Saturday, January 31, 2009

Shakedown (1950)

(Shakedown was screened Wednesday evening at the San Francisco Castro Theatre along with While the City Sleeps as part of the film noir festival, Noir City 7.)

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

Night Editor (1946)

(Night Editor was screened along with Alias Nick Beal on Monday evening at the San Francisco Castro Theatre as part of the film noir festival, Noir City 7.)

Night Editor is a stalwart “B” film noir that paddles through an appealingly tawdry narrative with characters who are not among the more virtuous committed to celluloid. Based on the radio program of the same name, the film is shackled to a cumbersomely clunky and illogical framing device—a group of newspapermen conversing about old stories to one another late at night (the device utilized for the radio show)—but this matters little. The actual plot is not outstanding, either, but it does provide the habitat in which its bracing characters move about. William Gargan plays Tony Cochrane, a man who grew up poor and became a cop, becoming a homicide lieutenant. His unfaithfulness to his loving wife and child, and compulsive attraction to a wicked sadomasochistic socialite named Jill Merrill, played to hyperbolic delirium by the shapely blonde beauty Janis Carter, seals his fate as the archetypal dupe. Night Editor's dyspeptic narrative is lively and allows these two characters carte blanche to display all of their unsightly traits. Night Editor is a mammoth-sized, slightly viscid cheeseburger that is only scarcely grilled and all the better for it.

Directed by Henry Levin and adapted from Hal Burdick's radio program and Scott Littleton's story, “Inside Story,” by Hal Smith, the film's most pronounced presence is doubtless Carter's Jill. Carter is Night Editor's fire-breathing, coldblooded embodiment of the exteriorly hot but interiorly icy femme fatale. Carter's interpretation of her character, adorned with an eerily itchy, equally playful and disconcerting leering smirk, is what lingers well after the picture has ended. Wracked by neurosis, Jill is sexually excited by violence, and, when she and her illicit lover enjoy one another's company in a parked car, they witness a ferocious murder-by-tire iron. Tony wants to act, and nearly does—but finally heeds Jill's shrill commentary on the situation, which is that scandal will erupt if he intervenes in catching or killing the murderer. Shamed by his inaction, Tony returns to the car, where the aroused Jill maniacally squirms and writhes in her seat, demanding that he show her the battered body.

This set-piece is the springboard for the rest of the tale, and what abides in the viewer's mind days after watching the film is the pulchritudinous but pernicious Jill. Carter's performance is gloriously histrionic but never deleteriously so. She outshines the rest of the cast, most of whom are men. Like many a femme fatale—crafted at a time supposedly more sociologically askew in its male-dominant perspective—the femme figure is, while definitively peccant, also far more charismatically bedecked than all of her male counterparts combined. Carter's performance—underneath all of the immoral maneuvering and aberrant amorousness—is simply nectarous. Her allure is overwhelming, but she is so mentally imbalanced and perverse that Tony knows she is completely wrong for him. Tony's somewhat humorously mousy wife, Martha (Jeff Donnell), serves as the contrast to Jill—upstanding and good, but bland, and lacking the spicy sizzle that the incorrigible Jill brings with her.

Femme fatales in Hollywood film noirs are formed from varied shades, but they do share commonalities. Their origin is particularly historically and culturally rich. As ancient as the Hebrew mythological figure Lilith, from Sumerian wind and storm demons like Lilitu at approximately 4,000 BC, a Judaic night demon and a screech owl in the King James Bible. Eve herself is depicted as an easily tempted creature of sensuality whose misleading of Adam doomed man. Other figures from the Judaic and Christian history include Delilah and Salome, the latter of whom used her physical endowments and wiles to ensure John the Baptist's beheading. Greek mythological goddesses, historical figures and specters like Aphrodite, the Sphinx, the Siren, Helen of Troy and Agamemnon's murderous wife, Clytemnestra set the Hellenistic foundation for modern depictions of unsavory females. Just as noir's femme fatales are noted for their exotic magnetism, Cleopatra's manipulations of Roman men established her as a permanent fixture of Roman antipathy.

Night Editor is arguably a minor noir, but the depiction of the femme fatale makes the film deserving of greater recognition. Other aspects of the film are chronically conventional to the genre, including Burnett Guffey and Philip Tannura's cinematography, but Hal Smith's scorching screenplay, pied with livid, exceptional pieces and dialogue, and Carter's gusting performance recommend it, and in a way pay great homage to the fatales of history and literature. Indeed, Jill is not unlike John Keats's Matilda, whose tempting of the once-incorruptible hero (Keats's The Monk) through the luridly “transgressive” (pace the literary term) and duplicitous means at her disposal entrap him. Night Editor is not nearly a film wholly worth comparisons to such past representations of such dramatic tales, but Jill's irrepressible constitution stands apart from anything that could be termed generic.

The film hits its stride just when it should—its conclusive passage—as the femme fatale once again disarms and enchants her male victim through her beguiling beauty, only to violate his being in the most personal of ways. The sequence is scary, sad, funny and powerful all at once, a flamboyant feat perhaps only a “B” film could achieve. Gargan and director Levin must have known that he (along with his character) was no match for Carter's Jill, and the actor underplays everything, including this most noteworthy moment of the film. Gargan does not cover much range, yet when the screenplay demands that he be shocked and horrified by events encircling him, he does so well. The apathetic, practically suicidal foreknowledge he has—he is insane, stupid or simply so pathetically overcome by Jill and her sex, to even barely trust her—enriches his actions, making him both more and less pathetic all at once. Levin's mise-en-scene is mostly unremarkable, but he paces the action sufficiently well, and occasionally stages his actors in ways that heighten the tension. The film belongs completely to its leading lady, however, whose feigned, wide-eyed innocence seems to ensnare every male viewer with a pulse, despite their being endowed by the verisimilitude-separating knowledge that they are watching a film, and Carter is playing a character of sheer villainy. Jill is perverse in a way that is rare even among the rottenest femme fatales. That feminine nastiness has rarely been so much fun; when Gargan's Tony refuses to basely satisfy Jill's needs, it would not be difficult to find many a fellow watching the film who would gladly volunteer.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

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.

