Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DVR Diary: TEXAS (1941)

Speaking of the wave of 1939 westerns, George Marshall's Destry Rides Again was the Stagecoach of comedy westerns. It's still my favorite of that subgenre apart from the outright burlesque Blazing Saddles. Marshall was on a tear from 1939 through 1941, directing the superior comedies You Can't Cheat an Honest Man and The Ghost Breakers while maintaining his western credentials with the Randolph Scott vehicle (as yet unseen by me) When the Daltons Rode. Texas was his first generic follow-up to Destry: a mostly comic western that turns tragicomic toward the end. Working at Columbia, he had access to two young actors with great futures ahead of them: William Holden, age 23, and Glenn Ford, age 25. In addition, he had Stagecoach's own Claire Trevor as the romantic interest, but Texas is closer to what we might today call a tragicomic bromance. Holden and Ford are Johnny Rebs turned drifters after the Civil War, and the first half of the picture is a picaresque account of their misadventures in search of fortune. Marshall is at the height of his comic powers here. He stages an epic bare-knuckle bout between Holden's character (the actor had gotten his big break in the fight drama Golden Boy two years earlier) and a local champion, Dutch Henry. Lyle Latell, an actor who seems to have spent much of his film career uncredited, plays Dutch Henry. He should have made a career of slapstick comedy because he gives a hilarious physical performance. The bout is fought under London Prize Ring Rules: a knockdown ends a round and the downed man has thirty seconds to toe the line or lose. Dutch Henry toes the line every time like the perfect cartoon of an old-fashioned fighter, striking an outlandish "put up your dukes" pose that Holden occasionally tries to imitate. They fight like Rockem Sockem Robots, smacking each other in the face, staggering backward, and reassuming the position. Most rounds end with Holden going down; they begin with him staggering back to the mark after getting a bucket of water in the face. Dutch Henry fights dirty by our standards, usually pulling a "What do you think I did?" face afterward, and Holden strives to answer in kind. Holden and Latell take epic pratfalls, Holden opening one round by charging at Latell, missing entirely, and hurtling out of the ring. Holden finally prevails, only to learn that his buddy Ford had blown their stake by betting on Dutch Henry.

Later, they witness a stage holdup and decide to rob the holdup men. A posse descends upon them before they can decide whether to turn the loot over. The lawmen are in a lynching mood but Holden, who had left Ford alone to go hunting, tricks them into thinking that Injuns are hot on his tail. As the posse takes defensive positions, our antiheroes separate to make good their individual mistakes, Holden meeting cute with Trevor by hijacking her buckboard. There's plenty of good physical comedy as they grapple for control of the vehicle. After Holden moves on, she meets cute with Ford, who ends up working for her family ranch while Holden takes up with Windy McKay (George Bancroft, also of Stagecoach), the promoter of the Dutch Henry fight and a major cattle buyer. After Holden and Ford reunite, they become friendly rivals for Trevor. We renew our acquaintance with the dentist Doc Thorpe (Edgar Buchanan), who'd been robbed on the stage. In another nicely done comic set piece, he leads a town meeting in choruses of "Buffalo Gals" while Trevor plays an organ powered by bellows that are supposed to be operated by Ford and/or Holden. But they're too eager to ogle Trevor to keep the music running properly. All ends well this time, but things go south from here.

Marshall has cleverly introduced us to a couple of folksy, charismatic characters, played by Bancroft and Buchanan, who prove the film's villains without surrendering any of their folksy charisma. The idea of the mildly curmudgeonly, already elderly Edgar Buchanan as the film's evil mastermind is a masterstroke, but once Texas resolves itself into a battle of good and bad men, with our youthful good-bad men caught in the middle, it loses much of its comic steam. It still has plenty of twists in its plot -- Bancroft sends Holden to rustle cattle on a big drive so he doesn't have to pay top dollar to the cattlemen, but Holden decides the easier score is to rob Bancroft of his bankroll -- but the growing sense that Holden is doomed -- to be killed by Bancroft, Buchanan or Ford -- tends to kill the mood. Marshall and his writers (including Horace "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" McCoy) can't make anything comic out of Holden's fate, but I suppose that part of the picture counts as pathos, which wasn't alien to comedy for old-timers like the director. Marshall doesn't even attempt a comic closing note here as he did with Destry, but Texas, if a lesser film, is entertaining all the way through and a surprising alternative to the patriotic winning-of-the-west pabulum the title led me to expect. Its combination of sympathetic youngsters (Trevor is the eldest of the love triangle), eccentric crooks and well-staged action in both comic and dramatic mode should win over most western fans and  earns Texas the title of an underrated film.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

