PUSHOVER (Richard Quine, 1954)

In DOUBLE INDEMNITY (’44), it is not the threat of jail or death that so staggers Walter Neff when the bottom has finally dropped from under him, but the inevitable reprimand of Barton Keyes, the colleague who is less an angel on Neff’s shoulder than he is the waddling embodiment of competence and professionalism and the slim virtues of unrewarding work, the fast-talking insurance veteran caffeinated by conscience (that Little Man) and needled by nerves. That Keyes, who has spent a thankless career sniffing out criminal deception and suspecting the worst in everyone, still maintains an unconditional trust in his associate is the story’s real tragic springboard. It casts a pall over the sexy, vacuum-sealed amorality in which Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck determinedly toil. For Keyes, we suspect, is on his last leg of innocence – for lack of a better word – and what is truly criminal in Walter’s actions is to have dashed it out from under him, this man who was already so disillusioned, and yet must shed his last remnants of faith in humankind like so much shriveling cigarette paper.

Without the character of Keyes, and without Edward G. Robinson to give him unglamorous life, DOUBLE INDEMNITY would be a story of one man’s moral descent without any sense of the landing from which he haplessly took the plunge. Keyes is the marker of Walter’s debasement. Without his squat workaday consternation by which to measure Walter’s accumulating transgressions, there would be no loss or tragedy in the insurance salesman’s fall. For there was never an uncorrupted Walter Neff – at least not that the audience gets to see. From that first gander at Stanwyck’s ankles, we know his fate is sealed. But without a Barton Keyes, without a surrogate for us law-abiding mortals in the audience to bear crushing witness to it, we would only have morbid titillation to enthrall us, but little reason to actually care.

PUSHOVER (’54) finds Fred MacMurray in similar straits ten years later. But it’s a different kind of noir. DOUBLE INDEMNITY was James M. Cain embellished by Paramount – California as a ground-zero of rootlessness and cultural counterfeit, every desperate American’s final frontier for starting a new life under threat of a gun or a false woman’s enchantments, with Hollywood’s highest production values to breathe artificial life into all the tawdry yet treacherous temptation. But for the Columbia noir of 1954, post-war malaise is a given. The audience is no longer shocked that a protagonist might give in to forbidden desires, might rub shoulders with darkness, or else resort to sordid means to achieve self-enriching ends. If MacMurray fell for Stanwyck out of unvarnished lust, he falls for Kim Novak – gentler than Stanwyck, here a misled or mixed-up gangster’s moll – out of something like love. And he wants “the money” for a more practical reason than is ever given in Double Indemnity – because he is unhappy and underpaid and, almost like Keyes, has been disillusioned past his breaking point.

When MacMurray first meets Novak, he’s all smiles and jocularity (like Dick Powell, MacMurray could play dull-witted dope and world-weary cynic with equal conviction). It is only after taking leave of her that his gait begins to sag under the weight of his bitterness, that his trench coat seems a haggard second skin. He’s Paul Sheridan, a cop who no longer seems to believe in what he’s doing, and Novak, as the vulnerable and enticing Lona McLane, might be his way out of the drudgery. Every halfway seasoned spectator knows that danger lies in waiting, that things will get worse before they get better, if they get better (and they won’t). But Paul is no dummy, and in the romantic scenes between him and Lona the usual omens of fatalism are nowhere hovering. Lona is barely even a femme fatale. She’s as tangibly human as he is, and aside from helping him to hatch the fateful plot that sinks him, she has nothing more malevolent up her sleeve. The only thing that truly implicates her in any kind of criminality, according to Hollywood convention, is her brazen sensuality. If not for the bravura bank robbery sequence that opens the film, one might forget they are watching a crime drama up to a point – this particular conjuring of taboo love, right down to the swooning score, is much closer to the provinces of romantic melodrama.

But it isn’t long before Paul and his associates are on stakeout duty, in an empty room across the street from Lona’s apartment – they are hoping to draw out her hood boyfriend. There’s a lot of waiting to go around, a lot of changing of the guard, and it falls to Paul and Lona to carry out their plan while hiding in plain sight: Lona’s every move is being scrutinized, but Paul can make sure as best he can that he’s the one doing the scrutinizing while his partners are busy sniffing at loose ends. I would guess that it’s close to halfway through the film that time ceases to leap forward and everything comes down to the here and now. Over the span of a single night, Paul executes his plan and then botches it horribly – the clockwork logistics of who is stationed where and who is keeping tabs on whom start to go haywire and all the interlocking gears systematically fall out of place. Director Richard Quine works wonders such whirligig plotting – so much simultaneous action, but only one place to mount the camera at a time. The officers’ base of operations across the street serves as a den of omniscience, in which Paul can monitor Lona’s apartment complex and the surrounding block while also making and receiving calls to and from the various colleagues he’s giving the runaround. It’s a juggling act of multiple informational inputs that Quine puts across with remarkable clarity. But the scheme grows too sprawling and complicated to be maintained from one room; soon Paul is out in the streets, and the proverbial noose is around his neck.

By the time Paul bites the bullet, he ends up having killed quite a number of people. We knew things were going to get bad, but we never expected to see a man spiritually disintegrate in real time. Double Indemnity was about a man whose spirit had already disintegrated – he was rotten from the start and only needed someone with whom to consummate his rottenness (and yet another, Keyes, to render a judgment on it). But Pushover is less clear-cut in its moral delineations; the supercharged fatalism, the shadowy menace is nowhere to be found in Quine’s film as it is in Wilder’s. The darkness that erupted in expressive hysteria in 40s noir is now standard, baked into the environment, and everyone has to some degree partaken of it. For example,  Paul is not the only compromised officer on site – there is Paddy Dolan (Allen Nourse) who lets his drinking problem get the better of him while on the job, and there is Rick McAllister (Phillip Carey), whose wandering eye settles on the apartment next-door to Lona’s, in which a nurse played by Dorothy Malone puts on a show of domestic busywork that steals Rick’s heart with its wholesomeness (theirs is the whitebread American romance to redeem the movie’s sordidness, but the filmmakers wisely refrain from insisting on this point).