Dispatches from Noir City 7

Friday night at the San Francisco Castro Theatre was a great deal of fun, as it opened up the ten-day schedule of festivities. After entering the building, I conversed with the "czar of noir," Eddie Muller, and pointed out that he commented on my August 24, 2008 review of The Big Heat when it was posted at (The review can also be found here, for those who wish to brave eye strain.)
Dark City Dame, I promise I'll tell "EM" you said hello sometime tonight or in the very near future; I'll be sure to run into him some more over the course of the next seven evenings.

Moments later, my dad and I found terrific seats--the center of the front row of the balcony--though those balcony seats are not as comfortable as the downstairs seats. The seats in the balcony seem to have remained the same seats for a long time. Eddie Muller came out on-stage and introduced the evening's two films, Deadline--USA and Scandal Sheet, both "newspaper noirs" from 1952. (Though the former is not, strictly speaking, a noir. It is fun, however.) Broderick Crawford is excellent in the latter film, as an amoral managing editor of a newspaper-turned-scandal sheet. The film is based on Samuel Fuller's novel, The Dark Page, and is very well-directed by Phil Karlson, whose visual keenness is quite exciting. (I recently reviewed his 1959 The Scarface Mob, which kicked off television's crime series, The Untouchables.) One I may review in the near future.

Saturday was a marathon day, as the matinee double feature was comprised of Blind Spot (1947), a fairly "light" mystery about a drunken writer (Chester Morris), mulling a plot for a mystery novel, the details of which seem crucial in a real murder investigation--of which he's the prime suspect. The Castro program notes, "Martin (Detour) Goldsmith’s script is particularly amusing for its backhanded take on crime writing." After that, the Alan Ladd-starring 1949 newspaper noir, Chicago Deadline, was up. I'm strongly considering reviewing this whenever I have an opportunity--underneath the surface of the plot, Chicago Deadline has many thematic similarities to Laura (1944).

Saturday evening, after having dinner at Orphan Andy's restaurant, my father and I returned to the Castro. I met Arlene Dahl upstairs at the mezzanine. I was in line to sit down with her on a comfortable red couch and have a picture I printed out from the Internet autographed. Just as I handed her the picture, some crazy person lost control of their alcoholic drink and splattered poor Arlene Dahl and yours truly--and my picture--with liquor. Unfazed by the occurrence, Arlene Dahl happily signed the picture--which is the one at the top of this post.

Wicked as They Come (1956), starring Dahl as a social-climbing gold-digger, was screened. Sitting in what I consider the best row of the theatre, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ms. Dahl and five others--including her son, Loranzo Lamas, the offspring of her four-year marriage with actor and two-time costar, Fernando Lamas--sitting to my left, taking up the far-left three seats of my row and the one ahead of it. As the Castro program notes, "Arlene Dahl is a sizzling sensation as Kathleen Allen, a woman who learns early that sex is how she’ll get ahead in the world. Her high heels leave puncture wounds in a trail of saps stretching from America to England. British writer-director Ken Hughes adapts Bill Ballinger’s novel Portrait in Smoke, and the result lives up to its re-titling."

After this film was screened, a tribute reel of some of Ms. Dahl's career highlights, and moments of great passion--often violently kissing men or violently throwing objects at them--and Ms. Dahl took the stage with Mr. Muller. The interview was quite good, and moved along at a brisk pace. Ms. Dahl opened up about how she reached Hollywood, and it sounds like something out of a movie. She had joined a theatre's musical production in New York City and on opening night found herself visited backstage by Jack Warner himself, who asked her to come out to Hollywood for a screen testing. Ms. Dahl said that she believed this was all an enormous practical joke, committed by friends she knew who enjoyed pulling off stunts (though this would have been an awfully elaborate practical joke, she rightly figured). After her screen test, which she believed to be "terrible," she was signed to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. She recounted her stories, such as replacing Ann Sheridan in My Wild Irish Rose opposite Dennis Morgan, whose compassion and helpfulness were, she believed, indispensable in aiding her before the camera. As she and Mr. Muller downed glasses of champagne, Ms. Dahl discussed seeing Gary Cooper, her relationship with John F. Kennedy and many other interesting stories. She said she had seen Slightly Scarlet screened in France, where it is revered, and Mr. Muller gave the French credit for "getting" film noir.

After the interview, there was another break and I was amused by the terribly long line at the concession stand for popcorn and candy; as a "passport" holder, I moved my way up to the mezzenine again, and found an assortment of goodies to munch on. My favorite was easily the red potato wedges with the sour cream-horseradish sauce for dipping.

Slightly Scarlet (also 1956) followed. To be reviewed soon here at Coleman's Corner.

Sunday it was a return to the matinee, with the obscure "swamp noir," as it was billed, Cry of the Hunted (1953), shown. Formed by a strange screenplay from Jack Leonard, and helmed by Joseph H. Lewis, director of Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, this film, not surprisingly, also features some strong sexual undercurrents. I may return to this film as well, if I ever have an opportunity! It's a wild, fascinating picture, with a memorable dream sequence by the protagonist, played by William Conrad.

After an intermission, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) was screened. Possibly Wilder's most viciously cynical film, starring Kirk Douglas as a manipulative reporter who uses a cave-in to put him back to the top of his profession. As the Castro program boldly states, "On its release, critics called this the most bitter, cynical, mean-spirited movie ever made. It still might hold the honor."

Thus far, it has been a fine festival of film noir. Stay tuned here for more developments, reviews and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Deadline--USA (1952)

(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

Coleman Under the Lights

As I said here, I am Dark City Dame's guest for the month of January. And I have now been interviewed by her.

Tonight is the Night

Tonight, it begins.

I will be there.

