Saturday, January 31, 2009
Howard Duff plays a homme fatale in Shakedown, a sordidly gritty “B” film noir about an unconscionable newspaper photographer who climbs his way to the top of his profession through shooting the most eventful happenings in San Francisco—with his camera. Creepily insouciant with a glassy, pitiless pair of eyes, Duff, as directed by Joseph Pevney, makes his Jack Early a cipher. This ethical black hole of a man is the film's repellent central character, and Shakedown's narrative incrementalism—Early becomes more pronouncedly brackish and more irrevocably insatiable and insufferable as a person as the film continues—makes the picture more engrossing. Following Duff's Early in his pursuits of photographing major, newsworthy moments in the city, the film takes a methodically masticating viewpoint, developing a sort of partially indifferent stance with regards to Early's actions. This intriguing approach makes the film more meta than it may initially appear to be. Pevney sagaciously mimics his protagonist's all-seeing amorality—the film follows him wherever he goes, just as he follows budding stories and dramatic episodes that seem to be cajoled into existence by the very existence of the urban jungle from which they sprout. This, naturally, befits the environment of film noir, and makes what could have been a merely melodramatic jeremiad into something more nutritious and rewarding.
Working from a story by Nat Dallinger, Martin Goldsmith's screenplay periodically stumbles from bouts of excessive literalism and prosaic formula. Yet there are some solid little touches that buttress the greater vein the narrative delineates. Early's homme fatale status is hinted at early when one pretty woman after another cannot avert their enamored gaze as he confidently marches into what he hopes will be the arena in which he will succeed at all costs, the city newspaper. When Early—quite literally—moves in on the cajoling girlfriend of his employer and intrepid newspaperwoman Ellen Bennett (Peggy Dow), the picture of the employer and timid beau of Ellen's, David Glover (Bruce Bennett) is pushed off of a desk, and falls down, to the ground and off camera range.
As the film gracefully concatenates Early in all of his lurid photography, from snapping sensationalist (and manipulated) shots of drowning men and defenestrating women, the atmospherically pitch-black cynosure of Shakedown becomes more perilously foreboding. Gangsters are introduced, such as Nick Palmer (Brian Donlevy) and Harry Colton (Lawrence Tierney). Ann Vernon plays Palmer's French wife, Nita—who quickly attracts the attention of Early. One of the more ambivalently delectable components of Shakedown is the efficacy with which the picture compels the audience to sympathize with the gangsters routinely exploited, coaxed and finessed by Early. The conflicted emotions provide greater detachment from the characters, a sanctuary from which the viewer can remain neutrally engaged for the entirety of the picture while remaining appalled by Early's outrageous antics.
Duff's performance zeros in on his character's gifts—an effortlessly natural charisma and prepossession that seem like necessities for any solid homme fatale—which manage to disguise his more ravenously ugly personality. Like any plausible seducer, Duff's Early is in no small way a feat of muted chicanery and profound deviousness. Securely ensconced within the more saporous property of his persona that ably lures sexual and professional foe alike, these gradually blossoming fragments of more perspicuous wrongdoing are given greater aromatic potency. Scenes in which Early, confronted by the prospect of making money, nonchalantly agrees to one crooked deal after another, pile up like so many sins to never quite be confessed.
Many films have portrayed the conflicts, turmoils and philosophical underpinnings of the art-form of both cinematic and still photography. From the Buster Keaton-starring Edward Sedgwick-Keaton film, The Cameraman to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up and many other examples, the act of photographing people in one context or another has left an indelible impression on those who partake in these films' cogent inquiries. Perhaps informed by the Platonic visage of concepts represented by the varied objects that populate the lives of people, the photographs made pivotal in the narratives of these pictures may likewise be avatars of effulgence, mayhem or clandestinely captured and unearthed secrecy. These visual representations are endowed by a finely tuned animistic perspective. Pictures, predominantly suspended in idyllic timelessness, are, a fortiori, typically portals into convivial illustrations. It is when this symmetrical concinnity is breached by invasive, world-altering misfortune that the preternaturally established environment finds itself poisoned. As master-manipulator Early massages one tragedy after another to personally gain from it, Shakedown comments on the dual egoisms of the character himself, circuitously, and the art form he exploits.
