Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sullivan's Travels

Year: 1941
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 61
Writer/Director: Preston Sturges
Star: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick

“Sullivan’s Travels” is a pretentious little comedy that thinks it’s much funnier than it actually is. More than that, for a film that ultimately claims to be all about the laughs, it’s pretty damn preachy and I don’t agree with its message. Perhaps there would be some redemptive quality to the film if its stars had chemistry and charm, but their scenes together are the cinematic equivalent of watching two storefront mannequins try to hold a conversation.

It opens with a dedication to “those who made us laugh.” These sort of pre-film dedications always make me cringe a little bit, as they often seem less like a dedication and more like the filmmaker saying “You have to like this! We are making it for you with the very best intentions!” Sorry, Sturges, it didn’t work.

What makes this entire affair bittersweet is that the first ten minutes of the film are fantastic, and for the rest of the movie you keep wondering where that movie went to and if someone loaded the wrong reel into the projector. Popular movie director Sullivan (Joe McCrea) meets with two studioheads (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall) to convince them to let him make “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which he is convinced will be the pinnacle of American tragedy and a fantastic representation of the down-and-out times they live in. The brilliant dialogue is spoken at such a rapid fire pace that even Howard Hawks and the cast of “His Girl Friday” would have been impressed. We get quotable quote after quote, my favorite being the following exchange:

Sullivan: “What do they know in Pittsburgh?”
Exec: “They know what they like.”
Sullivan: “If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.”

Through the conversation, Sullivan somehow gets the idea to go undercover as a homeless man as research for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And then the problems begin—for us, not for him. The executives try and follow him in a large bus to record the entire thing to use as publicity, so Sullivan hops on a young boy’s go-kart (or something) and leads them on a long chase through the Los Angeles countryside (because apparently we have countryside now). During the chase, the poor cook in the trailer is decked with every imaginable food and thrown to-and-fro with the twists and turns of the road. This bit would be done later (and much better) by Lucille Ball in “The Long, Long Trailer,” but I mention it here because it is the first of several times the film throws in a random, uncalled for, slapstick sequences that really, really drag.

From this point onward the movie changes tone and humor-style every two or three minutes. Sullivan manages to find himself back in Los Angeles, where he meets a Girl (Veronica Lake) and they start what I assume to be verbal sparring with one another. I assume this because they are often the only two people in any given space together, but I can’t be sure since they never seem to look at or address one another. The Girl invites herself on the journey for reasons known to no one, packing only a small sack of belongings, which (as far as I can tell) is mostly a lot of lipstick so she can still look great while hopping on a train and sleeping in straw.

Why is she there? A police officer asks the same question at one point, and Sullivan responds, “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?” Just because writer/director Preston Sturges called out how unbelievable it was that she was involved with Sullivan doesn’t make it any less contrived.

Perhaps I’d care more if Lake and McCrea had anything resembling chemistry with one another, or if either one was trying to act. Instead, Lake seems to be lazily reading off cue-cards for most of her scenes. McCrea does something similar for his scenes, though at least he speeds up his delivery when his character is supposed to care about something, even if he can’t change his tone or inflection. Sturges seemed to realize that McCrea wasn’t going to grip people emotionally with his one-dimensional performance, so instead of hiring a better actor just got McCrea shirtless as often as possible and hoped that people concentrated more on his body than his acting.

Then again, Sturges had a bigger problem, and that was finding a tone for the movie. For a movie that barely breaks the hour-and-a-half mark, it doesn’t even get started for the first hour by not letting its main characters escape from Los Angeles to set out on their trek. When they finally do begin their experiment, we get an four-minute, dialogue-free montage of the twosome wandering about amongst the bums. They seem to get no major life-lessons from the journey other than that the bums are really darn nice people, which is quite the letdown since this is what the first hour of the film has been leading up to.

But then Sturges contradicts that lesson moments later by having Sullivan (now normal again and handing out five-dollar bills to the bums before heading back to Hollywood) mugged and beaten by a greedy bum. The bum is then hit by a train. Seriously. Sullivan is dragged into a work camp for some reason or another where no one believes he is who he says he is. At one point at the work camp he and his fellow prisoners are taken to see a Disney cartoon, and he discovers the power of laughter.

