Thursday, July 30, 2015

DVR Diary: RED LIGHT (1949)

We often hear about "fate" or "doom" in discussions of film noir, but we hardly ever hear about "providence," and that, if nothing else, makes Roy Del Ruth's Red Light an exceptional noir. Its moral is "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord," and the screenplay by George Callahan and Charles Grayson, adapting a story by onetime cowboy star Donald "Red" Barry, goes about demonstrating the point with the dramatic logic of a golden age comic book. It starts off as menacing as you could ask for, with elite noir baddies Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan unhappily watching a newsreel from a prison projection booth. The news is that a heroic military chaplain (Arthur Franz) has just come home from the war to reunite with his doting older brother, trucking company boss Johnny Torno (George Raft). Burr's character used to work for Torno before he got caught embezzling. He feels entitled to revenge and the newsreel gives him an idea for the perfect revenge. Morgan's character is getting out shortly for good behavior (Morgan says this with as contemptuous a sneer as the words ever got). Willing to do anything for money, for Burr still has his embezzled money stashed someplace, Morgan becomes Burr's perfect weapon. Burr's blasphemous idea is to take revenge on Torno by killing his reverend brother. He doesn't anticipate that Morgan will do something stupid like telling the doomed priest that he's brought him something from Nick -- Burr's character if not Old Nick himself -- before shooting him in a hotel room.

Torno arrives in time to hear his brother's dying words: "the book." Johnny assumes that the priest means the ornate Bible he gave to his brother years ago. Hoping to find some clue to the killing, he pores through the holy book in search of accusatory marginalia and finds nothing. Some time later, it occurs to him that his brother may have meant the Gideon Bible bound to be found in any hotel room. He returns to the death room and finds that book missing, increasing his suspicion that it contains crucial information. By now several other people have occupied the room; one of them must have taken the book. If so, why? Johnny sets out to track down each of the intervening guests, while Nick, now released in his own right, lurks about recklessly, begging Johnny for another chance. The first one Torno finds is showgirl Carla North (Virginia Mayo), whom he recruits as an assistant once convinced of her innocence. Concerned that Torno may be on to something, Rocky (Morgan) stalks our hero and finally has it out with him in another hotel room. Coming out slightly the worse for wear, Rocky decides his best option is to blackmail Nick and cash out, letting him know that he spoke his name to the priest and guessing that the priest wrote it in the book. Nick responds like a Raymond Burr noir villain should and tosses Rocky from the caboose of a speeding train.

Further complications take us to the belated discovery of the genuine Gideon. As a worried Nick watches with others concerned in the case, Torno desperately thumbs through the tome until he finds a handwritten warning, his brother's last message, against seeking revenge. Assured that the priest named no names, Nick attempts an inconspicuous exit, but whom should he find at the bottom of the stairs but battered and bloody Rocky, ready for a little revenge of his own. Nick gets the better of an impromptu shootout, but Rocky, not quite the forgiving sort, lives long enough to denounce his former pal for his own death and the priest's. This sets up a classic set-piece showdown as Torno chases Nick to the roof of his building, where an electric sign advertises his business. Cinematographer Bert Glennon makes the most of the opportunity to play light against darkness as Burr darts between the big glowing letters, looking for the perfect shot at Raft, until an exposed wire becomes his undoing. Once Nick is properly fried and justice is served, the camera pulls back to make sure you see Johnny Torno's ad slogan, "24 Hour Service." This is what Torno had demanded of God in a moment of sacrilegious impatience when he'd been urged to let God do His thing in His own time. Johhny Torno is film noir's Job, driven to curse God for his affliction yet rewarded, on the assumption that he's bowed to his brother's wisdom, with instant justice. Whether he gets the girl, too, hardly matters since there's zilch chemistry between the monomaniacal (or is it just plain monotonous) Raft and the thanklessly-tasked Mayo. What makes Red Light worth seeing is the direction, the cinematography, and above all Raymond Burr, king of noir villains, in fine, foul form. It cannot be stressed enough to those who know Burr only as Perry Mason, old or young, or as that guy in those Godzilla movies, that film noir Burr is a beast who was best when he was bad. He's dependably evil here and ably assisted by Morgan, who for noir purposes was either sinister, stupid, or both. Their vital villainy and the screenplay's eccentric spirituality make Red Light idiosyncratic enough to earn a look from any noir fan.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