DVR Diary: THE OKLAHOMA KID (1939)

People will still tell you that John Ford's Stagecoach revived the western as an "A" genre in the golden year of 1939, but they're mistaking a symptom for the cause. The Ford film was just one of a bunch of westerns released in the first half of the golden year alone, the trail being blazed by Twentieth Century-Fox's Jesse James, a film which, unlike Stagecoach, got a sequel one year later. The mere existence of Stagecoach reflects decisions already made by Hollywood to boom the genre after the tentative efforts of 1936 (De Mille's The Plainsman, King Vidor's The Texas Rangers, etc.) What had happened in the intervening years? The main thing seems to be that the big studios realized how much money Republic was making off Gene Autry, who by one measure of fan mail had become the most popular star in movies by 1939. The other studios didn't have to have singing cowboys, though the Warner Bros. B unit did have one in Dick Foran, but they had to have cowboys to tap into the Autry market. So why not cast your top studio stars in westerns? Fox put two of their hottest young actors, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, in Jesse James, Warners was putting Errol Flynn into Dodge City, and Ford did finally make a star of John Wayne in Stagecoach. So why not put your established tough guys in westerns? Why not Cagney in a western? Yet people will still tell you that Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid, not to mention Bogart as the villain, is something akin to The Terror of Tiny Town. That verdict, which finds Cagney somewhat preposterous in cowboy garb, was slow in coming, since Warners saw fit to re-release Lloyd Bacon's oater on occasion in the years following its initial release. The contemporary audience may have assumed, as Warners wished, that Cagney's tough-guy persona translated into all eras, as 1935's Frisco Kid had seemingly proved. And he doesn't really seem implausible, now that I've seen this infamous film, unless his type doesn't fit your stereotype of the western hero. It may not have been until Fifties westerns made a fetish of height that Cagney became less convincing -- though he made two more westerns in that very decade. Look at him confront Ward Bond, playing one of Bogart's minions in this picture; Bond towers over our hero, and while 1939 audiences took it for granted that Cagney could tear apart this bit player, later generations may have grown less certain. Cagney is no John Wayne or Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott, but what more do you really need to be a western hero than plausible toughness, which Cagney had in spades? I didn't find him preposterous at all, especially if you accept Oklahoma Kid as a Cagney vehicle first and a western second.

 
A certain irreverence toward the western may have hurt Cagney with contemporary audiences

As a western, it's an archetypal town-tamer story that looks forward to the sort of reluctant-hero roles Bogart would play when he got the chance. Here Bogart (as the purply-named Whip McCord) leads a gang of gamblers and bandits who are robbed by Cagney after they rob a stage. The Oklahoma Kid -- no one knows him by any other name -- has returned to his native ground to witness the famous Land Rush. Like both versions of Cimarron, Kid makes the blunder of staging this tremendous action scene -- though the action here admittedly isn't so tremendous -- very early in the picture. Bogart's gang are "Sooners" who've jumped the claim of the patriarchal John Kincaid, who'd planned to build a town there. Bogart promptly surrenders his claim, however, on the condition that Kincaid cede him exclusive gambling rights in the new town. Meanwhile, the Kid has sat out the land rush in a saloon, explaining to whoever has time to listen that the whole enterprise is futile. Those who play by the rules now will lose out to the strong, he says, and the strong will lose out to the clever in the end. He has to flee to Mexico after killing one of Bogart's men, and once he returns the town is booming but in ways Kincaid never wanted. The old man's accommodation with Whip McCord can't last much longer, despite the good faith efforts of Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp), his daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane) and Hardwick's law partner Alec Martin (Charles Middleton in a good-guy role). Bogart concocts a plan to frame Kincaid for murder, trick Hardwick into leaving town, and have his judicial pawn railroad Kincaid to the gallows. Despite the efforts of Jane and the Kid, who has finally let on that he's John Kincaid's black-sheep son, the old man is lynched, hung from a second-story porch. This would seem to prove the Kid's earlier point, but now that it's personal he's not so complacent.

