Monday, January 31, 2011
You’re a lucky fellow, Mr. Smith
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
1989 found me gainfully employed as a “customer service representative” for our local Blockbuster Video franchise (it was a dream…I made it happen) and I proved to be remarkably well-suited for the job, owing to the fact that I’ve enjoyed a lifelong love affair with movies, particularly those of the classic variety. I would often spend hours on end chatting with many of our customers on the subject — much to the dismay of the store manager, who felt such passion-fueled conversations distracted me from my other menial CSR duties.
One gentleman who used to come into the store regularly — I never did learn his name, since he never offered and I never asked — liked to pass the time with me discussing films of the 1940s and I remember that he was enthusiastically fond of 1941’s Buck Privates, the wartime service comedy that made the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello a box office force to be reckoned with from 1942 to 1952. At the time, the store didn’t have the film on VHS but because of his affection for the movie I sort of made it my personal mission to lobby anyone and everyone I could to see about adding it to our inventory. My persistence paid off; our district manager even called me aside one day to let me know he’d ordered a copy and when I passed this information along to the customer his face literally lit up like a Christmas tree. So as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, this misty water-colored memory has been generated by the revelation that 70 years ago on this date Buck Privates was released to movie theaters; a film that ended up grossing $4 million (a whopping return on an initial $180,000 investment) and made Abbott & Costello kings of the Universal Studios lot.
There’s really no getting around it: Abbott & Costello were a real cinematic anomaly. They weren’t universally beloved like Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, they weren’t championed as brilliant satirists by the intelligentsia like the Marx Brothers — they were just a pair of hard-working burlesque comics (who partnered together in 1935) who happened onto a hilarious piece of patter material (the classic routine “Who’s on First?”) and were able to capitalize on its success by landing roles in a Broadway revue entitled Streets of Paris in 1938…the same year they also began appearing as regulars on radio’s The Kate Smith Hour. Two years later they headlining their own radio show (a summer replacement series for comedian Fred Allen) and making their film debut in a movie trifle entitled One Night in the Tropics (1940).
Were it not for Bud & Lou’s antics in Tropics, the film would be largely forgotten today but at the time of its release critics and audiences were in agreement that the duo stole the movie (doing several of their routines, including an abbreviated version of “First”), prompting Universal to offer them a two-picture deal. The installation of the first peacetime draft in real life would inspire their starring debut, and Privates cast the two men as Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou), a pair of necktie-selling hucksters who run afoul of beat cop Michael Collins (Nat Pendleton) while peddling their wares. To escape his clutches, the two men duck into an induction center (mistaking it for a movie theater) and through a series of misunderstandings unwittingly find themselves volunteering for military service.
At the same time that Slicker and Herbie are enlisting, wealthy playboy Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman) is doing all that he can to weasel out of his draft obligation, thinking his education (he’s a Yale man) and familial connections entitle him to an exemption — a marked contrast to his valet-chauffeur, Bob Martin (Alan Curtis), who takes his military duty very seriously. Preparing for the train trip that will take the men to boot camp, Bob runs into an old friend in Judy Gray (Jane Frazee), who is one of the Army’s “camp hostesses” — a sort of goodwill attendant whose duty is to make the enlistees feel more at home by offering them treats (apples, candy, chewing gum) and providing helpful information about the camp. Randy also makes Judy’s acquaintance, though he’s much more interested in moving beyond simple friendship, something that does not sit well with Bob (or Judy either, to be honest).
Arriving at camp, Slicker and Herbie are dismayed to learn that their nemesis Collins is their drill instructor…and Randy’s attempts to get his influential father to pull some strings and get him out of the Army are stymied when Mr. Parker refuses to help his son, believing that a hitch in the service will do his spoiled progeny some good. It takes a bit of time for Randy to realize that the Army is, as Judy puts it, “the great leveler”; he lets his fellow platoon members down in a sharpshooting contest (he’s the top rifleman in the company) by weaseling out of the competition for the sole purpose of scoring a date with Judy. But by the film’s end Randy surprises everyone by turning out to be a right guy (his actions during a “sham battle” make Bob a hero and allow the company to emerge as the victors in the war game) and he’s even managed to obtain a commission to Officers Training School. Bob also will be joining him (I don’t know why attending OTS is a happy ending, but I guess we should just go with it), and both men learn that Judy will be “camp hostessing” there as well.
This admittedly thin plotline is really nothing more than a peg on which to hang some classic comedy routines from Abbott & Costello; Lou’s Herbie Brown is essentially a stock comic character who manages to screw up everything while in basic training and yet suffers very few serious repercussions as a result. The comedic highlights of Privates include a riotous crap game aboard the train where Slicker attempts to fleece “novice” Herbie (who explains that his knowledge of such slang as “fade that” and “let ‘er ride” was picked up hanging around the “clubhouse”) and a boxing match in which Herbie is dragooned into fighting a 97 pound weakling…who gets a reprieve when a larger, heavier bruiser substitutes in his place. (To add insult to injury, Sergeant Collins is the “impartial” referee in the bout.) There also is a drill routine that Bud & Lou had previously performed on stage but the set piece became longer (and in Lou’s estimation, funnier) with director Arthur Lubin’s insistence on shooting it multiple times (and piecing together the various takes) and some judicious ad-libbing on the part of the duo. Much of Abbott & Costello’s dialogue was completely off the cuff; a funny example of this occurs during the “Clubhouse” routine when Lou, explaining that the older boys wouldn’t let him shoot dice, blurts out for no reason: “Startin’ Tuesday I’m goin’ out with girls!” “I don’t blame you,” returns Bud, without missing a beat.
An example of Bud & Lou’s humor in the film, an old burlesque chestnut called “You’re 40, She’s 10”:
SLICKER: Answer this question: you’re 40 years old and you’re in love with a little girl say, 10 years old…
HERBIE: This one’s gonna be a pip…
SLICKER: Well, wait’ll I finish…
HERBIE: Now I’m goin’ around with a 10-year-old girl…
SLICKER: Well, wait a minute…
HERBIE: You got a good idea where I’m gonna wind up…
SLICKER: Will you wait a minute, please? Look, you’re 40 years old and you’re in love with this girl who’s 10 years old…now, you’re four times as old as that girl…you couldn’t marry her, could you?
HERBIE: Not unless I come from the mountains…
SLICKER: There you go…you see?
HERBIE: Why don’t you ask me something...?
SLICKER: Wait a minute…wait ‘til I finish this…you’re 40, she’s 10…you’re four times as old as this girl…now, you couldn’t marry her so you wait five years…now the little girl is 15, you’re 45…you’re only three times as old as that little girl! So you wait 15 years more…now the little girl’s 30, you’re 60…you’re only twice as old as that little girl…
HERBIE: She’s catching up!
SLICKER: Well, yes…yes…now here’s the question: how long do you have to wait before you and that little girl are the same age?
HERBIE: Well… (After a slight pause) What kind of question is that?
SLICKER: Answer the question!
HERBIE: That’s ridiculous!
SLICKER: What’s ridiculous about it?
HERBIE: If I keep waiting for that girl, she’ll pass me up!
SLICKER: What are you talking about?
HERBIE: She’ll wind up older than I am!
HERBIE: And she’ll have to wait for me!
SLICKER: Why should she wait for you?
HERBIE: I was nice enough to wait for her!!!
Supplementing Bud & Lou’s hysterical antics in Buck Privates is the music of Patty, Maxene and Laverne — collectively known as the Andrews Sisters. The popular female vocal trio sing some of their best-known tunes in the movie, including “(I’ll Be With You in) Apple Blossom Time” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (which earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song, as did Charles Previn for best original score), and perform all of their numbers with a great deal of gusto — the studio made the sisters learn the choreography on their own time, but the Andrews’ dedication paid off handsomely. The girls would return (for a more prominent presence) in Bud & Lou’s second starrer, In the Navy (1941)…and because the studio was shooting the boys’ third feature, Hold That Ghost (1941), at the same time as Privates’ release Universal attached a couple of numbers by the Andrews Sisters to that film as well. (The harmonizing trio would grace a number of Universal musical comedies, as well as appearing in their own starring vehicles such as 1942's What’s Cookin’? and Give Out, Sisters.)
