Wednesday 25 November 2015

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Han kom fra Laramie
Through the first half of the fifties director Anthony Mann made a number of westerns with James Stewart. I have already reviewed “Winchester 73” and “The Naked Spur” and with “The Man from Laramie” I have completed this particular series, at least as far at the List is concerned. The movies are each independent from each other telling different stories and yet there are some elements running through all of them. Of course I cannot speak for those other movies in the series I have not seen, but I have a gut feeling they touch on similar issues.

The obvious similarity is James Stewart himself, but it goes deeper than just using him as the star of the movies. Jimmy Stewart was known for playing the Mr. Everybody type, the guy anybody could relate to and who would represent the common sense regular guy. Mann changed that. In his movies Stewart became a bundle of raw nerves, angry, vengeful and traumatized. Oh, he would still be our hero and he would end up doing the right thing but his motivations were not as kosher as we would expect from Jimmy.

In “The Man from Laramie” James Stewart’s Will Lockhart is on the hunt for the people who sold advanced rifles to the Apache and enabled them to kill his brother while on an army patrol. That is fair enough but this hunt is more an obsession than an investigation. Lockhart is a terrier, persistent and stubborn far into the ridiculous in his insistence of digging up the killers. There is a whining, almost shrill note to this search which is completely at odds with the character’s otherwise easy down to Earth attitude and it tells something of the pain raging within him.

Being a western there are of course only so many plotlines for a movie and on the outside this is no exception. A stranger rides into town (In this case Coronado, New Mexico) and unravels a rottenness permeating the town. The stranger, Lockhart, is not the cause of the rot, but the trigger that release the tension into an explosion. Dig a little though and the story gets more interesting.

In the case of Coronado the problem is the Barb ranch and the Waggoman clan. Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) owns most of everything and acts as the king of Coronado and surroundings. His rule, ruthless but not without prosperity, is about to expire and the next generation take over. The crown prince is an insane idiot (Dave, played by Alex Nicol) completely unfit to run anything including himself. The king while not entirely blind to his failings still dotes on him and let him get away with his madness. As the third wheel the minister, or foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) is the one actually running the kingdom. He feels he deserve to be the heir, but despite his filial dedication he will never be Alec’s son. Instead he is charged with reining in Dave and be forever just the useful servant.

Vic is bitter and Dave is psychotic and suspicious of Vic. It is obvious that without Alec these two will be at each other’s throat and Lockhart’s arrival is simply the trigger that sets them off. They are of course the ones who sell guns to the Apache and part of their hostility is directed at Lockhart who threatens their secret, but it is also a mere tool in their struggle against each other. A fight that has nothing to do with Lockhart. Dave longs to be the big and powerful ruler and needs every outlet to be that and Vic is condensed frustration at watching Dave tearing everything apart that he should rightly have inherited.

Being the butt end of Dave’s psychotic anger is no fun. Lockhart has his caravan burned, his mules shot, his hand maimed and is accused of several murders. Apparently for no other reason than being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but particularly for not going away. As he hovers around the Waggoman clan he is a symbol of threat to each of them. Is he the man from Alec’s dream? For Dave he his defiance of his power and therefore making him impotent and for Vic Lockhart may be the person he wished he was and therefore a provocation.

Of course the whole thing plays out in a much less highbrow manner than the above indicates. There is a solid amount of horse riding, gunfight and straight talk to make this a western with a very easy appeal. It is easy to like Lockhart despite his obsessive nature if nothing else then because of his un-corruptible attitude. Of course being Jimmy Stewart we would expect that.

Also the pace is really good. I was never really bored watching the movie and that is always a plus. Add to that that the movie is beautiful to look at in cinemascope colors and you are in for a treat.

If there is anything negative then it would be that Lockhart’s quest is almost a MacGuffin. Those guns and particularly the Apache are hardly of even secondary importance compared to the role of the Waggoman implosion. I do not know if there is much closure in this for Lockhart. Or maybe there is, but for the movie the aim had nothing to do with the gun, but to clean the air on the Barb ranch.

Of the three Mann/Stewart movies on the list I liked this one the best. For the overall impression and entertainment value, but even more so for the depth of the story. It is not often you get to say that about a western.


Friday 20 November 2015

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kys mig til døde
Ah, film noir!

I do love a good noir and this time it was an extra good treat.

