Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Great Unwatched: The Stranger (1946)

Director: Orson Welles
Runtime: 95 minutes

Being married is a strange experience. Suddenly you have to justify a lot of things that you didn't even think about before. For instance, when I wanted to watch Orson Welles' The Stranger, there wasn't a question in my mind as to why -- a well-respected film-noir from one of the great directors? No problem. However, I'm having a stay-in weekend with my wife and so I had to pitch the movie to her. For her, a non-cinephile, the name Orson Welles meant little to nothing and the film's age was actually a strike against it. So I had to spin the plot (despite the fact that I haven't actually seen it) in such a way that it would intrigue her: a Nazi war criminal hiding out in small town America might get his cover blown by a wily investigator.

Of course, my story is true. What Professor Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) must tell his new wife isn't. Once upon a time, he was Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who faked his own death and escaped to Harper, Connecticut. In this sleepy New England burg, he became Rankin, a history professor at a prestigious college. On the day he's set to wed Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), two new faces come to Harper who could expose him: an old compatriot, Konrad Meinike, and an investigator for the Allied forces, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). Rankin disposes of Konrad, but Mary holds the only piece of evidence connecting the two. Wilson, who doesn't know what Kindler looks like, suspects that Rankin is Kindler, but without Mary's cooperation, it's just that... suspicion. Rankin, meanwhile, begins spinning lies to Mary that fit the facts but not the truth, even as Wilson explains to her exactly to whom she is married. As the two stories battle in her head, Mary becomes increasingly unhinged, something that proves a danger to Rankin's cover and, by extension, to Mary's life.

Welles was reportedly dissatisfied with The Stranger; the final cut wasn't his. The released version eliminated both an extended chase sequence between Meinike and Wilson in the first act as well as the original screenplay's flashback structure. What's left is still an effective thriller, with Welles doing his survival-oriented villain bit, which he would later perfect in The Third Man (1949).* My wife, who brings a unique perspective to elements I might otherwise overlook, noted that there was about 15% more melodrama than necessary. She's probably right, but after years of watching films from this era, I'm almost entirely accustomed to it. The best part of the film is, of course, the tense climax in the clock tower, as Wilson, Mary and Rankin/Kindler attempt to, ah, settle their differences. Welles uses intense close-ups, painted with cinematographer Russell Metty's brilliant shadow-work, to create a palpable sense of tension.

In short, I dig The Stranger quite a bit. My wife... was less enthused, but she did concede that it was "neat."

Worth the Purchase: It was a gift from a dear friend, but I would have gladly paid for it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"If we walk without rhythm, we won't attract the worm." - David Lynch's DUNE

At one point during Dune (1984), I forgot which David was directing. When the giant space slug slithers to the front of his special case and starts talking out of a vaginal mouth, I thought, "Yeah, this is totally Cronenberg." I didn't even realize the mental gaffe until I was preparing this brief blog post. David Cronenberg had no part in David Lynch's adaptation of the classic Frank Herbert novel and Lynch's been known to employ genital imagery from time to time (hello, Eraserhead). This has nothing to do with the rest of this post. Actually, the rest of this post has nothing to do with the rest of this post. Consider it largely a bunch of unrelated thoughts attracted by vibrations in the sand of my brain.
  • Netflix Instant Watch only offers the theatrical version of Dune, which is David Lynch's, ah, preferred version. That is to say, he hasn't utterly disowned the theatrical cut, as he did with the three-hour television version. To put metaphorically, he's more apt to take a punch in the face than a kick in the balls. All available versions of the film have been tampered with to one degree or another and none seem to meet Lynch's ultimate vision (although he admits, "it's not like there's a perfect film sitting somewhere waiting to come out"). Still, I'm curious to see the longer cut, if only because it might clear up some confusion that the theatrical version must bear for being only two hours (and change) in length.
  • It's kind of crazy how long Alicia Witt and Virginia Madsen have been working in movies. Witt was eight or nine when she filmed her part as Paul Atreides creepy little sister.
  • I wish I had not been eating a brownie bite during the "bug juice box" bit.
  • There's a lot of sci-fi visual gold in this movie, which largely makes up for its flaws as a story. I'm referring to the shield suits, the bluer-than-blue eyes, the sandworms (oft-imitated, never matched), and the aforementioned space slug. Still, it all feels very 80s.
  • The ever-present thought narration gets tedious, especially since much of it communicates emotions or concerns already apparent from the thinker's facial expression.
  • Sting says little, acts less. In one scene, he wears even less than that.
  • Holy crap I had no idea how much random phrases and concepts from Dune (be it book or movie) had infiltrated pop culture. I always thought "the sleeper must awaken" was a Cthulhu thing. Whoops.
  • The pain box sequence is gnarly and disturbed, even after having seen Don Coscarelli do it in Phantasm.
In conclusion, WTF:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Among the most utterly enthralling 110 minutes you will ever spend watching a motion picture would be those you spent giving yourself up to Billy Wilder's masterful slice of film noir, Sunset Boulevard. From beginning to end, you are encapsulated within the sordid cocoon of the world created by Wilder and his co-screenwriters, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., a faded Hollywood where dreams go to die and souls are lost like so much spare change.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who consents to rework the script of a secluded, highly eccentric, washed up silent film actress looking to make a comeback. Along the way, he becomes something of a "kept man", or gigolo for her, residing in her sad, dilapidated mansion with her and her mysterious butler, Max.