Eventually rescued and reunited with the Girl, we are then spoon-fed the message of the movie, which is that people want nothing more than pointless humor, and then ends with a montage of people laughing in the same way mad scientists laugh when people call them crazy. Sullivan’s “discovery” doesn’t even make sense in messed-up logic of the film, since we learn early on that he has made several well-regarded comedies and musicals, so for him to just then realize that people like funny things makes zero sense.

On a deeper level, I’d bring up the notion that comedy cannot work unless you care about the characters involved in it, and that great comedy stems from you caring deeply about the drama of a given situation, however funny it might be, but then again I’m just an AFI student and this film is on their top 100 list, so what do I know?

There are many more moments I’ve missed, not out of laziness but because they are already fading from my memory. I remember something about him staying with a widow for a day, and also a subplot about McCrea’s character being married for tax purposes, but, like any given episode of “Two and a Half Men,” these memories are fleeting at best.

To me, “Sullivan’s Travels” doesn’t know what it wants to be, so it tries to be everything to everyone. Then, when that doesn’t work, it tries to make a statement about comedy that the entire movie that preceded that statement seems to contradict. Ah well, at least it’s trying, even if all it ultimately tries is my patience.

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

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

Year: 1946
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 37
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood
Director: William Wyler
Star: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell

“The Best Years of Our Lives” picks up a few days after every WWII movie faded to black. Instead of just having the three ex-Army and Navy officers ask the question “What do I do now?” the film also, incredibly, has the strength to have other characters ask the question “What do we do with you?” The answers to those questions remain resonant and are, at times, incredibly insightful.

The director, William Wyler, seemed to enjoy embracing the alternate version of what most other movies would present. He focused on the family instead of the soldiers in “Mrs. Miniver,” turned his attention from Jesus to “Ben-Hur,” stuck with the murderer instead of the investigation in “The Letter” and, of course, showed us what Bette Davis might have been like as Scarlett O’Hara in his “Jezebel.” Here we expect that the servicemen returning home will be welcomed with open arms and everything will go back to normal. Whoops.

In the very first scene we meet Dana Andrews’ Fred Derry, who is attempting to get home after years abroad. But there’s no room on the flight he’s booked, and he might have to wait days to get a flight out. Another man comes up to the counter and explains that he has reserved a ticket. We have every expectation that the man will see Fred, praise him for his service and then give him the ticket. Nope. Later, when he returns to his former place of employment (just to look around, he insists), the new manager is quite vocal about the fact that he is not under any obligation to hire him back. And his wife insists she’s being patient with him as she tries desperately to get out and about.

Along with Andrews, the movie follows Al Stephenson (Frederic March) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). Al is a family man with a loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy), son and beautiful daughter (Teresa Wright) who not only gets his job at the bank back, but a promotion at that. However, that promotion sees him sometimes having to turn down loans former military men ask of him. His children seem to have gotten away from him in the years he’s been gone. His son recites random facts about the war and asks Al questions about his experiences with radiation that he doesn’t understand. His daughter Peggy seems to have matured, but parts of her remain immature.

Al’s return home is a fantastic example of subtle excellence. When he walks inside he holds his hand to his children’s mouths in order to surprise Milly. Watching Loy and March discover one another again is beautiful. Sure, they remember most things about one another (though Al forgets Milly doesn’t smoke), but they need a few hours to remember how they felt as a couple and why they clicked in the first place. Watching those two actors dance around one another, smiling subtly and frowning at accidentally doing or saying something wrong is one of the most honest, simple moments I’ve ever seen.

Homer returns home with hooks in the place of his hands, but at least on the surface, effects a jolly demeanor. His family embraces him, and we watch in wonder as he manages to do so much with those hooks (I held my breath when he lit not one, but two matches in an early moment). Cathy O’Donnell plays his girl Wilma, and I’m not familiar with her as an actress. Perhaps this is for the best, since Wilma personifies the perfect woman, and no name actress could have pulled it off. Despite smiling and making jokes, Homer has deep emotional scarring, and Wilma gives him the time he needs while supporting him with those big, expressive eyes. We should all be so lucky. Russell was a non-actor who really had hooks for hands, which lends every scene he is in an extra layer of poignancy and beauty. As an actor, he rises to every challenge and, because of that, when his character successfully slips a ring on Wilma’s figure, we are beaming.

