Friday, December 24, 2010

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans


Year: 1927
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 82
Writer: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer
Director: F.W. Murnau
Star: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” identifies itself as a fable in the main titles, and in doing so allows itself to fully embrace melodrama and otherwise-ludicrous character beats. Its characters are purposely not well-defined, and the worlds presented here are as specific as they are vague. You embrace the film as you would embrace a well-written poem, the beats of beauty lingering long after it ends.

The story centers on two unnamed characters, a Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor), who were happy long ago. A Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) has drifted into their small town for a vacation, staying for weeks longer than she should in order to seduce the Man, which she does. One night as they hold one another next to a lake, she asks him to drown his Wife and run off with her to the city. The next day he takes his Wife out on the boat with the full intention of murdering her…but cannot. Across the lake they go into the city and rediscover their love for one another through a series of vignettes, but then as they make their return a storm begins that overturns their boat…

As I wrote earlier, all of this is hugely melodramatic. I write this being a fan of a good melodrama, and loathing that film critics have begun using the word as an all-encompassing criticism of any movie with elevated emotions. Look at much of the work of Douglas Sirk, William Friedkin or Brian DePalma for examples of melodrama done right, and if those names make you cringe, then melodrama isn’t for you. The melodrama in “Sunrise” is different and more shallow than the work of the above directors but, again, since the movie is more a fable than a coherent narrative, this is forgivable. And despite being so simply told with broad, melodramatic strokes, that does not mean it is not elegant. Early in the film, the man takes reeds from the lake shore to use as a floatation device after he drowns his wife and sinks his boat. I was struck by the power of a later moment, during the storm, when the Man desperately uses the reeds to save his Wife.

The one beat I still find suspect comes in the aftermath of the couple’s first boating incident. The Man has come very close to throwing his wife overboard and murdering her, but has had a change of heart. The Wife runs away from him once the boat reaches shore, but he catches up to her and apologizes profusely for an eternity (five minutes) while she bawls. After she finishes crying, all seems to be forgiven and the two begin touring the city without a thought that he almost pushed her overboard less than an hour before. The moment is reminiscent (in a bad way) of Maria immediately forgiving Tony for murdering her brother in “West Side Story,” but at least here we get a bit of breathing room before she gets over it.

The couple doesn’t reach the city until half-way through the film, but these passages are the most important and, ultimately, become the heart “Sunrise.” They surprise us because they manage to convince us that this couple that we thought were beyond repair still deeply love one another. While there are broad moments of slapstick, it is the beautifully realized quiet moments that resonate most. There is a scene where they enter a church, watch another couple wed and, in their own way, renew their vows and re-commit themselves to one another. Later, they exit the church and walk into traffic, too busy gazing into each other’s eyes to notice the cars and trucks piling up around them. Even later, they dance the “Peasant’s Dance” together, at first begrudgingly but soon find themselves completely engaged with it.

The scenes that aim more for slapstick are less successful. I’m thinking here of the beautician scene where they both become playfully jealous of each other, and especially the scene in the restaurant at an amusement park. The Man ends up chasing a pig (!?) through the restaurant, the pig gets drunk on a spilled bottle of wine (I’m guessing the filmmakers greased the floor to make the pig slip and slide) and then the Man finds him. There are genuinely funny bits here, like where a bystander continues to fix a woman’s falling shoulder straps, but they take the focus off the couple and are unnecessary.

Visually, the film is endlessly inventive. My favorite image comes early, when the man tries to forget the Woman From the City. He sits on his bed and the image of the Woman appears behind him, holding him. He jerks away, only to meet another image of the Woman. Then a third appears. It’s an unforgettable moment, one of the finest in all of cinema. The sequence out on the lake where the Man contemplates murder is still unnerving thanks to the camera’s placement. We never see his face. It’s much superior to a similar sequence in the overrated “A Place In the Sun.” When the Woman and Man talk of the City, we are treated to quick swipes and lots of imaginative miniatures that just beg for rewinding and pausing. You know that Murnau is using a lot of tricks and visual gags throughout, but the movie is strong enough that they don’t matter. The viewer stops caring about how the visuals were created and instead just becomes lost in the splendor.

Murnau even surprises us with his dialogue titles. They are hardly necessary in the film, but when he uses them, he makes them count. When the word “DROWN” appears in one of the titles, it seems to become wet and warp.
And yet despite the visual splendor and inventiveness, the movie would not work if we didn’t believe the performances of O’Brien and Gaynor. Though they both overact (as all silent film stars were wont to do), there is a subtlety to their relationship that surprises. They have an easy chemistry with one another and make us fall in love with them in the second act. When Gaynor is lost on the lake and assumed dead, the viewer is devastated because we care just as much for their relationship as they do, and when she is found and weakly smiles at O’Brien, we are overjoyed. In a time when film emotions and romances are more spoken than felt, “Sunrise” is all about feeling. It still has the power to steal your heart, and how many movies that begin with a husband plotting the death of his wife can you say that about?

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Maltese Falcon


Year: 1941
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 31
Writer/Director: John Huston
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet

The statue at the center of John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” is one of the most intriguing of all MacGuffins because it doesn’t seem to fit within the world around it. Sure, we can see the pornographic photographs in “The Big Sleep” or the lighter in “Strangers on a Train” fitting right into the world of noir…but a gold, jeweled bird statuette from the 1500s? Really? And yet that is part of the film’s appeal: Everything seems twisted and reality seems hopelessly lost somewhere within the knots, even when truths are finally spoken late in the second act. This film feels like the opposite of “Double Indemnity,” where the characters can’t stop themselves from speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Most film scholars agree that this is the first true example of film noir, but if you consider noir to be a mood and style above all other definitions (post-war anger, man’s descent into darkness, femme fatales), then I would humbly submit 1930’s “The Bat Whispers” as the first film that exudes noir style and sensibilities.

Looking at “The Maltese Falcon” today, the movie feels like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers. It’s reliable, interesting and enjoyable, but I wouldn’t single out any aspect of the film as being the “pinnacle” of its genre. The mystery is intriguing if ultimately lacking of a pay-off. The dialogue flashy but without the real spark or edge of Raymond Chandler’s work. The direction apt and beautiful in places, but the movie lacks the deep shadows and specters we usually expect from noir and feels more like a stage play than movie. It feels like a solid piece of craftsmanship more than a masterpiece.

The plot doesn’t really matter because it’s really about the characters, but here we go. We start off thinking Private Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner are trying to rescue a kidnapped woman from a bad man named Thursby, but that soon morphs into a desperate hunt for the bird in the title. Spade’s partner gets dead, his stomach filled with bullets and betrayal. Thursby gets even deader, and Spade becomes a suspect in both murders. The dame who hired them (Mary Astor) changes motives and her story with each subsequent reel of film. A gay con-man (Peter Lorre) and his horribly obese, well-spoken boss (Sydney Greenstreet) become involved. Everyone lies, and even when they don’t there’s no reason for us to believe them.

Bogart here plays a variation on the tough-guy routine he perfected over the course of his career. But while his characters often began gruff before revealing great feeling (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen”) or great anger (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Conflict”), here his Sam Spade resists all character depth. This isn’t a problem for the film—Bogart’s characterization provides the viewer with an anchor amidst all the double-and-triple crosses. Interestingly, for the first reels of the film Huston ensures that we never see the moment when Spade would show any emotion, perhaps to get the viewer used to his detached nature. When Spade learns of his partner’s death, he receives the news just out of frame. When Spade looks down into the ditch at the his dead partner, we don’t cut to a close-up of Bogart’s face but instead a medium shot of his back. It is only after we see him kiss his dead partner’s wife and coldly order his secretary to alter the sign on the door do we face him head-on every time he makes a choice or reacts to a situation. His parting words and literal kiss-off of Astor is one of the best acted moments in all of Bogart’s career.

The deeper Spade delves into the case, the more interesting characters the film unearths. Lorre’s Joel Cairo is a fascinating rat of a human being, sweating constantly and always appearing to be ready to curl up in the fetal position if someone touches him. Sydney Greenstreet is fantastic as the coyly named Casper Gutman, who speaks with such eloquence he seems to have stepped out of a Roman art gallery and onto the film’s sets. His first encounter with Spade, where he compliments just about every characteristic Spade showcases while trying to slip him a drugged drink, is the best in the picture, all the more impactful because of Huston’s playful long take of the scene. These characters, like the falcon itself, seem out of place in the world of noir, and therefore all the more memorable.

Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy has a very fun name, but I’m afraid her allure ends there. Her femme fatale doesn’t convince the viewer for a moment that she has the wiles, charm or sexual prowess to get away with what her character gets away with in the film. Astor seems too old for the role, not in age but in the way she dresses and carries herself around Spade, who she tries to seduce. Her lies don’t seem convincing from the start onward (in fact, Spade is quick to point out that he figured out she was lying about everything before the end of their first meeting), so every time she appears on screen and is given any sort of substantial dialogue we tune her out. It doesn’t help that Spade calls her out on her lies after one of her more out-there stories and she laughs about it, admits to lying about everything, and then continues to do it as if the conversation didn’t happen. It’s such a shame, because the emotional heft we should feel about Spade’s decision to turn her in at the finale (the aforementioned scene of Bogart’s great acting) is lost because we dislike O’Shaughnessy so much. I would have much rather we stayed with Cairo and Gutmen, who are far more interesting and speak with actual gravitas.