Cagney is Cagney here, and if you can't see him as a westerner I can't help you with this film. There are plenty of characteristic moments, from his forcing a saloon pianist to play "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard" at gunpoint to his showoff singing of "Rockabye Baby" in Spanish. Oklahoma Kid isn't a great western by any stretch, but it's no more a category error than Frisco Kid was, and as a Cagney vehicle it's perfectly acceptable. Bogart gives his stock 1938-40 villain performance and if you've seen one of those you've really seen them all. He'd return to westerns well before Cagney did, stuck between Flynn and Randolph Scott in Virginia City, but the closest he came to the genre after achieving real stardom was the modern-dress Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Bacon directs competently but you can't quite shake a feeling that, despite Cagney, Warners considered this a second-class project compared to Dodge City, the latter getting Technicolor while Kid goes without. The idea that Kid is a second-class western, at most, may have started right there, but while it really is a second-class western, it could be a lot worse, and it's actually a lot better than its dire reputation -- built perhaps on sight-unseen judgments --  would suggest.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DVR Diary: FLIGHT OF THE LOST BALLOON (1961)

Ray Harryhausen is generally regarded as the principal auteur of most of the films for which he created his iconic stop-motion visual effects. Where does that leave his directors, the people most often credited today, and in retrospect, with authorship of movies? In particular, where did that leave Nathan Juran, who directed Harryhausen's breakthrough hit The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and his earlier 20 Million Miles to Earth, and would work with Harryhausen later on First Men in the Moon? Juran is clearly an important figure in the fantastic cinema of the Fifties and Sixties, but how important? What did he contribute creatively? Juran himself had a mixed view of his work, choosing a virtually transparent pseudonym, Nathan Hertz (his full name was Nathan Hertz Juran) for such camp cheapies as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The Brain From Planet Arous. On other occasions he was more ambitious. He was director, writer and producer for Flight of the Lost Balloon, bankrolled by the Woolner Brothers. Here, presumably, we can see what Juran could do given his druthers, if not a proper budget.

Lost Balloon is a flight of fancy in the Jules Verne mode set by the 1956 Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days and Disney's 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Steering clear of Verne's own Five Weeks in a Balloon, which Irwin Allen presumably had already spoken for and would release a year later, it resembles Five Weeks insofar as Juran's story involves a balloon flight to Africa. Dr. Joseph Farday (Marshall "Daktari" Thompson, just as boring here as on TV) is tasked with finding a missing explorer, whom we know from a prologue to be held captive and subject to torture by an unseen turbaned villain. Coincidentally, a turbaned man in black known only as "The Hindu" (James Lanphier) is a self-appointed tagalong for the balloon trip, the lovely Ellen Burton (Mala Powers) completing the airborne threesome.

Give Juran a good location and he's all right. He makes good atmospheric use of some Puerto Rican ruins that stand in for the east coast of Africa. It's when we turn to special effects that the absence of Harryhausen or much in the way of money is felt. The most damning shortcoming of Flight of the Lost Balloon is the absence of a full-scale hot-air balloon. Such flights as the balloon takes are done with blatant process shots using a model balloon. The actors obviously must have a full-sized passenger basket to stand in, but this exists either on a soundstage (for more process shots) and at the end of a crane for exterior shots in which the balloon itself is all too conspicuously absent. Worse still is Juran's staging of an attack on the balloon by giant condors. Juran's effects here are fifty years ahead of their time -- ahead of Birdemic, that is. Juran may have been proud to sign his work here, but this moment looks more like the work of Hertz. It certainly isn't the work of Avis, because they try harder ... and now that I've really dated myself, let's move on.

