Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Repeat Viewing: North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)

TSPDT placing: #49

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Following the commercial failure of Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock needed a crowd-pleaser. He certainly gave us one. North by Northwest (1959) might just be the most outright entertaining of the director's pictures, a film that exists solely to give its audience a rollicking good time. Throughout his career, Hitchcock often utilised his established stars – for example, Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941) or James Stewart in Vertigo – as an opportunity to deconstruct their ingrained public image. Here, instead, he simply goes with the flow. In his fourth and final film for the Master of Suspense, Cary Grant plays with a familiar persona – debonair and charming, cocky and mischievous. His Roger O. Thornhill (the arbitrary middle initial an overt jab at producer David O. Selznick) is an advertising executive, superficial and self-serving, but with the charisma to support these dastardly qualities. Such a man is surely in need of a comeuppance, and Hitchcock delights in every plot twist that sees Thornhill plunged ever further into a sadistic practical joke cooked up by the Cold War.

Ernest Lehman's screenplay outwardly appears to be little but a selection of spectacular set-pieces strung together by Hitchcock's trademark "wrong man" motif, but it nonetheless amply supports its running-time (among the director's longest). Cary Grant's charming banter with double-agent Eva Marie Saint is tinged with sly sexual innuendo, and only Hitchcock could have ended a film with the hero's train entering the leading ladies'…. well, you get the picture. James Mason brings a dignified vulnerability to the role of Commie spy Phillip Vandamm, but Hitchcock seems only marginally interested in the character, and, indeed, his ultimate fate is completely skipped over (instead, Martin Landau's vicious henchman is given an arch-villain's death). Hitchcock's climax atop a studio reconstruction of Mount Rushmore is only effective thanks to Bernard Hermann's momentous score, but other sequences reek of the director's astonishing aptitude for suspense. The breathless crop-duster ambush is worthy of every accolade that has been bestowed upon it, and Grant's comedic talents shine during both a drunken roadside escape and an impromptu auction-house heckle.

That the audience learns of George Kaplan's fictitiousness long before Thornhill ever does may admittedly weaken the suspense, but Hitchcock's motives are instead to recruit the audience into his own position, as director, of omnipotent power. Beneath its surface, North by Northwest appears to be a subtle swing at Cold War politics, and particularly the power wielded by the FBI and government committees like the HUAC. As Thornhill fights to unravel himself from a tangled web of deception and espionage, Hitchcock unexpectedly crosses to a panel of FBI agents, headed by Leo G. Carroll, who bicker indifferently over the mess into which they've got this oblivious pawn. These government employees are happy to sit listlessly by as citizens place their lives on the line, their quarrels bizarrely resembling the conversations of the gods in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Indeed, like deities, the FBI men wield the power to invent (Kaplan), destroy, or even resurrect (Thornhill) human beings, and intercede sporadically in a suitably Deus Ex Machina-like fashion.

Currently my #3 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
5) Our Man in Havana (Carol Reed)
6) On the Beach (Stanley Kramer)
7) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)
8) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
9) Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
10) The Tingler (William Castle)


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Target #278: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

TSPDT placing: #122

Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: MacKinlay Kantor (novel), Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is one of the most powerful war films I've ever seen, and yet its story begins after WWII had officially ended. Too often in cinema, the end of the battle is considered the end of the war: a sweeping camera movement, an upwelling of stirring music, the hurrah of victorious soldiers, and suddenly everything is all right. But war doesn't end when the guns stop blazing, nor when the politicians put their pens to paper. War lingers for days, months, and years. Returning veterans, even those who emerged from conflict without a scratch, faced an uphill battle to reclaim their former lives, having sacrificed their happiest years in service to their country. In 1946, the issues faced by war veterans had only just come to public light. Two years earlier, congress had introduced the G.I. Bill, which allowed ex-serviceman access to low-interest loans with which to rebuild their lives. Post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers had previously only been explored in the film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Three soldiers from different social classes, returning to their home-town after years of conflict, are united in their desire to rekindle their former lives. But things will never be the same as before. Homer Parrish (true-life war veteran Harold Russell) lost his hands in battle, and fears that his faithful girlfriend (Cathy O'Donnell) remains with him only out of pity. Working-class pilot Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) finds that, despite his distinguished achievements in war-time, he still lacks the necessary experience to assimilate into civilian life. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to children he barely recognises, but finds consolation in "the perfect wife" Myrna Loy. The intertwining journeys faced by each of the veterans are often uncomfortable to watch, sometimes shameful and embarrassing, but the overriding message is one of hope: whatever adversities these men must confront, they can be sure to rely upon the support of their family, friends and the grateful United States government.

