Saturday 30 August 2014

White Heat (1949)

This movie I watched in an airport on my way home from a seminar. The reason I mention this is that I got myself a badass food poisoning or something like that that made the flight home absolutely horrifying. I have not entirely recovered, but last night on that flight it was really bad. I suppose those are not conditions during which you should watch a movie for review. Everything you see will somehow respond to the stomach. Yet I did so and it turned out to be the best part of that grueling trip. Sick or not, “White Heat” is a good movie.

The two main assets of “White Heat” are:

  1. James Cagney
  2. Action, action, action

I have previously reviewed a number of Cagney’s film and while I am a big fan of Mr. Cagney himself I do not always like his movies. “Angels with Dirty Faces” was such a film in particular. In “White Heat” Cagney is again again a gangster, but developed to a much higher degree. Cagney owns this role and gives it so many facets: Anger, despair, pain, glee, satisfaction and insanity, you name it, it is all there. Sometime I fell the camera lingers on his face just to capture all these expressions from a genius actor. In a sense it is almost too much since it steals the picture from his opponents in the film, but I will return to that later.

Cagney’s character is Cody Jarrett. He is the leader of a particularly nasty gang specializing in armed robbery with a special emphasis on armed. The movie starts out with a particularly brutal train robbery to set the stage. In the aftermath of this robbery the police (called T-men, I suppose this is the precursor to FBI) is on his tail and he decides to take the rap of a minor job half the country away in order to avoid death sentence for the train robbery.

The second most interesting character is “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), Cody’s mother. The Jarrett’s have a mental history with both father and brother dead from insanity. Cody is clearly affected too with migraines, lunacy tendencies and a more than usual close attachment to his mother. In fact their relationship reminds me of that of a mother and a 6 year old boy. As far as I can tell this is the only movie ever where Cagney is sitting on the lap of an older woman and not for comedic effect. Ma Jarrett is truly badass. Tough as nails she is no second to Cody and together they are lethal. In many ways Ma is the true leader of the gang. You may be surprised to know that this is the same actress who played the saintly mother in “Sergeant York”. I was stunned when I learned that from the extra material, that shows some acting skill!

On the other side of the law we find a number of police (FBI?) men, particularly the leader of the investigation into Cody Jarrett (John Archer as Philip Evans) and his undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien). The price of having Cagney dominating this picture is that there is very little room for anybody else and that goes particularly for the policemen. Evans is practically anonymous as the two-dimensional investigator. Fallon gets a larger share of the attention. He is an undercover specialist who lets himself get imprisoned to get close to criminals suspected of more than they got sentenced for. For this job he may be the best there is but it is no easy job. He has to get the confidence of a man who trusts nobody but his mum. He is good, but I do not envy him his job.

This second part of “White Heat” is a prison movie and quite good as that. We get the infighting amongst the convicts and the obligatory prison break. Fallon has to ingratiate himself with Cody while dodging the prisoners who might recognize him. While we learn very little about the Fallon character he does his job well and convincing. His plans however are trashed when Cody learns that Ma has died and his second, “Big Ed” (Steve Cochran) has taken control of the gang. From then on the movie is a wild ride and truly enjoyable.

That is the second quality of this film. It packs a lot of action for a 1949 movie. We get several wild car chases, violent robbery, shootouts and even some quite impressive pyrotechnics. The final explosion alone must have set a new standard in its day. The stuntmen had some busy days with this film and while special effects and action sequences generally do not impress me (jaded from countless modern movies whose only quality is to overload it with explosions) it works terrific here. The movie is fast paced and I regularly find myself on the edge of my seat. Man, when did I last do that with an old movie? Some parts seem cliché today, but that I think is because “White Heat” is regularly referenced. At least I can recall a number of direct copies from “White Heat”, but rarely as successful as the original.

Virginia Mayo is top billed as leading actress. She is Cody’s girlfriend Verna. Her role is however rather limited. She is there to show how Cody owns his surroundings and his girlfriend is no different. She is a plaything and a rather annoying one at that. That is intentional I think. She is trashy and disloyal and so a natural appendix to a gang.