Juran has little to be proud of as a writer, either. There's no other way to describe his depiction of an African tribe than as stupidly racist. He gives us the typical pulp scenario in which the white "god" -- the god part is actually the Hindu's idea -- is trusted to heal an ailing chieftain. In this case it's a queen, and the diagnosis is that she's dead drunk. Smelling salts and coffee hit the spot, and our protagonists are rewarded with the chance to watch an "orgy" of drunken dancing and disgusting repasts. But when the moon rises over the hungover tribe it sinks in that the two whites and the Hindu did not travel to them from or via the moon after all, and we all know how savages are when their childlike credulity is abused. Fortunately, the tribesfolk are so falling-down drunk that the good guys can easily outrace them.

The story ends up at the site of the prologue, where to no one's surprise our Hindu reveals himself as the explorer's captor, eager to learn where the white man had found a treasure trove left thousands of years ago by Cleopatra. The captive explorer is so greedy that he not only withstands his own torture but vows to ignore the threatened torture of Ellen. Finally freed, he proves more interested in getting the treasure than in aiding his rescuers, and for his trouble he ends up crushed under what looks like some of Cleopatra's luggage. The treasure is actually so poorly hid that the Hindu looks stupid for having to torture the location out of his foe. Meanwhile, since our white heroes seem relatively uninterested in the treasure, eventually jettisoning it from where the explorer had put it in their basket, that you wonder why Ellen, who had seen the explorer return to the site, simply doesn't tell the Hindu where to find it so he'll stop chasing them.

Other bits leave you wondering whether to blame a low budget or Juran's limited imagination. At his headquarters, the Hindu has a giant minion, Golan (Felippe Birriel), whom he tasks with hunting down Faraday after our hero jumps from the balloon in an act of gallantry to rescue his fellow passengers. We're supposed to find Golan imposing because of his height, but Birriel, like many very tall men, appears very slow and sickly. I was surprised to learn afterward that he lived into his seventies. The Hindu also has a couple of gorillas on hand to guard his sanctuary. These are played, and quite broadly, by what look like smaller men in suits than usual, or at least they look that way next to Golan. His battle with the gorillas is Flight's comic highlight. Moving with a speed that makes Tor Johnson look like a human cannonball, Golan approaches the apes with arms out as if to hug them both. Instead, he feebly swats at one and the breeze, for all we can tell, sends the gorilla crashing into a wall. Just as feebly, the gorillas double-team Golan until they've beaten him to death or he's simply passed out. It's unlikely that this is what Juran wanted Flight of the Lost Balloon to be remembered for, but I can't resist the temptation to say that the truth Hertz.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On the Big Screen: AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

The biggest omission in American Sniper may be American Sniper itself. Nothing in Clint Eastwood's film, apart from the end credits, tells us that his subject, Chris "the Legend" Kyle, wrote a book about himself. You could argue that that's because the film is an adaptation of the book, but Eastwood takes the story beyond the close of Kyle's book to the day he was killed by a disturbed veteran on a supposedly therapeutic firing range. We see Kyle ride off with his eventual killer, but we don't see him signing books or having the least thought of writing one. Yet more than Kyle's record number of kills during his four tours in Iraq, his best-selling memoir is the big reason so many people went to the movies this weekend. I find this an odd omission because Eastwood's film, following not long after J. Edgar, signals a theme for this stage -- he may be 84 but I'm reluctant to call it the last stage -- of the director's career: the process of self-explanation or self-justification for figures who may see themselves as heroes yet are also conscious of some questioning of their heroism. The idea actually goes back at least as far as Unforgiven in Eastwood's work -- recall Little Bill's enthusiasm for telling his story to the dime novelist and his "I was building a house!" appeal for understanding -- while those who saw Jersey Boys might tell us whether this helps that film make sense in the old man's filmography. Showing Kyle (Bradley Cooper) composing his memoir might have made Sniper look too much like J. Edgar for everyone's comfort, and since Eastwood, his co-producer Cooper and their writers were presumably obliged to adapt the memoir faithfully there's less room for the sort of debunking with which Eastwood closes the prior biopic. Yet just as The Bridges of Madison County proved Eastwood a creative interpreter of dubious source material, so we should expect the director to find some room in the screenplay provided for him for his own commentary on Kyle's career. That's the impression I got from earlier reviews who saw Sniper as simultaneously a pro-war and anti-war film, though possibly just as many reviewers see the picture as too unambiguously pro-war for their comfort. Again, obliged to convey Kyle's own view of his life, Eastwood et al must to a great extent call things as Kyle saw them. Yet given Eastwood's own disapproval of the invasion of Iraq -- complicated over time by a certain admiration for George W. Bush's "tenacity," -- can the director really let Kyle have the last word on the subject from the grave?