Ultimately, a movie like PUSHOVER assumes that just about everyone is in some way disgruntled and prone to criminal error, that we’re all one part Walter Neff on the verge of sinning and another part Barton Keyes holding ourselves accountable, that there is no such thing as pure evil, only pure folly. At some point, Paul crossed a line, but it was in a flurry of desperation on a night of accelerated chaos and who’s to say exactly where it lay? It’s of no importance – none of the other characters, not even Novak’s, have crossed it, no matter what dreams or aspirations haunt their unfulfilling lives, no matter how much of that morally fraught distance they themselves have already run. When everything fouled up for Walter Neff, it was as if he had already come to terms with it – all that was waiting was for Keyes to follow suit. But Paul Sheridan only realizes at death’s door just what a mess he’s made of everything, all dazed regret and guilt and disappointment. He looks to Lona and he looks to Rick and he looks to the lieutenant. They understand, perhaps better than he does, with their wilted expressions of compromised empathy; the letdown is palpable, the disappointment gutting.

Rosaries and Razorblades: The Acrid Catholicism of BRIGHTON ROCK

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Originally published on FilmStruck

The British and American cinema of the late 1940s, bristling as it did with noirish portent and psychological acuity, turned often to the remarkable literature of Graham Greene, that perennial master of the Catholic moral quandary framed by thriller conventions and a ruthless, frostbitten materialism. A few early crime and espionage thrillers lit the way — THIS GUN FOR HIRE (’42), MINISTRY OF FEAR (’43), CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (’45) — but the deluge was underway by 1947, whence THE MAN WITHIN (’47), BRIGHTON ROCK (’47), THE FUGITIVE (’47), THE THIRD MAN (’48), and THE FALLEN IDOL (’49) all rolled off the proverbial assembly line over the span of a few short years.

Greene’s novels, particularly the thrillers (or what he called ‘entertainments’), were endlessly amenable to screenplay translation — his prose never paused to explicate the interiority of his characters, but rather briskly alighted on themes of the utmost moral seriousness by way of unremitting present-tense action. It is through their resolve under duress, the objects they suggestively brandish, and their surplus of earthly sufferings that his characters come into focus as haggard spiritual wanderers, even as they moonlight as spies, fugitives, Hitchcockian ‘wrong men’ (one wonders at Greene’s hostility as a critic to the work of that other British grandmaster of the Catholic thriller).

The best directors of the era knew how to charge such commonplaces as abound in these stories with darkly thematic significance. Postwar anxiety had merged with prevailing trends in lighting and camerawork such that the camera eye now perceived both the world and its deranged, guilt-ridden shadow — a palpable dread had infected the popular cinema in the form of film noir. The best adaptations of Greene’s work hammer that ominous alloy, that unspeakable malaise, into a distinctly Catholic shape.

BRIGHTON ROCK (’47) — directed by John Boulting, produced by his brother Roy, and scripted by the eminent playwright Terence Rattigan — comes closest to the mark. THE FUGITIVE from the same year is a fatal misstep, with director John Ford piously prostrated before gleaming crucifixes and showy gestures of dewy-eyed reverence where the novel (titled The Power and the Glory) opted for something more haunting, a vitiated relic of the Catholic faith drifting forlornly through an earthbound purgatory. MINISTRY OF FEAR (’43) is a demented marvel of Langian excess, and the Carol Reed films twin masterworks of the filmic form. But BRIGHTON ROCK is so in lockstep with the source material (the film’s ending is the lone departure in obeisance to the censors, but it is in its own way a masterstroke of savage irony), so adept at incarnating visually Greene’s larger Catholic project, that the author’s vision of a broken, sin-suffused world fleetingly redeemed by imperfect emissaries of Godly grace finally attains cinematic expression.

The film opens with a scroll of text that notes the sharp contrast between Brighton’s seaside frivolity and the jagged latticework of criminal violence undergirding that frothy edifice. Snaking through the crowds of delighted revelers are members a local mob outfit led by seventeen-year-old Pinkie, played by Richard Attenborough in a dissonant key of pallid ferocity. One bright, cheerful day, Pinkie and his pals set their sights on a newspaperman in town for a local promotion who had formerly betrayed the gang in a story about the Brighton rackets. The murder, finally committed by Pinkie, is a crescendo of pure horror set adjacent to an upswell of carnivalesque excitement, with the line between the two eventually dissipating. Here is a fitting point to observe the visual mastery of the Boulting brothers, whose remarkably fluid camera creeps through a space until it lunges into foreboding close-up — of an incriminating object, of hands that fidget before they are summoned to slit a throat, of faces bent by chiaroscuro into luminous portraits of terror and rage.

It isn’t long after this opening bit of carnage that two women come to be recurring thorns in Pinkie’s side. One is a young waitress named Rose (played by Carol Marsh with a sweetly smiling susceptibility) whose pure-hearted naïveté is buttressed by her unwavering Catholicism and who, by an accident of chance, stands to fatally complicate Pinkie’s alibi. The other is a fixture of the surrounding amusements, an entertainer named Ida (Hermione Baddeley) who all but witnesses the killing and becomes a force of probing morality. But she is not Catholic. Officious, superstitious, and betokened by an ear-splitting cackle, she cares more for earthly justice than the great mystery of redemption. Rose, stupidly but sublimely, falls for Pinkie, while Ida hopes to wrest her away from his evil influence. The vile, seemingly sociopathic Pinkie then becomes a hopeless candidate for saving grace. Whether Rose’s love is exerted in vain is the operative spiritual question.

