The legend that’s developed around Alfred Hitchcock over the decades has been dependent on a number of half-truths, many propagated by the director himself: he storyboarded every shot, planning his films so meticulously that they already existed in his head before a frame was shot; he hated actors and only cared about the placement of the camera; and he loathed location shooting. In fact: Notorious went into production without a complete script and was largely written “in camera”; no small number of grand Hollywood personalities gave their best-ever performances under his aegis; and, most significantly, after studying the notion of storytelling within all sorts of experimental confinement, peaking with Rear Window, Hitchcock made a whopping six location-porn pictures in a row, all neatly placed within his greatest decade of output.
This film was the third in that sequence, set and shot mostly in Morocco and London, following To Catch a Thief (the south of France), The Trouble with Harry (New England) and preceding The Wrong Man (New York City), Vertigo (San Francisco) and North by Northwest (a veritable U.S. travelogue). It also holds the unique distinction of being a remake of one of Hitchcock’s own films, his 1934 masterpiece The Man Who Knew Too Much, a scrappy and breathless thriller he made at Gaumont, which offers a handy primer on the way his approach to storytelling changed in the intervening two decades. That relatively simple, action-packed story is expanded here into a sprawling Technicolor Hollywood epic of sorts, spanning two continents and powered by a couple of huge stars at career peaks, to say nothing of the presence of the squad of experts that made Hitchcock’s run from the 1950s to the middle-’60s such a well-oiled machine: composer Bernard Herrmann, editor George Thomasini, cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert Boyle, producer Herbert Coleman. To say it’s more polished than its predecessor would be a brash understatement.
In the original Man Who Knew Too Much, Leslie Banks and Edna Best portrayed jolly travelers in the Swiss Alps who got mixed up in an espionage plot, with their teenage daughter kidnapped to keep them silent, that climaxed at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1956 the Alps become North Africa, the quirky working class vacationers become a well-off doctor (James Stewart) and his wife, a celebrity singer (Doris Day); their sprightly daughter becomes a rather tiresome sitcom-ish little boy who tries to look adorable while making bad jokes that adults laugh at. And yet, the basic story points (and the Albert Hall) are retained. Both couples befriend a man — with considerable erotic suggestiveness in the 1934 film, none whatsoever in the remake — who is killed in front of them and imparts secrets to one of our heroes with his dying breath. Upon learning that their child has been kidnapped, Stewart (the man who knows too much in 1956) and Best (the woman, in point of fact, who knew too much in 1934) both choose to keep the big secret to themselves rather than spill to the police and therefore take matters into their own hands; but the personal responses of the male characters in these films almost couldn’t be more different. Banks’ Bob Lawrence is the classic Hitchcock “ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances,” intelligent but hapless, employing understated humor at even the bleakest moments; Stewart’s Ben McKenna is, comparatively, suave in a manner that seems to deliberately skirt close identification with the audience — he’s also prone to violent outbursts and behaves more than a little abusively toward his wife.
As is the case in all the films Stewart made with Hitchcock, his is a surprisingly dark characterization. This enriches the film, though it sets it considerably apart from something like The Wrong Man or even The 39 Steps in which so much hinges on us being in the same corner with our protagonist. Stewart seems to have been encouraged to inject quite a bit of mystery into his portrayal of the character, so that we never quite know what he’s thinking; nearly all of his dialogue is accompanied by weighty, enigmatic silences that underscore his all-too-stoic, classically masculine demeanor. You get the sense that 1934’s Bob was a character Hitchcock related to; Ben is one of a sort he finds intriguing, but from a considerable distance, and one he intends to break down and even slightly humiliate: what little comedy there is in the film is never generated from Ben’s own dialogue or actions but from his own unfamiliarity and ineptitude, which give the lie to his outer confidence. In some ways it’s a dry run of sorts for Stewart’s even more conflicted and tortured Scotty in Vertigo two years later, and this is not the only way in which the remade The Man Who Knew Too Much feels as much like a look forward as backward.
One of the clearly demarcated ways in which we can track Hitchcock’s evolution as a filmmaker is in the average length of his movies; his British thrillers were tight and ruthless and typically wrapped up within around ninety minutes. But on the move to Hollywood, his running times tend increasingly to sprawl out; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a rather shocking forty-five minutes longer than The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and arguments can and should be made about what the story gains or (mostly) loses with this vastly increased legroom. Nearly all of Hitchcock’s sound films carry a sense of urgency, but there is no question the flavor of a 75-minute thriller is different from a methodically paced one like this even if the stakes are technically the same. There also isn’t any reason to believe that the newer film has deeper, more resonant characterizations or more believable relationships — the ’34 film tells us more about its occupants with greater economy, and they’re inherently more interesting as people to boot — but there’s nevertheless a great deal of interest in how the extra time is used. Superficially, you can say that Hitchcock is now, as he said himself, a “professional”: gone are the awkward jump cuts and haphazard staging that even survived, a little, into his early Hollywood career — every scene in this film is seamlessly executed and clearly the work both of the rarest kind of master of his craft and of a deep-pocketed studio. Looking a bit more carefully, though, what this film is indicating is that Hitchcock’s ambition at this stage in his career went beyond the mere bells and whistles of creating and sustaining suspense, and into the possibilities of building up then exploiting real emotional attachments. It doesn’t fully succeed, but its lessons would prove fruitful.
It would later be the most defining feature of both Psycho and The Birds: a lengthy buildup laying out relationships and conflicts within and between characters that might be enough for a cracking story all their own, only to have these carefully cultivated associations abruptly employed in favor of a very different scenario. Think of the way the flavor of Psycho changes when Norman is introduced, or how one has nearly forgotten what film they’ve signed up to watch up to the point when Melanie is first attacked by an errant seagull in The Birds. Both these moments are preceded by elaborate, lengthy setups that carry a kind of dreadful pregnancy with them, something that would eventually be familiar enough to become a key trope of the modern horror film, enough to become an exhausting cliché. But here, in the long space of benign, minor conflict that passes through the whole half hour before the man who knew too much learns too much, we find ourselves curiously riveted, acting as voyeurs — defying the supposedly stilted context of the Hollywood studio picture, we feel we’re looking into someone’s life in the moments just before their world caught fire.
John Michael Hayes — in the last of his several collaborations with Hitchcock — played a major role in this structure; as recounted in Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work, his fascination with career-marriage conflicts that served him so well in Rear Window was eventually an albatross here, with Hitchcock seemingly disinterested in making the McKennas’ relationship the major subject of the film. In the original version, any threats to the central couple’s mutual feelings are pointedly omitted, which lends that film some of its vitality; one supposes Hitchcock preferred a similar structure here, both because it would be a rather unorthodox (at least since The Thin Man) Hollywood interpretation of romance, and because it would allow for the thriller elements to take the lead in the narrative. However, the compromise the two of them reach is handily provocative; the character arcs are essentially a clone of Rear Window, with Doris Day’s inevitable moment of breaking into song fused well with the story — quietly dismissed as an artifact of the past by Ben, her talent and notoriety end up saving their son’s life.
All that’s missing is the precise indication of future change — in the characters, and in the world — that signaled the end of Rear Window; instead the film ends very abruptly with a quick joke, which is possible to interpret as a fuck-you to Hayes, leaving unresolved the hidden rockiness in the marriage itself. But to provide the payoff of Day singing Livingston-Evans’ “Que Sera, Sera,” written especially for the film (and winning it the rare competitive Oscar for a Hitchcock movie), Hitchcock and Hayes expertly weave a lengthy first act that exposes the McKennas’ strengths and weaknesses as a couple, with ample suggestions of how their lives will play out once fate strikes. After their son literally stumbles into a confrontation on a bus, they’re rescued by an enigmatic Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) — one of the few character names and nationalities consistent in the two versions of the film — who takes an oddly disproportionate interest in their having a nice time in Morocco. It eventually turns out that Louis is a spy who mistook them for another out-of-place American couple, who are involved in an assassination plot; those would be the Draytons (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles), who maybe a bit too coincidentally end up having dinner at a restaurant with the McKennas, who then spy Louis Bernard with what appears to be a date.
The dinner scene is a remarkable microcosm of how engrossing Hitchcock’s work can be even when not very much is happening — the truth of course being that a very great deal is happening, but much of it is unknown to us at the time. The first-time audience sees the mingling of two upper-class couples (the McKennas rather flaunt their privilege all through the picture, joking about whose kidney operation paid for what, a sign of the prosperous times for sure but also something that son-of-a-greengrocer but by now wealthy Hitchcock would not have interpreted without irony), then an ornery husband whose increasing furor when he sees Bernard canoodling a few tables over, sparking an argument with his wife, creates understandable and very apparent discomfort in their guests. We eventually learn that their discomfort comes from their being startled at the McKennas’ familiarity with Bernard, since he is targeting them; in the moment, however, it’s a vivid example of Hitchcock’s nearly supernatural strength with both characters and actors. Underplayed and spontaneous, the more relaxed and even the more troublesome moments, helped along by Stewart and Day’s impressively easy chemistry, feel as though one is watching real people interact, not the schmoozing of Hollywood actors. This presentation of naturalism in the context of grandiose thriller scenarios is one of the real keys to Hitchcock’s ingenuity and lasting appeal; it goes all the way back to the remarkable shots of chorus girls chatting in downtime in The Lodger thirty years ahead of this.
Still, the scene and the film as a whole are nothing without Stewart and Day, who are both extraordinary and do much of the work to lift this up beyond a very middle-tier Hitchcock picture artistically. An extremely underrated actress whose singing career and uncomfortably impeccable image overshadowed her immense talents, Day here offers one of her finest performances, completely convincing as a woman underestimated in every respect by her husband and, perhaps, her audience in the film as well as in the real world. Jo McKenna runs into fans everywhere she goes and takes it in stride to the unspoken but occasionally visible consternation of Dr. McKenna, who clearly prides himself on upholding the 1950s ideal of the male breadwinner. Jo brings up wanting to return to the stage, but she also mentions wanting another child, both ideas that get smugly dismissed by Ben, although they also seem initially to have a decent relationship, exchanging repartee with easy charm, which harkens back of course to the Lawrences in the earlier film.
That is, until the startling moment when Ben learns their son has been kidnapped and then drugs his wife, essentially forcing her to take a sedative before she has learned what’s happened; Stewart is genuinely unnerving in this scene, his usual tentative speech patterns suggesting like never before a degree of coldness that simultaneously says something about the necessary detachment of his profession and about his inability to look upon the humans in his life as much aside from mere patients. Stewart would of course tap into this well again in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, though in that film he would at least present as a somewhat warm-hearted figure at times, and in Vertigo, whose Scotty is uncertain and weak in ways that Dr. McKenna isn’t. It’s a surprisingly troubling performance, brilliantly well-tuned, and further gives the lie to Stewart’s reputation as the American cinema’s resident Eagle Scout. And when Jo finds out what he’s done, Day plays the moment with totally believable horror and anger, an injection of impassioned anguish from the last source an audience of today would tend to expect. She maintains that pitch for the rest of the film; while Edna Best too ended up saving her child with one final act of badassery in the 1934 film, Day too is permitted to play the operative role in securing her son, though she does it by luring him out of the woodwork with music, rather than firing a gun.
For all these virtues and for all the miraculous confidence of an undeniable master at work, this isn’t a film with the beating heart and immense emotional sophistication of Hitchcock’s best films; it even lacks his usual touches of lovable perversity, save in the casting of an uncredited Betty Baskcomb as a wonderfully bizarre, bespectacled church organist (and spy) and the totally superflous but outstanding comic setpiece, replacing the dentist sequence in the 1934 film (which still had more relevance to the story), that has Stewart misinterpreting “Ambrose Chapel,” Louis’ dying tipoff, as a reference to a man named Ambrose Chappell who turns out to be a taxidermist and not to take kindly to off-the-street weirdos hurling accusations at him. That Hitchcock sets this up, in the manner of the sinister projectionist in David Fincher’s Zodiac, with fully taunting and foreboding camera work and frightening stillness and such indicates simultaneously his brilliance and his boredom. On the whole, as entertaining as the film is, for the seasoned viewer it is like the concurrent To Catch a Thief a work of small pleasures, if admittedly numerous ones, both for their own enjoyable features and for the ways in which they call other Hitchcock pictures, particularly those contemporary to this one, to mind: those shots of the ambassador’s house as Day’s voice echoes through it, the entire church scene which is a pristine example of Hitchcock’s flawless fortitude with the camera and with the setting of mood (and smartly one-ups a gag from the first film; when Day and Stewart begin to have a conversation to the tune of the hymn being sung by the parishioners around them, Day distracts everyone with the strength of her voice, the opposite of what happened to Hugh Wakefield), and of course there is the golden opportunity to watch Bernard Herrmann on screen actually conducting.
This was Herrmann’s second collaboration with Hitchcock, following his lovely score for The Trouble with Harry; he would go on to write the music (or help design the sound, in the case of The Birds) for every film the director made until their acrimonious split during the postproduction of Torn Curtain in 1966. Knowledge of the fruits of this relationship, including several of the most iconic film scores ever produced as well as one of the most unheralded masterpieces of the form (his score for Marnie), to say nothing of his marvelous scores for other works ranging from Citizen Kane to The Twilight Zone, it’s quite touching to watch him at work here conducting the orchestra at the Albert Hall for the first of the two protracted musical climaxes in the film. Interestingly, Herrmann chose not to write a new piece for this sequence but actually used the one specially written by Australia’s Arthur Benjamin for the 1934 film, Storm Clouds Cantana, configured so that the pivotal shot could be fired simultaneously with the crash of cymbals, of which much is made in both films, especially by their startled leading ladies. Herrmann expanded the suite to ten minutes at Hitchcock’s request, which illustrates how much more protracted the Albert Hall scene is in the newer film (in addition to having actually been filmed there!), building suspense from every possible angle with increasingly frantic editing including a shot of Herrmann’s sheet music. It’s effective and fun, even if it shows a relative paucity of real ideas compared to some of Hitchcock’s greatest setpieces, since all it really has to show is the orchestra building, the preparation of the assassin, and Day watching helplessly. In so many ways, this single sequence illustrates everything grand and disappointing about the remake; and, some cynics would undoubtedly argue, with Hitchcock’s Hollywood career compared to his British work.
More had changed since 1934 than Alfred Hitchcock or the film business. Back in the early 2000s, when I was transforming from a Hitchcock buff to an obsessive partisan, I ran across an IMDB comment by someone known as larcher-2 that all these years has never left my mind, so concisely does it attack the core issue in play dividing the two films. Perhaps unethically, I will reproduce it without permission here:
There were better women then — and children — that is, before the 1950s. Hitchcock made this picture twice, and the two versions are practically a feminist text about the fall. In 1934, woman is athlete, expert in firearms, able to save her child when every man around her is paralyzed with fear. In 1956, woman is Doris Day, able only to wail a song that the child hears and wails back at. In 1934 the child is a delightfully and slightly impudent half-adolescent girl; in 1956, an ineffectual little boy. In 1934, woman can tease her husband with another man, but without in any sense betraying him; in 1956, she is a possession who has given up her career to cater to him. The 1934 movie is a good thriller, with a good subtext about real marriage; the limp 1956 remake is a mere simulation of tension covering bland propaganda for the sort of ’50s marriage that inevitably produced both feminism and widespread divorce.
The director himself wouldn’t have been unaware of these ideas, at least superficially; this very divide between real love and false marriage is the entire subject of his own Rich and Strange from 1931. The comment may take a slightly harsh view of the McKennas’ relationship, which is problematic but does not seem unrealistic, and it also somewhat fails to account for the fact that the unequal footing on which Jo and Ben stand in their relationship is being challenged by the story as it progresses — though of course, the facile ending somewhat scrubs this clean. To label it propaganda is extreme when one compares the film to something like Pillow Talk, also starring Day, whose narrow view of the role of women in the world is much harder to take today; or even to films that take a nonchalant but stalwart view of the incidental role of the housewife in their stories, like for instance Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, both wonderful films that all the same have a more limited, relegated role for their female leads than was ever the case for Hitchcock at any point in his career.
But the reason those remarks have stayed me all these years is really less that I agree the 1956 film is lackluster, and more that I believe it explains what makes the 1934 film transcendent and powerful, and therefore what is lacking in the serviceable good time Hitchcock, Hayes and company provide here. It was once fashionable to charge the director’s films with being empty and having nothing to say, an assertion one can readily challenge when the subject at hand is, say, Sabotage or the self-reflexive, clever North by Northwest; but here, apart from the relatively desultory challenges the script lays against what seems a placid life for a couple of normies and their kid, you can sort of see the critics’ point. There just isn’t much to really sweep us up: the family is all too ordinary, their roles clearly marked (never again would Hitchcock revolve a film around a nuclear family of this sort, unless you count The Wrong Man, a true story of one that gets torn apart), the villains a perfunctory couple of dullards in place of Peter Lorre, whose freaky smile is inherited here by the marksman played by Reggie Nalder. That it looks gorgeous and is absorbing isn’t beside the point — this is Hitchcock, after all — but indicates more how much he could sculpt with less than ideal material than that the story as it’s laid out here is up to standard. In other words, if you want to see how persuasive the usual Hitchcock techniques are in service of the bare minimum of good narrative content, this is your movie.
Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that one improvement made here is in allowing Day to play a larger role in the film’s action than Best did, though in the end this really just amounts to her participation in the outstanding Ambrose Chapel scene; when Best and Banks split in the older film, that’s the only real story point she misses. Jo is still a proactive character, more than competently participating in all the detective work, and when her despair is visible it’s sympathetic as a motivator. It would be useful if her son were replaced with a better actor than Christopher Olsen, who reads all of his lines in the same tone throughout the picture and doesn’t have a particularly tactile or convincing relationship with his parents. Hitchcock brushes past their reunion at the close of the film with good reason; Stewart and Day feel like a couple, but they and Olsen do not feel like a family, which does harm to the otherwise well-designed second climax in which the boy is called out to via song by his mother — that scene should feel more urgent, more emotional, than it does.
Given that unaffectionate mothers are a fixture of Hitchcock, it’s difficult to say whether the pair’s distance from their child was an accident or not, but it certainly results in the conspicuous absence of the moment of bliss shared between the Lawrences and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) in the prior version. One outlying quirk here to match is that Brenda de Banzie, as the kidnapper and co-conspirator Mrs. Drayton, is something of a reversal to the typically sinister Hitchcock mother-figure, with her maternal instinct ultimately serving as much to save the boy as Jo’s actions. De Banzie does well in her role, in contrast to Bernard Miles’ totally forgettable work as her husband. In perhaps the film’s weakest moment, he figures in an attempt to replicate or at least recall the breathtaking finale of Notorious that has Claude Rains darkly escorted downstairs by Cary Grant as the former’s Nazi cohorts look on. In this context, this attempt at a getaway falls flat enough that the incomprehensible way it which it wraps up makes very little difference; it just seems like a superfluous addition to a story that’s already over.
You’re left wondering why Hitchcock elected to remake one of his own films, much less this one, though it seems that he personally wasn’t satisfied with the 1934 version, not surprising given that it was virtually the beginning of his career as a thriller director. It’s not hard to see someone being happier with this one on a technical level, given the full resources of Paramount and all the star power thus entailed, but to the modern viewer screening a cleaned-up print of the lean and magical British film, it’s hard to imagine most audiences preferring this one. All the same, in 1956 Hitchcock was at the peak of his career both commercially and artistically, and everything he touched carried a kind of wisdom and explosiveness that remains unique to his work. It’s easy to get lost in memories of this film’s slight failings: the ending, the casting of the boy and many of the smaller parts, the absence of that cathartic embrace of the restored family, the relatively slight story and the overextended feeling of many of the individual scenes… but the fact remains that no one else has made movies that look or feel like Hitchcock’s, especially like those he made in the ’50s, and that canon has such value as a piece that each individual title lifts up the others. The Man Who Knew Too Much may not be a great film in itself, but it’s an indispensable portion of one of the greatest bodies of work in all cinema and, like all the others, carries within it so much that can still inspire and transport an audience even today.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
John Boorman’s film of James Dickey’s brooding, terrifying novel Deliverance is both one of the most perfectly realized of all American movies and perhaps the most successful example of a major work adapted for cinema into another major work. The language in Dickey’s novel is photographic in its evocation of place, mood and eventually pain; it’s a tortuously graphic book whose seemingly benign premise of four wannabe good-ol’-boys attempting to traverse a wild Appalachian river during a weekend getaway is belied by the unspeakable violence and despair it contains. In this sense, the novel is mirrored by the mystery and invisible horror of a fictionalized version of Georgia’s Coosawattee River; the film attains the same traits by transferring Dickey’s lyricism to breathtaking texture and atmosphere. No director has ever captured the sights, smells and uncertainty of the wilderness as Boorman does here, and his willingness to bend to the realities of this ruthless and devastatingly beautiful environment make seamless his gradual change of tone from wonder to misery, both of which in his hands come to feel intrinsic to the soil. Deliverance greets us with four disaprate man who range from insufferably cocky to powerlessly naive, all of whom have no idea of the scope and madness of their immediate destiny. On repeat viewings, this dramatic irony can just about cripple you.