Your judgment of Eastwood's American Sniper may depend on whether or not you believe that Eastwood believes in the categorization of humanity into three types as expounded by Chris Kyle's father. Chris was taught -- in the film if not the book -- that there are sheep (those naively ignorant of the existence of evil), wolves (evil) and sheepdogs. Interestingly, the sheepdog's primary trait is aggression, redeemed by being channeled into the defense of the herd, the nation, etc. Chris assumes the role early, defending his brother from schoolyard bullies. He sees the War on Terror in the same terms, and Eastwood, Cooper et al have already gotten into trouble with some critics for letting Kyle's judgment of Iraqi insurgents, including women and children, as "evil" (not to mention "savages") go unchallenged in the film.

Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall proceed to problematize this crude worldview in some subtle ways. First of all, the alienation Chris gradually experiences as he shuttles between tours of duty and increasingly troubled stays at home, the detail that seems to earn the film whatever anti-war reputation it has, can be seen as a consequence not just of the stress of counterinsurgent war but of his self-regard as something separate from the civilian sheep. He feels an overwhelming responsibility to protect that makes him feel out of place at home, if not like a quitter once he's home for good. Did the war or his dad do that to him? Was Chris indoctrinated in a way that warped him, as J. Edgar Hoover's mother is shown warping him in the earlier film? Again, a film of Kyle's own book is the wrong place to say so outright, but that very film is structured in a way bound to make some people ask questions. The film also invents a "player on the other side," the Syrian sniper Mustafa whose presence implicitly throws the elder Kyle's categories into question. Like Chris, who had been a rodeo cowboy before enlisting after some 1998 terror attacks, Mustafa is a sportsman -- an Olympic marksman -- who has gone to a foreign land to fight the enemy. Because Mustafa is killing Americans, Chris regards him as evil. He's especially enraged that Mustafa has made videos of his kills -- the closest the antagonist gets to writing his own Syrian Sniper. Mustafa never gets to express his point of view, but the film gives us room to question whether he's really as much a sheepdog as Kyle is, rather than the wolf Kyle assumes him to be. The script contrasts Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) with a more obvious wolf, the al-Qaeda terrorist known as "the Butcher" who tries to discourage collaboration with the Americans by killing or mutilating Iraqi civilians. If I recall right, we never see Mustafa kill civilians. I recall more clearly that Eastwood makes a late attempt to humanize the character before his ultimate showdown with Kyle. When Mustafa gets the call that there are Americans nearby, we see him leaving behind a wife and baby, counterparts to Chris's wife and kids, as he walks past a wall photo of a medals ceremony from more innocent days. It's easy to guess that Mustafa sees himself as a sort of sheepdog, and Americans as the wolves, and if sheepdogs can see each other as wolves that would make Papa Kyle's categories so relative as to be useless for anyone more reflective or introspective than Chris Kyle is shown to be in this picture and, presumably, in his own book. While I may be guilty of giving Eastwood and Hall too much credit, I don't think that they've left material from which to build a critique of Kyle's worldview in the film by accident. But because they've presumably opted to let viewers put the pieces together themselves rather than have anyone in the picture explicitly question the sheepdog idea, many will go home assuming, approvingly or not, that Eastwood endorses it.

