Sunday 27 January 2013

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen
I am still trying to figure out what the idea behind “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is. It is not entirely easy.

On the one hand we have the story of a cynical Chinese warlord, General Yen (Niels Asther), who courts a western woman, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) that does not want him and end up risking and losing his empire for her.

On the other hand we have the story the woman, Megan, who comes to China with the intension of marrying her missionary childhood boyfriend, but gets her life turned upside down in a week as she is captured by General Yen and learn a thing or two about China.

On a deeper level it is the story of how what we believe to be the true way of thing may turn out to be something else indeed. The western community in Shanghai, especially the missionary lot, is convinced they are bringing the right way of life to the Chinese, while General Yen as representative of the Chinese culture turn that truth upside down and demonstrate it to be merely hypocrisy and ethnocentrism. Megan is shaken because the things and views she held true and right is being shattered. Most literally in the case of Mah-Li’s (Toshia Mori) betrayal of Megans trust or in Megan’s dream where she is attacked by a Nosferatu-like Chinese monster and saved by a masked white man who turns out to be General Yen.

The cast of this film is interesting. First of all we get a young Barbara Stanwyck. This is the third film with Barbara Stanwyck I comment on (the others being Stella Dallas and The Lady Eve) and the first one I actually saw. The three characters are very different and say something about Stanwycks range, but it is also noteworthy that she is leading all three films with her sheer presence. In “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” she is a missionary wife-to-be, full of zeal and devotion to her cause and her fiancée. She is a stout representative of conservative western culture but as she gets shaken she also becomes vulnerable and her eyes open to General Yen and what he represents.

The actor being General Yen is not Chinese at all. He was called Nils Asther and was Danish. Apparently Hollywood could not find a Chinese actor for the male lead but instead tried to transform a Caucasian actor by drawing raised eyebrows and tilting his eyes (not for the first time, see “Broken Blossoms”). I do not think it works very well. In profile he is so European and his attempts at talking Chinese are laughable. Apart from this however his character is very interesting and represents a counterpoint to Megan Davis.

Mah-Li is a crucial character being the servant/hostage/lover of General Yen. She is also not Chinese but the Japanese actor Toshia Mori. I must admit that I do not know much about her, but being Asian at least she lends credibility to the character (for me as a westerner). In many ways this character reminds me of Hui Fei as Anna May Wong in “Shanghai Express”. She is an enigma and all the mystery of the east. She also represents a different morality than western. She bows and faces fate, while secretly her loyalties are unchanged and certainly not by a western woman who has no place in the Chinese civil war. The same way Anna May Wong’s killing of Chang has nothing to do with Shanghai Lily or the other passengers on the train.

There is no way around the character of Jones (Walter Connolly), financial adviser of General Yen. He is the bridge between the cultures. Despite his loud mouthed and brash American behavior he has a very good feeling for the Chinese. He knows their culture, where to go and where he should stay away. In the same manner as he warns General Yen that with a western girl General Yen is on foreign, to him unknown, land and he better stay out of it. We start disliking Jones but at the end I felt real sympathy for the fellow.

Finally the movie was directed by Frank Capra. That actually came as a surprise to me. He is usually quite formulaic and prefers the all-American stories. In that sense “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is something different.    

I have not decided yet how much I like the film, but I am tilting to the good side. It requires a bit of thinking but that is also rewarded. And Stanwyck is always good.

Friday 25 January 2013

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street
I have a confession to make. In order to write my comments on “42nd Street” I re-watched the film last night… and slept through much of it. Or rather I kept drifting off and whenever I jolted back the film seemed to be on the exact same place as when I left it. Either my naps were really short or nothing substantial happens in “42nd Street”. It is of course entirely disgraceful that I am trying to comment on a film I may have missed substantial parts of, but I did see it before not too long ago and this viewing mainly confirmed the opinions I had already made of this musical. So, bear with me or scoff at me if you must. I am NOT going to see this film anytime soon again, even for writing a review.