“Kiss Me Deadly” is a curious film because I really should not be impressed. Where a movie like “Bob le flambeur” was looking ahead and merely referencing film noir “Kiss Me Deadly” is embracing the format so completely that it feels retro. Stylistic and thematic it could have been from the mid to late forties and not as it happens from 1955.

Why is it then that I completely love this movie?

I actually do not mind looking back as long as you respect the source and do your job well and man, this is certainly the case here. Robert Aldrich of later fame obviously went in to make a real noir and went full throttle. The result is a movie that is as dark as any noir, as hardboiled as they get and as totally confusing as a good noir should be. But first of all this is a movie that kept me superbly interested from start to finish, one of those movie that just fly by in a rush.

Let us start with the darkness. Film noir is by definition dark, but Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is shadier that most noir “heroes”. He is tough, yes, but he is also seriously flawed. At times unpleasant as we notice in the opening when he is outright rude to a women in clear distress, often violent and with a very strong what-is-in-it-for-me attitude bordering on greed. His biggest vice in this story however is that he does not know when to back off. That sort of stubbornness is usually rewarded in movies, but here it is punished hard. It seems to be a point of the movie that Mike is out of his depth big time and that this leads him from disaster to disaster. There is no true happy end in a noir and that is also the case here. Did they just unleash hell in the end sequence? Maybe, but even if it is not that bad it is bad enough. A runaway nuclear reaction is no joke.

It is easy to compare Mike Hammer with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep”, “Murder My Sweet” or “The Maltese Falcon”. These characters are all made from the same mold as tough detectives staying calm in the murky waters of the underworld. None of them have a clear picture of where things are heading, but they all possess a toughness that carries them through. The main difference is that Ralph Meekers Mike Hammer lack the charm and elegance of Bogie or Dick Powell. Mike is a lot more bad boy and less likable. It is only when his friends have to pay for his actions he steps into character and becomes the hero. Until then he is just an opportunist. He has a partner, Velda (Maxine Cooper), who is clearly in love with him and jumps when he says jump, but Mike is quite blasé about here and seems to exploit her willingness to get her to do all sorts of unsavory jobs. The same can be said about his mechanic friend Nick va-va-voom (Nick Dennis).

The case Mike gets involved in is completely confusing. We do not get it and so we are in the same situation as Mike. Names are dropped here and there and that is all he and we have to go with. We do not even know what the case is about except that people are disappearing. Why, is a big open question. There is a mysterious voice belonging to a pair of shoes but we never really learn who it is. Or maybe we do and I missed it. That is actually a good enough excuse to watch the movie again. Does it belong to Dr. Soberin, the man Mike’s trail eventually leads him to, or is it in fact Police lieutenant Pat Murphy whose voice is remarkably similar and who is quite insisting about getting Mike off the case?

In any case the trial lead to a mafia like gangster, complete with henchman, another lady in distress, contacts scared mindless from intimidation and several attempts at Mike’s life. This is a classic example of the road there being more important than the target. Every step of the way Mike gets hints that maybe this rests better with the police, but yield very little information on how these people are involved or what this is all really about. Mike has an idea that it is big and that Christina, the girl he picked up in the beginning wanted to give him something, but he is as surprised as we are when he find out what it is. In a way he does not find out what it is, only that whatever it is, it is bad bad bad.

It is this dangerous labyrinth that is so magnetic. Where does it lead? What the hell is going on here? And that is meant in the best way possible. Mike is dying from curiosity and so are we.

That bring us to the main attraction, at least for me. This movie is so damn watchable. I loved it and I could not let go of it. Noir galore. In 1955 film noir is almost a thing of the past but it is at this point the genre is perfected. Yes, “Kiss Me Deadly” is retro, but it is also a top notch example of a well proven concept and if you want something new then you get the hardboiled detective biting over more than he can manage. That is a new angle.

Monday 16 November 2015

Bob the Gambler (Bob le Flambeur) (1955)

Bob le flambeur
With ”Bob le flambeur” we are in France again, this time in the company of director Jean-Pierre Melville. He was apparently a hot shot in his time, but as the ignorant I am I have never heard of him before. I have a feeling that is going to change over the next few years.

We are also going to Paris as this city features quite prominently in the movie and I think it is quite fitting after this weekend’s horrible events there. As much as this is a movie about crooks and criminal it is also a love song to Paris.

