Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Target #234: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)

TSPDT placing: #85

Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dorothy M. Johnson (short story), James Warner Bellah (screenplay), Willis Goldbeck (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraphs 3 + 4 Only]

A Western like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) could only have been produced by a man reaching the twilight of his career. Suddenly, all those gunfights, bar brawls and romantic quarrels, to be found in abundance in John Ford's previous efforts, don't seem quite so exciting anymore, and all we're left with is the lingering melancholy of nostalgia, the memory of wasted years and missed opportunities. Many critics say that Ford reached full maturity with The Searchers (1956), the powerful tale of a cowboy plagued with guilt and racial prejudice. However, even that film required a lighthearted romantic subplot to break up the drama, a typical Ford inclusion that rather thinned the emotional intensity of the primary narrative. Liberty Valance offends similarly – Edmond O'Brien's drunkenness and Andy Devine's cowardice are clearly played for laughs – but this does little to detract from the story at the film's heart, a wistful reminiscence of the Old West, before it became civilised, and the untruths that helped build the core of the Western legend.

John Wayne and James Stewart were, of course, no strangers to the Western genre. Their casting, aside from adding commercial appeal to the picture, was made with a very deliberate intention in mind – after years of defining these two actors' Western identities, Ford would then systematically break them down, to reveal the bitter truths about life, love and death in the Old West. But, in a way, Ford seems to prefer the "uncivilised" and "lawless" lands prior to the arrival of the educated man – we watch with disdain as a fast-talking politician (John Carradine) carelessly spouts lies to add dramatic effect to his speech, and refers to Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) as "the bullet-ridden body of an honest citizen." Just how did the scholarly law-man, who arrives in town without a gun, manage to conquer the West, to defeat the likes of Liberty Valance? The truth is that he could only have done it with the aid of true men like Tom Doniphon (Wayne), who compromised their values and later lived to regret it.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes at the cross-roads of a radical transformation in the Western genre. That same year, young director Sam Peckinpah released Ride the High Country (1962), a key landmark in the development of the Revisionist Western, a subgenre that critiqued the idealistic themes of the traditional Western, and favoured realism of romanticism. Ford's film is wholly traditional in terms of film-making style, with the majority of filming taking place on studio sets rather than on location. This decision, a departure from the director's other famous Westerns (which often made excellent use of Monument Valley, Arizona) was made to stress the film's greater emphasis on characters. At the same time, however, Liberty Valance is a reflection on the fallacy of Ford's Old West, a mournful footnote to decades of the director's work. Here, the villain isn't killed in a fair fight, but he's gunned down from the shadows; the hero doesn't win the girl, but dies lonely. In fact, I'm not even sure there are heroes in this story. Only legends.

This is, without a doubt, one of Ford's saddest Westerns; rather than looking towards the future with hope, its characters are instead looking back with wistful regret. The West, which was once a wilderness, has been transformed into a garden, and a well-meaning politician has built a career upon an act that he can't claim to be his own. Wayne's Tom Doniphon perhaps comes closer to heroism than any other character, but he shot his foe, unseen, from a side-street, and thus his reward is not the respect and admiration of a nation, nor the love of the girl (Vera Miles) whom he adores. Instead, the courageous but foolish educated man, Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) reaped the benefits of his "achievement," and his life is forever tinged with the guilt of his own success. We can almost see Stoddard's conscience tearing itself apart when the railway conductor good-naturedly quips, "nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance." Perhaps Stoddard did shoot Liberty Valance. The legends tell us that this is the case, and so now the truth, whatever it may be, doesn't make an ounce of difference.

Currently my #6 film of 1962:
1) Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
2) La Jetée {The Pier} (Chris Marker)
3) Le Procès {The Trial} (Orson Welles)
4) To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
5) Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer)
6) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
7) Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson)
8) The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
9) Dr. No (Terence Young)
10) Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah)

What others have said:

"The contrast between charismatic and legal authority in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is even more interesting, because it parallels the difference between the values of the West or Wilderness (John Wayne) and the values of the East or Civilization (James Stewart). Stewart's Ranse Stoddard embodies rational-legal authority, symbolically as well as practically. A decent lawyer from the East, he comes to practice law and bring order to the West. Wayne, by contrast, is the uneducated leader who believes that "You make your own justice here and enforce your law." He is the rugged individual, using physical force, not laws, in fighting Liberty Valance, an outlaw, because it is the only efficient way."