Fred was a big hero during the war. He was a fantastic bomber, was decorated many times, and took pride in showing off his bombshell of a wife (Virginia Mayo) to his friends in uniform. But being home is a different story entirely. Aside from his difficulties with finding gainful employment, he just cannot bring himself to emotionally adjust. The nightmares that haunt his sleep certainly don’t help, but Fred seems intent on isolating himself from everyone who cares about him. He ignores his wife and snaps at her, instead focusing all of his intention and affections on Al’s daughter Peggy, who of course he cannot have. At no point does he look to the heavens and scream “No one can ever understand me!” but you get the feeling that he probably would if given the opportunity, and were this film made today, he’d be listening to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on repeat for days. There’s an eerie scene where he walks through a graveyard of planes from the war that is the perfect metaphor for his life, and how that graveyard affects his future is just about perfect. Andrews does not play the character in a sympathetic way, but we still understand his situation.

Peggy falls deeply in love with him despite herself, and is open about the feelings with her parents. After a disastrous double date she goes on with Fred and his wife (she is * gasp * nice to Peggy and he broods the entire time), there is a scene between her and her parents that represents the heart of the movie. Peggy rants and raves about her love for Fred and how the parents could never understand because they’ve forgotten what it means to be in love. The scene could have gone in so many directions, with more yelling or slamming doors or just having the editor cut from that line, but instead Al almost laughs off the statement. Milly looks at her husband of twenty years, all the love welling up in her eyes and bittersweet smile, and she says “How many times have I told you I hated you, and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?”

Al and Milly find themselves in love all over again, but Fred and Homer have more difficulty. Ultimately, Homer embraces Wilma and the film ends with their wedding, but Fred and his wife eventually divorce. I have mixed feelings about the ending, where Fred claims Peggy for his own. He’s in no state to have a significant other, and Peggy has proven that she has a lot of maturing to do. But perhaps that is the point. The final lines of the film, delivered to Peggy by Fred in between kisses, remind us that they have a hard life ahead of them with many falls and failures. Perhaps they will both mature and be able to work as a couple. Perhaps.

The movie is almost three hours long, but doesn’t feel long at all. The thing that struck me throughout the film is that Wyler lets the scenes breath and create a life of their own before cutting away to other characters. Here, we get an idea of what the characters are like before they enter scenes and how the actions of the scene have affected them. Wyler had the knowledge to understand that we would be interested in these characters enough to be patient with them through six-to-eight pages scenes. As a result every character, even write-offs like Fred’s wife and Homer’s girl, gain an extra dimension and allow us to realize just how amazing the cast as a whole really is.

If there is a major fault here, it’s in the music, which pushes you forcefully toward the feelings you should discover for yourself. It doesn’t let you discover the scenes as much as tell you what you are in for, and I wish that most of the music had been simple underscoring.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. The characters here are more damaged than most modern heroes and heroines, and the film doesn’t given them the tidy endings a lesser film would. Their lives might always be a struggle, but a worthwhile one that will ultimately bring them a lot of joy between the tears.

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Modern Times

Year: 1936
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 78
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

Though it is the last of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films, “Modern Times” represents the best possible introduction for viewers into the art of the silent movie. It’s a sad fact that most of the public will dismiss all silents with nary a second thought, but here is the movie you can put on for them and, by the end, you will have convinced them to open their minds to the magic of Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau and the non-racist version of Griffith. You see, the movie tricks the viewer into thinking it is a sound film before the words all but disappear, and the best part is that you don’t even notice. In fact, when dialogue returns later, it is almost an annoyance. I adore how the movie was made in 1936, entitled “Modern Times,” and actually is one of the most successful throwbacks in all of cinema.

In my last article on “American Graffiti” I noted how tired many of the plots and gags were because they had been imitated so many times since, and most of the major gags in “Modern Times” have also been re-used multiple times. The early moment of Chaplin needing to screw every bolt on a conveyor belt that keeps increasing speed was most famously re-done in “I Love Lucy,” I can think of a dozen films that use the broken-down house jokes (most memorably “Dick Tracy”) and Chaplin accidentally sinking a ship was re-done (badly) last year in “Sherlock Holmes.” And yet, unlike “Graffiti,” these jokes haven’t soured over time. Chaplin invests himself so fully into these moments that it becomes impossible to not be won over by his humor and charisma. He goes above and beyond to earn every one of the film’s belly laughs.