HORSES OF GOD (2012)

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. people were quick to argue that the attackers in no way represented the downtrodden, as if to preempt anyone thinking of saying they must have had some sincere personal grievance, grounded in poverty, in order to do what they did. Not quite two years later a wave of suicide bombings swept Casablanca, the legendary city in the Kingdom of Morocco. Adapting a novel based on those attacks, French director Nabil Ayouch tells us that these terrorists were the downtrodden, products of progressive impoverishment in the no-hope environment of a metastasizing shantytown. With every jump of time in his story he shows us dauntingly how the shantytown has grown. His protagonists are virtual dead end kids and his story is something like the original Dead End Kids of 1930s Hollywood getting recruited into the German-American Bund or the Ku Klux Klan with Pat O'Brien egging them on and no one to show them the error of their ways.


Our main focus is on a trio of shantytown kids who age from boys to men: Hamid, the bicycle-chain swinging leader of the band, his younger brother Tarek, nicknamed "Yachine" after a famous Soviet soccer goalie, and Tarek's weakling buddy Nabil. In ancient kid-gang fashion they and the rest of their team are chased back to their own neighborhood by the other team, the skins to their shirts, after a game falls apart. From the beginning Nabil and Tarek are accused of being gay for each other -- in a horrific scene a drunken Hamid actually rapes Nabil as Tarek and their other pals watch stupefied --  and a certain panic about masculinity amid a greater physical intimacy than men share in the west informs the decisions they make as young men. They work as mechanics for a boorish garage owner while Hamid, who'd become a drug dealer, stews in stir for throwing a rock through a cop's car window on a dare. Hamid returns from prison apparently reformed, but now he's too neat looking and there's something sinister about his new seeming serenity. It soon becomes apparent that he's been "radicalized," to use the current buzzword, but to Ayouch it looks more like plain old brainwashing by a cult.

 

The evolution (or devolution?) of Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid)


Still, while Hamid has grown a little aloof from his family -- including an alcoholic dad, a trashy mom and another brother who's a little crazy about his radio -- he and his new buddies come in handy when Tarek and Nabil need to cover up Tarek's killing of their boss for having out-of-nowhere started fondling Nabil. Tarek feels obliged to these devout dudes, who are also kind of cool for knowing karate, but he also finds their disciplined activity filling a void in his life. His promises to become a life of action rather than mere being, action becoming more important than life, even if he does still pine a little for Ghislaine, the pretty girl from the embroidery school. Suddenly he seems even more radicalized than Hamid, and Hamid notices this to his dismay. 

 


What elevates Horses of God above a simple expose on the making of terrorists is Hamid's wavering development. It's a surprising twist if you were expecting Tarek, the good brother and our point-of-view character, to observe and/or oppose Hamid's radicalization. As Hamid, Abdelilah Rachid undergoes multiple transformations, from thug to true believer to something more ambivalent. It's not so much that he comes to doubt jihad as that he can't stand to see Tarek traveling this path. It's as if some older-brother protectiveness overrides his radicalization. For all we know he could die readily himself, but eventually he can't bear even to think about Tarek martyring himself. At the brink of doom he tries to dissuade Tarek from carrying out a bombing of a niteclub, only to have Tarek at long last step out of older brother's shadow by shoving him to the ground. The dynamics of their whole sad family make Horses something more than a political film. Because the characters are convincingly human, the stakes seem more real for the audience, especially as we see harmless-seeming people denounced for sin and apostasy and targeted for death for no good strategic reason.