Gregg Toland's crisp deep-focus photography is excellent, but the major strength in William Wyler's drama are the characters themselves. Harold Russell, who actually did lose his hands in combat, was hand-picked from a military documentary on rehabilitated soldiers, and his performance works so well because it's genuine. Russell is clearly an amateur next to the neatly-balanced dramatics of March and Andrews – he even flubs his characters' wedding vows – but the emotion is authentic, and his pain heartbreaking. Fredric March won his second Oscar (after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)) for his role as a banker who lost his commercial hardness in the trenches. A little disappointingly, his character doesn't figure prominently in the film's second half, his role somewhat reduced to that of a vector facilitating Andrews' melodramatic, but satisfying, romance with Teresa Wright. I would have liked the film to have more thoroughly explored Stephenson's detached relationship with his children, but evidently there were time constraints to be considered – having said that, though, the 172 minutes flies by effortlessly.

Currently my #3 film of 1946:
1) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
2) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
3) The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
4) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
5) The Killers (Robert Siodmak)
6) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) The Locket (John Brahm)
8) Crack-Up (Irving Reis)
9) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak)
10) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall)


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Target #277: East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan)

TSPDT placing: #583

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: John Steinbeck (novel), Paul Osborn (screenplay)

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

I haven't read John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden," but I'm familiar with enough of the author's work to know that he wasn't a "glass half-full" kind of man. Steinbeck's characters appear to persist despite their misery, devoid of hope and comfort, and persevering out of sheer bloody-mindedness. This potentially poses a problem, because Hollywood has traditionally taken the stance that it is optimism, not pessimism, that sells tickets. This clash of sensibilities is seen readily enough in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), in which John Ford's assurance in the hardiness of American families sits at odds with Steinbeck's stark brand of realism. Nevertheless, Elia Kazan was an ideal candidate to adapt the 1952 novel "East of Eden," having already dealt with unflinching dramatic themes of family and societal conflict in the films A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). The pair had collaborated previously, with Steinbeck writing the screenplay for Kazan's Mexican Revolution biopic Viva Zapata! (1952), starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.

Whereas A Streetcar Named Desire had been a completely stage-bound film, owing to origins on Broadway, East of Eden (1955) allowed Kazan to spread his cinematic wings, so to speak. Steinbeck had intended his novel, in part, as a tribute to the Salinas Valley in Northern California, and so location is everything. Cinematographer Ted McCord captures the setting in lush WarnerColor, the fertile green fields consciously opposed to the bleak inner conflict raging inside the heart of the film's protagonist. Despite being visually impressive, it is – as in all Kazan pictures – the director's genius for working with actors that really shines through. James Dean, in his major picture debut (and the first of only three lead roles), delivers one of the most heartbreakingly tragic performances I've ever seen. His Cal, the Biblical Cain to Richard Davalos' Abel, has endured a life without love, every misguided bid for his father's (Raymond Massey) approval met with indifference or remonstration, as though only to cement his self-belief that he is inherently "bad."

In adapting "East of Eden," another director might have aimed for sheer scope, winding up with something not unlike Gone with the Wind (1939) or Duel in the Sun (1946). Instead, Kazan plays his strengths, and it's a telling sign that the film's most powerful moments unfold, not in the outside environments that McCord captures so well, but between four walls – inside homes, sheds, and brothels. Dean's character skulks mousily in the corners, fearful about making eye contact, as his articulate, proper brother Aron makes unconsciously-condescending remarks, perpetuating roles that have been drummed into both since childhood. Only Aron's sweetheart Abra (Julie Harris) understands Cal's torment at the hands of his cold, naive family members, but by then it may already be too late to same him. At under two hours, East of Eden perhaps doesn't explore its characters and their motivations as fully as it might have – for example, Aron's metaphorical "slaying" at his brother's hand isn't give enough exposition – but nonetheless stands as a beautiful and astonishingly powerful piece of storytelling.