Time has been kind to the movie, allowing the realism of Chaplin’s stunts to make them all the more awesome today. There is a scene near the mid-point of the movie where Chaplin is roller-skating while blindfolded (seriously) right near a huge hole in the floor that drops four stories. You gasp through your laughs at the thought that there is actually a hole in the floor (!) that Chaplin is skating perilously close to (!!!). Holy shit! And then there’s the moment Chaplin (famously…but then again, what sequence here hasn’t become famous?) is swallowed into the mechanics of the machine he has been working on all day, or when he dives into a lake only to realize it is only a foot deep. We can see Chaplin’s face and know it’s him, making the moments all the more real.

The plot is surprisingly topical. Chaplin plays a man caught in the cogs of modern industrialization who has a nervous breakdown from being treated more like machine than man (at one point The Tramp is strapped to a machine that feeds him his lunch, but of course it malfunctions and begins stuffing his mouth with more food than he can eat—and a couple pieces of metal as well). He ends up in jail (where he takes cocaine!), where he becomes a hero, but when he is released the country has gone deep into a depression and he finds himself unable to keep a job. After several attempts at getting back into jail, Chaplin meets a beautiful street Girl (Paulette Goddard) and, together, they try to build a life together. Chaplin wasn’t just writing the film for the comedy, he had ideas about the time and political climate of the time and got them across with subtle beauty throughout.

I was shocked at how well the plot held together and became more than just the expected gag after gag. Chaplin and Goddard have a believable love story and share a character arc that resonates long after the final, bittersweet moments. When the Girl introduces the Tramp to the ramshackle home she has built for him on the banks of a lake, your heart leaps. When the Tramp and the Girl finally (Finally!) seem to achieve stability and success only to have it shattered by her past, your heart breaks. There are so many moments where Chaplin could have stepped wrong, but he rarely does. Chaplin must have thought so long about if The Tramp would speak at all and knew that if he didn’t, the audience would have been let down. And The Tramp is indeed heard for the first and only time here, singing a nonsense song when he can’t remember the words to the wild applause of his audience. Perfect. Because really, what else could he have said or sang that would have worked any better?

The one place the film falls short is in the characterization of the Girl. Though she is first seen cutting bananas to throw to homeless children, Goddard never becomes more than the woman The Tramp loves. She eternally plays his straight man, and there are opportunities missed for her to display the same type of humor Chaplin does. I’m thinking specifically of the scenes in the department store and when she is showing Chaplin the house she built for him. Goddard was a great actress, and still manages to make you love her despite not being as lovably engaging as she could have been.

Despite its dark underlying issues, “Modern Times” had remained lightweight up until its final few moments, but for Chaplin to pull away from the expected happy ending and give us something completely unexpected yet perfectly realized makes this movie transcendent. More than that, the music that underscores those final moments—which would later be turned into the song “Smile”—is one of the greatest melodies of our time. In its own way, I’d dare to say the ending to “Modern Times” is just as emotional as the (more famous) finale to “City Lights.” Whereas “Lights” is a fairy tale, “Times” reminds us that life will never be one—but as long as we love one another all will not be lost. We’ll get by.

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

Friday, June 11, 2010

American Graffiti

Year: 1973
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 62
Writer: George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Director: George Lucas
Star: Richard Dreyfuss, Ronny Howard, Paul Le Mat

We’ve all had magical nights like the one in “American Graffiti,” haven’t we? Well, probably not, but give it ten years, a couple drinks and a really good cinematographer and you just might think you have. As the film begins it tricks you into thinking it will be at least a bit cynical, but by the end of the movie you are almost choking on the movie’s nostalgia. Here is a film that has become the archetype for so many other coming-of-age stories that tend to take place over the course of a single day, and each generation has a few very good ones (most recently “Superbad” and “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) and helped to cement the caricatures that appear therein. And while “American Graffiti” is certainly a good film that still resonates with you emotionally and makes you laugh, several of its pupils have surpassed it (I’m looking at you, John Hughes movies) and because of that, time has not been kind.