When trying to evaluate and interpret Deliverance, as visceral as it is, it’s easy to get lost in the spectacular technical and narrative details rather than its more pertinent essence; it should, however, be noted quickly that the film’s economy is astonishing. These four characters, carefully and completely established through offhand and perfunctory dialogue, are driven to the brink and (in some cases) back again within 109 minutes, all with a distinctive sense of place and danger put across more immersively than any number of three-hour Hollywood epics one might name. Because the production was uninsured, the actors actually performed all of their utterly insane on-location stunts themselves, a totally irresponsible decision that caused injury and catastrophe and only mercifully nothing that derailed anyone’s life; but the upshot is that the scenes on the river look absolutely magnificent. Not only is it unlikely another director would stage them as impeccably as Boorman does, it would now essentially be impossible to shoot the film in this manner; so as with Merian Cooper’s early documentaries, your temptation is to decry Boorman and the studio for being idiots but you also cannot deny that we are incredibly lucky this footage exists — the actors careening along rapids and reacting accordingly (which has a neatly grounding effect on their performances), Jon Voight actually climbing the cliff his character is meant to be climbing (eat it, Brando) and Burt Reynolds actually being shackled to the bottom of a canoe that nearly capsizes multiple times even though you can barely see him. Our response to the encroaching threats of the forest and its occupants is of course only enhanced by this disturbing sense of documentarian reality. All the while, Boorman’s frame never fails to place the danger within its counter-intuitively stoic if not placid context: trees and mountains reaching overhead like a canopy that can be only helplessly gazed at from below like the tall trees that portend Judy being driven to her death in Vertigo.
Boorman demonstrates master storytelling here by virtue of the fact that the mechanics are never obvious; it’s a beautifully structured script (a rewrite of novelist Dickey’s own treatment) but not in the manner befitting labored film-school analysis. Rather, like some sublime piece of music, its elements fall together naturally. The most important change from the novel is the transition from a vivid, highly personal first-person narration to the virtually equal complexity of four central characters, all played by actors at the peak of their prowess: Ed (Voight), Lewis (Reynolds, in the greatest performance of his career), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox). Ed remains the audience vessel, the one whose often agonized, endlessly expressive face most consistently reflects our own responses to the turmoil that unfolds, but the three men joining him for this venture are no less full-bodied and convincing. They are all businessmen, city boys out of Atlanta, stepping out (reluctantly, in some cases) from middle-class comfort to engage with the world on the occasional weekend. Their de facto leader is Lewis, just as much a coddled urbanite as his pals but one who evidently works out a lot and considers himself a woodsman and survivalist of sorts, the familiar sort who romanticizes a rugged outsider status he doesn’t truly understand, who claims to long for civilization-ending anarchy.
Bobby, meanwhile, is the most sheltered of all, impatient with even the most trivial annoyances of the outdoors and completely unimpressed with Lewis’ performative machismo; his chosen pasttime is the telling of loudly heterosexual dirty jokes. The guitar player Drew is the most sensitive and cannily honest of the lot, in touch with and unafraid of his emotions in a manner that seems essentially alien to the others (early on he meets Lewis’ grandstanding about the untouched wild with unironic, awestruck glee that he does not filter; at every point, he is as earnest as Lewis pretends to be). Ed stands somewhere between Bobby and Drew, kind-hearted and mild-mannered but less convicted than the other three, at least outwardly, present themselves as being; he willingly goes along with Lewis’ ideas and schemes despite finding his philosophy somewhat ludicrous, yet somehow it’s Lewis to whom he seems closest. He loves his domesticated existence (the book expands on this by fleshing out his marriage and indicating that his deepest bond of all is not with any male friend but with his wife) but somehow still feels uncertain enough about his destiny to wonder a bit at what frays the edges of it.
Lewis’ perspective is the one that undergoes the most challenge and ridicule in the film; breaking his unjustified confidence down is, in essence, the point of the entire exercise. Yet the film, even more than the novel, does give Lewis one bit of validation by permitting some concession to his opening monologue about the final untouched portions of nature falling away to make way for tomorrow. There is a kind of symmetry here: the picture opens with the conversation embodying Lewis’ lament for the soon-to-be-dead Cahulawassee River amid a montage of damming in progress; in the final moments, the characters drive through a small town in the process of being dismantled for the manmade flood, dam, cities and lakes to come. The men attempted to subvert an onslaught of modernism that they actually represent, and Ed is newly aware that the world has no more business imposing itself on these backwood territories than they did. But there is no talking a capitalistic society itself out of crushing forward; four little men with no real idea where they are, however, are easy to conquer and destroy, as they have discovered this weekend.
Before the film takes its abrupt turn toward the macabre, there are already myriad occasions to provoke the kind of reactions in these four idle canoers that tell us all we need to know about who they are; at every turn they encounter the blanket hostility toward “city folk” that any audience member will view as inevitable. Of course this cultural chasm eventually takes on gargantuan proportions, but prior to that curtain’s turning we find a justifiable skepticism that runs through to the end of the film, when novelist Dickey himself (playing a small-town sheriff but it may as well be authorial voice) chides what remains of the gang never to do anything so reckless again. Deliverance occasionally has come under fire for playing up “hillbilly” stereotypes; being a Southerner myself, I’m sympathetic to this response, but it’s difficult for me to find cause for an interpretation of the film in which we are meant uniformly to side with the hotheads drifting through a world far beyond their actual lived experience. You can read the stresses and histories on the faces of the minor characters, of those we only fleetingly glimpse, as easily as we can on those of Voight, Beatty et al.
The glimpses we get of poverty and pride — the young and old members of a family that operates and lingers around a truck stop, including a mute boy who’s a banjo virtuoso and whose haunted demeanor achingly foreshadows the coming storm — ring authentically even if they can easily be accused of approximating, to some audiences, a classic freakshow; but as usual we must ask how can one depict the most neglected corners of society without the possibility of malicious interpretation? The more important element here is the dichotomy of civilization as Ed envisions it, as Fred fantasizes about it, and as it actually exists; and regardless of whether the people encountered by the troupe are ultimately decent or evil — and, as in any stratosphere, they come upon both extremes and everything in between — the flavor of wandering into a place where one does not and cannot belong is familiar to anyone who’s lived here among the strange Gothic forests, avenues and rivers. Seldom have the corresponding sensations been so eerily captured as by Boorman, ironically a British director, reversing the Straw Dogs standard of an American casting the rural brutes of England as the trial by fire of upper-middle-class male comfort and confidence.
There is little need to outline the disruption and tragedy at the core of Deliverance, the events that rupture the film and these lives; the moments comprising it are still as ubiquitous in pop culture as any iconic sequence in film of the 1970s, even if sometimes parroted in a strangely reductive manner. (“Squeal like a pig” in an Academy Awards montage and so forth.) The agony exhibited in the key scene by Beatty and the menace of villains Bill McKinney and Herbert Coward have been the subject of endless parody, not because they are ineffective but because they are completely unforgettable. This sort of narrative trapdoor is familiar from horror pictures going back to Psycho; and as in Psycho, its gravity is made more so by the realism of all that preceded it. To Hitchcock’s bag of tricks Boorman adds, via widescreen framing, the unchanging wall of nature surrounding the characters making a greater mockery of their travails than future comedians ever could. Beatty’s legacy does not sit solely with the scene in which he is the victim of perhaps the most infamous rape in cinema — and certainly one of the most distressing scenes in American film — but his shock and horror, and lingering trauma afterward, are masterfully realized enough to seem like the apex of a distinguished career.
Everything declines quickly. Lewis gets to play the role he’s always wanted — the salt-of-the-earth hero conquering evil — for exactly one scene, then like Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner he holds up a sign reading “what now?”. Badly injured just afterward on the canoe after a democratically-voted quick burial that visibly wrecks Drew in particular, Lewis’ sufferings nonetheless may not quite be on the scale of Drew’s and Bobby’s, but it is Lewis’ vision of the world that the film’s events come around to decimate. Apart from Deliverance‘s more generalized askance view at the entire concept of “male bonding” (it is the cinematic rebuttal-in-advance to Iron John), it actively demonstrates the neutering of machismo itself. This refers less to the rape and murder, though Bobby clearly and needlessly takes it as an affront to his manhood, than to everything afterward: all four characters but especially Lewis are brought to their knees, in the manner of Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII, when the great King’s nullified bravado serves only to strangle him as he pathetically attempts to wrestle in front of the Royal Court. The mayhem into which they slide demonstrates every emptiness of the men’s “city slicker” origins, but moreover indicates the problem of any habit of careening headfirst into the unknown purely out of a surplus of ego.
Drew receives the worst fate and, as Ed points out in his short eulogy, deserves it the least: he is still his old fearlessly straightforward self when chasing the surviving mountain-man assailant out of the clearing, but grows quickly apprehensive and then outright despondent during the act of hiding Lewis’ murder of the other man. After appearing manic while helping to dig the man’s grave, he never recovers and, in what may against all odds be the film’s most chilling moment, suddenly leans forward and falls out of the boat he’s meant to be paddling, his face blank yet utterly tortured. This leads to a chain reaction: the loss of a canoe and Lewis nearly being killed and spending the rest of the story in near-intolerable pain (the film’s only slightly cheeky comeuppance for his overbearing confidence), then a Conversation-like debate over what actually caused Drew to fall over. Between grunts of despair Lewis claims repeatedly that Drew was shot from atop the mountain, presumably by the surviving attacker that wasn’t killed; quickly convinced — because how could you not be convinced by Lewis? — Ed arduously climbs to the peak and kills a man with an arrow, but there is then the added uncertainty of whether it is even the same man (followed by the possible absence of a gunshot wound when they find Drew’s body), if this was a needless crime to add to the two existing corpses.
In the woods and on the river, Boorman lingers unapologetically on the images of death: the rapist with the arrow in his back foregrounds shot after shot of the four leads debating, his eyes and mouth frozen in obscene fellating of a thin tree. He is carried as a sack of meat to his resting place, his lifeless face still demanding our eyes and attention. Are we to simply find him a figure of horror, to take pity on him somehow, or more likely, to recognize already that his malicious ways have spelled the end of life for all four of these men, if only literally for one? There is later the hanging body of the man Ed kills, descending down the mountain via rope, displayed for the river below like a Medieval trophy despite the disgust of all involved at what was now deemed necessary for survival. And most disturbingly, the deceased Drew discovered along the route of return now in rigor mortis, functioning suddenly as a horrible and still monument.
Quickly afterward Ed and Bobby paddle the incapacitated Lewis back to town at last, their inarticulate trauma preceding them everywhere like a shadow. The town and hospital are saviors, symbols of the social progress Lewis began the film so smugly denouncing. If we accept the notion of a narrative film as the purveyor of a point of view — and I do not find this to be a universally useful conceit — then Deliverance with its foolish white men brought too late back from the brink of untold physical torture and death by a coalition of men and women white and black, civilians and medical workers and ordinary folks who cook well, their only obvious lingering enemies the strictly white redneck police force, it is hard not to interpret it as a kind of unintentional antithesis to one of the most acclaimed films of the ’70s, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the deep promise of white male greatness is weakened and destroyed not by its own hubris but by the personification of a wicked witch and her African-American helpers. Deliverance resonates so much more strongly today than that movie because, of the two, its perspective bears so much closer relation to the actual world we still occupy.
All that said, in some ways what makes Deliverance such an effective film is the way that it steps out of that baseline reality and touches upon something improbably, almost supernaturally terrible; in other words, its adherence to horror (and exploitation) film conventions within a relatively, deceptively mundane framework. It’s possible to view the film with some detachment as a bit of demented fun; you wonder at the implications when the sheriff makes noises about wanting the town to glide peacefully into the good night, or when the cab driver carting Ed around at the end mentions that Aintry being flooded out and ceasing to exist is the best thing that could ever happen to it. There are these vague, playful indications of something strange and invisible compelling forces of evil to converge upon this place, as though the demolition of it all were spiritually justified. But truthfully, this is Boorman playing with perspective more than anything; little wonder that the three survivors would look back on this place and time with understandable torment for the rest of their lives, but this in so many ways is a hive that they pushed. The novel bookends its tale with interludes illustrating that Ed enjoys a carefully cultivated peace but can now never be fully rested, for better or worse; the film makes this explicit with another Psycho illusion (or, reaching back further, perhaps a Blackmail allusion) — presenting first the nightmare and then the equally unsettling reality of the very spot in which destiny met these men, and will never entirely leave them alone. Deliverance is about stones that, once turned, cannot be unturned, in men as well as in society — and the nagging suspicion that there are worlds best left unconquered, truths left unlearned, fears left untested.
Before we get to this newest collection of movie capsules, which cover the period from February 20th to May 3rd of this year, I need to ask for your attention briefly. We’re all in lockdown, presumably watching movies. I’d like to share a recent tweet from Nick Pinkerton:
A nonstop stream of self-curated world historical masterpieces seen in perfect comfort at my home < Watching Book Club projected without proper masking while drinking a $12 plastic cup pilsner from the MacGuffin's Bar at the AMC Westwood Town Center 6.
— 💜💜Tԋυԃ Bυƚƚ💜💜 (@NickPinkerton) May 2, 2020
I’ve bitched and whined about the theatrical experience in my hometown for years; the selection blows, the experience is often infuriating and disappointing. And I do disgaree with Pinkerton in that I don’t uniformly prefer seeing films projected to seeing them at home; two of the best movie experiences I ever had were downright blasphemous, Fantasia while lying on the floor in my old apartment with headphones on, and The Turin Horse on a tiny Dell Inspiron laptop while bedridden with a common cold. Nevertheless, his point basically stands insofar as I find myself really missing the procedure of the whole thing. And sometimes it’s wonderful, regardless of inconvenience.
Here are a few of the theatrical experiences that have stuck in my mind over the years, roughly chronologically:
1. On the occasion of Bambi‘s July 1988 rerelease (thanks to IMDB for allowing me to finally put a date to this), my parents took me and it had the expected effect, magnified and remembered terribly fondly throughout the seventeen-year gap between that experience and the second time I saw the movie, on DVD in 2005. I was four years old but can still vividly recall the reaction of the child in front of me at the film’s key moment, and the exact phrasing of the question he posed to his mom when trying to decipher what had just happened. Curiously, I don’t remember my own reaction to that same moment very clearly; in fact, I believe my mom may well have warned me before we saw the film of the decisive event, which was probably wise.
2. Our attempts to see Jurassic Park on its opening weekend in Wilmington were curbed; every single screening was sold out. Being exactly the target age and gender for Spielberg’s dinosaur opus, I was already predisposed to love the film (and had even prematurely purchased a pencil box with the logo), but tried to mute my anticipation for it because even then, something about appearing too excited about anything felt gauche. My parents — who were slightly worried I’d be excessively frightened by the film — had some sort of an argument that afternoon, I cannot remember about what, but at the last possible second during our long trek from Wilmington back to Oak Island, Dad — whose car Mom and I were following in another vehicle — abruptly put his turn signal on and headed into the small four-screener in Southport, formerly a rinky-dink second run outlet where we’d watched Batman Returns several months after its initial release. It was the latest at night I’d been to a movie, probably 9 or 10pm, and my major response was laughter. The entire thing was so thrillingly destructive, I couldn’t contain myself. It was an absolutely joyous experience that the film itself can never possibly live up to, though I will say that when it was reissued in 2013 for its twentieth anniversary, I got choked up at the sight of the “park entrance” (and the images of limping Richard Attenborough) when it showed up in a trailer while I sat next to my mom for an IMAX screening of Skyfall. It was one of the first times I was really confronted with my advancing age.
3. The first movie I saw without adult accompaniment: spring 1995, the racist Disney comedy Man of the House starring Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The film wasn’t the least bit funny even then, although the friend I was with laughed at pretty much everything until he gave up on the movie and started goofing around behind the curtains that lined the walls with a group of other kids. It felt very sophisticated to be out “on my own” until that happened, even though I was watching Chevy Chase in Native American garb. Similar firsts: the first R-rated movie I saw theatrically, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999, though I was still just young enough that a family member had to tag along; the first movie I saw by myself, Along Came a Spider, a Morgan Freeman vehicle I have completely forgotten, in 2001; and the first actually good (or at least decent) movie I saw by myself, Tim Burton’s (!) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005.
4. December 19, 1997 — Titanic‘s opening night, before its gargantuan status as a cultural phenomenon had time to take hold. I was totally enchanted, so much so that I basically promised myself I wouldn’t watch it again being fully aware it wouldn’t hold up a second time (a rule I finally broke in 2012 or 2013 for this blog; to my surprise I still liked the film a lot) though my prevailing memory of the experience is the mother in front of me covering the eyes of a young boy of about ten every time Kate Winslet’s breasts showed up.
5. In mid-2005 my girlfriend and I saw Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds with the rowdiest audience I’ve encountered before or since; people openly talked to the screen, cell phones went off, people were darting between seats and in and out of the theater, and someone probably had sex somewhere in the room. All were there to fawn at the massive visage of Tom Cruise, “father of Suri,” the biggest and most notorious celebrity in the universe at the time — the Special Guest Villain in all of our lives. Ordinarily mortified by this sort of thing, I had no choice in this case but to embrace the chaos, and I was probably a stronger person for it. Speaking of Spielberg, my favorite solo movie experience came in the first week of 2006, when I attended a midnight screening of Munich on the cusp of a bounty: a whopping two full days off from my grocery store job. The world seemed to spread out into infinity, and I was treated with exactly the kind of slavishly historical thriller I loved most at the time.
6. Woody Allen was for many years my favorite active director — again, largely a question of my being precisely his target age and demographic at the time — and I must say that seeing Match Point on a rainy night was an unforgettable experience. I was at first miffed when a group of older folks came and sat immediately next to me despite our positionining in a largely empty screening room, but it was somewhat worth it when various climactic events made them audibly gasp. And I can fondly remember Midnight in Paris a few years after this and being unable to stop smiling the entire time; again, it could never possibly have the same effect now.
7. Within the span of a few months, seeing Children of Men, Zodiac and Ratatouille in theaters made for a consecutive procession of actual American masterpieces I don’t suspect I’ll be able to match. I had been enough of a Pixar diehard thanks to their early films to request a night off on the occasion of the opening of Cars, which of course had ended up being a dud, though I was in denial about it for a while, searching for hidden reasons why it was actually covertly brilliant and subversive. But then I wandered into a showing of Ratatouille that sold out immediately after I bought my ticket, which meant I was trapped far too close to the screen… and then I remembered what it’s like to watch a beautiful film you don’t have to make excuses for. My feeling after leaving the theater that night was absolute, unexaggerated elation; I spent the rest of the summer trying to convince people to go see it with me, unsuccessfully. This still stands as my favorite theatrical screening of a first-run film I’ve attended. Two years later I met my wife who sat in rapt attention with me as we watched Up. Pixar then quickly started to suck; the relationship just got better beyond this early signifier.
8. The only movie I’ve seen in another country: The Darjeeling Limited at the Eldorado in Brisbane, Australia, a former silent movie house built in 1925. Gorgeous. As my ex and I were leaving an old man stopped us to say “s’a nice place, India.”
