Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Sheik (1921)

Few names of the cinema are as immediately recognizable to modern audiences as that of Rudolph Valentino. Valentino...the name alone is almost synonymous with American silent film. At a time when the idea of celebrity, or at least the heights of celebrity reached by movie stars, was a relatively new thing, Valentino was, without hyperbole, perhaps the most famous during the early 1920s. His rise to stardom was an interesting story in itself. Coming from Italy, he had worked various jobs before arriving in New York, and finally Hollywood.

After playing in several small roles, he landed the role that would make his first major impression on audiences-in the 1921 Rex Ingram box office phenomenon, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which included the famous tango sequence. Strangely, the studio (Metro) was slow to catch on to the magnitude of the star they had, and continued to put him into somewhat minor films. It was in late 1921 that Paramount produced the film that would make Valentino a household name and forever establish the icon that continues in the public mind today.

The Sheik, directed by George Melford, is not Valentino's best film (that honor would have to go to its 1926 sequel, The Son of the Sheik). It is, however, perhaps the film that he is best remembered for. Hollywood had really established itself by the early 1920s as the most glamorous place on Earth. Major studios were now operating on the West Coast on a regular basis. Thanks to film, the streets of Los Angeles were now recognizable from the midwest, to New York City, to Europe, the Far East and the darkest parts of Africa. American stars were known the world over. It was in this environment that Paramount produced The Sheik.

The plot is fairly simple-Lady Diana Mayo (Nita Naldi) is traveling through the deserts of Arabia and is abducted by the Sheik Ahmed (Valentino), who is madly in love with her. At first, Diana rejects his advances, but comes to love him. Their love is fully realized after Ahmed rescues her from a band of kidnappers. The plot is simple but gives audiences just what they want-exotic settings, romance and plenty of action.

What is surprising about The Sheik is to realize that it is now 84 years old. This is surprising because the film holds up as good entertainment and it is easy to see the appeal of Valentino through his performance as the sheik.

There is little doubt that as far as the “art” of cinema goes, films like The Sheik predominantly fall into the category of “entertainment.” However, from a historical perspective, it is impossible to watch this film today and not be transplanted to a time when the cinema was an ever-growing art form. Films were certainly not “new” in 1921. In fact, as early as 1900, the movies had achieved their first instance of a box-office “slump”-when audiences tired of the actualities and travel shorts being presented. However, the medium quickly regained its audiences by offering up narrative films, then bigger and better narrative films, and films that broke new ground in artistic terms. Look at the beautiful cinematography in this film. It is a tribute to the silent film medium that it was artistically always looking to break new ground, to innovate, to do something new, different, something no one had done before. Certainly, silent film was at an all-time artistic peak just before the transition to sound. If sound had not come into the picture, there is little doubt that silent filmmakers would have still found ways to innovate.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Cape Fear (1962)

Seeing Cape Fear again, I was struck by the masterful use of suspense that pervades through the film. The uneasy tension between Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady, a psychopathic criminal, and Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden, the lawyer who sent him to jail, is so real it becomes uneasy to be in the presence of these characters. Without the use of overly-stylized violence that plagued Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of this film, director J. Lee Thompson uses almost purely psychological tension to create one of the most memorable films of its genre.

The plot finds attorney Sam Bowden (Peck) encountering Max Cady (Robert Mitchum, in perhaps his finest performance), newly released from a jail sentence that Bowden had been responsible for. Slowly, Bowden finds himself, as well as his wife (Bergen) and daughter, in increasing danger of Cady’s intentions for revenge.

The rest of the story unfolds in such a way that it is never clear just how or when Cady will strike next. The suspense element of this film is much darker than it would be in a film by, say, Alfred Hitchcock. Thompson uses suspense as a means of conveying the life-or-death intensity of the encounters between the family members and Cady. In particular, a scene in which Bowden’s teenage daughter finds herself locked in a cellar with Cady is mercilessly suspenseful and fear-inducing.