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a drama that shreds the fabric of legend, as well as man's need to cling to simplified, inspirational stories that separate good from evil. The film examines how the truth of history is always obscured by hearsay, assumptions and outright deception, and observes how legends rise from the ashes of grit and pain.... The crux of the film involves Stoddard's own showdown with Valance, and a secret surrounding the specifics of what exactly went down. Doniphon shows true heroism by putting aside his own interests for the common good. Of course, the purpose of the movie is to explain that ideas and spirit mean a whole lot more than facts. Ideas and symbols are more powerful than bullets."

"But I can't get all misty eyed over Ford's legendary take on the Old West and his attempt to show that the greatness of the country came from those heroic roots, as he dismisses in importance whether all the stories are true or not and how short memories are for Americans. The way Ford sees it Stewart had the vision what America should be like, but if it wasn't for Wayne's gun that vision would never have happened. I found this history lesson less than genuine and far too simplistic and chilling, even though the film had some value as entertainment fodder."
Also recommended from director John Ford:

* Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
"When production of Drums Along the Mohawk began to run behind schedule and over-budget, producer Darryl F. Zanuck, knowing that a great battle had yet to be filmed, became understandably anxious.... Ford decided to abandon the entire sequence; placing Fonda in front of the camera, he gently put forth a succession of questions concerning the conflict, and the actor improvised from there... In a deliberate, deadpan tone of voice, Fonda recounts the horrors of skirmish; the horror of comrades falling beside him; the terrifying war-cry of the enemy; the appalling waste of life. This was the slice of Ford genius for which I had been waiting."

* The Fugitive (1947)
"Unlike many of the Westerns that brought director John Ford his greatest fame, The Fugitive is entirely unconcerned with any form of action or dialogue; Ford's film-making is so concentrated on establishing the correct emotional atmosphere for each scene that it occasionally strays into tedium. However, it was obviously a very personal project for the Ford – who once called it "perfect" – and it's difficult to criticise a film into which the director poured so much passion and resolve.... A visual masterpiece this film may be, and certainly an overall interesting watch, but The Fugitive remains inferior Ford."
"Prior to this film, I'd always seen Henry Fonda as a decent and honourable everyman, so it was interesting to see him depart from his usual upright persona. Conceited and stubborn, Lt. Colonel Thursday is a tragic pillar of eroded military integrity, his once-impressive leadership abilities now overshadowed by an unyielding desire for immortality; the young men whose lives he sacrificed in order to imprint himself in history's pages will never be remembered by name, but, as Capt. York muses at the film's conclusion, their spirit will forever live on in the plight of their successors."


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Target #233: Shock Corridor (1963, Samuel Fuller)

TSPDT placing: #715
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Gene Evans, James Best, Hari Rhodes, Larry Tucker, Paul Dubov

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

Do you remember the nightmare sequence in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), when Don Birman watches a bat decapitate a helpless mouse? Film experiences don't get much more lurid than that, but Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) somehow manages to maintain this intensity for 101 minutes. Everything is so grimly and determinedly over-the-top that you occasionally feel like laughing, but then Fuller grips you by the throat and doesn't allow you to exhale. A natural precursor to films like Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), this B-movie exploitation flick is intense and nasty, deliberately pushing viewers outside of their comfort zone. This is the sort of low-brow nonsense that could never have been produced by a major studio, yet Fuller relishes his low-budget creative freedom. He obviously had a lot of fun inventing characters so incredibly outrageous that audiences would flock to see them – there's an overweight would-be opera singer, a war veteran who thinks he's a Civil War general, an African-American white supremacist and even a roomful of ravenous nymphomaniacs!