The film closes on a despairingly Bruegelian note as a consummating explosion is seen only from a tremendous distance -- from one of the soccer fields where Hamid and Tarek played as boys, where the next generation of shantytown boys watches with short-lived fascination, little suspecting what the filmmakers suspect is their own dark destiny. The subject matter alone makes Horses of God necessary viewing in our time, but fortunately there's more than necessity to justify seeing it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Too Much TV: JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL (2015)

Susanna Clarke published her epic fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2004. Her first and only novel to date, it is epic in size (782 pages) and scope, amounting to a kind of allegory of early modern England. It has at last been visualized by the BBC, in an seven-part adaptation written by Toby Haynes and directed by Peter Harness, that has just wrapped up on BBC America about one month after its original British broadcast. The challenge of adapting the novel is twofold (threefold if you count special effects): its size and its voice. Clarke wrote in something like the style that prevailed in the time she wrote about: early 19th century Britain. Her mock erudition extended to extensive footnotes that by definition could not be adapted for TV unless you wanted the show to sound like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Since Haynes and Harness do without a narrator after the first scene, it's up to the actors and their writer to sound like authentic creatures of their age, not to mention the authentic creatures of Susanna Clarke. Part of the entertainment of the novel is its recreation of a golden age of English prose -- I rather like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series of novels about the Napoleonic wars fought by dragon-riding armies for the same reason. The cast of the TV Jonathan Strange succeeds in bringing that language to life while dispensing with the narration. I'd like to say I took this success for granted from a British series, but I'd watched The Musketeers too recently to make such an assumption. This time everyone involved was clearly holding each other to a higher standard and the result is a largely faithful adaptation of a great novel. The funny part is that some of the episodes and incidents of the book that I remember most vividly didn't make it onto TV. All that means is that people turning to the novel after watching the show have even more of a treat in store for them.

Though billed second in the title, Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the first of the two English magicians we see in the story. A solitary Yorkshire researcher, attended only by the vaguely menacing but ultimately benign John Childermass (Enzo Clienti), Norrell becomes a public figure by intervening dramatically in the debates of the local Friends of English Magic, who are little more than a discussion group. Norrell offers to demonstrate that he has mastered magic on the condition that the society disband and its members renounce magic. All but John Segundus (Edward Hogg) do so and feel justified by Norrell's apparent animation of a cathedral's statuary. The magician hopes to leap from local notoriety to national fame and national service. Despite his obvious discomfort, he strives to insinuate himself in English society to further his goal of rendering English magic "respectable." As the story develops, we learn that the respectability toward which Norrell aspires depends on purging magic of any dependence on the legacy of John Uskglass, the semi-legendary Raven King who flourished about 300 years earlier, or upon the power of the fairies whom Uskglass mastered. To succeed, however, Norrell becomes a hypocrite. When the wife of Sir Walter Pole, a Cabinet minister, dies suddenly, Norrell resolves to resurrect her and win Pole's support for his project. To restore her, Norrell must make a bargain with one of the fairy creatures he despises and fears, an arrogant character with thistledown hair known only as "the gentleman" (Marc Warren). The gentleman resurrects Lady Pole (Alice Englert) on the condition that he have half of her remaining years -- he knows she'll live to be 94. Rather than take a chunk of years, he takes her sleeping hours, forcing her to dance in an endless ball of Burtonesque boors in his manor at Lost Hope, leaving her virtually insane by day. He also co-opts the Poles' butler, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), at once intimidating him and tantalizing him with the prophecy that a once-nameless slave -- Stephen had been rescued from a slave ship as an infant -- will become a king.