Kiss of Death (1947)

Henry Hathaway's 1947 film noir, Kiss of Death, is a durable melange of the director's semi-documentarian stylization, employed earlier in his previous crime drama, The House on 92nd Street (and to be used again in the following year's Call Northside 777), as well as his subtly dexterous command of mise-en-scene, the teaming of celebrated screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer and two wildly different but similarly persuasive performances by Victore Mature and Richard Widmark. Hathaway's visual prowess has sadly gone unappreciated in many circles, but what he presents—even in his sparest, most astuciously straightforward films—is an organically holistic helming that conveys the emotive undercurrents of his characters and narratives. This vein pulsates through Kiss of Death with greater certitude than the more documentary-like The House on 92nd Street, but it never distracts from Hecht and Lederer's adaptation of Eleazar Lipsky's story. Rather, Hathaway's confident framings and prismatic shots, well-composed by cinematographer Norbert Brodine, gently enhance the other components of the film.

Kiss of Death follows Nick Bianco (Mature), a physically imposing, sloe-eyed, potential gentle giant who, through being brined in a culture of desperate criminality, finds himself being a purloining hood. Bianco's most vivid childhood memory is of his father being fatally shot in the back by a policeman on a street twenty years earlier than the events of the film. This, narrator Nettie (Coleen Gray) informs the viewer, is mirrored by the opening set-piece of a heist attempt by Bianco and a few partners in crime. Nettie, who helped take care of Bianco's two little girls, as he wasted away in prison, is used by the screenplay to afford greater sympathy to Bianco. “Christmas Eve: a happy time for some people. The lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings... for the lucky ones. Others aren't so lucky.” Bianco is couched in the film's complete sympathy through Nettie's narration.

What makes this tendentious storytelling succeed, however, is Mature's underrated performance. He studiously maintains a likability that does not condescend to demanding the audience's unwavering fondness, but between his charismatic turn and the screenplay's deftness of action, that fondness does develop. Rarely has the archetypal role of the gradually reforming criminal and ex-convict been so persuasive in attracting the viewer's lasting interest. Mature makes his character more innately comprehensible than the rather blunt narration. That his Bianco finds himself entrapped, shot on a street by a policeman as he attempts to escape the heist, not only greatly establishes the picture as a noir, but naturally makes the character all the more amenable as the protagonist. After he has been arrested, he finds himself placed between the proverbial rock and hard place, as an ambitious crime-fighting Assistant District Attorney, Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy), asks him to “sing” about his partners. Though Bianco refuses early on, going to prison, he eventually turns. As he walks into the warden's office, Hathaway uses the arching windows behind him to describe the character's state of mind. As the conversation between prisoner and warden concludes, the latter says the prisoner could use “more exercise... We'll put him on the ball team,” he says to another prison official. He asks, “Do you play ball, Bianco?” “I'm going to,” Bianco replies, delivering the screenplay's double meaning.

Kiss of Death is known best for the feral supporting performance that consumes the very subterranean fabric of the film. As Tommy Udo, a sadistic arrested adolescent of an animalistic criminal, complete with a hyena laugh, Widmark burns the screen. The part is in actuality quite small, spanning no more than approximately fifteen or twenty minutes, but it is not difficult to understand that the actor's very first screen performance was so arresting as to achieve controversial acclaim and an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category. Hathaway believed Widmark was wrong for the part, seeing only the man's clean-cut and fair projection of self-possession. Producer Darryl Zanuck passionately disagreed, responding to Widmark's borderline boyish iniquity as Udo, a violent, uncontrollable force of nature with an equally beguiling and mystifying high-pitched voice and equipped with an arsenal of callow inflections and unnerving shifts in temperament. Zanuck aided Widmark with a hairpiece that lowered the forehead—intended to make him appear slower, but even more importantly, scarier. Widmark's turn is rightly legendary for a variety of reasons, but one is that he represents a clear, distinguishing break from the very cloth from which Mature's Bianco comes. Criminals had, from the gangster cycle of the very early 1930s, and even earlier, usually been endowed with a background that informed the characters' actions. Sometimes these back-stories were so disarming in their detailed myth-making and romanticization, audiences were nothing less than enraptured by the hoodlums' electricity, played as they were by charismatic actors who excelled in enthralling and tempting the audience all at once. (Even James Cagney in The Public Enemy, who was depicted as a ne'er-do-well from childhood onward, was, even at his most wretched, able to attract audience identification.) Widmark as Udo, by contrast, is a self-preserving kobold, a nearly unthinking sensorially-responsive demon with the countenance of a skull with piercing, glowing eyes.

Kiss of Death's screenplay, shaped by the illustrious Hecht and Lederer, is more ambitious than it may initially appear, as it builds Mature's Bianco up as a man steadily reformed by his love for his two daughters, and the budding romantic relationship between he and Gray's Nettie. Yet what may distinguish Hecht and Lederer's screenplay is what is not shown. Bianco's wife is a major focal point in the plot, but she is never seen. The verbal suggestion of her existence more than suffices. Bianco finally deciding to “squeal,” to “sing,” is what drives the picture's narrative, and yet there is not one shot of the interior of a courtroom. Perhaps Hecht and Lederer wanted to exclusively avoid making their film into anything resembling a courtroom drama, a sub-genre of sorts that many films of the era eventually became, at one point or another, in their narratives. In any event, the film is more greatly streamlined by the lack of these unnecessary scenes and adornments; what matters more than simple story beats, as in great noir, is the prominently displayed psychology of the characters.