Currently my #7 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin)
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
4) Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
5) Mr. Arkadin {Confidential Report} (Orson Welles)
6) The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis)
7) East of Eden (Elia Kazan)
8) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
9) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
10) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Target #276: Wagon Master (1950, John Ford)

TSPDT placing: #623
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: John Ford (story) (uncredited), Patrick Ford, Frank S. Nugent (written by)
Starring: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Hank Worden

By 1950, John Ford had already fully-developed the ideas and motifs that would form the core of his most successful Westerns. Always present, for example, is a strong sense of community, most poignantly captured in the Joad family of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Within these communities, even amid Ford's loftier themes of racism and the pioneer spirit, there's always room for the smaller human interactions, the minor friendships and romances that make life worth living. Wagon Master (1950) came after Ford had released the first two films in his "cavalry" trilogy – Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – and it covers similar territory, only without the military perspective and, more damningly, the strong lead of John Wayne. Ben Johnson and Harry Cary, Jr. are fine actors, but they feel as though they should be playing second-fiddle to somebody, and Ward Bond's cursing Mormon elder, while potentially a candidate for such a role, isn't given quite enough focus to satisfactorily fit the bill.

In Wagon Master, Ford seems so comfortable with his tried-and-tested Western formula that any character development is largely glossed over. Ben Johnson's romance with Joanne Dru is treated as an obligation more than anything else, and Harry Cary Jr's charming of a Mormon girl is so perfunctory as to be almost nonexistent in the final film, leaving one to ponder the survival of deleted scenes. Only in Charles Kemper's charismatic and shamelessly-villainous Uncle Shiloh does Ford try some different, and it works, even with his being surrounded by a troop of insufferably hammy slack-jawed yokels. Where Ford does succeed is in orchestrating the conglomeration of three distinct races of Americans – the values-orientated Mormoms, the easygoing horse-traders, the eccentric travelling showmen – into a cohesive community of pioneers looking towards a bright future. This apparent harmony is thrown into disarray by the arrival of Uncle Shiloh's gun-toting outlaws, who exploit the lawlessness of the Western frontier but ultimately lose out to the noble cowboys who "only ever drew on snakes." Ford reportedly considered Wagon Master among the favourite of his films, and perhaps this has something to do with the absence of big names like John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Armed only with his stock selection of usual players, Ford is able to generate a sense of community by avoiding placing focus on any one character, though most of the Mormom travellers still remain completely anonymous. Despite being undoubtedly well-made, I can't help feeling that this film only does well what other Ford pictures did even better: the terrific majesty of the the Western frontier was presented more beautifully in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; the romances and friendly squabbles among community members took greater prominence in Fort Apache; the early relations with Native Americans, only hinted at here, were more thoroughly examined in The Searchers (1956); the bold pioneering spirit of the early settlers was explored more movingly (albeit by Henry Hathaway and George Marshall) in How the West Was Won (1962). Wagon Master is pure John Ford, but it isn't a landmark.

Currently my #15 film of 1950:
6) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
7) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
8) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)
9) Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
10) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan)
11) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
12) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)
13) The Killer That Stalked New York (Earl McEvoy)
14) Armoured Car Robbery (Richard Fleischer)
15) Wagon Master (John Ford)


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Target #275: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)

TSPDT placing: #356

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Tennessee Williams (play & screenplay), Oscar Saul (adaptation)

Elia Kazan was noted during the 1940s as one of America's most creative stage directors, and yet he'd also proved his film-making prowess on such films as the film noir thriller Panic in the Streets (1950). Naturally, he was a prime choice to adapt Tennessee Williams' acclaimed 1947 play "A Streetcar Named Desire" for the screen. Eschewing the naturalistic visual style of his previous film, Kazan unashamedly directs A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) as a filmed play, utilising a small, intimate cast and few sets. The film's success spawned a number of Tennessee Williams adaptations, including Baby Doll (1956) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the first of which was directed by Kazan. A Streetcar Named Desire also launched the successful Hollywood career of one of the all-time great actors, Marlon Brando, whose mesmerising performance as Stanley Kowalski (and especially his inimitable cry of "Stella!" at the foot of the apartment stairway) continues to resonate even with those who have never seen the film in its entirety.

Blanche DuBois is an intriguing character because she is a tragic victim despite bringing much of her fate upon herself. Having shamed herself in scandal following the loss of her family home, Blanche arrives in New Orleans in complete denial of her moral failings. While desperately maintaining a facade of upper-class respectability, Blanche continually speaks of her brother-in-law Stanley with utter condescension, deriding his Polish heritage and working-class habits. Only by disparaging others can she sustain her self-enforced illusion of lingering youth and grandeur, and yet every attempt at remaining young ironically makes her seem as old as Norma Desmond. But Stanley is also a brute, exuding primitive cruelty and sexuality through every sweaty pore. Had he understood Blanche's psychological condition, and offered kindness instead of resistance, her breakdown might have been averted. Stanley's pig-headed selfishness is despicable, and yet – like Blanche – his behaviour seems to arise not from deliberate cruelty, but from child-like naiveté, an obliviousness towards the consequences of his actions.