Buck Privates, it could be argued, isn’t necessarily the best movie in Abbott & Costello’s oeuvre (cases could be made for many of their other romps, notably Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?  and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein ) but it was a watershed film for several reasons. Its success at the box office rescued the troubled Universal studio from the precipice of bankruptcy (a place with which the company was familiar on several occasions in the past) and it provided a surefire formula for future A&C successes —cheap, profitable films that blended their veteran burlesque routines (often contributed by writer and crony John Grant) with sprightly music and sappy boy-meets-girl storylines. Privates also is an example of why the early Bud & Lou films often hold up the best; moviemaking was still a new experience for the duo and their performances have a crackling energy that’s noticeably missing from their later vehicles, when it often seemed as if they were going through the motions. Privates’ staggering box office take even paved the way for a 1947 sequel entitled Buck Privates Come Home, which allowed Bud, Lou and Nat Pendleton (in his final film) to reprise their roles in an outing that in some ways is more entertaining than the original, thanks to some first-rate physical comedy sequences (highlighted by a wild “midget” car race) and a meatier plot with some genuine “heart” (as our heroes smuggle a French orphan into the U.S. when they are shipped back home).
But Buck Privates Come Home ultimately lacks the vivacious verve of Buck Privates’ toe-tapping tunes (featuring some truly energetic lindy hop performers) and signature comedy routines that made its stars one of the classic movie comedy teams of all time. It’s no wonder that it remained a cherished memory for my video store friend, and its good-natured humor, music and rah-rah patriotism can still bring movie audiences to appreciative applause today. “Three cheers for the red, white and Captain Brown — hip, hip, hip, hooray!”
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Sunday, January 30, 2011
The fear is always there
By Edward Copeland
As the Second Platoon Battle Company prepared for its 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan in June 2007, the soldiers knew the area had the reputation for being that country's most dangerous. They also had two civilians joining them on their mission: the writer Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington on assignment to chronicle the company's tour of duty. While there, Junger and Hetherington decided to take their project one step further and make their documentary filmmaking debut and that result is Restrepo, an eye-opening look at troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
If Junger's name sounds particularly familiar, it's because he wrote the best seller The Perfect Storm which became the movie of the same name, but you never feel either his presence or that of co-director Hetherington. The film sets the viewer up as the figurative fly on the wall as you watch the soldiers before their arrival and follow them through their tour.
The main assignment for the company is building a road in the treacherous region to ease the transport of supplies, but their outpost lies below mountains from which the Taliban regularly fire on them like "fish in a barrel." Early during their deployment, an ambush takes the life of their medic, Pfc. Juan "Doc" Restrepo.
Two months later, the company's leader, Capt. Dan Kearney, comes up with the plan of constructing a higher outpost deeper in the valley that would be like giving the Taliban "the finger" and they name it Restrepo after their fallen comrade. Kearney has the hardest role in many ways, expressing guilt because he promised his men he'd bring them all back and he feels he "failed" them and also having to deal with local villagers to try to improve relations soured under previous military leaders, who would grab locals and ship them off to Bagram Air Force Base's prison to never be heard from again. Then there is the "cow incident," where a local villager's cow gets caught up in wire fencing and the company puts it out of its misery and the local wants compensation.
While the film certainly contains much tension there are some lighter moments, such as watching local Afghans try to figure out how to poke a straw through a juice box, and the general goofing around among the troops during rare moments of boredom, but those moments do not last long.
The film's most harrowing section comes during a mission called Operation Rock Avalanche, where some civilian locals, including children, accidentally get caught in the cross-fire and the company lose more men.
It's truly something when you watch one soldier break down over another's death, especially since by then you've come to know the faces if not the names of all the men. It's not like the old World War II movies, where you can guess which character will be killed off next, these deaths are tragically and horrifyingly real. When one soldier points out the the far-off enemy who fired the fatal shot, another says calmly, "Next time you see that dude, take his head off." And they do.
Some of the troops talk directly into the camera, about how they've never faced this situation at home since Vietnam or World War II of so many men scarred by the psychic wounds of battle. He says he still has nightmares that keep him awake and despite trying five different sleeping aids, none have helped.
Restrepo gives the viewer a look at combat they've likely never seen unless they've been in it themselves. It's riveting filmmaking. Again, it makes you question the joke of "official journalism" when you see filmmakers embedded with a company produce something this compelling compared to the cheerleading footage TV embeds coughed up at the beginning of the Iraq war.
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"I'm Pat fucking Tillman — why are you shooting at me?"
By Edward Copeland
That post title were the last words the former NFL star turned Army Ranger said before he was killed in Afghanistan by his own troops in 2004.
We are living in the Golden Age of Nonfiction. I thought it silly when the Oscars expanded best picture to 10 nominees, but I could live with them doubling the number of documentary feature nominees because documentaries get better and better. I have a difficult time cutting it down to five. I've only seen one 2010 documentary that I've given a negative review. More importantly, this meant that Oscar finalist The Tillman Story didn't make the final cut and it's the second-best 2010 documentary I've seen (so far).
For the Bush Administration, the wars in Afghanistan and later in Iraq weren't just campaigns for whatever reason they chose to give on any particular day, they also were part of a re-election strategy and whenever there was a chance to sell a positive story to the lazy eager-to-echo-anything press, they took it. So, when Pat Tillman, who earned millions in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals, decided to give up his football career to join the fight against terrorism after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told his subordinates to keep special watch on him. This was an American hero in the making that would make for great P.R.
Things didn't turn out that way exactly, though the government and high-ranking Pentagon officials did their best to keep their heroic scenario when Tillman was killed April 22, 2004, the initial story was the he died from enemy fire in an ambush, going so far as to credit him for saving the lives of some of his fellow soldiers and Gen. Stanley McChrystal awarded him the Silver Star posthumously. Just one problem: That was all a lie. Tillman died as a result of friendly fire and it took years and the persistence of his family to get at the truth.
Director Amir Bar-Lev gives a detailed portrait of who Tillman was both before and after his enlistment and with testimony from others who served with him, evokes a sense of outrage at the coverup, misguided accusations and fall guys the government used because their desired tailor-made American hero failed to pan out the way they envisioned. Ironically, during his unit's Iraq deployment Tillman was even there to witness the lengths they went in setting up the false tale of Pvt. Jessica Lynch's rescue. They were kept waiting 24 hours before retrieving Lynch to allow time for the camera crew to arrive. During his time in Iraq, Tillman also turned against Bush and the war effort, commenting to fellow soldiers that the Iraq war was "so fucking illegal." Bar-Lev keeps the focus moving with complete clarity and this documentary is quite a change-of-pace from his previous one, 2007's My Kid Could Paint That.
Narrated by Josh Brolin, The Tillman Story shows the true Pat Tillman, one that defied all stereotypes one would lump on the star athlete. He was a well-read man (Chomsky and Emerson; most religious texts, despite his atheism) who graduated from Arizona State with a 3.8 G.P.A. While the administration and the media were eager to wrap Tillman's decision to forgo his lucrative NFL career with a simple patriotic motive, Tillman himself refused interviews on the subject.
Even though both he and his very close younger brother Kevin joined up as Army Rangers, Tillman was determined to keep his reasons private. However, before he'd ever made the decision to enlist, various NFL players were filmed giving reactions to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and this footage was usurped by the Pentagon in their P.R. efforts to define Tillman's motive, be it true or not.
The entire Tillman family could be viewed somewhat as iconoclasts, compared to most Americans, so as far as I'm concerned that's what endears them to me all the more. When his family first learns of his death, they were given the false story of the ambush and the enemy fire. Still, even at the large, made-for-television memorial service Washington assembled (despite the fact that on his enlistment papers Pat Tillman specifically said he wanted no military funeral. Military officials even tried to take advantage of his grieving wife Marie to get Pat buried at Arlington.), while speakers spoke of God's blessings, etc., ignoring Pat's quite vocal status, like most of his family, as an atheist, his youngest brother Rich thanked the previous speakers for their thoughts but said, "Pat isn't with God. He's fucking dead."
Once soldiers on the scene spoke out and the Pentagon was forced to admit that Tillman was a victim of friendly fire, D.C. realized they picked the wrong family to screw with as his mom began a years-long campaign to get at the truth about the coverup. The story as told proves both inspiring and frustrating, as the Army drops so many documents, most redacted, upon Dannie Tillman, that she and another veteran start approaching them like some sort of crossword puzzle to decipher what names and words are blacked out.
In one of the most infuriating incidents, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who Tillman served under in Afghanistan, went on ESPN and made comments to the effect that the reason the Tillman family wouldn't let it go and just accept the Army's story was that because they were atheists and didn't believe in God, it would be hard for them to accept any truths. Eventually, after they finally got a congressional inquiry, Kauzlarich was demoted in retirement and remains the only person who received any sanction for the coverup.
On the other hand, the soldiers who did speak to the truth, were all punished in other ways for essentially being whistle-blowers.