What most superbly enlivens Kiss of Death is Hathaway's deft treatment of mise-en-scene. In the opening heist attempt, Hathaway uses the doors of an elevator—including in an excellently composed mirror shot—as a framing device that demonstrates just how entrapped Bianco is. The taut tension of the scene is made patently tangible by Hathaway's assured direction, as Bianco eyes the numerical symbols in the elevator, which glow one at a time in slow intervals. Mature projects the discomfited emotions with his steady, nervous gaze in this sequence. At the eighteen minute mark, Hathaway frames Widmark's Udo and Mature's Bianco, sitting in their jail cell together, Udo rambling about the reason he's locked up (“Big man like me getting picked up just for shoving a guy's ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.”), with the gray bars utilized as more framing devices. At the thirty-six minute mark Bianco is reunited with his two daughters, who emerge through the entrancingly framed door at a Catholic children's center. The scene is punctuated by the religious iconography that is found nearby as Bianco embraces his children. At the thirty-nine minute mark, Hathaway and cinematographer Brodine shoot Bianco's conversation with a lawyer with the background of crisscross-patterned shadows created by bars. A moment later, Widmark's Udo is captured through the frame of a door—he has just entered a place that used to be safe, now it is threatened by his very diabolical presence. Minutes later, as Bianco is conversing on a telephone with someone, Nettie looks down at him from above, which Hathaway and Brodine capture in an atypical Dutch angle. The shot describes their relationship, as Nettie looks down upon Bianco, who has so frequently found himself in the mire of illegality; he, meanwhile, looks above, towards her, seeing her as the true panacea and person greater than he. As Bianco finally leaves her to attempt to set something right, Hathaway gorgeously shoots him through the glass pane of the front door. At approximately the seventy-minute mark, as Bianco stews in the toxic juices of his own past life catching up with him, Nettie is caught through the frame of an opened door, ascending upwards, which is a visual contrast with the scene in which, the characters depressed, descended down the stairs together. The final exquisite framing device utilized by Hathaway is aptly reduced to a mere blade of light, a crack that separates two curtains in an Italian restaurant, through which one of Widmark's fiery eyes appears, malice beaming from its mesmerizing intensity.

Kiss of Death is a fine film noir and an exemplary case of a director telling a fairly simple story through the fantastic visualizations at his disposal. Hathaway's impressive visual schema serves as a fine complementary habitat for his actors, from whom he extracts highly engrossing performances. Kiss of Death, known as it is for Widmark's untamed performance, serves as a pointing to the future, both near—Cagney in White Heat—and far—so many psychopathic screen performances since the 1940s. A film with simmering angst and despair at its center, Kiss of Death leaves a lasting impression of downcast sensibility, and rightly pained emotions. What possibly most lingers, however, is the melancholic but affectionate depiction of a noir archetype, the man played by Mature, who, in this instance, must paradoxically attempt to capitalize on his past to try to escape it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

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).

The triumphs of the film are primarily the superbly convincing production design by Kristi Zea and the fulgurous cinematography by Roger Deakins. The domestic interiors are all blanched to the extreme, with white prevailing. Deakins' ethereally fumid compositions take particular advantage of diffuse lighting, both inside and outside (a shot of a procession of businessmen moving like a herd of cattle is wonderful), and lend Mendes' joke of a visual scheme and palette some credibility. Attempting to evoke the achromatic environs of an insane asylum, Mendes bathes his characters in the background of whiteness. This is surely intended to pictorially describe the “phoniness” and sterile plasticity that became so resented in the 1950s. Perhaps Mendes was also taking his cues from the novel's John Givings (Michael Shannon), a former resident of an asylum, regularly electro-shocked because he dares to be truthful. The character is an embarrassingly hoary construct, so transparent in the almost hilarious pretense—possibly only Mendes would have the gall to keep him in, so perhaps he should be thanked since Shannon's performance is so audaciously redoubtable he manages to breathe some life and amusement into the otherwise almost wholly bleak enterprise. (Shannon is so good, he should have been given an opportunity to play Frank.) Thomas Newman liberally borrows from his own score for Road to Perdition. Winslet, meanwhile, acquits herself well. (If she wins the Oscar this year, however, it should be hoped by all that it is for her exquisite performance in The Reader.) Of DiCaprio, however, perhaps some critics should behave like John Givings and simply state the truth: he is miscast in the part, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that he simply lacks the miraculous internalizing depth that only an actor of a particular unshakably nuanced ingenuousness could bring to a role as poorly adapted as Frank is here. Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or Albert Finney in Alpha Beta, or Erland Josephson in Scenes From a Marriage—all sensationally sensitive, simultaneously extroverted and introverted men who could afford the complex psychological penumbra to Frank that he needs due to Haythe and Mendes' blundering in missing Yates' more pertinent quality of characterization. Frank is, in a most warped way, perhaps, stuck in the Lacanian Symbolic order, and views his father as the main entrapping force of his life, which he hopes to replace with his own offspring, suffering from a strain of the Sophoclean Oedipus complex. One of the queasiest ironies is that DiCaprio would be far better cast if the film chronicled all the emotional manipulations, and hubristic ploys—put simply, if he were playing the character as fully explored as Yates' Frank Wheeler, DiCaprio would probably succeed wildly in the part. As he is constructed by Haythe's screenplay and Mendes' direction, however, he nearly comes across as simply a self-pitying leaf being blown in the wind—a coward, who should stick to his principles rather than a charlatan and nebulously thuggish possessor viewing his offspring as advantageous fulcrums, beings who conveniently present him with the fait accompli he most desires.

Woody Allen's use of Brechtian narration in his newest film indicated the kind of lack of confidence of an excessively self-questioning painter, who goes ahead and mars his creation by not knowing when enough is enough. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used voice-over narration as a crutch, informing the audience what the protagonist was supposed to be feeling at any given time. If there is a film from 2008 that could have benefited enormously from good voice-over narration, it would have to be Revolutionary Road. Yates' novel is so internalized, it may be as some suggest, “unfilmable.” Though that has been said about other books, which proved to be most successfully “filmable.” While Yates allowed for the absurdity of his contrivances to remain for what they often were—humorous—Haythe and Mendes have almost no patience nor inclination for anything but lugubriousness, perhaps because in the latter's case he had already tried to blend comedy and melodrama. Here Mendes attempts to create an oozy, glacial ambiance out of the Wheelers' colorless milieu, but the affectation only makes an unpleasant story more perpetually unpleasant.

Yates used symbolism to suggest truth of his characters, studding the narrative with acute imagery, such as—April resting against furniture, against the refrigerator, and against anything else, especially when she is arguing with Frank; exceedingly friendly neighbor Shep Campbell behaving like a lovingly eager dog whenever April is around, devotedly following her; Frank having great difficulty in laying a path across the front garden; April is the woman who wants to be an actress, and cannot, while Frank's pathological guise is indicative of a natural performer; stingingly ironically, Frank is not frank at all, but rather indirect and duplicitous; Helen Givings is a giver of home; John Givings a giver of scathing veracity; and, yes, the Wheelers do spin out of control.