Photography finally distilled persuasively records Plato's eidos, while remaining neutral in Aristotle's divergent consideration, and rejection, of independently existing forms. Brought to the modernity in which Early's calculatedly emotive photography thrives, Heidegger's teacher, Husserl, finds relevancy in his “eidetic” application of Platonic phenomenology—but, a photograph may in actuality be the most finely sublimated literal snapshot, humorously, of Plato's eikasia, his comprehension and signification of the elusive human imagination, which is invariably focused on temporal imagery and appearance. Powell and Antonioni (and later Francis Coppola, who would adapt Antonioni's sight for sound in The Conversation) exquisitely detailed this. In Shakedown, however, the noirish storyline finds Early feasting on the sociological ailments that plague the urban jungle with his lethal weapon (the poster for the film notes that his camera was more deadly than the gangsters' guns). This media orchestration befits postwar American cynicism in pervasive institutions and even broad societal relationships, such as between the fourth estate and the populace. This bitterness would find scalding expression in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole from the next year. Shakedown places the role of media-sensitive conductor of bewildering machinations in a more achingly personal light, which leaves a different, but no less intriguing mark. Kirk Douglas' reporter in Ace in the Hole was ultimately a self-aggrandizing huckster. As wonderful as Douglas was in that film, his character was not psychologically crippled, and he, though reluctantly, could see the harm he had selfishly administered. Duff's Early is a man with emotional parts simply missing. That barrenness makes this film noxiously arresting; the passive act of watching functions as a recoiling sense of despair. Though Shakedown cannot match the aforementioned films in either ambition or execution, it is a searing documentation of irresponsible turpitude.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009
Slightly Scarlet is a fascinating, grippingly trimmed, splashily Technicolor film noir starring John Payne, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl. The film is a consanguineous addition to the broader canon of American film noir but has the lurid intemperance of a 1950s “kitchen sink” melodrama, and has become quite beloved in France in recent years. Payne plays the humorously named Ben Grace, a slithery, unscrupulous mercurial manipulator of the smoke-filled rooms he traverses, which host the likes of thuggish syndicate master Solly Caspar (Ted de Corsia).Fleming and Dahl play redheaded sisters—Fleming as June Lyons, the secretary/girlfriend of fictitious Bay City mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Ken Taylor), a reform-minded agitator and Dahl as the kleptomaniac and nymphomaniac “bad girl” sister, Dorothy Lyons (often shortened to “Dor”). Directed by Allan Dwan, the film finds its rhythmic surreality by famed cinematographer John Alton, whose work in color enlivens Slightly Scarlet to dimensions that truly, lastingly, distinguish the picture. Alton makes Slightly Scarlet look like a live-action, unspooling 1950s movie poster, with its garish reds, brilliant whites and deliciously, darkly and inky clothes, guns and eyes all converging to create a sumptuous visual experience.
Alton's use of key-lighting is reined in, but he sloshes the frame with opulent oranges, picturesque pinks and gorgeous greens, often sharply contrasting the characters with colors that accentuate whichever complexion and iridescent glow they bring before the camera. Taking an intrinsically black background, befitting noir, Alton shoots in Technicolor with bombastic fervency, creating a palette that is sparkling and alarming in equal measure. The cinematography is an irreplaceable property belonging to Slightly Scarlet—the oneiric chiaroscuro of black-and-white suitably replaced by mid-'50s, bountifully colorful bespattering that is fiery in its luridness.