The eponymous Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a high rolling gambler who is much respected in the underworld of Pigalle, Montmartre. He is treated as nobility and carry himself like a father figure taking care of people all the while he is busy making or throwing away his fortune in gambling. There is a lot to be said about his demeanor, always well dressed and with immaculate white hair as he go through town in his trench coat and soft hat or drive around in his monster of an American open car. Bob is a gentleman criminal who is even on good footing with the police inspector.

“Bob le flambeur” spends the first forty-five minutes or so showing us Bob going around to different venues and meeting a number of people. Not much is really happening, but we meet the principal cast and we get established just how respected Bob is. There is Polo (Daniel Cauchy) who treat Bob as a father, Anne (Isabelle Corey) who is a random girl Bob decides to take under his wing. Marc (Gérard Buhr) is a pimp and Bob does not like pimps and Ledru (Guy Decomble) is the police inspector who has befriended Bob.

Of all these people Anne is probably the most interesting because of the sheer sexuality emanating from her. You know instantly when you see her that this is not an American movie and that she should play a pivotal role in this movie. As it happens she does not. She is just shopping around and is actually quite unimportant, both for the story and to the people around her. The sole exception is Polo who adores her, but it is also him who pay the price for her shallowness.

The story only really starts when Bob loses his fortune at a casino and decides to rob it.

In order to do this he puts together a team of experts and plan everything in detail. Totally “Oceans Eleven”. They seem to have it under control and the movie picks up momentum and becomes quite interesting. Then two things happen:

1)      Through Anne and Polo’s stupidity and the greed of the information source (or rather his wife’s) the police learns of the heist about the take place and,

2)      Bob, when he enters the casino again, is so overcome with his ludomania that he entirely forgets why he is there.

How that plays out you really have to see yourself.

There are things I like about the movie, things I do not like and things that confuses me. Readers of this blog should not be surprised, I get confused rather easily.

There is a modern feel to the movie even though it is driving hard at the American gangster noir of the forties. Somewhere between the music, the cutting technique and the daring elements (mostly Anne) this is a movie that points forward rather than backward. When the story finally takes shape it also becomes engaging and interesting and what I liked the most was the resolution, which is downright original. I did not see that coming and that is happening with longer and longer intervals for me.

On the negative side I find it hard to connect the harsh reality of the location shots and real life situations depicted with the cartoon characters in them. Everybody in this movie is a caricature of a particular type and entirely one-dimensional. Sometimes this is ridiculously clear as with Bob, the American gentleman gangster in his trench coat (is he trying to be Bogie or Mitchum?) or the cliché police inspector. Others only reveal their cliché after a while like the filial betrayer Polo or the bimbo Anne. This may all be intentional, but it was all too thick for me.

Finally I have some trouble seeing where this movie is going. Structure wise the first half is a portrait of the Montmartre underworld through the eyes of Bob and the second half is a heist movie. The heist is not even an issue during the first half. Then I wonder what the movie is trying to tell us. At the surface this all looks very random to the extent that I wonder if there is a point. On the other hand there is a clear intent with the roles the characters take that makes me mistrust the randomness theory.  

“Bob le flambeur” should be seen as a French celebration of the gangster noir, as a celebration of Paris and for the glimpses of anarchistic modernity it displays. But it should also be accessed with plenty of patience and a willingness to watch a different movie from what you expected.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Ordet (1955)

This was an intense experience. “Ordet” may start slow, even dull, but gradually works itself up into an emotional crescendo I have not experienced for some time. I admit it, I was crying, several times, it is difficult not to.

The first thing you need to know about “Ordet” is that it is based on a play written by Kaj Munk, who was himself a priest on the west coast of Jutland and a very active and critical writer until he was killed by Gestapo in 1944 (which ultimately made him a national icon). He was himself very immersed in the rural environment described in the movie and while his outlook is religious, albeit a modern and sophisticated Christianity, he would have had to deal with all the religious bickering and orthodoxy we see in the movie.

“Ordet” takes place far out in the dark Jutland, about as far as you can get. People here are slow, thoughtful and very religious. The first thing I noticed was that dialects and accents of the actors were all over the place. I think all of Jutland is represented including some obviously faked ones. As this was filmed in Copenhagen I doubt they even noticed and half an hour in I also stopped caring because the tone and the attitude is exactly right. The characters we follow are exactly the kind of people you would expect to find in those parts of the country, if not now then certainly sixty years ago.