Haythe and Mendes seem unsure of whether or not they should simply have their stars go pre-Method or play around with stylizing the dialogue and acting. If Mendes was attempting to evoke Douglas Sirk, like Todd Haynes with Far From Heaven, he has failed miserably; Sirk's most preposterous melodramas could be relied on to deliver immense juiciness. The actors and actresses in Sirk films were made into emblematic touchstones of larger types, borderline Platonic creations, which made the immoderate climate of their conflicts make complete sense: how can restraint even be an option when greed meets loyalty one-on-one, for but one example? Sirk nevertheless fiercely held on to a sincerity and compassion for his characters, both of which are lacking here. In Revolutionary Road, even Winslet is compromised by stylization, which, for Mendes is doubtless intended to underline the rigidity, conformity and stultification of the era he believes he is depicting. That she remains watchable, whether she is confronting her husband at the beach or playing a Stepford wife one morning, speaks to her status as one of the greats on the planet. DiCaprio is a powerhouse when he's playing to his natural strengths—his suaveness, his cunning emotional trickery—but he has, for one reason or another, chosen to take parts that go directly against his gifts. Which is not to say that he is abysmal in the part, just that he is ill-suited, and, more importantly, unable to make up for the ruinous screenplay's plentiful weaknesses.

Returning to the theme of a misbegotten adaptation, it should be remembered when analyzing Yates' novel the old saw: trust the art, not the artist. Yates has publicly stated that his novel was about the crushing conformity of the 1950s that he saw, but if it could truly be boiled down to its barest essentials, it is about the delusions that cause self-destruction. “The grass is always greener,” and “No matter where you go, there you are,” have both never rung truer than when Yates' Revolutionary Road is consumed by a reader. Haythe and Mendes make their film a boorish condemnation of the 1950s, following Yates' unfortunately simplistic political paradigm rather than the saturating percipiency of personality and psyche that makes his novel a worthwhile read. The book (the first third of which or so is almost entirely gutted by Haythe's inadequate screenplay) follows Frank Wheeler, a young man who believes himself to be specially clever, and who convinces a young woman, named April, of this. Frank and his girlfriend find themselves at a crossroads when she becomes pregnant—and he utilizes this as an opportunity to wrap himself up in the purported misery of “conformity,” of “those people,” whose spiritually wan lives have become sapped of anything meaningful, all the while despising them. Stemming from his own deep-seated fear of becoming just like his father, Frank finds himself slowly coming to the realization that he has, indeed, become his father, which allows him to stew about it, and pose as a potentially remarkably clever and exceptional man, if only he did not have the child to support. Haythe and Mendes miss the argument between Frank and April about their first child, and the impulse of April's, which is to abort it, and the manipulative heartlessness of Frank, who sees in the child little more than an avenue on which to escape not “conformity” but the jolting epiphany—which he doubtless fears April will have—that he is not so clever, special or exceptional at all. April's constitution has been corrupted by her childhood, which influences her at all turns, including her inclination to terminate her children, first once and then finally again with the third child. Frank again uses her third pregnancy as an excuse for himself to stay home and not leave for Paris as they were planning—he halfheartedly dragging his feet, rationalizing his future failure as anything special as he “finds himself” as she supports him—further revealing to April just how utterly duped she was. When she says to him that he is the most beautiful thing in the world—“A man”—it is as much a verbally expressed hope that he will finally become the man he appeared, like a mirage in the desert, to be.

Lost are almost all of the intensely unpleasant personal machinations employed by Frank to remain what he perhaps subconsciously wants to be: a “mediocrity” who could always blame someone—his children will suffice—for his not becoming whatever it is he was supposed to become before they inconveniently entered his world. Yes, John Givings is still used as the device he was intended to be, sounding off on Frank's unctuous wiliness, but as amusing as the scenes in which he appears are thanks to Shannon, they, like the long, venomously argumentative battles between the Wheelers and the chilly denouement are but the mountains of the novel, which lose their greater tenor due to the film's sidestepping of the many crucial crevasses. Even scenes that work fairly well on their own—because they stick so well to Yates' novel—like the Wheelers' early roadside verbal fight, culminating in Frank bashing his Buick with his fist, or Frank attempting to use the revelation of his affair to an attractive secretary with whom he works as a way to demand jealousy and love from his wife, feel like a theatrical tableau removed from a greater, far more gratifying work.

Strange, then, that Haythe and Mendes so heedlessly take April as the central character; if she were shown to be as much the victim as the literary April, this would make more sense, but as portrayed in the film, her neurosis seems almost apart from Frank's, as though he played no significant part in shaping her adult deportment. Most viewers of Revolutionary Road will see April as a crazed woman, a preposterous figuration not distantly related from Bening's harridan. Even when it is clear April is rebelling from Frank, indulging in an affair of her own, it seems more dutifully presented than genuinely probed. Her horrified surprise when she learns that her husband is actually climbing up the ladder at his job, listening to his meek, hypocritical response to his own words about Paris (“People are alive there, not like here...”), “Paris isn't the only place where people can live,” is possibly the film's most honest scene as it relates to Yates' book. A shame, then, that for Mendes the villain is “conformity,” vacuous success and (here it finally is) suburbia.