I try to keep a movie’s place in film history and its importance out of these articles because the point of this blog is to examine films on their own merits, but here I must break from that. This entire article all I’ve wanted to do is sum up “The Maltese Falcon” thusly: It’s a great first try. The cast and filmmakers were unconsciously creating an entire genre as they produced this movie, so of course there would be stumbling points. Bogart is a phenomenal actor and Huston is a fantastic director. Both would go on to make better movies, both together (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Key Largo” “The African Queen”) and separately (“Casablanca,” “Sabrina” and numerous others for Bogart, “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Heaven Knows, Mister Allison” and others for Huston), and none of that would have been possible without this film. “The Maltese Falcon” is a very good movie and a promise of better things to come from two of the most unique voices in film, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Year: 1981
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 66
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman

There are dozens of ways you could rightly criticize “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but that’s before you insert what I call “the awesome factor.” Little or no characterization? Bah. No trace of an interesting storyline? Who cares? At some point every critic has to just put down their little book of notes and criticisms and just go with it. This movie aims to be nothing more than fun, and succeeds brilliantly. The following things appear in the movie: snakes, poison darts, gold idols, evil Nazis, eviler Nazis, melting faces, plane propellers chopping up Nazis, cliffs, perfectly round boulders, planes, auto chases and drinking games. If that list doesn’t immediately make all your little hairs stand up then, my friend, you don’t probably don’t like sunshine or ponies either.

We learn just about everything we need to know about our characters from their introductions. No one gains any depth as the film hums along, and there are no shocking double crosses. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is introduced as a he-man of an adventurer. He’s really smart, doesn’t deal with emotions and isn’t afraid of anything but snakes. His girl is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and what a name she has. That’s the kind of name only a really drunk screenwriter could come up with. Marion is quite a broad. She’s first introduced winning at a drinking game over a very burly, frightening man/woman, and almost immediately decks Indy in the jaw after meeting him. But, of course, she’s in love with him. The villains are a bunch of interchangeable Nazis and Indy’s main rival Belloq (Paul Freeman), whose main characterization comes with his first line to Jones: “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”

That’s all you need to know. Oh, and also that they are hunting the Ark of the Covenant. Now you can probably figure the rest out quite easily.

Ford and Allen deserve one hell of a lot of credit for being able to keep straight faces throughout all of this, and their screen charisma and easy chemistry with one another are the main reason the movie succeeds. If you can tell they are mugging for the camera or not taking what is going on as seriously as death, then the movie will not work.

Though I’m sure if you used a hammer, mallet and chisel you could probably somehow squeeze “Raiders of the Lost Ark” into the rigid three-act structure almost all mainstream movies adhere to, but even then you’d be cheating. There’s no real stakes that continue to be raised. What happens is that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director Steven Spielberg simply move Ford and Allen from one big, memorable set-piece to another with little-to-no lag time in the middle. A single beat, that the Ark will be possessed by the Nazis, is repeated probably a dozen times, the only difference being the location. The end of the second act, which should represent the lowest point for our main characters, is no different than any of the other shenanigans they’d gotten themselves into.

But what shenanigans, eh? My favorite is the actual recovery of the Ark in a tomb, with Indy and Marion subsequently trapped inside surrounded by snakes. But it could just as easily be the car chase along a cliffside and through a forest. Or the opening sequence involving the golden idol. Or…you get the idea. Each set-piece consistently builds until it reaches the point of unbelievability, then takes it a step further. Look at the tomb sequence. Indy enters a tomb full of thousands of poisonous snakes (his one weakness). Then Indy recovers ark, but it is immediately stolen by the Nazis. Then Marion is thrown into the tomb. Then the tomb is closed. Then their torches are about to go out. Then Indy rides an ancient statue into a wall (point of unbelievability) to facilitate their escape. Then they find their way out through a convenient loose rock.

Yes, here is a movie that says “Why not?” instead of “Why?” Let’s give Indiana Jones a whip! Why not? Let’s have one of the Nazis burn his hand on an ancient artifact and then use it as a map! Why not? Of course, much of this is madness, and the only reason it works is because Spielberg is a genius at staging, pacing and wowing the audience. But even he has trouble from time to time, as when the aforementioned Nazi burns his hand. The editing seems speeded up as the Nazi runs outside to thrust his hand into snow, giving the moment a “Three Stooges” feeling.

Filmmakers have bent over backwards attempting to replicate the same energy and rock-em-sock-em attitude. Every summer studios march out at least a dozen films with the same barely-interconnected set-pieces created more because of the evolution of special effects and less because they are just plain enjoyable. Perhaps they may soon realize that they have reached the creative point of diminishing returns. After all, how many summer tentpoles are as just plain fun as “Raiders”? Okay, its three sequels are great, and I’d throw in “Jurassic Park,” but what else? The “Mission: Impossible” films? “Iron Man”? “The Mummy” remake? Perhaps it’s a good sign that our summer tentpoles are becoming darker and more story-driven (the Harry Potter films, “The Dark Knight”), but sometimes don’t you just wish movies were fun again?

Another part of the fun is looking at the now horribly outdated special effects. Even though they were cutting edge at the time of the movie’s release, many of them still look pretty phony. There is something about seeing the miniatures and matte paintings that is more enjoyable and more rewarding than watching a perfectly-created CGI army of trolls attacking a castle. And there are actual stunts involved here, not CG characters doing impossible things! Who would’a thunk it?

I grew up with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Indiana Jones franchise, and its great to know that as I mature the films have lost none of their spark and vigor. It is still just as pleasurable to watch now as it was when I was ten. And how many other films can you say that about?

My Score (out of 5): *****

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rear Window


Year: 1954
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 48
Writer: John Michael Hayes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter

Who hasn’t done it? Your neighbor’s windows are right there, and the lights inside their apartments and houses so well illuminate their actions. We obsess about privacy—we want it but want to feel innocent about invading other people’s on a regular basis. Haven’t you ever paused in your actions, whatever they might be, and realized the window is open and the lights are on, then hurried to pull the blinds? “Rear Window” presents us not with a hero or a saint, but with an everyman behaving in a way decent people probably would behave. We watch him as he watches others, and everyone judges everyone.

The everyman is Jeff (James Stewart), trapped in his two-room apartment during a New York heat wave with a broken leg and cast that makes him basically immobile. He’s a man of action, his walls filled with astounding photographs (one, of a crashing racecar, gives us a hint as to how he got the broken leg), and hates having nothing to do all day but watch the neighbors. But that doesn’t stop him. His apartment looks out onto a courtyard and we get to know his neighbors. Most notable are a musician, a woman Jeff names Ms. Torso who gyrates around her kitchen in next-to-nothing and has all-male parties (except for her, of course) and a middle-aged woman, Ms. Lonelyhearts, who lives up to the name Jeff bestows upon her.

Jeff is cared for by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) during the days and his knock-out of a girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) during the evenings. Stella isn’t afraid to speak her mind and condemn Jeff’s voyeurism, even if she joins in from time to time if something interesting happens. Lisa wants Jeff to marry her, and is having one hell of a time convincing him to settle down. She pampers him, bringing him expensive dinners from Twenty-One and dressing in the most expensive fashions to please him, only to have him pull further away. Their first scene together is a bombshell of barely-concealed anger. We find out that Lisa has graced the cover of a magazine and Jeff took that picture, but instead of framing the finished image Jeff has frames the negative, which says everything about the relationship. He fell in love with the idea of her, not the finished product. Stewart was graying by this point in his career, and though the age difference between him and Kelly is not commented on in the film, one has to wonder if Jeff’s character sees his handicap now as a sign of things to come in the future, and doesn’t want to hinder Lisa twenty years in the future, when she’s still beautiful and he will be prone to hip-breaking.

Jeff takes interest in another neighboring apartment, this one inhabited by a bickering couple that seems to have an odd parallel to his relationship with Lisa. This time the woman is laid up with an unnamed sickness and the man (Raymond Burr) must care for her. Their apartment is the most boring one in the courtyard, with small windows and few decorations inside, just like the man must view his life. Then, one day, the woman is gone and the man is wrapping saws in newspaper. Uh oh.

Jeff takes this and several other small clues, puts them together and comes to the conclusion that the man murdered his wife. Both Lisa and Stella dismiss this at first. Jeff tells Lisa his suspicions while they kiss one evening in a scene reminiscent of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” and she just wants to get back to necking. Stella is more blunt, saying “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” What do the neighbors think of Jeff, who they must see watching them? What do they think of his knock-out girlfriend, who only comes over at night (with an overnight case to boot!) and never seems to sweat despite the heat?

Strange things begin going on in the courtyard, like the death of a cute dog, and Jeff’s suspicions seem confirmed even if there are witnesses who allegedly saw the possibly dead wife climbing onboard a train. We learn the man’s name is Thorwald, and any man with that name must be guilty of something. Since he is incapable of doing anything himself, Lisa and Stella take the investigation mobile. The best, most suspenseful sequence in the film happens when Lisa and Stella unearth a small patch of earth they think a stray finger might be buried in and, when they find nothing, Lisa climbs up a fire escape and through an open window in Thorwald’s apartment. There is a harrowing moment where she is about to be arrested then turns toward Jeff (watching helplessly from his apartment) and begins to point toward a wedding ring on her finger—Mrs. Thorwald’s ring! Our hearts leap…until Thorwald sees this and looks out into the courtyard, making eye contact with Jeff. I still get shivers every time I see that moment, and it’s one of the best pay-offs to a sustained suspense sequence ever.