When I saw this one the first time round a year ago I did not have so many antique musicals under my belt. Or more specifically I had not yet had the pleasure of acquainting myself with “Footlight Parade” or the musicals with Mr. Astaire. I was convinced that musicals were not for me and “42nd Street” did not do anything to change that sentiment. I have since changed my opinion on that, but watching “42nd Street” again I see why it was not this movie that opened my eyes to musicals.

Reason number 1: The story is sooooo boring.

Some people need to put on a blast of a show. Some newbie straight from the street enters the ensemble and end up being the lead because the original lead, who is a prima donna fractures her foot and leaves the show. Well, that is about that, stretched out about an hour. It is not funny, it is not thrilling and the romances are sort of predictable. The most interesting part is the old pig of a financial backer (Guy Kibbee) who gawks at all the choirgirls and takes his pick for personal use. Naughty naughty old man. But basically he is just disgusting.

Reason number 2: Ruby Keeler

A lot have been said and written about Ruby Keeler playing the newbie Peggy Sawyer. I do not know if she is terribly bad, but she is not particularly interesting either and I suppose that is a necessary trait in a female lead in a musical especially since she is supposed to sing, dance and seduce both local audience (on the stage), general audience (us) and Dick Powell as Billy Lawler. I do not know that you can do that being the faint and clumsy housewifey type. She is best when she is supposed to be bad and not really convincing when she is supposed to be good.

Reason number 3: The surrealism around the songs.

This is a classic Busby Berkeley feature. The songs are supposed to be performed on a stage, but no way that is possible. It is just way to elaborate with angles a spectator in the theater would never get. This bothers me not at all in “Footlight Parade”, but in “42nd Street” it really annoys me. Maybe because the entire film is build up around the backstage life to set up this show. A sort of realism that breaks to pieces the moment the show begins.

In all fairness the film does have something going for it: The title song 42nd Street. That is a truly catchy song and in itself it deserves a lot of credit. If I only saw and heard this song I would think much more highly about this film. Trouble is that it stands very much alone. The other songs do not resonate with me and, well, I already mentioned the plot of the film.

I would like to join in on the chorus that three Busby Berkeley musicals from 1933 is overkill. The list could have managed with one and there the choice would be obvious and it would not be” 42nd Street” if I had any say in it.  

Monday 21 January 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Here is a film I have been looking forward to see for a long time. “The Maltese Falcon” is touted by the book and elsewhere as a cornerstone film noir and a very good one at that. In other words it is a classic movie, yet I have never had the opportunity to see it before now.

I was not disappointed. Not at all. But I made the mistake of seeing it late in the evening almost overcome with tiredness. This is not good because this film requires concentration from the viewer. The day after (yesterday) I saw it again on my laptop with headphones and much earlier in the evening. What a different experience! There are so many threads in this story to keep track on and the dialogue is deeply convoluted and made much so by the fact that everybody is pretending to be somebody else and lying outrageously. Miss O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) alone changed her story I think three or four times and even then I am still not entirely sure we ended up getting the right one.

This of course sounds awfully complicated and bothersome, but actually it is deeply fascinating and very entertaining and I think the film gained at least 50% in the second viewing.

I do not think it suffices to call “The Maltese Falcon” a film noir. It defines a film noir. We get all the ingredients: A hardboiled detective (Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade) who swims in the murky waters of the underworld, a damsel in distress who is hiding both motives and real identity and is fatal to touch, gun touting bad guys in trench coats and fedora, a deeply convoluted plot and a fatalistic less-than-happy ending.  Add to that that most of the film seems to take place at night and we are home. If there had been a tired voice-over it would probably have gone cliché, so thankfully there was none.

Plot wise however it could not have started more cliché. A woman walks into the office of private detective asking for help. Is she or is she not what she pretends to be? That scene has been played out a thousand times since. It is so classic. But, boys and girls, this is where it all came from.

I certainly would not say that the story as such is cliché. It is far too complicated and resolves based on hints and half veiled signs that most other films would not dare to take on. I am kept on my toes throughout, mystified the same way Sam Spade is, yet he is two steps ahead of me because he is good at recognizing bullshit.