Like any good B-movie should, Shock Corridor (1963) builds itself upon a shaky and unlikely premise. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck, who reminds me of a young Martin Sheen) is a hot-shot journalist with aspirations towards the Pullitzer Prize. In order to crack an unsolved murder in a psychiatric hospital, Barrett offers to have himself committed, fooling police and doctors into believing that he has made incestuous advantages towards his sister– actually his long-time girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers). There are, of course, unaddressed hurdles in this ridiculous scheme: why would the authorities never bother to verify Cathy's true identity? However, once Barrett gets inside the mental ward, we're so fascinated by its peculiar brand of loonies that we don't ask any further questions. The supporting performances vary greatly in subtlety and credibility, but there's no doubt that they hold our attention, prone to unexpected violent outbursts and momentary reclamation of their sanity. Barrett's murder investigation is straightforward and episodic: he merely befriends each of the three witnesses in turn, and waits for them to come to their senses.

This being my first film from Samuel Fuller, I'm not sure whether or not his films typically have underlying political messages. However, Shock Corridor is certainly a confronting critique of the American mental health system; indeed, how can the mentally ill ever recover if even a sane man loses his sanity after just several months in such an institution? I was tempted to think that Barrett's mental deterioration was based on the findings of the disastrous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which human behaviour was drastically influenced by one's appointed status as either a "guard" or a "prisoner." Then I remembered that Zimbardo's study wasn't undertaken until 1971, which makes Fuller's conclusions even more audacious and groundbreaking. The film was shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also worked on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), who superbly blends the raw, gritty aesthetic of low-budget schlock with the surreal, distorted visuals of big-budget film noir. Call it bold, call it outrageous, call it ridiculous –but there's no doubting that Sam Fuller is a director to watch.

Currently my #6 film of 1963:
1) The Haunting (Robert Wise)
2) Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder)
3) The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) From Russia with Love (Terence Young)
5) (Federico Fellini)
6) Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller)

What others have said:

"Though you need to view this pic by accepting its outrageous premise and campy hysterical set pieces with a sense of disbelief, it tosses out the reasonable moral lesson that you can't mess with madness without expecting big problems and that unbridled ambition could lead to insanity. If anything, the sensationalized crudely made pulp melodrama more than lives up to its title. This minor classic is quintessential Fuller, lively as a handful of bees and as amoral as a room full of nymphs."

"Nowhere nearly as polished as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which also explores some of the same ideas as far as portraying "crazy" people as metaphors for society, Fuller's low-budgeted masterpiece screams for more recognition. Although I generally prefer DVD editions that allow directors to discuss some of the thoughts they had during the shoot, I'm almost glad that Fuller doesn't reveal his thinking here. That means that we can view Shock Corridor a number of times and gain new insights to discuss with other film addicts. And that's to the film's credit."

"Unfortunately, the guignol flourishes of Shock Corridor don't really attain the cogency or persuasive power of the best Fuller: this one just feels like the kind of second-rate thriller that a movie like [Pickup on South Street] leaves in its dust. The film's got its political head in the right place, denouncing the racism and the arms race as symptoms of cultural insanity to 1963 audiences who may or may not have assented to these diagnoses. But on the one hand, Fuller is such a gifted poet of the corroded conscience that, dare I say it, it's almost disappointing to see him blast such easy targets as Jim Crow bigotry."


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Target #232: Viaggio in Italia / Voyage in Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini)

TSPDT placing: #81
Directed by: Roberto Rossellini
Written by: Vitaliano Brancati (story), Roberto Rossellini (story)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban, Paul Muller, Anna Proclemer, Anthony La Penna, Natalia Ray

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

Even with the English language and two stars from Hollywood, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy (1954) immediately distinguishes itself from every romantic drama to have ever come out of the United States. Rossellini was an Italian, and those Italians had a style that was all their own. The film opens with moving footage along a rough road, the camera mounted on the main characters' automobile. Shots like this lack the sheer smoothness and polish of Hollywood productions – which probably would have filmed everything before a rear-projection screen, anyway – and add an essential crudeness that breathes real-life into the settings and story; these are the lingering traces of Italian neorealism, which, by 1954, had already suffered an abrupt decline in popularity. Ingrid Bergman, then the director's wife, and George Sanders plays Katherine and Alex Joyce, a British couple who travel to Italy for a business/leisure trip. However, this disruption of their typical marital routine brings to the surface the couple's pressing conflicts and incompatibilities. Will the wonders of Naples sever or rejuvenate their love for each other?