A movie star of middling status during the 1940s, Holden was catapulted to major celebrity and the heyday of his career thanks to Sunset Boulevard. Playing the character of Max is Austrian director-turned-actor Erich von Stroheim, who instills the part with a fascinating ambiguity suited to the bizarre secret he holds.

In the role of forgotten 1920s celebrity Norma Desmond is none other than actual 1920s leading lady Gloria Swanson, who won an Academy Award for her efforts, and rightfully so. An actor whose own path in life somewhat mirrored that of the character she played, Swanson brought a startling authenticity to the role.

As Norma Desmond, Swanson plays a woman so wrapped up in her own former glory that she literally loses herself within the alluring folds of vanity's cloak. She is delusional to the point of psychosis, carrying herself with a level of histrionics that belies her Silent Era roots. And although the character is decidedly over-the-top, that's entirely the point--Desmond has become a caricature of her former self. Much like Brando's Don Corleone, this is a role that has been often parodied, but if you strip away all that, you will find that it remains a raw and powerful performance.

All the elements of noir are in place, sucking the helpless viewer further and further in as the tale unfolds. We have Joe's hard-boiled narration, delivered despite the fact that he is already dead in the film's opening scene. There's the picture's hardened cynical presentation of life and love, both made into mockeries by the harshness of reality. Sexuality is dealt with in a fashion that was quite frank for the time--a fact that led some better-known actors to turn down the part prior to Holden's casting.

The noir phenomenon in American film had been gradually fermenting over the course of the 1940s, and this film represents something of a high watermark for the subgenre. Like a pulp novel come to life, Sunset Boulevard is brimming with unforgettable dialogue and sharply drawn characters. It's also shot with brooding brilliance by John F. Seitz, a cinematographer whose roots stretched back to the earliest days of feature films. He helps undeniably to cement the film's stylized quality with a keen sense of light, and most importantly, shadow.

One of the true auteurs of the golden age of cinema, Wilder is at his very best here, in what is arguably his finest hour. An Eastern European transplant who broke into Hollywood as a screenwriter in the 1930s, had made a name for himself as a director in the '40s with films like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), and would later distinguish himself with an astounding string of classics that includes Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). Although nominated for Sunset Boulevard as both a director and writer, it would ironically be for his script that he won.

And what a script it is. One of the hallmarks of film noir is the importance placed on clever, fast-paced dialogue, and this film has it in spades. The twisted relationship of Joe and Norma is at the center of all the goings-on, and naturally, the scenes Holden and Swanson share are the highlights of the film.

Sunset Boulevard is the kind of film that stays with you. It's the kind of film that makes you forget everything while it's playing, makes you sit perfectly still in rapt attention, and as the credits roll after the gut-punch finale, makes you sit back and say, "That was one hell of a movie." Ready for a "close-up" that will never happen, the delusional Desmond waltzes towards us, her self-fabricated world in shambles, as we look on--dazed, spent, shaken to our core.

One hell of a movie.

NEXT UP: Scrooge (1951)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dexter: You Don't Need CGI for an Uncanny Valley

I recently started watching Dexter Season 1 via Netflix Instant Watch. My wife caught these episodes when they originally aired back in 2006, so she's been guiding me through, making sure I watch during crucial sequences (as I am occasionally less than focused). It never ceases to amaze me how a woman who claims that she has no love for horror or gore can watch (and even obsess) over shows like Dexter, Supernatural, and CSI: Some City. But I'm getting off topic (see what I mean about focus?).

Five episodes in, I'm really digging this show, and it largely has to do with Michael C. Hall's carefully layered performance as Dexter Morgan, forensics specialist by day, serial killer of serial killers by night. A key component of Dexter is that he is playing a character, or rather, characters -- affable co-worker to the Miami PD, caring boyfriend to Rita (Julie Benz), and supportive big brother to Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter). The genius of Hall's performance is that we never see him playing those parts. Hall plays Dexter, troubled sociopath, and then lets Dexter do the rest of the acting. This apparent disconnect gives an eerie unreality to the friendly faces that Dexter puts on, one that hits the proverbial "uncanny valley" usually reserved for purely visual media (i.e. the closer something gets to looking human without actually being human, the more disturbing it is).

