Thursday, June 30, 2011


You Can Even Eat the Dishes

By Damian Arlyn
There's a moment in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the character of Willy Wonka emerges for the first time from his factory to the enthusiastic applause of a crowd gathered to see him. The noise gradually dies down and becomes silent as they realize he is limping along on a cane. Children are unable to hide their disappointment. Grown-ups look confused and concerned. Suddenly, only a few steps from his front gate, Wonka's cane gets stuck in some cobblestones. He freezes, starts to fall forward, does a somersault and victoriously leaps to his feet with a smile. Children's faces light up. The crowd erupts into even more enthusiastic applause. It was all a joke. A delightful bit of showmanship from a master trickster. This introduction, as the story goes, was Gene Wilder's idea. When approached for the role, Wilder stipulated he would only do it if he could make his entrance in just such a manner. When asked why by the director, Wilder replied, "Because from that moment on, whenever I do anything nobody will know whether I'm lying or telling the truth." That kind of profound understanding Wilder brought to the character is just one among many examples of why Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory works just as beautifully now as it did when it premiered 40 years ago today.

The tale of Willy Wonka began as a book entitled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, penned by Roald Dahl and published in 1964. It told the highly fanciful tale of a poor boy taken on a tour through a magical wonderland by an eccentric confectioner. The book was a hit and in 1970 producer Dave Wolper was looking for a movie idea to serve as a promotional tie-in for a new line of candy bars the Quaker Oats Company was hoping to manufacture. Dahl’s fantastical fable of sugary goodness seemed a perfect fit. It was the first of his stories to be adapted for film and Dahl himself was hired to write the screenplay. Massive changes, however, were made to his script by David Seltzer and this caused Dahl to be severely dissatisfied with the final product and consequently disown it (a phenomenon that was to occur time and again with cinematic adaptations of his works). In a delicious bit of irony, however, the candy bar that Quaker Oats produced turned out to be faulty and so had to be withdrawn from shelves.

To helm the project, Mel Stuart (a director known mostly for TV movies and documentaries) was chosen. It seems an odd choice for a theatrical fantasy film for families (particularly given that his visual style is rather bland), but he acquits himself adequately through his numerous astute filmmaking decisions, his first being to make Willy Wonka a musical. The songs written by the award-winning team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are all (with the exception of the mother's "Cheer Up, Charlie" which was always a fast-forward song for me as a kid) melodic and memorable.

Who among us doesn't know "Pure Imagination," the "Oompa-Loompah" song or "The Candy Man" (made immortal by Sammy Davis Jr.) by heart? To this day, I think Grandpa Joe's energetic rendition of "I've Got a Golden Ticket" as he dances around the room in his pajamas has to be one of the purest expressions of sheer joy I've ever seen in cinema. Stuart also decided to shoot the film in Germany to save on costs. Wisely, however, the country is never identified by name in the film and it adds to the fantastic other-worldly quality of the story.

In casting the film, Stuart had to find not just one or two but five young actors to play the lucky children who find the Golden Tickets. All five are quite good but a couple standouts are Peter Ostrum (in his one and only film appearance) who manages to be believably innocent and selfless without coming off as disgustingly saccharine in his performance as Charlie. The other is Julie Dan Cole as Veruca Salt, the brattiest kid of the bunch…and that's saying something. Cole totally commits to the supreme selfishness of her character and even gets her own song to sing ("I want It Now"). She's the kind of devil-spawn that every parent is afraid their own offspring will turn out to be. The inimitable Jack Albertson plays Grandpa Joe, Charlie's surrogate father figure, with equal amounts of love for Charlie and disdain for the injustices of the world.

Finally, there's Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Although Dahl presumably wanted Spike Mulligan or Ron Moody to play the part, Stuart once again demonstrated a keen grasp of the material by approaching Wilder, a brilliant comic actor who thoroughly understood the complexities and ambiguities of the character. His Willy Wonka is unpredictable (as demonstrated by his introduction) but lovable, strange but predominately non-threatening, bizarre but surprisingly witty (quoting such varied writers as Shakespeare, Wilde and Keats). Wilder brings a childlike enthusiasm and exuberance to the role and it is arguably his most iconic performance (and he's certainly given us several to choose from).

For the most part, Willy Wonka charmed critics when it was released, but audiences were not quite as won over by it and tended to stay away (the film only grossed $4 million on a $3 million budget). Eventually, however, it developed a cult following on home video and television broadcasts. How well does it hold up today? Well, obviously there are elements which are extremely dated (the psychedelic boat ride down the tunnel is a like a bad 70's acid trip), but like Wizard Of Oz or Mary Poppins, there is an element of imagination at work in the film (something sadly lacking in most contemporary movies) that makes it utterly charming and helps give it a timeless quality. Today it is remembered with much fondness and affection by many families. Personally, I love the film and when I revisit it every couple years I am surprised at how moved I am by it at various points in story. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not be a great film, but it is the product of an era when wonder and fancy could still be found in big screen movies, when cinematic fairy tales could be told earnestly (without cynicism or self-consciousness) and when things like story, character and genuine emotion were more important than budget or special effects.

A comparison with the more "faithful" 2006 adaptation by Tim Burton demonstrates this very thing. The remake is not without its charms (including some stunning visuals and a charming performance from Freddie Highmore), but it serves as yet another reminder that newer is not necessarily better. Among the many miscalculations was Johnny Depp’s decision to play Wonka as an excessively bizarre weirdo stuck in a state of arrested development. With echoes of pop sensation and eccentric man-child (not to mention accused child molester) Michael Jackson, Depp's Wonka was creepy and off-putting. Wilder's Wonka could indeed be dark, mysterious, enigmatic and even outright scary sometimes, but he was never creepy. His character, like the film he inhabited, ultimately had a warmth and a generosity at heart whereas Depp's Wonka, also much like the film itself, had a coldness at the center, a sense of detachment that makes its hard to be engaged by what we are watching even while we are being amazed by what we are seeing. I suspect that the 1971 version of the story will still retain its appeal long after the motion picture landscape has been become overrun with ugly, calculated and expendable pieces of cinematic junk (a fate of which I'm skeptical Burton's version will share).

In essence, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not have been revolutionary, but it was definitely non-pollutionary.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Wednesday, June 29, 2011


“I can handle big news and little news…and if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Cinephiles and classic movie fans alike marked off July 17, 2007 as the date when one of their Holy Grails was finally released to DVD: Ace in the Hole (1951), director Billy Wilder’s pungent portrayal of both the fourth estate and the public’s insatiable appetite for the sensationalism they publish and/or broadcast, had never previously been available on home video…and though I had seen the movie years ago on American Movie Classics (it still had its The Big Carnival credits, the title it went by when Paramount tried to recoup the dismal box office generated on its first release) I was amazed by how many online movie critics and bloggers admitted to not having seen the film.

It was the first major financial flop for Wilder (one studio wag dubbed the movie “Ass in the Wringer”) after a string of solid successes that had began in 1942 and because of its epic fail Billy himself wasn’t particularly fond of discussing Hole in later years — he not only ended up being sued by a screenwriter who claimed he gave the idea for the movie’s plot to Wilder’s secretary (Wilder and his lawyers eventually settled out of court) Paramount withheld from him some of the profits from his next feature, Stalag 17 (1953), claiming it was retribution for the financial “hole” Hole left them in. Sixty years ago on this date, the film I consider to be one of his finest works was released to theaters…a movie whose message is pithily summed up on an embroidered sign hanging on a newspaper office wall: “Tell the truth.”

Reporter Chuck Tatum finds himself busted flat in Albuquerque, N.M. — his car is en route to a garage via tow truck, and he’s looking for work after a checkered employment history with eleven major newspapers have shown him in the door for various infractions (adultery, slander, etc.). Introducing himself to editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) of the city’s Sun-Bulletin, the quick-thinking, silver-tongued Tatum manages to talk himself into a $60-a-week job as a reporter even though he’s pining for the much faster pace of cities like Chicago and New York. His fellow employees — among them cub photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) — don’t quite know what to make of Tatum, but they find his demeanor and personality fascinating; Tatum, in the meantime, has cleaned up his act and managed to stay sober for a year though the tedious ennui of small-town life is threatening to kill him.