The extant writing on BRIGHTON ROCK has tended to single out Attenborough’s performance for acclaim. And he is magnificent, the consummate boy cretin, gaunt and pudgy, nervous with women but calm and collected when he kills. He all but perspires of violence. But the rest of the cast make for equally compelling collaborators in the drama. And I suspect the Boulting brothers are in need of serious auteurist resuscitation. For negotiating Greene’s pained Catholicism in cinematic terms, I imagine not even Alfred Hitchcock could have done a better job. Simply study their evocative way with the torpid water off the Brighton coast — a restorative elixir for the sunbathing tourist, and a place where bodies are buried.

 

The Trials of Wartime in Ingmar Bergman’s SHAME (’68)

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Originally published on FilmStruck

The admiring gaze of the aesthete, when aimed at the filmography of Ingmar Bergman, naturally lunges upon THE SEVENTH SEAL (’57), or PERSONA (’66), two of his most abstract and abstruse works of primordially imagistic art. But many of Bergman’s greatest and most emotionally demanding works are visceral feats of unadorned realism — works of interpersonal bitterness and vulnerability. With the nether reaches of human misery his volatile subject, Bergman’s camera maintained a crisply measured distance, gracefully imposing an angular theatrical dramaturgy on the material. Out of this strain comes SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (’73), AUTUMN SONATA (’78), THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (’61), and numerous other masterworks.

Bergman’s SHAME, from 1968, is an under-discussed piece of work occupying this dramatically embattled terrain. The reasons for its obscurity are hard to come by — my supposition is that ‘war movie’ genre expectations inevitably minimize what the film is really up to. SHAME is certainly about war, but not in terms of soldiers, politics, or in the ins and outs of combat. Rather, it is about war as an unwelcome fact in the lives of two nonparticipants, a husband and wife played by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. As Jan and Eva Rosenberg, two former violinists, Ullman and von Sydow comprise one of Bergman’s great tempestuous married couples. Neutral and non-partisan to a dissonant fault (their coping mechanism seems to be merely to carry on as if the conflict is not happening), Jan and Eva are functionally aligned. Together they work a small farm, and are mutually committed to the persistence of their rustic, whittled-down way of life.

However, Jan and Eva’s teamwork in clearing the practical hurdles of farmhouse upkeep belies the fact that an unfathomable rift has grown between them, no doubt exacerbated by the bludgeoning warfare that haunts the periphery of their lives. Where Eva is strong-willed and adaptable to the travails of wartime, Jan slips helplessly into pained reminiscence and nervous collapse. There are a number of piquant moments served up by Bergman to articulate this pained relationship. The reluctance of Jan to shoot one of their chickens serves as an illuminating source of contention between the two, while an expertly timed formalist flourish accentuates Eva’s expression of fraught disbelief in response to Jan’s admission that he is not a determinist, and that perhaps he will have outgrown his selfishness in the weeks or years to come.

Indeed, determinism is of the utmost importance to SHAME, which seems fixated on the question of whether any relationship can remain intact in response to civil war. Are Jan and Eva foredoomed to failure? While the experiential panic of bombs and artillery-fire is one dimension of warfare, the issue is reframed entirely by the introduction of one Colonel Jacobi, played to perfection by Gunnar Björnstrand. For Jacobi embodies military administrative authority, and it is his intrusion into the lives of Jan and Eva that expedites their ruin. The horror of chaos has given way to the horror of ruthlessly exercised power.

As FilmStruck has so justifiably decreed, Bergman, in honor of his centennial, is the Director of the Century, and now is an ideal time to experience his under-canonized works. As you make your way through the exhaustive collection of Bergman treasures that FilmStruck has assembled, please keep SHAME in mind. It is, for my money, his most powerful film of the 60’s, a blistering work to presage his tortured output of the 70s.

On Love, Labor, and the Lubitsch Touch: THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (’40)

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Originally written for FilmStruck

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (’40) has not aged much in the 80 or so years since it was originally released. Whether swapping hand-written letters or Tinder messages, we still find ourselves beguiled by anonymous paramours. And while the frost-limned Budapest department store of the film’s setting is long out of date – a quaint relic of early 20th century Europe – the underlying workplace mechanics that director Ernst Lubitsch depicts with such fastidious care are universal. How many of us lead the double lives led by Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who reserve their best and most elevated selves for their off-time, while toiling away by day in a den of unfettered materialism?

Materialism is indeed the operative word. After Kralik realizes that it is Klara who has been writing him such swooning messages, he approaches her at the appointed meeting place they had worked out in their letters, but feigns coincidence – two coworkers happening to meet outside of work (she, of course, has no idea that it is he who has been aiming Cupid’s missives into her post office box, and awaits a more dashing, albeit nonexistent, suitor). When he suggests that she has yet to scratch his salesman’s surface, she responds, “Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter which doesn’t work.” There is a hint of justice in the remark: what other impression is she to have gotten from a man she knows only as Matuschek and Company’s top peddler of leather goods? Hence her most damning rejoinder, in which she calls him a “little insignificant clerk” to his face.