If American Sniper is anti-war, it's anti-war in a generic way instead of specifically blaming the peculiarities of the Iraq war for any issues Kyle may have. Eastwood most likely felt an obligation to Kyle's family, and as a relative latecomer to the film project, to leave his own opinion of the invasion out of the movie, but any obligation he felt will still seem like an abdication to people who think any film set in Iraq must tell the truth about the conflict, as they see it. In fact, Eastwood's reticence -- it should be noted that we get no real justification of the invasion, either, apart from Kyle asking whether a buddy would rather fight the enemy in Iraq or at home -- prevents American Sniper from being a definitive film about Iraq, since a definitive film should take one side or the other more strongly than Eastwood ultimately does. Eastwood may be concerned with what war in general does to people, and with how people in war rationalize what they do or become, but his approach arguably leaves him skimming the surface of whatever real story can be found in Iraq. Like J. Edgar, Sniper is dominated by one mighty performance that little else in the picture lives up to. The denial of a Best Director nomination to Eastwood by the Academy may be their acknowledgment that the picture has really been Bradley Cooper's baby all along, and it certainly is his picture. I've come late to an appreciation of Cooper but between American Hustle and this he's clearly become an all-American talent with an intense commitment to diverse roles. No one other than Sienna Miller as Chris's long-suffering wife (and arguably Sheik in a role without English dialogue) makes much of an impression, but the film doesn't really require them to. As an Iraq War movie I don't think it surpasses The Hurt Locker in action or suspense, though Eastwood makes the most of the opportunities created by modern telecommunications to have heartfelt husband-wife chats interrupted by insurgent attacks, and the climactic firefight in a sandstorm is a pretty vivid illustration of the fog of war. The most I can say for American Sniper, apart from what I've said above, is that it's Eastwood's best movie since the deeply underrated Flags of Our Fathers, whose subjects may have found Chris Kyle a kindred spirit.

Update: Since I can't be bothered with reading the book, I'm grateful to Michael and Eric Cummings at Slate for explaining that the "sheepdog" thesis isn't in Kyle's text, but was added to the film by Jason Hall, who adapted it from a 2004 book by an Army colonel. The Cummingses claim that the book, On Combat, has become very popular in right-wing circles, and they make clear that they despise the whole sheepdog concept. What Hall himself thinks of it I can't say, but the resemblances between the way Sniper and J. Edgar show their subjects being shaped by their parents suggest that Eastwood doesn't exactly embrace the idea.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: HELL'S HIGHWAY (1932)

While Warner Bros.' I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang quickly entered the canon of American cinema, RKO's rival chain-gang picture was quickly forgotten until renewed interest in the Pre-Code era revived the reputation of writer-director Rowland Brown. A Pre-Code character in his own right, Brown killed his own career as a director by walking off multiple projects over creative differences with producers, though he continued to write for movies and TV into the 1950s. He was a very hard-boiled director, on the evidence of Hell's Highway, with some pictorial ambition besides. He puts his chain gang to artistic use, shooting them most strikingly from below and between two files, the chain itself passing over the camera as the men march on either side of the frame. For a few minutes, it also looks like Brown meant to do without conventional narrative. After a preface using real newspapers to show that his story is inspired by real events, Brown offers a montage of bits and pieces of prison life. It sinks in eventually that one convict, Duke (Richard Dix), is going to be our point-of-view character. We also meet more eccentric prison types, from Duke's pal Michael (Charles "Ming" Middleton), a bigamist with a spiritual gimmick for whom prison's a vacation from his wives, to an ambiguously gay cook who tends to flaunt his privileged position and gets a slap on the ass from a guard for one sassy crack. Tensions gradually build as head guard Skinner (C. Henry Gordon at perhaps his most loathsome - he's the man with the whip in the ad) inflicts collective punishment on the men for a missing spoon and condemns an individual convict who collapses on the job to a stay in the "hospital," aka the hotbox,where the victim is shackled in an upright position by neck and ankles and left to roast -- or, in this case, strangle to death. Duke, a bank robber, proves himself a troublemaker and leader of the prisoners, angrily protesting both the death of a buddy and the withholding of spoons at suppertime. The cook is finally showered with soup and beans by the cons, but that only temporarily relieves the tension.

