Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

A late-Golden Age classic of the Hollywood studio era, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE contains many of the best elements of the old studio system with the emerging director-based models of the post-war period. Released in 1948, it benefits from the resources and star power available at Warner Bros., but also demonstrates the distinctive touch of its director, John Huston; the best, if you will, of the old and new models of filmmaking coexisting at the time.

Three down-on-their-luck Americans, stranded in Tampico, Mexico, join forces and set out to find gold off in the hills. The cast of characters includes the desperate and paranoid Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart in what I consider to be his finest performance), the honest and earnest Curtin (Tim Holt) and the seasoned old Howard (played by the director's father, Walter Huston). They eventually strike gold, but in the process of collecting it to bring back, the group is undone by their growing paranoia.

Working from the novel by B. Traven, the story - which takes just over two hours to tell - builds to several intense moments in which Humphrey Bogart's Dobbs proves to be his own worst enemy. The final confrontation between Dobbs and the bandits he has twice battled previously in the film has a sort of poetic irony about it, as the gold that Dobbs has stolen from his companions is blown off in the Mexican winds.

The casting of Walter Huston as the seasoned old prospector proved to be inspired, bringing both a sense of impish charm and world-weary cynicism to the role. Director John Huston wisely moved the production out of the studio and took some of the scenes on location in Mexico, broadening the visual scope and adding an extra dynamic in terms of how the characters interact with their surroundings.

Max Steiner's score has all the majesty and bombast that one associates with the great symphonic scores of period, but thankfully does not seem at odds with Huston's more naturalistic visual approach to much of the material. Bogart's performance moves into a sort of high stylization as the film nears its climax, with his paranoid and grizzled prospector descending into the depths of madness that the human mind is capable of. The film's ending, particularly with the pack mules carrying the gold, and the showdown between Bogart and Holt, is reminiscent of Erich von Stroheim's GREED, which explored similar ideas in the way that the lust for gold leads to the deterioration of his protagonist's mind and soul.

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE holds up as a remarkable piece of filmmaking from Hollywood's Golden Age, and for me ranks among the greatest American films of all time. I would go so far as to call it one of the few perfect films, in that every aspect of its production comes together just right to produce an unforgettable experience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

WINGS, Wellman and Versatility

Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of attending a screening of WINGS, most famous today for being the first film awarded the Best Picture Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Seeing it projected in a restored 35mm print, at the landmark Loew's Jersey theater (an authentic 1929 movie palace) was quite an experience.

The film was hosted by William Wellman, Jr., son of director William A. Wellman and an actor in his own right. It was fascinating to hear his stories of the production of WINGS, some of which I had heard before in interviews with his father in documentaries such as THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES and HOLLYWOOD. But his account of the film's production history, and especially how some of the more difficult shots were pulled off, was a fascinating glimpse into silent era filmmaking.

Watching the film on the Loew's 50 foot screen was a breathtaking experience. The scale on which the film was made (with the cooperation of the US government, who provided men, artillery, and other resources to the production) is difficult to conceive of, only because films are made so differently now. There are still films that depict large-scale events, to be sure, but how many of them are actually executed on such a large scale? Add to this the fact that stars Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen were actually given flying lessons, in order to shoot their own scenes from the air, and you begin to realize that this kind of filmmaking is really only tangentially related to the way films are made today. It's an almost entirely different experience.

What's remarkable to me, in thinking about the man who made this incredible film, is the versatility which Wellman brought to his films as director. While I have only been able to see a portion of Wellman's filmography (he directed something like 80 films over his 30-plus year career), I am constantly struck by the variety of subjects and genres he tackled. To think he was only 29 when he made WINGS is staggering, especially when you consider the strong opposition he was facing from the far more experienced and older Paramount studio executives. It's certainly a testament to the belief Wellman had in both the production and in himself, no doubt stemming from the fact that it reflected his own experience as a flyer and was an intensely personal project for him.

And yet, when I look at his filmography, I think, here is a man who clearly had a much larger perspective than could be reduced to single genres or star vehicles. Take THE PUBLIC ENEMY, which Wellman directed just four years after WINGS. A seminal film in the early gangster genre, it's an intense, focused character study tracing a young hood's development into career criminal. Or A STAR IS BORN, which remains one of the boldest films ever made about the motion picture industry, especially when you consider it was made at a time when Hollywood was most certainly not interested in anything self-critical.