For my money, “Rear Window” is the best-written thriller ever made. Of course, since this is a Hitchcock movie he gets most of the credit for the film’s success, but special attention should be paid to John Michael Hayes’ screenplay. The characters are very, very smart about how they approach the situation and use a mix of logic and women’s intuition (which are often the same thing) to deduce more than your average Joe ever could. More than that, the dialogue Hayes uses to bring the characters to life is witty and wonderful, something you never see in thrillers today. Lisa, who could have easily been the token two-dimensional heroine is given some crackerjack lines (my favorite being “Preview of coming attractions.” Anyone who has seen the film knows exactly what I’m talking about). Ritter is given one of the best black-humor moments ever at the conclusion, where she tells a police officer “She doesn’t want any part of it.” It being the hunt for Mrs. Thorwald’s missing bits and pieces. The lines seem ordinary to readers unfamiliar with the story, but Hayes has a gift of finding the perfect straightforward dialogue to bring out the best of the story.

Then, of course, there’s Hitchcock’s direction. He manages to make Jeff’s apartment seem cramped and small yet still finds endless new ways to shoot it, and until the finale every shot (except for two during the death of the dog sequence that are done for extra impact) is from the vantage point of the apartment. It’s beautiful and adds significantly to the suspense when the time comes for it.

“Rear Window” is my favorite Hitchcock film, and considering the competition that is a huge compliment. Stewart so convincingly plays a normal guy caught up in a extraordinary situation where he cannot do more than watch and conjecture, Kelly is his perfect Girl Friday and Ritter is magnificent as the third member of the investigation team.

As I write this my eyes are drifting out my own windows, looking across the street into the windows of my neighboring building. Perhaps I should pull the blinds. Perhaps.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Silence of the Lambs


Year: 1991
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 74
Writer: Ted Tally
Director: Jonathan Demme
Star: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine

Clarice Starling’s quest to become an FBI agent and do good seems futile from the opening frames of “Silence of the Lambs.” The other agents-in-training tower over her and judge her with every lingering glance. Her hillbilly accent gives her speech much less authority than it should. Most importantly, the world around her seems to have rotted and spoiled from its core.

Yes, this is a horror movie, but the viewer would still expect certain scenes to be filmed with warmth or beauty, if only to counterbalance the darkness. Not here. The forest Starling (Jodie Foster) trains in as the film opens is gray, wet and ominous. The river agents fly over to investigate a corpse is brown with waste. Even the main titles are black and ugly. Every location these characters encounter seems devoid of anything alive or worth saving. As if dead forests and deteriorating buildings on the surface of the Earth weren’t enough, the monsters that inhabit the film live beneath that surface in isolated, cold caverns.

The film has two such monsters. The first we meet is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling is sent by the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to get Lecter to fill out useless profile forms. To get to Lecter’s cell Starling descends flight after flight of stairs, then is escorted through a seemingly endless collection of barred doors and safety locks. When she finally gets to Lecter’s beyond-maximum security hallway, we notice that the other inmates are kept behind bars while Lecter is held behind Plexiglas. Holy crap.

The second is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). He seems to live in an unimpressive middle-class home, but underneath is a cavern that seems to reach endlessly out under the earth. He keeps his live victims at the bottom of a dry well and, a few rooms over, sews his dead victim’s skin into a sickening coat of flesh.

The hunt for Bill drives the story but Lecter is the one who lingers most in our minds. His speech is mannered and his persona is by turns cold and inviting. He’s an enigma, and in that way he interests us in the same way he is interested in Starling. Of course the real reason we grow to “enjoy” Lecter is because he is sympathetic to Starling. On the whole he’s kind to her in a world of men who dismiss her, perhaps because she doesn’t cave in the same way so many others would when he calls her a generation away from white trash. Hopkins is perfect in the role and makes the delicate balance between gentleman and monster seem easy. After one of the other inmates throws semen on Starling, Lecter whispers to him until he goes mad(der) and swallows his own tongue. He’s not flirting with her in any sense of the word, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Lecter is male and Starling is female. The moment their fingers touch, albeit only for a second, is electrifying.

That Starling can hold her own with him is a testament to her character. Foster delicately balances Starling’s innocence with her inherent strength. After all, she’s only in training at the FBI, and writer Ted Tally shows that, though very smart, she isn’t a prodigy in her department. Tally and director Jonathan Demme get a lot of mileage out of a small moment in her training where she runs into a room and is about to cuff a faux-suspect but forgets to check behind the door she entered through first. During the final moments of the film, as she is desperately checking through the rooms of Bill’s underground lair, the audience is screaming for her to check behind the damn doors every time she enters a new level of hell.

Demme makes a very ballsy move by shooting the movie head-on. When Crawford is first introduced, he stares directly at the camera to read his lines. When Lecter asks to see Starling’s credentials he is staring through the glass directly at us (“Closer, please. Closer.”). We see the group of local police men staring at us as Starling tries to get them to leave the room. It’s unnerving, but hugely successful. We immediately feel for Starling, understand what she’s gone through her entire life and feel added suspense as she stares down these monsters. If the Crawford character did not look at the camera head-on, we would perhaps think much differently of the subplot where we wonder just what he wants with Starling. Is he aroused by her or does he see her as an equal? Glenn plays the beats of the character just right, and the ambiguity of their parting handshake speaks volumes as a result.

The movie makes another ballsy move in abandoning Starling for fifteen minutes during the second act, but here I’m more torn about its success. Tally and Demme instead follow a bunch of nameless officers after Lecter has escaped from his cell. The scene is well shot and the thrills well choreographed, but since we care nothing about any of these characters it doesn’t resonate emotionally with the viewer. The pay-off of Lecter pulling off a mask of skin in the ambulance, almost makes it worth it. Almost.

Above all else, “Silence of the Lambs” is scary. I’ve focused almost exclusively on the characters and world, but the point of a horror movie is to scare the viewer, and this one does its job brilliantly. When Starling is in the Bill’s basement at the climax of the movie it only takes up about seven minutes of screen time, but after multiple viewings it still feels like a horrifying, suspenseful eternity. I always see the movie referred to as a “thriller,” perhaps because it sounds classier than “horror movie” and movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture should seem classy, but make no mistakes, this is a horror movie. To call it anything else demeans the rest of the genre, which is just as visceral and important as every other film genre. There is a notable lack of horror movies on the AFI Top 100 list (“The Sixth Sense,” “Jaws” and “Psycho” are the only others) and this is a horrible oversight that, frankly, angers me. When AFI created Top 10 lists for all of the major genres, “Horror” was not one of them. You always hear that the best horror and science fiction movies “transcend” their genre, as if there is some shame in those genres. Movies like “The Exorcist,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Shining,” “The Uninvited,” “Halloween” and “Rosemary’s Baby” have just as much artistic merit as any movie on this list, and to pretend they do not because they involve “cheap scares” is laughable.

The “cheap scares” in “Silence of the Lambs” are well earned and beautifully executed. They impact us because we care so much about Starling. They linger with us because they tap into those moments where we are by ourselves, on edge, and can’t figure out why. Who hasn’t been alone in the dark and felt like there was someone else there, watching us?

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Saturday, November 13, 2010

In the Heat of the Night


Year: 1967
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 75
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Director: Norman Jewison
Star: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant

It’s not just that Virgil Tibbs is a black man. It’s that he’s a black man who represents sanity and logic in a small Southern town full of emotion and anger. The world seems to have passed right by Sparta, Mississippi without taking much notice, and its citizens are trying to convince themselves they aren’t angry about it. But, of course, they are.

While “In the Heat of the Night” goes through the motions of being a mystery, it’s not. There is no possible way a viewer can collect clues and deduce the real killer’s identity, no matter how many Agatha Christie novels he or she has read. It’s a character drama pitting two opposite character types against one another before having them team up for the greater good. Taken on those terms alone, the film is fairly successful, but falls short of true excellence simply because the Tibbs character is so much more interesting than the Sheriff he butts heads with.

Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested for murder near the beginning of the film partially because he is a stranger to Sparta but mostly because he’s a black man. From the moment he is introduced to the town’s Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger), we know that this isn’t going to be a fair fight. Sure, Tibbs is well-dressed in a suit while Gillespie is sweating through his tight police uniform, but it’s about so much more than that.

The writer, Stirling Silliphant, stacks the odds against Gillespie by making him so wrong-headed about every single thing he does during the first half of the movie. For a man with so much experience as a police officer, Gillespie seems to overlook every logical question one would ask about the murder. I know nothing about murder or investigating them, but even I would know to check the wound to see if the killer was left or right handed. But no, for most of the movie Gillespie and his troupe of Andy Griffith-wannabe deputies are so overcome by racism that they can do nothing else but make idiotic decisions and then argue with the (obviously right) black man about everything that comes out of his mouth. In a horribly sloppy move, Gillespie’s character is denied any sort of character development until after he realizes Tibbs might know what he is talking about. All we know about him is that he can’t seem to stop chewing gum in the most annoying way possible at all times. Because of this, we have no reason to invest in the character until it’s too late.

Then again, even if Silliphant would have gone out of his way to weave a three-dimensional character for Steiger to inhabit, Gillespie would still be blown out of the water by his rival. Tibbs is just too strong of a character and Poitier is just too charismatic of an actor for anyone else to successfully steal the screen from him. He’s the rarest of actors, like Ian McShane or Laurence Fishburne, whose presence is so strong that viewers have a hard time looking away from him onscreen, no matter what is happening in a given scene.

Jewison inherently understands this and often just keeps his camera on Poitier no matter what is going on. Look at the moment where Poitier must inform the dead man’s widow (Lee Grant) that her husband has been murdered. Instead of cutting to Grant’s face as she gets the news, Jewison just stays on Poitier until the very end of the scene, finally lingering on Grant now that Poitier has left the room.