9. Melancholia at Thalian Hall’s Cinematique event in 2011 — on an actual 35mm film print, their projection system not yet having DCP capability at the time — and all the olds complaining about it in the lobby afterward. One instructive Cinematique event later came when we saw the innocuous To Rome with Love and a man disrupted the entire massive room to yell at his wife for forgetting to turn her ringer off, a sound absolutely no one had noticed.
10. I went to the local Carmike to watch The Master by myself and was greeted with an audibly apathetic crowd who spent the film laughing derisively. But as I was walking out, I followed a middle-aged couple, the husband clearly affected by what he’d just seen and saying “that was a remarkable movie.” His wife’s eyes were darting around and she spotted something that intrigued her. “Hey — kiss me.” “What?” “That boy who works here just kissed his girlfriend and was trying to make sure nobody was watching. Kiss me.” So they did. Relationship goals.
11. My two (so far) NYC movie nights. The monumental experience of watching Frances Ha at the IFC in New York with Amber and a rapturous crowd. To a much lesser extent, Stories We Tell at the Angelika a few days later, only because I now get all the jokes about the noisy train passing and pretend I’m really cultured and shit when someone mentions it. Three years later in Maryland at the AFI Silver, we got to see Shoot the Piano Player and Nosferatu with live music on 35mm… but I think Frances Ha is still my favorite out-of-state experience thus far, maybe just because of the buoyancy it has the heart to leave you with.
12. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 3D IMAX at the Marbles Children’s Museum in Raleigh; probably, sadly, not the best screen to see that film on, but standing in line for it and being rallied for the happening by employees who were clearly more accustomed to interacting with eight year-olds was unforgettable. Also, a woman loudly accused a man of calling her a cunt when she tried to cut him in line, at which point she raised her hand and voice to get everyone’s attention and yelled the letters “C-U-N-T,” the ideal introductory vignette for Cuaron’s space epic.
13. There was an endearingly bizarre chain theater, a Carmike, in Greenville where Amber went to college. It was halfway to being totally dead; it got first-run movies but the screenings were always half-empty and there was a concession stand in the hallway that seemed to have been in disuse for years. I found this place much more endearing than the flashier Regal across town. The one time we saw it crowded was at Gone Girl, and the staff seemed unclear on how to handle a popular event on its scale, because an entire room’s worth of people was staggered outside the door waiting to be let in several minutes past showtime. When the previous showing finally let out and the doors popped open, everyone flooded out looking like they had PTSD; again, a wonderful prelude to an incredible film.
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm had been on my wishlist for as long as I could remember; in 2018 we got to see the next-best thing, a digital print in IMAX, and it was playing right out here at the damn Regal during an improbable national rollout by Warners. It was everything I wanted it to be, and solidifed my conviction that living this ridiculous life for art’s sake is all I really want to do.
15. And finally, Parasite… knowing nothing about Parasite‘s plot except what the trailers had let on, and experiencing it in a theater. It wouldn’t have been the same anyplace else.
I typically go through cycles with this. An experience like seeing Moonlight incompetently projected a few years back or having to listen to the entirety of the latest Star Wars while ostensibly watching Manchester by the Sea at Surf Cinemas in Southport will send me screaming back to my home and our modest TV and projector for some months. But eventually I come around; and of course, currently, I cannot. The least of our problems, for sure, the greatest of our problems being the morons now crowding the waterfront era; but it is somewhat ironic that Amber and I had recently returned to our ritual of going out to the movies nearly every week just before all this happened. Our last theatrical experience before the doors closed amid COVID-19 was a wonderful and long-desired one, North by Northwest (the first Hitchcock I’ve seen theatrically, and number two on my list of most-wanted big screen experiences after 2001). I truly think we’ll be back in the awful chain sixteen-screeners that surround us soon enough, and I don’t exactly want to sentimentalize them, but on the offchance that it’s all over, North by Northwest was probably the best note to go out on.
Now back to regular business.
Full reviews this cycle:
– The Compleat Beatles (LBoxd capsule; at least fifteenth viewing, last seen around 2010); and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (LBoxd capsule; seventh or eighth viewing, last seen around 2011) for the Beatles cinema project, which in terms of full-on essays is now probably finished.
– Throne of Blood (LBoxd capsule; third viewing, last seen 2016) — previously capsuled at this blog — to fill in a gap with the ’50s project since I’ve never really properly addressed it previously, and of course someday I’d like all of Kurosawa’s films to have long reviews here, so this was a perfect time to tackle this one.
Other films seen:
– Revival screenings before social distancing measures had to be taken: The Color Purple (second viewing, last seen 2018); and North by Northwest (ninth or tenth viewing, last seen 2012).
– Revisits to show to someone: Atlantics (second viewing, last seen earlier this year).
– Revisits due to Blu-ray releases: The Golem (second viewing, last seen 2015, although this time I watched the edited U.S. version); All About Eve (ninth or tenth viewing I think, last seen 2017); Holiday (1938 version — second viewing, last seen 2017).
– For 2010s revisit project (LBoxd pages linked): American Hustle (second viewing, last seen 2014); Isle of Dogs (second viewing, last seen 2018); and Sightseers (second viewing, last seen 2015).
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– I somehow failed to mention this when cataloging Kino Lorber’s release of Last Year at Marienbad a couple of months back, but Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde — about the National Bibliotechque of France is hauntingly beautiful, vaguely menacing, and simply sublime for anyone in my profession or anyone who loves libraries. You can watch it yourself here.
– Was reacquainted recently with one of my favorite early short films, Segundo de Chomon’s The Golden Beetle, a marvel in hand-tinting and special effects.
– The most informative video I’ve seen in some time: 1997’s How to Have Cybersex on the Internet, excerpted here.
– I don’t normally bring up this sort of thing here, but the absolute insanity of this video by A Flock of Seagulls (1985) needs to be more widely recognized.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– All About Eve (Criterion): Yet another superb Criterion package (the drawings that populate the cover and booklet are magnificent) despite some early problems with the packaging that were, by the time I picked it up, wholly fixed. Eve has been issued on Blu before and I understand the image isn’t a big upgrade (although dazzling), but Criterion just contexualizes this stuff like no one else. The set carries over the supplements from the old Fox Studio Classics DVD, which are fine, but the material I’d personally never seen before was staggering in its breadth. There’s an amazing and admirably unpolished long interview with Joseph L. Mankiewicz that moves well past feature length and is considerably above par for talking-head documentaries. This is joined up by an informative look at the film’s costume designs and, from a subsequent DVD release by Fox, a decent featurette about Mankiewicz’s personal life and a short, winningly lurid tidbit about the feud between the author of the source material and its actual inspiration. I had great fun watching the two Dick Cavett episodes included, one interviewing Bette Davis (during the course of which it “becomes” the 1970s) and one with Gary Merrill, both insightful and fun subjects. I do wish the commentaries were new or scholarly instead of the old ones from the Fox discs which aren’t very good. The slightly disappointing booklet contains a mediocre essay and the short story The Wisdom of Eve, and wow, it’s really something that Mankiewicz managed to get this script out of that piece of piffle.
– The Golem (Masters of Cinema): Features a weak scholarly commentary track that focuses too little on history and too much on editorializing of the real-world mechanics of a Golem. But the restoration is sincerely jaw-dropping and the video essays are interesting, though some extrapolate pretty far out into wilderness to find continued evidence of the Golem in Jewish horror. It’s really just wonderful to see Eureka!/MoC tackling Weimar cinema again like old times.
– The African Queen (Masters of Cinema): On the other hand, this handsome package is one of the best MoC releases to date; admittedly there isn’t a whole lot of original content, instead consolidating a lot of existing material. But the long documentary and video essays are robust and informative, there’s a bloody fascinating interview with cowriter Peter Viertel as well as an audio Q&A with John Huston who’s always a treat, and even the commentary by Jack Cardiff and brief Q&A by Lauren Bacall don’t suffer from the haziness that you often encounter with that sort of material. The booklet is great, and the whole thing just looks terrific, in terms of both the packaging and the restoration itself. An incredibly strong set, really.
– Holiday (Criterion): The best package we’ll ever likely see for this film but not Criterion’s strongest effort. The big extra here is a welcome one, the entirety of the earlier 1930 film version of the play (reviewed below); it’s fun to see even though it’s much more of an ordinary early talkie and play adaptation than Cukor’s version. I’m very glad Criterion included it as it really gives you a chance to study what makes the classic 1938 version work so well. The other supplements are thin: a somewhat interesting but ho-hum conversation between two critics (Michael Sragow and Michael Schlesinger) about the film, which is upstaged by Dana Stevens’ excellent essay in the booklet. There’s an OK audio interview with George Cukor, who talks pretty extensively about specifics on adapting the play to the screen versus the older version. It’s a good set, no real complaints here, and the main thing is the film, which I’m so glad they saw fit to release in this form and looks utterly spectacular.
– Fail Safe (Criterion): Another astonishing release, comprised mostly of inherited materials all of which are very strong: a 2000 documentary featurette from the old Sony DVD, a surprisingly in-depth Sidney Lumet commentary (there are dead spots as usual with these old director tracks, but I mind that less and less these days, and everything he says is quite interesting, especially when he ties the whole plot to some skepticism about the 2000 presidential candidates!), the new J. Hoberman interview provides some welcome and informed Cold War context, and the Bilge Ebiri essay in the foldout, while inconvenient to read in that form, is validating for someone who’s celebrated this film for a long time. Plus I learned something new: the animation we see throughout the film on the “war room” screens was provided by Faith and John Hubley, about whom Lumet gushes multiple times throughout the commentary! Everything continues to tie together…
– Soon to come: Criterion’s Roma, a whole lot of cartoons and Dodsworth from Warner Archive, Flicker Alley’s “Bolshevik Trilogy” set of Pudovkin films, and a host of early cinema, avant garde and Leone westerns plus a Clouzot from Kino Lorber. Lot of catching up to do…
Venture below to find 30 new capsules, to be added to the Movie Guide immediately, with slightly longer Letterboxd writeups linked.
Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio de Sica) [r]
[1950s canon project.] (Second viewing, no change; last seen 2008.) Irresistibly sad neorealist film about an unlucky retired man unable to make ends meet on his pension and about to be evicted by a self-obsessed landlord. His only allies are a terminally dispirited maid and an impossibly cute doggie. Lyrically examines divisions and unity among young and old, rich and poor, human and animal, man and woman. De Sica undeniably stacks the decks so high it feels downright absurd, regardless of how true to life it clearly is — the characters mostly feel so faintly sketched-in that the tale comes off as simultaneously ageless and strangely obvious, even a bit sentimental, though I do prefer it muchly to Bicycle Thieves.
Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] This good-looking MGM production banks on your attraction to big emotional crescendos with little buildup; over the decade and a half after WWI, an amnesiac mental patient (Ronald Colman) creates a modest new life for himself with a highly nurturing and patient wife (the luminous Greer Garson) only to then, hilariously, suffer yet another concussion and suddenly become his old self. Would make a hell of a backdoor pilot for a Krazy Kat-meets-The Love Boat sitcom in which Colman hits his head and enters a new marriage each week. Think of the potential guest stars!
The Salesman (2016, Asghar Farhadi) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] A married couple who are members of a theater troupe seek out a new home after the apartment they’re staying in collapses, which leads them to an unexpected moment of brutality that threatens their lives in every sense. This is a harrowing odyssey of not just the complicated matter of juggling roles as member of family and member of society and of knowing how radically the idea of protecting someone you love can change on a dime, but of how men view themselves and construct narratively and socially convenient personalities for themselves, and the stories they and their loved ones tell each other to continue the illusion.
Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Daniel Cretton) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Parts of this surprisingly warm drama about the staff and occupants of a group home for teens have the ring of painful honesty, not only in its portrayal of the inner worlds of the adolescent characters (especially Lakeith Stanfield’s Marcus and Kaitlyn Dever’s Jayden) but in that of the supervisor played with extraordinary wisdom by Brie Larson and her slightly troubled romance with a coworker (John Gallagher Jr.). Writer-director Cretton is a little too preoccupied with that last element, but it’s hard to object too much to a film that probes mental health and abuse in an honest manner yet remains ultimately winning and even optimistic.
Bergman Island (2004, Marie Nyreröd) [r]
Filmed four years before Ingmar Bergman’s death at age 89, this intimate if slightly workmanlike documentary finds the fabled director in an introspective mood, puttering around his house on the island of Fårö where he filmed Through a Glass Darkly and subsequently made his isolated home. He is queried about life, legacy and filmmaking by Nyreröd, who doesn’t shy away from posing difficult questions that go far beyond technical or thematic concerns. When the man’s eccentricities come to the forefront, all you can think is, here is a person we’re not ever going to replace.
Ingrid Goes West (2017, Matt Spicer) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Billed as a black comedy, this is really a car-crash rubbernecking observation of a mentally ill young woman (a credible Aubrey Plaza) whose entire world is centered on her Instagram likes, her desperation for friendship and stalking of a hapless influencer. Spicer is good at ramping up thriller scenarios but this is a strange context for them, especially when the mood is so frequently disrupted by bouts of rather broad jokes and commentary about the ugly world of life lived exclusively via social network. Ingrid feels more like a outsider’s punching-bag caricature of the needy online denizen than a person who’s hurting and slowly collapsing.
Starlet (2012, Sean Baker) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] The L.A. colors are ugly, the hellscape of bingo nights and garage sales relentlessly bleak, but somehow everything in Baker’s story about weird friendships and unspoken pasts eventually seems to shout out with calm humanism. Dree Hemingway’s Jane has a sunny demeanor initially tireless enough that you wonder if it’s for real, but this coalesces into charm as her sheer pluck becomes clear. It’s a winning characterization matched well by Besedka Johnson in her first and only film as the cantankerous Sadie; their hard-won relationship is as believable as if you lived through it. The film is funny, but its great virtue is what it doesn’t laugh at.
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] The storyline in this effortlessly modern, progressive-feeling western isn’t that far removed from the conventions of the genre, but Ray’s sublimely serious-minded yet unpretentious execution places it in its own class, as does the extraordinary cast led by Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden, those first two embodying powerful and sophisticated female characters that aren’t easily boxed into traditional hero or villain roles. Riveting and intriguingly modern all the way through.
Madame Curie (1943, Mervyn LeRoy)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Splashy all-star MGM biopic fusses up its depiction of the pioneering physicist (Greer Garson) who discovered radium with a bunch of cutesy exposition focusing on the wacky concept of a Lady Scientist plus the utterly banal depiction of her relationship to husband Pierre, inadequately played by Walter Pidgeon. Garson’s fine performance and some adventurous photography from the great Joseph Ruttenberg are all that recommend this tiresome, formulaic picture, which suffers from the same narratively inert dead ends as something like The Story of Louis Pasteur and serves little purpose outside the middle school science classroom.
Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Baker’s compassion toward his subjects isn’t really questionable; where one might philosophically differ with him is in what seems to be a morbid fascination with people in their most desperate moments. Here he folds pure comic mania and well-observed detail into the day-to-day plight of two trans sex workers and their noirish gallery of associates and clients as a woman tries to confront her cheating partner in the course of a single 24-hour period. The more ridiculous and elevated it all gets, however, the more one wonders if it’s really meant to function as a gawking comic freakshow rather than a slice of life.
Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves) [r]
Inordinately entertaining and technically impressive found-footage thriller overcomes its very goofy premise (a Godzilla-like monster terrorizes New York City) with clever, resourceful direction and amiable enough actors, although the characterizations are dull enough that one is more than a little anxious for the carnage to set in. Drew Goddard contributed the script which lays the irony on a little too thickly, often feeling like something a teenager would write; most of the value here is in Matt Reeves’ startlingly intelligent staging of utterly ridiculous events.
Judy (2019, Rupert Goold)
[Academy Awards catchup.] Pandering exploration of Judy Garland’s final months is made a lot worse by Renee Zellweger’s caricatured, tic-ridden performance (although she does sing well) and poor, inconsistent writing that fails to make any of its real-life characters convincingly robust as people rather than historical figures.
Jojo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi) [NO]
[Academy Awards catchup/Best Picture nominees project.] A young anti-Semitic boy suffers a crisis of conscience after he makes friends with a Jewish girl to the chagrin of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler; if that summary makes you want to see this, I’d like a word. The numerous tonal and sociopolitical problems with this deeply wrongheaded misfire pale next to just how aggressively unfunny it is — not one joke even kind of lands. The script is built from anachronistic Avengers-like smarmy dialogue, and the story is wildly overstuffed with ideas in a way that smacks of deep insecurity; it’s the most tone-deaf film to attain its level of notoriety since Life Is Beautiful.
The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Much as Women of the Night was Mizoguchi doing Neorealism, this is Mizoguchi doing Bresson — essentially an episodic parade of oppression suffered by the title character (Kinuyo Tanaka, superb) at the hands of powerful men in 17th century Japan. We meet her as the disgraced daughter of a Samurai warrior who’s been censured and castigated as the result of a love affair and watch as she suffers one indignity, tragedy and humiliation after another. While formally beautiful and arresting, the story eventually becomes so one-note that it verges on the ridiculous; only the promise of eternal nothingness can offer redemption.
Arrowsmith (1931, John Ford) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Little of Sinclair Lewis’ sophistication or bite survives the Hollywood formatting of his novel about an innovative doctor’s career; this becomes a rudimentary character sketch, though an out-of-his-element Ford does come through with some striking indoor compositions. The film’s on solid dramatic ground in the early country doctor sequences then loses its grip when it travels to the West Indies, where Clarence Brooks is memorable in a refreshingly uncaricatured role as a black doctor. Arrowsmith’s interpersonal relationships offer more entertainment, partly because Helen Hayes is clearly more comfortable in her role than Ronald Colman is in his.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] The tenuous connection to 2008’s Cloverfield barely even registers in this genuinely tense, frightening confinement thriller that has survivalist John Goodman holding two people hostage in his bunker, warning them of terrors outside; Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are phenomenal, the latter holding us completelhy in her corner for the duration. Each of the various horrifying turns the plot takes in the last half packs a real punch, like a whole season of Breaking Bad packed into a few minutes.
Things to Come (2016, Mia Hansen-Løve)
[2010s catchup project.] Not only is Isabelle Huppert brilliant and an absolute marvel to watch in this, Hansen-Løve gives her an extraordinarily well-drawn character with enough flaws and contradictions to approximate an actual human being. But she then gives that character almost nothing to work with; the story here is a banal, aimless odyssey of a well-off philosophy teacher enduring several personal crises (including the end of her relationship with her husband, also a philosophy teacher!?) and heavy-handed metaphors about life and death. It’s a bizarre combination of dramatic subtlety and thematic sledgehammering with nothing that rings false but nothing that surprises.
Holiday (1930, Edward H. Griffith) [r]
The first adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, later the basis for one of the most charming and resonant Hollywood comedies of the ’30s, is neither cast nor scripted with anything like the wisdom and grace of George Cukor’s film. The story is still compelling, but it plays much more as theater than real life. Ann Harding and Robert Ames simply don’t put across the chemistry required for the central roles, nor does Ames have the charisma to inspire a line like “life walked into this house this morning.” You do get a fine Mary Astor performance as non-“black sheep” sister Julia, but that’s the only note on which this version is at all preferable.
Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Johnson puts together a kind of highlight reel of footage she’s shot as cinemtaographer for various documentaries over the years, placing an emphasis on moments that deeply challenge the separation between filmmaker and subject, and therefore the ethics of their relationship. This is a bit like Kiarostami’s Close-Up in its buried meta-narrative and erasing of the line between truth and cinema, but its conglomeration of basically unrelated clips ping-pongs so rapidly between emotional extremes that it’s actually a bit numbing.
First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Another Schrader chronicle of a man’s deterioration, but this one is stronger in its sense of doom and claustrophobia, more inspired and elegant in its choice of premise, and finally more personally affecting despite its clear debts to Robert Bresson. Part of its success hinges on the extent to which it’s able to force identification, through the good work of both Schrader and an unexpectedly masterful Ethan Hawke, with the pastor of a tourist-trap Dutch Reformed church in New England as he copes with his anxieties, which already seem insurmountable before the building blocks of his worldview begin to tumble.