Dexter isn't a normal person. He doesn't have the responses to stimuli that a normal person would have. He has to fake all of these things and over the years, he's gotten quite good at it. As an audience we know it's all a show, so we're more apt to look for the places where he gets it wrong, but the achingly skin-crawling truth is that he really doesn't. He's dead-perfect, except... somehow he isn't. There's some element, some intangible tell that gives him away to those "in the know." The more effort he puts into being normal, the more subliminally discomfiting he becomes -- and the hardest part is that no-one around him (save an angry, suspicious cop named Doakes) seems to see it. Just watch Dexter as he apes a playful surrogate father figure to Rita's two children and tell me you don't get the screaming heebie jeebies.

Here's a quick promo video that appears to be from the show's first season:

Monday, April 5, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: White Heat (1949)

"Made it Ma--top of the world!"

By the end of the 1940s, it had been years since James Cagney, once the ultimate movie gangster, had portrayed one on screen. Attempting to branch out as an actor and show all that he was capable of doing, Cagney had sidestepped pigeonholing and moved on to many other diverse parts. And yet, after enough time had passed, Warner Bros. was finally able to lure Cagney back to the genre that put him --and to a certain degree, the studio--on the map.

In doing so, Cagney created what is undoubtedly his most nuanced and fascinating gangster role, and most likely the greatest of his career, period. It makes sense that he would have held out for all those years, until such a plum part came along. Unlike previous racketeers he had played, like The Public Enemy's Tom Powers, who are guys relatively decent at heart that come to a bad way of life due to unfortunate circumstance, Cody Jarrett is a full-on psychopath, rotten to the core.

Watching Cagney dig into the part with relish is amazing. Jarrett is a bona fide monster, and yet Cagney plays him in such a fascinating, magnetic fashion that he never comes off two-dimensional or unbelievable. In fact, a good argument could be made that Cagney was one of the first to bring true naturalism to cinematic acting. Cagney's Cody Jarrett paves the way for James Caan in The Godfather, and especially Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. In that way, White Heat may be the beginning of the modern gangster film.

A demented, murdering bandit, Jarrett is famously coddled by his sinister mother, played sharply by Margaret Wycherly. The relationship is a twisted one, an unhealthy prolonging of the maternal influence, mixed together with Jarrett's amoral criminality to form an unforgettably warped character. By his side is the beautiful Virginia Mayo playing the archetypal gangster's moll, Verna--a hard woman who goes head-to-head with Ma for Cody's affections.

And speaking of Ma, it is her death that leads to the moment in this film that may be Cagney's defining scene. Upon discovering of her passing while in jail, Jarrett launches into an animalistic frenzy in the middle of the prison cafeteria, collapsing utterly into a subhuman mass of unreasoning pain and sorrow. There is nothing pretty here, no stylized dramatic presentation--make no mistake, this is raw stuff. And it demonstrates Cagney's absolute mastery of the acting craft.

Our director is Raoul Walsh, who had previously directed Cagney in The Roaring Twenties 10 years earlier, and had done another great gangster picture, They Drive By Night, with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart. Walsh seems intent on remaking the genre that had proven so popular during the 1930s, instilling a much darker edge, and also a bizarre fixation on technology that is probably very much in line with America's post-war tech obsession heading into the 1950s.

The writing team of Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff turned in the screenplay--these guys were personal favorites of Cagney's, and it's easy to see why. They deliver a script that is rich and layered, presenting the criminal element in a way far less romantic than what had been seen before. It's no wonder Cagney would use them again, including a few years later for his Lon Chaney biopic, The Man of a Thousand Faces (and in a totally random note, this same team would go on to create Charlie's Angels some 25 years later...)

One interesting aspect of Roberts and Goff's script, however, is the challenge of presenting undercover FBI agent Hank Fallon, who befriends Jarrett and joins his gang, only to turn him over to the feds. By post-modern standards, this character would be considered a rat and a heel, but in 1949 this simply would not have been permitted by the Hays Code, not to mention that mainstream American society hadn't yet developed that deep-seated and sanctioned contempt for authority. So instead, Fallon is a stalwart hero, doing his duty to take a vicious killer off the streets. It's an unusual take for those used only to modern gangster movies and their unbridled glorification of the criminal, but it works.

As for the climactic scene at the factory, any lover of film has at least a passing familiarity with Cody Jarrett's standoff, in which he utters the famous line at the top of this post. It's a powerful scene, literally ending in a gigantic explosion that spells the end of James Cagney as movie gangster. The movie itself also acts as a transition from the classic gangster pictures of old, presaging the much grimmer, bleaker, gangster cinema to come, populated with unhinged, violent sociopaths.

NEXT UP: Sunset Boulevard (1950)