Jewison’s camera moves quite a bit in the movie, giving viewers long takes that move back and forth to whatever is most interesting. My favorite shot in the movie is a long take that follows Tibb’s hands as they explore a dead body, twisting muscles and exploring skin color as Tibbs tries to make sense of the death. His lack of editing also allows from some wonderful surprises. For instance, in the scene where a white man slaps Tibbs only to immediately be slapped back, the viewer would expect several cross-cuts to close-ups and medium shots for added impact. Instead, Jewison just holds the camera on the men, making Tibbs’ retaliation against the slap much more startling.

From the moment we discover Tibbs in a train station, we know where the story is heading. He will face a lot of racism and opposition from the sheriff and the rest of the town but his logic and insistence on the truth will finally win Gillespie over, allowing them to team up to catch the real killer. The story doesn’t veer at all from the team-up routine, so I began to focus more attention on the murder mystery. The investigation in kind doesn’t start until about an hour into the movie, and even then there are a bunch of sloppy inconsistencies. The police catch a suspect after a harrowing chase through the forest and banks of a river, and we can plainly see the suspect getting his hands in mud and dirt. But moments later when Tibbs checks under his fingernails all he finds is chalk. Huh, that’s odd.

Other details, mostly involving Tibbs and Gillespie, the movie gets just right. It’s fantastic to see the building fury on Gillespie’s face when he first realizes that Tibbs makes more money in a week than the sheriff makes in a month, and then he finds out that Tibbs is a police officer. Or when the men drive through a cotton field and you can see Gillespie relishing the opportunity to make a crack about slavery and trying to decide what the perfect words would be to make the most impact. Then there are weird beats, as when the title song randomly plays over the men’s drive through that cotton field despite it not being at night nor seeming too hot.

The movie does get much stronger once Gillespie develops a personality other than “I’m a racist and I hate you.” The quiet interaction between Steiger and Poitier in Gillespie’s home is a master course in understated acting, and their parting scene at the train station is more emotional than the movie deserves thanks to the fine acting. You have to wonder just how amazing the entire film would have been if the character tension and interplay from the final third of the movie was present throughout.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Double Indemnity


Year: 1944
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 29
Writer: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
Director: Raymond Chandler
Star: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson

The dame. The dialogue. The gun. The descent. The Venetian blinds.

If I had to choose one movie that defines the film noir genre, it would be “Double Indemnity.” The film breathes bleakness. It has the best femme fatale (sorry Kathleen Turner) ever to grace a staircase. The script is the most literate, quotable noir ever (sorry Robert Towne) and the movie’s direction is beautiful in its shadows and specters.

This was Billy Wilder’s gift. Over his long career, he worked within almost every major film genre (even ones, like noir, which had yet to be defined as such) and in doing so brought those genres to their pinnacle. He completely understood his subject matter, and his work rarely judged, reinvented or deconstructed—instead he just polished the conventions until they gleamed. “Double Indemnity.” “Sabrina.” “Sunset Blvd.” “The Seven Year Itch.” “Witness for the Prosecution.” “The Apartment.” “Love in the Afternoon.” In fact, his few missteps were when he did deconstruct the genres he was working within, as with “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” or “Fedora.”

Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels are masterpieces of style over substance. I’m guessing Wilder brought the structure and morals (okay, lack of morals) to the table while Chandler focused on dialogue and characterization. The result is just about perfect.

The story focuses on an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) named Walter Neff (“with two f’s, just like Philadelphia”). Neff seems like a normal Joe who knows how to light matches in a really, really cool way. The moment he sets eyes on Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wrapped in a towel on top of a staircase, he’s doomed. There’s a lot of foreplay, the kind that makes you all sweaty without any physical contact, and soon Neff is Phyllis’ willing toy. She wants to murder her husband and collect his accident insurance, and Neff is more than willing to help. Complicating matters is Neff’s best (only?) friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who is his boss at work but also his moral compass. Keyes smells something wrong with the murder, but just can’t put his finger on it, and Neff is right when he concludes that Keyes was just too close to the case.

Neff and Phyllis circle each other beautifully as they wait for the perfect moment to finally be together. There’s no sex in the relationship—instead they make love to one another through beautifully constructed phrases and small gestures. They say they love each other, but you have to wonder if either of them really believe it. To me, they could care less about one another, but the idea of working together and getting away with being very, very bad people is the major turn on. They need one another in that way, and without the other all that is left is an empty shell. Look at a small moment in a grocery store, where Neff leaves and Wilder linger his camera on Phyllis for a few seconds at the end of the scene. While Neff was there her eyes were filled with fire and passion, but the moment he steps out of frame Phyllis’ eyes go completely dead. It’s unnerving.

Though MacMurray is billed first in the credits, this is Stanwyck’s movie. MacMurray is very good in the role, but can afford to be a bit wooden (the role calls for this so it’s not a shortcoming) because of the voice-over narration throughout. Stanwyck must use every line, every gesture, to get her allure and venomous nature across. She uses all those glorious inches of her beautifully curvy body as she approaches MacMurray after fixing him a drink. After three or four lines, it’s easy to understand exactly why Neff would break a man’s neck for her. She’s the ultimate femme fatale. Her later performance in Fritz Lang’s underrated noir masterpiece “Clash By Night” is a beautiful companion piece to “Double Indemnity.” In “Clash By Night,” she is a femme fatale desperately trying to go straight in a world filled with oily men trying to bring out her wicked side.

Keyes is one of the best of all Noir foils because of his friendship with Neff. He never wavers and never questions Neff’s honesty—he simply believes his friend is a good person and nothing will sway that, even though the evidence keeps stacking up against Neff. What makes the role even juicier is that Keyes is such a swift, perfect judge of character. At one point Keyes overhears Neff’s half of a phone call between him and Phyllis. Neff chooses his words wisely so as not to incriminate himself and yet, as soon as he gets off the phone, Keyes already understands the caller’s character: “I bet she drinks from the bottle.” This is one of Robinson’s best performances in a career of “best performances,” and it’s because he has such a gift for showing humanity in the characters he plays even though his exterior seems to contradict this.

The three characters play their life-and-death game of chess in drawing rooms and offices overflowing with shadows, reflections and unease. The Italian-style home Phyllis lives in only seems beautiful upon first glance in the full sunlight. Once inside it seems imposing, almost sinister. And the dread-filled insurance office we see in the opening moments of the film still seems creepy during daylight hours because we know the blood trails will be there sooner rather than later.

Wilder shoots these locations in lingering, long takes. He doesn’t throw in too many close-ups, instead letting the dialogue flow through the rooms and scenes. He works hard to not show off too much, though he starts us off with a doozy of a long take that introduces us to a lobby, elevator and then a two-story office. Wilder knows that the stars here are not the spaces and atmosphere (though they add a lot), but the words and the people.

It would seem upon first glance that “Double Indemnity” is one of the bleakest film noirs. The anti-heroes succeed in the murder they plotted. The “hero” is caught and will be hanged. The “heroine” is brutally shot by the “hero” after declaring her love for him. And yet it doesn’t feel depressing. The exchanges between MacMurray and Robinson in those final moments manage to redeem Neff’s character in a way seeing him die never could. Thanks for that, Edward G. Robinson. I love you too.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It Happened One Night


Year: 1934
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 46
Writer: Robert Riskin
Director: Frank Capra
Star: Clark Cable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly

For all of his gifts, Frank Capra never could begin or end a movie properly. The beginnings were often melodramatic and always implausible. And the endings? There is often a reel of build-up for a pay-off that lasts only seconds or takes place completely off camera. In “Platinum Blonde” Robert Williams actually divorced leading lady Jean Harlow. In “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” Jimmy Stewart doesn’t even get to embrace his success because he’s too busy fainting like a girly man. And here, in “It Happened One Night,” we don’t even get a kiss between Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert before the fade out!

With the beginning and ending a wash, we can all thank our lucky stars that Capra could pull off a middle better than anyone in the business.

Firstly, let’s make one thing clear. “It Happened One Night” is a great title, but it would be even better if it represented the movie it denotes. The story does not, in fact, happen on one night, but over a series of nights (and days). Try not to shudder as I recite the premise. Rich daddy’s girl Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert, never more beautiful) has married some random guy while her father (Walter Connolly) wasn’t looking and now he wants her to annul. Instead of talking it over like a sane person, Ellie dives off daddy’s yacht, swims to safety and buys a bus ticket to NYC to be reunited with her husband. A beautiful set of clothes, money and luggage seem to materialize between the shore and the bus station. Her Father creates a nationwide manhunt to find her. Down on his luck but savvy (which in 1934 meant drunk) reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) spots her and decides to escort her into the city…if he can get the exclusive interview, of course.

I know, I know! Horrible, right?

And yet once Colbert and Gable are on that bus, the tepid plot machinations seem to disappear and the movie becomes some kind of great. It’s not just because of the chemistry between the leads, though that is palpable. The script becomes witty, the dialogue improves significantly and…well…it’s just plain fun.

There’s something so inherently wonderful about watching Peter carry Ellie through a moonlit stream and then pausing long enough to spank her. Or seeing Ellie flag down a car by showing a little leg. Or watching their hilarious striptease stand-off in a rented cabin. All of a sudden, these characters stop being characters and become fully realized “people,” cliché as that sounds.