Mr. Matuschek, meanwhile, is played by Frank Morgan, in a performance that captures all the bristling contradictions of the employer-employee relationship. He knows that to expect subordination is to be met with dishonesty, such as that of the sycophantic Mr. Vadas, who yesses him to death while carrying on an illicit love affair with his wife. Kralik, who has spent nine years under Matuschek’s mentorship, seems something of a son to him, until the old man’s misplaced suspicions freeze this warmth into a cold professionalism. Lubitsch seems to be asking throughout the film, “What kind of relationships can we expect to form with our workplace superiors, and them with us?” When Kralik is unceremoniously let go, and a pall falls over the shop, we realize that this workaday family is something of an illusion: at the end of the day, what the boss says goes, and no one wishes to jeopardize his or her own livelihood in order to rally to poor Kralik’s defense. That Mr. Matuschek’s woes begin and end with an anonymous letter informing him of his wife’s infidelity brings the story full circle – is his imagination not as susceptible to mysterious epistles as Kralik’s and Ms. Novak’s? Undergirding the meat-and-potatoes business of turning a profit by hawking music boxes is a whole network of correspondences that cut to the very heart of our innermost fears and fancies.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER has the veneer of Christmastime cutesiness, and has been marketed accordingly since its release. This sweet MGM romantic comedy, starring James Stewart at his most winsome and Margaret Sullavan at her most bright and beautiful, will surely live on forever as an evergreen crowd-pleaser, and there is nothing quite like watching Stewart keep Sullavan on the hook as Klara slowly unravels the delectable mystery that Kralik has made of himself and his letter-writing alter-ego. And yet the film would not please us so profoundly were not Ernst Lubitsch at the helm, conducting a cinematic symphony in dramatic irony and detailing with such precision the practical impediments to romance that afflict all working men and women. In short, here is a movie of real perfection, as worthy a TCM Select inductee as any classic film that I know.

The Unsung 30s Films of G.W. Pabst

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Originally published on FilmStruck

The suffering maiden archetype of silent cinema was, in the hands of German filmmaker Georg-Wilhelm Pabst, not the usual vehicle for Victorian-era sentimentality that features prominently in the work of his contemporaries, but rather the blade by which society with all its ills and vices might be carved up. The emotional heuristic of easily fomented pity does not compute for Pabst’s most revolutionary muse, Louise Brooks, who braved the slings and arrows of her various tormentors with the glacial reserve that is modernity’s stock-in-trade. It is for his two Brooks vehicles, DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (’28) and PANDORA’S BOX (’29), that he is most well-known, but it is often forgotten that Pabst continued to work well into the sound-era – until the 1950s as a matter of fact. With the partial exception of his controversial reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s 3 PENNY OPERA (’31), his 30s work is has largely eluded the canon. Now, FilmStruck is offering a sumptuous array of Pabst’s work from this decade, providing a more well-rounded perspective on one of cinema’s most unjustly neglected masters.

Pabst’s first sound film, WESTFRONT 1918 (’30), was released the same year as Universal’s groundbreaking production of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and it is just as daring a treatise on the folly of the First World War – even though any rhetoric to that effect is saved for the final shot (alarmed by the film’s pacifist inclination, Josef Goebbels promptly had it suppressed). The trenches are a place of dreary routine where enemy shellfire takes on all the nuisance of a heavy rainfall, while background mortar blasts fill in the frame’s vast compositional vacancies. The way Pabst employs the din of warfare as a kind of tone-setter – the living texture of the German infantry’s experience on the front – is nothing short of remarkable. Meanwhile, the larger thematic emphasis is less on individualized trauma than on a mass distribution of suffering and wrongdoing across all participants in the enterprise of war, from the soldiers on the frontlines to the dispensers of dwindling rations back at home. The most intimately harrowing scene of the film involves a soldier who returns to his home village to find society at a standstill, his wife engaged in an affair, and an air of impersonal drudgery seizing the citizenry, all of which make him long for the tight-knit camaraderie of the front.

No less harrowing, though certainly more pointed in its message of international solidarity, is KAMERADSCHAFT (’31). The plot is simplicity itself – a fire breaks out in a French mineshaft and the German miners working in the adjacent mines, not yet affected by the blaze, embark upon a rescue mission for their comrades in labor. The story is hung upon a few reasonably inconsequential hooks, with a panoramic cast of lightly sketched characters whose individual journeys count for little against the collective sweep of the experience. The film could perhaps be faulted for its rhetorical simplicity – it’s a peacetime appeal for unity beset by few nuances or complications – but it is in the richness of the imagery that Pabst excels. The sets designed by Ernő Metzner aim for an authentic replication of life in the shafts, which Pabst embellishes with sprawls of shadow that induce a kind of geometrical frenzy – the compositions are effortlessly expressionistic without lacking for realism. In the film’s most immediately gripping sequence, the atmospherics of trench warfare from WESTFRONT 1918 return in the form of a fevered flashback on the part of one of the trapped French miners, dreading the approach of his savior from across the border.

It is with L’ATLANTIDE (’32) that the versatility – and the occasional lunacy – of Pabst’s directorial work is most brazenly trumpeted. Pabst’s films always pay fastidious attention to sound and image at the expense of narrative cogency. Here, narrative is overwhelmed by the décor – an infinitude of isometric patterns and motifs. The mad logic of the story can be traced to the original novel by Pierre Benoit, as well as Jacques Feyder’s silent screen adaptation from 1921. Put simply, it concerns the journey of two French Legionnaires to the lost city of Atlantis, where the queen – a capricious enchantress prone to jealousy – pits them against one another in a most bewilderingly conceived love triangle. Updating the yarn for the sound era, Pabst cleverly exploits the deafening silence of Saharan transit and of the winding catacombs of the lost city. A sense of demented inscrutability comes to overlay the film, which goes down like a proverbial feast of cryptogrammic fantasia.

By the late 1930s, Pabst was making movies both in the U.S. and in France, where he made LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI (’38). Set in the Shanghai of the Western imagination, where dreams go to fester in a limbo of exoticized vice, LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI is a strange compendium of orientalist thriller motifs – a fallen woman seeking a new life for her and her estranged daughter, expatriate showgirls under the thumb of a loutish nightclub owner, the looming threat of political violence, and even a criminal syndicate by the name of the Black Hand. While it nowhere approaches the mastery of, say, Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (’32), Pabst acquits himself admirably, pinpointing the most visually fruitful stretches of the narrative and mining them for glittering resplendence and hall-of-mirrors pictorial effects. Pabst’s silent masterwork THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY (’27) (also streaming on FilmStruck) demonstrates a similar knack for the globe-trotting espionage thriller, suffused with mad villainy and forbidden romance, only that earlier film is a work of intimate polish and beauty, where LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI stays within relatively modest confines. Curiously enough, the film ends with yet another plea for international peace and solidarity – the closest thing to a distinct auteurist stamp that emerges over the span of these films.

