the Jackal", involved Indy traveling south of the border on spring break from college, and getting mixed up with Pancho Villa and his troops. In one scene, following a violent raid, the revolutionaries attend a movie to unwind. Indy is on hand to provide translation of the subtitles for the men, who are moved to tears by the tender love story, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, that is unfolding on screen before them in flickering, black and white images accompanied by a tinkling piano.

The movie is D.W. Griffith's The Battle, which he made for the Biograph company in 1911 and was one of a number of films the director made dealing with the subject of the Civil War. The actors in the shot above are Charles West, a leading man at Biograph who would continue acting in bit parts until 1940; and Blanche Sweet, who was a favorite leading lady of Griffith's during this period, appearing in such films as The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch and Judith of Bethulia.

The premise of The Battle involves a young soldier in the Union army who is separated from his girlfriend when he is called to march into war. During the fighting, he becomes panic-stricken, deserts his fellow soldiers, and seeks refuge in the girl's house. She laughs at him and brands him a coward, but when the boy sees his comrades facing almost certain defeat at the hands of the enemy, he summons up the courage to go back to fight, commandeering a supply wagon and delivering the troops with the ammunition they need to win the battle. In the end, he is reunited with the girl and recognized for his bravery.

Overall, it is a fairly routine melodrama, one of many of its kind that Griffith turned out during this period of his career. It is mainly of interest for some well-staged battle scenes that play like a kind of warm-up for The Birth of a Nation. I had seen the clip of the film used in the Young Indiana Jones episode years before I saw the actual film in its entirety; when I finally did, I recognized it instantly, and was reminded of the attention to historical detail that made the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles such a rewarding program to watch.

I wonder if Pancho Villa and his men ever actually saw the film?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Probably Preston Sturges' best-known film, though not necessarily the funniest or finest comedy he made during his brilliant streak of hits at Paramount from 1940-44. Engagingly acted by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, ably supported by Sturges' famous stock company of expert character actors, the film is at times quite uneven in tone, veering between fast-paced satirical farce and surprisingly dark moments of violence and grim social realism for a comedy.

The dramatic scenes make for some of the most self-consciously stylized moments in all of Sturges' filmography, particularly the courtroom sequence, in which McCrea is swiftly sentenced to a prison term while in a dazed and confused state, and the sequence in the Southern black church, where the chain gang inmates have been invited to join the congregation for a movie night, and the entire audience breaks down laughing hysterically at a Disney cartoon.

Where the film becomes problematic is in the heavy-handedness and contradiction of its message, that laughter is the most important thing of all to those who have nothing else ("It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan," McCrea intones somberly at the film's conclusion). Sturges' point seems to be a bit more complex than that, and he offers as much an indictment of self-righteous Hollywood types who want to change the world instead of producing entertainment. But if Sturges' personal philosophy is indeed that laughter is the best medicine, and that Hollywood should stick to entertaining the masses rather than delivering a message, then his explicit dealing with that message here can't help but seem a bit hypocritical.

He Walked By Night (1948)

An atmospheric, tightly-paced police procedural, directed by Alfred Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann, and groundbreaking at the time for its use of actual events from the case files of the LAPD. The plot follows the investigation into the murder of a policeman, and the search for the killer, an ex-police radio operator who uses his knowledge of the department's operations to stay one step ahead of the cops. Well-acted by Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts and Jack Webb (whose own, later procedural TV series "Dragnet" was inspired by this film). It remains one of the best post-war police dramas, thanks largely to Basehart's intense performance as the criminal, its extensive use of LA locations (most memorably the complex underground sewer system, which is used quite effectively in the film's climactic chase sequence), and for its stunning, high-contrast B&W photography by the great John Alton. One of the best films of its kind.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Bribe (1949)

High-gloss, late-studio era film noir from MGM, about a Federal agent (Robert Taylor) sent to South America to arrest a group of crooks who have been defrauding the government by selling recycled war plane motors on the black market. When he arrives in the town of Carlota, he gets involved with a sultry, mysterious nightclub singer (Ava Gardner), who happens to be married to the chief suspect in his investigation.