There’s a moment about halfway through the movie where everyone in the bus joins together to sing a rollicking song together, and in any other film this type of thing would be poison. But here it works, and for the life of me I cannot comprehend why. I’m sure it’s partially because Gable and Colbert invest themselves in playing along, but there’s something more to it. The scene has that “something” to it—the elusive greatness that cannot be properly put into words, and that magic permeates all of the second act of the movie.

Perhaps part of it is because this film is one of the few romantic comedies that doesn’t rely upon deception and allows its characters to confront their feelings with honesty and forthrightness. Ever since Rock Hudson was such a deceitful asshole to Doris Day all through “Pillow Talk,” the genre has been hobbled time and again by the Idiot Plot, in which characters deceive one another for no apparent reason and everything could be solved if any character said a single sentence. In “It Happened One Night,” Peter is upfront to Ellie about his intentions to get her to NYC and then interview her. When Ellie realizes she has feelings for Peter, she vocalizes them very quickly. The scene is amazingly sexy and romantic, with Peter fantasizing about a paradise he wants to go to one day and Ellie throwing herself on him (literally), telling him she loves him and begging to let him take her with him. It’s at once brutal, heartwarming and one of the most fully realized romantic moments in all of film.

I cannot underline enough just how much Gable and Colbert add to the movie. In fact, I would go far enough to say that the movie would have been atrocious with any other actors in the leads, no matter how talented. Their work here defines what romantic chemistry is on film, and this is quite a feat since they never actually lock lips. They make the movie what it is.

Visually, the movie is passable. There’s that one beautiful unbroken shot of Gable carrying Colbert across the stream, but aside from that Capra supplies the viewer with workmanlike shots without much creativity or passion. Perhaps this was because he didn’t want to get in his actors’ way, but I wanted more.

And then there’s the ending. Perhaps writer Robert Riskin was attempting to slip the finger to the censors by creating the whole “Walls of Jericho” metaphor for having sex. In fact, I’m pretty sure of it. But I would have traded all of his smart-ass attitude about the finale for a single shot of Peter and Ellie reuniting and kissing. We last see Ellie running off from her marriage but never see the conversation leading up to her marriage with Peter. What a missed opportunity.

And yet “It Happened One Night” still (shockingly) works. It’s probably the only film in history where a single great act can make up for two horrible acts. Ah well, that’s why Scene Selection was created on DVDs.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre


Year: 1948
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 38
Writer/Director: John Huston
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

How easily weak men are turned into bad men. Many of Humphrey Bogart’s most memorable roles feature him as a (seemingly) ambiguous, weak man who rises to the occasion because he is stronger than he originally appeared. In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” we think we are witnessing the classic Bogart persona, but instead of rising to the occasion he falters time and again, finally spiraling into murder and madness.

When the film opens on Bogart playing a man named Dobbs and begging for pesos from a rich man in white (the writer/director John Huston), we expect him to rally before long. He is soon joined by a man named Curtin (Tim Holt), and we presume they are friends, though we never see any bond or connection grow between them save for a gifted cigarette in a park. They do honest work, get stiffed for the money and then track down the man, beating him to a pulp in a bar and getting their money back. Notice how Huston and Bogart portray Dobbs in the fight; he is almost overtaken by the older, fatter villain multiple times until Curtin intervenes.

Bogart gets the idea to use the money to look for gold in the Mexican mountains, and the duo enlist an old crow of a man named Howard (Walter Huston) who they had overheard talking at length about gold one night to help them find it. They search all over the Sierra Madre (though it is never mentioned by name in the film), first encountering fool’s gold and then the real thing. And then the suspicions begin.

Because Huston began the movie with Dobbs and because we think we know Bogart, our loyalties lie with him at first. After all, Curtin does hesitate for a moment before saving Dobbs from a cave in. And there’s something about the way Howard babbles that puts the viewer on edge. He speaks too quickly and seems to make too much sense by arguing with himself. But even early on there are signs that Bogart is not to be trusted. He brings up the idea of splitting the gold three ways every night, and when Howard agrees with him, Bogart hisses that Howard must be untrustworthy for assuming they would steal.

And thus the viewer is set up with an odd character triangle, never quite sure where to put their loyalties. First our loyalties are, of course, with Bogart, but then they slowly shift to Howard as his babblings begin to make more and more sense. But soon Howard is taken from the group and we shift our focus to Curtin and we view him as the unlikely hero of the piece…until the gunshot. Huston makes this a fascinating way to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, almost giving it an “And Then There Were None” feel.

More than anything, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” dares the viewers to enter the psyche of the three characters. We try to understand their actions and then, desperately, try to figure out what they will do before they do it. In one moment Dobbs accuses Curtin of trying to steal his bag of gold when he sees Curtin fiddling with a stick and a stone that is Dobbs’ hiding place. Curtin calmly explains that a poisonous lizard has crawled under the stone, but Dobbs will have none of it, cackling that he knew this would happen and has been waiting for this moment and deception from the beginning. Curtin then tells Dobbs to put his hand into the hiding place if he’s so sure there is no lizard. Then, late in the second act, when it has become more than apparent just how crazy Dobbs has gone, our minds scream for Howard to stay with the group when he is invited away. We know that if he leaves, Dobbs will insist on stealing Howard’s share of gold and then fight Curtin for it. We hope against hope that Dobbs will surprise us, but when he doesn’t and seemingly murders Curtin the pit in our stomach grows even larger because it seems that we have no grip on reality left in the film.

Huston inserts many great small touches to underline his themes. When three bandits (who never actually say the line “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”) take down Dobbs they immediately begin to bicker over his belongings in a way the three leads were days before. Later, they are forced to dig their own graves before being shot in them. There are also little moments that add an extra layer of suspense if you are paying close attention. We only see the bandits cut into two of the three bags of gold when they search through Dobbs’ belongings, and though it is never mentioned we continue to hold out hope until the final frames that the third, full bag of gold is still somewhere waiting to be found.

The movie is shot in deep focus, where everything in the frame is kept clear at all time. Instead of giving the movie an expansive air like deep focus did for “Citizen Kane,” it gives the movie an oddly claustrophobic feel. There are always too many things herded into the frame, and the open shots of the Mexican country come off more foreboding than beautiful. Given the nature of the movie, this works immensely well and has the viewers looking into the corners of the frame at all times.

Huston can be one of the most cutthroat of directors, unafraid to present his main characters with tragic endings (“The Asphalt Jungle,” “Moby Dick”), but here turns what could easily be one of the most dire into something of a triumph for Howard and Curtin. Sure, Huston drives his point home a bit too much by making them ride into the ruins during a windstorm, but the ending still works simply because we were expecting much worse. Neither man got the gold, but each has achieved his goal. Howard is off to finish his life with the natives and Curtin is going to the fields of fruit he mentioned earlier in the movie. While Huston can be cutthroat, he always finds some humanity at the center of his work that allows for an emotional denouement. He might not have the same devoted following as Hitchcock, Spielberg or Kubrick, but he has made just as many masterpieces. He has three movies in the AFI Top 100 (“Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen” and “The Maltese Falcon”) but there are many others that could easily be there are well. “Key Largo.” “The Asphalt Jungle.” “Beat the Devil.” “Moby Dick.” “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.” “The Misfits.” “The Night of the Iguana.” “Prizzi’s Honor.” “The Dead.” Looking at that list, you see a man capable of swimming between genres with ease and always wowing without seeming like he’s showing off.

It’s impossible to view “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” as anything other than the sum of its excellent parts. If you remove any facet of the film, from Bogart’s performance to the melancholy brotherhood musical theme, then the movie would collapse. It’s a wonderful movie that is hugely suspenseful during your first viewing and surprisingly tense when revisited. In the end, it’s a deep movie made about a man with little depth, and might just be the best example of humanity under pressure ever filmed.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird


Year: 1962
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 25
Writer: Horton Foote
Director: Robert Mulligan
Star: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is my favorite novel of all time. It’s the special kind of literature that evolves with the reader, and every time I revisit it every few years I find something new that speaks to me on a deep, personal level I had never noticed before. It’s the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever found in art. I say this before discussing the film version because thus far on this blog I’ve made a point of separating the films I discuss completely from their histories, legacies and source material. Here, it is impossible for me.

The film tells the story of a young brother and sister living small-town southern life in 1932. They spend their days fantasizing about the creepy house at the end of their street and making friends with a fantasy-prone visitor from up north. As the summer wanes to fall their lawyer father is assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and he realizes that his case might be already lost despite there being no evidence the man could have committed the deed.

In this case, I think it’s important to discuss the novel in comparison to the film because the strength of the novel becomes the weakness of the movie. Though the book is told completely from Scout’s point-of-view, as you mature and re-explore the material you identify with other characters. When I first read the book I identified most with Scout’s brother Jem (played in the film by Phillip Alford), then Scout (Mary Badham in the movie). I haven’t yet switched over to Atticus yet, but as the years progress I can feel myself inching ever so close to him, knowing very soon I will find myself in his shoes.

In his adaptation, screenwriter Horton Foote has tried his best to appeal to everyone by splitting the film’s point of view between the three main characters. Despite giving Scout a voice-over narration, she gets the least attention of the main characters. I’ll talk more about Atticus later, but for the most part Foote hands the movie to Jem. We see his reaction to things first and foremost, and he’s the one that witnesses the most important actions in the film that he is not directly involved in. More than anything else, the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” has become a story about a young boy trying to mature into a man without fully comprehending what that means yet.

That’s all well and good, but if Foote decided to switch the narrative viewpoint from Scout to Jem for the film adaptation, he should have taken it all the way. He shouldn’t have put in the useless voice-overs by Scout that add nothing but some colorful lines from the novel. But instead he pandered to readers of the book and seemed to be insisting he was telling Scout’s story while his heart rested with Jem.