The performances are all seismically wrought, with Payne playing a character who is never exactly what the audience suspects he is—while occasionally appearing to be far worse. Grace's gangsterism finds itself at the film's epicenter, as he is battered and slapped around by his “boss,” Caspar, only to eventually try to take the mob over himself. Fleming plays her part with a firmness that befits her “straight” character. Her nearly maternal handling of Dahl's “Dor” is at times quite touching without being sentimentalized. Dahl, however, is given the scene- and film-stealing role, and she plays it to the juicy hilt. In the picture's denouement, Dor is depicted as a woman descending into utter madness—perhaps she had been there all along and had been barely able to obscure it from others beforehand—and Dahl makes it believable. Never falling over the precipice of sheer camp, Dahl makes her character firstly a “strong woman,” accursed by a weak mind. Ted de Corsia is brutal and burly as the film's most poisonous malefactor, tossing a dead man out of a building and instructing his underlings, “C'mon, let's see if we can beat him down.”
Dwan and Alton collude to create memorable and sometimes mesmerizing visual spectacles. As Payne's Grace discusses Dor with June, Dahl's Dor is captured by the camera through an open door, laying in the backyard, listening to their conversation. The visualization speaks to the essentially triangular relationship that emerges, with Dor affixing herself between Grace and June whenever she can. As Grace and June continue their dialogue, Dor finally stands upright, and slowly walks through the door, which, it is finally revealed, has been open all along. She introduces herself to Grace by calling herself “Dor”—an “open door,” which carries with it both the sexual innuendo and verbal stroke delineating the space through which she has just listened and finally traveled.Much later, as June and Grace talk, Dor is seen between them once again, descending down stairs, which feature phallic-shaped structures.
The visual components underly the film's deterministic psychopathology, which, rather beautifully, seems to seek to make reason out of varied forms of insanity. This paradoxic dramatic undertaking separates itself in some ways from James M. Cain's novel, Love's Lovely Counterfeiter, from which the film is only nominally based. More daring and breathlessly embroidered than Cain's book, Slightly Scarlet, adapted by screenwriter Robert Blees, is powerfully pulpy. The characters are all motivated by some form of self-interest, even the “good girl,” June, whose efforts to keep her little sister on a leash can be interpreted to be, to one degree or another, driven by her own relationship with the mayoral candidate. Likewise, Grace's romantic pursuing of both June and Dor portrays the desire of a man to have everything the symbiotic siblings have to offer, though when Dor shoots a harpoon near him, he is shaken by the younger woman's instability.
Slightly Scarlet is finally an intriguing melange of noir attributes with more romantic inclinations. The film finally places Grace in the position of the hero, being compelled to save the true love, June, from a fate engineered by his ruthless employer, Solly and the compliantly docile Dor. The climax also brings forth the matter of sacrifice, both literal and figurative, as Grace finally acts in a way that just may make his name rightly descriptive. Alton frames him as he makes his final decision against the blunt, dark background behind him.
Slightly Scarlet's depiction of big-city political corruption is in some ways the picture's “MacGuffin,” which is utilized to propel the bare necessities that drive the narrative early on, leaving the rest of the work of storytelling to be done through the engaging characters. American cinema in the 1950s was becoming increasingly paranoid about the powerful, and took repeated shots at institutions and figures of great clout. Some of this doubtless arose from the Hollywood backlash against McCarthyism, seeing governmental force as a more malevolent force than it had often been interpreted as earlier. Slightly Scarlet is an exemplary case belonging to this vein of 1950s cinema, but, befitting its cotton-candy rainbow bowl of mixed colors, it is a mixture of that, of domestic melodramas and of crime drama noir.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
(Deadline—USA was shown Friday night, January 23, at the San Francisco Castro Theatre as part of the film noir series, Noir City 7.)
“A free press is like a free life—it's always in danger.”
That pithy twelve-word, melodiously planate maxim is spoken by Humphrey Bogart's The Day newspaper editor Ed Hutcheson. Hutcheson is a weary and weathered man, played by the increasingly weary and weathered movie star, Bogart, to nearly utter perfection. Deadline—USA is not truly a film noir but rather a newspaper business expose, complete with an ostensibly prescient essaying of the tergiversation by a moneyed elite that desires not the civic responsibly role of the press, but rather to simply sell newspapers off, and kill them. Bogart's editor is a principled traditionalist who recoils at the ridiculous extravaganza of sensationalism that he sees steadily overtaking the role of the “news.” Despondent, and still pungently wounded by the divorce that shattered his marriage two years earlier, he has only the newspaper to live for, and now that is being taken away. New York City's The Day is being sold off by its owner, the offspring of its creator, a mercenary daughter, who, according to Hutcheson, loathed her father and, after his death, can only kick him in his grave by killing the thing for which he lived. Hutcheson sees how the rival newspaper is churning revenue—with equally prurient and puerile emphases.
As Hutcheson says at the newspaper's unofficial “wake” at an Irish pub to his largely sullen journalistic cohorts (busily drowning their pangs and fears with alcohol), “It's not enough any more to give 'em just the news. They want comics, contests, puzzles. They want to know how to bake a cake, win friends, and influence the future. Ergo, horoscopes, tips on the horses, interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lottery. And, if they accidentally stumble on the first page... news!” Bogart delivers the monologue with as much conviction as writer-director Richard Brooks could ask for, and he continues delivering many astringent, lacerating lines of acerbic and ill-tempered hostility and anger. Brooks continually reinforces Hutcheson's bitterness with reasonable idealism, which he fears he may be forced to abrogate. The dialogue is composed of numerous speeches, most of which are delivered by Bogart, but Brooks' gift for making the verbiage realistically compelling and convincing vivifies the proceedings.
Where Brooks typically falls short is in the visual realm of filmmaking and though Deadline—USA is surely always serviceable, one of the reasons it is not truly a noir is its more static, unimaginative optics. Fortunately, strong cinematography is provided by Milton Krasner (All About Eve and a few noirs such as The Set-Up, No Way Out and Vicki), casting Bogart and the supporting players in an ever slightly monochromatic ablution of lightness and darkness.
Primarily, however, the film's greatest strengths are its actors' fine turns. Ed Begley plays Hutcheson's most stalwart ally, Frank Allen, and though the character is more of a concept, he fits in as such. Brooks' screenplay deals with axiological matters, and utilizes the characters as bulwarks. The crime story that impels the narrative's forward motion, which takes place throughout a three-day span, is interesting but functions most sharply as a fulcrum against which the ensemble's numerous characters rotate. Those characters, from Hutcheson, to Allen, to Hutcheson's ex-wife Nora Hutcheson (Kim Hunter), to Martin Gambel's sinister Sicilian gangster whose existence supplies Hutcheson with a possible out from his predicament named Thomas Rienzi to an elderly immigrant lady named Mrs. Schmidt (Kasia Orzazewski) are, springing from Brooks' screenplay, Platonic representatives of variegated philosophical and conceptual panoramas.
Taken as more of a meat-and-potatoes drama, Brooks' film is a solid pressure-cooker single-picture repertory, Deadline—USA is at its most proturberant, a vehicle for Bogart, whose performance—not unlike almost all of his latter turns—is both challengingly different from his past efforts but also comfortingly akin to them. Bogart was especially adept at playing parts intended to be viewed as inspirational figures of one variation or another, as his onscreen persona was a constant contrast to the simpler, more linear trajectories his characters often traversed. Bogart was seemingly an inherently cynical figure, his dour, scuffing and caustically erosive exterior camouflaging the beneficence that lurked beneath his abrasiveness. As the oft-crusading editor, Bogart tremendously softens the role's potential hoariness; the eyes are so casual, so indifferent, that they mask the vociferous portrait of righteousness. It is quite a spectacle to watch Bogart make his case, pleadingly advancing on a character late in the film in what seems like a futile endeavor to save the newspaper. His demeanor suggests apathy while the words he spouts directly from Brooks denote zealous passion.