PASHA’S WIVES (’39), the last film of the lineup, is by far the rarest film on offer. The story of a Westernized Turkish official returning to his native country with his Parisian wife, it is another variation on the transnational cultural clashes explored in Pabst’s previous films. In this instance, the subjugation of women is Pabst’s domain of dramatic critique, anchored by a formidable performance by French leading lady Viviane Romance. While not among Pabst’s most distinguished works, it remains a piece of consummate craftsmanship that greatly exceeded my expectations. If the material he worked with occasionally faltered (scholar Luc Sante muses that the director likely didn’t pay too close attention to the quality of his screenplays), Pabst’s eye for innovative approaches to cinematic construction was forever roaming.

The Power of the Pre-Code Press

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Originally published on FilmStruck

Of all the institutions that govern our society, none forges a relationship with the public quite like the news media, which furnishes our understanding of the world’s varied goings-on even as it meretriciously peddles a more sordid influence. For the goal of every press outlet is to optimize circulation, and so the specter of sensationalism comes to haunt even the most objectively reported stories. The slope from journalistic pedigree to tabloid tawdriness is a slippery one, indeed, and it is every reporter’s prerogative not to lose his or her footing.

At least, this is the paradigm of the press that 1930’s Hollywood most gainfully exploited for the purposes of screen drama, and FilmStruck has done the redoubtable duty of including three exceptional pre-Code productions in its recent slate of cinema with a journalistic edge. Each of these brilliant studio concoctions involves the opportunistic savvy of newsmen on the prowl, capturing the electric charge of the obstreperous pressroom and the ethical risks that are run in the covetous hunt for the newsworthy morsel. One man’s ruined reputation is the grist for another man’s Sunday column.

THE FRONT PAGE (’31) is the first screen adaptation of the hit Broadway comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur that would later serve as the inspiration for Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (’40). Where the Hawks version turns the relationship between managing editor Walter Burns and his star reporter Hildy Johnson into a screwball romance between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, the original is a boys’ club through and through. And for Lewis Milestone’s screen adaptation, it is Pat O’Brien who plays the Hildy to Adolphe Menjou’s Burns. The conflict is whether Hildy will choose love and marriage over the more primal thrill of clamping down on a juicy story involving a recently escaped convict who has narrowly avoided a hanging.

The play proved to be something of a blueprint for the screwball press sagas that so dominated in the 1930s, cementing the manic mode of the newsroom milieu. Amidst the din of galloping typewriters crackles the most rarefied streetwise dialogue; the plotting, meanwhile, is at once fleet-footed and supremely intricate. In helming the 1931 screen production, Milestone brought an added innovation to bear on the proceedings – his customary mobile camera, which darts and swivels in lockstep with the frenzied reporters.

For all of the sterling qualities that THE FRONT PAGE has to recommend it, the more unsung FIVE STAR FINAL (’31) and BLESSED EVENT (’32) both tap into the more disturbing implications of what was then known as the gutter press, and are ultimately more scabrous meditations on journalistic ethics. It is no surprise that Warner Bros, then in its most fruitful period of sustained social critique, was responsible for both films.

FIVE STAR FINAL concerns a newspaper in a slump whose city editor, played by Edward G. Robinson, begrudgingly agrees to embark upon a sensationalistic retrospective series on a twenty-year-old murder scandal. It does not seem to cross Robinson’s mind that the ‘murderess’ of the story, played by Frances Starr, is now a respectable member of society who has worked hard to put the past behind her. The film goes to great pains to depict the psychic anguish that is unleashed on Starr’s character, eventually reaching a crescendo of violence and outrage whose exhortative tone is mollified by the all too human emotions of its characters. Among these are Robinson’s secretary, played by Aline MacMahon, who, with a serrated edge of cynicism, delivers the immortal line, “I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.”

BLESSED EVENT (’32) is a film of similar rhetorical excess, happily subsumed to the animated performance of Lee Tracy in the role of a gossip-monger allegedly based on Walter Winchell. Temporarily stationed at the society column of a failing newspaper while its usual custodian is on vacation, Tracy pumps his reportage full of the seediest innuendo – usually of the sort that surrounds ensuing pregnancies, or ‘blessed events’ – and wears every pending libel suit like a badge of honor. The plot charts the various complications of Tracy’s ascent, including pressures from the mob and a feud with a radio crooner played by Dick Powell in his debut film performance. In this freewheeling cascade of sleaze are a number of jokes that could never have possibly flown in the age of the Production Code. And Tracy is absolutely magnetic in his artful scrambling, in the unconscionable lengths he will go to in order to secure a story.

Prizefighter Follies: Columbia’s Knockout Production of Budd Schulberg’s THE HARDER THEY FALL (’56)

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Originally published on FilmStruck

The American immigrant experience, in our national mythos, is made to ring with the age-old knell of freedom and opportunity, and gleam with the hallowed glow of Lady Liberty’s torch. The opening minutes of THE HARDER THEY FALL (’56) suggest a more realistic characterization, that for many, Ellis Island was the maw of an exploitative leviathan, into whose various tracts of profit-mongering brutality  this influx of human capital was most savagely slotted. There is nothing hopeful about the arrival of Toro Moreno (Nick Lane), an Argentinian giant with a glass jaw who, over the course of the film, is duped and brutalized and finally ground into a crumbly vestige of his former self-worth. For the tract that he has been slotted into is the prizefighting racket, with a raging, roaring Rod Steiger for a promoter. And so Moreno lumbers his way through a series of fixed fights without ever being let in on the game, and tragically comes to believe his own press.

