Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Sugarland Express (1974)

This early Spielberg film is a rollicking, fast-paced road picture about a Texas couple who kidnap a policeman and force him to drive them across the state to reunite with their child, who has been taken out of their custody by the state. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton make the most of their rather one-dimensional characters, though at times it seems as though they are appearing in two different movies (with Hawn too frequently playing her part in broad caricature, while Atherton seems to be trying to get at something darker and more intense with his performance). Michael Sacks is effective enough if rather bland as the young officer forced to drive the pair across the state against his will, though his transformation at the end, sympathizing with the outlaws and betraying his duties to the law by alerting his abductors to a potential police ambush, is handled too abruptly and without any real explanation as to why he (or the audience) should care so much about these two. Ben Johnson gives the film's strongest performance, as the weary old lawman leading the difficult pursuit to bring the couple to justice.

Overall, it's a skillfully-made debut theatrical feature from Spielberg, who proves himself especially effective in his handling of the large-scale, high-speed car chases (recalling his celebrated work on DUEL a few years earlier), though the pacing frequently lags between these set pieces, bogged down by heavy-handed commentary on gun violence, police corruption, and the nature of celebrity in America. It's not that these points aren't relevant to the events in the film, but Spielberg's handling of them is too self-conscious and telegraphed to be really effective. Coming between his brilliant early work on DUEL, and his first full-fledged masterpiece, JAWS, the following year, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS perhaps can't help but feel like a minor effort in Spielberg's filmography.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blackmail (1929)

It is difficult to imagine the incredible pressure that must have been weighing on Alfred Hitchcock's shoulders when he undertook the production of his tenth film, Blackmail, in 1929. Consider the lofty and unique position he had attained at this point in his career: rising quickly as he did through the ranks of the British film industry, having achieved a great deal of acclaim for what was only his third film (1926's The Lodger, held up as a shining example of what the British cinema could be), which in turn catapulted him to a level of celebrity remarkable for any director at that time. Now, having mastered the purely visual storytelling of the silent film, Hitchcock was thrust into the midst of a technological change that had a profound altering impact on the medium. Not only was Blackmail to be Hitchcock's first talking film, it was also the first all-talkie produced in the UK (it was billed as "Britain's All-Talkie Challenge To The World"). There were undoubtedly high expectations for Hitchcock to deliver a film worthy of this distinction and of his celebrated reputation within the nation's film industry. Keep in mind, he was not yet 30.

The resulting film was the most accomplished he had yet made, demonstrating an astonishing command of and inventiveness with the infant medium of sound film. Working within the suspense genre for which he had shown such aptitude in The Lodger, for his source material this time Hitchcock turned to a play by Charles Bennett (who would become of one the director's most valuable collaborators later in the 1930s), and handled the task of adapting the script himself. Blackmail established the model for many of the themes, techniques and plot devices that Hitchcock would return to again and again in his mature work.

Like many early talkies, Blackmail was produced simultaneously in both sound and silent versions. There is the opinion in some quarters that the silent version is the superior one, an expression of "pure cinema" unencumbered by the restraints of the newfangled commercial sound film technology. The silent version is certainly effective enough, but a comparison of the two versions reveals that Hitchcock used the new creative possibilities afforded by sound -- specifically, its ability to heighten the tension between what we see and what we hear -- in order to create a more fully-realized and satisfying suspense film.

Because Hitchcock would soon develop these techniques and ideas to a greater degree, beginning just a few years later with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Blackmail can appear, in contrast with those classics, to be a quaint work primarily of historical interest as an early, formative effort from a great director who would go on to do much better things. In some ways, to be sure, it is that. But to view the film this way does a disservice to the inventiveness and creativity, and indeed the apparent ease, with which Hitchcock adapted his style to the new sound film medium. In that context, Blackmail remains an remarkable achievement, and one of the most important films the director ever made.