I am not a fan of gangster movies, but “White Heat” is so well made that I make an exception. If you want to see just one classic gangster film that is where I point my finger.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Whiskey Galore! (1949)

Masser af Whisky
It was an old joke on campus that the worst fate imaginable would be to run out of drink and as a consequence the effort to avoid such a fate could take hilarious proportions. This does not by any stretch mean that we were walking around in a perpetual stupor or that we were particularly alcoholized (at least not by Danish standards), but so goes the jargon on campus with the inherent exaggeration.

This ill fate befalls the community on the lone Scottish isle of Todday during the second world war in the movie “Whisky Galore!”. The island has dried up and no shipment of whisky is forthcoming. This, we learn, is a horrible state of affairs and seems to lead to lethargy and depression with almost everybody moaning over their deprivation.

This however is about to change. A ship carrying tons of export whisky for The States founders outside the island and the whisky is it seems up for the grabbing. This is a godsend for the islanders who scramble to secure as much whisky as they can before the ship goes down for good. Well, as it happens these God-fearing people need to take a break to uphold the shabat and then they move into action.

These islanders are a jovial and jolly lot and watching them having a great time and getting plastered would be entertaining all on its own. The comedy in this movie however come from one of the few who are NOT happy about the whisky. In fact he seems to be not happy about anything on this island. This is Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), an Englishman stationed on the island to command the home guard and to a comical extend an absolute outsider. His view on the islanders is a blend of disdain and incomprehension and that of course means that he is fighting a permanent and losing battle against them.

What Waggett’s intent with the whisky is is not entirely clear except that he must prevent the islanders from getting access to it because in his bureaucratic mind that would be illegal and wrong.

That is the setup and then it is just to let this thing loose and see where it lands. It is truly funny. The clash between the stuffy Englishman and the cunning islanders is just classic. The theme has been repeated infinitely, but this is one of the better installments. The facial expressions of people like Joseph Macroon (Wylie Watson) or Old Hector (James Anderson) while suffering the withdrawal of abstinence and then the excitement and joy of this price is just priceless. Radford as Waggett is also absolutely excellent in his role as his face goes through the entire register from arrogance over confusion and disbelief to end in resignation. His character must also be the template for countless of British characters since.

Into this game of hide and seek two romantic stories are wedged in. George (Gordon Jackson), the local self-effacing school teacher, must face off his strictly Calvinistic mother before he can marry his Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt) and Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton), another apparent outsider, must prove he is a true islander before he can marry Peggy (Joan Greenwood). As love stories go there is not much to it and they play out more for comedic effect and to describe the characters of the people on this island. The girls are also a lot more than just the love interest of the two men. Although they may not be as excited about the whisky as the men, they are in heart and soul islanders and especially Joan Greenwood is a delight to follow as she runs circles around Captain Waggett.

It is curious how a movie that clearly downplays the ill effects of alcohol and instead makes it a cultural centerpiece can come about in a period when alcohol is getting a lot of bad publicity and censoring is particularly fierce. Of course it makes sense that this is a British film where I assume the codes a more relaxed than Stateside, but it still takes some guts. Personally I do not mind at all, I find all these characters charming whether they are drinking or not, but for the director himself this must have been a challenge. Alexander Mackendrick was a Scottish-American Calvinist and apparently sympathized more with Waggett than the islanders. How such a person gets to direct such a film is beyond me and how he still succeeds at describing the islanders as lovable fools and Waggett as an idiot is just baffling. He must have tied a few knots on himself in the process.

As for my personal impression of the film this is clearly the best of the Ealing films I have seen so far. This being only the third (after “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “Passport to Pimlico”) that does not really say very much, but as I did not dislike those other two that means that I really like this one. The Book say that it has not aged well and there I disagree. This film has in many ways aged better than most movies I have seen lately. Comedy is much harder to succeed at than most other genres. The same jokes are just not funny over sufficient time and space. But this was a movie that made me not just smile, but laugh out loud repeatedly. That makes it a job well done and clearly a movie I would not mind watching again.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Europa '51 (1952

Størst Af Alt Er Kærligheden
For a short while I am escaping 1949 with a jump to the distant future of 1952 in order to review Roberto Rosellini’s Europa ’51. I picked it for the blog club (yes, I admit it) so there was no way around it. Frankly I had no idea what I was picking, it was a totally random pick with the only criteria that it should be a movie I had never heard of. In this period that excludes very few movies.