Meanwhile, a random encounter with a mystic tramp Norrell had chased out of London inspires Jonathan Strange of Shropshire (Bertie Carvel) to try his hand at magic. Inspired by his copy of A Child's History of the Raven King, Strange is curious about realms of magic Norrell would rather see closed off. He proves such a prodigy, however, that Norrell accepts him as a student and assistant in his contributions to the war effort against Napoleon. Norrell is a grudging teacher, reluctant to let Strange see any but a few of the books in the vast library he's accumulated. It becomes apparent to the viewer (or reader) that Strange will be more powerful than Norrell, if he isn't already, but Norrell is troubled less by Strange's power than by his curiosity. Strange's desire to learn more about the Raven King and the "King's Roads" he built through the fairy realm, with mirrors serving as portals throughout England, threatens to ruin all Norrell has done to make English magic respectable. Goaded by his co-author and literary agent (John Heffernan), Norrell uses his magic to censor a rival volume by Strange, making the text disappear from every copy published. Meanwhile, Strange's wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) catches the eye of the fickle fairy gentleman, who affects contempt for Strange's magic while clearly fearing the newcomer's unsounded potential. He schemes to replace Arabella with a changeling, stealing the real woman to Lost Hope where, unlike Lady Pole, she rapidly loses her memory. The changeling proving short-lived, Strange appeals to Norrell to teach him how to resurrect her. Norrell's refusal causes a definitive break between the two magicians, driving Strange to Italy, where he experiments in madness in hopes of gaining access to the fairy realm and the knowledge he expects to find there. He succeeds mainly in destroying the barriers Norrell had merely cracked open but forces the gentleman to use nearly all his power to expel him from Lost Hope and place him under a curse that surrounds him with a funnel cloud of darkness.

If the TV series drops the ball at any point, it's in the final episode which drastically understates the crisis into which Strange has plunged all of England. The final part of Clarke's book is in part an allegory for the post-Napoleonic period of reaction that climaxed in the Peterloo Massacre, just as Norrell all along has represented a reactionary form of Enlightenment obsessed with control rather than freedom, while Strange embodies Romanticism (inclusive of the Gothic), the reckless genius to Norrell's cautious scholar. The TV series has jettisoned or truncated a military figure who becomes a major antagonist late in the book, and while the abandonment of historical context may have been a necessity of time constraints, the fates of Strange, Norrell and their circle are more than enough to keep everyone interested, especially those who don't know what they're missing. Whether the BBC America audience fully appreciates the meta-English context  is open to debate. If they've stuck with the show, it's because of the action and the acting. Eddie Marsan (who was Inspector Lestrade in the Ritchie-Downey Sherlock Holmes movies) takes top honors by conveying the at-once ambitious and cowardly, arrogant and insecure and ultimately well-meaning Norrell, tough Marc Warren, who may be remembered as the Dracula in a very bad recent TV production, nearly steals the show with one of the strongest TV villain performances I've seen in quite a while. If he'd put more of that into his Dracula we might have had something there. Also deserving of special mention out of an overall superior cast are Alice Englert as Lady Pole, whose righteous indignation is only compounded by the spell that cripples her ability to articulate it, and Vincent Franklin as Drawlight, a toady who takes credit for introducing Norrell to society and deteriorates during the series from Augustan pomposity to Dickensian wretchedness. I could be at the keyboard all night praising everyone who deserves it for this series, but to leave just the tip of an iceberg showing seems appropriate for a program that has the same relationship to its source material. I don't mention that again to diminish the miniseries. In fact, when I see an adaptation of something I've read that leaves out so much or changes so much and can still recommend it (in cinema Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans comes to mind), it's really one of the highest recommendations I can give.