There's no doubt that A Streetcar Named Desire finds its performers at the peak of their work, but, even so, I consider it a minor miracle that such contrasting acting styles were able to coexist so comfortably. Though Marlon Brando had previously performed the role on Broadway to great acclaim, the studio-appointed casting of Vivien Leigh provoked some consternation among the crew, who feared a clash of "classical" and "method" acting styles. Leigh, speaking with a Southern accent that is, I think, inherently theatrical, accentuates every twitch of insecurity in the emotionally-decaying Blanche DuBois. Brando, on the other hand, was a student of Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio, an influential proponent of method acting, and his Stanley Kowalski speaks in an often- incomprehensible drawl that works precisely because you can imagine hundreds of uneducated New Orleans workers speaking in the same manner. The gamble on Leigh proved successful, with she and co-stars Karl Malden and Kim Hunter taking home Oscars for their fine work; Brando lost out to Bogart in The African Queen (1951).

Currently my #4 film of 1951:
1) Strangers On A Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The African Queen (John Huston)
3) The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
4) A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)
5) The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton)
6) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
7) The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks)
8) An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)
9) Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen)
10) Roadblock (Harold Daniels)


Target #274: Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda)

TSPDT placing: #118

Directed by: Andrzej Wajda
Written by: Jerzy Andrzejewski (novel & screenplay), Andrzej Wajda (writer)
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska, Waclaw Zastrzezynski, Adam Pawlikowski, Jan Ciecierski, Bogumil Kobiela

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

During WWII, two ideologically-opposed factions, the London-directed Home Army and the pro-Soviet People's Army, joined forces to defeat a common enemy, the Nazis. When the war came to an end in May 1945, however, so too did the groups' shaky alliance, and from momentary peace was suddenly sprung a whole new struggle for power. While a new Communist regime began to build its foundations in the shell-shocked Polish cities, the remaining Home Army rebels took to the forests, where they dutifully continued their liberation campaign using guerrilla tactics. If WWII itself is considered necessary – or, if not necessary, then at least justified given the Nazi menace – then this post-War skirmish is the ultimate waste of life, prompting murder on the grounds of mere ideology. In Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (1958), a weary Home Army youth, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), faces an internal conflict between fighting political causes and living a normal life, not coincidentally the same dilemma facing the nation of Poland as the War came to a close.

Wajda's film opens with an cold-blooded ambush, in which two concrete factory workers are needlessly gunned down in a case of mistaken identity. These shootings take place at the front steps of a country chapel, and with a child within earshot, highlighting the heartless resolve with which the Home Army rebels carry out their murders. However, despite the pro-Communist climate in which Wajda produced his film, he stops well short of demonising the "enemy" rebels, and, indeed, young Maciek is portrayed as the tragic victim of the story. In fact, the film goes to some length to emphasise the parallels between Maciek and Communist leader Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski), implying the needlessness of their conflict, and so the tragedy of their fatal opposition: both men fought valiantly against fascist dictatorships (the former in both Spain and Poland), and remember fondly the war comrades who died in pursuit of an ideal that, to both, should now be deemed realised. Instead, Szczuka dies in Maciek's arms as Poland celebrates its liberation.

Polish cinema reached its peak in the late 1950s, following the Khrushchev Thaw that saw an ease in Soviet censorship, and Andrzej Wajda was at the forefront of this cinematic New Wave. Jerzy Wójcik's stark black-and-white cinematography is elaborate and beautifully-executed, capturing the main character's claustrophobic isolation using closed sets and a cramped frame. The war itself took many prisoners, but Maciek – ironically a "freedom fighter" – finds his freedom restrained in a less overt manner. Even with the liberation of Poland, Maciek is obligated to continue his blood feud, denied the ordinary happiness offered by a life with pretty bar-maid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), with whom he spends a night. Cybulski's character squanders most of the film in boisterous, overcrowded surroundings, finding room to move only in fractured moments, such as a late-night stroll through the crumbling town ruins. Even in his death throes, Maciek stumbles through a cluttered wasteland of garbage, ultimately joining the detritus of the twentieth century's most costly conflict.

Currently my #5 film of 1958:
1) Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) A Night to Remember (Roy Ward Baker)
3) Touch of Evil (Orson Welles)
4) Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson)
5) Popiól i diament {Ashes and Diamonds} (Andrzej Wajda)
6) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks)
7) The Fly (Kurt Neumann)