In terms of character development, a problem arises in the presentation of the Bowden family. As played by Gregory Peck, the character of Sam Bowden is simply too “good”, too honorable under the circumstances. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to present him as a slightly more flawed individual, only in the sense that it could have contributed to the psychological tension through his reactions to the looming threat being posed on him and his family. Similarly, the characters of the wife and daughter are simply too bland, even wholesome, to inspire the full potential of concern and fear of their encounters with Cady. The masterful technique in the handling of these scenes, particularly in regard to Sam Leavitt’s high contrast black and white cinematography, as well as Bernard Herrmann’s chilling music score, elevate it to a more intense level.

The cast is rounded out by some excellent supporting performances, especially Martin Balsam as the police chief, Jack Kruschen plays Max Cady’s shady attorney, and Telly Savalas is the detective in charge of protecting Bowden and his family. Polly Bergen gives a good performance as Bowden’s wife, but as mentioned above, the role is not terribly interesting enough for much to be done with the character, at least until the final scene.

Cape Fear has been called film noir, that term coined by French critics to refer to a cycle of films to come out of post-war Hollywood (and later New York) dealing with the “dark side” of life, desperation, despair and distrust. Is Cape Fear a film noir? I would say not. For one thing, if the term film noir is taken as a specific definition, then it applies to films produced between 1944 and 1958, either in Hollywood or New York, dealing with the themes and ideas of noir. Secondly, if we think of film noir as more a “state of mind”-a term that could apply to different times and places, then I would still argue that Cape Fear is indeed, not film noir. It fits far more clearly into the psychological thriller-suspense drama. In film noir, Sam Bowden would be a deeply flawed, weak individual who becomes entangled in a nightmare world of fear and despair. Here, he is presented as a good man with a good family. There are distinctions here that involve characters. However, the cinematography and music style are very reminiscent of noir.

Comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake are inevitable. They are two entirely different films, to be sure. Trying to decide if one is “better” is of course ridiculous. However, J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original is undeniably a masterful creation of suspense and psychological tension that perfectly captures atmosphere and performance for a memorable suspense thriller.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Abraham Lincoln (1930)

The transition to sound film had a strange effect on filmmaking in Hollywood. It was an effect that was unique to this particular technological innovation. For the first and only time, films took a step backward in terms of technical quality. Directors, technicians, artisans and craftsmen had to “start over”, and re-learn everything as quickly as possible to bring back the quality that had marked American films of the late silent era.

Abraham Lincoln is a good example of a film that falls somewhere between the artistic heights of the silent era and the static, creaky early talkies of the early 30s. D.W. Griffith took his first stab at directing a sound film with “Abraham Lincoln” in 1930. The film provides an interesting look at what happened not only to Griffith but to American filmmakers in general during the transition to sound. Griffith’s career had been on unstable ground since hisAmerica did poorly at the box office in 1924. Since that time, Griffith had taken on much smaller scale projects, designed to maximize box office potential. In a sense, this film marked a return for Griffith to the historical spectacle that made him one of the finest filmmakers of this or any other period.

The plot of Abraham Lincoln is quite involved. It attempts to cover the entire life of the nation’s 16th president. The story is told chronologically using individual sequences to cover major events in Lincoln’s life. We see the birth of Lincoln, his marriage to his first wife, and major events of his presidency. This approach to the story is not terribly innovative, but it does manage to cover a lot of ground. The film could have probably benefited from a longer running time than its allotted 97 minutes (although current prints of the film run 89 minutes).

Griffith infuses the film with strong elements of the silent film era. There are attempts at the kind of mobile, sweeping cinematography. The film opens with a traveling shot through the woods of Kentucky, trucking along until it comes upon the cabin in which Lincoln is born. This sequence, however, is an example of the problems presented by the addition of a soundtrack. The swirling, echoing sound effects of the wind are overdone, serving to distract for a modern audience, at least. The absence of music also seems rather noticeable throughout the film.

The film’s biggest asset is the performance of Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln. Huston was by this time a veteran stage actor, and unfortunately this sometimes works to the detriment of his performance in this film in that he tends to over-emote during some sequences. His scenes that are handled silently, without any dialogue, are quite good, and contain excellent, expressive acting, impressive in its minimalism. Other performances, unfortunately, come and go too quickly to really establish much of an impression onscreen. Mention should go to Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge. She brings a good amount of personality and life to her role in this film, and her performance is easily a standout in the film. Many of the supporting roles are taken by veteran silent screen actors, including Henry B. Walthall, who was so memorable as the little colonel in Griffith’s earlier masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation(1915).