The year is 1962 (really, AFI, you ranked the movie 62nd? Okay, it is kind of cute) and we follow several young men on the final night before they (most of them, anyway) embrace adulthood. The movie begins at dusk and ends at dawn. You know the types well by now. There’s the wishy-washy smart guy unsure of what he wants in life (Richard Dreyfuss), the clean-cut popular guy unsure if he wants to end his relationship or continue it (Ron Howard), the rebel with the coolest car in town (Paul Le Mat), and the geek who doesn’t need more words to describe him (Charles Martin Smith). And I’m guessing you can also guess just by my descriptions where they find themselves at the end of the night.

I have no idea whether or not “America Graffiti” accurately portrays 1962, but I’m guessing that while many of the small details are honed to perfection, the spirit of the times might have been fudged a bit for the sake of the movie. In the film’s version of the time period murderers will only stoop low enough to stealing quarters from pin-ball machines and forcing their kidnapping victim-cum-new cohort to sabotage a police car. Girls will gladly allow their little sisters to spend all night with a greaser known for drag racing. The card at the end revealing the respective fates of the four main characters doesn’t so much as sober up the audience but make you sigh loudly at the attempt to lend weight to the proceedings.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t numerous moments of enjoyment to be had throughout the movie. The script balances the four subplots easily and injects a lot of wit and laughter into the proceedings. Think about lines like this, “Your car is uglier than I am. That didn’t come out right,” or the moment where the nerd is accosted by a used car salesman determined to get a sale.

But then there are the scenes we’ve seen so many variations on that we’ve got the beats of the scene memorized before they begin. Look at when Smith goes into a drug-store to try and buy alcohol despite being underage. Or when Dreyfuss meets a man who may or may not be Wolfman Jack in an almost abandoned radio station. And then there is the race that serves as the film’s climax and Dreyfuss’ obsession with finding the beautiful blonde in the T-bird. As much fun as they once probably were, they drag horribly now and the movie feels long as a result.

All the film’s leading men turn in good, solid performances. Dreyfuss convinces us that he is indeed torn about his future, Howard is a pretty good douchebag when he wants to be, and Smith sure is charmingly geeky. Le Mat is the most charismatic and I enjoyed his subplot the most, and funnily enough he’s the actor who has done the least since “American Graffiti.”

But as good as these actors are, it’s the women who steal the movie despite being forced into playing second fiddle to the brooding men they interact with. It’s no coincidence that Dreyfuss’ subplot is my least favorite—the woman involved in it never materializes. Cindy Williams steals every scene she’s in, and is such a strong, sympathetic presence that when she reunites with Howard you really want her to move on and find someone better. Candy Clark is the definition of charisma and has most of the best lines and reactions in the movie, my favorite being her argument with Smith about who should pay for alcohol. Mackenzie Phillips is so very fun as the rebellious teenager both stuck in the car with Le Mat and also holding him hostage.

Ultimately, I admired “American Graffiti” more than I liked it. It engaged me to a certain level, but real moments of greatness were fleeting thanks to the countless other films that have used it as a jumping-off point. It has to be said that it did make me want to spend a night in the ‘60s, but with the exception of the ladies, I’m not sure I’d want to spend the night with these characters.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Friday, June 4, 2010

North By Northwest

Year: 1959
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 55
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason

It’s six decades later, and I think it’s safe to say that every frame of “North By Northwest” has been analyzed, re-analyzed and conjectured about at length. Character motivations have been questioned, explained and then re-questioned. The critical community has bent over backward to praise the movie time and again.

Somewhere, Hitchcock, Lehman and the main cast are laughing their asses off.

If there was ever a masterpiece that was better left unanalyzed, it is this film. I’ve purposely avoided talking about rank, awards, background and critical response in these essays because I feel like a classic film needs to stand on its own away from all of the hoopla surrounding it, but here it is almost unavoidable. The film easily earns its place on AFI’s top 100 list, but look at the other lists it’s on. “North By Northwest” is ranked as the seventh greatest film mystery and the fourth greatest thriller on separate AFI rankings, and you just have to chuckle about how, all these years later, the creative team is still managing to pull the wool over all these voters’ eyes.