Credit for the excellence of The Tillman Story should also be given to Mark Monroe for compiling this massive amount of information into a workable script for Bar-Lev to direct into such a coherent, compelling and, yes, chilling film. It almost makes me want to synopsize the entire documentary, but it's better to see it for yourself.
The ultimate irony about Pat Tillman is that the Bush Administration wanted to mold him into a hero for their own cynical, political purposes but by the covering up of the way he died, it enabled us to see who the real Pat Tillman was and he was more patriotic and a hero on a far grander scale than any P.R. flaks could have dreamed up. It's tragic that he died the way he did, but it's reassuring to know that men like him still exist in the first place.
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Saturday, January 29, 2011
Be careful which enemies you make
By Edward Copeland
In Charles Ferguson's outstanding documentary on the financial meltdown, Inside Job, one of his interview subjects is former N.Y. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who'd been known as the Sheriff of Wall Street for going after shady business practices long before the collapse. Toward the end of Inside Job, it makes the point that none of the financial firms ever faced investigations for their traders writing off high-priced escort services as business expenses, but the Justice Department did pursue Spitzer when it was discovered after he was governor that he used an escort service. The work that Spitzer did and the promise he held as a gifted politician that came crashing down because of his personal weakness are detailed well in another excellent documentary from the prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
Gibney also made the great 2010 documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money as well as the similarly outstanding Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the World. He also served in producing capacities on Ferguson's excellent No End in Sight and the brilliant Who Killed the Electric Car?
While Client 9 definitely makes the case that the political downfall of Spitzer may have been an orchestrated hit by his enemies in the business community and the Republican Party, Gibney doesn't try to downplay Spitzer's faults beyond the weakness that led him to seek high-priced sexual companionship in the first place. The film paints a broader portrait of the man's achievements and his hubris, which include a superiority complex and an approach that makes him come off as a bully, even if what he was trying to do was right.
As with the best documentaries, Client 9 teaches you things that you didn't know. It seems as if so many of the recent outstanding documentaries, no matter what their subject may be, show how spoonfed the U.S. media are, regurgitating "facts" that get handed to them while seldom checking their veracity. As far as I knew (and I imagine this to be the case with most people who heard about Spitzer and the call girl), his preferred escort was "Kristen" aka Ashley DuPre, who then turned herself into another of those freak celebrities, who ended up with a job at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post as a love and sex columnist.
Client 9, through interviews with one of the owners of The Emperors Club escort service, reveals that Spitzer saw "Kristen" maybe once but mainly went out with a woman who went by the name Angelica. Gibney interviewed her, but she didn't want her face or voice revealed, so an actress plays her part and reads the transcript of her interviews. Ironically, she's now a commodities day trader.
Where Spitzer really might have earned the enemies who were determined to stop him was when as attorney general he went after the head of AIG, Hank Greenberg, for the crooked financial games that company was playing, long before that company's collapse became a major cause of the world financial collapse and cost U.S. taxpayers billions in not one, but two bailouts. Greenberg was not at the helm by then, having been removed by his own board for violating company rules, but the methods AIG employed while Greenberg ran it were still going on and led to AIG's implosion.
U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia prevented Spitzer's pursuit of Greenberg prior to that by claiming the Justice Department was building a case against Greenberg, which they never filed. However, this same Garcia intercepted wire transfers Spitzer made and started looking into escort services that led to leaks that got Spitzer's sexual habits revealed. This also came at the time the Bush Administration was firing U.S. attorneys who weren't prosecuting enough Democrats.
Needless to say, when prosecutors go after prostitution rings, they rarely go after the clients, just the owners and the prostitutes. In contrast, around the same time, the D.C. Madam case surfaced and they only pursued the madam there, even though it was revealed that two of her clients were high-profile Republicans, including Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who was just re-elected. He faced no legal inquiries.
Many believed that Spitzer had a good shot at being the country's first Jewish president. I just wonder if he'd been able to keep after Wall Street as he was doing, whether some of the mess that happened could have been prevented since no regulatory fixes have really been put in place to stop it since. Government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations shall not perish from the United States and we the little people always will be the ones paying the price. Thank goodness we have documentary filmmakers such as Alex Gibney to do the job that journalists have long since abandoned or forgotten how to do.
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For him it's therapy, for the world it's art
By Edward Copeland
When Marwencol began, I had no idea what kind of documentary it was. I knew the title from various lists, but hadn't read reviews, so I didn't know the subject matter. (In an ideal world, I would love if I could step into all films blindly like this, knowing only that they had garnered some praise. I don't want to accidentally find a Rob Schneider comedy had sneaked into my DVD player.) Needless to say, I was more confused as it opened on hands playing with dolls, one dressed in fatigues, but I was intrigued. Then Jeff Malmberg's film about a man named Mark Hogancamp began to make sense, though it would take much of the film to put all the pieces together, just as Hogancamp was trying to do with his shattered mind.
What broke Hogancamp were five men who gave the 38-year-old a savage beating outside a bar in upstate New York in 2000. The attack inflicted so much damage that Hogancamp lay in a coma for nine days and when he did awake, most of his memory had vanished and he'd lost the ability to walk, talk or eat. After much therapy, he regained those abilities and learned bits and pieces about his past — such as the fact that he was once married, had been an accomplished artist and was a raging alcoholic.
In 2002, Hogancamp started building 1/6th-scale dioramas and clothing and naming dolls of different types — GI Joes, Barbies, etc. — to construct a fictional Belgian town during World War II called Marwencol. He would stage sexual and violent fantasies of what went on there (including a bar that advertised nightly catfights) and gave the dolls names to represent real people in his life, including himself, his mom, a waitress at the restaurant where he works and eventually even Malmberg, the director.
It might seem odd to see a damaged man spending so much of his time doing this sort of thing, but it soon becomes clear that through his WWII scenarios in Marwencol, Hogancamp had found a way to heal the psychic wounds that remained from the attack, which still remained a mystery to him as to why it happened. He sets up a situation where some Nazi dolls capture and torture the doll that represents him only to be rescued by two butt-kicking women.
When Malmberg discovers that Hogancamp doesn't just set up these dioramas, he also photographs them, he shows the pictures around and an interest develops from a Manhattan gallery in showing Hogancamp's unique work. The thing is that Hogancamp isn't so sure if he likes the idea: He's made Marwencol as a therapeutic aide for himself to help him with a world he's carefully avoided since his beating — he's not so sure he wants to re-enter that environment, especially as the center of attention.
It's interesting how many documentaries (and good ones) from 2010 concerned the outsider artist and the art world in some way. We had Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, with an outsider artist who sought the fame but would have been compelled to make his art even without it; and Exit Through the Gift Shop, with the most outside of outsider artists, Banksy, in what may have been a hoax, conjuring an artist out of a nobody who doesn't even do the work but whom the hoity toity fawn all over anyway. In Marwencol, we have the accidental outside artist. He never set out to be one and gets annoyed at attempts to anoint him one.
Director Malmberg, who also edited, cuts the film very judiciously in how he lets the full story (or as much of the story that we'll ever know) come out about Hogancamp. A hint here, a dropped sentence there, they all start adding up to fill in the blanks about who Hogancamp was before the beating and whether through Marwencol, he can finally find not so much the Hogancamp that existed before, but the Hogancamp that he never allowed himself to be.
Marwencol shows that the format of the nonfictional film remains practically limitless, because this not only is one of the most unusual examples, it's one of the most satisfying.
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Friday, January 28, 2011
There's life, there's death and there's a middle that's the worst of all
By Edward Copeland
Some of the most satisfying films play as if they started as short stories, telling simple, self-contained tales that capture the viewer with acting and visuals the way good prose does with words. That's the feeling evoked by Get Low, Aaron Schneider's impressive feature directing debut that stars Robert Duvall in another superb performance that begins his sixth decade of superb film performances.
Get Low opens with a shot of a large house engulfed in flames while an unindentified figures flees the blaze. Usually, I'm good at remembering prologues such as this so that they stay in the back of my mind until I see (or figure out) how they play out later in the film. In this case, the rest of Get Low, written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell from a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeke, so captivated me that I forgot about the opening until the incident comes up again.
This may be Schneider's first feature, but he already has an Oscar to his credit, having won the 2003 Academy Award for live action short for Two Soldiers. Prior to that, Schneider worked as a cinematographer on the film Kiss the Girls and many TV shows such as Murder One , which won him two awards from the American Society of Cinematographers and an Emmy nomination. I imagine this background nurtured the 1930s-era Get Low's gorgeous, burnished look by d.p. David Boyd.