Assigned to cover a “rattlesnake roundup” story in a nearby county, Chuck and Herbie stop off to gas up and learn from a woman named Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) that her husband Leo (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in an underground cave attraction near their souvenir stand looking for Indian artifacts. In investigating Leo’s predicament Tatum realizes he’s staring into the abyss of a potentially hot news story — very similar to the famous account of Kentuckian Floyd Collins, who was ensnared in a similar cave in 1925. With Herbie by his side, Chuck begins to milk the story for maximum impact; in cahoots with local sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), Tatum not only strong-arms engineer Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet) into using a prolonged method to reach Leo (which will allow for extra days of front-page treatment of the tragedy) but effectively eliminates the competition from other reporters covering the story, who are banished to a “press tent” by the corrupt Kretzer. (When his fellow scribes try appealing to Tatum’s “fair play” by observing that “we’re all in the same boat” he responds: “I’m in the boat…you’re in the water…now let’s see how you can swim.”) The news of Leo’s predicament quickly garners national attention and thousands of spectators and onlookers flock to the site where Lorraine greedily anticipates a financial windfall from the sales of food, drink, souvenirs and concessions from a carnival set up nearby.

Emboldened by the attention bestowed upon him as the reporter with an exclusive scoop (his services are now in demand by the very paper who gave him a pink slip), Tatum tells editor Boot to take a hike when he comes by in a futile attempt to rein him in…and Herbie, who’s also undergone a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation from idealistic young man to craven opportunist, elects to stay with Chuck when the prospect of selling his photos to magazines such as Look and Life becomes all-too-tantalizing. As for Leo, one of the few decent people characterized in the film (along with his parents, his physician and a priest), his time is running out — and Tatum’s reporter instincts tells him he needs to get Leo out of there fast because an unhappy ending is the kiss of death for his brand of tabloid journalism. But Chuck is too late: Smollett informs him that going back to the original rescue plan will surely endanger Leo in a slate fall. Chuck breaks the news to Lorraine when Leo succumbs to suffocation, and is so disgusted with both her and himself that he attempts to strangle her. Lorraine manages to fend him off by stabbing him with a pair of scissors, and with Herbie’s help Tatum returns to town and the Sun-Bulletin offices in a severely weakened condition. “How'd you like to make yourself a thousand dollars a day, Mr. Boot?” he asks the editor, who stares at him with pity. “I'm a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman…you can have me for nothing.” He then collapses and dies on the spot.

At the time of Ace in the Hole's release, Wilder was critically lambasted by both movie reviewers and real-life journalists, who strongly objected to the categorization of the news-gathering fraternity in the film as unscrupulous and self-serving. The passage of time has demonstrated that while the tone of Hole remains satirical the content remains disturbingly realistic. Tales of reporters who have tossed ethics and credibility off to the side and accounts of journalists whose integrity has been compromised by cozying up to subjects they are supposed to objectively cover are too numerous to cite here but filmmaker Guy Maddin, in an essay entitled “Chin Up for Mother,” gets to the crux of why the cynicism of Hole isn’t manufactured but reflective of its time:
Of course, the main theme is the rapacious hunger of tabloid news organizations for their scoops, and of a public for blood (an appetite in this case as sexy and naked as it was in Caesarean times). But these things are nothing more than accurately represented in the movie. The earnest young shutterbug who starts the picture as Tatum’s nemesis is utterly corrupted by him within seconds; the lad’s whiplash transformation from annoying goody-goody to sycophantic ponyboy puts the Oscar-winning mutative wizardry of Rick Baker to shame. Others within Tatum’s orbit — the sheriff and the contractor, particularly — undergo Fredric March-like personality shifts as well, though the cave rat’s wife, the perfectly cast Jan Sterling, appears to have come pre-Hoovered of all scruples. By the time the Great S&M Amusement Corp. rolls in, poor, mad [Leo] Minosa is clearly doomed to die like a dog in his cave.

The jaundiced portrayal of these characters may have turned off moviegoers here in the U.S. of A. but Ace in the Hole did very well overseas, where critics and audiences are able to look at America through a far less jingoistic fog. (The “big carnival” atmosphere surrounding the fictional tragedy in Hole is still around today; if you can turn on your TV set right now and avoid the spectacle that is the Casey Anthony trial I admire and respect your channel surfing skills.) For me, the fascinating moment of truth in the movie is when Tatum and Smollett the engineer are being interviewed by a radio reporter and a casual spectator has the stones to interrupt and point out that there’s something seriously wrong with their “Operation Rescue” setup. There always seems to be a lone voice decrying what is obviously madness in these kinds of situations (Iraq-Afghanistan war, anyone?) but is seldom able to be heard above the sensationalistic din.

Over at my stomping grounds at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, actor Kirk Douglas is revered as “the king of the rat bastards” — a title that he frequently trades off with other screen legends such as Richard Widmark and Robert Ryan, depending on which actor and his respective movie I’ve watched of late. But what gives Douglas an edge in the race is that he played his characters with an intense ferocity — Chuck Tatum is one of the actor’s best roles, a not-so-distant cousin to the unscrupulous boxer Midge Kelly in Douglas’ 1949 movie Champion. Both men are unrepentant scoundrels (Midge may actually be worse in that he rapes his ex-wife and punches out his crippled brother) but it is interesting to note that they are also motivated by “the American dream” — each individual is determined to rise to the top of his profession and enjoy the fruits of success.

What makes Tatum a fascinating personage is, yeah, he’s a ruthless essobee but he’s also damn good at his job — the papers that dispensed with his services did not do so because he’s a lousy reporter. Despite all the grief Chuck hands him, Boot recognizes how invaluable his work has come to be (he admits that the newspaper’s circulation is up) and earnestly attempts to dissuade him from continuing the Minosa charade because he doesn’t like the stench of the corruption involved (Boot: “Phony, below-the-belt journalism….that’s what it is.” Tatum: “Not below-the-belt…right from the gut!”). In his essay, Maddin contrasts the Tatum character with another legendary cinematic heel, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), who shares the same ambition to make good as Tatum but who comes across as a guy who really sucks at being a publicist. Chuck Tatum is also a man who, despite his shortcomings, has a reservoir of charm and a snappy rejoinder in his holster when necessary. During his “interview” he is asked by Boot “Do you drink a lot?” Tatum’s response: “Not a lot…just frequently…” Watching Douglas-as-Tatum is akin to being hypnotized by a cobra, and though he’s unlikable there is also no denying that he’s a tragic character in that his attempts to rein in a situation that has spun out of his control are doomed to despair.

Jan Sterling is magnificent in the role of unfaithful Lorraine Minosa, and she gets one of the classic lines in Ace in the Hole when she tells reporter Tatum: “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but're twenty minutes.” (I think it’s interesting that this bit of dialogue is contradicted by her other famous declaration, “I don’t go to church…kneeling bags my nylons” — suggesting that she’s spent a little extra time in a boiling saucepan herself.) Shamelessly flirting with both Tatum and pretty much anything that’s walked into the souvenir stand wearing work pants, the final shot of Lorraine furiously trying to catch up to the Trailways coach speeding away from the establishment (a great visual pun in that she’s “missed the bus” on everything in her life) has a special poignancy that’s remained with me all these years.