It is Humphrey Bogart as Eddie Willis who generates that press. He’s the lynchpin in Steiger’s scheme, the out-of-work sports columnist who, like many a film noir protagonist, has been so beaten down by the world that he is finally ready to override his wary conscience and cash in. And why shouldn’t he? He’s not avaricious; he simply doesn’t want to sleep on park benches. Having absorbed the same lesson learned by George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, he knows that money made from a scoundrel is as good as that made from a respectable citizen – in fact, it is precisely this logic that he uses to appeal to a society matron worried about using the sordid sport to sponsor a charity drive (“I just want to do the right thing,” she thrice chirps). And so he uses his journalistic wiles to make Moreno the star attraction of the prizefighting season, all while counting down the time until he can make out with a tidy sum, push the reset button on his life with his wife Beth (Ann Sterling, principled and apprehensive), and never look back.

But the specter of moral compromise haunts Eddie, whose conscience twists in tandem with the slowly coiling plotline. The ethics of prizefighting are diced up in myriad ways, as the vicissitudes of Moreno’s exploitation intersect with larger corruptions and abuses. One of the film’s most harrowing scenes involves footage of real-life washed-up prizefighter Joe Greb, who reveals to all the world the depths to which these battered men almost invariably sink. They have made their shoddy livings as ringside chattel, sucked dry of profit potential by mendacious managers (witness Edward Andrews’ display of snarling contempt for the bruiser class) and then turned out into the gutter.

The hurtling trajectory of the film runs parallel to Willis’ gradual alignment with the excoriating point of view of the film’s makers. Budd Schulberg wrote the novel on which the film was based, but passed on writing the screenplay over a disagreement with Harry Cohn. But the project was left in the good hands of writer-producer Philip Yordan, who carries something of Schulberg’s left-leaning agenda into the finished work. While superficially resembling the expose pictures of ‘30s Warner Bros lore (and, by the film’s end, virtually replicating the exhortative tone of those movies), the film takes a nuanced line with the character of Eddie, the man in the middle, the squirming mediator between the racketeers and the men whose well-beings they shamelessly convert into ill-gotten winnings. The film’s contempt for the sport is unambiguous and piercing, and Willis largely shares it. But he also believes that he can rely on his considerable street smarts and journalistic finesse to navigate this fraught terrain, to rig the game against those crafty criminals for whom fixing fights is second nature.

Director Mark Robson – who may seem a mere functionary in the redoubtable creative stew of Bogart, Schulberg, and Yordan – meanwhile flexes his muscles during the boxing matches. The bulk of the film has the on-location visual frostiness that seemed to be Columbia’s house style for its fifties crime thrillers, but the lighting and camerawork surge with latent electricity when the long-awaited fights are finally underway. These ferociously staged bloodbaths tower above contemporaneous work in the boxing film subgenre, and remain high-water marks for depictions of animalistic violence as a spectator sport.

But THE HARDER THEY FALL is primarily Bogart’s show – Bogart who, as was his preternatural gift, locates Eddie Willis’ essential self-loathing under a blanket of impregnable cynicism, upon whose frayed surface rests a lifetime of personal misgivings. It was his last performance before he passed away the following year, and I cannot imagine of a more fitting departure.

The Great Conundrum of Hollywood Hubris: Delbert Mann’s Scathing Adaptation of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? (’59)

Originally published on FilmStruck

“What Makes Sammy Run?” The question is asked and insisted upon so often throughout the 1959 NBC television production of Budd Schulberg’s excoriating novel that it becomes a defeated mantra, borderline unanswerable, as elusive as the skeleton key to Charles Foster Kane’s childhood. The answer to Schulberg’s question, however, has an answer with perhaps greater resonance than a half-remembered sled sinking forlornly in the snow. Of course, Sammy Glick (a canny abbreviation of Glickstein) is, as the novel puts it, the “id of our whole society,” the young upstart who never stopped accelerating in his upward ascent up the Hollywood food-chain. He is the precocious copyboy who cheats and bluffs and backstabs his way to big studio success, whose maniacal self-interest is “a blueprint of a way of life that was paying dividends in America in the first half of the twentieth century.”

So what makes Sammy run? Al Manheim asks the question, Al who started out with Sammy in a New York press office before making the great voyage West, where the streets of America’s movie mecca are paved with gold. But he only gradually comes to realize the malice and betrayal by which that lustrous sheen is burnished.  Al knows right from wrong and mixes a healthy conscientiousness in with his personal ambitions; he will never double-cross a soul but is just complacent enough to be Sammy’s pawn and hanger-on – his best friend, even. Al has a sober understanding of Sammy’s unfettered avarice, makes study of his stratagems, and always spots the scheming twinkle in Sammy’s eye. He loathes Sammy’s predilection – nay, full-throttled propulsion – toward getting ahead at the expense of others, and yet he is begrudgingly impressed by it, too. As Schulberg suggests in his novel but indicates more bluntly on-screen, the mystery of what makes Sammy run is also the mystery of what makes Al run after him. At one point in the story, Al avers, “Once we know what makes Sammy run it will be a great thing for the world. Like discovering the cause of cancer.” In a way, he is absolutely right.