This is one of those films that is so well-made at every level, with such care and precision typical of the studio system, that every strand of hair, every bead of sweat seems to be arranged perfectly in its place. Yet this does not detract from its dark and menacing tone. Directed by longtime MGM stalwart Robert Z. Leonard, it's a highly effective mystery-thriller, greatly aided by the performances of Vincent Price and Charles Laughton as the villains. This is not one of Laughton's greatest roles, but he still does his usually fine job as the fat, pathetic crook who has turned to crime just to get by.

Even at 98 minutes, the plot drags a bit at times, though it is consistently entertaining, with nice cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and an atmospheric (if at times a little too busy) score by Miklos Rosza. The highlight is a climactic showdown between Taylor and Price amidst a shower of fireworks, a visually stunning set-piece, though it is Laughton who quietly walks away with the film's great, last line.

Porter and the Power of the Shot

Justus D. Barnes in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (Edwin S. Porter/The Edison Company, 1903).

This explosive shot put the audience directly in the path of the bandit's gunfire, bringing them uncomfortably closer to the action than ever before. Martin Scorsese paid homage to the iconic image at the end of his film GOODFELLAS (1990), when gangster Joe Pesci, framed against a stark black background, fires his gun directly at the audience. In that later film, the moment is passed off as a brief hallucination in the mind of ex-mobster Ray Liotta, haunted by the memory of his dead friend, who represents the desirable life of crime that he has had to give up. In Scorsese's film, by contextualizing it as a hallucinatory vision in the mind of the tortured protagonist, the stylization of the shot is explained away and justified in narrative terms.

In Porter's film, however, the shot simply exists on its own terms. It requires no explanation or excuses for its presence. It exists solely for its sheer, visceral power.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

Enjoyable, light mystery, starring Charles Laughton as Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. Laughton as Maigret is inspired casting, but unfortunately he is hindered by weaknesses in the script and direction. It is highly uneven; there is much that works, but just as much that doesn't. The improbable plot involves a man, torn between his mistress and his wife, who wants to see his aunt killed in order to collect an inheritance. The murder is carried out by a stranger who perhaps seems a little too eager to help, and it soon becomes clear that the killer sees it all as something of a sport, as he manipulates the different parties involved in a kind of intellectual gamesmanship.

Franchot Tone (who also produced) is superb as the somewhat fey, coldly intellectual criminal mastermind who leads Maigret on a merry chase, throwing out red herrings and false flags to trip up the inspector in his investigation, but whose own cunning proves to be his undoing. Burgess Meredith (who also directed) is the timid, poor man framed for murder, and brings a certain amount of pathos to the part of the man trapped in circumstances beyond his control. Laughton does his usual fine job as Maigret, but because of the shortcomings of the script, is reduced to often playing the role as an eyeball-popping, sputtering caricature, rather than being able to really mine the part for the little bits of character business that could have made this one of his great roles.

Then there is the City of Paris itself, photographed in the Anscocolor process by the great Stanley Cortez (though the photography is not well-served in existing prints of the film, which are quite faded and battered). Treated like a picture-postcard version of the city, Cortez isn't given the opportunity to do much more than capture the surface-level beauty of the city, especially around the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower. But it fails to move beyond this kind of "tourist's" perspective of familiar landmarks.

This is typified by the climax, a thrilling chase atop the Eiffel Tower, in which the characters clamber over the majestic structure like a massive jungle gym. While undoubtedly impressive at a purely visual level, the use of the Eiffel Tower feels arbitrary. It is tempting to speculate what a more skilled director could have done with the scene. There are certainly some suspenseful moments, but by this point in the film, there is too little invested in either the plot or the characters for the outcome to be of much concern to anyone, and is not helped by clunky staging and slack editing. The entire sequence ends rather weakly and anti-climactically, too, as if the filmmakers couldn't think of what to do when the characters finally reached the top of the tower. And, as in other scenes, Laughton is too often given little to do beyond sit by and watch the proceedings.