Duvall plays Felix Bush, a small town's aging, eccentric recluse with long, unkempt gray hair covering both his head and face, who gets a visit from a minister, Rev. Gus Horton (Gerald McRaney), informing him that an old acquaintance has died. The man's passing puts an idea in Bush's head so he ventures back to Rev. Horton, telling him that it's time for Bush to "get low" and he wants the reverend to plan a funeral for him — a funeral he plans to attend while he's alive.
The minister declines, thinking it an odd idea he wants no part of, but a man named Buddy (Lucas Black, the young boy in Sling Blade) happens to be in the church with his wife and baby. He works at the town's struggling funeral home owned by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Frank can't understand how a business that should survive every economic swing could be in trouble. People seem to be dying everywhere else, but they are defiantly living there. That's when Buddy tells him he might be able to bring him some business.
Buddy and Frank drive out to Bush's place, knowing full well he likes to take shots at trespassers, and Frank sends Buddy to the door (promising commission) and Felix soon explains his plans for a funeral party where everyone in the neighboring counties come to speak about him. Since he's generally disliked, he adds the idea of a raffle for his house and land at $5 a ticket. Frank gleefully embraces the plan as the way of putting his business back in the black.
During a visit to town, Felix runs into a woman he used to date, Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who almost doesn't recognize him with beneath all that hair. Later, after he's gone to a barber and been groomed, Mattie stops by in one of the film's most beautiful scenes. Lit entirely by the flames from a fireplace, the talk between Felix and Mattie in his dark farmhouse not only provides great writing but displays images pleasurable to gaze upon. Unfortunately, the talk gets cut short when Mattie spots a photo of her late sister and surmises that Felix was involved with her while the woman was married and that's why he stopped courting Mattie.
It's the first clue we get that there might be method to Felix's madness. As he says, he's kept himself in a prison of his own making for 40 years and he needs to purge himself of the secret he's held for all those decades and that's what he wants to do at his funeral for himself. When he finally does, Duvall's delivery will break your heart. He may have just turned 80, but Duvall has been one of our finest film actors for a long time and he still controls the powers of his gift and uses them to fine effect, knowing how to modulate them for comic or dramatic effect.
The supporting cast all do well, especially Spacek, but they really appear just to serve Duvall and none fail. Murray gets most of the humorous parts, though he's tossed a serious moment here and there. It's impressive to see how Black has grown physically and as an actor now that he's an adult. There's also a fine turn by Bill Cobbs, who always adds a nice touch to just about anything in which he appears.
With Get Low, you get an almost perfect package: great acting, great direction and great writing all in a technically fantastic film with glowing photography and intricately detailed production design. It really should have been remembered more in year-end awards across the board.
Duvall tops that list of omissions. Sure, he has won one Oscar for Tender Mercies and been nominated five other times (and he should have won a second for The Apostle nomination), but he deserved that seventh nomination this year. I've seen all the nominated actors except for Javier Bardem in Biutiful, but Duvall's performance in Get Low clearly bests the other four nominees for best actor (and I think those four gave great performances as well — that's how good Duvall is).
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Thursday, January 27, 2011
Not so good grief
By Edward Copeland
No two people grieve exactly the same way. No book contains rules for proper mourning. When someone loses a spouse, a sibling or, most tragically, a child, outsiders can't judge if their behavior is normal or appropriate. That's not the case with movies on the subject such as Rabbit Hole or performers in them like Nicole Kidman. They're fair game, especially when everything about them rings false compared to countless cinematic examples that depicted grief well.
David Lindsay-Abaire adapted Rabbit Hole from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which I have neither read nor seen but which won one of my favorite actresses, Cynthia Nixon, a Tony Award. Our faithful Broadway correspondent Josh R selected Nixon as one of his 10 best experiences in the 2006 New York theater season. Josh wrote:
As a mother grieving over the loss of a child, the luminous Ms. Nixon brought emotional credibility to a play that might otherwise have gotten bogged down in maudlin, movie-of-the-week style dramaturgy...the actress delivered an eloquent, astutely measured account of the manner in which emotional forbearance serves as a buffer against the unbearable sense of bewilderment that comes in trying to make sense of tragedy. Rather than resorting to histrionics, Nixon registered all the pain of her character’s acknowledgement of her suffering with delicate, nuanced strokes — in a performance that was all the more powerful for what remained unsaid.
Seeing how great Nixon can be in so many different roles, I almost can visualize her performance based on Josh's prose. Needless to say, the character of Becca which won Nixon her Tony probably bore little resemblance to the Becca that Nicole Kidman brings to the screen. Kidman's Becca comes off as an uptight control freak with a superiority complex who treats almost everyone who crosses her path cruelly and as if they are imposing on her time — and none of it has to do with sadness over the death of her son. She makes Mary Tyler Moore's character in Ordinary People look warm, open-hearted and loving by comparison.
Every choice Kidman makes as Becca turns out to be wrongheaded and misguided. You never get a sense that this is a woman devastated by the loss of her young son in an accident. She plays Becca more as if the death and its repercussions were more of an inconvenience for her and she treats everyone else in similar fashion with one exception. She starts stalking and then befriends Jason (Miles Teller), the teen who drove the car that struck and killed her son. At times, the scenes between Becca and Jason made me feel as if I were watching Birth 2. Her encounters with Jason are the only moments when she displays anything resembling humanity.
As a result, where a viewer should feel sympathy for Becca, instead you just want someone to slap her. Kidman doesn't play her as someone scarred by a tragedy, she plays Becca as someone you would walk across the street to avoid because she's such a stuck-up jerk. I went back and looked at some of the reviews of the original play in 2006 and nearly all the theater critics had high praise for its entire cast (which also included John Slattery and Tyne Daly) and the production itself, though The New York Times' Ben Brantley admitted that the play itself, "As beautifully observed as Rabbit Hole is, it never rises to the shock of greatness." The reviews also noted the tears the production evoked. In the film version with Kidman, let's just say there's not a wet eye in the house.
As I said, I've neither seen nor read Lindsay-Abaire's play but I have to believe that he changed it a lot for the screenplay because there are too many scenes in the movie that I can't imagine how they would have been depicted in a stage production. There's also the fact that the play had five characters where the movie adds significant new roles played by Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito and Jon Tenney.
The remainder of the film's cast can be great in other works. Dianne Wiest as Becca's mom and Tammy Blanchard as her sister come off best, but Aaron Eckhart feels nearly as false as Kidman does. Some of the blame may rest on the shoulders of director John Cameron Mitchell, who keeps everything and everyone at an icy, removed distance and may have instructed his cast to follow his lead, yet Wiest, Blanchard and Oh find ways to breathe life into their characters, so I don't think that's the case.
Eckhart's role as Howie, Becca's deeply wounded husband, may be hampered since most of his scenes pair him with Kidman's ice queen. He does better when separated from her as in some scenes opposite Oh, but when he has to respond to Kidman's offputting performance, he seems flustered. It's particularly embarrassing when the teen driver Jason comes over to give Becca a comic (which gives the play and the film its title, though without any sort of deeper explanation) and he blows up at him being there and I was again reminded of Birth where Danny Huston goes after the boy. I suppose I should be grateful for small favors — at least it's Eckhart here and not Danny Huston.
Mitchell seems an unusual choice to direct the film, following his helming the adaptation of his fun, one-of-a-kind stage musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and his attempt at making a mainstream porn film, Shortbus. Visually, he doesn't add much to Rabbit Hole and I'm not sure if he should be blamed for giving his cast bad direction or none at all.
As I wrote yesterday, when I reviewed another overrated film, Blue Valentine, one of the biggest headscratchers of this year's Oscar nominations is that the actors branch wasted two of its best actress slots on Michelle Williams and Kidman when there were so many worthier candidates out there. I truly have to believe members just filled in names based on what they heard or read and didn't watch Blue Valentine or Rabbit Hole.
As for Rabbit Hole in general, it's truly a shame because the list of great films about grieving stretches from the beginning of the medium to now. In 2009, you had a beautiful example with Colin Firth in A Single Man. Last year, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of another great example, Men Don't Leave. If you look specifically for a good example of a film about a couple affected by the loss of a child, take another look at 1988's The Accidental Tourist.
I could keep going on with examples of films that tackle the subject of grief better than Rabbit Hole does, but instead I'm just gonna mourn the talent wasted on this film and the time I lost watching it.
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tic yak d'oh!