The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] This is many things — a Soviet response to the trauma of World War II, a persuasive depiction of youthful romance in full bloom — but above everything it’s an example of a film in which the camera is wholly responsive to the moods and emotions of its characters, such that the specifics of those characters are less important than how easily Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky put their inner lives across in a manner transcending all verbal language. The camera behaves in ways that don’t seem physically possible; this is avant garde technique at perhaps its apex in service of something remarkably universal that never feels vague or rudimentary.
A Few Good Men (1992, Rob Reiner) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Wildly entertaining if somewhat dated courtroom drama has hotshot military lawyer Tom Cruise teaming up with compassionate cohort Demi Moore and just-kinda-there Kevin Pollak to defend a couple of Marines accused of hazing, on the basis that the murder they (accidentally?) committed was an order from on high. “On high” translates to top brass memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson, who gives what may be his least subtle performance — which is saying something. Despite the broadly cartoonish energy Nicholson brings and the usual sexist indulgences of writer Aaron Sorkin, this is gripping and fun.
Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] An anti-capitalist comedy — the fast-moving, witty directorial debut of the Coup’s Riley — about a man (Lakeith Stanfield, note-perfect) who finds success in his telemarketing job only upon adopting a “white voice.” Wonderfully original in its flights of fancy and painfully well-observed when it hews closer to lived-in reality; a movie of the moment, and a well-timed piece of true working class soldiarity from a real artist. Terrific music throughout from the Coup (naturally) and Tune-Yards.
First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)
[2010s catchup project.] Even if the thesis of this frustrating chronicle of Neil Armstrong’s career through 1969 is that he was outwardly unable to express himself, thus limiting his private relationships, Ryan Gosling lacks the range to portray even this emotional distance competently. Chazelle concentrates heavily on appropriating elements of Kubrick, on playing up a contemporary-ish notion of what the moon landing “meant,” and on depicting NASA history in an in-your-face manner, but his attempt to turn this into a Malickian Right Stuff demonstrates that intentionally banal dialogue doesn’t turn your work into Pure Cinema if your compositions are equally rote.
Fail Safe (1964, Sidney Lumet) [hr]
(Second viewing, last seen 2000; no change and basically same old capsule.) Stanley Kubrick kept this film out of wide release in 1964 because it shared source material with his Dr. Strangelove, and he felt that a comedy couldn’t compete with a drama that had the same subject matter. Of course Strangelove is better, and Kubrick was probably right. All the same, it’s a missed opportunity that this is not a more famous movie, because it’s a real firecracker. Lumet, as usual, avoids Hollywood trappings and creates something with stylistic ingenuity and breathless intensity. Excellent performances all around, too.
Sherpa (2015, Jennifer Peedom) [r]
As their job becomes more dangerous due to climate change, the Nepalese Sherpas who escort white western tourists to the peak of Mt. Everest are experiencing greater risk and loss of life, and the divide between them and their clients has become more pronounced. Australian documentarian Peedom expected to make a film about how a veteran Sherpa (Phurba Tashi) and his family feel about his work, but she ended up inadvertently capturing the aftermath of a tragic avalanche that killed sixteen people and the absence of compassion from the powers that be. There’s impressive mountaineering footage, but the real subject is race and class, as it must be.
Game Night (2018, John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein)
[2010s catchup project.] Part of the new subgenre that also includes The Nice Guys and Spy: half-assed action thriller plus half-assed zaniness equals whatever this is. An enthusiastic cast led by Rachel McAdams (who’s quite fun) and Jason Bateman (who’s Jason Bateman) act out a sketchy script about a Fincheresque “game” initiated by Bateman’s well-off and popular brother Kyle Chandler going awry when actual criminals get involved. There are some laughs, but the frantic plotting so outpaces the humor in a desperation to maintain the interest of an audience given no credit whatsoever that it feels like a prolonged bludgeoning.
Private Life (2018, Tamara Jenkins) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] In this slice-of-life dramedy, the two most annoying and vapid people in the world are trying to have a child in their forties; Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn’s lead performances are hard to sit with for two hours, so imagine living with them. The monotony is broken a bit by Kayli Carter (as a niece and egg donor) and John Carroll Lynch (as her dad) who are both like an oasis in the desert but can’t overcome the scattershot writing and sheer tonedeafness that surrounds them.
The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Ferocious and brutal Lang film noir about a cop at the breaking point with citywide corruption. Not as hauntingly grim perhaps as Scarlet Street, but as usual in Lang’s American films it all feels strikingly uncompromised. Glenn Ford is masterful as an outwardly controlled tempest of emotional chaos, Lee Marvin chillingly believable in all his casual violence. A real thrill all in all.
King Solomon’s Mines (1950, Andrew Marton & Compton Bennett) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] The usual flagrantly racist Trader Horn African safari nonsense, but with above-par performances by Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, and the MGM production team delivering some remarkable images of not just wild animals cavorting gorgeously in the African plains but of genuine indigenous dances and culture seldom captured on film (though far be it from me to make claim that it was ethical for MGM to be the ones to package all this for American consumption). Plus its adventure episodes are consistently exciting and look flawless thanks to cinematographer Robert Surtees. Problematic as all get-out, no question, but solidly entertaining in its fashion.
Of Shakespeare’s major tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the least enjoyable to read. Seeing it performed may well be a different matter, but keeping in mind that criticizing Shakespeare is a fool’s errand and is of course meant in a strictly relative sense, the play feels rushed and even perfunctory in its early stages, perhaps in keeping with the theories that the text that exists is highly butchered. Most troubling are the characterizations: whereas entire books can be and have been written about even minor figures and their relationships in King Lear and Hamlet, Macbeth is really exclusively populated by just two significant characters, one of whom — iconic and poetic though her dialogue may be — is a curiously flat villainous caricature whose various transitions make little sense beyond our inclination to accept them because they’re second nature to literature and theater at this point. Macbeth himself is one of the fuzziest and most ineffectual protagonists in Shakespeare, seemingly meant as little more than a target for mockery, like — not coincidentally? — a Coen brothers character. Finally, this is personal bias, but to a person fond of the comedies and their idiosyncrasies, and Hamlet and its elaborately constructed plot, that Macbeth ends with something so basically ordinary as the siege of a castle seems disappointing. The play amounts to escalation and little else.
That said, Macbeth‘s relative simplicity also allows room for sophisticated interpretations of minimalist and maximalist variety, hence those for instance of Orson Welles (on stage and screen) and Roman Polanski (in cinema), which bring their creators’ specific fixations to a perfect blank slate. Oddly, since it retains none of Shakespeare’s dialogue, the most straightforward adaptation of the work in storytelling terms may in fact be Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated Throne of Blood, which transfers the action to feudal Japan and is cited by Harold Bloom among others as perhaps the greatest film of a Shakespeare play. But while Kurosawa was a master of the cinematic art adapting the indisputable master of English language storytelling, Throne of Blood cannot rise above the shortcomings of its source text, nor can it fully realize its virtues that are so intricately tied with the playwright’s mastery of language. Absent of the poetry in already one of Shakespeare’s less poetic works, we are left only with the pure drama — which carries us through for a while, at least — and with the lyricism of Kurosawa’s camera and mise en scene, which are of course largely enough to make this an indispensable film all the same.
In microcosm, for example, there is no real way of appropriating Macbeth‘s bird and horse omens in an original and not heavy-handed fashion, but in the hands of Kurosawa and his longtime cinematographer Asakazu Nakai they are so lovingly staged (calling ahead conspicuously to two future Hitchcock films) that they become fresh and genuinely entrancing. It’s this kind of effect of rendering the familiar with fiery conviction that’s called for by the task of adapting Shakespeare to the screen. The most breathtaking moments in Throne of Blood involve Kurosawa’s staging of the inevitable violence at the play’s center: the murder (45 minutes into the 110-minute film), though staged chillingly off camera, is played with pointed, sighing despair appropriate to Toshiro Mifune’s interpretation of an often muddled character, here renamed Washizu. Later, Washizu’s death is one of the most outrageous and brutal of Kurosawa’s setpieces, in which his bravado and betrayal are met with a hail of arrows that cripple him slowly, with palpable physical agony reading across Mifune’s expressive face. This protracted bit of action is a smart cover for the play’s inconclusiveness. Best of all, however, is one of the play’s most dependable acting showcases, and the one Kurosawa essentially allows to sit as-is; his staging of the ghost scene, despite the playfulness of Banquo’s non-chair, is the most theatrical in the film but uncommonly effective, with Mifune permitted to build to organic and frightening heights in his performance as he illustrates a grieving insanity that his wife (Isuzu Yamada) is quick to try and suppress.
However, what Throne of Blood cannot fully overcome, and what it is too direct and quick to be capable of masking, is the bareness of the intrigue in the play and its slightly curious structure of systematic, grisly fulfillment of prophecy. As bodies and severed heads pile up in the second half, we feel a certain disjointedness from the languid pacing of the earlier scenes. The entire first half hour is as bizarrely protracted as the early portions of Ran, a much longer Shakespeare adaptation Kurosawa made decades later. The establishment of Washizu and his best friend and fellow Samurai Miki (the film’s Banquo, portrayed with intelligent restraint by Minoru Chiaki) as heroes in battle followed by their lengthy journey through the labyrinthine forest and their stumbling upon an Evil Spirit (changed from the play’s three witches) feel plodding enough before being superseded by a seemingly endless series of shots of the pair wandering lost through the fog that has descended on the outskirts of the castle of Lord Tsuzuki — the film’s King Malcolm. Washizu and Miki then sit in a field, express their exhaustion and repeat everything that has already been stated in the film’s first quarter-hour; it’s a gorgeous shot, the castle looming in deep focus, but while likely attempting to pad out Shakespeare’s atypically breakneck Act I (again, believed by some scholars to have survived in incomplete form), it’s guilty of the same talkiness and overstatement that sometimes mars the far less sprawled-out Rashomon, and it creates a situation in which the film that later becomes so lurid and nightmarish seems to have little actual relation to the careful setting up of place, time and people, which renders it ultimately less successful as a narrative.
You’re left to conclude that Kurosawa failed to connect these dots not because he couldn’t fully make sense of the play’s characters or underlying themes, because we have ample evidence that that wasn’t a problem for him, but because his intimate examination of Macbeth showed that there was very little beyond the superficial to find and express. Most of the individual scenes feel like a greatest-hits procession of the recognizable moments of the play, but there is no way to make them breathe as something with a sense of reality or, crucially, timelessness. The early scenes are related in painstaking detail, while later events are rushed through via wipe dissolves. Thus the events and the characters are approached as something to illustrate, not as a springboard for an incisive or revealing adaptation, apart from in the aesthetic sense. That said, Kurosawa’s engagement is different enough from the other major auteurist variations on the play that he’s able to present serious questions about the source’s central themes that aren’t necessarily present in other films; the emphasis he places on the forest’s lonely prophet (the “Spirit of the Spider’s Web Forest” played by Chieko Naniwa) as a more mysterious, truly eerie figure than the typical sneering witches who are out to troll the future monarch provides for a more ambiguous divide between cause and effect: is Washizu destroyed by pure ambition, by the ambition of others, by the interference of the supernatural, or by his own determination to fulfill a blind belief in prophecy? “Without ambition,” his wife opines at one point, “man is not a man”; one is tempted to read this as the real core of the concerns and fixations of the director’s that are stroked by this story, especially since his rebuke of it isn’t far from the eventual “long life eating porridge” thesis of Yojimbo, and this conflict is emphasized chiefly because we’re seeing the one adaptation of the play in which the “witches” are a more fascinating presence than Lady Macbeth.
Here Lady Macbeth is Washizu’s wife Asaji, certainly a distinctive performance that does not conquer the inherent incompleteness of the play’s character, long a focus of feminist critique of Shakespeare, nor Kurosawa’s worsening of those problems. Sexism is not foreign to Kurosawa’s work (particularly witness Yojimbo), nor is it terribly insidious or pervasive in either his art or — typically — Shakespeare’s. Nevertheless it’s difficult to argue with the perception of Lady Macbeth or Asaji as a one-dimensional force of evil designed almost exclusively to henpeck her husband into inflicting all manner of power-mad violence to live up to the predictions of what amounts to a hallucination. Yamada’s Mrs. Danvers-like stillness is a delight to watch, but to the viewer who is aware of Kurosawa’s later revision of King Lear‘s Edmund to “Lady Keane” (Mieko Harada) in Ran, it’s greatly disappointing that Asaji only appears in the moments of narrative convenience: we see her egging on the murder, we see her trying to calm him down to save face at the banquet, and we see her desperately trying to rid herself of nonexistent blood; the cycling between these modes as well as into her ultimate decline is absent, even more than in the source, and this despite the added plot device of a pregnancy and stillbirth. Kurosawa slightly worsens this situation by placing considerable emphasis on the remarkably tense introduction of Asaji about thirty minutes into the film; she sits still and gazing straight ahead with a storm in her eyes — one naturally expects her already unstable state of mind to become more important to the rest of the story than it ultimately is, but it’s largely cast aside in favor of playing the drama on a larger stage.
As to the other performances, except for Mifune and Chiaki, they tend to be pitched at a full hundred from the first and thus have nowhere to go; Kurosawa’s heavy concentration on facial expressions and the subtle tic doesn’t work when the acting is this broad. Conversely, this is one of Mifune’s most tentative and uncertain performances, which somewhat fits the character. As characterized not just by Kurosawa but by Shakespeare, Macbeth is sort of a clueless oaf who’s led by his worst instincts; the film rather ingeniously stages his grandiose speech after receiving the “moving forest” prophecy (Throne excludes the “born of a woman” proviso) as a bit of boorish comedy that has chest-out Mifune parading around a balcony like Charles Laughton or, sigh, Donald Trump. And Chiaki’s Miki, eyes clearly beloved by the director, is a splendid concoction whose obvious sincerity manages to render the larger-than-life monstrosity of the central couple feel more artificial yet. The concern we feel when Asaji wonders if Miki knows “what lies” in Washizu’s heart is the most significant bit of human compassion the film requests of us.
If Throne of Blood is guilty of streamlining an already streamlined play, it’s worth stating that it’s also an opportunity for Kurosawa to let his impulses take over, and this is as pure a cinematic expression of his deepest interests as any. The proof of this is in the future: in 1985 he would adapt the much more intricate and fruitful King Lear as the visually overwhelming three-hour epic Ran. It’s a flawed film that sometimes feels just as protracted and inhuman as this one, but it’s also the work of a filmmaker whose confidence is absolute and who is able to do even more with the raw materials provided by the play than he was in the ’50s; even if Ran isn’t exactly your ideal variety of entertainment, if you’ve seen it then watching Throne of Blood you find yourself longing for that later film, which goes farther with all of the ideas sketched out here. The similarities are numerous, offset by dreamlike color photography and the expanded length, but even the opening battles and conferences are cut from the same pattern despite the major differences in the two plays. Kurosawa is still fixated upon the cycles of murder and power that are already immobile before his tales open, still drawn to and repelled by the bloodstains of the “traitors,” and still eventually finding himself drawing the same devastating conclusion, as articulated explicitly in Throne of Blood: “This is a wicked world.”
The setting of Robert Zemeckis’ debut film is New York City on February 9, 1964, the night of the Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the bellwether event of the British Invasion and of the re-ignition of rock & roll in general. A group of New Jersey teenagers descend on CBS Studio 50 with disparate motivations: a Fabs fanatic (Wendie Jo Sperber) who hooks up with fellow Beatles obsessive Richard a.k.a. Ringo (the inimitable Eddie Deezen), an ambitious young photographer (Theresa Saldana) with a simping would-be boyfriend (Marc McClure) whose dad unknowingly provides the car, Nancy Allen as a prudish, tentative bride-to-be who ends up in the Beatles’ hotel room, and a stuck-up Peter, Paul & Mary fan (Susan Kendall Newman, daughter of Paul) determined to stamp out the Beatles. They’re joined by laughably clueless tough guy Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), a kid whose militaristic father thinks he needs a haircut, and of course the Beatles, whose presence is felt everywhere — the picture taking its name, sort of, from their breakthrough single in the U.S., which had sparked stateside Beatlemania via groundswell starting in December 1963 — even though they’re only seen in archive footage, or (as mimicked by actors) in vague silhouette.
The frantic comedy that builds from all this has the same urgent, blissful atmosphere of electricity that makes Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night such an endless delight, and even if Zemeckis can’t match the inherent cultural importance of the earlier film, he certainly can evoke its spirit along with that of the (liberally invoked) Ed Sullivan Show itself and Albert and David Maysles’ fascinating documentary footage of the band’s initial trip to America and the ensuing chaos. Watch the Maysles brothers’ film and you’ll know that Zemeckis isn’t exaggerating about the Beatles as a phenomenon and the absolute orgasmic insanity of this specific weekend. The characters are all flawlessly developed, and the various payoffs never feel like cheats. It helps Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale that the Beatles were such a brilliant band — their music lights the movie up — but the real subject here is less the specifics of 1964 than the broader matter of fandom and youth, mostly utilizing the Beatles for the symbolism they provide as a natural roadmap for explosive youth culture henceforth; theirs is a more genuine, much warmer (and, not insignificantly, overwhelmingly feminine) variant on George Lucas’ American Graffiti, helped along by the fact that its leads don’t seem like Happy Days caricatures.
The other films that spring to mind as sharing the particular delightful speed and screwball intensity of I Wanna Hold Your Hand are the next two that Zemeckis and Gale made together, Used Cars and Back to the Future, as well as — less successfully — the one they scripted for Steven Spielberg with many of the same cast members, 1941. Zemeckis’ student films at USC were imaginative, sardonic crowd-pleasers with a lot of energy, and like Francis Coppola before him, he successfully transfers that scrappy inventiveness to his early features. This one in particular is smartly blocked and incredibly assured; producer Spielberg’s belief in him displays commercial instincts that may not have immediately paid off — the film, like Used Cars two years later, did poorly at the box office — but forecasts the boom in ensemble teen films during the decade to follow while setting the table for Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in its ruthless build toward a manic climax and thrilling double-back conclusion.
Yet talking about Hold Your Hand in these terms that liken it to blockbuster pyrotechnics of the looming Reagan era sells it short; frankly, so does associating it exclusively with the Beatles even though it is arguably the most salient cinematic response to their work and cultural enormity since Yellow Submarine. Zemeckis does prove himself a dependable and resourceful filmmaker, less a stylist than an extremely strong and sure-handed adopter of traditional film grammar; but you could say the same of even his worst efforts, the risible milquetoast of Forrest Gump or the detritus of his incomprehensible 2000s love affair with motion capture. (You wonder, how can this be the same person?) The consequence is that in order to talk about why I Wanna Hold Your Hand still feels so special and engaging, we must talk about less about its director than about its script and performances, without discounting Zemeckis’ surely invaluable hand in both.
Bob Gale was a classmate of Zemeckis’ at USC who would ride with him through nearly two decades’ worth of spectacular success and failure; blamed for giving Spielberg his first directorial bomb with 1941, they repaid his faith in them by taking the beloved comedy juggernaut Back to the Future to his production company. That seismic hit seems to have altered their shared future, with Zemeckis pivoting to antiseptic Hollywood awards bait and Gale largely, charmingly circling the underground of fan and geek culture ever since. Together, however, they penned a whole run of surprisingly exquisite scripts, and in this first effort, they prove adept not just at the technical stunt of cross-threading four individual plots with brevity and clarity, but at defining and developing characters, a skill that would gradually fall by the wayside in the documents of adolescence that ended up being ubiquitous in American cinema in the ’80s.
Perhaps their single greatest asset in this regard — and what keeps the film in one’s mind after it ends — is their embrace of an unseen external life in the people they write about, a slight air of mystery even, as with the unexplained and therefore particularly evocative alliance between Marty and Dr. Brown in Back to the Future. It’s telling that when Allen’s character Pam mentions an aborted sleepover with Sperber’s Rosie and Saldana’s Grace in an early scene, the conceivable film about the three of them just hanging out sounds just as interesting as the one about them following the Beatles around — enough so that, on one’s ninth or tenth viewing and even with great anticipation for all the fun that lays ahead, one can almost feel disappointed that we don’t get to see it. What this implies, and what is so often missing from the popcorn movies often lumped in with Zemeckis’ early whiz-kid work, is his and Gale’s innate curiosity about people, which makes all the difference here and is really the deeper driving force behind this narrative — more than the Beatles, more than what the Beatles did to those who loved and loathed them, this is a story of being young and thoroughly devoted to what seems vitally, unshakeably more important than anything else in the world at a given moment. Maybe occasionally they’re right and it even really is that important… but that hardly matters.