Friday, July 24, 2015

DVR Diary: ZANDY'S BRIDE (1974)

Jan Troell made two Swedish westerns, sagas of the Swedish immigrant experience in America, that won critical if not popular acclaim in the U.S. It was probably inevitable that Warner Bros., the studio that released The Emigrants and The New Land here, would bring Troell to Hollywood to make an American western. There's some thematic continuity between those films and Zandy's Bride insofar as the title character is a Swedish immigrant, and perhaps more importantly, there was continuity in personnel in that the bride is played by Liv Ullmann, the leading lady of Troell's earlier films and an international star before that by virtue of her work with Ingmar Bergman. She's teamed here with Gene Hackman, hot off his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection and his blockbuster showcase in The Poseidon Adventure. As Zandy, he's an Old West version of the impulsive, boorish, sometimes brutish character he won the Oscar for. It's a type we've grown familiar with by now and just what we'd expect from a sort of revisionist western. Zandy's trying to build up a ranch to get out from under the shadow of his parents, and he wants a woman. Slavery may be illegal by this point in American history, but Zandy acquires a wife through a newspaper advertisement. This is Hannah (Ullmann), who has exaggerated her youth and "American stock" somewhat. Zandy takes her anyway, in more ways than one. Their first night together is marked by marital rape, with Hannah seemingly shocked that Zandy would claim "the right" and Zandy enraged by her initial refusal of it. He quickly establishes himself as a domestic tyrant, demanding sex, housework and sons, and we see his model when the new family visits Zandy's folks. If anything, the old man is more surly than his son, threatening to throw unsatisfactory food in his long-suffering wife's face. Subtly, Troell lets us see, or at least think we see, a certain discomfort on Zandy's part with this scene and a certain deference toward his ma in later scenes. Zandy's problem is that he doesn't know how to be any different, and the film's premise is that he can't learn until he's learned to really live with someone.

The closest the film has to a plot is Zandy's desultory refinement under Hannah's influence and, more importantly, in response to Hannah's resistance. She never meekly submits but rebukes him regularly, all the while accepting her obligations under their transaction while insisting on the rights that should go with it. Zandy may never fully comprehend what she wants but he comes to recognize her virtues relative to the other options in the rough coastal country. If Hannah has a rival for his attentions -- affections would be an exaggeration -- it's Maria, played in characteristic slurred, "earthy" fashion by Susan Tyrell. Ullmann and Tyrell in the same movie is some sort of Seventies summation, and seeing them together you can see why Zandy would stick with Hannah. It helps that she delivers the son Zandy's always wanted -- along with a twin sister -- but Zandy also makes the simple calculation -- he can't get more romantic than this -- that he's better off with her. After enacting their own micro-version of the classic rancher-nester conflict -- she grows a garden that he tramples with his cattle, telling her she's ruined his property -- the wild westerner is finally civilized, or as civilized as he can get, which is still an advance on how he started.

Choosing an atypical coastal location, Troell gives us a look at the West through fresh eyes to an extent, but the film's picturesque virtues can't entirely compensate for a certain monotony to Zandy and Hannah's battles. Filming Marc Norman's screenplay, he catches the subtle evolution of the marriage even as the protagonists remain essentially their same abrasive selves. A naturalist rather than a romanticist, Troell offers no promise that things will be happy ever after for his couple, but his honesty probably went unappreciated even by sophisticated (or cynical) Seventies audiences. They may have asked what there was here to care about, apart from seeing two master thespians take each other's measure? Ullmann is impressive in English -- she'd dubbed her own dialogue in the earlier Troell films -- while Hackman has the more challenging task of making Zandy something other than hateful between his tantrums. How successful he was depends on the attentiveness and sensibility of each viewer, but I suspect that Zandy's Bride tried people's patience. It may have been more trying originally. The movie I saw on Turner Classic Movies was 97 minutes long, but some sources report a 116 minute running time. Did the film lose 20 minutes at some point? If so, was the original even more monotonous in its bitterness or yet more subtle or plausible about the marriage's evolution? The idea of an extended director's cut is a little tantalizing, but I doubt that even its admirers really want it any longer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DVR Diary: A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT (1950)

 
We see the action through the window of a car as the vehicle pulls up to nab an illegal immigrant. We remain in the car as the suspect breaks loose; the camera pans inside the car so we can look out the back window as he runs into the street and is hit -- in our plain view -- by a car. This is a Joseph H. Lewis film, his first after his sleeper hit and noir classic Gun Crazy, in which he had filmed a bank robbery and getaway from inside the crooks' car. Now he was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and while the budget may have been small by that studio's standards Lewis must have felt like he was in the big leagues, with all the toys that come with that. He's clearly more interested in the technical and atmospheric effects he can pull off than in the noir-exotic melodrama. Judged by its set-pieces, Lady Without Passport stands comparison with the twin peaks of Lewis's career, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. But without as potent a story to hold them together, the set-pieces mostly have more technical than dramatic interest.