By Edward Copeland
I dread reviewing movies like Blue Valentine because I already anticipate the responses to my pan of this critical darling. Some will call me a contrarian (which I'm not — if I liked it, I'd admit it), others will misread my words, thinking I'm saying those who like it are dumb or have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Many of these comments will come from other critics who will forget the most important truism of criticism: all opinions are subjective. However, what makes me not look forward to typing my thoughts on Blue Valentine the most is that, it's not even the type of film you can have fun getting revenge on for wasting your time. Recalling it for a review just means reliving the experience and it was painful enough the first time.
Now that I've decided to leap in anyway and dredge up my memories of Blue Valentine, I'm filled with sadness. It's not because that's what much of director Derek Cianfrance's film aims to elicit from the viewer as it charts the rise and fall of the relationship between Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams) (not necessarily in that order). No, it's because I know that Gosling and Williams have talent and it's being abused here.
It seems even more tragic in the case of Williams (though I guess her undeserved Oscar nomination will help take the sting out), who seems to be drawn to roles in bad indie films such as this one. Is this masochism on her part? Not only does Blue Valentine provide her with a poorly written character that, though quite different from Wendy from Wendy and Lucy, seems to force her to play the same notes she hit in that similarly overpraised indie. In fact, early in Blue Valentine, when Cindy starts making photocopies of the family's missing dog, I actually started experiencing flashbacks to Wendy and Lucy as if I suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two wildly hyped and unjustifiably acclaimed films striking me simultaneously. Almost more than I could bear.
What made me feel worse for Williams sort of goes with the old line about actresses saying they'd only do nudity if it were integral to the story. Much was made ahead of Blue Valentine's release about how they barely avoided an NC-17 because of the sex scenes between Williams and Gosling. Now, in no respect could you call me a prude nor do I mind seeing Williams in the altogether, but for all the hype, the vigorous humping the actors simulate ranks among some of the dullest movie sex scenes I've seen. As with most of Blue Valentine, it's porking without a point.
Since the movie jumps around to various points in the couple's relationship, it's not as if the sex really reflects the relationship's state at that time: It's neither lustful nor romantic, obligatory nor forcible. Most importantly, nothing seems intimate about it. It's not often that I refer you to a comment in another review, but since it's by my faithful contributor Josh R, I will. Go read his comment on the difference between how Gus Van Sant depicts gay sex in Milk versus how Ang Lee does in Brokeback Mountain (which had a very good performance by Williams) on my review of Milk and he explains exactly how I feel about the sex in Blue Valentine comes off.
Williams deserves so much better. Just see what great work she turned in for her small role in Scorsese's Shutter Island and it shines a big bright light on what little she's given to work with in this film. In Blue Valentine, as in Wendy and Lucy, it seems as if she's intent on creating the cinematic equivalent of slashing her wrists in attention-grabbing but ultimately harmless suicidal gestures. If she continues on this path, I fully expect to see her in a role carrying The Bell Jar or starring in a remake of The Hours.
Which brings me to Gosling, whose problem in Blue Valentine, other than the same bad script by director Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, is one of his own making. Gosling has shown before that he can deliver very good performances as he did in Half Nelson . Unfortunately, he's also displayed a tendency to substitute actorly tics, quirks and gimmicks as a substitute for actually creating three-dimensional characters. For example, see Lars and the Real Girl.
He strongly displays the Lars scenario here. OH BOY, does he do it here — tenfold. He makes Dean such a collection of artificial traits that I doubt blood flows in his veins since he's obviously been built from a kit and doesn't resemble a human being. The blowup doll in Lars and the Real Girl was more lifelike than Dean. No wonder Dean and Cindy's marriage falls apart so quickly. I don't know how Cindy lasted one night with this manufactured oddball, let alone a few years. Gosling goes so eccentrically over the top that he makes Brando's work in Island of Dr. Moreau seem subtle.
So with Blue Valentine we have another example of a 2010 film where its cast (and Gosling and Williams are essentially the only characters who matter except for John Doman in the small role of Cindy's father that just made me wish I were watching The Wire) draws more attention to a film that would otherwise fade into deserved oblivion. Except in the case of something such as The Kids Are All Right, that film's entire ensemble turns in such excellent performances that they help compensate for its hackneyed, predictable screenplay. There's no such luck for Blue Valentine which strands Williams at sea while Gosling rollicks in some twisted land of awful, mechanical Method Acting.
Williams should be grateful that enough Academy members apparently dislike Julianne Moore, fell for the category fraud of Hailee Steinfeld being supporting in True Grit and didn't see or remember Tilda Swinton in I Am Love to allow Williams to get a best actress nomination. Then again, they also nominated Nicole Kidman's icy work in Rabbit Hole, which I'll review later in the week, so maybe they were just filling in names and didn't actually see Blue Valentine or Rabbit Hole. (We do know at least the costume designers branch saw I Am Love.)
Plenty of great films have depicted decaying relationships and marriages, but Blue Valentine doesn't come close to joining that list. Some critics even had the gall to compare this film to the work of John Cassavetes. Blue Valentine doesn't even rise to the level of John Hughes and if you are a close reader of my reviews, you know what an insult that is.
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Tuesday, January 25, 2011
I Come to Praise Caesar, Not to Bury Him.
By Damian Arlyn
Before he was the sharp-minded, fast-talkin' insurance investigator in Double Indemnity or the poker-playin' master who squared off with Steve McQueen's Cincinnati Kid, before he was the traitorous Dathan in the biblical epic The Ten Commandments or the world-weary friend of Chuck Heston who knew the truth about Soylent Green, Edward G. Robinson was the short-statured yet larger-than-life eponymous crime boss in the 1931 Warner Bros. classic Little Caesar, which debuted 80 years ago today. Released the same year as the studio's other gangster pic The Public Enemy, Caesar did for Robinson exactly what Enemy did for its lead actor James Cagney: it made him a star.
Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, the author would later write the novels The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra. He co-wrote the screenplay for High Sierra (which, coincidentally, was released 10 years to the day that Caesar premiered) with John Huston and also worked on continuity and contributed dialogue to Howard Hawks' Scarface. Little Caesar tells the story of the meteoric rise and ignoble fall of fictional Chicago crime boss "Rico" Bandello (though he's presumably inspired by either Al Capone or Sam Cardinella depending on who you're talking to). While it wasn't the first gangster film ever made (nor even the first "talking" gangster film), Caesar is often credited, along with Enemy, as being the "godfather" of all gangster flicks that followed. It certainly spawned a whole string of mobster parts for Robinson, who would play similar roles in Key Largo, Little Giant and Disney's Never a Dull Moment (my first exposure to the inimitable Edward).
Like all typecast actors, Robinson struggled to break free from his "tough guy" screen persona for many years to come and despite his undeniable talent and charisma, it's easy to see why audiences so associated him with that type of character. Edward G. Robinson is to mobsters what John Wayne is to cowboys. To see him play "Rico" in particular is to witness that rare occasion of an actor and a part fusing together with such perfection that it's almost impossible to separate them. Robinson is so graceful, so natural, so believable as the arrogant, power-hungry and bloodthirsty Rico that it's easy to believe that this was the role he was, as the cliche goes, "born to play." Every scene with him is a delight and there are so many memorable moments involving him that it's hard to highlight only one. Nonetheless, my personal favorite is the scene where he tries on a tuxedo for the first time and stands before a mirror. At first he starts off hating the "monkey suit" he's wearing ("All I need is a napkin over my arm," he sneers.), but gradually he starts to like the way it looks and strikes a dashing pose as he admires his newer, "classier" self. Without a doubt, Robinson is the best part of Little Caesar.
The rest of the film, unfortunately, doesn't hold up quite as well. Though by no means bad, one wonders if The Godfather or Goodfellas will look as dated, quaint and melodramatic on their 80th anniversary as Little Caesar looks now. No doubt the violence, ridiculously tame by today's standards, was shocking for its time (a time before the Hays Code swooped in to protect audiences from being sullied by such despicable sounds and images) and the idea of glamorizing the Mafia lifestyle — an element that is not only accepted by today's audiences but actually expected by them — also made the film rather controversial (though it didn't hurt its box office intake). In fact, when the film was re-released in 1954 on a double bill with The Public Enemy, a foreword was added in an attempt to give it some "relevance." Jonathan Munby (author of Public Enemies, Public Heroes) calls the foreword a "disclaimer couched in the rhetoric of the officiating culture."
My advice is to forget about its tacked-on socially redeeming "message" or its historical import as an early example of "crime drama" cinema. The real reason to see Little Caesar is the iconic performance of Edward G. Robinson. The ambition, the brutality and the occasional vulnerability he brings to the character of "Little Caesar" will ensure that that little man (and by connection the film he inhabits) will live on long after the Pizza franchise has become only a memory. So, to answer Robinson's final query: "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" Not hardly, Ed. Not hardly.