Voyage in Italy is one of those pictures where nothing much happens, at least on the surface. However, this film is a narrow stream that runs deep. Behind every seemingly-inconsequential scene, every awkward glance, every moment of banal interaction, there lies the key to Katherine and Alex's marriage, and the reasons why it's falling apart. Katherine does a lot of lonely driving in Naples, observing the everyday comings-and-goings of the local folk from the vantage point of a passive, almost-nonexistent outsider. She counts the number of pregnant women in the street, and wonders dolefully whether or not her own refusal to bear children has torn apart her marriage. Alex, meanwhile, skirts the borders of infidelity, elevating his boredom by charming beautiful young ladies (none as beautiful as Bergman, it must be said) but thankfully pulling back at the crucial moment. If one were so inclined, the film also works just as well as a travelogue of sorts, exploring, with exquisite detail, the museums of Naples and Pompeii, and the Italian fascination with the dead.

By 1954, Ingrid Bergman had spent several years working in Italy, after her marital scandal with Rossellini temporarily lost her favour with American audiences. Here, as lovely as ever, she gives a subtle and touching performance, an unappreciated wife disillusioned by the lack of love in her marriage. George Sanders, the roguishly charismatic male suitor in countless 1940s dramas, here achieves a mature, refined level of charm, such that we're not surprised at his ability to woo even the younger ladies. Through their separate travels in Italy, both characters attain a catharsis of sorts, the focus to finally make a clear decision about the future of their relationship together. This leads to a simple but wonderful exchange of dialogue outside the Pompeii excavation site ("Life is so short"; "that's why one should make the most of it"), which seems as good a reason as any for the pair to abandon their seemingly-doomed marriage and start afresh. However, Hollywood sensibility here prevails over Rossellini's neorealism roots, and the realisation that life is fleeting instead encourages Katherine and Alex to reaffirm their love for each other.

Currently my #5 film of 1954:
1) Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) Animal Farm (Joy Batchelor, John Halas)
3) Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Sabrina (Billy Wilder)
5) Viaggio in Italia {Voyage in Italy} (Roberto Rossellini)

What others have said:

"A magical love story that is beautifully told without one false note. It makes the best of its dead time, more so than any other film of this high quality has ever done before. Its passionate conclusion is still moving even at this date some fifty years after its release. This is Roberto Rossellini's finest film... It lulls you with its ordinary scenario where not much seems to be happening, but after a while the stunning historical Mediterranean landscape becomes part of the story and a seemingly loveless couple headed for a divorce finds hope again as their new spiritual surroundings brings them a renewal of love."
Dennis Schwartz, 2006

"Roberto Rossellini's finest fiction film... and unmistakably one of the great achievements of the art. Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a long-married British couple grown restless and uncommunicative. On a trip to Italy to dispose of a piece of property, they find their boredom thrown into relief by the Mediterranean landscape--its vitality (Naples) and its desolation (Pompeii). But suddenly, in one of the moments that only Rossellini can film, something lights inside them, and their love is renewed as a bond of the spirit. A crucial work, truthful and mysterious."
Dave Kehr


Friday, September 19, 2008

Target #231: The Tingler (1959, William Castle)

TSPDT placing: #597
Directed by: William Castle
Written by: Robb White
Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts, Pamela Lincoln, Philip Coolidge

William Castle, with the greatest respect, was a poor man's Alfred Hitchcock. He was not concerned with making art, but rather with keeping his audience as entertained as possible, and everything he does with his films is working towards this end. Every plot development, every artistic decision is very deliberately planned and executed – with no amount of subtlety, it must be said – to provide maximum thrills, laughs and screams from his patrons. Even among B-movie directors, Castle found a unique way of distinguishing himself, through the use of unnecessary theatre gimmicks, and his form of showmanship {clearly seen in his introduction to the picture, and his theatrical trailers, in which he can barely contain his jubilation at what the audience is about to experience} was unsurpassed even by the Master of Suspense himself. His enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. In fact, for the entire 80 minutes, you can almost see Castle's grinning face superimposed over the screen. He's absolutely loving it, and I'll be damned if I didn't love it, as well.