One of Duke's buddies has stolen some extra sets of shackles, and Duke gets the idea that the guards might mindlessly run the chain that keeps the cons still at night through the extra shackles while he and his pals keep their legs free to make an escape. Duke depends on Michael, who isn't ready to leave yet, to keep corrupt guard Popeye distracted. Popeye had sought advice from Michael earlier. He has a sort of spiritual, sort of sexual problem that Michael diagnoses in his best visionary fashion as a cheating wife. That distracts him all right. As Popeye races home to murder his wife, Duke and his buddies make their move -- but here a more melodramatic plot imposes itself, as Duke discovers that one of the new prisoners awaiting processing outside overnight is his own kid brother (Tom Brown). Furious that Johnny had ignored his advice to keep straight and take care of their ma, and fearful that the kid is too soft for the joint, Duke abandons his escape attempt. However, he now has leverage with Popeye, knowing exactly what the guard had done that night.

If anything, Johnny's too tough for his own good and gets into a fight with a guard. That gets him sent to the "hospital," but Duke is able to intimidate Popeye into letting him go. When Skinner sees what's going on, he realizes that he has leverage over Duke and promises easy jobs for Johnny if Duke will give up the work stoppage -- a protest over the spoons and the con killed in the hotbox --on the road the cons are building for a corrupt contractor. Working in the mailroom with a sympathetic warden, Johnny learns that Duke is due to be extradited to another state for a crime that may earn him a life sentence. The news provokes Johnny to stage a mass breakout himself that escalates into a reckoning for several characters....

I hadn't been impressed by Richard Dix's work in the Pre-Code era until this film. He always seemed merely oafish rather than powerful -- his lilting voice may have something to do with that -- but Hell's Highway lit a fire under him, inspiring a tough, aggressive performance that finally made me see something of what fans saw in him for years. He's well supported by a surprisingly likable Middleton in a role that exploits his innate creepiness and makes something amiably comical about it, and by the dependably vile Gordon.

Even if the fraternal storyline drags Hell's Highway back to conventional territory -- and you should see the wildly deceptive advertising describing a film that has women in maybe two scenes as "A Heart-Pounding Story of Love" -- Brown continues to do unconventional things with the story. Perhaps needing to pad a film that comes in at around 63 minutes in its present form, he halts the plot for a digression in which Clarence Muse and a group of black convicts comment on the Popeye subplot by drawing cartoons and singing a Popeye-specific variation on "Frankie and Johnny." Another subplot running through the picture is the case of the stolen spoon. Brown occasionally shows us an unknown figure gradually working the spoon into a shiv, until the figure, who remains unknown, stabs Skinner in the back through an open window as the guard starts his violin practice. The violin business is a wonderful extra bit of eccentricity in this odd, tough little movie, while Brown's refusal to reveal Skinner's killer tells us that individual details ultimately matter less than the film's overall picture of prison life. Hell's Highway dares to end on a comic note as Duke adopts Michael's "yea, brother!" catchphrase, which may undermine the outrage the picture may have meant to generate but tips us off to Brown's more-likely real feeling that all this suffering and struggle is just a great joke.  I Am a Fugitive remains outraged throughout, and that may be while it endured, while the hard-boiled attitude of Hell's Highway is more specific to its time. It may be only certain other times, like our own, can appreciate it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

INTIMATE ENEMIES (L'Ennemi Intime, 2007)

France has had a problem with Muslims dating back to the Battle of Tours, when Charles Martel repelled Islam from the high-water mark of its eighth-century incursion into western Europe. A millennium later, France was on the offensive. The conquest of Algeria began in 1830. For France it became a true colony, a place for French people to settle in and virtually an extension of the French homeland. The war for Algerian independence began in the 1950s. I would call it France's Vietnam except that France had its own Vietnam before we Americans did. Yet the Algerian conflict arguably caused even more trauma in France than the Vietnam conflict did in the U.S. In France, reactionaries conspired to overthrow the government rather than accept negotiations leading to Algerian independence. Despite their fury, independence came in 1962.