The issue of martyrdom is presented by Brooks. The gangster Bogart's Hutcheson is investigating tells him in the back of a car, "Show me a martyr and I'll show you a dead man." Brooks repeatedly allows "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (which in 1855 did not include a verse about John Brown or include the melody of "John Brown's Body," but was later changed to include him as the abolitionist "martyr"). Drawing from this perspective of martyrdom, influenced by the song and its reverential constitution, Brooks draws the comparison between Hutcheson and supposed martyrs like Brown, and suggests that through the press, "His truth keeps marching on!" (Changed again from the original, "His soul's marching on!") Brooks' handling of this is, and various symbolic gestures, are not subtle, but it lends some strong commentary on the film's plot and main character.
Viewing the fate of newspapers entire as an integral element of society and its healthful saliency, Brooks, born Ruben Sax, worked as a newspaperman in his early life for several newspapers. He worked primarily as a sports reporter. Drawing on some of his past experiences, and projecting the love he had for the profession, he crafts a solid screenplay that allows for substantial supporting turns to develop as greater components of the whole. Paul Stewart plays what would appear to be Brooks' onscreen alter-ego, fearless, quick-witted and sardonic sports reporter, who becomes pivotal in Hutcheson's investigation of the powerful, corrupting gangster.
Deadline—USA may not quality as a film noir in a fairly strict sense, and it is not without flaws, but it is agreeable entertainment with sterling performances. Bogart is the film's beating heart, and the role loses nothing from having him essentially reprising his own established archetype while modifying it once again. Brooks' screenplay is peppered with suspense, and made whole by the performers. One of the best attributes of the film is the authenticity that acts as a foundational support for the entire drama. The long, powerful scene in the pub early in the film demonstrably showcases the ensemble as a whole, and convinces the viewer that these characters have worked with one another for many a year. Finally, it is this small, intimate community of journalists that makes the viewer care. Brooks created a perfectly feasible small world of Platonic constructs, enriching abstractions and artfully making them into actively animated humans. Deadline—USA is a film that wins the viewer over with its sincerity, and its shining adoration of its struggling personages.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Seemingly no matter which route the viewer takes to find the new film Revolutionary Road, the result is not terribly different: disillusion, disappointment, discomfort. Screenwriter Justin Haythe and director Sam Mendes have built a turgid trip into solipsism while somehow losing almost all of the contextual properties belonging to Richard Yates' novel, which has won regnant acclaim since its publication in 1961. The film bizarrely takes the book's author literally when it should not, and discards his intentions when it should follow them; trusts him completely in his bromidic public statements denouncing the conformity of the 1950s, while strenuously avoiding the engrossingly astute psychology that made the melodramatic pyrotechnics of the decaying, gangrenous marriage whose story it tells somehow more honest than hackneyed. As an adaptation, the film is grievously flawed. Predictably, where the film is at its most convincing, it has simply taken whole pages' worth of acrimonious dialogue practically straight from the novel and made its two stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, play scenes from the novel. Where it fails is in supplying the cognitive supporting buttresses that illuminate the innermost inspirations of Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet).
Friday, January 16, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Henry Hathaway is a fascinating, intrinsically arresting directors with a keen visual aptitude. His use of frames, arches and other compositionally delineative objects create cleanly-photographed portraits of his characters. These framed portraits usually connote a kind of personal or even metaphysical entrapment, excellently communicated with richly detailed sequences of foreground-background struggles. Those foreground-background struggles usually tell two different character stories in one shot, and Niagara displays this stylistic technique. Hathaway's affinity for water and water-based settings such as this film and 23 Paces to Baker Street, is interesting to consider as well. He often shoots the background water through a frame, a window or some kind of portal—frequently in close approximation to the characters, drawing the connection between character and setting that helps to distinguish his admittedly workmanlike approach to certain parts of filmmaking, such as pacing.
Niagara is a beautiful, Technicolor film from 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters. Melodramatic, as well as splashy both in its brightly colorful visualizations and in its lurid storyline, the film may in some ways belong as much to the 1950s melodrama as to film noir. However, the opening, with Cotten's acidic, pained and mocking narration is certainly at one with noir: “Why should the Falls drag me down here at five o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help? All right, so they've proved it. But why not? They've had ten thousand years to get independent. What's so wonderful about that? I suppose I could, too, only it might take a little more time.” Cotten's character is the married dupe familiar to film noir—George Loomis, married to Rose Loomis (Monroe)—and his bitterness is to be completely explained to the viewer through the narrative's unfolding.