He also has integrity despite of being a tough detective. As tempting as it may be to play along with the bad guys including Miss O’Shaughnessy he remains clean. Stretching the law but abiding by it. Fending off the police, but cooperating when it matters and despite his ladies friend attitude he does play fair with them. Ruthless, yes, but fair. I root for him all the way through. He is my Humphrey Bogart. And he got so many good lines! As when he tells his secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) when his partner Miles Archer has been killed, “Now don’t get excited”.  That is such a massive understatement as if it happens every Thursday afternoon that one of your colleagues gets killed. Or his verbal dressing down of the policemen when he is being hassled by them.

The bad guys here are a bunch of people more or less fighting each other. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) is the jovial yet dangerous and certainly scrupulous ring leader. He is hunting the precious Maltese Falcon, an extremely valuable artifact and has finally obtained it, except that his henchmen turned out less than loyal. With his hearty laughs and Irish accent he is very likeable, but we also catch a glimpse of madness in the eyes of this avid collector. His team who were supposed to bring the falcon to The States from Hong Kong has exploded into an everybody-is-looking-for-everybody situation. It is my impression that it is Miss O’Shaughnessy who has engineered all this trouble, so while she is playing the scared, defenseless woman she is actually busy manipulating people to do her bidding, which makes her the most dangerous of the lot. Sam Spade is just her latest tool. Too bad for her he has too much integrity to be bought by her.

Of Gutman’s two other henchmen Joel Cairo is the more interesting one. This is Peter Lorre with a French accent. The last time I saw him was in “M” as one of the creepiest villains ever. In “The Maltese Falcon” he may be slightly mad but also comical with his sleazy talk and eagerness to draw his gun. He seems at first to be an independent between Miss O’Shaughnessy and Gutman, but end up solidly aligned with Gutman.

The other henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook) on the other hand is a young muscle man fiercely loyal to Gutman, yet betrayed by Gutman in the end when they need a “fall guy” to take the blame for all the shooting.  Ah, all those shifting alliances. It is like playing Diplomacy.

I am sure I am going to see “The Maltese Falcon a few times more. There are still loose ends that I cannot fit in and I am sure they do if I look closely. It is that kind of movie. Very well crafted. And highly recommended.

Friday 18 January 2013

Freaks (1932)

I am far too young to remember the circus sideshows of olden times. They were appendices to the main circus where the audience could gawk at human oddities they would never see in their normal life. I did see an American sideshow ensemble perform at the Roskilde festival back in the nineties and I found myself gawking at these performers who had done weird things to their bodies.

Yet, in our small world where anything you can imagine is available at your fingertips on the internet or in the television we are so used to see deformities and strange sights that only the most extreme really catches our attention and usually we see these people with pity and compassion and not as entertainment. The sideshow has outlived itself.


The sideshows lives, breathes and functions better than ever. There are tons of shows on television trying to show us the weirdest oddities in the world and thrive on it. I saw a show some time ago about the smallest woman in the world and I was deeply fascinated. What are gossip magazines but modern sideshows?

Freaks is a film taking place in the sideshow environment. With the largest ensemble of deformed people ever assembled for a film you would think this is a movie about sideshows or at least be a sideshow in itself for the movie audience. Well, I suppose it is, at least the latter. It certainly still carries its original impact on the viewer as we stare at all these impossible people. There are a man without legs, a woman without arms, Siamese twins, a half-man-half-woman, a bearded women, pinheads and lots of dwarfs and frankly I am fascinated by all these oddities. Especially the living torso (a man with neither legs nor arms) engaged me. That is just mind-blowing.

But here is the really weird thing: I was not feeling sorry for any of these people. In fact I did not even consider them particularly unfortunate.

The reason is that our viewpoint is being distorted. In this film the deformed “freaks” are the normal people. They are true humans. Compassionate, social being that lives a perfectly normal life. They have worries and sorrows but also joys and moments of pure happiness and never because of their handicap. The Siamese twins are engaged to two different men and are really happy. Their men are having issues with them that may be slightly different from normal relationship, but still perfectly natural (One man complains about his sister in law because she want to stay up late to read. A problem because she is attached to his girlfriend). The human torso and a dwarf are discussing their act while the torso lights a cigarette. Perfectly normal, except that he lights the cigarette with his mouth (I love that guy).