Half an hour into the movie I was groaning over this pick. What was this? But then, slowly and discretely, the movie turned around and became one of the most beautiful stories I have watched in a long time. I am not ashamed to admit that I was crying helplessly at the end. So, yeah, this is a good one.

The reason for my dislike in the beginning is quite intentional from Rossellini’s side. We meet a rich Italian (with American and possibly Nordic ties) family consisting of mother Irene Girard (Ingrid Bergman), father George Girard (Alexander Knox) and son Michele (Sandro Franchina). Irene and George enjoy the social life, have a pile of servants and private tutors for Michele. In fact they are so busy with themselves that they have no time or care for anybody else including their own son. That is made painfully clear when Irene flatly ignores her son’s pleas for attention and her exasperation when he interrupts a social event the parent are having for friends. Even a gift for the son is a routine event on autopilot with no actual interest in it from anybody. I think a dog would normally get more attention and love than this poor boy who is clearly an accessory more than anything else. I dislike the parents obviously and especially Irene and hence my disgust with the movie.

Then something happens. The boy attempts suicide and incidentally dies. This is a major wake up call for Irene (and flatly ignored by George), but not in the expected way. Irene realize that she is (correctly) to blame for the loss of her son and she hates herself for it. She is until near the end of the film unable to put it into words, but she feels an emptiness in herself beyond the loss of he son. Her life, social status, relation to others, it is all wrong and she wants to change into the direct opposite and reach out others. She needs to help and feel a strong desire to love other people.   

Driven by this urge she jumps at opportunities to help those in need of help. Her gratification is to some extent to see the joy she brings, but mostly it is a way to fight her inner demons. She helps a poor family with medicine, she find a job for a single mother with 6 children and even stands in for her the first days at the factory. She stays at the bedside of a prostitute with tuberculosis and when the older son of the poor family gets involved in an armed robbery she manages to disarm the situation and save the family.

All this behavior is looked at with distrust and disbelief by her own family. Has she gone crazy? Is she a communist like her relative, Andrea? Does she have a lover? Lawyers, priests and doctors cannot place such strange behavior. She claims she is no communist, she is not driven by religious zeal, and there is no element of apparent personal gain for her. It is entirely inexplicable. There is simply nothing to do but sending her to a mental hospital and lock her up until this craziness wears off.

The point is of course that the modern world with its class structure, science and institutionalized religion simply has no room or even understanding for altruistic behavior and the idea of loving someone else without expecting anything in return. Such a story is seen before and later in numerous versions and is in itself a story built on Franz of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order of monks, but I cannot remember ever seeing it as elegantly told as here. There is no mystery, no divine element or revolutionary happening. It is just a woman who given the opportunity will step in and help people because she cares about them and because she desperately do not want to be the person she used to be.

The poignancy is knife sharp and near the end it is also threatening to tip over, but it is the built up itself that saves it. I believe the people who loves her and I believe that she thinks they have saved her and this is why I cannot stop crying, even writing this. Goddammit it works so brutally well! Forget about Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” or Capra’s “Mr. Deed Goes to Town”. Europa ’51 is the real thing.

Back on the ground I must admit that I had some trouble accepting Bergman as Irene. Oh, she is a brilliant actor, but hearing her talk Italian in a dubbed voice is just not right. I am a die-hard opponent of dubbing for a number of reasons, but mostly because this is not the actor talking. Why anybody as an audience will accept dubbing is beyond me and this is most certainly not Ingrid Bergman’s voice. In this case the movie is so good that eventually I was able to ignore this, but I needed to get it out of the system.

All in all Italian cinema keeps on impressing me and no doubt there is more good stuff in store for me.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Adam's Rib (1949)

Adams Ribben
I am a fan of Katherine Hepburn. I did not know it until a few years ago simply because she belonged to that murky pre-70 period in movies that I knew practically nothing about. At this point however I can honestly say that few actresses make me as happy and impressed as Katharine Hepburn does. She is funny when it is required, intelligent when that is needed, but most of all she is the master of chaos. She can run circles around any of her male counterparts and sometimes even around herself and it does not look forced. For comedy in general this is gold but for the screwball comedy this is a key skill.