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Requiem for a lifestyle
By Edward Copeland
As much as an icon as Humphrey Bogart has been and for as long as he's held that status, it's hard to believe that he already was 40 years old before he became a true movie star and that his career as a legend lasted a mere 15 years. The film that gave him his first starring role and launched him into the celebrity stratosphere, High Sierra, was released 70 years ago today.
Bogart had been kicking around the Warner Bros. studio system in supporting gangster roles since he made his big impression repeating his Broadway role as Duke Mantee in the 1936 film version of The Petrified Forest. Bogart would never have received that break if the star of the play and the movie, Leslie Howard, hadn't insisted that Bogart must repeat the part on film. Warners had gained a reputation as "Murderers Row" with its success in the gangster genre and its stable of famous crime movie stars such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft and Paul Muni. The studio didn't see the need for bringing out a New York actor for the part, but Howard and Bogie won out. Bogart got a contract with the studio out of the deal, but his career seemed stuck in neutral.
W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel Little Caesar, whose film version just happened to premiere 80 years ago today, penned the novel High Sierra and Warners snapped up the rights two weeks after publication, envisioning it as a vehicle for Muni. They gave the book to one of their young writers, John Huston, to turn into a screenplay and he produced a script that followed the book fairly faithfully, but Muni rejected it. The studio brought Burnett in to work with Huston on another draft, but Muni nixed that one too. In the meantime, Bogart had seen the High Sierra script and knew he had to play Roy Earle, seeing in him a part that could lift him to the next level of Hollywood actors. The studio pursued Raft, who happened to ask Bogart his opinion of the script. Bogart acted less than enthusiastic, telling Raft that it just seemed like another standard tough guy role who gets shot up in the end. He successfully talked Raft out of it and the studio turned to him, even though Earle is substantially older than Bogie was. They began makeup tests and when those passed muster, the part was his. Raoul Walsh was assigned to direct and Ida Lupino was cast as the girl of one of the criminals. Bogart, Lupino and Walsh had all worked together in They Drive By Night. Since Bogart still wasn't a bankable name and They Drive By Night was considered a big hit for Lupino, she got top billing. High Sierra was the last film Bogart made where his name didn't appear first. High Sierra also launched the friendship that led to one of the all-time great actor-director partnerships between Huston and Bogart, which would premiere later that year with Huston's directing debut, The Maltese Falcon.
Walsh opens his film with the credits scrolling up with the Sierra mountain range in the background, foreshadowing its role in the film's climax, before he fades into a shot of the Governor's Mansion. We move inside where we see a man, presumably the governor, as he signs what we see in closeup is an unconditional pardon for Roy Earle. We then see a montage of shots from a prison: Inmates going about their day, the cells, the guards, etc., until we see its name: Mossmoor Prison and sidle down to the prison gates where a man waits in a car. Then Roy Earle (Bogart), looking sharp in a suit, tie and hat shakes a guard's hand, the gates open and he steps out to freedom. The driver (George Lloyd) gets out and tells Roy he's been waiting more than an hour for him. "I've been waiting too — over eight years," Earle replies. The man who picked up Roy notices his distracted air and asks him if he's OK. "I will be, just as soon as I'm sure that grass is still green and trees are still growing," Roy tells him before heading for a walk in the park where he bypasses a newspaper announcing his release from prison (He's identified as a "Famous Indiana Bank Robber" and people are upset by his early release) to enjoy nature and even toss a baseball back to some kids. That's what separates Roy Earle from the usual gangster you'd find in that movie genre. Sure, he's a tough guy, but he also has a tender, empathetic side as we will see later, a side that will hurt him in a way no bullet ever could.
Following his brief sojourn with nature, Roy heads to a house where he expects to find Big Mac. (No, not the sandwich, the crime boss who backs his heists and arranged his pardon.) A man and a woman are waiting for him: the man reading the newspaper and wondering what's keeping him, the blonde (Isabel Jewell) filled with excitement at the prospect of meeting the infamous Roy "Mad Dog" Earle. The man (Barton MacLane) tells her that when Earle gets there, she needs to lock herself in the bedroom and stay out of sight. She pouts and hears the car indicating Earle's arrival. She dutifully goes to the bedroom, but keeps the door cracked so she can peek, so the man tosses a book at the door to get her to shut it. When Roy enters the house, he wants to know where Mac is and the man introduces himself as Jack Kranmer, whom Earle immediately pegs as a cop, though Jack insists he's an ex-cop. Kranmer tells him that Mac is in California and wants Earle to head that way. He's planning a jewelry caper at a ritzy hotel in the resort town of Tropical Springs. Kranmer rubs Roy the wrong way and Earle expresses suspicions about him, wishing to talk to Mac himself. Kranmer reminds him that Mac spent a fortune springing him from prison so Mac "calls the tune and you dance to it." We finally get to see the tough side of Earle as he gives Kranmer several quick slaps on each side of his face before exiting.
While on the road to California, after a brief stop for a nostalgic look at his childhood farm (this Earle really is a softie at heart), Roy's driving skills save himself and another vehicle from having an accident when the other car swerves wildly when a rabbit darts across the two-lane-highway. Down the road a bit later, Roy stops for some gas and the lonesome attendant chatters away about the sight of the Sierra range ahead and Mount Whitney, the highest point in the U.S. The car that almost collided with Roy happens to pull up and the old man in it (Henry Travers) hops out to extend his gratitude to Roy for saving them from a wreck. He says his granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie) was driving at the time and she probably had been driving longer than she should have been. He introduces himself and his wife (Elizabeth Risdon). It seems that they have just lost their farm and are heading to California to live with Velma's mom. Roy wishes them luck and departs with a kind smile.
Earle rolls into a lakeside lodging camp where his two caper associates are staying. The place is mostly a site for fishermen and the first person he encounters is a black man named Algernon (Willie Best), who unfortunately is played as the worst of comic stereotypes of the era. It's really one of the few blights on an otherwise classic film. Algernon tells Roy two men have been expecting him and points out which cabin Roy's staying in and which cabin holds the two men. Roy also meets a scrappy little dog named Pard. (In the opening credits, they get it wrong and say 'Pard' as 'Zero', though it's fixed for the end credits.) Earle compliments Algernon on Pard, but is corrected. Pard isn't his: His original master got killed in an accident there and Pard just never left. Roy asks Algernon to drive his car to his cabin and take his bags inside and he heads up to meet the men who will be his partners in crime. Before he meets the men, he grimaces, because a woman sits outside the cabin, idly stirring the dirt with a twig. He asks her about the men and first Red appears (a very young Arthur Kennedy), followed by Babe (Alan Curtis). They introduce the woman as Marie (Lupino). Earle asks Red if he can speak to him alone. He learns that Babe picked up Marie and Roy tells him to get rid of her, send her away. A woman will just be a distraction.
Red returns and shares the news with Babe and Marie. The two men provide a study in contrasts in their assessments of Earle. Red practices a sort of idol worship as far as Roy is concerned, while Babe thinks Earle looks old and out of touch and doesn't like him giving them orders. Marie adamantly declares that she doesn't want to go. She has no intention of returning to the dime-a-dance joint where she used to work to make a living. She decides that maybe she can change his mind herself, but Red and Babe laugh at her. The next morning, Algernon comes to Roy's cabin with Pard and asks if he can do anything for him. Earle says he can use some breakfast, but Algernon says that Marie already has prepared that for him. He then shows off how smart Pard is by demonstrating some of his tricks. As Roy begins to dine, Pard comes begging. Earle compliments the dog as a born panhandler just as Marie arrives and Algernon excuses himself. Marie eases into the subject, suggesting first that Roy should go outside and get some sun. "Where I was staying, they didn't let me get out in the sun. Afraid I might spoil my girlish complexion," Roy responds. Then Marie brings up the subject of her leaving as gracefully as she can, telling Roy that she hears he wants her to go back to L.A., but she'd prefer to stay. Marie then drops a little bit of information on him. Be wary of Louis Mendoza, she tells him. Mendoza's their inside man at the Tropico hotel, where he's the night manager. Marie tells Roy that Mendoza has a tendency to talk too much. Marie's gambit seems to have worked as Roy tells her she doesn't have to leave immediately. They'll see how things play out first.