More problematic is when the film switches to Atticus’ point-of-view. Foote and director Robert Mulligan do this less often (early while Atticus sits on his porch and a few times in the courtroom), but in doing so opened up an ugly can of worms. In the book the black characters weren’t given much characterization simply because Scout did not interact with them as much as she did the white characters. Here, when the movie switches to an adult point-of-view, it no longer has an excuse to keep them in the background. To open the door means that the viewer deserves to learn about Tom, his wife and his friends and how they interact with Atticus. By leaving them (mostly) speechless, they become more props than anything else, and that is a big problem for the movie that wants nothing more than spread tolerance.

I’m having such trouble with the switching point-of-view because so much else in the movie is so perfect. Foote really captures the language of young people, and Mulligan stages and shoots their world with a fresh beauty that makes it transcendent. It makes the viewer long for a time that probably never existed as pictured here.

The three main characters are perfectly cast. Peck has an entirely different screen presence here than any other movie he would ever make—just as strong and yet in a different way. There’s a moment where his character removes his glasses just long enough for us to remember it is the handsome Peck playing a character, and you gasp because you had completely forgotten this was an actor. His closing remarks in court might be some of the best acted moments ever committed to celluloid.

That closing might be one of the best acted moment ever, but there is a quiet moment that, for me, rivals the “girl remembered” speech from “Citizen Kane” as the best-written scene in all of film. Atticus has left his family to protect Tom through the night. Tom’s been transferred to the local prison and there’s talk of a mob coming and beating him in the night. The children follow their father, and when the mob comes they break through, creating one big slice of awkwardness. The men won’t attack until the children are gone, and the children won’t leave no matter how much Atticus begs. Then Scout turns to one of the (until-now) faceless mob and recognizes a man. Scout smiles, asking about the man’s son and reminding him who she is. She has brought humanity to the situation in a way only a child could, and the mob leaves moments later. There are hundreds of ways Foote could have written the scene and every other way would have been wrong or melodramatic. The way it was done was perfection.

And therein lies the endlessly frustrating thing about “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Some of it is perfect, a lot of it is great…but there are major issues with the movie that prevent it from being a masterpiece, and those often come from the creative team being afraid of straying from the book. In addition to the murky point-of-view, the film needlessly includes the character of Dill, who was great in the book but superfluous here. A lot of this comes from a film adaptation needing to cement ideas and morals that a book only needs to hint at to get its point across. It’s a simple movie with a good message and nowhere near the depth of the book, and perhaps that’s all we could have asked for.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Duck Soup


Year: 1933
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 60
Writer: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
Director: Leo McCarey
Star: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx

Not only is “Duck Soup” near-unreviewable, but it flaunts its faults and flips off those who would be critical of it. Were I to tell the filmmakers that the film didn’t have a plot, they would tell me its because they wanted to be cremated (wocka wocka wocka). If I were to bring up the atrocious song-and-dance numbers, they’d tell me…but I better stop before I embarrass myself any further by trying to be funny.

The plot is utterly unimportant and virtually untellable, but involves Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly taking over the country of Freedonia. There are coups, wars, Harpo and Chico as peanut-peddling spies and even Zeppo is there. Aside from the main titles, we see no ducks and even less soup, so the name is meaningless (then again, how many Marx Brothers film titles meant anything?). What it really seems like happened was that Groucho wandered onto the set of one of Paramount’s serio-political costumers and decided to liven things up a little bit, first by himself (okay, Zeppo was there too, but he doesn’t count) and then by bringing in his brothers. The crew went with it.

The cast and creative team obviously went to great lengths to make the guys’ routines seem completely off-the-cuff, and it works. For the most part it seemed as if director Leo McCarey (director of one of the funniest films of all time with “The Awful Truth” and one of the most depressing of all time with “Make Way For Tomorrow”) just put the camera down on a medium shot and walked away. There are no showy camera movements or zooms lesser directors might have done to underline the comedy, and that’s just what the movie needs.

Groucho’s dialogue throughout the film is endlessly quotable, and yet to quote it here would be to undercut its brilliant delivery. Okay, just one: “I’ve got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” These quotes often live in a world all their own, with the cast completely still around him hanging onto his every word and attempting not to laugh.

Chico and Harpo handle most of the screwball physical comedy (except for the mirror scene, but more on that in a bit), and are at their most funny while spying (I think that’s what they are supposed to be doing) as a peanut salesman and bystander, respectively, outside Groucho’s palace/chamber/White House/whatever. The brothers begin a side-splitting game of one-upsmanship with the neighboring lemonade salesman, culminating in an unbroken shot where all three characters trade hats with split-second accuracy that comes off as hilarious confusion onscreen.

Oh, and Zeppo is there too.

The film seems to be attempting to send up politics of some kind, but it’s beyond me what exactly they were pointing and laughing at. Most of their political jabs are wide, easy and not too on target. More than likely the filmmakers waved this goldmine of comic potential away and instead decided to embrace more classic targets. They probably did this because it was the Great Depression and they figured that audiences didn’t need to be reminded of their politicians’ incompetence, but then one has to wonder why exactly they didn’t bridge their jokes on a more classical plotline. Ah well, their awkward political jokes do contain one diamond in the rough, where Harpo continues switching his army uniform in every subsequent shot (first a union uniform, then a confederate, then a French army uniform, etc.).

The musical numbers are wince-inducing. Why were they even necessary? Perhaps padding to get to film (clocking in at barely 70 minutes) long enough to be an A-picture. They cross a line where over-the-top becomes painfully unfunny because you’ve been winked at so many times you think the creators have a tick and can’t stop doing it. They often don’t involve the Brothers, and when they do it’s one of the rare moments when their comedy belly-flops. There’s a small moment two thirds of the way into the movie where Harpo uses the strings in a piano to pretend to play a harp. That’s all this movie needed. Really. In one of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road” pictures, Hope breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience they should feel free to go get popcorn because Crosby is about to do a musical number. That’s the best advice I can give you concerning “Duck Soup.”

Ah, but when the movie points its camera at the Brothers, it can be so very funny. The mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo (dressed at Groucho) is probably one of the most perfect comedy sequences ever filmed. There is no music or sound (not even footsteps) to lead the audience, simply the brothers facing off (literally) with one another and trying to out-do each other’s perfect impersonation. Then Chico accidentally walks in on the gag and it’s impossible not to laugh hysterically.

Yet, as a film, “Duck Soup” is virtually interchangeable with the rest of the Marx Brothers canon. You remember certain moments and perhaps a sliver of how the guys got themselves in those moments, but nothing else. I would prefer a just a bit more of a plot, which is probably why I like the aforementioned “Road” movies more than this series of films. In the best of those films, like “The Road to Morocco” or “The Road to Utopia,” the plots not only act as a clothesline for the gags, but add an extra layer of hilarity because of their cheeky coherence. Here we don’t have that.

Despite this, I still want to share a cigar with the Brothers and seek out some of their other work (I won’t have to look too far, “A Night at the Opera” is also on AFI’s Top 100). Actually, I’d just pay to see the men doing a vaudeville comedy routine for two hours and just ditch the costumes and excuses for a plot. “Duck Soup” is both near perfect and a complete disaster, and I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it was meant to be.

My Score (out of five): ***1/2

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Graduate


Year: 1967
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 17
Writer: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry
Director: Mike Nichols
Star: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross

In its first moments, “The Graduate” poses the question of who Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is. We see his blank expression on an airplane and then in an endless shot as he rides a moving sidewalk after getting off the plane. Who is this guy and why is he acting so…unemotional? The first real line of the movie is Ben’s father asking him “What’s wrong?”

After watching the rest of the movie, I still have no idea who Ben is.

Hoffman’s character has just graduated college with some meaningless honor and is adrift in his life. How do we know this? Well, aside from that opening sequence, we also see him underwater in a scuba suit for almost a minute. Oh, and a long sequence of him on a raft, literally adrift in a pool (he says it and everything). We get it. The dude doesn’t know his place in life and feels isolated from everything around him. Moving on.

Perhaps here I should insert a personal bias against lost main characters. Nothing is wrong with it and great movies have been made from it (“Into the Wild”), but I usually find these characters completely tedious and can’t bring myself to identify with most of them. In point of fact, I often want to just punch them in the face and scream “Get it together!”

Because Ben is so “alone,” he finds himself beginning a sexual relationship with “the most attractive of his parents’ friends,” Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And what a bombshell she is. Completely in touch with her own sexuality, sarcastic, funny and very, very sexy, Bancroft steals the movie from Hoffman the moment she puts her leg up on that chair.

Their interplay together first at Bancroft’s home and later at the Taft Hotel is quite funny and well written. Watching Hoffman’s awkwardness and inner turmoil as he continues to be a gentleman while Bancroft loses one item of clothing after the next works here, if only here. The moment where Bancroft becomes exasperated because Hoffman keeps stalling instead of getting them a hotel room is the best in the movie, though Hoffman’s subsequent bumbling with the desk clerk falls flat.

As the film progresses and the duo’s sexual relationship continues, it remained obvious why Ben was so attracted to Mrs. Robinson. Less clear, though, is why Mrs. Robinson chose Ben. Surely there are more interesting specimens around town who can complete a sentence for themselves. Oh well, maybe she’s into bumbling.