The picture is paced slightly leisurely, though it never begins to stall. At ninety-two minutes, it is given periodical punctuations of action that make it altogether brisk, and Monroe's almost outre and, in this context, purposefully furbelow sensuality make the film's more underdeveloped portions quite sustainable. Cotten's performance as the man driven to madness and murder by the scheming, adulterous wife is eerily believable, despite some of the melodramatics the screenplays coerces him to indulge in. Whereas certain actors would likely have chewed scenery in the part, Cotten understates his predicament as best he can. Peters plays Polly Curtler—Anne Baxter was the studio's first choice for the part; after she withdrew the entire film was dramatically reworked to emphasize Monroe and her part— who is the loving wife to Ray Curtler (an annoyingly ineffective Max Showalter, made all the worse by a deliberately irritating and under-written character). Peters begins piecing together the pieces of the Loomis puzzle, and is continually rebuffed by her own husband, who insensitively insists that she must simply be seeing things for no good reason. Besides being carried to unrealistic levels by the screenplay, Ray's behavior is repetitive and paradoxically weirder than anyone else's neurosis in its own way, and far less interesting than anyone else's.
The screenplay does indeed suffer at least somewhat from what the old saw describes as too many chefs spoiling the broth, giving the film some unsure beats in its midsection—and the Baxter factor had to have left a considerable impact on the final product. Here the broth is diluted, but adequate. Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen wrote the screenplay, which has a simpler plot than its structure would suggest. Hathaway takes the template of noirish thriller conventions and makes the screenplay's occasional banalities more engrossing by establishing relationships with wordless visual communication. And even scenes that were probably written in the screenplay, relying on silence, are brought to sharper, more penetrative meaningfulness by Hathaway's suasively solid craftsmanship. The first scene between Monroe's Rose and Cotten's George tells the tale of their relationship without needless words: he is knocking on the door and she is resting abed, smoking a cigarette; knowing that her husband has returned, she snuffs the cigarette out and pretends to be sleeping. It is the whitest layer of duplicity that the film will explore.
Where Niagara earns its place in the broader filmic fiefdom of noir is in its psychology, and in its internecine conflicts between Cotten's dupe and Monroe's seductress, and between Peters' intrigued wife and Cotten's seemingly malevolent intentions toward her. Irony is employed, free from cynicism. A sequence in a bell tower is heartbreakingly beautiful, evocatively photographed by Joseph MacDonald (who photographed John Ford's My Darling Clementine, Hathaway's Call Northside 777, and some of Elia Kazan's directorial work). Chemistry is unnecessary between Cotten and Monroe, since their parts call for, if anything, the opposite—and their screentime together is surprisingly sparse—but the effects her Rose's marital malpractice has on his George is profoundly brought to life by Cotten in one of the actor's more offbeat performances. Peters, meanwhile, makes her part register with a performance that balances all of the character's narrative-driven necessities, including her intelligence and naivete, her gentleness and high-spiritedness. Hathaway allows for the screenplay's lack of central focus—is it George's point-of-view from which the film forms itself? Rose's? Polly's?—to become a positive attribute, as it squeezes logically unreasonable tension out of George's whereabouts, motives and location in large swathes of the film, especially when relating from Polly's observant spectator.
Niagara follows the noirish pattern of sending its protagonist into an entrapping web of betrayal and murder, spurred by lust and greed, giving the protagonist an opportunity to right the course, only to see his choices continually backfire and drag him down into the quicksand of anguish all the more forcefully. In the third act, Cotten's George scrambles to escape the trap he has, in a hideously ironic manner, fallen into. It is here that the film tightens its grip, losing in atmosphere while gaining in high drama. It may be said that it is in that harrowing but sumptuous bell tower sequence—understandably considered to have been a possible inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock in making Vertigo—where the oneiric qualities of Niagara unmask themselves to describe not a limpidly pellucid dream but a terrifying nightmare. And in a definitive way, Niagara postulates that the viewer reconsider noir, at least ever so briefly. For in Niagara, perhaps the most literal definition of the struggle that lives and breathes in the very heart of film noir may be conceived: a man on a small boat that has run out of fuel, being drawn inexorably to the mighty Niagara falls he so contemptuously recognized as so much greater than himself, drifting to his doom.