Later, Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) drops in for cards with the guys. Earle comes by for a visit and interrupts their game, figuring it's a perfect time to go over the heist plans. The shifty Mendoza makes him nervous. They lay out the floor plan for the hotel to start planning the heist. Red, excitedly, bring out a violin case to show Roy what they've acquired: a trusty submachine gun. Roy takes the opportunity to tell a story about a crew with a similar weapon, a crew convinced they had a rat in their ranks. As that crew sat around, their leader held the gun with his finger on the trigger as they made small talk and watched the suspected rat sweat. The more they talked, the more he perspired. The leader's finger slipped and the gun went off three times — which Earle punctuates with three quick loud taps on the table — and the rat was dead. Just like that, Roy repeats, doing the taps again. He'd made his point: Mendoza was thoroughly intimidated and stood, wiped his brow and told them that they should be ready in a couple nights. Earle similarly excuses himself. Even Babe is impressed at Roy's ability to get his message across.
While waiting for the night of the heist to come, Roy takes an excursion to Los Angeles to meet with Big Mac. On the way, he encounters a traffic jam caused by a wreck. It turns out that the fender bender — a parked car pulled away from the curb without signaling and dented another vehicle — was caused by the same family he met on the road. The driver they hit raises a ruckus, but Earle smooths things over and slips the guy some cash, despite a witness saying that Velma was driving. When she gets out of their car, the witness yells, "Look! She's a cripple!" For the first time, Earle learns that Velma's problem is a club foot. Roy asks her "Pa" about the foot and he tells him that when she was young a doctor told them she could have it fixed, but nothing came of it. Her grandfather thanks Roy for helping them again and Earle continues his journey to Mac's. When he reunites with Mac (Donald MacBride), he finds that the crime boss isn't well. He's confined to bed, but he's still partaking of plenty of booze, despite doctor's orders. Mac tells Earle how overjoyed he is to see an old pro like him again since he's been forced to work with such screwballs. "All the A-one guys are gone, dead or in Alcatraz," Mac tells Earle. "Times have sure changed." Roy agrees, adding, "Yeah, ain't they? You know, Mac, sometimes I feel like I don't know what it's all about anymore." It's here where High Sierra makes clear what its underlying theme is. This isn't your typical gangster story or even a tale of an aging criminal. High Sierra plays as an elegy for all the gangsters and the type of gangsters movies that made Warner Bros. in the 1930s. There would still be others of course, and some great ones such as White Heat, but, in a way, as war was enveloping Europe and would soon draw in the U.S., High Sierra was composing a sort of requiem for the genre.
Mac and Roy hear the arrival of his doctor, so Mac urges Roy to hide the liquor. The doctor turns out to be another old pal, Doc Banton (Henry Hull), who while not a real doctor, has worked with and on Mac and Roy's criminal crews for a long time. Roy's surprised that Doc has moved his operations west as well. "Roy, this is the land of milk and honey for the health racket," Banton says, "Every woman in California thinks she's either too fat or too thin or too something." After giving Mac the once over and again warning Mac to lay off the booze, Roy asks if he can talk to Doc in the other room. He asks what he knows about club foots and the possibility of fixing them. Doc says it depends on how bad it is, but it is certainly possible, but he couldn't do the surgery himself. Roy asks if he could take a look at Velma for him and Doc agrees, though he advises him that it could be expensive. Roy returns to Mac, who immediately motions for him to bring back the liquor. Earle hesitates, mentioning what Doc said, but Mac brushes him off. Mac says Doc may think that if he doesn't stop drinking, it will kill him, but he's going to die, but he's going to die anyway. "We all are, aren't we?" Mac says. On that subject, Mac gives Roy an envelope. Should something happen to him before he can get the booty from the heist, Roy should open this envelope and follow the instructions inside. It's late when he returns to the cabins, and he finds Marie in his, sitting in the dark. He turns on the lamp and sees the large bruise on her face. He asks if Babe did this and she confirms it, saying that he and Red got into a drunken brawl and she took an errant blow. Roy told her not to fret and proceeds to go talk to his associates about how to behave. Earle's demeanor has softened toward Marie, just as it has toward Velma. He's a hard-bitten criminal, but there's are soft spots inside him, not just for the women either, even for the dog Pard.
While a heist motors the plot of High Sierra followed by a man hunt, really this isn't your standard suspense outing in the crime genre. It really does have that wistful feeling about it and thanks to Bogart's starmaking turn, it's really more of a character study than other films you'd find in this realm, one where many of the characters have a nihilistic streak, seeing not only the end of their line of work but of their lives as well. Walsh directs it quite beautifully, knowing when to tease with moments that need the suspense, but also ably handling the more tender sides. Of course, Walsh would reinvigorate the genre again in White Heat and before High Sierra he'd helmed They Drive By Night and The Roaring Twenties as well as many classics in other genres including Westerns, musicals and comedies and he'd been working since the silent era, including making one of Gloria Swanson's most famous films, Sadie Thompson. In High Sierra, Walsh fills the frame with some gorgeous shots, thanks to cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who makes excellent use of the natural settings that surround the story. Gaudio's name isn't often mentioned when listing the great d.p.'s of that era but he also worked on some other marvelous looking films such as Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's The Adventures or Robin Hood and William Wyler's The Letter. Having never read the novel High Sierra, I can't say for certain how much of the dialogue was lifted directly from it, but just from hearing so much of his other work, I have to believe that John Huston has to get the credit for the majority of memorable lines that run throughout the course of the entire movie. He got his start as a writer and a script doctor and it was his work on this film, on which he spent a lot of time on the set, that finally gave him a chance to sit in the director's chair. How fortuitous, if only for allowing the bonding that took place between him and Bogart. They became one of the greatest actor-director teams in the history of film, alongside the pairings of Kurosawa and Mifune, Ford and Wayne and Scorsese and De Niro. Before High Sierra, Huston's credited work included Jezebel, Juarez, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and Sergeant York. He also did uncredited work on Wuthering Heights and, years later, on Orson Welles' The Stranger. Huston was a very talented man — and he could act too.
By this point in the movie, all the pieces and characters are in place for the various story strands that will lead to Roy Earle's undoing, emotionally and physically. It may seem an odd comparison, but when I wrote on one of my favorite films, Broadcast News, I titled the post "An unrequited love triangle" and that's really what you have set up in High Sierra. For all Roy's initial warnings to Red that having a dame around while planning a caper would be a distraction, that's exactly the trap that Earle falls into with Velma. He's not just playing good Samaritan in his plan to fix her foot. Despite the huge gap in their ages, he pictures her as his bride once the job is done. Pa thinks Roy would be good for her, though he warns him that she's stuck on a fella back where they used to live. "It seems to me I've been close to Velma for a million years," Roy tells him while Doc is in the other room examining the feasibility of an operation. Everyone is overjoyed when he says that he's seen much worse and he's talked to the best surgeon in L.A. and thinks it can be done. Velma displays much gratitude to Roy, but it's obvious she doesn't share the romantic feelings the older crook has developed. As Doc and Roy drive away, Doc tries to talk sense to Earle, asking him what he thinks is going to happen once Velma and the rest of her family learn what he really does for a living. He tells him that she's not the type of girl for him. He needs someone who can run as fast as he can. "Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you," Doc tells him. "Said you were just rushing toward death." Again, by citing the real-life dead gangster the film keeps its theme alive of the dying of a lifestyle.
Now to have a triangle, you need three points, even if it's an unrequited one, and that third point is Marie. When we met her, we were given the impression that she was Babe's gal, but the film never shows any indication of warmth or affection between the two of them. We also assume that as she warms up to Roy it's more a matter of her wanting to avoid a return to her less than savory lifestyle at the dime-a-dance joint, but as the film develops, you see she's developing a true attachment to him. Part of it is that she recognizes that softer side that he usually hides from his criminal cronies as when they discuss what kept him going in prison and how he would never go back behind bars again. At another point, Marie happens to catch Roy having terrible nightmares while he sleeps. Roy, who was eager to get her out of the lodging camp for fear of complications, comes to accept her presence, but not for romance or because she's pleasing to the eye, but because he suspects she might be a useful part of the heist crew — and probably more competent than either Red or Babe. When he decides to check out the Tropico himself, he takes Marie along. Unexpectedly, he takes a third member: Pard. The mutt also has grown attached to them, having already lost his previous master, so when he hears Roy's car leaving, Pard furiously chases it, until Roy stops the car and lets the dog hop in and ride in Marie's lap. When the night of the actual heist actually arrives, they pay Algernon to lock Pard up, but the resourceful pup manages to open the cabin window and get out and chase the car again that night. Roy grumbles then that he probably should have shot the dog, though we know he doesn't mean it, and then adds, "Of all the 14 karat saps — starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog."