Abraham Lincoln can hold its place among the other films made in that difficult transitional period between silence and sound. The year after this film was released, film would start to really re-gain its artistic momentum with such films as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, among others. I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln but mostly as a technical example of filmmaking of its time. I also enjoyed it in terms of seeing what Griffith did with the material, how he handled the addition of a soundtrack to the visuals, and also for the performance of Walter Huston. The film lacks the epic scope really necessary for depicting the life of one of the most interesting figures in history. However, to his credit, Griffith manages to handle an extraordinary amount of material quite well working with the technical limitations and challenges he was presented with.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


"D.O.A." is, for me, about as good as B-film noir gets. Great atmosphere, high contrast cinematography and great location shooting add to the dark and gritty feel. The direction by Rudolph Mate enhanced the sense of urgency so integral to the story. And cinematographer Ernest Laszlo gave the film that dark, atmospheric look so characteristic of noir.

Edmond O'Brien brings believability and intensity to the role of Frank Bigelow, but the acting overall was not the strong point of the film. Instead, the main focus of the film seemed to be the cinematography and lighting, which is not surprising considering that the film is directed by Rudolph Mate, who photographed such films as "The Passion of Joan of Arc", "Vampyr" and "Dante's Inferno". Consequently, the strength of Mate's direction seems to lie more in the technical aspects of the film rather than his ability to work with and bring strong performances out of the actors.

The supporting cast is generally good, but not outstanding. The script contains good dialogue, but many of the best scenes of the film are essentially played silent, without dialogue, using music, atmospheric effects and most importantly, the camera to add to the scene. To its credit, the cinematography does not ever get carried away and take the audience out of the story by calling attention to itself. Mention should also be made of the musical score, which enhances the action. The exception is a sequence early in the film taking place in a hotel lobby of a San Francisco hotel, in which a slide whistle-type effect is used to convey the idea of O'Brien's thoughts as several girls pass by. This effect seemed gimmicky to say the least and served only to distract from the scene. The thoughts of the character would have been conveyed just as effectively without such an effect.

"D.O.A." has one of the most interesting premises ever created for a film noir picture. Frank Bigelow (O'Brien) takes a last-minute trip to spend some time alone before deciding whether or not to get married. The first night on his trip, he goes to a nightclub and wakes up the following morning to find he has been poisoned. From here, Bigelow must piece together the events to track down his murderer.

The plot of the film is set up by an opening scene that has Bigelow walking into the homicide squad room to report a murder...his own. O'Brien's performance is filled with such desperation and intensity it instantly draws us in to his character's story.

Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo moves his camera through the gritty, darkly-lit locations of Los Angeles, including one particularly memorable scene which involves a shoot-out inside a corner market. Mate's influence as a cinematographer is particularly evident in his handling of the chase scenes, using the camera as a kind of character, following the action intensely. There is an amazing sense of the increasing urgency for O'Brien's character to piece together what he can in order to uncover the identity of his killer.

It is not often that I come across a film that captures my interest the way this film did. Few films have a plot that so instantly draws the audience immediately in to the story and concern for the main character. The film moves briskly through its 83 minute running time. This well-paced film uses its taut editing to heighten suspense.

The script is not filled with particularly strong dialogue but excels in presenting the events of the story in an increasingly frantic style. Certainly, the script's strongest point is that it is not heavy on dialogue and instead allows visuals to play a major part in the story. And when the visuals are as good as this, that is a definite advantage.

In contrast to the film noir productions of the major studios, "D.O.A." is obviously shot on a tighter budget. However, it is this lack of high-polished production value that adds to its atmosphere. I am reminded of Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour", a film notorious for its shoddy production values but excellent use of technique to create atmosphere. Perhaps even more than "Detour", "D.O.A." shares a connection with that other film noir classic, "Gun Crazy", directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Whereas "Detour" was shot primarily either on claustrophobic sets or in front of a process screen, films such as "Gun Crazy" and "D.O.A." have an excellent use of location shooting.

Despite its shortcomings in terms of supporting performances and certain elements of the script, the atmospheric photography, strong direction, the lead performance of Edmond O'Brien and the excellent script of "D.O.A." make it a film that I would recommend to any fan of film noir.