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