Even the two “normal” people, Phroso (Wallace Ford), the clown and Venus (Leila Hyams) are hinted at that they carried or carry some sort of deformity themselves.

 The real freaks are the normal, un-handicapped people. Their freakishness is in their minds as intolerance, prejudice and immorality. They are the hateful people that we should feel sorry for and who have real issues.

Personally I love this film. In many ways this is the most sympathetic film I have since portraying handicapped people, doing it exactly by not portraying them as handicapped but the heroes I want to root for.

The story is fairly simply. Hans (Harry Earles), the (rich) dwarf is madly in love with the “normal” trapeze artist Cleopatra or Cleo (Olga Baclanova), a vicious woman who only wants to exploit Hans for his money and so plays along. In fact she is together with the strong man of the circus, Hercules (Henry Victor), an equally vicious “normal” character. Together they have only scorn for their deformed circus colleagues and set up a scam to get Hans’ money. Cleo marries Hans and then kills him with poison and gets his money. Except that they have not counted on the brotherhood of the “freaks”. They are not letting Hans go down and so save him from poisoning and take a terrible revenge on the villains. Cleo is somehow turned into a human chicken to frighten people. She becomes exactly what she despised the most.

The most memorable scene of the film is the wedding. This is where we see how tightly knit a group the ”freaks” are, how they accept each other for better and worse and offer to accept Cleo into their group. The initiation ritual where everybody drinks of the same oversized cup and chant “we accept her – one of us” is strong stuff. And by refusing the cup Cleo reveals her true nature and as she shouts her curses I actually feel sorry for her because she does not see the honor which is bestowed upon her. Poor ignorant woman.

We also get the poignant romance between Hans and Frieda (Daisy Earles, Harry Earles’ real life sister). They were engaged, but Hans shuts her out when Cleo accepts his favors. Frieda is mourning this. Not for her own sake, but for Hans because he is entering a world where he is not seen as a person but a freak to be ridiculed.

It is true that the acting skills of the handicapped cast are not up to standard, but I entirely ignore that. To me this film is a gem and a humanistic master piece. It is food for thought that just a year later Hitler came into power on a program to eradicate exactly this kind of people.

Monday 14 January 2013

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man
Horror movies do not age well.

It is simply put a matter of technology. Horror movies to a large extent rely on the scare and chock special effects provide.  We need to jump out of our seats or feel revulsion at what we see (or hear) for a horror movie to be, well horrifying. Unfortunately we are a jaded lot. Generations of horror movies have immunized us to horror effects to an extent that the producers really have to get out of their way and be frontline to make it work and this is where the old horror movies come out short. The effects are just too unimpressive.

Lacking the chock effect they must have some other quality to be at least interesting today. “Frankenstein” has got it, a perfect gothic atmosphere. “King Kong” tells an interesting story. “Vampyr” is arty enough to make it work, somehow. Unfortunately “The Wolf Man” has not.

No doubt this is technically a better movie than the above. That is quite natural as it is much newer. But it lacks ambience. The foggy night is just not scary enough and a furry man bouncing through the woods is just comical. In fact it looks like amateur theater. Maybe at the time this was convincing, but not today.

Some TV shows use clips from old horror movies for their kitschy and comical effects and “The Wolf Man” is one of their favorite victims.

There is an attempt at creating that necessary spooky atmosphere. Hints are dropped now and again about werewolves and the two gypsies (Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya) are doing their best to create an otherworldly feel to the movie, but they have difficult conditions to work with.

On the one hand this English town seems to have a history with werewolves. On the other the original werewolf is the old Gypsy man, a traveler who is only passing by. If lycanthropy is coming from the outside why is this town steeped in folklore on it? It does not add up.