Billy Wilder’s often corrosive take on American customs and mores in his movies were tempered through his collaborations with writer Charles Brackett; Ace in the Hole would be the first film Wilder would do without Brackett’s influence (the script was written in tandem with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels) and it would also be his first offering as producer. His dissatisfaction with Paramount’s decision to salvage what they could from Hole's dismal b.o. take, however, did produce a positive result in that he was able to renegotiate his contract to allow him greater creative control. With the wider accessibility of Hole, a fresh generation of moviegoers are now able to see why Wilder remains one of the most American of filmmakers (despite his Austrian pedigree) and that Hole (along with Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd) was a film far ahead of its time, daring to lampoon and criticize the media for its weaknesses and excesses. In Ace in the Hole, Wilder tells the truth.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Centennial Tributes: Bernard Herrmann Part I

”As a composer I might class myself as a Neo-Romantic, inasmuch as I have always regarded music as a highly personal and emotional form of expression. I like to write music which takes its inspiration from poetry, art and nature. I do not care for purely decorative music. Although I am in sympathy with modern idioms, I abhor music which attempts nothing more than the illustration of a stylistic fad. And in using modern techniques, I have tried at all times to subjugate them to a larger idea or a grander human feeling.”
Bernard Herrmann in Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist by Edward Johnson

By Edward Copeland
Our centennial tributes tend to be of actor, actresses, directors and writers. We were honored when lyricist Bill Russell wrote a tribute to composer Frank Loesser, but he was a songwriter, providing both music and lyrics, who penned many memorable songs for stage and screen. We've never attempted to salute a composer known for his instrumental scores, particularly ones he wrote for movies, but Bernard Herrmann born 100 years ago today (exactly one year younger than Loesser), didn't like to be pigeonholed as a film composer since his musical work spanned opera, symphonies, concerts, radio and television in addition to some of the most memorable film scores of all time. That's why instead of just starting this post with a photo of the man and some words, I figured it's more fitting to use clips or links to clips to demonstrate his works such as his score that accompanied the Saul Bass title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, an example of one of his very best. Movie titles and still photographs don't do Bernard Herrmann justice, that's why I'm going to write less than usual in this tribute and let his music do the talking. However, the man was so prolific, I've had to divide the post in half so it doesn't grow so long anyway that it knocks other posts off the front page. While there will be some biography, mainly it will be about his music and I'm going to try to be chronological and, in a couple of occasions, show his influence. We even have a clip of the master musician discussing his craft relating to his scoring to a particular film. If you are reading this at work, I hope you have headphones.

His father encouraged his interest in music and he took up the violin, winning a $100 prize for one of his own compositions at the age of 13. Herrmann's interest in composition became more serious sometime around 1927 while he attended DeWitt Clinton High School and studied with Gustav Heine. His first notable work is considered to be a tone poem called "The Forest" he wrote in January 1929. He enrolled at New York University (while still in high school) and studied composition with Philip James and conducting with Albert Stoessel. Stoessel later headed the opera and orchestra at Juilliard and Herrmann landed a fellowship there in 1930 where he studied conducting and composition with Bernard Wagenaar. He officially finished high school in 1931 around the time he formed his own orchestra, The New York Chamber Orchestra. This was before he was 20. He left Juilliard in 1932 but without a degree. That fall, he attended lectures in advanced composition and orchestration at NYU by Percy Grainger. Herrmann also worked as a music editor and arranger at the Harms music publishing company around this period. That same fall, some dancers he knew from Juilliard asked him to arrange ballet music for a musical revue called +New Americana, which inadvertently led to his professional composing, conducting, and Broadway debuts when he went on to direct the orchestra during his arrangement of The Shakers and his own piece, "Amour à la Militaire," when it opened Oct. 5, 1932. It ran 77 performances.*

By 1934, he was a staff conductor with CBS radio. He seriously began his prolific composing work during this period, writing many scores to accompany CBS radio programs including "The City of Brass" which accompanied David Ross' narration of one of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights. In 1935, he composed the orchestral piece the Currier and Ives Suite. It was described as a short, five-movement piece on the Film Score website which has been running a series all year on Herrmann's centennial. The site notes that its composition occurred while he was employed by CBS because one of the pages of the composition was on CBS paper. Other than that, it says the origin of the piece is largely a mystery. There is a YouTube clip set against classic Currier and Ives drawings that has the orchestral piece.

Herrmann was named chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra in 1943 (a title he held until the orchestra disbanded in 1951 as TV began to displace radio), where it was said he introduced American audiences to more new musical works than any conductor in history. He particularly championed the American composer Charles Ives. Even before getting that post, Herrmann's output beyond the network and for mediums other than radio or orchestra bloomed. During the 1937-38 period, Herrmann got his feet wet for the first time in composing opera with a 45-minute cantata of Moby Dick. It didn't receive a world premiere until 1940 with The New York Philharmonic under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. The cantata had never received a live performance in the United States since until April of this year when John Kendall Bailey conducted a 40-voice men's chorus and four soloists to perform it with the American Philharmonic-Sonoma County. Below are excerpts from the score, though it doesn't indicate from what recording it is taken and though it includes stills from John Huston's film of Moby Dick, note that Herrmann did not score that film.

While still just a staff conductor at CBS, the musical prodigy Herrmann would meet another young wunderkind making waves in New York named Orson Welles. He composed and arranged scores for Welles' Mercury Theater broadcasts, including the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds . While working at CBS, Welles lured Herrmann to Hollywood with him and when Welles made his astounding debut as the actor, writer and director of Citizen Kane in 1941, Herrmann had an equally impressive first year as a film composer. Not only did he make an impressive first showing with Citizen Kane and Welles' 1942 followup The Magnificent Ambersons, in between he composed the score for director William Dieterle's 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster aka All That Money Can Buy. In 1941, both the scores for Kane and Daniel Webster earned Herrmann Oscar nominations. His Daniel Webster score won (and there were 20 nominees). Though some of his greatest work still was to come, many for Hitchcock. He would receive another nomination in 1946 for director John Cromwell's Anna and the King of Siam but would not receive another nomination until he received two posthumous nominations in 1976. As is unfortunately the case with many YouTube clips, the embedding has been disabled, click here and listen to his lovely piece as the reporter reads Thatcher's diary leading into the flashback to Kane's childhood. Also, two pieces from Ambersons: Herrmann's subtle score running beneath Welles' narration of George's comeuppance and a much bouncier, holiday-theme Herrmann piece accompanying the snowride scene. I couldn't find a sample for The Devil and Daniel Webster/All That Money Can Buy.

In 1943, Herrmann composed the score for Jane Eyre directed by Robert Stevenson but involving many Mercury Theater players including Welles starring as Rochester, Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Reed and John Houseman co-writing the script. Joan Fontaine starred in the title role. This is Herrmann's main title theme. He didn't score another film for two years when he did director John Brahm's 1945 psychological thriller Hangover Square, which I've never seen but certainly sounds interesting. It stars Laird Cregar as a composer suffering lapses in his memory who thinks he may have killed someone and seeks help from his doctor (George Sanders). Even though the composer is engaged, he somehow finds himself involved with a music hall dancer (Linda Darnell) and his temporary memory losses are threatening the concerto he has a deadline to finish. The following year, he composed the score for Anna and King of Siam, which earned him that third Oscar nomination.

In 1947, Herrmann penned the score for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a film that's very popular on YouTube, only for some reason people like to use scenes and stills from the movie and place modern songs over them. The next year, Herrmann made his first foray into composing for television, making music for many installments of Studio One which went by about a half-dozen different titles during its run. That kept him busy until 1951 when he debuted his first full-fledged opera Wuthering Heights. In the clip below, Yves Saelens sings "Now art thou dear, my golden June" (Edgar Linton's aria) in a concert performance of the opera at the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier 2010. Alain Altinoglu conducts the Orchestre National de Montpellier.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Directed by Robert Wise; Piece: Prelude/Outer Space/Radar
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Directed by Nicholas Ray (Ida Lupino uncredited)
The Snows of Kiliminjaro (1952)
Directed by Henry King (Roy Ward Baker uncredited)
White Witch Doctor (1953) directed by Henry Hathaway

Now, I'm not going to list EVERY film or television show Herrmann scored, because it would grow too long. It's still going to be so long, that's why I've had to divide it into two posts so everything doesn't get knocked off the page. I'm tempted to leave out lesser titles or even bigger names if there isn't a music sample I can't find. Sometimes though, I'll find some other compelling reason to include a title figure anyone can click on his credits themselves.

The Egyptian (1954) directed by Michael Curtiz
Shower of Stars TV series (1954) Episode: "A Christmas Carol"

In 1955 when Burt Lancaster directed the first of the only two films he ever would helm, The Kentuckian, and he chose Herrmann for the score. Of course, that year was auspicious for another reason: It marked the first teaming of one of the most important director-composer partnerships in film history: Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. What brought The Master of Suspense and Herrmann together for the first time actually wasn't one of Hitchcock's tense masterpieces but his dark comedy The Trouble With Harry about the small Vermont town with the problem of a body that just won't stay put. It also marked the film debut of Shirley MacLaine.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956)
Directed by Nunnally Johnson; Pieces: Prelude, The Children's Hour

So this is where we will leave part I. Click here just in case Part II still doesn't show on the main page.