So, discarding Yates' novel, and delving into Mendes' focus on suburbia, the question arises: has Mendes ironically bought into the same nonsensical solipsism that consumes the despicable Frank, that the true enemy to be vigilantly feared is the supposedly unbearable conformity of the suburbs? Is Mendes' Revolutionary Road as much an act of cowardly obfuscation as Frank's self-installed prison that he secretly wishes to never escape? Possibly. At least Frank is not interpreted as some sort of heroic figure like Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham—so Mendes drizzles and then finally pours as much of the finite empathy he has for any of his characters on to April, perhaps seeing this as his chance to redeem himself for making Annette Bening an intolerable cartoon of a femme realtor (here an intolerable cartoon of a femme realtor shows up periodically in Kathy Bates' Helen Givings), and allowing for the character to experience a kind of red-colored epiphany not wholly dissimilar from Lester's visions of red roses. Taken at face value, this is a failure because Mendes and Haythe have undermined their own project in making April as completely understandable as she ought to be, no matter what emotions her desires provoked, since the very central construct of the story—Frank and April's relationship—has been so woefully translated from page to screen. The proscenium is rendered imbalanced, as Frank is made out to be simply weak and April, in a way, weaker, creating a gaping vacuum at the film's fitting centripetal emptiness (the latter word is to this picture what “fear” was to Batman Begins) center, siphoning the life out of what should have been a challenging drama.

The 1950s, as an “era,” was a massive panoply of contradictions. It was the decade that has now been unceremoniously dismissed, though it paved the way for the future so many who decry it purport to cherish. The 1950s were populated by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Elvis Presley and others. Subversive westerns were already commenting on past Hollywood oaters and viewing white/American Indian relations in more complex lights; film noirs, while returning to many of the motifs of German Expressionism, targeted institutionalized corruption with greater, more uncompromising tenacity; it was the decade of Otto Preminger's run-ins with the censors; challenging cinema, whether from the boisterously cynical Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole and The Seven-Year Itch, or Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running; the aforementioned melodramas of Sirk, The Marrying Kind, and 1960, the year before Yates' novel's publication, dealt with marital disharmony in the Kirk Douglas-Kim Novak teamer of Strangers When We Meet; mental illnesses were essayed in Home Before Dark and The Three Faces of Eve; the rise of Sidney Poitier; sci-fi was decrying nuclear annihilation through radioactive monster movies; Marlon Brando was a Wild One and James Dean was a Rebel. Jack Kerouac and John Updike (whose Couples is not dissimilar from Yates' work) belonged in this decade; literary movements as outre as “lesbian pulp fiction” blossomed.

Mendes has in a major way taken the viewpoint of Frank, in his writhing under what he seems to view as an indictment first and foremost of American conformity in the 1950s. Readers of Yates' novel should be able to see the grave error in describing the work as an uncomplicated slamming of an abstraction; if anything, the image that emerges from the book is that the obfuscating, manipulative Frank and the pathetic, unfit April are a couple of craven, conceited and saturnine boors who may deserve, at best, pity but not purloined, illegitimate identification. Frank and April are like paranoiacs who believe “those people” are soulless zombies. Gradually their fear becomes consuming, to the point where they not only have become what they believe they hate, but something far worse. American Beauty could at least be laughed off, for the silliness with which it so often waltzed, as though winking at the audience, knowing it was a socio-political platitude, a capricious fun-house mirror aimed at the culture it lampooned. Mendes' Revolutionary Road peddles pain, and damns an entire society for not being as enlightened as it should have been. Deakins' fine cinematography and Zea's cogently palpable production design manage to make a point independent from Mendes' latest assault: if the Wheelers represent any form of enlightenment, then enlightenment leads straight to the madhouse.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

Quentin Tarantino told Elvis Mitchell in an interview that there may be nothing he loves more than when a director takes a genre picture by the horns and doggedly, trenchantly, runs with it. Darren Aronofsky does that, in a way, with The Wrestler, a scabrously gritty cine, which is so powerfully evocative of familiar “indie” touchstones—some of which Aronofsky has arguably had a significant hand in disseminating—that it belongs to a broader grouping of films, defined as much by stylistic technique as by content. And yet The Wrestler is not simply a director's passionate paean to the import of basic, cosmetically unadorned storytelling, but rather as recondite and intensely personal as his earlier works. What is to be found is the melding of sometimes bumptiously unconfined artistic sensibilities, which in previous outings threateningly teeter on the precipice of pretense, with a deceptively straightforward yarn that allows for the filmmaker's obsessions to be visited upon with vastly finer gracefulness. Those creative compulsions, which border on fetishists, include substance abuse, self-destruction, sacrifice, the fragility of life and the inevitability of death and senseless martyrdom. In Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, these were what those films boastfully proclaimed to be at the epicenter of their respective squalls. The Wrestler is far more guileful. It represents a major step forward for Aronofsky. He has found a breeding form from which he can essay his interests, rather than allowing his own vaguely haughty wants and desires to be expressly delivered through the granular revulsion and paranoia of Pi, kaleidoscopic operatics of Requiem for a Dream and bewildering phantasmagoria of The Fountain. The Wrestler is unassuming, which makes the film's subtler culling of its director's fixations all the more rewardingly relevant.

The Wrestler's modest trappings are things of vital necessity—not mere accessories and certainly not hindrances—that cumulatively mount an emotionally stirring portrait of one man. Ruminative and stark, with an oppressively dreary and downcast wintry setting in New Jersey, Aronofsky—expertly aided by cinematographer Maryse Alberti—establishes the gauntness of the titular wrestler's surroundings, as though he stands a lone figure amidst the ruins of his past experience atop the mountain of his profession. The first proper shot of the film captures the wrestler, sitting on a chair in an otherwise empty room, holding himself together, his head pointing downward, exhausted, appearing to have torn out the enactment of a bodily taxing professional wrestling contest as though he ripped it from his chest. This simple, compellingly surveyed sacrifice on the wrestler's part is a coursing theme on which Aronofsky brilliantly focuses.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is, as he will later say, a “broken-down piece of meat,” a living relic from the 1980s, when he dominated the world of professional wrestling as a top main event draw. He is a systematically physically decimated, financially shaky and perpetually lonely figure, having squandered his days of opulence on deleterious pursuits. An opening credits sequence with wrestling magazines and articles gift the viewer with all of the necessary back-story. What Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel accomplish is to portray “The Ram” as the man time forgot, from his apparent disinterest in cellular phones and other technological devices—he repeatedly finds pay-phones left rotting in decrepit condition with which to call people—to his keeping a Nintendo video game system in his trailer home with a wrestling game featuring no less than “The Ram” himself, to the nostalgic love he has for the rock bands of the time.