The psychological element is what is left to save this film and the setup is interesting. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, jr), the returning son and heir to the local manor has become a werewolf himself, but everybody tells him it is a mental disease and he is facing the conflict that what he sees and experience is not supposed to be real. This could have been played out a lot more. I would have loved to see the doctor or his father watching Larry turn into a werewolf (Leisure Suit Larry) in a “do you still believe I am crazy” scene.

Instead the film yaps quickly through the story (1h8m) to resolve unsatisfyingly in a simple showdown in the forest. I have no idea how Larry escaped the ropes, apparently Gwen’s pentagram was useless and Larry’s father John Talbot (Claude Rains) had little trouble wresting Gwen free of Larry’s claws and knock him down with a cane. Apparently werewolves are only dangerous to women and old men like the gravedigger. In this sense Larry’s lycanthropy is merely a mental state with extra fur.

Sorry folks, this picture is only really interesting for historical reasons. This is where all those werewolf films started (more or less) and there has been quite a few of them over the years. Most of them have been better than this one.

Friday 11 January 2013

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express
Here is a movie which confuses me. It is at the same time brilliant and insightful as well as awkward and annoying. A paradox really.

Josef von Sternberg has a few movies on the list and I have already commented on “Der Blaue Engel” and “Docks of New York”. Both are very good movies, both aesthetically and story wise. For “Shanghai Express” he is working again with Marlene Dietrich. According to the book they had a thing going and it seems obvious that it was not her acting skills that brought them together. I have a bit of a problem with her. She was good in “Der Blaue Engel”, but that is about it. There was a magic to Sternbergs two previous movies which I feel is missing here in “Shanghai Express” and certainly I do not get a kick out watching Dietrich posing for 80 minutes even though Sternberg likely did.

The movie is highly stylized. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but here it gets to almost cartoon level. Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) ARE the luxury prostitute and the stiff, cold English officer to an extent that that is really all they are. Very one-dimensional. Their acting and posing seem staged as if they are conversing for the benefit of an audience and there is absolutely nothing natural about it. They are supposed to be the main characters, but I find it very difficult to conjure up any interest for these characters. If at least Harvey was funny in his sarcasm or Lily was sassy it might have saved it, but they are ice cold both of them. The last 20 minutes of the movie is the resolution of their love affair, but for me that was an uninteresting appendix.

The stylized cartoon properties goes for the supporting cast as well. They basically make up the remaining first class passengers on this train bound for Shanghai and are a cross section of the white people roaming war torn China with a half-blood warlord and a Chinese courtesan thrown in. All the characters are types: The indignated missionary, the French officer, the American gambler/opportunist, the German weirdo and the Victorian matron. And that is basically who they are.

In a better movie we would be introduced to such types, but in the course of the film learn that looks are deceiving and there is something different underneath. Sometimes the righteous people turn out to be the actual scumbags and the other way round. A good example of this is “the Stagecoach”. But not so in “Shanghai Express”. The characters in the group do not develop anything beyond their types. Okay, we learn that Shanghai Lily has decency and balls when it counts, but that was in the deck from the beginning. We also learn that the western looking half-blood is actually a warlord who despises foreigners, but he already indicates this sentiment early on. The surprise is not really a surprise.

So what does work for this picture?

Despite von Sternberg only went to China much later he did nail the culture clash between the Chinese and the western expats. In fact he nailed it so well that you can go to China today and see many of the same things acted out.

The Chinese appear servile and humble and defer to the westerners. The westerners in turn takes this as an accept of their supremacy and act like lords and masters representing a superior culture. But the Chinese are not stupid and they have a strong code of honor and resent being considered inferior. In fact to a large extent they see themselves as superior and often have only scorn for our dismissive attitude. However if the westerners want to be idiots then let them as long as the Chinese can exploit them in turn.

In the film the westerners in the first class car acts exactly in that way. This is colonial supremacy at its worst. The gambler (Eugene Pallette as Sam Salt) demonstrates this perfectly when he talks with the warlord (Warner Oland as Henry Chang) before he is known as the warlord. Who wants to be a Chinaman?