*Much of the information in this section comes from the Herrmann biography found on Artists Direct.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Centennial Tributes: Bernard Herrmann Part II

By Edward Copeland
So I had to divide this tribute to Bernard Herrmann in two parts. If somehow you started here and want to backtrack, click here. We pick up still in 1956 and I wanted to use two clips from Hitchcock's 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much, but YouTube has removed both since I wrote this and I could find no good substitute.

The Wrong Man (1956) directed by Hitchcock; Piece: Prelude
A Hatful of Rain (1957) directed by Fred Zinnemann; Scene: Turning Johnny in

Have Gun — Will Travel was one of the most popular TV Westerns of its time starring Richard Boone as Paladin, a West Point grad turned gunfighter after the Civil War. It ran from 1957-1963. It managed to have two themes: the instrumental one that Herrmann wrote for its opening credits and a song "The Ballad of Paladin" that played over the closing credits. We, of course, are only interested in Herrmann's contribution.

1958 brings us back to Vertigo, whose opening credit sequence I used as the opening to Part I simply because I felt it was one of if not his greatest. Thankfully, it is not one of the movies. Unfortunately, another clip I planned to use from it from YouTube also disappeared that I wanted to include to show how his score worked within the context of the Hitchcock masterpiece, but most did not so I got to use one to top Part II and another for after this graf. There are so many choices because frankly I don't believe Vertigo would be as great as it is without Herrmann's contribution. I could have selected the opening rooftop chase, the first time Scottie sees Madeleine at Scotty's restaurant with those beautiful, vivid reds (which I took up top), the museum scene, or many others. I had settled on the scene where Scottie tails Madeleine and saves her after she jumps into the bay but that disappeared, so I went with the museum

The Naked and the Dead (1958) directed by Raoul Walsh
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) directed by Nathan Juran; Piece: Skeleton fight
North by Northwest (1959) directed by Hitchcock; Piece: Title sequence

On Oct. 2, 1959, one of the most iconic television series of all times premiered on CBS: Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Bernard Herrmann wrote the show's theme, though not the famous one when you're familiar with and you could mimic right now. His intro music was only used for the first season, though he scored many individual episodes.

Here we have an interesting comparison of a Bernard Herrmann score that later is evoked in another composer's score either as homage or something else. You be the judge. First, listen to part of Herrmann's score for director Henry Levin's 1959 film Journey to the Center of the Earth. Then, listen to its echoes present in Danny Elfman's main title music for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. Next in 1960, Herrmann and Hitch teamed again for the memorable Psycho. If I had my preference, I'd embed a clip of the Saul Bass title sequence with the score, but it's been disabled, so you'll have to click to hear it. However, I was able to embed the shower scene.

Mysterious Island (1961) directed by Cy Enfield; Pieces: 4 tracks
Tender Is the Night (1962) directed by Henry King; Pieces: 3 tracks

Here is one of the more interesting comparisons. First, we have Herrmann's original main theme for J. Lee Thompson's 1962 Cape Fear (but unfortunately not actual footage from the movie) and then we have Elmer Bernstein's adaptation of Herrmann's score for Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of the film — complete with Saul Bass title sequence.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) directed by Don Chaffey; Piece: Prelude
Marnie (1964) directed by Hitchcock; Piece: Prelude
Fahrenheit 411 (1966) directed by Francois Truffaut; Piece: Prelude
The Virginian TV series Episode: "The Reckoning (9/13/67); Piece: Title credits

What's next is something special. First, we have sequences from Truffaut's 1968 film The Bride Wore Black without dialogue, only Herrmann's score. After that, we have Herrmann himself discussing his work on the score of the film against scenes from it.

Director Roy Boulting made a thriller in 1968 called Twisted Nerve for which Herrmann composed a frightening, whistle for the film's killer to use. It has taken on a popularity greater than the film itself. So here are three takes on it. First, we have the whistle as it is emanates from Hywel Bennett as the killer in the movie. Second, we have how Herrmann incorporated the whistle into the movie's score. Lastly, we have Quentin Tarantino's homage to it in a scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

In 1974, Herrmann scored the schlocky horror film It's Alive, but I could find no samples of his work from that film. On Dec. 24, 1975, Bernard Herrmann died of a heart attack at the age of 64, but he left two scores behind, both of which received his final two Oscar nominations in 1976: Brian De Palma's Obsession and one of his greatest, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Both nominations lost to Jerry Goldsmith's score for The Omen.

First, from Obsession

Of course, it's nearly impossible to keep a clip from a Scorsese film up for long, but we've got the masterful Taxi Driver score, if not the images that go with them.

Ironic in a way, that Bernard Herrmann's film scoring career began with the ultimately lonely Charles Foster Kane and ended with the God's lonely man Travis Bickle. What range. What talent. Imagine if he had lived longer.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Cinematic Grace

By J.D.
Decades in the making, the gestation period of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is as epic as the film itself. After Days of Heaven (1978) was released to critical acclaim and nominated for four Academy Awards, Paramount, the studio that backed it, offered the director $1 million dollars for his next project, regardless of its subject matter. Despite being burnt out from making and editing Days, he agreed. Malick had been contemplating his most ambitious film yet: the creation of our galaxy and the Earth as well as the beginnings of life. It was originally called Qasida (a reference to an ancient Arabian form of rhythmic lyric poetry) and eventually shortened to Q. In 1979, Malick and a small crew began shooting footage in exotic locales all over the world. The footage they were getting looked great but Paramount was nervous about the absence of a screenplay (Malick would write 40-page poetic descriptions of the imagery) and a structured shooting schedule. Eventually, the studio lost patience with the director’s methods and he not only quit the project but the movie business for 20 years.

The first signs that Malick was returning to his Q project came during pre-production on The New World (2005) when producer Sarah Green received a revised treatment for what would become The Tree of Life. By July 2007, there was a script that fused the cosmic nature of Q with a semi-autobiographical story that focused on a Texas family in the 1950s as seen through the eyes of the oldest child Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult). As early as Days of Heaven, Malick had been moving away from linear narratives to a more philosophical tone poem approach. With The Thin Red Line (1998), he began to explore in greater detail man’s relationship with his environment and with the Earth. This continued with The New World, which embraced a nonlinear narrative more than anything he had done before. The Tree of Life is the culmination of Malick’s body of work so far.

The film begins with the death of one of the O’Brien children. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is understandably devastated while the father (Brad Pitt) is stoic but eventually the cracks begin to show and he also grieves in his own way. Cut to the present day and Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is an architect, unhappy and adrift in the world, still haunted by the death of his brother. The film flashes back to his reminisces of his childhood in the ‘50s. In this first section, Malick cuts back and forth between the impersonal concrete and glass jungle of the big city in which Jack works and the idyllic suburban neighborhood of his youth.

Early on in the film, the mother says in a disembodied voiceover, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” I believe that this passage is integral to understanding Malick’s film and it becomes apparent that the mother represents Grace, accepting insults and injuries, while the father represents nature, lording over his family.

Right from the get-go, Malick dispenses with the traditional notion of how a scene is structured and linked to another in favor of an impressionistic approach. This is no more apparent than when the narrative segues to an extraordinary sequence depicting the creation of our galaxy and the Earth with absolutely breathtaking imagery — a stunning mix of unusual practical effects (created by Dan Glass and the legendary Douglas Trumbull) and actual footage courtesy of NASA. With this sequence we are entering Stanley Kubrick territory. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Malick mixes science with spirituality, the cosmic and the ethereal, occasionally commented on via existential voiceover musings about God by the mother. He actually shows the Earth forming and early life being created on the most basic cellular level on up to the dinosaurs. This sequence and its placement so early on in the film is just one of the audacious choices Malick makes.

The film then goes back to early stages of the O’Brien family, to the creation of their children, the painful and glorious experience of childbirth, much like that of the Earth itself. Malick presents two approaches to parenting: the mother is a nurturing figure while the father is a stern disciplinarian. She is in tune with nature while he represents structure. It is this part of the film that is the most engaging as we are presented with familiar, relatable imagery: a very young boy gazes in wonderment and then jealousy at his baby sibling; the shadows of tree branches playing across a wall; the family playing with sparklers at night; kids playing in tall grass; and a tree-lined suburb at dusk with the sky the most amazing shade of purple-blue. These are the innocent, carefree days when you had no worries and would spend hours playing with other children until called in by your mother for the night. Malick has come full circle by returning to the same tranquil Texas suburbs first glimpsed at the beginning of Badlands (1973), his debut feature. These scenes will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the suburbs or a rural environment.