It also doesn’t particularly matter, even as it riles up the nerd lurking in many of us, that Zemeckis and Gale play fast and loose with history, chronology and locations. There was no money to shoot in New York, so: that’s not the Ed Sullivan Theater, that isn’t the Plaza Hotel, and that certainly isn’t Broadway, it’s the Universal backlot and a random, amusingly tiny venue somewhere in Hollywood. That is Murray the “K,” so-called fifth Beatle and NYC hanger-on during the peak of the Mania, the only real-life figure playing himself, faced with the same mixture of bemusement and derision he encountered during these real events. Straight, knowing lies are told about the sequencing of the Beatles’ first Sullivan appearance; they weren’t the last act but they are made such for the sake of the narrative, and they certainly didn’t close with (the studio version of) “She Loves You,” the only song they actually play in the film, chosen in homage to the exuberant finale of Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. (Other Beatles tunes pepper the narrative as a dependably joyous and ironic song score; oddly enough it may be the only time Zemeckis’ music clearance choices weren’t painfully obvious, which given the context is saying something.) But the film nevertheless captures the pure spirit of a singular time when mainstream show business and buttoned-up life in general were forced to contend with a defiantly teenage cultural sensation, one that — despite the massive marketing push provided at the eleventh hour by Capitol Records — really did spring up organically from a gaggle of working class youths who were inspired to pick up guitars by the equally natural phenomenon of 1950s American rock & roll, which they compressed, maxed out, re-infused.
Maybe the reason it is able to present this so evocatively, now to an audience that largely did not witness the event in question, is that in some ways the Beatles experience wasn’t so singular. It was actually the beginning of something much bigger, if bigger in a different fashion than this one night, something that actually is as easily marked by boys with long hair and entrepreneurs frantically selling bedsheets and kids throwing jelly babies as it is by any 7″ or 12″ slab of vinyl. If it seems like it’s overselling the continued vitality of the Beatles to argue that February 1964 was an earth-shaking moment, it does seem worth pointing out that the things Lester and Maysles witnessed in 1964 and the things that seemed important enough to Zemeckis and Gale to reprise only fourteen years later are things that we still talk about, think about, celebrate, and that had still-lingering effects on the place that music appealing to teenagers holds in the public consciousness, not to mention on how seriously it is taken. (Historians’ writing about the Beatles, apart from that of Mark Lewisohn and Erin Weber, all too often skirts past the true substance and volume of the band’s enormous female following in favor of pretentious hippie-grade theory and analysis, which means that Zemeckis’ film gets at something that was more or less ignored by nearly every book about the band that existed at the time of its release, save as a funhouse mirror of outrageous teen behavior. This is an ironic problem with a band for whom girl groups and Brill Building pop were so immensely important.)
But even if you hate the Beatles and never want to hear another word about them, there’s still a sense in which this film has your number, as it is far less interested in cultural critique or in idealized, simple nostalgia than it is in why the young people in the film feel the way they do — including those, seemingly forgotten elsewhere in the mythology surrounding ’64, who are emphatically irritated by the group’s existence. The conclusions it draws have little to do with pounding beats or trebly guitars or “helter skelter,” much more to do with the grand equalization that takes place when we dare to take the passions of young people seriously. Zemeckis and Gale’s greatest triumph, in fact, is that there’s no ironic winking here in the manner of George Lucas’ interpretation of 1962 teens, no Enlightened Adult perspective to persuade us that all this nonsense is something we’ll collectively grow out of and weren’t we dunces for falling for it in the first place. Instead, they view the plight of all of the characters on good faith, and film these events in such a way that they are persuasively just as massive and life-changing as they must feel to the movie’s occupants.
For some of us, of course, following the Beatles around on Sullivan Day really is an ecstatic fantasy of sorts, but the underlying meaning of all this holds regardless. The Beatles would go on, and have continued to go on, and most likely will keep going on until long after any of those who were “there” will still walk among us; but what doesn’t go on for the majority of us is the irresistible impulse to delve into the weeds of this kind of a phenomenal situation — to not only love a band or a piece of music “so much that it hurts,” as Fairuza Balk says in Almost Famous (which is about the world the Beatles and their hair sparked), but to completely live for them, to make them the entirely of your world. Like the young girls in George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient or Sarah Cracknell singing wistfully about her history as a muso in Saint Etienne’s “Over the Border” (“when I got married / and when I had kids / would Marc Bolan still be so important?”), Rosie and her friends will not always be like this, and they will not be able to live exclusively for this, or at this pace, for more than a sliver of their lives. Even Rosie, in the course of the film, seems aware of the fleeting nature of this connection, and also quite importantly embraces it. Capturing this is poignant and beautiful, and it’s worth mentioning that for all the film’s unabashed worship of the Beatles, Zemeckis and Gale make plain that the real essence of why this moment matters for these people is the easy camaraderie it inspires, the connections forged by a mutual thirst for something that isn’t level-headed or easily definable, certainly not to an outsider. The point is that we can’t live here forever, but returning to the purity of this kind of moment, even for those of us who were seldom lucky enough to experience anything like it at the correct and crucial time in our growth, seems like an important way to reconnect to a part of us that is too often made dormant by adulthood.
As for Zemeckis’ capability with actors, quite frankly it’s a mixed bag at this stage. The confidence of both Newman and Saldana varies throughout the film, while Di Cicco — overall hilarious (watch the proto-Biff Tannen moment of his clunkily mocking a kid for dropping his tray in a restaurant) — occasionally collapses into caricature, McClure is better in his sadsack moments (when his crush asks if she can pass for a college student, he nervously responds “Sure, you get good grades!”) than in those that call for a belligerent Buster Keaton, and even Nancy Allen makes a stronger impression with her physicality (her phallic embraces of the Beatles’ equipment in their empty hotel room are terribly amusing) than her line readings. Since Allen is very good in her films with Spielberg and Brian de Palma, it seems this is most likely down to a new director’s inexperience in helping to craft a performance, and Allen is nevertheless appealing and appropriate. On the other hand, the innate talent of two of Zemeckis’ actors, who are wisely teamed up, is the miracle that completely sells the film as both documentary and comedy. The nasal-voiced, hyperactive Eddie Deezen is almost too perfect for the role of infallible Beatles nerd Ringo Klaus, and he lives inside the character’s eccentricity with an indomitable spirit and a complete refusal to submit to humiliation; rarely has a character so obnoxious been somehow such a treat to see and hear. The sort of large gestures that McClure isn’t fully able to sell are like putty in Deezen’s hands, from the Daffy Duck-like pantomimes and fights with roving policemen to the liberal slathering of “official Beatles talcum powder” all over his face.
As distinctive as Deezen is, we also know from his subsequent films that he’s of course a one-note actor, and while that one note strikes a glorious chord here, even he is merely the supporting act to the incredible Wendie Jo Sperber, whose outrageous yet totally believable Rosie provides us with a comedic performance for the history books, regardless of whether it was ever recognized as such. Sperber’s character was inspired by the sorts of desperate-sounding, plucky young women so often seen and heard in newsreels of Beatlemania vintage, along the lines of the girl in The Compleat Beatles who wants to present Paul McCartney with a portrait of him she’s painted and then marry him. But there is also a lived-in realism to Sperber’s work, a recognition that she is embracing a moment of hedonism without sacrificing her integrity for it; she’s well matched to Zemeckis and Gale in that for all the broad slapstick gestures, the moments that tell us who she is are the subtleties, much like it’s those in the script that articulate its mission more than the flummoxed “business” of it all. It’s a magnificently controlled, impeccably nuanced performance despite its adherence to screwball gesticulating, but it also feels like the presentation of a person you might well know, and one who you would probably love with your entire heart: the way that she so serenely demarcates the line between real life and fantasy in a scene that has her casually referring to Deezen as her boyfriend, which he takes as an affront because it implies she isn’t faithful to her true love Paul McCartney, yet completely embodies and writhes in her maniacal devotion to the Beatles — it just feels like the most empathetic and compassionate portrait of adolescent fandom that one could possibly devise. Watching her in her more active and humorous scenes, you’re left feeling as if a freight train hit you. Sperber should have won awards for her performance and, afterward, should have been a huge star. Like Saldana, she would lead a difficult life after this and ultimately leave us all too soon, something else that adds to the feeling that I Wanna Hold Your Hand, like the Beatles themselves, is capturing things that were destined never to be bottled for our continued enjoyment again.
By the finale of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, each character save Deezen’s (too busy sparring with Ed Sullivan) has experienced some sort of an awakening, all of which come along organically and all of which are heartening. Smerko won’t become a Beatles fan but will accept the way the wind is blowing, the unstoppable destiny Zemeckis cleverly implies God has laid out for them. Newman’s Janis will witness Beatles fans rising up as a collective against an oppressive cop and will come to realize that there is common cause between rock & roll and her beloved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records. Pam will have a sexual awakening by herself in the Beatles’ hotel room that all of a sudden makes a future with her bland, sour husband-to-be (a salesman of plastic furniture covers!) completely unappealing; of course what her heart and loins are telling her is not that she needs to follow the Beatles for the rest of her life but that if she marries, it should be to someone who’d have no objections to her following the Beatles for the rest of her life. The long-haired elementary schooler Peter will outsmart his dad and his locks will live to see another day, and at the theater he’ll look like he’s having the time of his life with new people who accept him. Rosie will pass out and sleep through the Sullivan performance and will excitedly accept this as her place in history; it was always only about being there for her — strangely, she’s really the most mature of them all. Only the photography student Grace will fail to make it to Sullivan, using a hard-won fifty bucks instead to bail out McClure’s hapless Larry; she’s in the middle of asking him on a date when, abruptly, a quartet of anxious Liverpudlians enter the back seat of the limousine thinking it’s theirs.
If all this tells us anything about the Beatles’ story, it’s likely extraneous to any of what makes either the film or the band truly memorable; you can hear these needledrops of Introducing the Beatles and Meet the Beatles! anywhere, and you don’t really need to watch actors pretending to be them while monitors present the real deal in the foreground in an admittedly remarkable feat of continuity. (The only recorded reaction to the film from the Beatles’ camp I could locate came from a legal representative of Ringo’s, who according to Gale informed one of the producers “We all watched your movie and decided we would not sue.” Critics were ecstatic about the film, as were the few audiences who saw it, making it the only remote triumph among a whole slew of cinematic Beatle revivals in the ’70s. Danny Boyle and Julie Taymor notwithstanding, the field has since quieted.) It may, however, tell us quite a bit about the composition of the Beatles’ fanbase with what can be read either as remarkable prescience or a sign that some things never change: there will always be lustful acolytes and insufferable nerds, something Vsevolod Pudovkin was already telling us in his hilarious Chess Fever, which laid out the composition of gaming culture in 1925 in a manner that has never wavered from truth. Therefore, I Wanna Hold Your Hand tells us a lot about any band’s fanbase, thus about anything that strikes an honest chord with teenagers, and thus about teenagers. To put it simply, we ignore them or discount the depth, depravity and sophistication of their inner lives at our own risks. And that’s if we even manage to evolve beyond them ourselves. If we don’t, if screaming over the Beatles circa ’64 is as much of a collective human experience we ever have… maybe you’ll disagree, but I believe there are worse things to build your world around.
[Part of a continuing series on the Beatles’ cinematic legacy, meant to complement my series on their musical output at my other blog. Watch in the next couple of months for my huge Beatles discography and introduction over there that will tie it all together.]
As with the now-obscure Bugs Bunny Superstar, my affection for and history with this documentary, a onetime VHS staple in my room growing up, probably far outweighs its importance and utility in the world — though I will make the case here that it’s something big Beatles fans too young to have seen it in the ’80s or ’90s should really check out if given the (probably illegal) opportunity. At the outset, however, let me say that along with the kids’ biography The Boys from Liverpool (written by Nicholas Schaffner, one of this film’s interviewees), this film was my real introduction to the remarkable narrative of the Beatles, the twentieth century story that has beguiled, obsessed and tormented me more than any other (even Watergate!) for most of my life now. I watched it over and over again and it was really my roadmap to understanding the entire mythos; seeing it today, it helps that its accuracy is basically sound and that it’s sympathetic to the Beatles’ cause and their art without feeling excessively sycophantic toward them. That narrative, of course, is so inherently riveting that it does much of the movie’s work for it, but this remains an atypically concise and well-told version of it, not least because it features deeply engaging narration by Malcolm McDowell — sounding worlds more dignified and erudite than he did in A Clockwork Orange all of a decade earlier.
Being a movie about the Beatles, Compleat is a feast for the eyes and ears by default — these four men looked and sounded truly great and unique at every phase of their career — but it does far more than you might expect with the limited material at its disposal, and with no participation from any actual band members. That last point requires us to compare this to the “canon” Beatles documentary, the ten-hour Beatles Anthology from 1995, which told the tale in the words of the band and a trio of insiders, the only overlap between the two projects being George Martin; that’s a primary source and it’s indispensable, but there are a number of reasons it does not supersede or replace The Compleat Beatles even though it’s done so in the minds of many scholars and viewers. If Anthology explored the Beatles’ history from the inside, Compleat regales us with the phenomenon as it was experienced by the public and by the first layer of protection around them, as a cultural tornado within the context of the ’60s, and as a unique and singular moment; it does not strain for this with excessive context — the focus is always on the music, the things it synthesized — but the whole world seems to be within this film in a manner that just doesn’t happen with Anthology.
One reason for this is that the way it’s shot and edited — mostly on 16mm it appears, though IMDB says 35 — lends itself to a kind of seriousness that we’d be hard pressed to find in a modern documentary, or certainly one from the era in which Anthology came to pass; film as opposed to video makes these things more elevated and artful, even when all they’re doing is zooming into or scrolling across still images (hundreds of them here, joined by original and stock footage with a few live performances). Director Patrick Montgomery, who hailed from an archivist background, takes a similar approach to that of his engrossing, informative film about the great silent cinema maverick Erich von Stroheim, The Man You Loved to Hate, and proves equally adept here at providing straightforward education about cultural titans without any sense of condescension; both Montgomery’s films are as compelling if you’re intimately familiar with the subject at hand as they are if you’re hearing these tales for the first time. The superb script for McDowall’s narration, by one David Silver, is impressive in just how broadly correct it is in its interpretations of the band’s history and music, which have a distinct and occasionally idiosyncratic point of view without pushing any sort of an agenda — it’s smart, thorough and surprisingly touching.
In the case of the Beatles, Montgomery makes use of newsreel footage and archive and publicity materials that would one day form the nucleus of any number of dreaded bargain-bin DVD documentaries about the group, but his and editor Pamela Page’s use of this motherlode is vastly more resourceful, and narratively persuasive, than the norm. McDowell’s narration, the Beatles’ music and a few pieces of atmospheric scoring coalesce into what is at times an almost lyrical exploration of the Beatles and their era in which the occasional disconnection — and what some might term the uninspired nature of the visuals themselves, as with the repeated motif of Montgomery and his camera crew shooting closeups of album tracklists — can take ages to even notice and often doesn’t matter, at least to the sheer power and enjoyment of the experience, when one does. There’s one remarkably insane moment when Revolver and its relationship to LSD is being discussed, and the filmmakers throw a bit of “Tomorrow Never Knows” over about thirty seconds of wild, psychedlic new footage… of the album cover. The camera whips around, twirls, and wobbles like it’s zooming in on the statue from Jules and Jim, but all you’re seeing is a copy of Revolver sitting on the floor; and somehow, the results are wildly evocative. (When I was a kid, this portion of the film so piqued my imagination I’m amazed I never had the inclination to try what McDowell’s narration calls “mind-expanding chemicals.”)
Perhaps even more impressive an act of emblazoning history on viewers’ heads is the way that Montgomery and company convey the misery of the Beatles’ life on the road in 1966, which is done by joining relatively innocuous footage of the group landing at an airport and weaving through a mob of fans with extremely ominous music and an elegy of sorts in voiceover from George Martin; this gets the strangeness and claustrophobia of this era in the Beatles’ history more elegantly than even the Anthology, with the band’s direct input, manages… and all through the magic of editing. You could make a similar argument for the montage about the breakup that peaks with a fracturing portrait of the band to the irony-free strains of “I’m So Tired,” for the harrowing exploration of the U.S. backlash and record-burnings (a remarkable collection of footage) after John’s Jesus remarks melded with the scenes of chaos in Vancouver and a relatively minor furor over rock star hotel business in Minneapolis, or certainly for the rather poetic scene-setting of Hamburg in the first and strongest portion of the film. Regardless of where “there” is at any given moment, the film seems to capture it, as much with ambient sound and montage as with music. And all this is done with scarcely any unique footage; it’s simply put together that intelligently. (To be fair, the clip of nude mud wrestling on the Reeperbahn doesn’t show up in most Beatles documentaries.)
All that said, Montgomery does glean some rather astounding original footage, and it’s for this reason that the film constitutes a major untapped source for Beatles scholars, and causes one to hope that a treasure trove of additional material exists somewhere. (In an old forum comment, Montgomery claimed that his first cut ran four hours!) The interviews Montgomery manages to pick up are almost uniformly impressive, and generally are of peripheral figures who seldom spoke at such length about their relationship to the band on camera. Among the provocative interview subjects are Allan Williams (their first manager and a pivotal figure in their early history), Tony Sheridan (vocalist on their first publicly released recording “My Bonnie,” seen here in a long-haired phase), Bill Harry (editor of the Liverpool music rag Mersey Beat), Horst Fascher (former boxer, bouncer and house manager at the Star Club, audible on the 1977 live album recorded at that club in ’62 singing “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”), Liverpool scenesters and later semi-rock stars Gary Marsden and Billy J. Kramer, Cavern DJ Bob Wooler (famously beaten to a pulp by John Lennon, an incident unmentioned here), the great Billy Preston and Marianne Faithfull, and most invaluably, George Martin in one of the most wide-ranging and insightful interviews he ever gave. (His diagnosis of why the Beatles were successful is the most eloquent I’ve ever heard.) There are also cultural commentators ranging from Lenny Kaye to the aforementioned Nicholas Schaffner to honorary Beach Boy Bruce Johnston to musicologist Wilfred Mellers, who wrote a highrow music theory tome about the band’s output called Twilight of the Gods, which judging by his remarks in the film is likely as pretentious as its title. For the Sheridan and Williams talking-head sequences alone, Compleat is a riveting source of oft-forgotten angles of the Beatles’ story rivaled only by Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In; it would be wonderful to see the full breadth of what they had to say, all of it shot quite impeccably on film to boot.
None of this is to argue that Compleat is a major work outside Beatle context, that it lacks flaws or that it doesn’t suffer in some respects when compared to the length and breadth of Anthology. There are a few moments when the mismatches of footage to narrative content are rather egregious, as when Ringo appears drumming at the Cavern Club before he has even been introduced to the plot, or when various songs (including the Royal Variety Command Performance) are laid over different performances of different songs. The women in the Beatles’ orbit are virtually ignored until (inevitably) the appearance of Yoko Ono — who’s treated, credit where it’s due, with respect by both the narration and by Billy Preston, the only interviewee who mentions her — and indeed fellow Maharishi acolyte Mia Farrow merits more of a mention than Cynthia Powell (completely absent), or Patti Boyd or Maureen Cox (seen in photos, names unstated). While Julia Lennon is referenced at the outset, her death is never addressed. Later: the sequence on the White Album is absurdly dismissive, though somewhat amusing, labeling it “disorganized” while “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” blares on the soundtrack. Yellow Submarine isn’t really a matter of enough importance to the Beatles themselves, great as it is, to justify the time spent on dutifully explaining it here. The film generally is much more fascinating and informative in regard to the early, pre-Beatlemania years than it is when exploring stardom and bold artistic leaps. There’s more inherent excitement to watching them emerge from the strange context of skiffle in England, hurled into the exotic sensuality of the Reeperbahn. This is a problem that occurs with many Beatles narratives, in part because the basic touchstones of their major label career have been covered so endlessly; but what specifically hurts here is that, aside from George Martin, we find ourselves suddenly left with few outside perspectives, and the film becomes in structural terms a routine hitting of the highlights, despite remarkable clips of press conferences and the like. If one isn’t familiar with the band’s history backwards and forwards, the midsection of the film will obviously hold more appeal. Finally, it must be said: this has perhaps the dumbest title of any motion picture in the annals of cinema. It’s meant to be a pun, but that certainly is setting the bar low.