In the right hands, THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER could have probably emerged as a very effective mystery and even a minor classic of its kind. As it is, there are too many problems in the script and direction that keep it from ever being much more than a trifling, if nicely-photographed, diversion.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Collective Memory

When I look at the still above, from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, I'm reminded of the following passage from book, Flickers, Gilbert Adair's celebration of the centennial of the motion picture:

"Yet when I look at the still, what I cannot help conjuring up in my inner eye is not, as is generally the case, an imploded impression, a compacted flash, of the film itself in its entirety but, curiously, a typical page out of a pre-war film history by Paul Rotha or Roger Manwell or Georges Sadoul in which this or else a comparable image from Caligari would invariably be found. Until the sixties, the fuzzy grey uniformity of most published photographic stills from the history of the cinema made it hard to distinguish decade from decade, let alone movie from movie. Bunched together on coarse, sandpapery, mustard-hued pages, frame enlargements from certified classics (Alexander Nevsky, La Bete Humaine -- ah, those railroad tracks!) seemed to be coated with precisely the same ectoplasmic rust as other 'classics' -- so-called, which surely no one any longer wanted to see."

It's interesting to consider the degree to which these pictorial histories of film established a kind of collective memory among the enthusiasts, scholars, buffs and historians who poured over their pages through the decades, the power of these haunting, eerily colorless still images burning themselves into the mind through repetition, until they began to take on a life of their own, as emblematic and iconic as the films they represented.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

Very funny satire from John Waters skewering both the shallowness of Hollywood and the clich├ęd pretensions of guerilla/underground filmmakers. The premise involves a group of "cinema terrorists" called The Sprocket Holes who kidnap an A-list Hollywood movie star and force her to perform in their underground film, in which they rage against the Hollywood machine.

The satire here is more on-point and biting than in Waters' rather genial and tepid kidding of the New York art world in PECKER. Its characters are also less sweet and good-natured, but they're also a lot more fun to spend time with. Cecil B. Demented, the self-proclaimed "ultimate auteur", is played by Stephen Dorff in an incredible tour-de-force performance that never misses a beat, and he plays the part with the perfect amount of conviction, which makes the wildly over-the-top dialogue he's given all the funnier. He's supported by a fine cast including Alicia Witt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adrian Grenier, and many others who are given highly eccentric, richly-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into. Melanie Griffith does a splendid job in her caricature of the self-centered, spoiled movie star, and convincingly portrays her transformation to cult celebrity when she realizes her career is quickly fading. Griffith really gets into the spirit of the absurd proceedings, and it is her performance that holds the film together.

Waters certainly seems to identify with Cecil and his merry band of cinematic misfits (they have the names of directors such as Warhol, Kenneth Anger, William Castle, and others tattooed on themselves), but he also presents them as ludicrously misguided in their crusade against Hollywood, such as the moment when Cecil admonishes his crew not to sully their talents with financial success, their taking vows of "celibacy for celluloid" until the film is finished, and their rather limp, pathetic climactic showdown against the police and moviegoers at the Bengies' Drive-in, in which the remaining members of the gang celebrate the wrap of their film by immediately having sex in front of the stunned crowd. Waters seems to be taking digs at those who take the idea of cinematic revolution a little too seriously.

Waters gets in some great digs at the local film scene, too, especially in the scenes with Cecil and his gang kidnapping Griffith at a fundraiser event being held at the Senator Theater, infiltrating a Maryland Film Commission luncheon at Harborplace, and creating chaos on the set of a fictional filmed-in-Baltimore FORREST GUMP sequel ("Gump Again") starring Kevin Nealon. It's also a lot of fun to see the various local movie theaters, especially the old Hippodrome in its pre-restoration phase. The satire of the movie business circa 2000 is understandably rather dated now (though the jokes about idiotic remakes and ill-conceived high concept pictures are just as relevant as ever), but it also serves as an interesting time capsule of that moment in the late 90s and early 2000s when there was a resurgence of interest in underground/DIY filmmaking.