As he did with Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, Malick demonstrates an incredible affinity for working with children and pulling naturalistic performances out of them. All of the kids, especially newcomer Hunter McCracken, act very comfortable in front of the camera, almost as if Malick caught them unaware that they were being filmed. McCracken has a very expressive face, which he utilizes well over the course of the film as Jack becomes increasingly rebellious, testing the rules imposed by his father. Malick documents the children’s behavior and all of their idiosyncrasies, like how they interact with each other and how this differs with their interaction with adults, especially in the ‘50s when they were much more respectful. Much of the film is seen from a child’s point-of-view with low angle shots that look up at adults, trees, and so on. It’s only in the scenes with other children that the camera takes a more level position.

At one point, the father tells Jack that his mother is naive and that “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” Brad Pitt doesn’t play the stereotypical strict father figure but one with layers that are gradually revealed through the course of the film. He works in a factory, a labyrinthine maze of metal machinery but we learn that he wanted to originally be a musician but it didn’t work out. He had to become responsible and lead a more traditional life in order to provide for his family. He still plays piano and passes this ability on to his children. Pitt delivers an excellent performance that grounds the film. The actor has aged well and grown into his looks, relying less and less on them as he gets older. There is a nice scene where he accompanies one of his sons playing an acoustic guitar with the piano that is brief but does a lot to humanize his character. The mother, in comparison, is a more elusive character, more of an ethereal figure as played by Jessica Chastain.

You simply cannot engage The Tree of Life in a traditional way. The first section is a little impenetrable at first as one has to leave the concept of traditional narrative behind and get acclimatized to Malick’s approach. One has to let it wash over you and let his poetic imagery work its magic. Like all of his films, this is one that people will either passionately love or hate because of its ambitious, unusual approach. It will be seen as pretentious by some but any film that strives to tackle big themes like life and death and what it means to be human on such an epic (and also intimate) scale runs that risk. What prevents it from collapsing under its own thematic weight is Malick’s sincerity. He really believes in what he is showing us and treats it with the solemnity and weight it deserves. The Tree of Life has the kind of lofty ambitions most films only dream of reaching and it is easy to see why it is being compared to 2001. Like that film, Malick’s will undoubtedly reveal more upon repeated viewings. There is just so much to absorb that one viewing is not enough because you are too busy trying to make sense of what all this breathtaking imagery means. It will take repeated viewings to fully appreciate what Malick is trying to do and say. This is an important film by a master filmmaker.

Labels: , , , ,


Monday, June 27, 2011


What the hell's the point of being a decent person?

By Edward Copeland
SAM STONE (Danny DeVito): Carol, did I ever tell you why I married her?
CAROL (Anita Morris): Yes, Sam, you told me many, many…
SAM: Her father was very, very rich, and very, very sick. The doctors assured me he'd be dead any minute. There wasn't a second to lose! I rushed right out and married the boss's daughter. He was so sick, it was like the Angel of Death was sitting in the room with him, watching the clock. They pulled the plug on him…he wheezed and shook for about an hour…and then…he stabilized. The son-of-a-bitch just got older and sicker. And older, and sicker, and older and sicker…
WAITER (Arturo Bonilla): (interrupting) More coffee, sir?
SAM: No!
[The waiter leaves]
SAM: I couldn't wait any longer, so I went out and made my own fortune. The old fart hung in there for 15 years. Finally died of natural causes. I want the rest of that money! His money, her money, it's my money!
I had to live with that squealing, corpulent little toad all these years. God, I hate that woman. I — I — I hate the way she licks stamps! I hate her furniture! And I hate that little sound she makes when she sleeps.
[Sam imitates a whining nasal sound]
SAM: Ugh! And that filthy little shitbag dog of hers…Muffy!
CAROL: Aren't you scared?
SAM: Scared? Hell, no. I'm looking forward to it. My only regret, Carol, is that the plan isn't more violent.

So sets in motion what is in essence a classical farce, only this has been updated for its era — 1986 — and it's filled to the brim with sex, violence and vulgarity and Ruthless People remains as sleek and funny as it was when it was released 25 years ago today. The film also was significant in another way. After their gargantuan hit Airplane!, their comedic style didn't transfer well to TV with the short-lived Police Squad or even in terms of box office for their followup feature Top Secret! Ruthless People marked the last time the team of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams joined forces as directors on the same film, only this time they made a "normal comedy" free of puns, silliness and the throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks style that made their career. The trio didn't even write the screenplay, but it didn't prevent Ruthless People from being a frenetic laugh riot. Some habits die hard though, so watch the end credits closely and you'll find they couldn't resist tossing some gags in there.

Before we get to the restaurant where fashion tycoon Sam Stone explains to his mistress Carol his plans to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), we get one of the most fun animated credit sequences I've ever seen. It's set to a pretty lousy title song written by Mick Jagger, Daryl Hall and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and sung by Jagger, but the visuals prove so striking that the song hardly matters. Fortunately, the remainder of the film gets welcome musical accompaniment from the late Michel Colombier, whose bouncy, farcical score fits perfectly with the film's town. The composer died of cancer in 2004, but he wrote many eclectic movie scores for broad comedies, dramas and thrillers, including some quite good ones such as 1984's Against All Odds and 1992's Deep Cover. Let's get back to that animated credit sequence though before we move on, because it is memorable. Matt Singer in a February piece on the 50 greatest opening title sequences regretted omitting Ruthless People's and other animated credits, even suggesting that perhaps animated ones needed their own list. The sequence is on YouTube, but you can't embed it, so click here to watch it.

Before Sam Stone can realize his dream of going to his garishly decorated home, chloroform his wife and help dispatch her from this world, he comes home to a bit of a surprise. After an encounter with the much-hated Muffy, Barbara seems nowhere to be found so Sam takes a break, sitting in one of her colorful but very uncomfortable looking chairs when the phone rings. (Kudos must go to art director Donald Woodruff and set decorator Anne D. McCulley for the imaginative look of the Stones' home which seems as if it's been coordinated with the credits created by Sally Cruikshank and costumes we'll see later designed by Rosanna Norton.) A voice on the other end claims to have kidnapped Barbara and if Sam doesn't deliver $500,000, they will kill her. If he contacts the police, they will kill her. If he contacts the media, they will kill her. Sam couldn't be giddier: Someone has taken care of the problem for him and he can't call the police and reporters quick enough. The Ruthless People screenplay was written by Dale Launer, who also wrote the underrated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, My Cousin Vinny and Blake Edwards' terrible Blind Date starring Bruce Willis, Willis' first film after gaining stardom on Moonlighting. Launer has publicly distanced himself from having anything to do with Blind Date, saying it "was rewritten by so many people, if you hated it, it's not my fault and if you liked it, I can't take credit for it." Launer certainly deserves the credit for the tight Ruthless People script though.

Unfortunately for Sam, Barbara's abductors aren't nearly as ruthless as he is or they'd like him to believe. They are a nearly broke young married couple named Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater) who really are in it for revenge more than the money. It seems that Sandy is a fashion designer who invented "the spandex miniskirt" which Sam stole and passed off as his own idea, even taking Ken's meager life savings in the deal as Stone made a fortune. Now, Sandy doesn't work and Ken sells stereos — badly. They also believe Barbara was Sam's partner in ripping them off. One thing is for certain: It doesn't take much time with Barbara for the Kesslers to develop the same feelings toward her that her husband has. A lot of sources try to pass Ruthless People off as a variation of O Henry's classic story "The Ransom of Red Chief," but that's not really accurate. The Kesslers never end up offering to pay Sam to take Barbara back (though they do lower her price when they get the idea he isn't going to pay), but Sam would never pay anything and through the course of the story's twists, Barbara changes and ends up being the Kesslers' ally. In the beginning though, she certainly isn't. She's foul-mouthed nasty and prone to hit and kick at every chance she can. As Ken tells Sandy, "Well, let's face it, she's not Mother Teresa. Gandhi would have strangled her."