But it was Wellman's very versatility that demonstrates how a film like A STAR IS BORN could be made in 1937 Hollywood. The key was the same one that allowed Wellman to create personal works within the factory-like studio system. Because A STAR IS BORN has all the dressings of a "Classical" studio film, it can make its point within a traditional "rising star" narrative, which makes the ideas being explored all the more subversive (compare this with the hostility with which Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD. was met 13 years later). Similarly, Wellman was able to inject his personal vision into films because he worked within the system. At first glance, his films may "look" no different than those of other directors. But when you realize the highly structured system under which Wellman was working, and look more closely at recurring themes that he explored, his versatility becomes even more impressive. Not to mention the fact that he made at least a half-dozen films that are now widely regarded as "classics" among the whole of world cinema.

And this was something else that his son emphasized when speaking about WINGS: that Wellman enjoyed working, enjoyed the process of making films. The studio system, whatever its faults, was the ideal place for a director like Wellman, who was able to keep working and exploring his ideas within the classical framework of Hollywood genre films, star vehicles, and so on.

WINGS, then, sums up perfectly what Wellman was able to accomplish so well. Even though the film was a grand-scale epic spectacle, a Best Picture winner, and commercial triumph, beneath all of that is the perspective of an intensely personal artist, a man drawing on his own life experiences and telling a story that was deeply important to him. The film, like the best films from Hollywood's classic period, manages to convey those ideas while also transcending them, creating a work that still moves and thrills everyone who sees it, a film that is both universal and timeless.

Although staged, there are glimpses of Wellman directing on-set in this trailer for A STAR IS BORN:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mabel's Married Life (1914)

One of the better Keystone efforts up to its time, MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE begins with a familiar premise: In Echo Park, burly Mack Swain abandons his wife on a park bench in order to flirt with pretty Mabel Normand, who is married to the top-hatted (and inebriated) Chaplin. A rivalry ensues, and Charlie plays spoilsport by telling Swain's wife of her husband's shenanigans. Of course, Charlie and Swain bond over alcohol in the local bar afterward, until another fight breaks out that ends with Charlie kicking the customers backward through the saloon's swinging doors.

But then the film turns interesting. Mabel purchases a mannequin that resembles Swain in physique and wardrobe. Charlie, the worse for wear, returns home and is confronted by the dummy, which he takes for Swain. He proceeds to order it of his apartment, and but he is defeated by the dummy, which keeps spring back into place, knocking him down, each time he throws a punch to it or delivers a kick. The film (or at least surviving copies of it) end rather abruptly, presumably as Charlie realizes it is only a dummy and makes amends with his wife.

It is this character by-play in its second half that makes MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE a memorable film. The flirting-in-the-park opening is basically a re-tread of similar situations in so many previous Keystones, and Chaplin still seems to have some remnants of Ford Sterling's performance style in his appearance here (including the use of the top hat), but the scenes in which he is confused and confounded by the dummy in his inebriated state are pure Chaplin.

The direction, by Chaplin, demonstrates his keen eye for composition, getting the maximum amount of information across in each shot, with little cross-cutting to interrupt the physical comedy. MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE also pointed to the cute (though sometimes violent) domestic comedy that Chaplin and Normand would explore in future films such as HIS TRYSTING PLACE.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Eagle (1925)

Rudolph Valentino remains one of the really instantly recognizable names in film history, even to those with only a fleeting interest in the subject. His reputation as a romantic idol of the silent screen is well entrenched even after almost 90 years since his untimely passing.

However, like certain other icons of the silent screen, including Theda Bara and Mary Pickford, Valentino’s individual films are not always as well remembered as they might be. Aside from THE SHEIK (1921), perhaps his most famous role (even though its 1926 sequel, SON OF THE SHEIK, is probably an even better film), Valentino is not known specifically for one “great” film.

If any one Valentino film can be cited as the strongest in his body of work, it would have to be THE EAGLE, directed by Clarence Brown in 1925 for United Artists. A delicious blend of romantic comedy and period adventure, it provided Rudolph Valentino with a strong story and production values, as well as a role tailor-made to his screen image. The moments of comedy allowed Valentino to display the full range of his acting talents, and he delivers one of his most natural, relaxed performances in this film.

This “Russian Robin Hood” story tells the adventures of Lt. Vladimir Dubrovsky, a Cossack in the Czarina’s army. After bravely rescuing Mascha (Vilma Banky) and her aunt when the horses pulling their carriage get out of control, the Czarina (Louise Dresser) recognizes his valor and the young lieutenant is summoned to the Czarina’s chambers. When he refuses the Czarina’s romantic advances, Dubrovsky is ordered to be shot. He escapes, however, and learns from his dying father that a local tyrant, Kyrilla (James A. Marcus), is spreading terror across the land. Dubrovsky then learns that the object of his desire, Mascha, is Kyrilla’s daughter, and poses as her tutor to infiltrate their home and seek revenge for the death of his father.