The story is that INS agent Pete Karczag (John Hodiak) must go undercover in Cuba to investigate a people-smuggling ring, led by a hairdyed George Macready, who'd brought that hapless fugitive from the first scene to America. On location, Pete falls for one of Macready's clients, Holocaust survivor Marianne (Hedy Lamarr, whose recent role in the blockbuster Samson and Delilah was this film's main selling point). That's our triangle, which Pete hopes to break up by convincing Marianne to stay in Cuba rather than pay Macready in the only coin she can afford. Pete's willing to give up his career to keep her in Cuba and stay with her, but our villain figures out Pete's real business and blabs to Marianne to alienate her from him. Now Pete and his INS buddies have to try to catch Marianne and the other illegals as Macready flies them into the U.S. This sets the stage for a setpiece that's at once spectacular and anticlimactic as the smugglers crash-land their plane in the Everglades, after which Macready, his pilot and Marianne hit the water in the only life-raft, after Macready drives away the other illegals with his gun. Lewis films all of this from far above, from the perspective of a government plane. I wasn't sure whether the plane crash was done for real or with models, and I suppose that's a credit to the M-G-M effects department either way. The breakout immediately afterward has newsreel-like immediacy and verisimilitude, since there's no way the actors can play to the camera so far above, but Lewis's staging also leeches the drama (or at least the melodrama) out of one of the big moments of the story. The real dramatic climax comes after Macready has ditched his snake-bit pilot and, with Marianne still in tow, confronts Pete, who has caught up with him finally. The moment is tense and literally atmospheric with expressionistic swamp mist, but it's again kind of anticlimactic, since Macready simply pulls a gun on Hodiak and commandeers his boat, giving up Marianne in the bargain. The punch line is that our hero emptied most of the fuel tank so that the villain will be dead in the water and easily caught, but we don't get to see that. Lewis (or the studio) seems to think the real story is the romance, but John Hodiak simply isn't much of a romantic hero. That leaves Lady Without Passport lacking the heart it wants and the heart of darkness that keeps Lewis's best noirs alive, but it's still a treat to look at just to see a clever, confident director showing off.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

DVR Diary: KANAL (1957)

Andrzej Wajda's epic of the Warsaw uprising -- the gentile one, as opposed to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising -- immediately struck me as one of the great World War II films, but it's a strange one considering the time and place. For Poles, I'd assume, the 1944 uprising against the Nazi occupiers must be something like the Alamo for Americans, a noble to-the-last-man defeat on the way to ultimate liberation. For us, the Alamo is a tale of heroic sacrifice with strategic value. For Wajda, arguably Poland's greatest filmmaker and still active as of three years ago, the Warsaw uprising is a defeat of crushing completeness, a mental as well as physical defeat. The way he saw it seemed to be okay with the Communist government of Poland at the time, who might have been expected to expect a more patriotic, more Alamo-like affair. I wonder if the attitude of director and government alike -- Wajda would flee the country in the early Eighties during the crackdown on the Solidarity movement and return after the fall of Communism -- has something to do with the subject being a non-Communist uprising, one during which Soviet forces were supposedly in a position to lend aid but purportedly stood by to let likely future opponents of Russian dominance get slaughtered. Maybe Poles in 1956 saw the uprising leaders, or were ordered to see them, as presumably noble and definitely tragic but also a historic dead end that had to pass from the scene before a postwar revolution could take place. I can only guess because I see no obvious ideological context in Kanal and I don't recall the Russians being mentioned. Yet the film literally follows uprising fighters into numerous dead ends, both physical and mental, as if to say there was never any hope for this revolt. Maybe Wajda was just making an anti-war film, since there's little inspiring or worthy of emulation here. Outside of Japanese cinema I've hardly seen military defeat portrayed so definitively.