Like the best comedies, Ruthless People runs about 90 minutes, but that doesn't mean it isn't stuffed full of the complications, twists, turns and misunderstandings essential for a farce no matter what era it's set in. In addition to the kidnappers who aren't as ruthless as they want to be and the husband who hopes if he doesn't meet the abductors' demands, they'll kill his wife for him, it turns out Sam's mistress Carol has plans of her own. She's involved with a true dimwit named Earl Mott (Bill Pullman in his film debut) and plans to secretly film Sam killing Barbara and then blackmail him for a fortune. When she sends her dumb lover to the site of the planned murder to videotape, unaware that Barbara has been kidnapped, he records loud raucous car sex between a man and a hooker — with screams so loud he assumes the woman is in her death throes and can't bring himself to watch and see that it isn't Sam. When Earl brings the tape home, Carol has the same reaction to the first scream and can't watch either — she just mails a copy to Sam. When she contacts him, he's delighted by the kinky tape since he actually watched it. When Sam still wants to be a part of Carol's life and mentions how he'd like to do the same things to her that's in that tape, she gets frightened and decides for her own safety she better send that tape to the police chief (William G. Schilling) and tell him to arrest Sam Stone for killing his wife. The chief thinks he's being blackmailed into doing so because he's the man on the tape. Oh, and there's also a serial killer running around called The Bedroom Killer (J.E. Freeman).

Since the ZAZ team directs Ruthless People, for lack of a better word, so ruthlessly and the movie itself has somewhat disappeared into oblivion in the quarter century since its release, I'm not going to spell out exactly how all these strands resolve themselves. The movie moves so fast and you'll likely be laughing so often that the film will be over before you know it. They've assembled an entire cast at the top of their game and it's not often when the "good guys" in a story" are a couple who kidnapped a woman and are holding her for ransom, but they are so inherently decent that they don't have the heart to pull it off. Early on, when Barbara continues to be nasty as hell to Sandy, she gets so upset that Ken finds her crying in the kitchen, upset that Barbara hates her. "You're her kidnapper — she's supposed to hate you," her husband tells her. Seeing how people treat one another and how Sam doesn't seem to give a damn if he gets his wife back, Ken even makes a concerted attempt to become more hardened. "I mean, what the hell's the point of being a decent person when no one is? Let's be assholes and get rich!" Of course, he's saying this as he carefully catches a spider with a magazine and releases it outside — though he goes back out and steps on it. When he tries to apply it to his job selling stereos, talking a kid into financing a huge overpriced system he doesn't need, he folds when he sees he has a young pregnant wife. He tells Sandy later, "I'm no criminal. I can't even sell retail, and that's legal!"

What turns Barbara around is a mere compliment. She refuses to eat much as she's chained to a bed in the basement and spends most of her time working out to exercise programs on television. One day, Sandy off-handedly mentions that she looks really good and might have lost 20 pounds. After multiple fat camps, diets and experimental treatments, nothing had helped Barbara lose weight before. When she wished she had fancy duds to try on, Sandy brings down some of her own designs to try on. Then she learns of how Sam's refused to pay the ransom, which started at $500,000, which Barbara says should be no problem. Then they cut it to $50,000 and he still resisted. Now, he's balking at $10,000. "Do I understand this correctly? I'm being marked down?" Barbara asks before she starts bawling. "I've been kidnapped by K-Mart!" When the newspaper shows up with photos of Sam coupling with Carol, Barbara is ready to help them take Sam for all he's worth.

The climax turns into a hectic wonder, with practically all the players involved, including Earl who tries to interrupt the new ransom handoff to take the money for himself but can't figure out where the voices and shots are coming from (fine performances from the men who function as the farce's straight men, Art Evans and Clarence Felder as police Lts. Bender and Walters). As Mott stands in the middle of the scene, completely befuddled, the cops get what are really their only laugh lines of the entire film. "This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Perhaps we should shoot him," Walters says. When Bender announces over the bullhorn that it's the police department and Earl looks up and asks, "Really?" Bender replies, "No, we're the National Rifle Association." It's hard to believe that this was Pullman's film debut and his only previous screen credit was an episode of Cagney & Lacey, because he's hysterical.

Then again, everyone is great. DeVito does another great spin on his sleazy weasel character, only this time one who is well off. Midler works so well in broad comedy and as Reinhold has shown in films such as Beverly Hills Cop and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he's able to balance the naif character with the ability to get laughs quite well.

However, Ruthless People always brings a bit of sadness along with it. By ending the ZAZ directing team, separately the three were never as strong individually as they were as a unit. They only wrote together again on the first Naked Gun. Jerry Zucker went in a completely different direction with the films Ghost and First Knight but hasn't helmed a film since 2001's The Rat Race. David Zucker had one of those 9/11 conversions that turned a former liberal into an archconservative and divides his time between making anti-Democratic films and endless sequels to Scary Movie (He's in pre-production on No. 5). Jim Abrahams has stuck pretty much to where they started with the Hot Shots! movies and Jane Austen's Mafia! with the exceptions of Big Business and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.

We'll always have Airplane! Police Squad, Top Secret, Ruthless People and a lot of The Naked Gun movies though to remember and make us laugh.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Sunday, June 26, 2011


Comic Training, Sir!

By J.D.
Watching Stripes (1981) again after all these years makes me nostalgic for the early comedies of the first generation of Saturday Night Live cast members: Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Fletch (1984) and so on. They were goofy and silly but they also had an engaging, anarchistic attitude that is so much fun to watch. This is definitely the case with Stripes, released 30 years ago today, a film that pits a “lost and restless generation,” as the film’s main protagonist puts it at one point, against rigid authority only interested in producing, lean, mean, killing machines, to paraphrase another character. Much of the film’s humor comes from the clash of these two ideologies.

After losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment all in one morning (“You still have your health,” deadpans his best friend), John Winger (Bill Murray) decides to enlist in the Army and straighten out his life. He convinces his best friend Russell Zisky (Harold Ramis) to enlist as well (“If I get killed, my blood is on your hands,” he says, to which John replies, “Just don’t get it on my shoes.”). Once they arrive at the base and meet their no-nonsense drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka (the perfectly cast Warren Oates), John and Russell realize that it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined.

Stripes settles into a classic fish-out-of-water formula as John and his misfit platoon (with the likes of John Candy and Judge Reinhold) gradually become efficient soldiers despite their complete ineptitude and perchance for breaking all the rules. The gang of misfits fulfills all the requisite stereotypes: “Cruiser” (John Diehl) is the dumb guy, “Ox” (John Candy) is the lovable oversized oaf, “Psycho” (Conrad Dunn) is the crazy guy, and, of course, John is the group joker and self-proclaimed leader. Other conventions include casual nudity (Ox wrestles three strippers in a mud wrestling contest) and the obligatory love interests as John and Russell get involved with two cute, female MPs (P.J. Soles and Sean Young). This template would prove to be so successful that it was exploited in films such as Police Academy (1984), PCU (1994) and countless others.

On his way to the premiere of Meatballs (1979), director Ivan Reitman thought up the idea for a film: “Cheech and Chong Join the Army.” At the premiere, he pitched it to Paramount Pictures and, incredibly, they greenlit the project that day. Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote the screenplay in Toronto and would read it to Reitman (who was in Los Angeles) over the phone. He would, in turn, give them notes. The director gave the script to Cheech and Chong’s manager and he read it and thought it was very funny. He gave it to the comedians but they wanted complete control. Reitman then suggested to Goldberg that they change the two main characters to ones suited more for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, figuring that if they could get Ramis interested in it and let him tailor the script for the two of them that Murray would be interested in doing the film. It worked and Murray signed on to do Stripes.

Ramis already had co-written Animal House and Meatballs but was unknown as an actor. He screen-tested for Columbia Pictures, who hated his audition but Reitman told the studio that he was hiring him anyway. Judge Reinhold’s character, Elmo, ended up with a collection of all the best jokes from the Cheech and Chong version of the film. Before filming he thought that he had a handle on his character but once filming started, he was “petrified” because this was his first big studio film. The casting agent picked Sean Young based on how she looked and P.J. Soles tested with Ramis and they got along very well together. John Diehl had never auditioned before and this was his first paying acting job. Goldberg knew John Candy from Toronto and told Reitman that he should be in the film. He didn’t even have to audition.