It is not easy to play together with or against Katharine Hepburn, she has a tendency to steal the picture, but apparently Spencer Tracy made a solid partner and the two of them made a number of films together. I like Spencer Tracy, he had some really good roles back in the thirties, but I am wondering if he can really stand his ground against whirlwind Hepburn. I got myself a box-set with four of their movies of which “Adam’s Rib” is the first that I see, so I guess I will find out.

Let me say right away that Adam’s Rib is hilariously funny. It is not everything that makes sense here, but that is almost beside the point. Katharine Hepburn could make utter nonsense funny, which she incidentally did in “Bringing up Baby”. 90% of the movie is a Hepburn and Tracy running circles on each other and the rest is just a vehicle.

Amanda and Adam Bonner (Hepburn and Tracy) are happily married. They genuinely care for each other and seem able to keep personal and professional life apart. That is also necessary because they represent each end of the spectrum in an almost cartoonish manner. Adam represent conservative republican ideas while Amanda represents progressive democratic ideas, most specifically women’s rights. Oh, and they are both lawyers, Adam representing prosecution and Amanda defense.

The story is of course that they fight it out in the courtroom, flying their flags and principles, while at home they can enjoy each other as man and wife. Apparently they usually manage to not clashing too much but then comes this case that pit one against the other.

An empty-headed wife and mother, Doris (Judy Holliday) shoots and wounds her cheating husband (Tom Ewell) when she catches him red-handed together with his mistress (a hilariously funny scene in itself, Doris trying to read the manual to the gun while firing). Adam gets the case to get Doris convicted of attempted murder, while Amanda jumps at the case as a vehicle for her women’s rights cause as she sees Doris as a victim rather than a perpetrator.

I dislike courtroom dramas, but this is like none I ever saw. It is a circus, literally. Doris has no clue at all. Her husband is an asshole, Amanda is a madwoman in court and Adam is fighting all the way. It is a madhouse, no less. To us as viewers and apparently to the audience in the courtroom it is a lot of fun to watch the Bonner’s fight it out, but the unavoidable happen and the professional life spills over into their personal life. Adam particularly is taking it bad. He is not enjoying having his case being the vehicle of his wife’s crusade.

The issue is that while Adam feels that he is upholding the law, he sees his wife manipulating the court to the advance of her case, that women suffer inequality before the court. Essentially she has hijacked the case for her crusade and it bothers him no end. She wins the case (no surprise there, she is a steamroller in court), but may be losing her marriage.

To add to the mess Amanda is being courted by their neighbor Kip, an effeminate composer or showman, who does all he can to impress her including writing her a (Cole Porter) song. He manages to truly annoy Adam, but Amanda does not catch the hints at all and so it takes on almost absurd proportions. Just imagine Katharine Hepburn looking absolutely perplexed when she finally, finally realizes what Kip is up to. It is uniquely Hepburn and priceless at that.

Whether this movie is about men version women or law versus sophism or even love and marriage is ultimately of less importance. The resolution is a bit off and confusing, but that does not ruin a thing. It is one of those films we know where ends 10 minutes into the movie and it is all about how it gets there. And that journey is master class! I lack words to describe Katherine Hepburn, instead let me just say that I cannot wait to see the other three movies in the box set.

Monday 4 August 2014

Gun Crazy (1949)

Gun Crazy
”Gun Crazy” is a combination of two genres of which I love one, the film noir, and have some problems with the other, criminal couples on the run. The result is a movie I cannot really say that I like due to the story it tells, but have to admire because of the style and the execution.

In the past year I have reviewed a ton of film noir, so I think my position on those should be quite clear and let me just say that the filming and the styling here is up to standard. It is dark indeed.

Instead let me explain my reservations.

Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Natural born Killers and quite a few before them. The story of two (or more) characters on the run from the authorities usually because of violent death is almost a generic story. I am not sure what the fascination is, because I do not feel it at all. On an intellectual level I understand that by being on the run these people experience the ultimate freedom because they are entirely free of regular society’s constraints and norms. These people have set themselves entirely outside the norm by breaking the law and feel exhilarated at least until the law or fate catches up with them.