Released initially onto videotape and laserdisc after Montgomery cut it down to an acceptable two hours, The Compleat Beatles proved so successful that it was picked up by MGM/UA (!) and released theatrically, then remained in print on home video for over a decade before Paul McCartney and/or Apple (accounts differ) purchased the rights and the negative, apparently in order to keep it out of circulation. Montgomery says this was to avoid competition with The Beatles Anthology, although one naturally wonders if Paul objected to something in the film. Either way, it’s a pity; the film is successfuly suppressed from most of the popular video upload sites and the version that circulates as a torrent is ripped from a clearly degrading VHS tape. You can buy used copies cheaply, but most of them are also VHS and therefore not necessarily a major improvement on the download; there are also bootleg DVD copies, and if they are sourced from the laserdisc version, that may be the best way to see this in decent quality short of picking up the laserdisc (and a laserdisc player) yourself. I would stop short of saying it is as essential to fans as any of the films the Beatles were actually involved in making, or even Anthology, but if you like the Beatles even casually, I think you’d get quite a lot out of it — and in contrast to its replacement, it’s something you can actually watch in one sitting. When I personally look at it now in all its appropriate drama and its determination to take the Beatles’ legacy seriously, I get a lot of joy out of remembering all the mysteries it unraveled for me, the new questions it gave me and the curiosities it left me with, setting me on a lifelong journey that still continues.
I am high from the Academy Awards this year. It would be remarkable if the Best Picture winner had merely been a foreign film, had merely been a thriller, had merely been an excellent auteurist odyssey; turns out it was all three, and I say this having not been a fan of the earlier Bong films I saw. Parasite (which is also, incidentally, the first winner to have also received the Palme d’Or since Marty in 1955) joins Moonlight as a winner from this decade that deserves the honor, and will actually still be talked about in enthusiastic terms some decades down the line. (I am highly fond of Argo but Spotlight, true, but they are very much within a personal bias and blind spot of mine whereby movies that feel like acted-out 60 Minutes episodes are one of my personal fetishes.)
Much of the period covered in this post of capsule reviews — taking us from November 28, 2019 to February 16, 2020 — was taken up with catching up on new and recent films at the close of the decade; we’ve started going to the theater a lot more. But I’m now anxious to get back to my 1950s canon and Best Picture nominee projects, and with my music blog majorly scaling down, I’m happy that I’ll now have more time to work on those — so you can expect these summary posts to appear a little more often in the future.
Along with all the (mostly fun, at least until Joker came across the desk) wrangling to keep caught up on new Oscar nominees — my new library manager job now comes in handy because I can get new releases ordered for the benefit of both me and the public much more quickly — the big narrative here in the long arc of my cinematic appreciation is that Tati and Ophuls now join my list of all-time favorite directors. The reviews I wrote of Tati’s Mon Oncle and M. Hulot’s Holiday, some months apart, are all but identical because my awestruck response to their unique storytelling and comic sensibility is something that goes beyond just one film, even if Playtime is the most overwhelming. I’ve truly never seen anything like those movies, and even with a lifetime of reading about and being vaguely aware of them, I wasn’t truly prepared. I’ll probably write more eloquently about them a few years from now.
Full reviews this cycle: My second viewing of Key Largo brought it in as a belated addition (Lboxd) to the roster of full essays connected to our 1940s canon project last year. My third time with The Seventh Seal (no Lboxd link because I just said “a good film!”, very insightful) made for a handy offering for the ’50s project. Both of those titles were formerly capsuled here. Finally, my crossover-blog Beatles initaitive continues with their fifth and final film, Let It Be (Lboxd; upgrade), though some peripheral movies remain to be seen or revisited here
Other films seen:
– Wanted Amber to see 20th Century Women, which as of this writing is on Netflix. Brief Lboxd capsule. We also watched Inside Llewyn Davis, her first time and my second, and I was rather disappointed — given its omnipresence on many decade lists — that I still don’t like it nearly as much as I want to.
– Any excuse to return to Yellow Submarine is a good one; as part of my project rewatching the Beatles’ films in sequence, I picked it up on Blu and wrote a few very perfunctory words at Lboxd.
– 2010s revisit project LBoxd links: All Is Lost, Hanna, Gone Girl. All Is Lost and especially Gone Girl held up even better than I expected; Fincher’s film is really quite a remarkable achievement.
– Gradually working through the bonanza of discs I picked up immediately after buying a multi-region player early last year; I finally sat down with the Masters of Cinema edition of Sunrise, and was — as ever — left with many thoughts, linked there at LBoxd.
– Kino’s new-release roster, described below, prompted a few revisits: here’s a little on Seven Days to Noon. And two of the rare Hitchcocks that are unlikely ever to get full essays here: The Farmer’s Wife, a film rife with very odd choices; and The Skin Game, which I actually really enjoy but I think there’s at least a little bit of fanboying in there. (Oops, after proofreading this post I realized these films actually hadn’t been viewed since I started the blog so they needed new capsules, so they don’t really belong here. Corrected below.)
– Stone Theaters in Wilmington has a weekly classic film screening now; we saw Meet Me in St. Louis there and it was a really delightful time. They’re showing North by Northwest in March; second to 2001, which I finally got to see in IMAX last year, it’s long been my most-wanted theatrical experience, so I’m psyched!
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– Just a lot of Looney Tunes really. Also some MST3K and more Twin Peaks. Revisited the Beatles’ The Making of Sgt. Pepper since I got the Pepper set that has it on Blu-ray as a gift; it wasn’t quite as engrossing as I remembered. Maybe the lower running time sans commercials makes it seem less substantial, which often happens to me with TV programs I originally saw on the air!
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– Christmas in July (Kino Lorber): Beautiful presentation of the Preston Sturges classic, a decent commentary from Samm Deighan who obviously loves the movie and delves into some of its anti-capitalist subtext as well as the ways in which it fits in with the rest of Sturges’ career.
– Seven Days to Noon (Kino Lorber): No extras at all, but back in the day when I was going through Best Screenplay/Story Oscar winners I had to depend on a cropped, muddy Youtube video of this so I’m just thrilled it exists in the marketplace now. It’s an incredibly entertaining film, you should check it out.
– Hitchcock British International Pictures box (Kino Lorber): Four Hitchcock silents that were long unavailable in decent quality, now restored by the BFI, presented along with his early talkie The Skin Game. None of these are more than mildly successful films; boxing melodrama The Ring and tragic romance The Manxman offer vivid direction while The Skin Game is entertaining in a trashy sort of way now that you can hear the dialogue, at least if you like watching wealthy neighbors squabbling back and forth; Champagne and The Farmer’s Wife are among the director’s weakest efforts. But for devoted students of the Master this set has been a long time coming, and is a worthy companion to Kino’s recent releases of Murder! and Blackmail reviewed last time out. This is the best these movies have ever looked on home video by far, with the many gray market releases of the early 2000s now thankfully a distant memory, and in a truly unprecedented twist, three of them come with commentaries, something I really couldn’t have imagined happening when I was stuck with PD versions from Brentwood and Laserlight (“introduction by Tony Curtis”). Nick Pinkerton, whose work I normally really enjoy, talks over The Ring but the results are no more than OK. Farren Nehme does a stellar job with The Manxman and a decent one with Champagne; both critics point up the harsh truth that when it comes down to it, there isn’t really that much to say about Alfred Hitchcock’s silent features, which are in most cases visually tremendous without a lot of depth. (The major exception, The Lodger, was already out from Criterion — the rights to his films for Gaumont have a different home than those he made for BIP.) One thing I did really enjoy, though it’s a rather perfunctory addition, was the included extracts from the Truffaut interview; the highlight in these tidbits was one in which Hitchcock admits he doesn’t like watching his films and has never seen Psycho with an audience because it would upset him, a good pick-me-up if you’re having doubts about your creative work.
– Days of Wine and Roses (Warner Archive): Yet another shimmering presentation of a black & white film from Warner Archive; there’s so much depth and dynamism to it it feels like 3D. The sparse, low-key 2002 commentary by Blake Edwards — on which he comments on the poor condition of whatever print he’s watching, which is now ironic — is the sort of thing that I would’ve found boring and irritating in the early DVD era but now, with Edwards gone and so much changed, it’s just touching to hear him react to a movie he hasn’t seen in many years and even just to hear his voice again. (He was one of the first directors whose work I deliberately remember seeking out, before even the likes of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks.)
– Brick (Kino Lorber): Rian Johnson futzes a bit with the color correction on his first film but it looks lovely and it’s great to see it again. The extras are ported over from the old DVD. I can’t remember if I ever had time back then to sit down with them, and they’re pedestrian enough that even if I did I would probably have quickly forgotten, but looking at them now I’m struck by how weird it is to hear a young director openly flirting with a crew member (the costume designer) in public, moreover that he apparently approved the resulting track to be released again. If it were me I’d be too embarrassed (especially if I’d since married Karina Longworth, but I digress).
I picked up the new Masters of Cinema editions of The Golem and The African Queen; more on those soon. And I’m planning on a big bulky Criterion order as soon as their February flash sale gets announced; hopefully I waited long enough that I end up with a version of All About Eve that has the better packaging than the apparently hives-inducing horrorshow that was initially issued.
Here we go with 31 new capsules:
Mon Oncle (1958, Jacques Tati) [hr]
A young boy’s arid home life in a hyper-efficient modern house among his superficial, class-conscious parents is contrasted with the whimsy he encounters on outings with his uncle M. Hulot in his ramshackle, cheerful neighborhood, the colorful strife of which sparks much more play and imagination. As a construction, Tati’s first color film is exacting and ingenious, marked by theoretically simple pleasures and a refusal to allow its audience to rest. Hulot is a representation of unapologetic human frailty, but the film as a whole is a canvas that reflects as eccentric and singular a vision as any art on this scale possibly could.
Kings Row (1942, Sam Wood) [r]
Batshit Warner Bros. soaper is a forerunner to lurid suburban dramas like Peyton Place. It opens with the carousing of a quintet of heavily emotional children, but Wood rapidly steers away from sentimentality and ramps up the interpersonal hypocrisy with a pair of tragedies anchored by the violent actions of insane doctors. No, really. With a wacky star-studded cast, William Cameron Menzies’ production design and Bob Burks’ photography, and a completely unpredictable multi-conflict structure, you can interpret it as terrible kitchen-sink stuff or as a grand yarn-spin, and either way you’re basically correct.
Goodbye First Love (2011, Mia Hansen-Løve)
Precisely what the title promises and not much else, an amiable and well-acted portrait of late adolescence without any noteworthy insights. Lola Créton and Sebastian Urzendowsky are both wonderful, but neither is much of a character, and the film’s beautiful direction and cinematography (by Stéphane Fontaine) are largely dedicated to a poetic extrapolation of lead character Camille’s emotional state. The film’s pain and energy are rather telegraphed, replete with hip, eloquent college professor who inevitably becomes something else, as must they always.
Force Majeure (2014, Ruben Östlund) [r]
This National Lampoon’s French Alps Vacation nightmare has an embarrassing dad running off George Costanza-style when his family is threatened by an oncoming avalanche and then dealing with the supremely icky fallout when everyone turns out physically OK. Östlund and a great stable of actors eerily capture the horrors of an extended relationship-threatening argument as well as the infinite cringiness of witnessing the same thing from the outside. Several sources, all presumably sadists, list this as a comedy. Film also features one of the most formidable beards in all of cinema.
The Band Wagon (1953, Vincente Minnelli) [r]
It sounds unassailable: Fred Astaire in color hobnobbing with the Freed unit in the role of a washed-up song & dance man who gets shoehorned into a pretentious Faust revival. But the comedy is flat and the story — to whatever extent that matters — never seems to actually start. Among the song sequences, though, “By Myself” and the Mickey Spillane ballet are strong, and both crumble at the feet of “Dancing in the Dark,” which has Astaire and Cyd Charisse subsuming themselves completely to the purest expression of romantic longing — a peak moment of Hollywood mythmaking that renders the film automatically indispensable.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934, Sidney Franklin) [r]
Ostensibly the story of Robert Browning’s courtship of the largely bedridden Elizabeth Barrett, but really a portrait of an abusive home led by patriarch Edward Barrett, indelibly and harrowingly drawn by Charles Laughton, who’s fun to watch embodying such a loathsome character even as his behavior is clearly born of someone’s keen observation of narcissistic behavior. That’s what makes the film rather gripping and valuable today, especially since it never tempers its unsparing attitude toward him with any sort of sentimental claptrap about family. Kind of a proto-Heiress, almost.
High-Rise (2015, Ben Wheatley) [c]
Wheatley’s JG Ballard adaptation about a mini-apocalypse inside a skyscraper people can’t or won’t leave that becomes a microcosm of civilization is a respectably inventive failure that never attains any real vitality.
Dark Waters (2019, Todd Haynes) [r]
Justified outrage takes Haynes out of his element to make a narratively conventional thriller about corporate whistleblowing focusing on DuPont and its Teflon product. The movie’s major distinctive element is its conviction that we are all day-to-day victims of crony capitalism, which is obviously correct, but the rather poor script hits only the expected beats and prompts little that’s artistically inspiring apart from superb cinematography by Edward Lachman. Anne Hathaway is fully wasted as the doting wife of the protagonist, attorney Robert Bilott, who’s played fairly convincingly by Mark Ruffalo reprising all his Spotlight–Zodiac hits.
Fyre (2019, Chris Smith) [hr]
Weirdly fascinating, surprisingly thorough Netflix documentary reinforces the absurdity in the story of the eponymous festival whose trainwreck falure was a viral sensation, while offering a sobering reminder of the innocent parties (mostly native Bahamians and unpaid ground workers) who were fucked over in tangibly crippling ways by Billy McFarland et al. This is the kind of documentary whose artistic merit won’t be particularly apparent for several years, but I suspect its keen eye for perversity will have a healthy long life, and for the moment it’s a striking portrait of the weird era we live in when “social media influencers” are a thing.
Knives Out (2019, Rian Johnson) [r]
Crafty, frothy if excessively talky whodunit takes the bold structural leap of showing all its cards early on and allowing the suspense of the given scenario to play out, with a few handy plot devices sufficiently original that their contrivances don’t really hurt. As with so many stories in this genre, there are too many characters for any of them to make a huge impression, even the nurse Marta so compellingly played by Ana de Armas who’s the prime reason this isn’t a straight comedy. Only Christopher Plummer is given a lot to bite into with the aged author whose death sets the plot into motion; you come away wishing for more of him.
Mildred Pierce (2011, Todd Haynes) [r]
This miniseries, five-plus hours of Haynes swimming around in James M. Cain’s melodrama about a woman’s struggle to stay afloat during the Depression, lives up to its promise from an aesthetic standpoint and in its roster of first-rate performances, particularly by Kate Winslet in the lead. Stretching the tale out makes room for sumptuous detail but is detrimental to the soapy perversions familiar from Michael Curtiz’s tougher, more violent adaptation with Joan Crawford. By hewing to realism, Haynes creates something that feels textured enough to be real life, but every time he dips back into the noir elements, the naturalism is corrupted.
Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie) [r]
The Safdies’ assaultive follow-up to Good Time demonstrates the same morbid fascination with total fuckups, this time one played by a more likable star, Adam Sandler, whose Howard is a locally famous jeweler in well-captured 2012 NYC with a dozen balls in the air, most importantly a priceless opal covertly shipped to him hidden in a box of fish. In his periphery are an obsequious mistress, Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett, a wife who has fucking had it, sex playlist staple the Weeknd and a gaggle of morons and gangsters. The film is a little too manic to sell the Wages of Fear-like tension it aims for, though its payoff is admittedly tremendous.
Homecoming (2019, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) [r]
The rare Actually Good Film directed by a musician, providing an opportunity to participate in the lavish communal experience of Beyoncé’s 2018 headlining set at Coachella. It’s aesthetically uneven but there’s a lot of joy in the elaborate performance itself that the sometimes overly restless editing can’t dissipate. The euphoric “Deja Vu” followed by a brief Destiny’s Child cameo are major highlights.
Rolling Thunder Revue (2019, Martin Scorsese) [hr]
Perhaps Scorsese’s best film, a great rock & roll document demythologizing the bemusedly self-mythologizing Bob Dylan with skill and wit while presenting a litany of juicy, fevered performances from the legendary mid-1970s tour of the title that make the case for him as a giant of live music. The reason Scorsese is able to get away with so many comic inventions here is that so many of the people revolving around Dylan in this footage (Allen Ginsberg, journalist Larry Sloman, the positively arresting Patti Smith) already seem like larger-than-life cartoon concoctions. Virtually every song we get to hear in full is magnificent.
Little Women (2019, Greta Gerwig) [hr]
Arrestingly beautiful and well-judged passion project for writer-director Gerwig, faithfully adapting Alcott with refreshing complexity of emotion and narrative alike. The casting is remarkably spot-on, and the familiarity and affection conveyed toward the characters is so difficult to articulate as an idea that there’s absolutely no way it was easy to concoct in the script or in the editing room.
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, Max Ophüls) [hr]
In one of the signature moments of French cinema in the decade before Nouvelle Vague, Ophüls whips around in a state of unlikely euphoria as bored, debt-ridden aristocrat Danielle Darrieux betrays her husband (Charles Boyer) when she falls for the warm, personable Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). The story is tied together with a pair of earrings — their symmetry mirroring the story’s — that attain considerable import as narrative device, spiritual symbol, fetish object, grave marker. Ophüls’ famously magisterial, elegant camera movements are as breathtaking as advertised — they walk the hallways of refinement but uncover almost overwhelming compassion and emotion.
Heart of a Dog (2015, Laurie Anderson) [r]
The performance artist and musician Anderson’s monument to her late rat terrier Lolabelle, leading into a larger rumination on consciousness, life and death. Some portions are a little too moony, but several extracts — a painfully honest one about her mother, a shattering dialogue about loss, moving forward and looking backward — are immensely moving. The visuals, which are only sporadically inspired, don’t tell us nearly as much as the words and music, though. The death of Anderson’s husband Lou Reed looms quietly over the proceedings, culminating in an extremely well-earned catharsis in the final minutes.
The Farmer’s Wife (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)
(Revisit; no change.) Wildly extrapolated but often sweetly funny story of a lonely farmer seeking a new bride. If not for overlength, Hitchcock’s silent comedy — his first self-indulgence after one big hit and one minor success — might charm anyone, and it does offer in its lovingly desolate portrait of rural England a dry run for his enormously realized humanist triumph The Trouble with Harry three decades later.
The Skin Game (1931, Alfred Hitchcock) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Cranky British people bitch about land, their neighbors. One of the director’s least distinctive films, this follows in the footsteps of Juno and the Paycock, a play that Hitchcock filmed with a minimum of cinematic contrivance, resulting in a well-acted but bland early talkie. Fortunately, while the story is less subtle and intriguing, this reflects more care on the director’s part and is more entertaining. A big part of what makes it worthwhile is the delightful performance of Edmund Gwenn as a money-grubbing bastard. For those who are not fans of Gwenn or Hitchcock, there’s probably no reason to see this.
Marriage Story (2019, Noah Baumbach) [hr]
Straightforward, empathetic chronicle of a divorce between two flawed, ultimately well-intentioned characters has the ring of truth that comes from reframing past mistakes that did not, at the time, necessarily read as mistakes. Thus it’s kind of a film about how growing up doesn’t really end with the entrance to adulthood, and also a sophisticated examination of irrevocable change in a romantic relationship; Baumbach superbly weaves the multiple complex threads that culminate in a dissolution like the one depicted. The level of detail in the script and performances belies the vagueness of the title; all the vignettes are well-observed, and most of them are mordantly funny.
Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho) [hr]
Remarkably original, arrestingly vital and funny thriller-with-a-touch-of-Viridiana follows a poor family deceptively landing gigs with a naive rich one, before a storm sets in. The acting is uniformly phenomenal, the acerbic treatment of poverty as a symptom of societal rot is completely on-point and universal, almost incidentally seeming to tap brutally into the mood of the times for those living under capitalism, the aesthetics are vivid and galvanizing, and the script walks the perfect line between cynicism and heartbreak in a way that feels throttling and disruptive.
Floating Weeds (1959, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
A revision of Ozu’s own A Story of Floating Weeds, now in color and subtly improved in a number of ways. Its sensitive portrait of a family fractured by pride and class consciousness (an actor wishes for his son to grow up outside of the world he occupies, so he essentially abandons the boy and sends money to his mother, only to cause old wounds to open when his Kabuki troupe comes to town years later) is often hypnotic in its grace and pregnant drama. The tale is better adapted to this postwar environment, straining less to transcend its cultural context, and the immersive use of sound is beyond description.
High Life (2018, Claire Denis) [r]
Denis’ physically discomforting sci-fi narrative of experiments and sperm-harvesting on cast-off felons and death row inmates who’ve been jettisoned toward a black hole “for science” isn’t wholly successful, but its grime and originality are a relief compared with the mannered, over-scripted, phony wonder of bloated, middlebrow blockbuster-adjacent American films like The Martian, Interstellar and Arrival. Denis never surrenders to the tiresome reliance on exposition that mars those other pictures, preferring to pile weirdness on top of weirdness, and there may be no director alive whose love for the form itself is more obvious.
Burning (2018, Lee Chang-dong) [r]
Sobering character study of an awkward, perpetually underemployed young man whose semi-unrequited affection for a childhood friend is thwarted by a suave, possibly psychotic man-about-town is built on a slow accumulation of detail, which gradually carries it to psychosexual-thriller territory without ever quite coming out and asserting its status as such. While the vagueness does what’s intended — with multiple interpretations keenly courted — it also lacks conviction, embracing puzzle-solving while dismissing the very idea of same in an act of lyrical existentalism; it’s a mystery for people who’d be embarrassed to admit they enjoyed a mystery.
Komeda, Komeda… (2012, Natasza Ziólkowska-Kurczuk)
Competent but rudimentary talking-head documentary about the composer Krzysztof Komeda is included on Criterion’s release of Rosemary’s Baby, and — shot on video with out-of-place bits of animation — it just feels like a lengthy DVD extra, though it apparently did play a couple of film festivals. You do get a decent snapshot of the Polish jazz scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and some fine clips of work he did with the likes of Wajda and Polanski, but overall there’s surprisingly little music, and not much that feels sensory or that makes a strong enough case for its subject, who died very early in his career scoring films.
Us (2019, Jordan Peele) [r]
A more ambitious horror story from Peele than Get Out, this phenomenally directed story about a family suddenly at the mercy of a mysterious and familiar-looking clan shadowing them isn’t as elegant as its predecessor but makes up for it with genuine creepiness and wicked excitement — wringing a great deal out of sheer imagination, a disorienting wardrobe choice and some great actors doing weird voices.
Atlantics (2019, Mati Diop) [hr]
Indescribable film opens with a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like labor dispute and quickly passes into the promises and grand-scale tragedies of young love before launching in multiple, wildly unexpected directions. It has the primordially intense quality of some enchanting story you heard when you were a kid, fused with the heartrending drama of one’s greatest romantic longings. Diop corrals the performances and score (by Fatima Al Qadiri) with the hazy yearning of the visuals, with all involved parties seemingly locked into some truly urgent destiny.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953, Jacques Tati) [hr]
Another wonderful, gag-filled and slightly wistful Tati comedy in his unique cinematic vernacular introduces Hulot to the world, here summering on the French coastline and wreaking havoc on the other tourists via bumbling and noisemaking. It’s a smaller-scale production than those he would eventually occupy (and in black & white, even), yet the experience is not that different from watching Playtime; in either case, you’re immersed in a purely visual realm with words viewed harshly as inadequate, with the title character there to lend structure to Tati’s bemused, pointed but affectionate commentary on Modern Life. A long and oddly pleasing dream.
The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)
Inevitable Scorsese interpretation of the life and disappearance of disgraced union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) through the eyes of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) reflecting on the busiest years of his life with a mix of longing and regret: the very end of Goodfellas now stretched to a crushingly protracted 209 minutes. The director seems enlivened by the relative freshness of the material that reflects aged-out semi-maturity, structured by the penetrating glare of Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s estranged daughter, as opposed to the many scenes that feel like reenactments of moments we’ve all seen before, often with parts of this same cast.
Mustang (2015, Deniz Gamze Ergüven) [r]
Harrowing account of five teenage girls in rural Turkey and how their life in an oppressive household grows worse as they grow older — and more aware of their sexuality — has numerous parallels to The Virgin Suicides, but comes to resemble a straight thriller much more than Sofia Coppola’s film… and has a number of moments of jolting, unexpected wit. It’s all a bit simplistic in some ways, but the performances by the young cast are deeply affecting.
Paddington (2014, Paul King) [c]
Hideously stupid and ugly-looking hybrid of CG and live action takes inspiration from Michael Bond’s charming children’s novels to craft an unholy collection of stilted slapstick, pseudo-hip Wes Anderson lifts and quite frankly intolerable attempts at sweet social messaging while marking the checkboxes of various screenwriting obligations (a villain played by Nicole Kidman wants to skin the bear because of course she does). Got some bizarre degree of credit for being set in London and using British actors; if it’s that important to you then watch Wallace and Gromit for fuck’s sake.
Joker (2019, Todd Phillips) [NO]
Witless, inhumane bid at bringing sophistication into the factory-farmed comic book movie is exactly what you’d imagine the director of The Hangover thinks a really deep film for grownups looks like. Perfunctory regurgitations of Scorsese sit within the umpeenth “gritty” reboot of the Batman universe, forced like all others to sacrifice its sense of irony in the fruitless quest to render an inherently dumb mythos hard-boiled and realistic. Phillips is much too dim to have any clue what he wants to say and, along with Joaquin Phoenix embarrassing himself in the title role, only ever takes the most clearly marked path through this shitshow.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino) [r]
La Dolce Vita in L.A., an ethereal portrait of the transition between old and new Hollywood and the short-lived innocence growing out of the collision. Intersecting threads follow Leonardo DiCaprio as a former TV star, ever-charismatic Brad Pitt his faithful stuntman, Margot Robbie the doomed Sharon Tate, and a whole bunch of fake-hippie members of the Manson cult that will call the whole 1960s southern California dream into question. Very little actually happens in this lengthy, intoxicating tone poem of sorts, which would be fine if Tarantino’s creative juices didn’t clearly begin flowing anew when he briefly lets it turn into a thriller.
I’ve started but not yet finished updating the old Oscar winner pages to reflect the latest ceremony; Actor and Supporting Actor and Actress will be fixed in the next few days. Actress (Renée Zellweger for Judy) and Screenplay (Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit) will delay us a bit; I already took one for the team with Joker and I need a little break. Apart from that, lots more ’50s classics forthcoming and hopefully the beginnings of a wind-down at last on the historical Best Picture nominees, which I’m going to dedicate myself to finishing up before much longer.
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is sometimes viewed, along with certain early works of Kurosawa and Fellini, as the film that launched arthouse and foreign cinema as viable fixtures of cultural conversation in America, at least in the big cities and among the intellectual classes; it’s hard to say whether it was as much a turning point in Bergman’s career as it was for widespread appreciation of film as a fine art worthy of deep discussion and analysis. Certainly Bergman would undoubtedly be alienated by the manner in which, in the U.S., a taste for the avenue of expression exemplified by his movies is unfairly associated with privilege and pretension, arguably a very different perspective from what one encounters in Europe; but there is no denying that when most casual filmgoers or film students think of Bergman, they will quickly think of the iconic and indelible images from this film — the personage of Death shrouded in black, the chess game on the beach, the stark photography, the portraits of plague and pestilence, and most of all, the delirious closing Danse Macabre. Indeed, there are few moments as iconic and purely beautiful (and sobering) as the first three minutes of the first scene of The Seventh Seal, in some ways the cinematic equivalent to the early chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations in their complete harnessing and absolute control of an art form.
Yet those associations are often subject to ridicule, as Gary Giddins points out in his essay accompanying Criterion’s release of the film; the elemental nature of Bergman’s preoccupations and arguments, like his emotional openness as a writer and filmmaker, always leaves him very much open for mockery. But this tendency does not illustrate a deficiency with the film; it does not indicate that Bergman’s poetic visualizations are rote or sophomoric. Rather, the effect the film has of causing discomfort and dismissal is a direct result of its daring: the audacity in its use of very recognizable human characters and an elegant, unassuming story to ask direct, unsparing questions about life, death and God puts many viewers off-balance, makes them want to resist its earnest efforts to confront and make sense of a larger slice of the world than most artists would typically dare to confront. As Death himself says at one point in the picture, most people are loath to ever think of what death brings, much less to look it squarely in the face.
That’s the only explanation for how a film that is often so playful, is invariably so overwhelmingly gorgeous and has the epic pull of a classic literary work has gained such a reputation as a first-year film school slog; this seems to be a view primarily taken by those who either haven’t seen the film or watched it with one eye open. At bottom The Seventh Seal, despite its title taken from an apocalyptic passage of the Book of Revelation, is an engaging road movie driven by an enigmagtic chase of sorts, following the return of a despairing but gentle knight (Max von Sydow) and his boorish squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) from the relentlessly bloody battles of the Crusades, whereupon they find themselves chased by the spectre of the Black Plague and eventually by Death itself, portrayed in human form by Bengt Ekerot, who cuts a singularly haunting figure through simple trickery of ice-cold glare and menacing wardrobe. Death is immediately delayed and challenged by the knight Antonius Block to a game of chess that will determine his ultimate fate, and — as it turns out — that of the friends he picks up in a sort of de facto stagecoach through the woods to his castle, where his estranged wife awaits.
The inevitability of death and the silence (and possible nonexistence) of God, two favored themes of Bergman’s, hang over the proceedings, which all have a certain unapologetic emotional heaviness that one coming to the film today is certainly trained to expect. With that in mind, however, the film’s spirit, beauty and sense of journey have a surprising buoyance, helped along by the unerring bluntness of its spiritual and philosophical questioning of the universe’s moral fabric and purpose. The secret is that Bergman’s camera flinches no more at love and delicacy than it does at horror, squalor and various literal and metaphorical plunges into oblivion. Its wry humanism is best experienced through its varied and disparate cast of characters — a juggler (Nils Poppe) and his wife (the great Bibi Andersson) who genuinely love one another and their toddler-age son, whose many outdoor scenes of unqualified pleasure boast a kind of innocent joy rarely explored onscreen with such sincerity; a tearful blacksmith who learns to live with his wife’s adulterous nature; a cantankerous painter of morbid church scenes (based on Albertus Pictor) whose matter-of-fact fatalism offers better comic relief than the wisecracking, misogynistic squire Jöns, whose cruelty toward the mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) he rescues then spends the rest of the movie bossing around is difficult to square with the broadly open heart of Bergman’s narrative, and is easily the film’s greatest flaw. Even Death is funnier, given a few opportunities for genuine mischief, including an almost Looney Tunes-like moment that has him sawing down a tree presently occupied by the next doomed human on his list.
But best of all is von Sydow’s Block himself, a largely calm and assured, even sensual presence — which lends more credence to his scattered outbursts of anguish — who forms a visage more pronounced in its quiet mystery than even Death himself, which is presumably one reason he’s able to temporarily stave off his fate; Block divides the game up into portions because he refuses to die without completing one last important task, though which exact achievement he’s referring to is never made clear. Perhaps it’s his coy rescue of the juggler Jof and his sweet young family, who all live to see another Plague-ridden sunny day in the country, or his honestly heartening reunion with his wife (Inga Landgré)… but it’s more likely, given Bergman’s predilections, that he means his quest for, in the words of this vision of Death, a guarantee: an assurance that he will be confronted with some sort of grace upon accepting death and not eternal, inescapable darkness. This final answer to the ultimate question is, alas, not forthcoming; but by the time Block is unable to delay the end any further, it feels like an embrace of some abstract nirvana more than bleak existentialism; as in so many of Bergman’s black & white films, we find some sort of glory and comfort in the mundane reality of dread and death.
The Seventh Seal was one of many films in the first half of Bergman’s cinematic career to be lensed by the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, and it is one of the most distinctive-looking motion pictures of any era, the high contrast photography doing as much work in this arena as Bergman’s catalog of lyrical imagery. The two feed off one another brilliantly, resulting in a sublime mixture of the idyllic and the Gothic. No one makes you “feel the space,” so to speak, like Bergman; and apart from Hitchcock, no one shoots faces like he does, capturing their naked openness, their flaws, their panic. At the same time, however, the film is enhanced by the fact that it does not at all exist in a vacuum, for all its singularity, continuing conversations sparked by fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom decades earlier in The Phantom Carriage, only to be continued by everything from The Twilight Zone to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to Bergman’s own Wild Strawberries, with which this film shares a truly profound sense of exhilaration, especially at its conclusion: the cast marching to death in the mode of a dance upon the volcano, illustrating the thin and unknowable line between life and death, existence and eternity in one of the most striking shots to appear in any film — one so powerful in its open philosophical acceptance of mankind’s defining fear that Bergman is wise to cut away rather quickly and return to the jester and his wife, gently prodding the former over his catalog of “visions.” She may as well be talking to the director, or to us.
That specific shot, free of any specific religious messaging and devoted exclusively to the precise fact of Death, tells us everything about Bergman’s beliefs in its mixture of glee and bottomless terror, the way he feels life should be lived and the way he wants to instruct himself to live it, even though we’re fully aware that the 97 minutes he’s just spent attempting to persuade himself and his audience will be repeated ad nauseam for all time. Such an impassioned missive deserves to be received and processed on a human-to-human level, which is what Bergman thoughtfully requests of us: he means us to continue these conversations, not to simply subscribe to his fancy, and this is why it’s such a bore when his work and this film particularly are viewed as dismal homework requirements for cinephilia and art appreciation rather than vague starting points for a renewed zest for life and art alike. We should be less dismissive of the idea of enrichment; and even as Bergman surveys a landscape of plague, destruction and barbarism, however perverse it may sound, what he finds is majestic in its optimism.
This is the famous swansong of the Beatles as a functioning unit, the documentary — released in theaters a month after their breakup made headlines — about the January 1969 rehearsals and recording sessions that produced the unissued Get Back album, reconfigured by Phil Spector as the soundtrack LP for this film. You most likely are aware of the genesis of, and story behind, this project, since even the Beatles’ less proud moments have become iconic, roadmaps of rock & roll mythmaking; if by some chance you aren’t familiar with all this, I’ve written extensively about the project at my other blog in these pieces: a review of the album Let It Be, a review of a bootleg deluxe edition of same, a review of the unissued assembly of the album Get Back, and a lengthy guide to an unauthorized, 16-disc collection of session material from throughout the month. I will try not to repeat any observations I made in this review of what is, ultimately, probably the grandest artifact of this uneasy experiment but has managed to become one of the most elusive major products in Beatles lore.
Part of the legend that’s gathered around Let It Be, the film, is that it captures the Beatles falling apart; the most famous moments of dialogue and interpersonal interaction, often reproduced in documentaries like the band’s own Anthology project, certainly bear this out. Although we do not witness George Harrison’s famous departure from the Beatles after one too many instances of bickering with Paul McCartney, we do see a remarkably uncomfortable confrontation between them over George’s contributions to the song “Two of Us.” This is the legendary argument that culminates in George’s sarcastic “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all; whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it,” a rupture weighted down with over a decade of personal history that one really feels we have no right to see, even though it’s been the model for warts-and-all behind-the-scenes portraits of rock bands (and parodies of them) ever since. Additionally there is the cringe-inducing moment of Paul prattling on about his grand plans for the project and the band while John, on whom the camera is focused, looks increasingly bored and irritated as the monologue continues and continues; and, perhaps most telling of all, George joyously helping Ringo out on “Octopus’s Garden,” eventually joined by John and George Martin, only to abruptly cut it out when Paul walks in the room. We also get the curious, awkward presences of Yoko Ono, who looks (or is made to look, by editor Tony Lenny) terribly resentful of the whole process, and little Heather McCartney (Paul’s stepdaughter), whose pestering of the various band members is cute but rather incongruous.
What’s surprising, however, is how little of the film is actually comprised of this material. While session tapes reveal that the Beatles and others did a great deal of chatting and bickering in Twickenham and at Apple, only a few very perfunctory moments of the film pass without music. The bulk of its 82 minutes consists of the Beatles performing in various configurations, but that’s not how it lives in one’s memory; for years, whenever I thought of this movie, I thought of the drab, palpable coldness of the studio walls, the graininess of the 16mm footage (the film was originally conceived as a project for television; director Lindsay-Hogg had worked with the Beatles on some of their promo clips in the past), and the clear misery of the participants. The film’s reputation as a sort of excruciating document of the breakup (which was still some ways, and an additional full LP, off at the time of shooting) has been sort of tacitly encouraged by the Beatles; there is the story of John, Yoko and Jann Wenner wandering into a public screening of the film in New York in 1970 and walking out in tears. And someone in their camp is evidently embarrassed by the film and aside from a rather poor VHS and laserdisc transfer in the early ’80s plus some TV broadcasts, it has been nonexistent on home video despite being fully restored and prepped for a DVD release in 2002.
While the film pops up on torrent sites and Youtube now and then, it’s fair to say that a lot of relatively dedicated Beatles fans have never seen it in its entirety, and among those of us who have, it’s nearly exclusively through low-quality transfers of ragged-looking prints. Its status as a suppressed artifact has given it a bit of a Song of the South-like glow as some grand, unattainable artifact; and this is, without question, not particularly well-deserved. The film isn’t edited well enough, nor is it substantive enough as narrative, to provide the kind of window one naturally expects; it is largely so benign that the Beatles’ own evident discomfort with it is somewhat mysterious. (One insider has said that the holdup on rereleasing it has always been down to just one of the four decisionmaking parties, though it’s anyone’s guess which.) None of them come off badly in the film except perhaps Paul McCartney, and even his rampant bossiness is somewhat sympathetic when you consider he’s trying to corral a bunch of guys who’d rather be doing almost anything else. Lindsay-Hogg’s construction gives us about twenty minutes of Twickenham footage, with early versions (sometimes fragments) of songs as well as some jams; followed by a good half-hour of Apple studio footage which is somewhat more productive, climaxing with the somber performances of Paul’s ballads “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”; and lastly, there is Lindsay-Hogg’s ace in the hole, thirty minutes of the Beatles playing in public for the last time, on the Apple rooftop on January 30, 1969.
Fans who are very familiar with this phase of the Beatles’ career will find a lot to appreciate in this footage, though they will also find it a bit perfunctory; having always viewed the film as something of a chore, I was surprised by how quick it seemed on this viewing (my fourth or fifth), maybe because I’ve recently heard so much of the January 1969 session tapes and this footage barely even skims the surface of the surface. It would obviously play very differently to a more general audience, and as a film, there’s not much to it, even though a lot of what once seemed stultifying and obvious has attained a certain elegiac quality with age — that is, until the climax on the rooftop, when suddenly the whole thing becomes utterly sublime. Every bit of it is beautiful: the opportunity to see the four of them (five with the great Billy Preston, who appears a fair bit in the film but not nearly enough) playing in a relaxed but professional mode, completely in sync on these new songs, confidently projecting them to the streets of London, and proudly capping off a decade and a half of their lives. It wouldn’t work if they weren’t absolutely brilliant in this performance, but they are, and it’s one of those moments when you wonder how anyone could even question that they were head and shoulders above even the best of their peers in England, even at this late date. Naming highlights would be daft when every second is so thrilling (unbroken by the amusing drive-by conversations with passersby, and the clips of the police making their way up to the roof to stop the noise), but if we must be succinct, there may be no more affecting footage in the vaults of the Beatles playing than their performance of “Don’t Let Me Down” here. And every shot of John, Paul and George in their lineup, exercising all manner of nonverbal communication, feels like a privilege to witness.