Considering the director's association with low-budget schlock, I had expected a film with unquestionably shoddy production values. Instead, 'The Tingler (1959)' is impeccably shot by Wilfred M. Cline and generally well-written (Dr. Chapin referencing both his wife and a stray cat: "Have you two met? In the same alley, perhaps?"). Horror icon Vincent Price is the film's charismatic star, but excellent supporting performances are given by Judith Evelyn as a deaf and dumb cinema owner, Philip Coolidge as her anxious husband, and Patricia Cutts – sexy and acerbic – as Dr. Chapin's unfaithful wife. The story does occasionally descend into silliness, but Price nonetheless manages to deliver even the campiest of lines with unmatched class. The Tingler itself looks glaringly artificial, a rubber contraption that is pulled along the floor with wires, but its initial entrance is still something to behold. I leaned forward, my mouth agape in revulsion and disbelief, as the slimy, pulsating creature – seen only in silhouette – was extracted from its host's body, and deposited, wriggling gruesomely, into a pet cage.

Unlike countless awful 1950s sci-fi/horror films, The Tingler isn't merely in the business of (ostensibly) scaring its audience; it aims to entertain them – to elicit screams, laughs and everything in between. Castle takes you aside with a mischievous wink, lets you in on the joke, and invites you to enjoy the film's effect on the lesser masses. Whether or not his film actually caused any cinema hysterics or fatal heart attacks is difficult to deduce {one of Castle's other tricks was to plant shills in the audience, who would scream on cue}, but there's no doubt that his picture genuinely involved the audience. Every single unsubtle technique utilised by the film – most memorably, the black-and-white suddenly punctuated by blood red, a little trick he learnt from Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) – is a nod to the participation of its viewers. This makes the film abstract, surreal, almost interactive; when Vincent Price implores the cinema audience to scream, we know he's talking to us, and when the Tingler's stark silhouette creeps slimily across our movie screen… well, don't forget to scream.

Currently my #7 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
3) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
4) On the Beach (Stanley Kramer)
5) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)
6) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
7) The Tingler (William Castle)
What others have said:

"[Castle's] tingler is a cheap rubber model that looks like a lobster crossbred with a centipede. When it moves through a faux animal skin rug, the fur ruffling past the otherwise stiff extremities creates an illusion of the legs actually moving, but for the rest of the film Castle is content to show the thing wobble across floors and over potential victims, yanked by unconcealed strings at times.... The Tingler is more gimmick than movie and it lacks the level of tension and terror of other productions, but the showmanship is still a lot of fun."
Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies Online

"And you know something? It is fun. It is as much fun - deliberate, campy, tongue-in-cheek fun - as any movie from that grand era of drive-ins and Saturday matinees. It is a very silly movie, but a movie that has no desire to be thought of as serious. It is very possibly the most fun of all the William Castle films I have seen... and though I am tempted to call it a good bad movie, there's nothing really bad about something so good-natured, a film that laughs along with us at its ludicrous science and rubbery monster and combustive melodrama."
Tim Brayton


Friday, September 5, 2008

New Blog: "Shooting in the Dark"

Hi, folks!
Self-promotion isn't usually my thing, but I'd just like to let everybody know that my newest blog Shooting in the Dark is open for business. It's a companion-piece to Shooting Lessons: 1000 Pictures, and concerns my efforts to watch as many films as possible from the They Shoot Pictures list of America's top 250 film noirs.

I don't expect Shooting in the Dark to be updated quite as regularly as this blog, but give me a while and I'll have compiled plenty of reviews from films that you probably wouldn't hear about from anybody else - many of those film noirs are obscure as hell! In fact, I have no idea how I'm going to track them down myself. My first review will be for Delmer Daves' Dark Passage (1947), a dynamic little thriller with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, their third collaboration.

Anyway, be sure to wander over there (click the above link, or the link in my sidebar) and offer your best wishes. Seriously, the blog smells like honeysuckle. How could I have known that awesome film noir blogs could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?