The Chinese Courtesan (Anna May Wong) is largely ignored as Chinese even though she ought to be every bit as interesting as Shanghai Lily and is actually the one who acts to kill the warlord.

The Warlord represents the Chinese scorn for the arrogance the westerners display and does not hide it when he appears as the warlord. The German weirdo is punished, not for trading opium, but for his arrogance on the train.

I just do not know if von Sternberg gives us the cultural clash intentionally or by accident by revealing his own disdain. He lets an entire platoon of Chinese soldiers get massacred, but none of the westerners are even interested. Intentional or because it just is not very interesting?

I have lived in China and met many expats and tried to deal with Chinese. I have met these elements in China. It is so easy for a westerner to fall into that trap because we just do not understand and because so much of what the Chinese do seem stupid to us. But it is extremely destructive to fall into that trap and often relationships are ruined because of that attitude. And to Chinese relationships are of paramount importance (look up the meaning of “Guanxi”).

In “Shanghai Express” the showdown in the warlords camp is the climax for me. I really liked this part. The rest of the movie I did not care much about.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve
So, here we have another romantic comedy and again a con theme. An ensemble of crooks spearheaded by Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) has found their easy prey in the rich and naïve Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) and now they got to milk the cow. Unfortunately Jean falls in love with the mug and that complicates matters.

This one has a lot of good stuff. Premier of that is an excellent cast. Stanwyck and Fonda are glorious. They are in general good but here they are excelling in roles so different from what I have seen them do before. Stanwyck as the elegant and charming seductress is far away from the demure missionary wife in “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” or the earthbound working class mother in “Stella Dallas”. In the Lady Eve she is classy, simply classy. She oozes style and sex and wit. And she does this so naturally that the other roles of hers seem the acted ones.

Henry Fonda too seems at first out of place. He is not the serious, fiery gentleman of “Jezebel” or the tight and intense Oklahoma farmer of “The Grapes of Wrath”, but a young and naïve but also deeply honest and decent man. A typical Jimmy Stewart role, really. In fact I wonder why Stewart is not doing this one, but I suppose he was under contract with another studio. No loss though, Fonda is doing a perfect job.

The supporting cast work fine as well. Charles Coburn as Jean Harrington swindler father is particularly excellent, but also Eric Blore as a con man giving it as British nobility is good.

The script is witty and full of puns and by all rights this should be a good romcom with a few delicious twists.

So why do I not love this film?

This internal logic of this film stinks.

I just do not get the plot. The dude gets framed once on the boat by the girl. Lesson learned. At the family estate he fall for the same tricks even though he gets very clear indications that this is exactly the same woman, now giving it as a British lady of old money and title. Once married she scare him away with stories of past relationships at which point he takes a cruise ship and finds the original Jean and they throw themselves in each other’s arms.  

Am I missing something here? What makes him suddenly think that the answer to marrying one con woman is to take another con woman? What is her ploy? I understand that she needs to be rid of him after they get married, but I also understand that the idea is that she wants him to go and find the real Jean. How exactly is that supposed to work? There is a big gaping hole here and it feels as if I fell asleep somewhere near the end and missed some crucial part, but I swear I was wide awake, not even drifting.

This is the kind of things that really ruins it for me. The movie has to convince me that its story is plausible and adheres to its own logic. Deux ex machinas are definitely a no-no and pasted on happy endings definitely an eyesore, but bad logic… That just leaves me with that big empty feeling.

Of course it may be that I am just really stupid and missed the entirely obvious. That has happened before and if I should be really fair I ought to go back and see it again. It would not be so bad to do that really. Barbara Stanwyck makes it all worthwhile and Henry Fonda is good for a few hearty laughs.

And we do get to meet an old friend again. You remember “Isn’t it Romantic” from “Love me Tonight”?

Saturday 5 January 2013

Scarface: Shame of a Nation (1932)

“Scarface” is one of the three gangster movies on the list from the early thirties (the other two being “Little Cesar” and “Public Enemy”). All three of them follow the rise and fall of a Chicago gangster king pin, All three of them are madmen and all three meet a violent end.