Let It Be ended up receiving an Academy Award for its song score, and not all that surprisingly; one of the major problems with the LP release is that it’s not enough material, spread too thin, but that isn’t nearly as troubling in an 80-minute film in which the point is to hear the songs progress — “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Get Back,” the antique “One After 909” (one of the first songs John and Paul wrote, revised in a much faster, harder arrangement than the one attempted at EMI in 1963 and left unreleased) and “Two of Us” (heard in a wonderful rock version as well as the finalized ballad) are all terrific, and there are windows into the process of creation on “I Me Mine,” “Across the Universe,” “Dig a Pony” (no more than an OK John song, but it sounds wonderful on the roof), “Octopus’s Garden,” “Oh! Darling” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as well — even when the montage is messy and clipped, the music almost never falters, and if you are fond of this era of the Beatles’ work, there’s a lot here to appreciate.
I first saw Let It Be in 1992 when I was still a somewhat new Beatles fan and rapidly becoming obsessed, and perhaps because it was only available to me in a low-quality BETAmax dub taped off HBO, it always bored me quite a bit. Even the music was relatively dour to my ears. Of course I came back to it repeatedly, keeping my third or fourth-generation VHS copy safely stowed away through multiple moves — it’s now almost thirty years old — and was always put into a hushed, awestruck state by its first scene, an almost eerie montage of Mal Evans and the crew setting the Beatles’ equipment up at Twickenham, accompanied by solemnly quiet opening credits appropriating the classic font from the Beatles’ drumhead. It felt like walking on hallowed, legendary ground; but as soon as the Beatles appeared, it was clear that what we were hearing were works in progress: unfinished songs, chords being shouted out, lyrics incomplete, the band rehearsing and tweaking and ironing things out like they probably always did, but now in front of cameras. And at age eight or nine, I didn’t really want to see the frail twilight Beatles (at their ripe old ages of 28, 28, 26 and 25!) slogging through new material, I wanted to see them work magic.
Now, it all seems different to me, for a number of reasons. For one thing I find it fascinating to watch the Beatles learn their own songs and figure out what they want to do with them, and of course I now have the full background of what actually is going on; the great failing of Let It Be is also its greatest strength, that Lindsay-Hogg plunges us into it with no context whatsoever, we just get random songs and conversations and a three-act structure (Twickenham, Apple, rooftop) and even that makes more sense if you know the full story of what went on that January. That’s the chief reason Let It Be is a very different movie for Beatles fanatics than it is for casual viewers or listeners; unlike A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, it’s not something you can just sort of jump into and enjoy. I also became, in my early twenties, a diehard acolyte of 1950s rock & roll; and since a great deal of time here is spent on the Beatles jamming on some of their favorite tunes of the era, the songs that originally inspired them to set off toward their destiny, I enjoy watching how much and how clearly they love that music.
Something deeper is going on too, though, and I started to realize it about two or three years ago when I saw D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop for the first time. When I was a teenager, despite my love of the Beatles and some of their brethren, I found myself increasingly filled with disdain over the sort of entrenched, immobile culture of “classic rock” that seemed to completely occupy the radio, the cable channels, the mainstream “establishment” imagination in regard to music more generally. Not only did it seem ideologically contrary to the purported countercultural intentions of rock & roll as a cultural force, with all of the complacenet corporate stagnation the imagery had taken on, it also felt like a surrender to a kind of macho, exclusionary notion of rock music that felt very far from the elements of the form that appealed to me. I think there’s still a lot of truth to this; Chuck Berry, Patti Smith and the Clash will always matter exponentially more to me than Pink Floyd or the Who. And yet: as I’ve aged and lost my reliance on hegemonic radio and TV, and the ’60s have gotten farther away, that world has become less ubiquitous, and I now see some of the individual elements of that moment for what they were. Never a massive fan of either Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, I nevertheless find their performances in Pennebaker’s film profoundly moving, because the baggage has fallen away and it is now possible to marvel at them without a voice emanating from the void, constantly asserting how important all this is. What I also see now is a moment when commercial interests had to bend to youth culture, rather than the other way around, and I hope it does not come off as curmudgeonly to say that I deeply yearn to return to that kind of an atmosphere.
As a teenager with Boomer parents who were (at the time) Republicans, I was raised on the notion of the hippie movement (and, to a lesser extent, the burgeoning teenage culture of earlier years in which it had its roots) as an aesthetically pleasing bit of innocence, as something to be remembered with fondness but also gently mocked as pie-in-the-sky idealism: John and Yoko and other rock stars advocating unapologetically for peace, young people taking to the streets for their beliefs, and the belief that art could be the soundtrack if not the unifying force of what might have constituted a sea change in the way we thought about our lives and about other people. It once seemed very easy to condescend to all of it, and like most things it certainly deserves a certain level of skepticism, but as I get older, I just don’t know anymore why exactly trumpeting the cause of love while fighting war and poverty and prejudice is something we should look upon cynically. The compression of all this down to a simple pop culture apex, in the Hard Rock Cafe conception of the universe, is one of many ways capitalism has reasserted its dominance over what once was an idiosyncratic, potentially earth-shaking movement; and while norms ultimately proved too powerful or seductive to be laid to waste in pursuit of something better, it does not feel fair to castigate the attempt. The late Robert Hughes — talking about dadaism — once said: “It’s hard to think of any work of art of which one could say, ‘This made men more just to one another,’ or ‘This saved the life of one Jew or one Vietnamese.’ […] The difference between us and the artists in the ’20s is that they thought that such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was their naivete that they could think so, but it’s our loss that we can’t.” I guess that, for all the letdowns the world has dealt us since the ’60s, I can’t stop myself from being in awe of the faith driving so much of that music and the people making and listening to it, whether I personally enjoy it or not.
How do the Beatles fit into all that? I never stopped loving them because I never lost touch with what their music, specifically, meant to me, specifically; as inescapable as they were, they never stopped being “my” thing, because my idea of and relationship to them was inevitably somewhat different than yours, or my dad’s, or VH1’s. Even I, however, reached a certain point of wanting to rebel a bit from their massiveness; there was a phase in which I loudly preferred the Beach Boys, another in which my love of their early work became so intense (as it remains) that I became downright dismissive of almost everything they put on tape after Rubber Soul, which felt like it had all become the overly trodden ground of what we’d now call rockists. That was as close as I could get to an adolescent, punk rock rebuke: I could still love the Beatles while shirking all possible conventional wisdom about them, and basically meaning it. The Beatles in Let It Be modeled to me, in many ways, an example of them catching up to trends rather than setting them — their hard rock is less vital than the Rolling Stones’ records from the same period, and to return to Monterey briefly, the likes of Canned Heat and Country Joe & the Fish, while not all that inspirational to me, display a confidence that the Beatles simply don’t have here in this latest guise of their collective personality, and at any rate it felt like they were aspiring to stuff that was largely beneath their abilities.
And I don’t necessarily have a counterpoint to that at this stage — my feelings about the album Let It Be are more muted than those of any of the other ten canonical Beatles LPs — but it seems to me that what this cynical purview misses is the visceral thrill of seeing actual masters of a certain craft at work, even if the specific work they’re in the middle of is comparatively flawed. And not mere masters of a craft, but the fucking Beatles, a band that has had as big an impact on my life (and, more likely than not, yours) as any body of artwork ever could. I’m not a nostalgic person, but as I grow old I do feel a certain desire to hold on just a little tighter to things that are shrinking into the past; please don’t misunderstand, I am not being overprotective of the legacy of a band whose work doesn’t even remotely need my help to ensure its endurance. As a phenomenon of youth, it’s safe to assume the Beatles will always have communicative power and resonance if not actual cultural omnipresence… and for now, for better or worse, even the latter is unthreatened. But when I look at all the people in this movie that have died — Mal Evans, John Lennon, George Harrison, Billy Preston, George Martin — and think of how little time we likely have before the rest are gone, what can I tell you? I can’t express it any better than Lennon could in “In My Life,” and if you’re reading this I assume you know those lyrics. I don’t wish I lived in the time of the movie, but I feel very fortunate that I get to watch it unfold in this medium, and like seeing Joplin and Hendrix and Otis Redding and all the rest in Monterey Pop, or Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith in Martin Scorsese’s absolutely throttling Rolling Thunder Revue, it does make me feel like I can briefly breathe in a moment of pure grace and power and, despite everything, joy.
To make a very 1940s analogy, the differing interpretations and uses of Humphrey Bogart by various great directors are not terribly dissimilar in scope to those of fellow Warner Bros. star Bugs Bunny; Bugs was a distinctive, iconic character but also a malleable one, and Friz Freleng’s Bugs is eventually very easy to distinguish from Chuck Jones’. And Bogie is always Bogie to some extent, even when he’s an anonymous asshole, even when he’s a marbles-lost military lifer, even when he’s an unlikely romantic lead; that’s just how magnetic a figure he naturally drew. But the reason we know that Bogart was not just a great star but a great actor is that his performance in a Hawks picture can feel so different from one in a Curtiz or Huston picture. In To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks projects our fondest wishes onto him: he is the coolheaded captain of fates we all long to be or to know in our more desperate moments; there is an element of wish fulfillment to those performances. Bogart was not a conventional heartthrob in any sense, not least because he was already in his forties when he became a huge box office draw, which is why casting him as the sort of man who always knows “what’s going on” and always knows just how to deal with it is such a stroke of Hollywood ingenuity.
John Huston — perhaps a marginally less brilliant director than Hawks, but one whose personal frailties and indulgences are more readily visible in his work — buys into this in his very first feature and first with Bogart, the classic Hammett adaptation The Maltese Falcon; there’s rarely a moment when his Sam Spade isn’t well ahead of the audience, not to mention the other characters. But Huston — a man’s man if there ever was one — would ultimately come back to poke holes in the hyper-masculine Bogart persona in a trio of remarkable films from 1948 through 1951, all of which generate some of the actor’s strongest, most masterfully fine-tuned performances. Treasure of the Sierra Madre obviously needs no introduction, and permits Bogart to explore the absolute dregs of humanity through a character losing a struggle with greed, good fortune and death in slow motion. The African Queen (for which Bogart won an Academy Award) would puncture the Bogart mythos in other ways, rendering comic and fallible his old-fashioned knowhow. The ways in which Key Largo toys with Bogart’s persona are subtler, almost elegiac; this is a man, Frank McCloud, whose entire existence seems to be built on a myth, one he cannot uphold — he’s too weak, too real, too human to be Sam Spade or Rick Blaine or Steve Morgan, and the fallout is uneasy enough to linger long after the film’s relatively pat conclusion.
The vast majority of Key Largo, absent its enigmatic opening scene on Seven Mile Bridge, was filmed on the Warner lot, but the film’s artificial yet deeply evocative sense of place is as strong as in Casablanca, and Huston unlike Michael Curtiz harnesses this bit of studio magic for claustrophobia and menace. It is much more an archetypal film noir than the other 1940s Bogart films, awash in ambiguity and thoroughly absent of onscreen heroism — indeed, heroism itself is an external artifact looked upon with longing and bleak nostalgia, something that only ends in death. Huston’s chameleon-like style communicates heat and chaos; the hurricane that hits in the course of the narrative feels wet and wild enough to touch, and the elaborate, three-dimensional set manages simultaneously to feature walls that seem to close in on the cast and the viewer and to genuinely capture the lazy, isolated feeling of a coastal tourist town — whether there’s a storm brewing or not. There are not many “rooms” in cinema that become as memorable or come to seem as real as the lobby at the Hotel Largo, suffused with dampness and an indistinct simmering, as though the miseries and resentments between its characters were manifesting as something physical. There’s horror inside the hurricane house but there is also a certain tentativeness, a weird uncertainty of purpose and spirit, that makes the film feel unresolved, unpredictable, and permits it to feel almost invasive. (More than one scene centers around whispering, which we can’t always make out, as though Huston’s goal is to withhold information and keep us off balance.)
Key Largo is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and while it’s easy to conceive the modest scale of its claustrophobic setting (the stifling hotel contrasting the open beauty of the area) working on stage, it’s an exceptionally good subject for a cinematic expansion of sorts. Bogart’s McCloud arrives as a specter, ambiguously turning his head away from cops on a bus ride to the Keys where he looks up the family of an old war buddy who was killed; the dead commanding officer, George Temple, left behind a wife (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) who run a ramshackle inn called the Hotel Largo. McCloud tells a series of harrowing, attractive stories about George’s war service to the Temples, who listen attentively, before begging an early departure that ends up not happening; there’s a certain convenience to all this that feels slightly unreal, expired war camaraderie harnessed for personal gain — or, perhaps, the hope of gain — that’s never properly explained away, to the film’s considerable benefit. McCloud remains an enigma to the end of the picture, as though the sun-dappled extremity of the Keys were meant to be his grave, but he walks into a breeding ground for eccentrics whose morality is much less unknowable. The Temples seem to be easily manipulated, as their hotel has become the prortacted hideout of a celebrated Cuban gangster — familiar to McCloud — called Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his troupe of cronies who claim to be on Key Largo in order to “fish our brains out.”
McCloud and the Temples find themselves at the center of a drama already well in progress that involves a suitcase full of counterfeit bills and an extraneous dame, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), who’s proving a nuisance to the crooks with her relentless alcoholism and unwillingness to shut up, and comes over time to incorporate a vicious hurricane, nervous fantasies about Prohibition coming back, cops showing up, windows bursting open, and a (weakly rendered) group of Seminoles in need of shelter from storm and police. Like the protagonist, we are given little context or explanation of all this, just thrown right in the middle of it — which makes it stronger as a narrative, in some ways, than the pictures in which Bogart is “in control.” Certainly the mysterious core of his character, whereby there’s no clear reason to view him as much more trustworthy than the villains, adds a certain tension that wouldn’t fit well in the Chandler and Hammett adaptations; and it’s equally important that his relationship with real-life wife Bacall in this film is so much more complicated and multifaceted than in their other pairings. It’s perhaps also worth taking into account that Key Largo is repositioned to take place a few years after the war, and that its bleary-eyed, bleak and hungover feeling captures the dispiriting mood of the times that, while obviously a film noir trope, forecasts the increasing bleakness of star vehicles as the studios moved into the early 1950s.
Broadly, Key Largo — like nearly all of Huston’s films — is skeptical of the kind of heroism and hero worship that sits at the center of something as mythologically elemental as Casablanca. The villain Robinson portrays is made pathetic as often as he’s viewed as menacing, with Lionel Barrymore’s neutered attempts at attacking him delivered with more dignity than the paranoid, cruel behavior of the bigshot Rocco who takes the family hostage; indeed, one of the most memorable lines James Temple lobs at his captor is the devastating own revolving around the gun usually protruding from Rocco’s person — “I bet you spend hours posing in front of a mirror holding it.” Huston and co-screenwriter Richard Brooks give Major McCloud more negative traits and thus more dimension than is stereotypically expected of Bogart’s heroes, but they also are sympathetic of the toll the past decade has taken on such a man, leaving it mostly to our imagination how life after the service turned him into the kind of person who’s somewhat familiar with — and fearful of — Rocco’s tactics, the chief reason he is unable to shoot him when he has the chance, to the disappointment of his audience, irrespective of the later revelation that the gun is unloaded. Gaye’s remark that it’s “better to be a live coward than a dead hero” captures the traditional Bogart sense of self-preservation, which appears even in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, while carrying it to its conclusion: he’s one of us, and he’s already destroyed. So much of the haunting nature of Huston’s film is down to the unstated horrors and disappointments that hang on the people and places like moss. (There is, at one point, a direct mention of the Battle of San Pietro, which Huston witnessed firsthand, filming a short documentary about it for the U.S. Army, significant and for a time infamous for its unusually muted attitude toward the war.)
Something else that sets Key Largo apart from the rest of the best-known Bogart pictures is that he is very much part of an ensemble here; we begin and end the story with him, but for most of the duration, he’s a modest presence in a room full of frightened people on edge, in a sweltering room that’s getting hotter as a cop and a few innocents get caught in Rocco’s crosshairs, direct and otherwise. Bogart and Bacall, so often the unmistakable leads in their films, both deliberately sink into the ample shadows as much as possible, with Bacall’s worried passivity adding up to one of her most effective performances. Everyone else trapped in that lobby while the storm passes is larger than life: Edward G. Robinson as Rocco, introduced in the bathtub, projecting nefarious confidence — there’s an astounding single shot in which he’s getting shaved and spitting out incessant mockery while the camera moves in closer — until the weather starts to get to him. In addition to Bacall’s direct physical attack, his other enemies prove formidable in integrity if nothing else. After Mrs. Temple spits on him, her father-in-law hisses that he’d love to do the same, and as Rocco says at one point, he never places the elderly wheelchair-bound man in a position of any kind of power to hurt anyone, because he sincerely believes that he actually will.
But it’s in Claire Trevor, as the expiring paramour and former chanteuse Gaye, that Rocco really meets his match, though it’s initially only by her aggressive courting of attention. Gaye is rendered a pathetic, clingy figure in the first half of the film, peaking when Rocco mocks her reliance on drink by forcing her to reprise one of her old songs off-key with no accompaniment in front of everyone, all of them made impossibly uncomfortable by the cursed transaction, which at any rate turns out to be a swindle. (It falls on McCloud to provide Gaye with the hoped-for drink.) A moment like this, including the domestic quarrel that precedes it with Rocco making disgusted noises about “what you’re like,” goes beyond the traditional dance of good and evil that’s so often associated with film noir, and approaches the sleaze and genuine scumminess that only the most debased (and, often, best) noirs touch, movies like Gun Crazy and Out of the Past, but even those carry with them a sense of fun even at their most lurid moments. The sequence in which Trevor delivers her song, which probably won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, quite frankly makes you feel gross; it’s rare that a Hollywood film of this era makes you feel as if you’re witnessing something you really shouldn’t, but this scene gets there. Later, however, Gaye expertly turns the tables on not just Rocco but us, as her intense final confrontation with him is revealed to have an ulterior motive.
Gaye secretly provides McCloud with Rocco’s gun, just before McCloud is to be whisked off to an uncertain fate; with Rocco’s boat gone after the storm, McCloud is expected to return him and his remaining cronies to Cuba, and everyone is well aware that he is likely to be murdered after he performs his duty. Huston crafts an incredibly nihilistic climax here, focusing on the hopelessness and futility of what ensues back at the hotel (starting with the morbid disappointment that McCloud didn’t run when he could, again probably because he is too paralyzed by fear, fear being something that Huston is more than willing to allow a hero to feel) before proceeding with an ingeniously one-sided final showdown whose conclusion is foregone, and which never requires Bogart to come face to face with his nemesis. This finale is intentionally anticlimactic, good and evil never directly sparring, only hoodwinking one another; and Bogart’s anxious, elated performance throughout the boat scenes is among his greatest moments on film. Undoubtedly at Warner Bros.’ insistence, implicit or otherwise, the film does not end where it should — with a boat full of dead bodies being turned around by its sole survivor, to not much surer a destiny — but falls into a bit of dull over-explaining in which we’re permitted to see Bacall and Barrymore’s joy that their friend will return, probably for a domesticated long-term future, and a ridiculous grin on Bogart’s face as he aims for home.
It all so seems so phony. But then again, you tend to wonder, is it really supposed to be real? There’s something so desperate about it all — a war hero appearing from nowhere like the Man with No Name, coming back and fitting automatically into whatever magic is constructed for him, conforming all too naturally to the bizarre tale that’s generated all around the hotel and the people he stumbles upon. It’s almost as though Huston is suggesting that the real-world evil of a chronic abuser like Rocco, the implications of whom are a recurring topic of discussion in the dialogue, doesn’t actually have a convenient foe forthcoming to stop him. To whatever extent McCloud is a real person, the end of his story has the feel of completely fabricated legend, a story told for someone’s reassurance; the reality is the storm, the fog, the murders. As one character says earlier on: “This ain’t real, what’s happening.” But much of it is — too much, in fact, with no Bogie of any stripe, heroic or anti-heroic, poised to come down from the sky — and of course, noir is never more unsettling than when its smoked-out expressionist universe of dread and doom seems momentarily to intersect with our own.