Monday, January 12, 2009
In my review of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, I elected to not cover certain issues that were primarily germane to the film's climax.
Seeing as the film is now in wide release, I have decided to share some thoughts I have had on Gran Torino since seeing it but have stayed quiet about for fear of "spoiling" the film.
So, a full spoiler warning is in effect:
- One of the subtler points about the film is Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, using his cigarette lighter, which has the symbol of the First Cavalry Division (the yellow shield with the black diagonal stripe and black horse's head). This establishes three things: firstly, Kowalski takes care of his lighter; he has had the lighter since 1951, when he bought it in Korea, so it symbolizes simple American manufacturing durability which is today lost; and finally, if one is allowed to make such an assumption, Kowalski--who is coughing up blood from his lungs--is a victim of the Korean War. Since soldiers were given cigarettes to smoke, and encouraged to smoke, many became addicted to nicotine. In a certain way, then, Kowalski is one of the more slowly-realized casualties of a war. (Again, this final thought is assumption, but not unreasonable speculation.)
- The Christ imagery, and particularly of the final scene with Kowalski alive, may at first glance appear to be "too much," but there is something to be said for what Eastwood's characters have long represented. Kowalski is ultimately giving up his life for his friends. What makes the imagery work for me is the way Eastwood's hand opens up so the camera can take a good, long look at the aforementioned lighter. The shot looking down on his corpse takes in the stream of blood that is trickling down his wrist--with the militarism represented by the lighter, this crucifix imagery is rendered, in a way, more universal.
- Just as I noted in my review, the film does linger like an older John Ford or Howard Hawks picture. It is essentially fairly complicated, but with a simple coating that makes it quite accessible and a little deceptive in its form.
- Likewise, the film should be--and doubtless is being--compared to The Shootist. John Wayne's final performance, in which he finally lays down his life, in part for the son figure of Ron Howard's, remains poignant today. Eastwood's borrowing of these motifs is worthy homage, and there is no other actor-director who could get away with it--but he can and should be able to. The film is in this way a billet-doux to the American heroes of varying stripes, like Bogart or Wayne, who often acted gruffly or insensitively but, finally, tried to do good.
- Kowalski's repeated comments of slaying a "gook," a "kid," who wished nothing more than to surrender in Korea recalls Eastwood's Iwo Jima films--and especially Letters from Iwo Jima, in which American soldiers are shown mercilessly snuffing out the lives of Japanese soldiers wishing to surrender and survive. Kowalski tells one of the Hmong gangbangers that he could shoot his head off, go back inside and sleep like a baby--obviously thinking of his past in Korea.
- Eastwood's depiction of sybarites again seems to indicate that Eastwood views this kind of person to be rather worthless.
- The phone call of Kowalski's to one of his man-child sons has lingered with other fairly "small" scenes. The look on his son's face after his father hangs up is rather perfect: the quizzical realization that his father would never call--so why did he now?--hits home.
- Gran Torino is an interesting film, and a fine vehicle--pun intended--to be Eastwood's acting swansong. The one thing that hit me just as Kowalski was being shot at the end was that he was entrusting the Hmong community to rat out "their own," despite it being established repeatedly that "the Hmong keep their mouths shut." Similarly, the police and judicial system is suddenly entrusted to save the day, and keep the Hmong gangbangers locked up, as one cop says. This is most ironic coming from Dirty Harry Eastwood--trusting above all else the Hmongs he had seen as alien, and "the system" he had, in earlier incarnations, seen as bankrupt. A strange, fascinating send-off.