Call me boring or dull, but I do not see the attraction in that at all. Or rather the need to kill people in order to feel free. What I see are people who make some poor choices. It is sad, but I do not feel much sympathy. In a movie (and series) like “The Fugitive” it is interesting because guilt is uncertain and we want the right thing to happen, not necessarily what the law thinks is right. But in “Gun Crazy” and it’s like there is no doubt of guilt. I cannot root for them. Instead I am just waiting for them to get caught before too many people die. I cannot say that that makes me enjoy a movie.

The cover of “Gun Crazy” scream: THRILL CRAZY… KILL CRAZY… GUN CRAZY… Clearly marketing hyperbole, you can almost hear the BAM! BAM! BAM! in the trailer. So this is a movie of youth gone wrong? Easy Rider or something like that? Nope. But GUN CRAZY is not so far off. Both of the two leads are gun fetishists and that to a troubling extent.

The guy is Bart Tare (John Dall). He grows up with guns, become quite a marksman and is sent to reform school because he steals a gun from a shop. Notice here that his relationship with firearms has nothing to do with him being sent off, no, it was because he was stealing. See, Bart would never hurt anybody so the guns are okay… At this point I am moving uncomfortable in my seat. Seeing the little boy on his wooden horse shoot things with his gun pushes a number of wrong buttons for me. Not so much that it happens, but the surrounding’s easy attitude towards it.

In any case we learn that besides his intense love of firearms Bart is a good boy who just wants to settle down a make a living. At this adult point in his life he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a girl just as infatuated in guns as he is and it is love at first sight (or shot). Annie is the femme fatale of noir, see, the difference between her and Bart is that she has no inhibitions on what she shoots at. Not that she is in some sort of shooting frenzy, she just does not care it she hurt or kill anybody. Also she is not content with settling down on a wage. She wants to live in style and with that imperative she drags the lovestruck Bart into big trouble.

Bart has every opportunity to say no and pull out of it, but such is the nature of a femme fatale that there is no defense. Bart has lost from day one. Unfortunately that does not earn him any sympathy medal from me. Blinded by love or not, by accepting her suggestions he is an accomplice and from then on they are on a tour of armed robbery with numerous fatalities. As they sink deeper and deeper into the muck their options get fewer and fewer. Every route gets shut down and it is quite symbolic that the final showdown is in a swamp.

The casting is interesting. John Dall I saw recently in “Rope” in which he was a very different sort of character. Gone here is all the arrogance and smartness and the only thing left is his boyish charms and good looks. It is sort of the honest looks of James Stewart. You would not know from the looks of him that this guy is in love with guns. Peggy Cummins I have not seen before, but with her they choose a woman with striking good looks. In slacks and with her hair-do she looks very modern and very charming. That is until she starts talking. She can with a perfect straight face say the most outrageous things and make Bart follow her. She is clearly the dangerous one of them. She is aware that she is a “bad girl”, but that changes nothing. She feels absolutely no compassion, shoots police and passersby and in one horrifying moment takes toddler to use as a human shield. Anyone familiar with my current whereabouts will know why I find that particularly despicable. Annie is a psychopath with an angels face and Cummins gets that across pretty well.

I mentioned the style of the movie and that is definitely a draw. We got some very interesting camera angles. Where other films would place a camera absurdly in front of the car looking in through an invisible wind screen and with some rear projection to simulate driving “Gun Crazy” often does it differently. It places the camera on the backseat with rear projection out the front window. Whatever you feel about rear projection this view gives you the acute feeling of being inside the car with the actors and is a lot more effective. When a front view is needed the camera is placed down between their legs looking up at them. Not you common place as a passenger, but still, we are inside the car. Taken together with the general filming and portrait of the couple we are definitely closer to them than we would normally be. It works wonders for the style and ambience, but it this case it also hammers through how much I cannot root for them.

If this was a warning against reckless use and access to guns I suppose it does a fine job. Even the resolution is caused by some trigger happy hillbillies. But I am afraid it was not really the point the film was trying to make. Instead it would be some argument about that it is not the gun but the one wielding it that is the problem. I cannot entirely subscribe to that position so maybe that is my problem with this movie.