About an hour into the movie, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) comes home. Ben is forced by his parents to go out on a date with her and immediately falls head over heels for her…probably around the time a stripper is performing a circus trick with her breasts over Elaine’s head. The date ends badly when she finds out that he’s sleeping with her Mother, but hey, a woman seemed attracted to him for half a second…so score! He falls so head over heels for her that he declares to his parents that he plans to marry her and moves temporarily to Berkeley to stalk…er…find her.

Elaine seems like a nice girl. Ross gives her an innocent yearning that is very appealing in her limited screen time. Yes, she’s the kind of girl you want to take home to mom, even if her mom is chasing after you in a cement truck. But really, she doesn’t seem to be holding up her end of the conversation either, and with Ben that’s quite the accomplishment. Yes, I’m willing to suspend all disbelief that Ben could fall so much in love that he will follow her anywhere, but still…in comparison to Mrs. Robinson…she’s kind of sloppy seconds, no? And that whole subplot about her being engaged to another guy…really? I mean, really?

I think that I would be willing to buy into so much more if I liked Ben more than I do. Hoffman is, of course, one of the best actors in all of film, but here he’s blown away by both of the women he becomes involved with. As far as I can tell, Ben makes five decisions over the course of the entire movie, and all of them are the wrong ones. How am I supposed to like this guy or feel for him if he’s so consistently shooting himself in the foot without any thought that what he’s doing might be wrong?

Also a problem is the film’s inconsistencies with tone and pacing. At times the movie seems to be aiming for nothing more than a cheap farce, as when Hoffman uses a cross to block exit from a church, but in others “The Graduate” seems to be insisting that it is high art. Here I’m thinking about the many (and I mean many) musical interludes from Simon and Garfunkel and long beats where we do nothing but contemplate Hoffman and he contemplates…something.

In addition, while many of Nichols’ shots are ingenious (the infamous moment of Ben accusing her of trying to seduce him shot through Mrs. Robinson’s arched leg), others are just curious and out of place. Look at the shot where we begin in the glass reflection of a dining table as Mrs. Robinson and Ben are having a conversation and then pull out to see them. Why was the reflection necessary? Or a moment where Ben and Elaine try to converse in a car but are annoyed by music from the car next to them. They put the top up and close the windows, but instead of staying with them we remain outside the car for no clear reason. If the shot was closer and we could more easily make out the actors’ faces you could make a case that it doesn’t matter what they are saying since it is obvious that they are falling in love, but we can barely see them, so what is the point?

There are many smaller moments the movie gets precisely right, and because of that they are quite funny. The scene where Ben fumbles with the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hotel room door and which lights to have on or off are very well done. And I also have to make note of Murray Hamilton’s hilarious performance as the (for the most part) clueless Mr. Robinson. The role could have been one-note and tedious with the wrong actor, but Hamilton makes it work wonderfully.

I want to care about “The Graduate” and Hoffman’s lost hero, but the movie doesn’t let me. The writers and director have allowed the show to be stolen by Mrs. Robinson. Maybe it’s a good thing Ben and Elaine ran away together to Nowheresville at the finale and Mr. Robinson is divorcing her. She can move somewhere groovy like New York City and actually hold a conversation with someone.

My Score (out of 5): **

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bonnie and Clyde


Year: 1967
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 42
Writer: David Newman, Robert Benton
Director: Arthur Penn
Star: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman

“Bonnie and Clyde” bears a striking similarity to 1967’s other killers-on-the-loose saga, “In Cold Blood.” Both were based on true stories and featured two none-too-bright murderers on the run from the law. We don’t sympathize with either duo of killers and both end with the main characters paying for their crimes with their lives. But where “In Cold Blood,” shot in stark black-and-white in a time when color was the norm, embraces the grittiness and realism of its story, “Bonnie and Clyde” romanticizes everything about its journey, from the first meeting of its characters to their final moments.

Our first encounters with the main characters sums them up perfectly. We first see Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) naked in her room at the height of her beauty and sexuality, but unable to feel satisfied in her existence. She meets Clyde (Warren Beatty), who may or may not be about to steal her Mother’s car, and doggedly pursues him until he shows her his gun. Literally. He holds the gun low, over his crotch, and Bonnie playfully grabs the pistol.

Clyde is impotent and director Arthur Penn’s placement of his gun is only the first of several none-too-subtle metaphors about the adrenaline rush of robbery and murder being the only way to get his rocks off. Later in the film, Bonnie desperately tries to get him to have sex with her, and when he cannot perform adequately, Bonnie reaches over to the gun (which magically appears on the bed) and begins to lovingly stroke it once more. Seriously.

They’ve robbed their first bank within the first ten minutes of the film. Bonnie pretends to put up a fight after the fact (more because Clyde refuses to have sex with her immediately after the robbery than because of the crime itself), but it hardly takes any convincing to get her back in the getaway car. Neither character could ever be defined as smart, and if not for the robbing and murdering, neither would be interesting enough to hold a conversation of more than a few seconds with.

Together they form a gang after picking up a gas station attendant named C.W. (Michael J. Pollard) who is savvy with cars, but not much else, and then bring onboard Clyde’s brother (Gene Hackman) and sister-in-law (Estelle Parsons). All the people in the Barrow Gang are insufferable to one point or another, but as annoying as it is to watch these unlikable characters interact with one another, there is also something hypnotic about the experience of watching them annoy one another. There might be five people in the getaway car at any given time, but “Bonnie and Clyde” soon proves itself to be a meditation about human loneliness.

Parsons’ character doesn’t want to be involved at all in the robberies and makes the fact known as often as possible (and that’s very, very often). But, as long as she’s there, she thinks she should get a share anyway. Hackman’s character is torn between loyalty to his wife and loyalty to his brother and never can make anyone happy. There’s an interesting beat between Hackman and Beatty right after their reunion where they try to communicate with each other about their women and the robberies, and neither really has anything to say except half-truths and sickening boasts. C.W. is just too dim to understand what’s going on around him. And the title characters are definitely in whatever definition of love they have for themselves, but neither can fulfill the other’s needs, emotionally or sexually.

It’s not as if they don’t try to get along. Bonnie reaches her emotional breaking point one night (she can’t stand Parsons and I don’t blame her. I blame her character for many things, but not that) and runs away. Clyde finds her running through a corn field (the shot of Beatty pursuing Dunaway into the field is phenomenal thanks to a happy mistake of nature which sees the field being draped in shadows because a cloud covered the sun) and she begs to see her Mother. Clyde takes her back to her family, but Bonnie’s mother is not impressed with Clyde’s charms or their assurance that they’ll come back and live near her.

Serving as the backdrop to all of this is, of course, the robberies and murder. The gang is barely capable of bathing themselves in the morning, so many of the robberies are horribly calculated (at one point they attempt to rob a bank that has been out of business for weeks). But Penn makes the sequences a visual feast, never moreso than the moments leading up to Clyde’s first murder. C.W. has, for reasons known only to him, parallel parked the getaway car during the robbery and as he tries to get the car out of town they almost hit several other cars in a crowded street. Finally an old man jumps on the getaway car and Clyde shoots him in the face through the window. The window glass cracks in a morbidly beautiful way and the man’s eyes glaze. It’s an indelible, unforgettable moment in the movie.

Which, of course, is the entire point of the movie. Even the murders are lovely. It glamorizes every part of these unlikable characters’ lives to the point where Bonnie actually writes poetry about her time on the run and submits it to newspapers across the country. Dunaway and Beatty had quite a tightrope to walk. Both are almost too pretty, and that could easily work against the movie, but both actors saw that as an opportunity to embrace the more annoying characteristics of the characters since they knew the audience would forgive a pretty person longer than a less-than-pretty person. Sad, but true. Even their deaths are romanticized, with the characters writhing sexually as they are riddled with dozens of bullets.

“Bonnie and Clyde” is a movie I respect more than like. “In cold Blood” goes out of its to show no romanticism or beauty in its wickedness, and oddly enough develops a soul somewhere along the way. Here, I appreciate the great pains the filmmakers took to glamorize sex and violence while still making the main characters unlikable, but that ultimately means the movie is a beautiful, hollow piece of art.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Thursday, August 12, 2010

City Lights


Year: 1931
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 11
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers

Were any of the characters in “City Lights” to speak, even a word or two, the movie would implode. The film is a celebration of humanity and the triumph of love over cynicism—those emotions that make so much sense when we feel them but become so convoluted and skeptical when spoken aloud. The film allows itself to be unabashedly sentimental and is smart enough to know that we all are as well, but refuse to admit it and mock sentimentality whenever possible. Here the Tramp character (Chaplin, of course) is so brave and so willing to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves that it is impossible not to fall for the film. Dialogue would have destroyed that.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood has become so in love with its own voice that it has allowed needless dialogue to destroy so many almost-perfect moments in almost-great films. Look at the finale to “The Notebook,” which is heartbreaking until the characters open their mouths about “miracles.” Or “Dead Man Walking,” where Matthew feels the need to apologize. And what filmmaker doesn’t have their own Web site, blog (whoops) or blathers on during film commentary instead of letting the work speak for itself?

Chaplin (also the writer/director) opens “City Lights” mocking dialogue by having several politicians speak, but all we can hear is squawking. The moment must have been funny when the film was first released, but the moment has inspired (or has been ripped-off in, whichever fits your fancy) so many other films and television (most memorably the adults in the “Peanuts” cartoons) that it has lost all its power. Immediately following this is one of Chaplin’s rare comedic misfires, as we find the Tramp asleep in the arms of a statue and attempting (unsuccessfully) to climb his way down.