Aside from THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921), which had been directed by Rex Ingram, THE EAGLE represents a rare collaboration between Valentino and a particularly distinctive director, in this case Clarence Brown. Brown would later become one of MGM’s most reliable house directors, but he had a distinctive eye for visual detail, something which is present in THE EAGLE. Most famous is the celebrated tracking shot in which the camera pulls back across the entire length of a banquet table, requiring extreme precision and careful choreography of both actors and equipment.

The production itself is quite sumptuous, with staggering sets designed by William Cameron Menzies (some of which look like they could have been reused the following year in THE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO). The film’s cinematography, by George Barnes, provides some excellent innovations (such as the above-mentioned tracking shot) along with well-lit nighttime interiors inside Kyrilla’s castle. The costume design, by an uncredited Adrian, supplies the production and cast with just the right period flavor.

Sadly, THE EAGLE was to be the second-to-last film for Valentino before his untimely death. It’s particularly ashame since both this film and his next, THE SON OF THE SHEIK, rank among the very best he ever made, and it would have been interesting to see what vehicles Valentino would have starred in during those final glory days of the silent era.

THE EAGLE (United Artists, 1925). Produced by John W. Considine Jr., directed by Clarence Brown. Screenplay by Hans Kraly from the story by Alexander Pushkin. Photography by George Barnes. Sets, William Cameron Menzies.

Cast: Rudolph Valentino,  Louise Dresser, Vilma Banky, James Marcus, Albert Conti, George Nichols, Carrie Clark Ward.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Baffled

The first screen presentation of Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated supersleuth, SHERLOCK HOLMES BAFFLED is a strange use of the Holmes character. Instead of presenting any kind of mystery, the film is instead standard trick fare from the period, with Holmes baffled by a crook who appears and disappears throughout the scene.

Interesting only as the earliest Sherlock Holmes film, it's really not even an "adaptation", since it bears absolutely no resemblance to any of Doyle's stories. There's no need for the character to be Sherlock Holmes, either, as there is no indication as to who he is, other than in the title.

Monday, April 02, 2012

As it is in Life (1910)

AS IT IS IN LIFE is one of the hundreds of films directed by D.W. Griffith in that incredibly rich and innovative period of his tenure at Biograph, from 1908 to 1913. It is also one of the most singularly beautiful works he created during this time, demonstrating his especially sophisticated use of depth and movement within the frame.

The story itself is unremarkable: a poor father finds work at a pigeon farm, after being forced to beg and explaining that he has a daughter to feed. He is reunited with an old sweetheart, whom he intends to marry. Upon realizing that he can't support both a wife and a child, he sacrifices the relationship in order to take care of his daughter.

Years later, the daughter returns home from school and greets her aging, worn father, vowing to care for him in his old age. However, when she falls in love with a young man, it tears her relationship with her father apart. Feeling broken and betrayed, the father goes away. Later the boy and girl are married, and the girl - now a mother - is reunited with her father, who rejoices over his new grandchild.

With its conventional plot, AS IT IS IN LIFE would not be held in particularly high regard today for its narrative advances or character development. It is, however, remarkable for its use of a location, in this case the California Pigeon Farm, which Griffith uses to visually breathtaking effect. Indeed, the film seems to have been built around the fact that Griffith and company had access to film at the pigeon farm. With its seemingly hundreds of birds flying and fluttering around in the background, Griffith achieves a total sense of movement within these shots.

Similar to reports that audiences at the first Lumiere screenings in 1895 were as impressed with the moving foliage in the background as they were with the foreground action, AS IT IS IN LIFE is most interesting for its use of background motion. The pigeons add a real sense of depth to each shot as well, as we see them grouped from the foreground all the way in to the background.

There is a recurring image that is particularly effective. It is repeated twice, to show the passage of time. It occurs for the first time when the father and his young daughter are walking together on the grounds of the pigeon farm, with the father pushing a wheelbarrow full of seed. The birds flutter and fly out of their way. This is repeated later in the film, when the daughter, now grown, has returned from school, and walks alongside her father as before. Both times, the relationship between the two actors and the pigeons takes on a strong sense of proportion, allowing them to interact rather than keeping the birds merely as background figures.

Given that it was released in 1910, which was the year that Griffith first took his company to film in Los Angeles, AS IT IS IN LIFE represents the almost immediate opportunity that Griffith and others spotted in Southern California as a filming location. Although using rural New York, New Jersey and Connecticut was still certainly a viable option in 1910, this film is evidence of the potential that Los Angeles offered to the fledgling medium.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Natural Enemies

"Dark" doesn't even begin to describe NATURAL ENEMIES.

This 1979 film, which can be viewed in its entirety here, is a psychological drama that never cuts corners. Hal Holbrook stars as Paul Steward, a late-middle aged magazine publisher trapped in a state of mental and emotional hell. Based on a novel by Julius Horowitz, it places its protagonist in a crushing environment (New York City in the late 1970s) and examines his total loss of humanity.

On the surface, Paul has a comfortable life, with a wife (Miriam, played by Louise Fletcher), three children, a home in Connecticut, and running a successful science magazine. However, he's become obsessed with a series of news stories detailing recent murders involving married men who - suddenly, and without any explanation - take the lives of their families before killing themselves.

NATURAL ENEMIES starts from here, and depicts Paul on his last day on earth. In its methodical depiction of its protagonist's daily routine, the film is almost reminiscent of John G. Avildsen's SAVE THE TIGER (1973), but unlike Jack Lemmon's garment factory owner in that film, Paul Steward is already dead to himself when we meet him.

A series of flashbacks provides the account of the deterioration of Paul and Miriam's marriage - a sexless, loveless affair - and reveals the total dissolution of their relationship that followed Miriam's nervous breakdown and her subsequent shock therapy treatment. But we get the impression that these are still merely symptoms, not causes, of a much larger problem, which ultimately - like the family murder/suicide cases that Paul obsesses over in the news - remain chillingly unexplained.

Paul attempts to reach out by talking about his interest in these murders to seemingly anyone who will listen. His friend, Harry Rosenthal (Jose Ferrer), a Holocaust survivor, does his best to try to convey to Paul how good he really has things, but Paul won't be convinced. A therapist friend (Viveca Lindfors) encourages him to seek help. But Paul decides to spend the afternoon with five prostitutes in a brothel, in a kind of gift to himself on his last day. That night, when his train back to Connecticut breaks down in the dark, he shares another sexual encounter - this time with a lonely, neglected and unsatisfied housewife, a kind of mirror image of himself. The emptiness of it all reveals how desperate he is to be moved by some kind of experience, any kind. And it continues right up through the film's relentlessly upsetting and dark conclusion.

NATURAL ENEMIES takes no easy way out with its story. The last five or ten minutes of the film is where most other films would offer some kind of redemption for their protagonist. Paul would realize how good he's got things, or some such, and would vow to start anew. Not in this film.

There's a moment toward the end, where Miriam is trying to get Paul to tell her "what's wrong" - as if it could simply be summed up in a few words. He finally lets loose, telling her how much he hates everything about his life - the house, his family, the "pretentious bullshit" of the magazine he publishes, etc. It's a moment that rings hauntingly true - Paul Steward quite literally hates everything about his day-to-day existence. And though the film doesn't provide a neat-and-tidy explanation for the horrific actions its protagonist eventually takes, it certainly provides a glimpse in to what makes him tick.

Director Jeff Kanew takes a stylistically straightforward approach with the material, emphasizing the ordinariness about so much of Paul's situation. Hal Holbrook turns in a genuinely disturbing performance. For all of the horror it depicts, it never moves toward sensationalism. Even the scenes involving the five prostitutes in the brothel are handled in such a way that they take on a quality of the ordinary; all part of Kanew's effective minimalist approach.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Griffith's Social Drama as Wish Fulfillment

One of the hundreds of films that D.W. Griffith cranked out for Biograph during the period between 1908 and 1913, ONE IS BUSINESS, THE OTHER CRIME (1913) is typical of his urban melodramas, dealing with social problems of the early 20th century. It’s a fairly routine picture, but what’s remarkable is how Griffith guides the otherwise routine story, and its predictable trajectory, into a last-minute transformation that would not seem out of place in a Frank Capra film.

Griffith sets up the dichotomy of the poor couple vs. the rich couple. The poor but honest man goes out to look for work. Meanwhile, the rich man accepts a bribe in exchange for his vote on a bill that will benefit corporate interests. Unable to find work, the poor man resorts to burglary. He ends up in the house of the rich woman, who holds him at gunpoint while he begs for mercy. At the same moment, she discovers the bribery note addressed to her husband, and decides to spare the poor man. She shames her husband into returning the bribe, and into giving the poor man a job with his company!

What’s most interesting about these early social dramas, and especially those by Griffith, is how explicitly they set up the inequality faced by different classes, while also offering idealistic and overly-simplistic solutions to the problems depicted. Still, it’s remarkable how bold Griffith was in tackling this problems head-on through the infant medium of film. Regardless of how he arrives at his conclusions, such films would almost certainly have spoken very strongly to audiences at the time, seeing familiar inequality and injustices depicted with such brutal honesty. The conclusions of these early 20th century social dramas can almost be seen to function as wish fulfillment.