It would be easy to say that these movies are just tired copies of each other and that is also a partial reason I am quite fed up with gangster films. Another is this that I was never very sympathetic to them in the first place, but I think I have covered that ground in my previous comment on gangster films.

Instead of going down on the genre in general I will focus on what makes “Scarface” stand out.

First of all there are some very competent people involved in this movie.

Paul Muni is back and in a very very different role from “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” from the same year. The only resemblance is the darkness of his characters. Tony Camonte is a ruthless, brutal character who is determined to get what he wants and sweep everybody aside in the process. There are no restraints, no compassion or human understanding in his character, not even vanity. Just the strive to power. Well that is a sort of vanity, but not the public adoration of Little Cesar or Tom Powers. This is ultimate megalomaniac I-am-invincible domination. For a while I was seeing James Allen (I am a Fugitive…) going around shooting to the left and right with a fake Italian accent and it was so not right. Yet Muni is convincing. The character is a pig and Muni plays him well at that.

A second capacity behind this movie is director Howard Hawks. Since I saw this movie the first time 1½ year ago I have seen quite a few Howard Hawks movies and I have come to respect him and his skill. This is not his best picture ever, but technically it is far superior that the two earlier films. This one also contains an awful lot of shooting with big guns, something Hawks did well.

The characterization of Camonte and his lot is thin and this is not so much a psychological study. Neither is there any background information on why he became a gangster in the first place. He is there from the beginning. Instead this is the story of how Camonte in his own brutal way take de facto leadership in his gang. He is officially an employee of gangster boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), but come more and more to ignore orders and run the business his own way. The “South side” gangster boss is killed in the beginning of the film (by Camonte) and Camonte now makes sure it is Lovo’s gang that moves in to take over. So far Lovo agrees. But when Camonte, not satisfied to share power, moves in on O’Hara’s gang on the “North side” it is in direct opposition to Lovo, but he is powerless to stop him.

It is a brutal war, fought with submachine guns and plenty of drive by shootings. Very noisy indeed. Eventually Camonte wins and Lovo realizes that it is now or never if he is to retain any semblance of control and stop this madman. The attempt on Camontes life fails and the revenge is brutal. Camonte is now at the top of the world, yet the end is near and come from an unexpected side.

There are two women in this story: Poppy (Karen Morley), the trophy girlfriend of Johnny Lovo and Cesca (Ann Dvorak) Camontes sister.

Poppy is just a trophy and she symbolizes power. She belongs to Lovo (is his to give away) and is pursued by Camonte as part of his angling for power. She is smooth and wise cracking, but she remains of minor significance to the story.

Cesca on the other hand, brilliantly played by Ann Dvorak, is pivotal to the story. She is loved and protected by Camonte and kept solidly in an iron cage by his constraints on her. She is wild and ambitious like him and chafes in her bondage and keep challenging them. The Book suggests an incestuous relationship between them and that is possible, yet I think it is his mania of control that rules his actions. She belongs to him and she better do what he tells her, which is to remain his little sister, demure and obedient.

Her ultimate rebellion is when she hits (hard) on Camonte’s second in command, Rinaldo (George Raft) and despite his misgivings manages to get him won over and married to her. Camonte does not ask. He just shoots him.

This killing clearly attributed to Camonte gives the police the excuse they have been waiting for to take him out in a magnificent shootout (I am reminded of the end of “Dr. Mabuse”). But they are almost too late. Cesca arrives before the police ready to shoot Camonte. Yet when the Police arrive she instead rush to his aid to fight a last stand as a couple. I have some misgivings about this turn. After all Camonte has just shot her husband and ruined her life.

A lot of shooting later they are all dead.

In a way it makes sense that it was this one that was picked as template for a remake. The shooting action is perfectly aligned with a modern take on action films.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane
Here is a movie that has been topping a number of lists as best movie ever made.

So, this is as good as it gets.

The question is, is it that good? Does it warrant this glorified position as top dog among films?