One of the reasons why Stripes is my favorite Bill Murray comedy is the little touches that he adds to a scene making it that much funnier. For example, in the first scene where John goes to pay a guy after getting a shoe shine, Murray turns his back to the man so that he won’t see how much of a tip he’s going to give him. It’s an odd, idiosyncratic choice that no one else would’ve thought to make but it enriches the scene ever so slightly. The next scene demonstrates Murray’s gift for physical comedy when he loads a snotty rich lady’s luggage into the trunk of his cab and accidentally bags himself. It’s an obvious gag to be sure but Murray still makes it funny.

John continues to antagonize the lady (Fran Ryan) during the ride to the airport but in a deadpan, sardonic way. At one point she says, “I’ve never gone this way before,” to which he replies, “I’m sure there’s a lot of ways that I’ve gone that you haven’t,” implying that she’s square and conservative while he’s hip and liberated, thereby establishing a clear generational gap. The rich lady insults John and so instead of getting angry at her he decides to mess with her, including one memorable bit where he starts driving fast. Suddenly alarmed, she says, “Aren’t you going too fast?” He replies, intentionally slurring his words, “Oh, it’s not the speed, really so much, I just wish I hadn’t drunk all that cough syrup.” John proceeds to give the lady a little scare but when she calls him a bum, he’s had enough and quits right in the middle of a bridge, throwing his car keys in a river and leaving her stranded.

It’s not until almost eight minutes into the film that Elmer Bernstein’s first musical cue appears and it is a slightly sad, whimsical tune. The scene where John’s girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) leaves him is interesting because it straddles the line between comedy and drama. She is clearly unhappy with their relationship and he tries to deflect her complaints with humor before half-heartedly saying, “I’m part of a lost and restless generation,” and follows this up asking her a rhetorical question, “What do you want me to do, run for the Senate?” This scene underlines John’s dilemma — he lacks direction and any kind of motivation. Interestingly, no music plays during this scene so that the gravitas of the scene, if you will, is not undermined by manipulative music. Bernstein’s whimsical score only returns when Russell arrives and the two banter back and forth about John’s sorry state of affairs.

The chemistry between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis is excellent. Ramis is the perfect straight man to Murray’s smart-ass slacker. They had been friends and worked together for some years and play well off each other as evident in the scene where Russell bets John that he can’t do five push-ups. It is in this scene that John realizes that he’s in crap physical shape and that the army is his only hope in turning his life around. Every scene had some element of improvisation and this was due in large part to Murray and Ramis who suggested things for him to say and this spread to the other cast members. Stripes is quite possibly Murray’s best comedy. He was well on his way to becoming a big movie star (he had already conquered T.V. with Saturday Night Live and a scene-stealing turn in Caddyshack) and applied the comedic chops he honed on T.V. to this role. Murray has a way of delivering dialogue and being able to give certain lines a sarcastic delivery or add a look or a facial expression that makes what he says so funny.

Reitman was a fan of Westerns that Warren Oates had been in and wanted someone who was strong and that everyone respected to control the misfit platoon. Reinhold said that during filming, Oates would tell everyone stories about working on films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and they would be enthralled. The casting of Oates, the veteran of many Sam Peckinpah films, gives Stripes a dose of gravitas and provides a certain amount of tension in some of the scenes he has with Murray. Sgt. Hulka is the ideal antagonist for the anti-authoritative John and their scene together in the barracks’ washroom, where Hulka finally asserts his authority, is filled with a palpable tension — unusual for a comedy but it works. Reitman wanted “a little bit of weight in the center,” and have a real argument between Hulka and Winger. It wasn’t played for laughs and allowed Murray to do something he hadn’t done before.

However, the improvisational nature of Reitman and some of the cast did not impress an old school actor like Oates. During one of the days of filming the obstacle course scenes, Reitman told the actors to grab Oates and drag him into the mud without telling the veteran actor about it in order to see what would happen in the hopes of getting a genuine reaction. Oates’ chipped his front tooth and was understandably pissed at Reitman, yelling at the director for what he did.

If Stripes has any weaknesses it is in the last third of the movie where the platoon, fresh from a successful graduation parade, is trapped in an Eastern Bloc country (remember, the Cold War still was in full swing at this point) looking for John and Russell after they took off with the army’s top secret armored recreational vehicle (the uber Winnebago). This part of the film feels forced and tacked on. It just isn’t as strong or as funny as everything that came before it. However, the first two thirds of the Stripes are so good that not even this hurts the picture all that much.

Stripes actually was fairly well-received by critics. Roger Ebert praised the film as "an anarchic slob movie, a celebration of all that is irreverent, reckless, foolhardy, undisciplined, and occasionally scatological. It's a lot of fun." The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it "a lazy but amiable comedy," and praised Murray for achieving "a sardonically exaggerated calm that can be very entertaining.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, "Stripes squanders at least an hour belaboring situations contradicted from the outset by Murray's personality. The premise and star remain out of whack until the rambling, diffuse screenplay finally struggles beyond basic training."

Only during a time when the United States wasn’t at war with anyone (unless you count the Cold War), does joining the Army to improve your life seem like an option if you’re reasonably educated as John and Russell are in Stripes. One gets the feeling that they could have easily had a productive life in almost any career if they only applied themselves. Joining the Army on a whim doesn’t seem that funny in our current climate which does date the film somewhat. Regardless, the script is filled with tons of witty dialogue and funny gags, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Murray and Ramis have never been better. At the risk of falling back on an old cliché, they just don’t make comedies like this anymore.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Saturday, June 25, 2011


Someone Is Watching

By Josh R
It is now more than 50 years since Jane Fonda’s image first flickered across movie screens in Josh Logan’s Tall Story, though in truth she has been a part of the public consciousness much longer than that. Her childhood — a subject, like so many others, about which she remains conflicted — was well-documented, and provides clues as to the circuitous, unpredictable, occasionally perilous path she has traveled ever since. She was the daughter of an American icon, beloved by the public but emotionally distant at home, and a mother whose suicide remained largely unexplained for years following her death. The disconnect between the reality of those years, as she and her brother experienced them, and the version of their family life that people read about in magazines, was as vast as the divide between Barbarella and Hanoi Jane.

Jane Fonda has bridged those gaps, among many others — if not always comfortably, then with a certain kind of fearlessness. Whether this quality can be characterized as courage or recklessness, enterprise or folly, soul-searching or self-sabotage, remains subject to interpretation. She was never a premeditated chameleon, like Madonna, whose aggressively exhibitionistic persona never really changed no matter how many times her hairstyle and fashion choices did. Fonda’s transformations and reincarnations, which were much more radical and even more difficult to reconcile (even, at times, by the lady herself), seem to have been a product of curiosity, in part triggered by the irresolute feelings brought on by self-examination, and a reflection of the turbulent times through which she has lived. The name itself has different associations for different people. My 24-year-old co-worker knows her only as a spandex-clad fitness guru staring out from the cover of a VHS tape on his mother’s bookcase; a 30-year-old friend remembers her as a celebrity fan, sitting next to Ted Turner during playoff season in Atlanta and cheering enthusiastically each time Chipper Jones parked one deep into left field. Some regard her as an icon; to others, she was and remains a traitor. When I think of Jane Fonda, I think of Klute. If Jane Fonda’s life has been a study in contradictions, there is no more brilliant study of the conflicted nature of the human soul, and the manner in which bracing intelligence can exist at striking odds with naked emotionalism, than her astonishing, revelatory performance in Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 suspense thriller, celebrating its 40th anniversary today. If I judge it to be among the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid, it is in no small part due to the fact that, whenever I am watching it, all other associations I have with Jane Fonda — cultural symbol, cinematic legend, perennial lightning rod for controversy — never enter my mind. When I see her in Klute, I see only Bree Daniels.

