Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).
Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.Continue Reading
Strangers on a Train
For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.
With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.Continue Reading
The Big Knife
I get a real kick out certain big, strapping, "man's man" actors: Heston, Mitchum, Lancaster, Hayden and, most importantly, Jack Palance. Palance could work his way through those 50s monologues of seine-styled verbiage like Rosalind Russell on meth. If the modern-day film audience has trouble with his histrionic delivery, it’s surely because of the contemporary bias for realism within acting. To me, he's like the artist who manages to find the perfect curved line when representing action. Cartoonish? Maybe, but any comic book fan can tell you about the pleasure of a broad stroke. I prefer to look at that old-style melodramatic acting in which Palance excelled as the representation laid bare, a modernist nod to the fact that what's going on isn't real, but the emotions and thoughts are. He is the brutal signifier. And he was never better than in Aldrich's The Big Knife, a more masochistic film pleasure you’ll not likely find. The script is by James Poe, based on the play of the same name by Clifford Odets, whose work, when properly adapted as it is here, makes the more famous Tennessee Williams adaptations look like Sundance productions.
Palance plays a big-time Hollywood actor who's had his dreams replaced, piece by piece, with factory-line assembled product. Unfortunately for him, he knows what art is, but the Factory, in the body of Rod Steiger (one of the few actors who could go toe-to-toe with Palance up the tower of babble), has something on the actor, namely that he killed a child while driving drunk. Palance makes too much money for Steiger's hack producer, so he's forced to sign another 7-year contract of servitude. Due to his infidelity to both his art and their relationship, the actor’s wife, played by noir-babe Ida Lupino, is living separate from him with their child, and has threatened to leave for good if he signs on again. The misery becomes even more turbid when, like a pig to mud, Shelly Winters, playing the girl who was with Palance on that drunken night, threatens to reveal his dirty secret to the gossip columns. Steiger, not wanting to lose his golden goose, tries to get Palance to help kill Winters. The screen threatens to implode each time Palance and Steiger take a breath before launching into another tirade. With the aid of a bunch of booze, a lascivious harpy draining Palance's moral center (played by barrel-browed Jean Hagen), and a whole slew of master-servant dialectics between the royalty (Palance, Steiger) and their hanger-ons (the great character actors Everett Sloane and Wesley Addy, among others), the film reaches its moribund conclusion.Continue Reading
Isn't it funny that few people have not heard of The Birds, and yet fewer would vote it one of Hitchcock's best? Perhaps the reason is that more than any other Hitchcock film, The Birds leaves the viewer with the very unsettling feeling of a nightmare without end.
The basic story of a beautiful, spoiled socialite chasing after her beau to small-town (and fictitious) Bodega Bay seems insignificant to the film. Even the underlying message of the mass revolt of nature, as symbolized by birds against man, seems insignificant. In the end, it is the experience of going through the nightmarish bird attacks that will haunt us forever. Hitchcock unceremoniously throws the audience in with the unfortunate lot of the characters. We were scratched, bitten, terrorized right alongside Tippi Hedren.Continue Reading
The Girl Can’t Help It
The Girl Can’t Help It is a pop art explosion of retina melting Deluxe Color insanity built around several incredible performances from some of rock 'n' roll’s earliest and best groups. It could have been just another teensploitation picture meant to capitalize on American teenage culture of the mid-1950s and the “fad” of rock 'n' roll music, but in the hands of director Frank Tashlin it becomes a delirious candy colored satire of the music industry and the commoditization of sex to sell records.
Frank Tashlin started his career as an animator for Looney Tunes, and it is said that his cartoons were more like films and his films were more like cartoons. There is a gleeful anarchic streak that runs through his movies, and the clever satire of American life that was his directorial hallmark can be as essential to understanding the America of the 1950s as the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). Tashlin worked with a lot of musical comedy performers that we consider pretty hokey now (Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis, Doris Day) but it’s surprising how smart and genuinely funny the films in which he directed them are. He was a proto pop artist using the shiny gaudy images he created as a send up of celebrity, advertising, and pop culture and their detrimental effect on the American public. Although he had no great love for rock 'n’ roll, with The Girl Can’t Help It Tashlin inadvertently made one of the best rock 'n’ roll movies of all time.Continue Reading
The Grapes Of Wrath
When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.