This was basically the question I went into this movie with. Not particularly fair if you just want to enjoy the film, but difficult to avoid when you get a movie with these accreditations. With such expectations it is too easy to disappoint because it is up against some very difficult odds.

Let me say right away that this is a very different movie. I have seen nothing like this picture going through the list up to this point. Though many of the elements have been copied in pictures since, back then in 1941 this was really new thinking. A film that is basically a portrait of a man that many people knew of but very few people really knew. We see him from all sorts of angles: the official angle in a mock-up newsreel doing a documentary portrait upon his death, the bitter words of his guardian who describes him as an irresponsible rebel, the trusted employee to whom he was a genius and enigma, the bitter friend with whom he had a fallout, the former wife who saw him dissolve and the butler who was there when he died.

Every time we change angle we get a new tone and a different facet to the person and gradually we get to know him.

The agent of this storytelling is a journalist doing his necrology who has been charged with a mystery: What was the meaning of his last word “Rosebud”? His search takes him through all the above contact points and gradually he learns the story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), the newspaper magnate, an early Rupert Murdoch, whom everybody knew, yet was an enigma to the public.

The quest is in vain. We never learn the meaning of “Rosebud”, but we learn so many other things that the question becomes irrelevant because this is a life story far beyond the ordinary.

This is what makes “Citizen Kane” special and remembered. An entirely new form of storytelling.

Another point in favor of this film is the filming and cutting itself. There are lots of interesting angles, from below, from above, in a distance, beneath giant paintings or posters demonstrating how the image (and ego) of this giant dwarfs the people around him. The picture jumps days, months, years, even lifetimes in a single cut and we go back and forth in time in a way that makes “Daybreak” from 39 look amateurish. That is dazzlingly well done.

Then we have the story itself, the life story of Charlie Kane. This is not a happy end story of a man who strive for his dream and get all he wanted, but instead the story of a man who could have had it all, but ended up losing everything he really wanted. I have been thinking a lot about this since last night when I saw the film, because at first it did not make sense to me. The first half of the film Kane is getting his fortune, then seeing a newspaper rise out of obscurity to become an empire, he gets a beautiful wife and runs for the position as governor representing the “working man” (read: the good guys”) against the corrupt elite. Everything is good. Then the story snaps and the rest is deroute. He has to abandon his political career at the doorstep of victory and he loses his wife and son (strangely we do not see his reaction when they die in a car accident). His new wife is an obvious miss and he seems frantic to pursue an imagined dream of hers. His friends are leaving him and he becomes isolated in his fortress in Florida surrounded by art and statues bought more or less at random in Europe. He dies a broken man.

What on Earth happened?

I think the closest I got to an answer is from his old (former) friend Leland. Kane craved loving, but he had no love to give. It became an obsession for him and he got into the habit of forcing the world to fit his head and that was exhilarating when he succeeded, but also blinded him because he never asked or really listened to what people actually wanted. It was always him him him.

That is a curious and not very common portrait and not usually a winning formula for a blockbuster.

On top of all this Kane may be a fictional character, but is modeled upon a real character that felt so targeted by the film that he sued Orson Welles ass off and practically ruined his career as a director. Talk about a Michael Moore moment.

Orson Welles had a special talent for the controversial. His radio drama “War of the Worlds” in 1938 was using the media so brilliantly that people thought the Earth was really being invaded by evil Martians. He told that story as news interruption into an otherwise ordinary music program and the radio station had to repeatedly calm the public that this was only fiction, we were not being invaded from space.

In “Citizen Kane” the tone is the same. This looks real, especially in the beginning and we could easily get the impression that we are talking about a real living (well, dead) character.

As mentioned earlier “Citizen Kane” has be copied from ever since to larger or smaller degree. I am particularly reminded of a Danish TV-series “Matador” from around 1980 that is focused around a character that in many ways remind of Charlie Kane. I can highly recommend that series.

So, is it the best movie ever? I would not stretch it that far. A lot of water has run under the bridge since then. But this is a very unique picture and a cinematic milestone and certainly a must see for anyone interested in movies.