Klute is ostensibly the story of a prostitute being stalked by a killer. In reality, it’s a film about role-playing, and the means by which people keep their true nature concealed from others in order to survive. In a way, both the predator and his prey are in the same boat, operating behind a carefully maintained façade as a means of self-protection. When the façade begins to crack, both find themselves at risk. The catalyst for their unmasking is an investigation conducted by John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a small-town policeman who has come to New York to track the whereabouts of a missing friend. His only lead is Bree, a hardened pro who has received threatening anonymous letters from someone believed to be the man he is searching for. Although she initially greets Klute’s inquiries with hostility and resistance, Bree agrees to help with the search; she eventually begins to trust and develop feelings for him. As they get closer to unraveling the mystery, Klute becomes her friend, protector, and lover. While Bree fights her self-destructive need to sabotage their relationship, a killer lurks in the shadows, fearful of exposure and determined to destroy the object of his obsession and the agent of his potential unmasking. Bree knows that she is being watched — what neither she nor Klute realize is that she is at even greater risk than either of them could have possibly imagined.

Pakula’s lean, economical approach to the material showcases the performance of Jane Fonda, but the film does not simply exist in service to her tour-de-force. The director’s methods aren’t flashy, but Klute is nevertheless visually and stylistically interesting, building tension through camerawork, use of music, and carefully devised environmental set pieces that contribute a visceral sense of atmosphere to the proceedings. Most of the action takes place in Bree’s dingy, claustrophobic apartment and on the grimy mean streets of New York City, photographed in a washed-out color palette which emphasizes the impersonal, atrophied nature of the broken-down world denizens of the criminal subculture inhabit. This is no picturesque version of the city as seen through rose-colored glasses; what we see is a grittier, tougher version of the urban jungle as a kind of crumbling Babylon — desiccated, at once both decadent and seedy, and full of hidden dangers. When, in one startling sequence, Klute and Bree go searching for a woman who may be able to shed some light upon the case — a drug-addicted streetwalker named Arlyn Page who’s sunk so low that she’s fallen off the grid — the film becomes a nightmarish tour through the underbelly of the urban sex trade, showing the desperation, waste, and sense of helplessness which characterize sordid lives lived on the margins and conducted in the shadows.

Remarkably, Pakula’s treatment of his subject matter is in no way sensationalistic. The director doesn’t gawk at his subjects or invite the audience to leer at the catalog of perversions on display; John Klute is a stand-in for the viewer, and the images and behaviors both he and the audience encounter are too sad and human to be titillating. Even in the one scene that features nudity — Bree does a striptease for an elderly client in the office of his garment manufactory — the audience doesn’t feel as though they’re witnessing something prurient or being prompted to judge. The old man watches Bree with something strangely resembling gratitude while she rattles off a ludicrous Harlequin-romance fiction about being seduced by a handsome stranger on the beaches of Cannes. It’s a strangely fragile moment, with a disarming kind of courtliness to it; Bree is acting out a fantasy for someone whose life is so far removed from anything resembling gentility and glamour that this brokered charade is as close as he’ll ever get to it. Even moments that should be pathetic or repellent are imbued with a deep sense of empathy for the people involved. When Bree and Klute locate Arlyn and her boyfriend, they are in a state of panic, waiting for their dealer and jonesing for a fix. The dealer finally materializes, only to be frightened away by the presence of strangers — the addicts attempt to secure his return, without success. When they come back to the apartment, Arlyn strokes her boyfriend’s hair and soothes his forehead with a damp cloth; as strung-out as she is, she is assuming the role of maternal caretaker and showing concern for someone she loves. Pakula’s approach is unfailingly humane; even when observing the indignities of human degradation, the film pauses for small moments of grace.

It’s those small touches — the details, really — that lend the material a deeper sense of relevance beyond the standard-issue polemical observations about the dangers of prostitution, drug use, or even the unchecked permissiveness of a society that has lost its moral compass. Klute is not a feminist film per se, but the director and screenwriter pay particular attention to the reductive attitudes society assumes not just toward women on the margins of society (prostitutes and addicts) but women in general. The first woman we encounter in the film is not Bree, but the wife of the missing man; she’s a meek, helpless figure being grilled by detectives about her husband’s sexual proclivities, and powerless to either defend him or take any action on her own in terms of tracking him down. Regardless of what she says or does, the detectives have already made up their minds that the husband is living some kind of secret life based in deviant behavior; they choose to believe this, in part because they find the wife so unexciting — who wouldn’t stray from the reservation in search of something else? Bree is introduced in a very unorthodox manner; not in a star’s lingering close-up, but in a long line of women the camera pans across as a two disembodied voices — casting directors, looking for a model for an ad campaign — mercilessly critique each candidate based on her physical attributes. After Bree has been cursorily examined and summarily dismissed, the camera pans to the next woman in line. Pakula is showing us Bree as she’s viewed by the world — not as an individual, but as a disposable commodity, the value of which is determined by external appearances. In one of many sequences in which Bree is observed in session with her analyst, she notes how men “want me…well, not me…but they want a woman....” The johns who pay for Bree don’t care any more about her than she does about them — she’s something to be used, and she feels that she’s using them in turn.

As well-enacted as the analysis scenes are — valuable not because they serve to advance the plot, but because of what they reveal about Bree’s mindset — their presence is not essential; Fonda brings such emotional honestly to the performance that the internal life of the character is made explicit — she communicates everything Bree is thinking and feeling without even having to verbalize it. When she’s with her johns, she’s in complete control — she doesn’t have to experience anything on an emotional level, because it’s all part of the act. It’s only when she’s alone, curled up in bed and scared to pick up the phone, that her vulnerability comes into clear focus; the tough-cookie exterior and you-can-all-go-to-hell attitude mask the fragile soul of a wounded, frightened child. The relationship with Klute brings out feelings Bree didn’t even know she was capable of; feeling something genuine for another person is a new experience for her, and since she isn’t pulling the strings, she can’t adjust to what’s happening. So terrified by the prospect of relinquishing control that she can’t allow herself to be happy, Bree is trying to make sense of her willfully self-destructive impulses while at the same time holding painful realizations at bay for fear of what she might find. It’s a brave, unflinching performance that reveals something new upon each additional viewing, astonishing for both its complexity and the emotional transparency with which it is achieved. Among those “non-verbal” moments that have always stood out for me: the rueful turn of the head, as though she’s just been slapped in the face, when Bree learns that a sadistic, abusive john was deliberately sent to her by a jealous friend; the wistful, almost bewildered look she gives to a child perched on his father’s shoulders, as if she’s imagining for the first time what it might feel like to be a mother; the amazing sequence when, heavily stoned, she wanders through a club, registering all the conflicting emotions she’s feeling — defiance, vulnerability, excitement, dread, relief, self-loathing — as she makes her way through the crowd to her former pimp, curling up catlike against him as Klute looks on dumbstruck. Above all, there is the amazing moment where, cornered by the sociopath who has been stalking her, she is forced to listen to a recording of another call girl being savagely murdered. Fonda has written that she was surprised by her own reaction when the scene was actually being filmed; instead of experiencing a sense of terror, she was overcome with grief for her friend — and indeed, for all the women who do what they have to in order to survive, and have the life crushed out of them by a world that doesn’t really care whether they live or how they die.

Anyone who follows this blog with any regularity is doubtless bored to tears with my constant bemoaning of the popular wisdom by which greatness in acting is measured. For those who prefer flashy pyrotechnics to emotional honesty — and the unadorned simplicity that usually accompanies it — there will never be any dearth of strenuous physical and vocal transformations to fill out Oscar categories for years to come (any day now, I’m sure Cate Blanchett will strap on a hump to play Richard III; I’ll probably be home watching TCM when that happens). The rewards for working from the outside in are greater than working from the inside out, and I’m sure there are some who look at Jane Fonda’s work in Klute and say “So what? She looks and sounds like Jane Fonda.” Of course, Bree Daniels is not Jane Fonda any more than On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy is Marlon Brando — they are independent creations, possessed of their own unique qualities, drives, and desires, and they have been brought to life with such raw intensity that they transcend the conventional definition of acting. Call it channeling, sorcery, whatever you will — it amounts to a pretty rare feat. When I saw the actress last, on Broadway, in a play called 33 Variations, it was very apparent that Jane Fonda is still possessed of the talent, energy, and skill to breathe life into a role in a way that others seldom can. It may not be easy for her to find roles that are commensurate with her abilities, but when she does, she still knows how to make them count. At the end of Klute, Bree Daniel’s fate is left open-ended; but for the purposes of the film, at least, her story has come to a close. Thankfully — for all of us — Jane Fonda’s is still being written.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Follow edcopeland on Twitter

 Subscribe in a reader