While it doesn't rank with Waters' best work, it's still a great deal of fun, helped immeasurably by the excellent performances of Griffith and Dorff, mixed together with the outrageous charm of Waters' comic sensibility, and holds up as perhaps the best of his post-SERIAL MOM movies.

Up in Smoke (1978)

Cheech & Chong's first screen vehicle is a loose and episodic affair, but one with plenty of laughs for those who enjoy their distinct brand of comedy. It was wisely decided to translate their humor to the screen with little interference or changes to their characters or comedy style (not surprising, as Cheech and Chong wrote the script). The direction by Lou Adler -- who produced the team's comedy records -- is unobtrusive and generally effective enough, though it's perhaps a little too loose at times, with some scenes going on a little past their worth and dragging the pace a little. For the most part, though, the sprawling and ambling structure works -- it's certainly in keeping with the burnt-out, anything-goes nature of the comedy. Among the supporting cast, Stacy Keach does a fine job as the hot tempered, wildly exasperated narcotics officer on the trail of a massive pot smuggling operation, and Strother Martin and Edie Adams have a brief but memorable turn as Chong's parents. All in all, it's infectious, silly, good-natured fun, extremely vulgar but never mean-spirited, and almost certainly the best and funniest of the Cheech and Chong comedies.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

After Hours (1985)

Dark, offbeat comedy, intriguingly directed by Martin Scorsese, right after the dark, offbeat KING OF COMEDY. Scorsese was not the original choice to direct the film, and it shows: it bears little of his style, and seems to call for a director who would be more in touch with the absurd elements of the script. Tim Burton was apparently originally considered to direct, and it's tempting to think about what he would have done with the material, with a more self-consciously stylized approach and even an animator's sensibilities. As it is, the film's "look" is an uneasy mix of realism and fantasy. Though shot on location in New York, the city's streets have never looked more like a backlot set.

Griffin Dunne stars as a New York office worker who gets sucked into one crazy night of nightmarish events in downtown Manhattan, which begins when he goes to the apartment of a young woman whom he'd made a date with earlier that evening. From there, things spiral out of control, and his efforts to take care of one problem invariably leads to another one. Before long, all he wants to do is to get home, but this proves to be far more difficult than he could have ever expected.

The cast of characters that he meets along the way include Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Linda Fiorentino, Verna Bloom and the always-wonderful Cheech & Chong, who effortlessly walk away with the film's funniest moments as a pair of bumbling burglars. The talented cast really makes the film work, adding immeasurable value with their vivid and quirky characterizations.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Interiors (1978)

Woody Allen's first dramatic film is a fascinating if flawed work, admirable in many ways but frustrating in others, especially in his self-conscious stylistic aping of Ingmar Bergman after the delightfully original and fresh ANNIE HALL. There is much potential in the script to explore the dynamics between the family, greatly enhanced by the fine performances of the entire cast, but too often it is unwilling to explore the characters and situations fully, instead becoming devoid of serious insight, and falling back on stilted and cliched dialogue that comes dangerously close to being an unintentional parody of the brooding, moody Scandinavian art films that provide the model here.

The problem is that Allen, in his first dramatic effort, seems to equate seriousness with unrelenting pessimism and bleakness. The characters could be more human if he'd permitted them moments of happiness or humor. It is telling that perhaps the most sympathetic character, played by Maureen Stapleton, is the only one who exhibits any sense of humor, and is looked upon with disdain by the other characters for her cheerful vulgarity.

Still, there are some moments of real beauty, particularly in Gordon Willis' photography of the Southampton beachfront house. It remains one of Allen's most interesting films purely in terms of his use of the physical screen space, providing a palpable sense of depth and space in the film's indoor locations.