I took the occasion of writing about this neglected TV curio – a much-welcome inclusion by FilmStruck in its ‘Directed by Delbert Mann’ programming block – to read the novel, which continues to astound with its disillusioned insight into the American success ethic, and its profound understanding that we are all passive and willing participants in the system that allows the Sammy Glicks of the world to thrive. Published after the 30s had come to a close, and Hollywood’s misadventures in labor unionism were still fresh, the book was met with the disgust of the film industry, but also with the delight of such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, both dispirited chroniclers of the zeitgeist who knew the rottenness of Hollywood from the ground-up. Schulberg was interested in that rottenness as a byproduct of internalized anti-Semitism – the great lesson of Sammy’s Lower East Side childhood was to sever all ties with his persecuted ethnicity and plunge self-interestedly into the future – but he also contextualized Sammy’s ideology within the framework of the Hollywood Writer’s Guild. Sammy is shown to outpace the trade-wide enthusiasm for unionization by a hair’s breadth, cleaning up big for himself in the meanwhile.

Delbert Mann’s adaptation of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? for NBC’s ‘Sunday Showcase’ is fascinating for how it contends with Schulberg’s politically abrasive material. Schulberg wrote the teleplay and his brother Stuart Schulberg produced the drama, and they were clearly concerned with retaining the hurtling momentum of the story and the fully-formed egotism of the character of Sammy, while also shrewdly hinting at more hard-hitting implications. The story is loosely updated for the 50s (but with the likes of producer Myron Selznick anachronistically name-dropped), and the unionization angle is jettisoned almost entirely, save some fleeting allusions to the Writer’s Guild. The anti-Semitism is whittled down too, with the Jewishness of the characters only faintly suggested. But Schulberg is cagey enough in his screenwriting to give the game away, as when Kit Sargent (played by Barbara Rush, less icily guarded and professionally all-knowing that her counterpart in the novel) lobs a bitterly ironic “Sieg Heil!” in Sammy’s direction – Sammy will sell his own people down the river to get ahead.

For all of these elisions and reconfigurations, the quintessence of the novel – Al Manheim’s troubled processing of the Sammy Glick phenomenon – is very much intact. In fact, it’s almost supercharged. Larry Blyden plays Sammy in with the aggressive, fidgety chumminess of a James Cagney or Joe Pesci. He chortles, he declaims, he barrels through conversations – he cannot stop to take a breath lest he misses an opening. Most crucially, Blyden perfectly captures the sense that he is everybody’s ostentatious best pal and backbiting worst enemy all in one. Al Manheim is played by John Forsythe (then the star of the sitcom Bachelor Father), who imparts to the role a sober conscientiousness bedeviled by the infernal mystery of Sammy Glick. Al has been changed from the narrator of the story to a character in his own right, and Forsythe does well to suggest the tortured obsession milling about beneath his placid exterior.

Radical Queerness in the Age of Thatcher: The Films of Derek Jarman

Originally published on FilmStruck

It is a popular refrain of reactionary governments that a true nationalist spirit can only be attained at the expense of the marginalized. One sees it today in the anti-migrant hysteria of America and Europe’s far-right extremists, and one saw it during the 1980s, under the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, which notoriously carried on as if homosexuality was at best a nuisance, and at worse a plague upon society – one recalls that the AIDS epidemic was treated as so much grist for the stigmatization of the gay community rather than a humanitarian crisis in need of serious redress. Thatcher’s resolute antipathy toward gay people – legislatively embodied by Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 – was legitimized by the forever specious notion that vaunted national traditions – those perennial abstractions – can only be safeguarded by the quelling of groups deemed ‘aberrant’ by the powers that be.

There is no greater threat to this hollow rhetoric of traditionalism than a filmmaker like Derek Jarman, a self-made multidisciplinary artist with a rich steeping in those canonical works which comprise Britain’s cultural legacy, and who filtrated this heritage through a lens of radical queerness. Unlike the work of his contemporary Terence Davies – who sought to reconcile his queerness to the Catholic Liverpool of his childhood via a prostrate lyricism – Jarman is a filmmaker of punk idiosyncrasies, experimental proclivities, and a battering-ram anger that perceptibly boiled over as the Thatcher government’s state-sanctioned homophobia grew increasingly entrenched.

FilmStruck, as part of its Pride Month programming, has made available the key feature films in Jarman’s incendiary body of work, and it has been a rush to finally acquaint myself with such a singularly diversified filmography. For all of the films’ prodigious eclecticism, Jarman tends to anchor them within a politically charged inlet of his imagination. Even works like THE TEMPEST (’79) and WAR REQUIEM (’89) – paragons of spiritual fidelity to classically resonant sources (Shakespeare on the one hand and Benjamin Britten’s 1963 oratorio on the other) – achieve an iconoclastic vitality in their vexatiously sought images.

But it is the works that are most charged with bareknuckle fury that most capture my attention. These are movies largely made after Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, and they are remarkable for ringing with honest-to-god anger at the condition of being a gay man under one of Britain’s most recently repressive regimes, without ever betraying the artistic equipoise of their maker. THE LAST OF ENGLAND (’87), for example, is a wail of unmatched anguish that suggests – through a violent bombardment of Super-8 footage that flitters in flurries of brackish color-tinting – that the blame for Britain’s cultural decline lies at the feet of Thatcher’s cold-blooded governance. As if in full-throttled rebuke to the administration’s feigned reverence for British tradition, Jarman marshals together a panoply of referential ambassadors of the Western Canon to aid him in his assault (the title, for starters, is taken from an 1855 painting by Ford Madox Brown, which depicts the emigration by sea of an English couple bound for Australia).

But no Jarman film digs its talons quite into Britain’s perilous zeitgeist quite like EDWARD II (’91), a brooding chamber piece adapted from the Christopher Marlowe play, which transplants the action to an England of grayscale abstractions. In Jarman’s imagining of the material, the love of King Edward (Steven Waddington) for his friend Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) is a source of supreme consternation for the Tories, the clergy, and the nation’s military brass, all of whom strive to depose their libidinous ruler and, in the process, return England to a land of straight and straight-laced suppression. Hence Tilda Swinton, as Queen Isabella, comes to channel Margaret Thatcher, and makes acrid and ironical use of many of the play’s most piquant lines (“Is it not queer that he is this bewitched?”). There is no mistaking Jarman’s purpose in intercutting Isabella’s public address as to England’s nationalist restoration (“That England’s queen in peace may repossess / Her dignities and honours”) with the brutal quashing of a fervent gay rights protest by armed guards.