That’s because “North By Northwest” is not a mystery or a thriller. Sure, it contains elements of both genres, but come on! As a mystery, it does not work for an instant. Of all of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, it is the most nonexistent. Cary Grant, as Roger Thornhill, chases a nonexistent human being (we learn this very early) across America. Sure, some microfilm comes into play in the final reel, but it can’t be defined as the driving force of the film. And thrills? Puh-lease. Does any viewer of the movie believe for a second that Grant or Eva Marie Saint will take a tumble over the edge of Mount Rushmore? Lehman doesn’t even bother to give us a scene of villain James Mason being captured. Speaking of Mason, while he has played a superb villain in other films (his performance in “The Verdict” is one of the best in all film), he’s about as imposing or terrifying as a pack of twenty puppies. Even the poster at left undermines the dramatic image with the line “Cary Grant is not running just for the exercise!”

I realize that it sounds like I’m being critical of the picture, but I am not. On the contrary, I’d rank “North By Northwest” behind only “Rear Window” and “Strangers On a Train” were I to list my favorite Hitchcock films. Yes, all Hitchcock movies have major comedic undertones, but here it overtakes everything else in the picture. The only way it really works is as a featherweight comedy, and if you look at the film in that regard, it is one of the very best comedies of all time.

What the simple film boils down to is three hugely charismatic actors and some fantastic supporting players running from great set-piece to great set-piece. This formula is still used regularly in every tent pole actioner or thriller, though Hollywood has long forgotten the irony Lehman infused into his screenplay.

This film and “Charade” feature Grant at the peak of his charm and likeability, armed with some of the wittiest exchanges of his career. After being forcibly inebriated by the villains of the piece, Grant calls his Mother and says “These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn't give me a chaser.” Though Saint’s performance is well-done, she does not enter to pantheon of classic Hitchcock blondes, though I wonder if it is because of her performance or because she is so overtly sexual with Grant from their first meeting that it undermines her immanent likeability. Mason is at his oily best throughout the film. Hell, even after his girl betrays him and he is captured by the police he still manages to get one last quip in: “That wasn’t very sporting, using real bullets.”

Though the characters have names, are they really “characters”? Grant is just about as typical a Hitchcock hero as you can have, though he is given ten or twenty more funny lines than normal. Saint might has well be called “Blonde Bombshell” and Mason reminds us somewhat of all the charismatic villains in the Hitchcock canon. Because their characters are so familiar to us, Lehman and Hitchcock happily spend less time explaining and more time wowing. Has a writing/directing team ever used the expectations that we, as fans of the type of movie we are about to see, had walking into a theatre, to a fuller and more glorious effect?

Even moreso than “Frenzy,” “North By Northwest” might be the most overtly sexual film in Hitchcock’s canon, though all of it is implied. Of course there is the famous train-entering-tunnel final shot, but the double entendres made between Grant and Saint surely were enough to make any censor sweat profusely. It’s well done innuendo as well—just enough to spark the imagination.

Then, of course, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to set-pieces. Man vs. Plane! Man vs. Blank Bullet! Drunk Man vs. Vehicle! Man vs. Lincoln’s Nose! Revisiting the film today, it is surprising to see just how well the special effects of the climactic race across Mount Rushmore still hold up today. I can only remember one shot where a matte painting was obvious, and the camera seems as free to move and capture new angles in those moments as it does in any other scene in the movie.

I wonder what would have happened if another director would have played this material straight instead of winking at the audience all the way through. In this dark era of films so intent on keeping a straight face no matter the circumstances, it’s nice to remember a time when it wasn’t just okay to laugh at the preposterousness of your circumstances, but to embrace it wholeheartedly. Do you hear me, Jason Bourne?

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


Year: 1972
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 63
Writer: Jay Allen
Director: Bob Fosse
Star: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey

The interesting thing about a cabaret is that just about everyone there would rather be elsewhere. The performers often consider cabarets either a step toward true stardom or one last desperate breath before the end of a career. Patrons looking for booze would get a less watered-down selection at a bar, those looking for a great show would rather be at the theatre and those looking for sex would be better served at a whorehouse. This holds true for almost all of the characters in “Cabaret,” who consider the title place an afterthought. Only the Master of Ceremonies remains fully devoted, providing endless energy and humor even as everything around him crumbles.

Unless you are considering the summer stock-type MGM films, the very best representations of the musical genre are the ones that tell a story first and foremost, and “Cabaret” is just about as extreme an example of this as you can find. I don’t even know if I would call it a musical, despite having eight major numbers. Bob Fosse seems determined to take viewers’ expectations and tear us away from them before throwing us into an uncertain, emotional wreck.