One way through which to view the film is the allegory Aronofsky brings to the forefront early in the film. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is compared to Jesus Christ by the person to whom he reluctantly confesses his myriad sins: a beautiful stripper nearer to his age than most at the local club, with the stage name of Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). As he recounts his in-ring war stories, showing off his scars and severe injuries to her, Cassidy attempts to quote The Passion of the Christ's presenting of Isaiah. Maximizing the thematic current of sacrifice and martyrdom, Siegel and Aronofsky point to the little details that possibly affirm this, including ones mentioned by Cassidy—the similarly long hair, and the extraordinarily high threshold for pain “The Ram” and the Son of Man share. Randy keeps an action figure of himself, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, on his truck's dashboard, like a religious symbol. Soon, the camera will spot a tattoo of Jesus' face on Randy's bulky back. “Blading” in a “hardcore” bout, his face becomes crimson, and his body is profusely pierced—by staples, thumbtacks and assorted flesh-tearing pieces of shrapnel.

The one shot utilized perhaps more than any other in The Wrestler is one that captures Randy from only a few feet away, from behind, as he walks to and fro. Aronofsky's film is truly semi-documentarian, and is, literally, interested in following this man on his tumultuous journey. The shot borders on being overused, it is so frequent, but as with so much of the film, it actually becomes endearing in its repetition: Aronofsky's visual consistency is tremendously exacting. Made up of finely framed, long and thoughtful hand-held shots, with close-ups and tracking shots, Aronofsky's unvarnished verite is elongated with a walloping command of mise-en-scene that is more uncompromisingly followed than the showier but less roundly perspicacious efforts of his previous pictures. Perhaps The Wrestler's most memorable sequence details Randy's first day working at a deli, with the camera following him descending through the dark bowels of a building like the backstage environs of an arena. Anyone even remotely familiar with televized pro wrestling will recognize the pre-performance ritual, which is given a wonderful ironic twist by Aronofsky, who, almost needlessly, supplies the ever-louder chant of his name ringing through an arena's audience just before he slips through the curtain. This immediately establishes the showmanship Randy will use to buoy his own experience behind the deli counter, ever in need of an audience.

Employing minimalism at all levels, Siegel and Aronofsky breeze right by the pit of ancient personal history that seems to be lurking behind Randy as persistently as the stalking camera—the viewer is allowed to invent the details of Randy's mightily tragic fall, with the fleeting fortune and gnawing, unspoken void that is his estranged daughter's mother—which centrally presents the congruously credible following of Rourke's Randy wherever he goes. The attention to detail demonstrated by Aronofsky may just be the film's second greatest asset. When Randy and Cassidy engage in an unusually bitter argument at the strip club, a man in camera range is noticeably eavesdropping on their conversation. When Randy walks into an arena, he says hello to a pair of old “midgets,” who had doubtless performed in the ring in their prime like he and other older men shown in the film had. A long, painful and emotionally vulnerable scene that plays out quietly, with Randy and a group of old, beaten-down wrestlers sitting at tables hawking merchandise and selling their autographs, resonates because Aronofsky is sufficiently confident to allow his camera to gradually become Randy's point-of-view. An old wrestler proficient in the violence of “hardcore” exhibitions covers up his lack of athleticism with the gruesome spectacle of bloody mayhem. Eventually, the true names of Randy (Robin) and Cassidy (Pam) are found to be sources of derision and strength for each respectively, as Randy seeks to escape the grind of every facet of his life through the possibility of a comeback in wrestling and Cassidy wishes to become Pam again, free from the slowly ruinous existence she has carved out for herself at the club. As Randy scoffs at the name he has to wear at his day job, Robin, Cassidy declares her independence by setting the record straight, referring to herself as Pam. Their link to one another transcends the obvious point that they are both performers attempting to make their audience forget about their own troubles. Randy gives Cassidy the Randy “The Ram” Robinson action figure, a token miniature of himself frozen in time. In a pivotal scene, Randy buys Cassidy a beer at a bar. Eventually the 1980s band Ratt's greatest hit, “Round and Round,” is played. Randy and Cassidy reminisce about the music of the '80s, noting that it was a tremendous time for music. They both agree about the subsequent decade: “The '90s fucking sucked.” The song allows for Randy's mythic attachment to a certain era to feel more palpable, and his disdain for the ignominious obsolescence that followed, all at once. And yet the song's name describes Randy and Cassidy's melancholic farce of a budding relationship—and the actions of the characters is perfectly matched by the chorus. As Cassidy ducks out of their impromptu date, quickly downing the “one beer” which served as the little date's raison d'être, the chorus chimes in: “I knew right from the beginning, that you would end up winnin', I knew right from the start, you'd put an arrow through my heart.” Indeed, Randy's heart is both literally and figuratively at stake in The Wrestler.

And then there is Mickey Rourke. The film would be effectually rendered by Siegel and Aronofsky with another actor in the part, but the role is demanding that a person at least somewhat familiar with pain, humiliation and personal and professional heartbreak take it as their own. Most men, especially of a certain age, have had to overcome the nocent impact these leave on their lives, and Rourke has been knocked around by mistakes made, befitting a Johnny Cash song (his onscreen alter ego receives one Golden Globe-winner from Bruce Springsteen). Parallel with Randy, Rourke was ascendant in the 1980s, and through unfortunate career choices, unruly temperament and an ostensible lack of respect for his own work—battling with directors, holding the Actors Studio in contempt—found his star precipitously drop. Grappling with and through the character, Rourke seems to find himself, a feat all the more momentous for its being recorded in cinema. Lines of dialogue must be said by someone; it is often how they are said that ultimately matters. Will it surprise anyone when the aforementioned line of self-diagnosis (“...I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat...”), the culmination of which is so moving, it should be reserved to be heard only in its proper context, or the simple, sweet line between store employee and elderly lady customer (“What you havin', spring chicken?”) become immortalized in how many years hence? Tomei is glorious, sexy and intelligent in a role that could easily have become a crushing cliché, and Evan Rachel Wood is mostly effervescently serene in her role as Randy's daughter (succumbing to one excessively “actorly” impulse in her final scene), but the film does truly belong to its leading man. The agony of Rourke's diamantine turn comments on the man's anguish, and his history informs the part, resulting in a performance that bleeds into and overlaps with the actor's true life to such an extent, it is an undeniable marvel that demands to be seen. What Aronofsky's film and professional wrestling share is an inescapable common bond, one that is shaped by their respective goals of showcasing anguish and glory, and all points that mark the way between. There is nothing fake about that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Reader (2008)