Kanal opens on an epic scale, showing itself a technical tour-de-force of tracking shots and composition in depth as we meet the unit we'll follow to the bitter end as they hustle carefully from one position to another. Wajda's directorial proficiency compares favorably with Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but Wajda gets to top Kurbick, at least on the technical level, with dangerous looking scenes of urban destruction as our heroes bug out under fire.  The plan ultimately is to race through the sewers (hence the Polish title) and break out and disperse in a safer part of the city. Our group is broken up into smaller units, each with its own storyline. Each story features some sort of physical or mental breakdown or breakdown of solidarity. A musician (Vladek Sheybal, who went on to an extensive English-language career) wants to contribute and also seeks creative inspiration; he gets the latter at the apparent cost of his sanity. An officer has been having an affair with a young female messenger; in a moment of stress he drives her to suicide by panicking and begging to live for his wife's sake. A commander is one of the very few to make it out, with one loyal soldier, after one more has cleared their way by being blown up; when his last follower reveals that there are no others left, and that he'd hidden that fact to keep up the officer's morale, the officer shoots him and jumps back into the sewer. Another man appears to make it, but finds the surface surrounded by Germans and prisoners in a scene shot with the brutal narrative clarity of a cartoon. The most heroic and competent character is a civilian female, Daisy, an almost too-good-to-be-true sewer-rat amazon (Teresa Izewska, who to my surprise, according to IMDB made only ten films before dying at 49), who just about literally carries a feverish, delirious man through the muck, only to run up against possibly the cruelest reality. She's found a way to the Vistula river, the most likely way to safety, yet the exit is barred by a metal grate. It's too big to be kicked away, and Wajda makes it sadly clear that Daisy can't squeeze her head through the bars. If Kanal is one part Alamo, it's also inescapably one part Third Man, and the so-close-and-yet-so-far hopelessness that comes with that comes through most eloquently when Daisy reaches the end of her trail. Was all of this worth it? Maybe if you're a Pole that's a question you just don't ask, and if the alternative is submission to the Nazis I suppose any question is moot. But once you watch Kanal you can't help wondering for the characters' sake. That might not make it an anti-war film, but it's certainly one of the most intimately humane war films I've ever seen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: NOW AND FOREVER (1934)

Henry Hathaway's film for Paramount opened across the country over the late summer and early fall of 1934. It was the end of the Pre-Code era and the beginning of the Code Enforcement or "Classic Hollywood" period. Its title is appropriately vague for this liminal moment. The picture was going to be called "Honor Bright," as I guessed after stars Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple had said the phrase about a dozen times over. Maybe that was still too corny for 1934, but in any event the vagueness of the final title is also appropriate for three stars -- the other is Carole Lombard -- who still weren't quite fully formed by this transitional year. You might think of Shirley Temple as a nemesis of Pre-Code, but she wasn't born that way. She was actually a creature of Pre-Code, the star of the bizarre Baby Burlesks series of short subjects, in which she often played miniature vamp types, before she hit the big time. Her transformation was under way -- Stand Up and Cheer and Little Miss Marker had come out earlier in 1934 -- but if she is virtually the Shirley Temple we know, Now and Forever is not yet a Shirley Temple picture. She got the most publicity, but Gary Cooper is the star on the title card and Lombard is billed ahead of Temple, and Hathaway dares to cut away from a Temple song and dance bit -- she performs "The World Owes Me a Living" -- to follow Cooper's more interesting activities. More importantly, the particular Shirley magic that prevails in her own star vehicles doesn't work here. Now and Forever is a last-gasp Pre-Code film not because of anything outrageous but because it resists her power to inspire (or compel) happy endings. Her spunk and cuteness does not bring a family together.