But from the moment the Tramp encounters a poor blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) who supports her elderly Grandmother by selling flowers on a street corner, the movie has us under its spell. While Chaplin is more known for his broad comedy, in “City Lights” it’s the small expressions on his face or the little moments that convince us almost immediately that he is in love. Take the moment the Tramp turns and picks up the flower he bought from the Girl with his last coin even though we have all but forgotten about it, or the joy in the Tramp’s eyes when a drunken millionaire gives him ten dollars to buy all of the Girl’s flowers.

Though there are epic moments of broad humor (I’ll talk about the boxing match in a bit), “City Lights” is the most subtle of Chaplin’s films, unafraid to let the jokes breathe or allow the characters time to develop their specific personalities. Even the reactions here aren’t as big as other Chaplin films. When the Girl is creating a knitting ball of thread and accidentally begins pulling string from Chaplin’s shirt, he does not jump, cackle or make enormous hand motions. He smiles and let’s her do it, only allowing the smallest bit of unease cross his face. We expect him to go bigger, and so the surprisingly intimacy of his moments with the Girl give them all the more impact.

Chaplin juxtaposes these with some great, bigger comedy beats. The Tramp befriends a suicidal Millionaire who only remembers him after having a few drinks, and much crackerjack comedy stems from several of their scenes together, the best being when the Millionaire jumps in a river with a rock tied to his neck. The Tramp rescues him, of course, but not before somehow getting the rope around his own neck.

The best comedic sequence of “City Lights” (and, dare I say, the funniest sequence in all of film?) comes when The Tramp enters himself into a boxing match to raise the money for the Girl’s rent. He thinks that his opponent will throw the match and they’ll split the profit, but (of course) he ends up against some dangerous brute. While he waits for the match, he notices another boxer rubbing his lucky rabbit foot and lucky horseshoe, and Chaplin does the same after the boxer goes up for his match. When the boxer is carried back barely conscious, Chaplin immediately begins trying to wipe the luck off of him.

The match is shot in long, unmoving takes that statically record the boxing, and this approach makes it all the funnier. We see the Tramp keeping perfectly in step behind the Referee in order to stop himself from being punched. We see the Tramp and his opponent each falling as soon as the other begins to get up. The sequence reaches its manic high-point when Chaplin accidentally gets the bell’s chord wrapped around his neck and it keeps abruptly stopping the match for a few seconds every time he’s knocked down.

Even during this chaos, Chaplin still allows for a small interlude where the Tramp imagines the Girl next to him and supporting him. It’s always about the Girl, after all. The Tramp loses the boxing match, but still manages to get the Girl the money for rent and an operation (he originally intends to keep some for himself, but selflessly gives her everything) to restore her sight. The moment they part choked me up, and I noticed a wonderful little alteration in one of the dialogue cards as the Tramp is about to leave the Girl, afraid she will abandon him when she realizes he is a tramp. The Girl’s final words to the man who has been nothing than kind to her are “But you’re coming back!” It was originally supposed to be a question mark at the end of the sentence (you can barely see it on the card), but Chaplin changed it to an exclamation point. That subtle change means so much for the character of the Girl. It means she needs him and cannot fathom her life without him.

The Tramp ends up in prison, and months later is released but cannot find the Girl on her usual corner. She has opened a flower shop with her Grandmother, her eyesight restored, and The Tramp wanders toward the store and their eyes meet. Though she (of course) does not recognize him, she senses…something…in him and offers him a coin and a flower. Their hands touch…she recognizes him…and the tears begin to flow. From my eyes, not theirs.

The moment in the film is played with such subtle beauty. The Tramp is scared of how she will react, but she doesn’t pull away. It is one of the great moments in all of film, and Chaplin wisely fades out quickly. We do not see a kiss. We do not see her introduce him to her Grandmother. Not even an embrace. Just The Tramp’s hopeful smile. Anything more would be a cheat. It’s a moment that, like all of “City Lights,” works because of its elegant, heart-warming simplicity.

My Score (out of 5):
*****

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Searchers


Year: 1956
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 12
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Director: John Ford
Star: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles

“The Searchers” is a deeply flawed film that reaches emotional highs rarely felt in any movie, emotions that have only deepened as the decades have passed. John Wayne creates a fully realized central character in Ethan who might have been a villain in many other, lesser films, and the passages focusing on him and his quest are some of the best in all of film. It’s too bad about that light comic subplot that threatens to de-rail the movie whenever it shoves its way onscreen.

When the focus is on Ethan and his in-name-only nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), it is aces. Ethan is an unapologetic racist when it comes to his opinion of Native Americans, and as the movie opens we see him still carrying the saber he wore when fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, boasting to his brother and sister-in-law that he never surrendered it. Ethan has returned home to Texas three years after the war has concluded and we have many questions about him, questions that the movie wisely does not answer. How did he get all that new money he has, and what’s with all the subtextual stares he’s giving his sister-in-law? Ethan found Martin in a village after a tribe of Native Americans had massacred it, and brought him to his brother to care for. Ethan openly dislikes Martin, and their relationship remains one of antagonism throughout the film. Why? Martin says he is one-eighth Native American, and that appears to be one-eighth too much for Ethan, who remarks that he looks like a “half-breed.” But it can’t be that simple, can it?

The family is massacred by a group of Comanche. Martin and Ethan survive because they were away at the time, and a group forms to track down the kidnapped young girls of the family. The group soon calls off the search, but Martin and Ethan continue. They find one of the sisters dead, but continue the search for the younger sister, named Debbie. Five years later, they still have not found her, despite several close calls.

This storyarc, with the men searching for ghosts and shadows, it powerful stuff, and it’s shocking to think how much the meaning of this tale has changed since the film was first released. I’m guessing that most viewers waved off, or didn’t even think about, Ethan’s proud racism and saw his search and, ultimately, rescue of Debbie (played as a teenager by Natalie Wood) as a triumph. I don’t think that was what Nugent, Ford and Wayne were intending for the character, but they were smart enough to dress the film up as a classic-style Western to get their point across.

Today, Ethan’s arc is one of tragedy, and the final shot of the film that once gave viewers elation now seems ominous. Wayne goes a long way in trying to make Ethan unlikable despite being one of the most likable leading actors of all time, and here his mannerisms and line delivery are more malicious, more sinister, than any other performance of his career. He walks away from his own family’s funeral in order to get vengeance, and doesn’t even let the token old woman get through her speech to not embrace violence before riding off. As the hunt for Debbie becomes more desperate, it becomes apparent that Ethan is chasing a ghost. His trek becomes less of a search and more of a way for him to embrace and flaunt his hatred. In one sequence, Ethan continues to shoot buffalo he doesn’t need to, his excuse being that there are now less for the Comanche tribe. In the most powerful moment of the film, Ethan shoots the corpse of a Comanche in his eyes so that his spirit will not be able to cross over.

Even after five years, Ethan finds excuses and stubbornly continues his hunt. When he finally finds Debbie, who has become part of the Comanche tribe that abducted her, it is clear that he wants to kill her. Before the film’s climax, he ignores that Debbie might be killed during an about-to-happen battle and only wants the blood of the Native Americans on his hand. When Martin protests, Ethan tells Martin that one of the scalps Martin saw earlier was that of Martin’s mother in a desperate attempt to get Martin on his side. Is this a desperate lie? Of course. Until he finally embraces Debbie, we are certain that he is chasing her down to kill her.

And after he slaughters the tribe Debbie came to call family and returns Debbie to the remainder of her real “family,” Ethan has nothing left. All the other characters embrace and enter a house hand-in-hand, but Ethan hesitates, staying outside. He has no place there and never had one, only using Debbie’s kidnapping as an excuse for a purpose. We realize that this story is a tragedy, and Ethan is just as isolated as he ever was, and something inside us knows that this is the last time he will ever set eyes on them.

I really doubt this is what the original audience of “The Searchers” took from it in 1956, and how odd it is to realize that time and our collective consciousness can alter our perception of an unaltered presentation. The movie has gone from being a triumph of one man’s persistence and hope to a tragedy of a man unable to cope with his own demons and racist tendencies.

As the other half of the title searchers, Hunter’s performance is a revelation. I’m not familiar with his other work, but he does a great job of letting Wayne take control of most scenes but still developing a character of enough power to stand up to Wayne when necessary. Martin could easily come off as comic relief, but Hunter gives him an extra dimension. Alas, he’s also saddled with the unfortunate subplot that almost sinks the film.

It’s something to do with his love for Vera Miles and how she is her own woman and doesn’t want to keep waiting for him so she almost marries some boring guy and blahblahblah. The storyline is well-acted and nothing about it is horribly done, and yet it is just so unnecessary and throws the film into a tailspin whenever it is touched upon. The “hilarity” of Martin’s inability to write a love letter or the slow “Aww…shucks!” gravelly voice of Miles’ other suitor have no place in the movie. The whole thing comes to its climax with a comical fistfight in front of the entire cast that is strangely reminiscent (and inferior to) a fight in Ford’s earlier film “The Quiet Man.”

But when the movie is good, it’s great. There are indelible moments in cinema sprinkled throughout, as when the group of avengers is surrounded by two lines of Comanche riders. Or the moment I mentioned earlier where Wayne shoots out the eyes of a corpse. “The Searchers” is the best looking Western ever filmed, though the competition is mainly other movies Ford directed. The Technicolor skies and brown vistas are breathtaking.

At its heart, “The Searchers” is a brave motion picture that is still brave and shocking today. But it’s a movie that shies away from the darkness in moments when it should embrace it, and that prevents it from being the movie it could have been.

My Score (out of 5): ****