On Borgensgård lives the Borgen family headed by patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg, who nailed this role). Morten has three sons all living on the farm: Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) with his pregnant wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) and two children, Anders and Johannes. Morten Borgen is a religious man belonging to the Grundtvig’tian church (the standard church), signified by the prominent painting of Grundtvig in his living room, but to his chagrin none of his sons are following his lead. Morten is good and solid, but agnostic. Anders is not interested in religion and weak enough to accept whatever he is told, leaving Johannes. He was Mortens big hope, but somewhere in his religious studies he lost his sanity and he is now walking around in a stupor claiming to be Christ returned. That would be almost funny in this environment, but the family is deeply concerned for him as a mentally ill person and protect him rather than chastising him.

The first half of the movie is a slow presentation of these people. Very slow. We get to know them and their slow and considered approach to life. They are serious but warm people. The main action of that first hour is that Anders has the hots for a girl called Anne who happens to belong to another religious group. Indre Mission (transl. Internal mission) are religious hardliners, puritans with a bleak and solemn outlook (scary people actually) and a match between these two religious groupings is unthinkable. Peter Skrædder’s (Ejner Federspiel) blank rejection of a match infuriates Morten and makes him turnaround from a blank rejection as well to an advocate of a match.

All this is rendered insignificant when Inger goes into labor and the child cannot get out. The doctor (Henry Skjær) has to cut up the baby and that seems to have saved Inger’s life. However shortly after the doctor has left Inger dies. The Borgen family are on an emotional rollercoaster of first concern and worry, then exuberant relief and finally deepest grief. We see very little of Inger, but we hear her (Birgitte Federspiel allowed Dreyer to record the sound of her actual labor as she was giving birth in the middle of production, those sounds are not faked!) and her progress is read primarily from the expressions of her concerned family.

Only Johannes seems unconcerned. In his stupor he is rambling on about an angel of death who has come to get Inger because nobody believes in him and the other Borgen members are getting truly fed up with him.

Inger’s death hits like a hammer. The grief is very real, as the death notifications in the newspaper totally broke my heart. At the wake it is now Mikkel’s and Morten’s turn to walk around in a stupor, trying to deal with the grief. Even Peter Skrædder shows up to offer his sympathy and bury the axe. Only the children seem unconcerned. Johannes has promised them that he will bring Inger back to life and they believe him. Meanwhile Johannes has suffered some kind of shock and has disappeared only to return at the wake seemingly recovered. Instead of walking around as a madman he is now very much present and when the child asks him to please resurrect Inger he complies and asks her to wake up. Lo and behold, Inger is back among the living.

There are obviously some religious themes going on here. We have representatives of many different religious outlooks: Morten and Peter each represents religious orthodoxy, their differences are mainly a matter of degree and method. The priest, who is mainly an observer (Kaj Munk himself?) is sophisticated and modern. Mikkel practices religion in his good natured behavior, but is a declared agnostic and the doctor is an atheist, preferring scientific explanations to religious ones. And then there is Johannes who is either a saint or a madman and the child who believes unconditionally.

I do not think the movie really judges who is right and who is not. It does give us what appears to be a miracle when the madman invokes God and resurrects Inger, but does that make him particularly right? I am still trying to digest this and is not sure what it means. Frankly, I think you have to be religious yourself to really understand and come to terms with this part of the movie and, well, I am not.

Where the movie works for me is on the emotional level. I feel the same rollercoaster ride the characters go through. I cry and I laugh with them. I sympathize when they are concerned for Johannes and I get frustrated with those hardliners. Of course I am being manipulated, but it is so cleverly done and I did not see it coming. Certainly none of Dreyer’s earlier movies had prepared me for that. Definitely this is his best movie so far.

True this is a slow movie, true the acting style is sometimes theatrical rather than natural and very true this is a movie about religion that takes religious truth for granted, but it gets inside of you and tear you to pieces. Absolutely recommended.


Thursday 5 November 2015

Marty (1955)

“Marty” is not a big movie. With a budget of 350.000$ and a cast of Hollywood second tier actors this is an attempt to capitalize on a television success by making a cinema version of it (like Star Trek, if you will). There are none of the bells and whistles of a big production and the story is almost trivial. I was therefore surprised to learn that this was the big Academy winner of 1955 with four Oscars including three of the big ones. Add to that the Palme D’Or in Cannes and you should be in awe.

Okay, I did like the movie and it does press a number of buttons for me, but honestly, if this is the big winner then this is a thin year.