As the film begins it certainly seems to follow the classic musical structure, with the firecracker Cabaret singer Sally (Liza Minnelli) certain she is destined for bigger and better things. We are in Germany just before the Nazis rose to power, and meet Englishman Brian (Michael York), who takes up residence in the same building as Sally. They form a quick friendship and we are certain they are meant for one another, but then reality begins to get in the way.

The signs are subtle at first, with a Nazi or two wandering around the streets handing out propaganda, but then the main characters begin to reveal layers we don’t expect. Brian thinks he might be gay but still beds Sally. Sally begins a friendship with a rich, well-to-do man, but is he interested more in Sally or Brian? By the end anti- Semitism (of course) is touched upon, but so is abuse and abortion. Early in the film Fosse stages a scene that works wonderfully as a metaphor for everything about the film: Sally and Brian, hidden behind a building, howl orgasmically, but are drowned out by the passing train above.

Fosse handles all of these subjects with refreshing frankness, but still keeps it subtle enough to never become exploitative. The only time he stumbles is with the rise of the Nazi party. In the final half of the film Nazis just begin showing up everywhere, paralleling the slow deterioration of the main characters’ seeming innocence, which is good in theory but superfluous in execution. The worst example of this is a Nazi sing-along Fosse stages around the mid-point of the film, where a lone Nazi boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is soon joined by an entire village of Germans—including a milkmaid. Fosse would have been better served just stepping out of the screen and nailing a note with his point on it to my forehead.

Minnelli creates one of the most fascinating heroines I’ve ever seen here. She is, of course, hugely talented as a singer/dancer, but I wonder if any other actress, modern or classic, could have pulled off what she did here. We immediately fall in love with Sally—she of the innocent, playful smile and fantastic lines (look at the way she delivers this zinger: “He is absolutely my oldest friend! In Germany.”) and schoolchild jealousy of Brian giving English lessons to a beautiful Jewish woman. And then, slowly, her character becomes darker and more complicated. The first moment we realize Sally is capable of making horrible decisions, Fosse suddenly isolates us from her, giving us a smash-cut to peering at Minnelli through a window of the building she is in. And it only goes downhill from there. There are moments we laugh with her and love her as much we did when she took Brian underneath that elevated train, but they become fleeting and far between. But still, by her final appearance, after she has made a decision that is at best questionable and, at worst, unforgivable, we still love her. But we don’t like her all that much.

I’m deep inside this article and haven’t yet mentioned any of the musical numbers, which is a testament to the strength of the underlying narrative. There are several all-time classics, my favorites being the title song and “Maybe This Time.” So much has been written about how Fosse went to great lengths to only have the characters sing on stage that there’s no point in rehashing it here. Of course the numbers are wonderful, from the intricately choreographed early songs with Sally to the anarchic nature of later numbers starring Joel Grey’s M.C.

Grey is maniacally effective here, flaunting his one-dimensionality with glee. His character is a fascinating counterpart to Sally. With the M.C. you see only surface and, though you have the feeling there is much hidden emotion underneath (I’m thinking of his staging in later numbers where he begins sending up Nazis), but we never see it. He never cracks, even for an instant. Even in that final shot, where he dashes offstage and we see warped reflections of all the Nazis in the audience, his smile never fades.

Though Fosse and writer Jay Allen do a fantastic job of opening Pandora’s Box, they do less of a good job at closing it. I’m certain that part of their intention was to show that life was always messy, often pointless and never really over, and I applaud them for that, but part of me also thinks that perhaps they left things a bit too messy. We know Brian is returning to England, but aren’t given any insight to how he or Sally feel about it. Sure it’s murky, in that situation anything would be murky, but allowing the characters to suddenly act so devoid of feeling or emotion feels wrong in that context. And what of the young Jewish couple who got married? I don’t need to know whether they escaped or were ultimately captured, but I would like to know something about characters I spent so much of the movie following.

Ah well. Fosse would continue to try to tear away new layers of the emotional onion in the semi-autobiographical musical “All That Jazz” and the dark, dark, dark “Star 80,” and of course his fingerprints were all over the Rob Marshall-directed “Chicago.” But “Cabaret” still stands as his masterpiece, if only because it was the only time he successfully could balance the cynical with real emotion. Liza Minnelli giving one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema didn’t hurt, either.

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