And of course, there is BLUE (’93), the filmmaker’s pained swansong. Here, Jarman’s mental and material vulnerability in his final days, before his death by AIDS-related complications, is rendered as calm but unguarded oratory – in tandem with a fastidious and evocative soundtrack – against a static blue background. Any trepidation that such a work is too difficult – a piece of stunt cinema, frivolously avant-garde – withers upon experiencing the palpable intimacy of Jarman’s poetical soundscapes, and upon absorbing how plangently they are mediated by a single slate of opaque monochrome. It is, like every Jarman film I was privileged to experience in preparation for this piece, a remarkable work, among the upper echelons of personal cinema.

Misery and Mysticism in Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER

Originally published on FilmStruck

For the tenderfoot cinephile, FANNY AND ALEXANDER (’82) might stand as an indomitable work whose colossal runtime casts an intimidating shadow – 188 minutes in its original theatrical release, 312 minutes as a multi-part TV miniseries (both generously available on FilmStruck with an amplitude of special features). Upon sitting down and watching the film, these perceptions change within minutes, eradicated entirely upon the beguiling tow of the grim reaper’s scythe, witnessed by the young Alexander in prefatory daydream. Where Ingmar Bergman’s earlier miniseries SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (’73) is as a thicket of barbed wire, a gauntlet to be suffered and survived, FANNY AND ALEXANDER is a filigreed invitation to a jubilant family feast where dark forces gather in-between courses. Brushing up against the merriment are crisscrosses of interfamilial dispute, the palpable threat of impending misfortune, the commingling of phantoms – and yet the atrium that Bergman has erected to receive the vagrant viewer into this world of haunts and wonders could not glow with greater warmth.

It is 1907 in Uppsala, Sweden, and the prosperous Ekdahl family has assembled for the annual series of Christmas commitments, strictly regimented but nonetheless joyous, liberating. Oscar Ekdahl and his wife Emilie (Allan Edwall and Ewa Fröling, respectively) have staged a nativity pageant at the reasonably successful family theater, a bulwark of creative communion where the imaginations of their children Fanny and Alexander have been nourished practically from birth. Scuttle on from there to the Christmas dinner, the film’s festive frontispiece, where we come to know Oskar’s two brothers – the despairing Carl, the philandering Gustav Adolf – as well as their mother Helena. Helena, magisterially incarnated by grand dame of the Swedish stage Gunn Wållgren, is the matriarchal wellspring of the family’s good fortune, a one-time successful actress who has played countless roles both in life and in art (it is no wonder that Ingrid Bergman was originally slated for the role). She has now settled into a grandmotherly equanimity, where comfort and tenacity are equally ensconced. In orbit around her essential goodness, the family and servants happily carouse. Meanwhile, the richest ornamentation abounds — chandeliers glitter, the upholstery blazes a convivial red, candles and clock faces are everywhere adorned. It is a singular fantasia that Bergman conjures here.

Naturally, this decorative world soon plunges into crisis. Bergman alchemizes the archetypal family saga of 19th century literature – fraught with social stations lost and regained, the hovering reality of Europe’s ethnic and religious caste system, and a Shakespearean regard for death and destiny writ large in ancestral blood – with his unflinching eye for psychological anguish and interstitial misery. Yes, the beloved Oskar may perish under the burden of the role of Hamlet’s ghost, to be almost immediately replaced by his punishing Lutheran antithesis, Bishop Edvard Vergérus (played to stone-hearted perfection by Jan Malmsjö) – but who is Bergman to shy away from such durable narrative contrivances? He breathes new life into them, in concert with his formidable cast, dilating familiar scenes of high literary resonance into vaporous mysteries of performance embellished by cinematic subtlety. Every time the camera zooms, a soul is excavated, a demon exorcized, an opaque surface splinters into shards.

It is the tendency of Bergman aficionados to credit FANNY AND ALEXANDER’s greatness to its autobiographical overtones. It paints a pretty picture – Bergman reinventing his past from the perspective of the young Alexander, whose pull towards fantasy and make-believe sets him at odds with the ascetic bishop, who believes the mind should be evacuated of all but the most antiseptic religious virtues. But Bergman’s own comments throw something of a wrench into this interpretation: “It has been suggested…that FANNY AND ALEXANDER portrays my childhood, and that 12-year-old Alexander is my alter-ego. But this is not quite true. FANNY AND ALEXANDER is a story, the chronicle of a middle-class, perhaps upper-middle-class family sticking closely together…There’s a lot of me in the Bishop, rather than in Alexander. He is haunted by his own devils.” This multiplicity of self-representation is part and parcel of Bergman’s mastery, his ability (or compulsion?) to wage war against himself. Alexander’s great throw-down with his stringent stepfather provides the film’s most concentrated locus of dramatic conflict as the inheritor of the Ekdahl theatrical imagination locks eyes with the walking repudiation of artifice, the anemic embodiment of flagellating guilt. Bergman himself mans both sides of the chessboard.

FANNY AND ALEXANDER, finally, is one of the great late-career works, an absorption of countless influences into what the director himself rightly deemed a “huge tapestry filled with masses of color and people, houses and forests, mysterious haunts of caves and grottoes, secrets and night skies.” When Fanny and Alexander are finally rescued by the Jewish antique dealer Isak Jacobi – Helena’s constant but covert lover – they enter a world of occult mysticism, where all questions of thematic exegesis instantly incinerate. This is cinema pitched at the most rarefied hypnotic frequency, and Bergman is to be forever commended for holding the note.