There are two films out that focus on the uniquely vexing reality and dilemma of German guilt and shame. The first is Valkyrie, which uses wartime conscientiousness as the springboard for its thriller plot. The second is The Reader, which never takes place during World War II, the Holocaust or the Third Reich's reign, but is informed by the reverberations that still pulsate through the people of Germany like so many ripples that disturb a stream. Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and a young, impressive actor named David Kross, based on a novel written by German author Bernhard Schlink, adapted to the screen by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry—the latter two of whom conspired to respectively write and direct the 2002 drama The Hours—the film is brimming with considerable aptitude. The Reader makes its intentions abundantly clear: Schlink and Daldry, as with The Hours, are nothing short of punctilious in their formalism and classicism. The Reader is handsomely produced, exceedingly well-acted, sumptuously photographed by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins and smoothly directed by Daldry.

So why does it never quite break free from itself? Why do its ideas only provoke consideration and never quite move? Some of the fault may rest with the structure—the plot, even when it finally moves into the expected-but-dramatic territory of post-Holocaust German self-examination (several scenes of which are quite cerebrally fecund and engrossingly presented)—never breaks free from the expectations. The film's emotional resonance rests with a decision made by Michael Berg (who is played by Kross when he is in his teens, Fiennes when much older), one that is rightfully portrayed as paralyzing in its self-contradictions—in an effort to not experience crushing shame, he elects to remain silent, doomed to his own shame for the rest of his life—though the film does at least seem to lean in the direction that his choice was one stemming from cowardice, and, indeed, shame.

One issue at hand with The Reader may be that too much of the film plays like an extended performance rather than a completely living motion picture. The Reader is proficiently gripping at times, with its amassing of philosophical quandaries and rigorously applied legalisms, but what lingers, interestingly, is the first act. In this way, perhaps, the film is best when the mystery has yet to be revealed, and yet, it is here that it is also the most predictable, if a film's running time could be divided into “more predictable” or “less predictable” subsets. What may account for this is that Daldry's visual literacy seems most sharply aware and trenchant in the first great stretch of his film. When the “mystery” is finally unlocked, as the film's cryptic poster promises it finally will be, Daldry seems to allow the exposition and drama to largely speak for itself. This is not a necessarily an entirely wrongful decision, but it does lead to a certain feeling of unevenness from which The Reader cannot escape.

The Reader begins in West Germany in the 1950s, with the aforementioned teenager named Michael Berg catching scarlet fever on a cold, rainy day. By sheer chance he finds himself vomiting in the vicinity of a woman's residence. The cinematography exquisitely captures the symbiotic relationship, soon to become an affair, between the two characters, as the mysterious woman's face is obstructed by darkness. (The ethereal camerawork by Menges and Deakins is continually breathtaking.) What the viewer is allowed—and indeed encouraged—to notice is just how readily this woman, Hanna Schmitz (a flawless Winslet), takes up the duty of washing away this youth's vomit, and then taking care of him, and finally bathing him. Why? Who is this woman? Did she become used to such sights, and to such chores as cleaning up after others, bathing them, caring for them? The motifs pique curiosity. Was she a nurse? The answers are revealed much later. What matters in the first act is the physical and spiritual pulchritude and healing that takes place as Hanna bathes Michael, and they finally initiate a sexual affair, which is handled with equal parts deftness and frankness by Hare and Daldry.

Without daring to simply “make excuses” for atrocities committed by Germans, the story posits questions to which there are few comforting answers. Perhaps, the film suggests, if Hitler's Germany had been reading more books rather than burning them, such odious crimes could not have become so commonplace at that specific time in history. As the eponymous reader—Michael—allows an awed Hanna to listen to the words of Tolstoy, Twain, Thackeray and Homer, the story's incisive point that illiteracy and ignorance may have been the greatest aids in constructing the Nazis' genocidal industry, rings true. The Reader brings into view the role of the average, poor German worker, an economically abused class following the Great War, and asks stingingly dolorous questions. For this the film must be commended.

The Reader's fitting literateness may be viewed in variegated manners. Daldry's direction indicates that his continuing interesting in feminine psychology and pride—the latter characteristic of Hanna supplies the bulwark for his drama's very efficacy—may yet find its most captivating expression in the near future. The Reader has many fine touches, polished as it is with a delicate methodicalness that is never less than intriguing. And yet for all of its attributes, something is amiss, and it lessens the film's impact: perhaps the very quality that makes the film accessible also hampers it—it is, somehow, simply too slick for its own good. As the picture arrives at its conclusion, this realization deepens, as the actions of every character seem all too preordained, choked off and statically presented after the particulars of Hanna's grave secret are revealed. So the ideas must suffice, percolating as they do. When the young Michael and a fellow law student quarrel with their professor about the injustices of a Germany they wish to forget (one student cannot bear the discussion and promptly exits the room), the dialogue pierces the viewer's protective separation from the film. For a country, these matters have not easily gone away, quietly in the night. Hanna's statement—the dead are still dead—may be interpreted differently, depending on the viewpoint. What to say? Perhaps only, De mortuis ni nisi bonum. Of the dead, nothing but good.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Niagara (1953)

(The following is another installment of reviews being written to celebrate the darkest month of all in Coleman's Corner with Dark City Dame. The previous reviews of film noirs for this tribute are here and here. The next two films to be reviewed in this series are Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death and Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends.)

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

More Thoughts on Gran Torino

One of the perils of reviewing films--especially new films that are still in limited release at the time the review is being written--is being careful to not "spoil" the experience of others.

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. Check Spelling
  • 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.