It is easy to see why this was a crowd pleaser. “Marty” is a movie many people can relate to because it deals with issues familiar to probably most people. At the same time there is enough feel good in it to make people leave on a good note and for these reasons this little movie cashed in three million dollars in the US alone (according to Wikipedia). No wonder the formula has been repeated to death in rom-coms ever since.

Marty (Ernest Borgnine) is a 34 year old bachelor. He works as a butcher and lives at home with his Italian mother. All his siblings (and there are a few of those) are married and live on their own and everybody pushes Marty to get married as well.

But women is not Marty’s thing. He is a bit chubby (you know, Ernest Borgnine…) and socially awkward and has none of the smoothness needed to be attractive. His strengths are his honesty and his good heart, which we as viewers recognize, but people at the usual hunting grounds never see. So Marty would love to find a girl but has half resigned to just make it on his own.

Those Italian families have a bit of a mother issue, at least in this movie. Marty’s sister Virginia (Karen Steele) has her mother in law living in her house and she is driving her crazy. Five minutes with that mother in law and you understand why. Obviously she has been used to run her family, like micro manage her family, and she never realized her children grew up. Bad for the son, a nightmare for the daughter in law. Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli), as she is called, has to go and Karen asks her mother Ms. Piletti (Esther Minciotti) to help her out. So at the time the story plays out Catherine is moving into Marty’s house and his mother is listening to a lot of garbage from Catherine, which in turn seems to be polluting her mind.

Meanwhile the most amazing thing happens to Marty. At the dance hall he and his best mate Angie (Joe Mantell frequent he meet a nice girl. She is getting bumped by her date and Marty feels bad for her. He offers her his shoulder to cry on and that is what she needs. Clara (Betsy Blair) is in a similar situation to Marty and they soon find out they have a lot in common. Marty is in love.

Not everybody are happy though. Angie is sore because he feels somebody is taking his spot. His mother, poisoned by Catherine, is suddenly afraid to be rendered obsolete and see Clara as a thread and his brother in law is now in a fight with Marty’s sister and is advising him to stay out of relationships. All the people who used to pressure him to get married are now against the girl he finally found and that despite nobody really knows her. Marty has to find out what matters to him.

There are two stories here really. The lonely man and the lonely woman who both believe there is nobody for them, but then find each other and secondly the choice between heart and peer pressure. Both are standard ingredients, but the treatment here is nice and honest and without much of the silliness these themes usually come with. This is not a comedy, if there is something to laugh at it is secondary (I did laugh at Marty’s idiot friends though). Instead it treats its subjects honestly.

Marty is really an ordinary dude. He does not have some secret skill or the ability to suddenly turn eloquent. On the contrary he is a blabbermouth and has a rare skill for bad timing. As most people in his situation he is super conscious of his own deficiencies and that lack of confidence is a poor starting point when your hunting ground is a dance hall, the disco of 1955, and the ideal of your friends is the smooth macho type. In an age without internet dating Marty is at a major disadvantage. What is really nice is that when Clara and Marty find each other they are still two imperfect and clumsy amateurs, but they recognize that the other one like them despite that and for that they are grateful and not a little confused. It is a sweet tale and I understand what they are going through. It is incredibly difficult when you are convinced you are not the kind of person other people dream about.

The other part of the story is quite infuriating. With friends like these Marty does not need enemies. His friends are selfish idiots. That Marty frequents these people tells us that he does not judge other people or that he is sufficiently lonely to take what he can get. I can understand the hostility of his sister’s family. They are in the middle of a family row and that has to spill over. I feel truly sorry for Virginia and in another decade that mother in law and wagging tail of a husband is basis for a divorce. Nobody should put up with that crap. The real villain here though is Marty’s mother. She wanted him to get married and she noticed how happy he was when he found Clara and she even met her briefly. Yet poisoned as she is by Catherine she suddenly cannot let go of him and places her need for gratification ahead of her son’s happiness. The tragedy is that because Marty is a good boy he would do whatever to please her and she, the person that means the most to him, cannot let him be happy. She has just been telling Catherine to let go of her children and now she is making the same mistake with her own son.

I am sure this kind of mother issue is pretty common, but where the first story feel honest and real the second seem contrived. These people are just too insensitive to Marty’s feelings to feel honest.

I did like “Marty” and I do appreciate its qualities, but these are not big stories and to make this Best Picture of 1955 does not bode well for the rest of the movies.