After Roy spends $400 for the surgery to fix Velma's foot (and it's deemed a success), he goes to visit her while she's still recuperating in bed. He's ecstatic and feels it's time to lay his heart out to her and proposes marriage. The question takes the happy Velma aback. She's grateful for all Roy's done to help her, but she tells him that there's someone else back home and now that her foot is fixed, nothing should stand in the way of her marrying Lon. Bogart's demeanor will break your heart. He plays Roy as being stoic as he can at the news, but you can see that he's been shattered. Nothing really matters to him at this point but the job and if it ends badly for him, so be it. He never says it in words, but the realization that he was stupid to think a man his age (the movie never pins that down, but he's obviously supposed to be older than Bogart's 40 years) could win the heart of a cute young 20-year-old, or was he merely trying to buy it by fixing her foot for her? He makes a hasty exit, though he promises Pa that he'll come back and see her again when she's up and walking, though you know he doesn't want to see her ever again. After he leaves, Pa sits at Velma's bedside. She's upset because she didn't want to hurt Roy after all he's done for her, but, "I'm not crippled anymore Pa and I'm gonna have fun." Her few tears are gone as Velma dreams of dancing with Lon and tells her grandfather she doesn't love Roy and she never could. Her grandfather doesn't say anything, but you can tell he's disappointed in her and sees in her a bit of her trashy, good time gal mother, who we saw briefly in an earlier scene, who annoys her father to no end.
After what seems like an eternity of waiting, the time finally comes for the night of the heist. Roy goes over the plans once more with Red, Babe and Marie (Pard doesn't get specific instructions, since they don't know he'll be tagging along at this point). As is the usual staple in most movies of this sort, the caper does not go smoothly. Roy will keep the lobby employees at bay (including Mendoza) while Red and Babe break into the security deposit boxes for the jewelry. Marie will sit outside in Roy's car and honk if she sees anyone approaching. It seems to be going OK, with only a waiter to worry about, when a rich couple arrives. Marie gives the signal and Earle herds the pair and the waiter into the sitting area to watch over. Marie has to honk again though when a security guard making his rounds gets suspicious and comes in. Roy gets him to drop his weapon at first, but something startles the woman who screams and Roy ends up killing the guard. Red and Babe return with the booty and the nervous wreck Mendoza insist that he come with them because he didn't realize anyone would get hurt and he knows he'd break. Mendoza joins Red and Babe in their car, Marie, Roy and Pard head off in his. For some reason, Red heads off on the wrong exit and Roy follows them only to see the other car spin out of control, turn over and burst into flames.
Roy knows that the wreck means trouble, even if all three perished, so he figures he better head straight to Los Angeles to give the jewelry to Mac, get his cut and hightail it out of town. When he gets to Mac's, he's not happy to see Kranmer greet him at the door. The news of the heist is all over the news and Kranmer informs him that Red and Babe are both dead but that Mendoza only suffered a broken collarbone. Earle suggests that they show Mac the goods so he can get out of there. Kranmer says Mac had been sleeping, but he'd want to wake up for this. When they enter the bedroom, they realize Mac's not sleeping — he's dead. Kranmer sees it as an opportunity for the two of them to split the bounty themselves, but Roy tells him that Mac anticipated this might happen and left him instructions. He opens the envelope and then calls the name inside and tells the person what happened to Mac. He's preparing to leave, when Kranham pulls a gun and says that he'll be taking the jewels and taking care of Earle as well. He thinks he might get a reward, maybe even reinstatement to the police force. "Like I told Mac," Roy says, "a copper's always a copper." Earle then tosses the box at Kranham, pulls his piece and kills him, but not before Kranham gets a shot off as well, wounding Roy. He grimaces his way to the car with the box and tells Marie she'll have to drive and tells her to take him to Doc's.
Doc says the wound barely missed his heart, but he'll need to take it easy. Roy apologizes that he doesn't have anything to pay him right now, but he's going to get it soon. When he gets back in the car, he tells Marie he has to keep a promise as long as he's in L.A. and he goes to Velma's house. He finds Pa at wit's end because Velma and Lon (John Eldredge) are drinking and dancing with two of Lon's friends. Roy's visit delights Pa, but Velma seems particularly annoyed. Hurting from his wound (both the physical and mental one) and seeing what type of person Lon is, Roy actually asks Velma if Lon is the type of person she wants to spend her life with as says he could give her so much more. He's unaware that Marie has entered the house just as Velma lashes out at Roy and says she could never love someone like him, telling him he's old and practically calling him ugly. Earle has a few choice words for Lon and then rushes out. Pa tells Marie that he hates what just happened because Roy has been so good to them, but Marie says maybe he needed to see and hear it for the truth to finally sink in. Once Roy and Marie are safely out of earshot, Lon says he should have punched him for the way he acted. High Sierra really takes an interesting twist on the usual female roles in the crime pictures. Velma, who seems to be the "good girl," turns out to be the heartless one while Marie, set up as the hardened gangster moll, really has the big heart full of love and caring.
Roy has Marie drive him to the man on the phone to collect his cut and get the hell out of town. Unfortunately, the man tells him it will take a few days for him to unload the jewelry and give him the full cut. Earle tells him he better not be trying to pull something on him. The man assures him he's not and gives him two options: he can keep the jewelry until the money comes in and risk being caught with it or he can advance him a couple hundred bucks now and wait for the full payment. Earle opts for the cash and leaves the jewelry, though he does take a ring. When he returns to the car, he slides the ring on to Marie's finger. He says it's a gift. She says it's the wrong finger, but she welcomes it anyway. They then head off to find a hotel to hole up in until Roy can get his full $40,000. While there, Marie notices that his wound still is bleeding and she tries to patch it up the best she can. Later, when he goes outside the room to grab a paper, a stranger mentions something that Roy realizes he's been made. He takes the man inside the room at gunpoint.
After knocking the man out and locking him in the closet, he opens the paper and sees his picture with his hated nickname "Mad Dog." He realizes that Mendoza has been talking and regrets not killing him when he followed them out of the hotel. He tells Marie to go the store and get a basket that she can carry Pard in and a suitcase for him. They are going to have to separate. Marie doesn't want to leave him, but he reminds her that he told her that at some point he might have to park her somewhere for her own safety. "Brother, when they hang that No. 1 tag on you, they shoot first and argue afterwards," he tells her. He gives her the money he got and tells her to get on a bus to Las Vegas and he'll try to get there when the heat is off. She protests, but eventually agrees and gets on the bus. Roy, strapped for cash, stops at a drugstore and holds it up for some cash, but is identified. It leads to a chase that takes him to a dead end and forces him to climb the Sierras for refuge. On the bus, Marie hears a radio account of what has happened and asks the driver if there are any buses going the other way and she heads back west to try to help Roy.
The authorities set up camp at the bottom of the mountain and try to communicate with Earle to no avail. They also work at trying to get a sniper into place above him, but are having difficulty in that respect as well. Roy just stays in the rocks, day and night, with his gun. Eventually, they are able to move a marksman into place above him, but not to where he can get a good shot.
The standoff begins to weigh on Earle. He knows he's reached the end of the line and that he's not getting out of this one. As he's starting to face his own mortality, Marie has joined the gathered crowd at the mountain base. She tries to cross the police line and gets pushed back until one of the lawmen notices her basket and asks if she might happen to have a dog in there. He identifies her as the woman with the dog that had been witnessed on the run with Earle and he brings her forward and tries to get her to talk to him, but every time she starts to, she stops, fearing she's being used just to bring about his death.
Unaware that Marie is even there, Roy begins writing a note. It says that he knows that he's not going to make it out of this, but when they find this note on him, he wants the authorities to know that Marie had nothing to do with his criminal activities. At that moment, Pard pops his head out of the basket and barks. Earle recognizes the voice and stands up, the note being blown to the wind at the same time, calling, "Marie."
That's all the marksman needs and he squeezes off the fatal shot that brings about the end of Roy Earle, who tumbles down the mountain. When he lands, Pards runs to him, licking his hand and his face. Another master has been lost. The authorities lead Marie off in tears and Walsh ends the film as he began it, with credits scrolling up over the mountain range. Roy Earle's career as a criminal had come to an end, but Humphrey Bogart's career as a superstar had just been born. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his 1941 New York Times review of High Sierra: "Mr. Bogart plays the leading role with a perfection of hard-boiled vitality." Earle was just the beginning. A few months later, he'd bring us Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and in November of the following year, Rick Blaine in Casablanca. It's not just that they don't make movies like High Sierra anymore, it's that we don't get actors/stars like Bogie anymore either.
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