The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).Continue Reading
One of the most beautifully directed and most gorgeously shot films of the 1930s is this stirring account of an Irishman in Dublin in 1922 who betrays his friend and country by turning informer for the British. Gypo Nolan is a big dumb giant of a man with few options in life. Acting as an agent for the Irish Rebellion he refuses to execute one of the members of the British Occupation and is cut off from the network that sustains the Rebels during hopeless economic times. With a girlfriend named Mary whom he finds reduced to walking the street hoping to keep from starving to death, he takes the only opportunity he is offered—that of informing on his friend Frankie who is wanted by the British. Though Gypo originally plans to use the money he makes from double crossing his friend to take Mary to America he instead throws it around on booze and buying fish and chips for a huge crowd of his fellow Irishmen who cheer him on as a hero. When he is exposed as the one who double crossed Frankie he fingers an innocent man as the true culprit before getting shot by members of the Rebellion for his betrayal.
One of the unusual things about The Informer is the way in which Ford turns the tragic story of Gypo Nolan informing on his friend into an allegory for the betrayal of Christ by Judas, but also making Gypo a kind of Christ figure at the same time. The symbolism is anything but subtle. First the film starts with a Biblical passage about Judas betraying Christ, while the scene of Gypo buying fish and chips for a crowd of revelers is clearly inspired by the story of Jesus and the fishes and loaves. By the time Gypo stumbles into the town church bleeding from a gunshot wound, he raises his arms aloft in a Christ pose in front of a statue of Christ on the cross (in case we weren’t getting the picture—we have multiple examples of a very heavy handed kind of symbolism at work). And yet the film works because of the arresting performances, exquisite cinematography, and, while the symbolism is overbearing at times, Ford’s conflation of Judas and Christ into one character, albeit uneven, is undeniably affecting.Continue Reading
The Loved One
Besides being one of the funniest, yet strangest comedies ever made, The Loved One may be the greatest satire of life in Los Angeles during the 1960s and has one of the most eclectic, but well used casts of all time (including Jonathan Winters in dual roles, Robert Morse, Milton Berle, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Paul Williams, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall…oh, and Liberace). Morse plays Dennis Barlow, a young British poet who shows up in Los Angeles to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), a film studio worker. After the uncle dies Dennis gets involved with Aimee (Anjanette Comer), an employee at the sinister funeral home, Whispering Glades.
Based on the book by the big-time British novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), The Loved One was adapted for the screen by the American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and the haughty author and critic Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man). To make this motley crew even more improbable it was directed British filmmaker Tony Richardson who arose to much acclaim during the “angry young man” movement of British filmmaking in the late '50s and early '60s and won an Oscar for Tom Jones. But after The Loved One, he was never able to find his filmmaking footing. The film was shot beautifully in black and white, giving a crisp, yet gothic look to the Los Angeles locations, by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Bound For Glory) and it was edited by the soon-to-be-major director of the '70s, Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude, Coming Home). All of these very improbable voices came together to create one of the more unique films of the decade.Continue Reading
The Naked Prey
Lean, intense and pictorially spectacular, The Naked Prey made a big impression when I saw it as a teenager in its original theatrical release. My high school buddy Todd McCarthy – today Variety’s chief film critic – saw it with me, and for years he called me “Gampu” in honor of Morrison Gampu, one of its leading native players.
The story is based on a true incident in which a member of Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary party was tracked by Blackfoot Indians in a tribal “run of the arrow.” Actor-director Cornel Wilde’s film transposes the tale to 19th-century Africa: After the members of his safari are captured and brutally massacred by a native tribe, one courageous member of the party (Wilde) is given a fighting chance, and is released into the bush naked and unarmed, pursued by 10 fierce warriors. In the wild, he is imperiled by human and natural predators.Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes: the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.
Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.Continue Reading