In the Pre-Code era Gary Cooper had not yet been cast as a cowboy or cowboy in modern dress. Here he is an international con man, Jerry Day, who we meet trying to con his way out of heavy hotel bill in Shanghai. Having been warned that an auditor is expected who will deal with delinquent guests, Jerry goes out to a print shop, has a business card made, and introduces himself to unfamiliar hotel staff as the auditor. They give him their ledger to inspect, and he uses it to intimidate other deadbeat guests into making settlement payments to him personally. After paying his own bill he and his girlfriend Toni (Lombard) quit town as Jerry seeks his next score. He's expecting a big payday that'll let them settle down for a while. He had a daughter by a first wife (he's a widower) now being raised by her relatives. Jerry thinks the in-laws will be glad to be rid of him for $75,000, but when he arrives at the family compound to cut the deal, he finds himself captivated by little Penelope (Temple) and decides to keep her. At first glance it's a triumph of family values but it's also further proof of Jerry's recklessly impulsive nature. That ambiguity persists as Jerry and Toni -- initially skittish but soon won over, wanting to settle down herself -- struggle to raise Penny as a good little girl. "Honor bright" is their code for truth-telling as Jerry and Penny test each other constantly.

Now and Forever dares raise the possibility that Shirley Temple can be corrupted. It's a mild corruption, admittedly, but when Jerry sees Penny conning another kid out of a pair of roller skates it's our first inkling that things aren't going to work out for this would-be family. He honor-brights her into giving the skates back, but then it's his turn to go bad again as he falls under the influence of an unsavory character who recruits him to steal a prestigious necklace from a prominent society woman. That's what he's up to while Penny sings the story of the grasshopper and the ants. Finding Penny's teddy bear in the same room as his prize, he stuffs the necklace inside the bear, assuming that it and Penny won't be searched. Getting the bear back, Penny suspects something funny but with an "honor bright" Jerry denies doing anything to her toy. When the bear falls out of her bed and the necklace pops out of its poorly sewn pocket Penny is devastated; her dad is a liar. Now Toni steps in; unable to stand the thought of Penny hating her father, she takes the blame for the robbery, but this only starts a race of renunciation that the studio originally meant to end by literally sending Jerry over a cliff. Jerry now realizes that he's not right for Penny and he arranges for her to be more or less adopted by the same society lady he'd robbed, but not before having a gunfight with the man who set him up. The film climaxes on a note of pathos as Jerry and Toni see Penny off, telling the girl that they're going very far away and won't be able to contact her for a very long time, Jerry all the while struggling to hide any evidence of the grave wound he suffered in the gunfight. Penny goes off none the wiser and oddly untraumatized by this impending long separation, and Jerry collapses in Toni's arms. Jerry's death reportedly was filmed but rejected by appalled preview audiences. Instead, the film ends with Jerry apparently recovering and assured of at least Toni's company in years to come, while Penny presumably finds her own destiny on another path.


If Cooper and Temple became avatars of goodness of different sorts soon after this, a coincidence of movie history saw Carole Lombard unleashed to go wild at the very moment of Code Enforcement thanks to the advent of her defining genre of screwball comedy. Now and Forever catches her before that happened, leaving her the least interesting of the star trio. Cooper doesn't seem like the con-man type, but if you think about it, why should con men conform to a type? In any event, his main role here is the self-aware irresponsible dad who realizes at last that he's not going to get everything he wants in life, and he plays that pretty well. Shirley Temple was simply a freak, more than holding her own against proven charismatic stars at the age of six. In its resistance to her momentum this film is like a rock against the tides, submerged repeatedly but always reappearing. Ultimately it's a movie of more historical than aesthetic interest, but its capture of a transitional moment for its stars and American cinema as a whole makes it kind of compelling to watch all the same.