At one time, we might have been expected to root for France in the conflict and see them as the standard-bearers of civilization and modernity. Today, we're more likely expected to root for the Algerians because, after all, it was their country. Yet Florent Emilio Siri's L'Ennemi Intime finds little to choose from between the French and the FLN or the fellaghin fighters in the countryside. On this film's evidence, Algeria endured not so much a war for independence as two factions of thugs battling to rule a passive majority without caring much for them. Intimate Enemies has no heroes, though it may seem reactionary in its refusal to concede much moral ground to the Algerians. Both sides commit atrocities on both small and large scales, torturing individuals and massacring entire villages. The civilian villager is forced to choose between terror and terror and pays dearly for the wrong choice. Islam has little to do with it all, from what we can tell, since the FLN, like many Third World insurgencies of the era, were secular and socialistic. In time, they would have to deal with a true Islamist insurgency against their "people's government," characterized by the same sort of massacres we see in the movie. Siri's film shows terror stripped of its religious trappings and its nationalist romance. It's a powerful anti-war film for that reason.



Intimate Enemies has a conventional story at its core: the new, green officer arrives in the "forbidden zone" and has his ideals shattered by the savagery of counterinsurgent warfare. The contrast between naivete and ruthless realism isn't absolute, however. The new lieutenant succumbs to the temptation of terror, while the hard-headed sergeant (a Vietnam vet) feels an empathic guilt that drives him to subject himself to the same torture he inflicts on the enemy.



The film really lives up to its title in its portrayal of Algerians fighting alongside the French. We're reminded that many fighting for and against France in 1959 had fought for France -- Free France, that is -- during World War II. The most detailed and complex of the Algerian characters is Danoun, a scarred veteran of the assault on Monte Cassino in Italy. He's an irreconcilable enemy of the fellaghin because the insurgents massacred his village and his family. When the French respect a captured fellaghin who had also fought at Monte Cassino, Danoun, who had struck up a friendly chat with the prisoner earlier, shoots him in the back when the French officers are willing to let him go. Nothing else matters than his current grudge against the fellaghin, yet he proves something of a coward in battle conditions, and when the sergeant orders him at gunpoint to crank up the electricity so the sarge can experience torture, Danoun seems as much tortured by fear and anguish as the sergeant is by the voltage.


While Danoun remains loyal throughout, other natives waver. One seemingly reliable scout seems to go over to the fellaghin, apparently disgusted by a napalm strike, only to be tortured and left for the French to finish off for mercy's sake. A boy becomes the sole survivor of a massacre by fellaghin by hiding in a well; rescued by the French, he becomes a mascot for our main characters, only to turn fellaghin after witnessing another massacre, this time by the French, and the torturing to death of an old man by the once-idealist lieutenant. None of these characters seems imbued by any overriding national consciousness. Each has all too personal reasons for choosing or switching sides. The French, of course, have no choice of sides, though one of our main soldiers chooses another option to quit the war altogether. For French and Algerians alike, the war is a personal ordeal, traumatically different if not unique for each fighting man. Flags and slogans offer neither solace nor escape.



Nearby Morocco substitutes for Algeria and offers Siri and cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellaci an epic landscape against which to shoot their intimate war drama. Siri stages some decent action scenes emphasizing the chaos and panic of guerrilla combat as nature in the form of trees or sheep gets in the way of the combatants. The acting ensemble is solid with Mohammed Fellag as Danoun the standout performer. In some ways L'Ennemi Intime is a generic war film, very much like an American Vietnam film without the jungle or the rock soundtrack. But seeing a generic story in a fresh setting can help us see the whole genre with fresh eyes. The Algerian war is so unfamiliar to most global viewers that Intimate Enemies seems less like a generic war film or a transplanted 'Nam film. That allows us to see war here the way the auteurs see it, and few war films I've seen from any country emphasize as strongly as Siri does how each soldier, despite being part of an army and representing a nation, is morally and psychologically on his own.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Anita Ekberg (1931-2015)

Another giant of cinema has passed away.


Ekberg was big before Federico Fellini inflated her standing in Boccaccio 70. The Swede got a chance in Hollywood as a Miss Universe finalist; by 1956 she was starring alongside Martin and Lewis in two of their last comedies and alongside more prestigious performers in the Italo-American adaptation of War and Peace. If Hollywood made her a pin-up, Fellini made her an icon, the embodiment, frolicking in a Roman fountain, of La Dolce Vita. The woman didn't age so well, but this moment never gets old. This particular clip was uploaded to YouTube by AndreaYT: