Rhapsody in August

rhapsody 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1991

Studio: Shochiku Films Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, based on the novel by Kiyoko Murata

Cast: Sachiko Murase, Tomoko Otakara, Richard Gere

Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda

Music: Shinichiro Ikebe

“Rhapsody in August” should not work. Its four children characters are uninteresting ciphers. They’re tasked with selling lines like “People are apt to forget even a dreadful event like that”… and then the child actors do not come close to being able to do that. The middle-aged characters are even more cardboard, and don’t get me started about the scene in the woods. Yes, I was ready to dislike the movie…

But then I didn’t.

Somehow, despite all of its shortcomings, Kurosawa has pulled off making “Rhapsody in August” something special. It takes awhile, but as soon as you recognize that this isn’t a “film,” but a meditation on subjects so close to Kurosawa’s heart, it clicks. In many ways, this is the movie that “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” could have and should have been, because it succeeds in almost all the ways that anthology failed. Most importantly, it creates emotional resonance for the viewer.

The maestro here deals with the subjects of age and nuclear devastation – ones he’s dealt with them numerous times throughout his career. Here, his point-of-view is somber. Resigned.

MSDRHIN EC006Our story concerns an old woman named Kane (Sachiko Murase), who takes in her four grandchildren for the summer. She has been invited to the death bed of her brother in Hawaii, but he is a man she does not remember nor is she sure he’s really her brother (this is not because of Alzheimer’s so much as it is because she had so many brothers and sisters). Kane was one of the survivors of the atomic bombing, though her husband was not so fortunate – he worked at the school that was directly under ground zero. Kane saw the explosion from her home and raced toward the devastation, and the aftereffects of the radiation made her lose most of her hair.

The four interchangeable grandchildren are, at first, horrible to Kane. They see the opportunity for her to say goodbye to her maybe-brother as a perfect chance to go on vacation to Hawaii! They mock her cooking (she has to prepare everything soft because of her dentures) and complain about not having any appliances. And then they begin to learn about the bomb and how it affected not only their family, but all of Japan. Kurosawa sets up what a big journey this will be early when he has all the kids wearing Americanized t-shirts with US schools and brands on during the first scenes.

There is a haunting sequence where three of the children tour Nagasaki. Kurosawa sets them at the center of a very empty frame when they stand in the schoolyard where their grandfather died decades before. Before them is a piece of metal playground equipment that was warped and half-melted in the explosion. It’s impossible not to think of the old man sitting in the swing set moments before he died in “Ikiru” at that moment, and I think that it is purposeful by Kurosawa. Later, the children visit all the memorials set up for the dead, but do not interact with any of them until they reach a stone that tells of how so many of the dead died of thirst after the blast. The children race into the pond in front of them and movingly splash the monument with water. This signals a change in their characters – they haven’t gained any depth, but we can now see that they are good people.

Kurosawa solely wrote the screenplay here, and he sets up an interesting dynamic. The children want to…need to know more about the bomb and how it affected the Grandmother they have come to love. In doing so, they are tearing open old wounds for the woman – the experience is wholly upsetting to both parties, but somehow necessary.

There is a third generation at play here… the parents of the children and the sons and daughters of Kane, but this is the least interesting aspect of “Rhapsody in August.” These moments play almost like a Greatest Hits from previous Kurosawa. They suspect their American cousin is important and therefore want to impress him. They don’t care about Kane and don’t want to spend time with her or understand her point of view.

Richard Gere is weirdly brought in around the two-thirds mark to meet Kane and, essentially, apologize on behalf of all Americans for dropping the bomb. It’s certainly an odd choice, considering that emotional maturation from Kane that appears to happen here is later undercut by the finale, as is using Gere as a voicebox for all of America. The movie rightly ignores the he-said/she-said of the bomb drop, choosing not to mention Pearl Harbor, the whats, whos, hows and why. Instead, it acknowledges that there are still bad feelings from the Japanese towards America and does the smartest thing possible by personalizing the devastation (both physical and mental) on one woman and her journey. So suddenly bringing in Gere to, essentially, speak for a nation is odd. That said, Gere acquits himself well to an almost impossible role to play, and there is a delightful moment with him and the grandchildren involving a makeshift bed that I very much enjoyed. It’s the most character development any supporting character gets.

rhapsody 3Kurosawa gives us very simple shots and set-ups for most of the movie’s runtime, and considering what a simple story we have, this is fitting. But by doing that, he draws so much more attention to the moments where he does show off. The characters sometimes say that, when the bomb was dropped, it was like a gigantic eye opening over the hills, and Kurosawa blatantly illustrates that in a single shot of amazing power – it feels almost like a Dali painting. There’s another sequence with ants which is one of those metaphors that isn’t obvious… you can interpret the American cousin and the Japanese child watching marching ants make their way up a rose in multiple ways, and that’s a good thing.

And then, of course, there’s that image of Kane running through the storm, clutching her overturned umbrella as she refuses to go quietly into that dark night. It really is one of the most indelible of all Kurosawa images (so much so that it was made into the DVD cover I bought), made all the more heartbreaking by seeing the grandchildren who have grown to love her so chasing her… trying desperately to get to her. Save her. It’s moments like these where “Rhapsody in August” is a poem, one where you might not remember the individual words or phrases, but do remember how it made you feel. The scenes will fade, the melancholy will not.

Notes:

-The movie was apparently controversial because Kurosawa didn’t underline Japan’s responsibility on getting the bomb dropped on them. Really, stupid people? I mean, really?

-No Criterion edition yet, the DVD is released under MGM’s “World Films” brand, has a trailer as supporting material and… nothing else.

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My Name Is Julia Ross

julia ross 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Muriel Roy Bolton

Based on the novel “The Woman in Red” by Anthony Gilbert

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey

Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff

Cast: Nina Foch, May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno

Release: November 9, 1945

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 60%

“My Name is Julia Ross” is a very good movie that is frustrating because it comes so close to greatness. This should be a masterpiece, you keep telling yourself as you watch… and yet…

Nina Foch portrays the title character, who is down on her lucky in rain-soaked London, and interviews for a job as a secretary. Odd questions are asked – do you have a husband? Boyfriend? Family? The woman interviewing Julia explains that the woman looking to employ the secretary has had a history of women leaving after a few months because of personal entanglements. Julia says she has no one. She gets the job, shows up for work and is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a cliffside mansion where she is held hostage and told her name is Marion Hughes. And that’s all within the first 15 minutes. I knew nothing about the film going in, and the first big surprise of the film genuinely caught me off guard.

julia ross 2Despite the film being fairly straightforward, it touches oh-so-slightly on some deep subjects, specifically the loss of identity. Director Joseph H. Lewis frames the opening sequence of the film very interestingly, following Julia from behind as she enters her boarding house and not revealing her face for several moments. There are two reasons given for Julia to be in the position she is – the first is that she is recovering from an appendectomy, and the second is the insinuation (though a wedding invitation she receives and tears up) that she was involved with an engaged sugar daddy and that it ended badly. Neither of these is fleshed out well, which is a shame because it would give Julia’s character some much-needed dimension. She’s the token “plucky heroine” when she’s kidnapped, and because there isn’t any specificity to the character, the second act in particular feels like a missed opportunity. The unnecessary addition of a lame love interest (Roland Varno) who shows up then disappears until the very end doesn’t help matters.

This is doubly a shame since the rest of the movie engages the viewer so completely. From the moment May Whitty, who portrays Julia’s employer/kidnapped Mrs. Hughes, drops her guise of sweetness, the movie takes off. George Macready, who is “Marion’s” “husband,” is really creepy – I love the way the screenwriter so blatantly illustrates his psychosis by having him stab everything, destroying curtains, pillows and his dead wife in the process.

julia ross 3Muriel Roy Bolton, who adapted the film from Anthony Gilbert’s book, knows what kind of movie this is, and has some fun with the trappings. There’s a random secret passage in Julia’s bedroom that she uses to overhear exposition bombs of character background, a bottle of poison with a skull and crossbones (the antidote is helpfully written on the front – white of egg with mustard and hot water. Yuck.) and even a black cat. Clichés? Of course. But part of the fun of a movie like “My Name is Julia Ross” is playing along. If you disagree, there’s just no talking to you.

Bolton is also smart enough to understand that Julia’s “I’m not Marion!” arguing will get repetitive and annoying pretty fast for the audience, so she finds several ways to spin the storytelling into interesting, new aspects. Julia fakes taking poison so a doctor will be called, Mrs. Hughes senses she is faking, so hedges her bets by sending in a fake doctor before the real one arrives. Julia spills her heart to the fake doctor, and when the ruse becomes apparent Julia is spiraling when the real doctor arrives. There’s also some business with a letter (Julia’s handwriting under pressure remains stellar) that keeps getting replaced that is a lot of fun.

Foch is fine as Julia, bringing enough strength to the role to be engaging, though one has to wonder what someone like Joan Fontaine or Jane Greer could have done with the role. That said, there is something interesting about having the villains of the piece be so much larger than the heroine in their performance – it does work within the context of the story being told.

Lewis considers this his breakthrough film – Columbia was so impressed by his work that they nearly doubled his shooting days so that the film got the attention it deserved. The early atmospheric sequences in London are especially compelling, though that aforementioned long take that introduces us to Julia tragically is ruined halfway through by a needless insert shot of a letter. He doesn’t quite pull off the storytelling twists of the climax involving suicide and a dress as well as he should, though the climactic chase into the ocean surf makes up for it.

Lewis’ cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, is one of the greatest of all cinematographers, creating the look for classic films noir like “The Reckless Moment” and “In a Lonely Place” before working on masterpieces like “From Here to Eternity” and then defining the look of “new Hollywood” with “Bonnie & Clyde” near the end of his career.

Despite its problems “My Name is Julia Ross” is still a gem, though possibly it’s more attractive to fans of “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” than noir aficionados.

Score: ****

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

dreams 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1990

Studio: Warner Brothers

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Akira Terao, Mitsunori Isaki, Martin Scorsese

Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Shoki Ueda

Music: Shin’ichiro Ikebe

Look, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that this is probably one, if not the, biggest vanity projects in the history of film. If any single director deserves such an indulgence, it is Kurosawa, especially after “Ran.”

My biggest stumbling block with “Dreams” is that I do not know who would enjoy it. A person who has never seen a Kurosawa movie before won’t find enough here to want to seek out more from the master. And a Kurosawa devotee will only find regurgitations of ideas and thesis’ that the director has stated better elsewhere. The film is, in almost every way, the equivalent of a person waking up from sleep – they vaguely remember a dream that touches on important meditations to that person before the dream quickly dissipates into nothingness. Ah well, at least it’s pretty.

Sunshine Through the Rain

dreams 4The first passage is the film’s strongest, and also its most fairy tale like. Was this what Kurosawa was hoping to achieve with all of his shorts? It is raining, but the sun also shines, and a young surrogate for Kurosawa (Mitsunori Isaki) is told to stay inside – foxes get married during this weather, and he must not witness that. Of course he does, and when he gets home from his excursion his mother hands him a knife and tells him that he has two options – suicide or going to beg the foxes’ forgiveness, even though they rarely grant it.

The passage sets up the biggest recurring theme for the film, and that is that its protagonists almost invariably will witness something strange or spectacular, but never interact with it. It works in this story, but elsewhere becomes hugely grating.

There are little things here that made me smile, like watching young Kurosawa wandering through the tall trees of the forest, much like the characters in “Rashomon,” but this time surrounded by rain. I also love the dark ending, with the boy heading off to his probable death under the beauty of a rainbow. Had all the shorts been this strange and lovely, “Dreams” could have been something very special.

The Peach Orchard

dreams 2The young Kurosawa surrogate follows a girl into a former peach orchard, where everything has been chopped down. Human dolls appear and say they are representatives of the peach trees (or something), then rain down peach blossoms on the boy. And the girl he followed? She is a new peach tree, just beginning to form.

The segment is only memorable for the sight of all the dolls on a weird, beautiful four-tiered garden. It is an image that is both laughable and transcendent. Laughable because it is often in long shot with the dolls in elaborate costumes doing odd, disparate choreography. Transcendent because of the shower of peach blossoms that fill the shot, which gave me goosebumps.

The Blizzard

dreams 5The short feels endless, with a group of mountain climbers lost in a blizzard and searching for camp. They falter, one after the other, with the final one encountering a beautiful angel or demon who tries to get him off the edge of a cliff. Once she disappears, the snow lets up and camp is only feet away.

This segment and “The Tunnel” both feel like old E.C. Comics from the ‘50s, and while that works in “The Tunnel’s” favor, here you know where this one is heading from the start and then wait, and wait. There’s a lovely shot of icicles that lingers while you wait for everything to play out, though.

The Tunnel

dreams 6The most interesting of the shorts, at least for me, sees a soldier heading home through a tunnel, only to find he is not alone – the tunnel is also haunted by the ghosts of all the soldiers from his battalion. While in every other short the main character is a cipher, here the soldier must interact with these ghosts… convince them to move on.

Kurosawa has been struggling with his feelings on war since his second film, and alternately exploits the “beauty” of such battles while also condemning the actions of those who create them. His most dire statement was in his previous film, “Ran,” which ended with a blind man standing precariously on the edge of a cliff, his promise of safety useless at his side. The segment’s most outstanding moment comes when the soldier desperately looks to his fallen friends and cries out: “They call you heroes but you died like dogs!” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mixed feelings we’ve been getting from the maestro throughout his entire career, and almost (almost!) makes the entire thing worth it.

Crows

dreams 7The segment is notable for Martin Scorsese’s cameo as Vincent Van Gogh, who speaks to the adult Kurosawa surrogate (complete with his trademark hat!), played by Akira Terao. There is fun seeing Kurosawa shoot what is either France or the Netherlands and seeing such brightness and color, but the segment ends unfortunately with the surrogate wandering through Van Gogh’s paintings in an underwhelming obvious bit that seems more akin to something you’d see on “Sesame Street” than to Kurosawa.

Mount Fuji in Red

dreams 8Japan is literally on fire, with the grandfather’s horrors from “I Live in Fear” coming to vivid life in this segment. It’s neat to see Kurosawa playing with big scale special effects and choosing to keep them playful and artistic instead of realistic (my favorite shot of the entire film is when we see the snow melt on Mount Fuji), but the content here is entirely redundant… though it is better than the next bit.

Oh, and there is one hilarious moment where, after the blast, someone is explaining how he is going to die. He removes his glasses to clean them, thinks twice, and just throws the glasses away. Oh how I wish such humanity was on display elsewhere.

The Weeping Demon

dreams 3The nadir of the film, it just repeats everything we’ve just seen in “Mount Fuji in Red,” but even more literal (if that’s possible) and with ugly horned demons that look like they went to the same make-up artist as the father in “Dodes’ka-den” after he got food poisoning. Please don’t get me started about the giant dandelions, I’d rather not think about it.

Village of the Watermills

dreams 9A stunning location that Kurosawa obviously saw and then struggled in figuring out how to utilize. His surrogate wanders through the beauty and then has a talk with one of the residents, who speaks in that cranky, obvious way old wise men do in movies like this. Then there’s a procession that feels more Fellini than Kurosawa, but still is a beautiful way to bring to a finish an otherwise dreadful segment.

I recently rewatched the incredible, silent documentary “Antonio Gaudi,” which showcases the greatest architect of all time by simply shooting his work… regarding it. I almost wonder whether Kurosawa should have created the beautiful images and then just regarded them, pulling out all pretense of storytelling. Would the movie have been more successful? Perhaps. It’s hard to call “Dreams” a quantifiable failure because, as I wrote when I opened this article, it’s a vanity project.

Did Kurosawa achieve what he wanted to achieve?

Notes:

-The Criterion release has a documentary about the making of this film that is a half hour longer than the feature. I must admit that I love that Kurosawa’s art is used as the cover art of the package, and the script for the never-shot ninth dream is fascinating.

Murder, My Sweet

murder my sweet 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: John Paxton

Based on the novel “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, Miles Mander

Release: December 9, 1944

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 90%

For a film noir, “Murder, My Sweet” has an obscenely stacked deck. One look at the roster of creators behind the project should have you salivating. Chandler! Powell! Paxton! Dmytryk! Trevor! Kruger! Wild! Be still my heart! Put all these talents together and it seems inevitable that you’re gonna get something great. And, unsurprisingly, the movie is just that.

This is the first of many Phillip Marlowe adaptations, and appears to arrive fully formed, with all the usual trimmings. Raymond Chandler wrote the novel that John Paxton adapted, so you know you’re in for weird, serpentine plotting that barely makes sense if you try to keep track of everything. Plot was never the point of Chandler’s work anyway – it was relishing the opportunity to see Marlowe yelling at a myriad of people, and in that regard the movie delivers in spades.

murder my sweet 3The movie has about five beginnings. We fade into a blind Marlowe (Dick Powell) possibly under arrest, then flashes back a few days. A huge moose of a man aptly named Moose (Mike Mazurki), who at the very least has some brain damage, hires Marlowe to find his beloved Velma, who he hasn’t seen in eight years. Then suddenly we’re concerned with a guy named Marriott (Douglas Walton) who hires Marlowe to escort him to the woods where he is to pay to get a jade necklace back. Marriott ends up shot dead (Marlowe: “[It was like] an elephant had stepped on his head.”) and Marlowe is a suspect. But we need some dames in this story, so we get a blonde one named Helen (Claire Trevor) who owned the jade and her daughter-in-law Ann (Anne Shirley). Both try to hire Marlowe, and seduce him, and scream at him, and disappear on him in the middle of very important conversations. Confused yet? Eh, just go with it – that’s part of the fun.

It’s a credit to screenwriter Paxton that it’s as coherent as it is. I’ve read the book, and trust me, he had quite the beast to tame. Paxton was a great screenwriter (“The Wild One,” “Kotch”), and his life inspired one of the best noir graphic novels ever – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ “The Fade Out.” Paxton keeps all the book’s essentials and copies and pastes the best Chandler dialogue (“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, even if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”) then adds in a few of his own flourishes. He essentially breaks the fourth wall a few times, winking at the audience about how little it all makes sense by having Marlowe complain about how everyone is paying him money to take the case and suddenly paying him money to drop the case. Then, when Marlowe is yelling at random suspects, they will often interrupt and point out plot holes. Marlowe shrugs it off, admitting he sometimes just says stuff to say stuff. You can’t help but smile.

Knowing he’s got a murky story to work with, director Edward Dmytryk throws in more noir shadows than you can shake a stick at. The first sequence, where Marlowe is blind, has cigarette smoke and face shadows and body shadows and weird expressionist shadows… that room is bleeding mood. Working with his cinematographer, the great Harry J. Wild (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “His Kind of Woman”), Dmytryk manages to find atmosphere and shadows in every scene, even bright office scenes that take place in the middle of the day. And the expressionistic stuff he does when Marlowe is drugged and sedated for three days? Holeee shit. I usually have no patience for the usually crappy camera tricks from that time period, but Dmytryk plays it smart with the cobweb over the camera and the sequence involving doors. Heck, even the fade to black used when Marlowe is clunked over the head has style, using animation to close the frame in an awesome way, almost like the iris shots from the silent era.

Dmytryk directed several well-regarded films noir, including “The Sniper” and “Crossfire.” He almost lost his career thanks to the Communist blacklist, but came back and made films like “Raintree County” (Montgomery Clift was in his car accident halfway through shooting and Dmytryk had to figure out a way to make his pre-and-post surgery footage all work together), the remake of “The Blue Angel” and “The Caine Mutiny.” I have opined previously that his films usually do not age well, but am ecstatic that this is the exception.

He also cast the movie well. This film was a big deal for Powell, who was aging out of romantic roles and wanted something grittier. Well, he got it. His interpretation of Marlowe is aces through and through, never winking at the audience and playing the scenes straight and with an inherent exhaustion that works wonders. There’s also a great moment where he can’t help but dance in the great hall of a mansion that never fails to make me laugh out loud – I wonder if it was improvised…

murder my sweet 2Trevor acquits herself very well to the femme fatale role here, knowing when to play it straight and when to ham it up juuuust enough. I love the shot of her lying in the dark in her beach house, lit cigarette breaking the blackness of the room. Shirley (who retired after this film) has the trickier role, being both a possible fatale but also retaining enough innocence to work as a straight romantic lead for Marlowe, and she does very well. Her chemistry with Powell is palpable, and it’s a shame she quit after this film. Supporting players like Kruger and Mazurki are solid as always.

After the beach house is introduced, things begin to sag a little bit. There’s still a bunch of crackerjack dialogue to be had, but the film is weighed down by the necessity to explain all the randomness we’ve just seen, and watching people talk and talk and talk is less interesting for me than the mystery itself, especially when the payoff is…well…fine and not outstanding. The film fails to pay off the Moose character in the explosive way one would hope, and Marlowe is blinded in a “meh” fashion. It’s not bad, and had the first two-thirds of the movie not been incredible, the lesser stuff wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

But alas, it does, and that holds back “Murder, My Sweet” from being a masterpiece. Still, it remains one of my favorite Chandler works ever, and Powell is so appealing as Marlowe and can spit out the dialogue like nobody’s business. I really wish he’d gotten to play this role again on the big screen.

Score: ****

Forrest Gump

forrest gump 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 76

Release: July 6, 1994

Writer: Eric Roth (adaptation), Winston Groom (novel)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Star: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise

Music: Alan Silvestri

Cinematography: Don Burgess

Company: Paramount Pictures

There’s no way that “Forrest Gump” should work. If you told me to watch a heartwarming movie about a “simple” man who manages to be involved with almost every major event in American history from the 50s to the 80s and, in the process, reveal many of the underlying truths in our culture, I would have probably laughed in your face. And yet, here I sit, greatly admiring screenwriter Eric Roth and director Robert Zemeckis’ sprawling epic.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the movie is that it doesn’t frontload its political and moral messages. Instead, screenwriter Eric Roth engrains several simple, t-shirt-ready universal truths into the character of Forrest (played wonderfully by Tom Hanks), often from the lips of his beloved Mama (Sally Field), and repeats them often (“Stupid is as stupid Does,” “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”). Through those simple phrases we get perspective on defining American events, and a surprising insight.

Over the course of the movie, Forrest involves himself in the Vietnam War, begins the Watergate scandal, is one of the first investors in Apple Computers, almost becomes a member of the Black Panthers, helps to re-open American political relations to China and inspires John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I’m only scratching the surface here, there’s plenty more he gets himself mixed up in, mostly in quirky, original, memorable ways. Miracles happen early and often in Forrest’s life, beginning with the moment that he is running from bullies and his leg braces fall off. Instead of hobbling Forrest, when they fall off they free him, and he finds he can run faster than almost anyone else. Perhaps more miracles happen to him because he has a simpler mind and bigger heart than most, or maybe it’s because he’s smart enough to recognize them as miracles instead of just luck.

forrest gump 3Just reading that last sentence misrepresents the movie as corny, oversweetened dreck, but it’s really not. There’s plenty of dark content here, thanks to Forrest’s true love and his best friend. We like Jenny (played by Robin Wright as an adult) almost immediately upon meeting her, thanks to the fact that she’s the only person who will give Forrest the time of day. There’s a beautiful scene early on where Jenny and Forrest run into her drunk, pedophile father’s fields to hide from him and she wishes to be turned into a bird. Roth revisits that moment twice later, first when the adult Jenny breaks down when she sees the house again for the first time in decades and later when Forrest has the house demolished, and each time it’s powerful.

Though Forrest remains slow and steady in his beliefs throughout his life, Jenny’s journey is really one of uncertainty and self-hate. She sleeps with a bunch of abusive losers and does a lot of drugs. In one scene she screams at Forrest, “You don’t even know what love is!” and at this moment she is, at best, a stripper. And that isn’t even her low point.

Forrest’s best friend is Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), who he meets in Vietnam. Dan is bright and cheerful at first, but hates Forrest (and himself (and God (and everything else))) after Forrest rescues him from enemy bombing and he loses both of his legs. And yet it’s obvious he’s a good man, and at one point gets almost violently defensive when someone calls Forrest stupid. Sinise is one of the best character actors we have today, capable of revealing so much without seeming to do much at all, and this is one of his finest performances.

forrest gump 2In fact, I’m not exaggerating when I say that all of the performances here are aces. All the actors, from Fields to Hanks to Wright, understand the tone of the material and go for it. Director Zemeckis is a brilliant director because he understands the technical side of the medium as well as the human, storytelling side. He’s also a great chameleon, giving us great diversity in his movies (“Contact,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” “Back to the Future” “Romancing the Stone”) but remaining distinguished as a filmmaker. Watching the above films, you can always tell it’s Zemeckis behind the camera.

However, for as much works in the film, there are several things, both major and minor, which don’t. A small example is the random flashbacks to the actors as their ancestors (for example, we see Hanks as the head of the Ku Klux Klan and several generations of Sinise dying in battle. And for all the historical moments that are just right (Watergate), Forrest’s coining of the phrase “Shit Happens” and accidental creation of the smiley face t-shirt are badly done. Another problem is the shifts in character point-of-view that happen throughout and annoy, especially since it’s Forrest relating his own story in a voiceover is that is very omnipresent. James Cameron got away with shifting points-of-view in “Titanic” because he didn’t overdo the voice-over. Not so here. When the story shifts to Jenny snorting cocaine or contemplating suicide or, in general, breaking through the bottom of the barrel to find new lows, the film grinds to a halt.

Despite these new lows, we like Jenny and what an enigma she represents for Forrest…at least until the film’s last act. Here is where Roth’s screenplay goes off the rails and he begins to forcefully extract tears from the audience instead of allowing the story to crescendo into something transcendent. It turns out that Jenny has given birth to Forrest’s child and hidden the child from him for years. Why? No reason is given. And the only reason she’s bringing Forrest into the picture now is because she’s dying of AIDS. Suddenly, any sympathy I had for Jenny is gone. The introduction of the son is the only moment we see Hanks’ astounding performance falter a bit. Roth ignores an amazing opportunity to actually show Forrest become angry about something (a thing he has every right to be given the Lifetime-movie-of-the-week circumstances), and has Forrest immediately accept the situation and marry Jenny. The final moments of the movie show Forrest and his son waiting at the bus stop for Little Forrest’s first day of school, and it’s very charming, but it’s not earned.

In many ways, Roth took a second stab at this movie with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and I’m shocked he had no qualms about ripping himself off so freely. The results were horrible.

There are so many great things about “Forrest Gump,” and it almost reaches masterpiece status. If only it didn’t rely so much on bringing false tears to the audience. For a movie that is so honest and true for most of its running time, the tricks it tries to play on us in its final reels feels like biting into that gross piece of chocolate toffee cream at the back of a chocolate box.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Ran

ran 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1985

Studio: Toho, Acteurs Auteurs Associes, Orion Classics

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide, Hideo Oguni

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Mieko Harada, Peter

Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai

Music: Toru Takemitsu

“King Lear” is a masterpiece. “Ran” is an even greater masterpiece.

The original play is one of the Bard’s finest, but one must allow for the possibility that another artist can improve upon his words and story. Kurosawa took all the best parts of Shakespeare’s work and then found ways to improve on them. Nothing the master does here is easy – any other filmmaker, no matter how talented, would have buckled under the hard, curious choices Kurosawa makes. But by taking those chances, the film becomes transcendent. When you step back and view the movie as a whole, it becomes clear that it is one of the greatest pieces of art of our time… or any time.

How’s that for praise? So where do I go from here…

Well, I suppose, to the story. Co-written by Kurosawa, Masato Ide and Hideo Oguni, they transport “Lear” to ancient Japan. The king is now a warlord named Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai). Not just any warlord, Hidetora has conquered land after land, until everything he can see is in his charge. As the film opens, he decides to “retire,” essentially, and gift land and a castle (since he’s got plenty) to each of his three sons. His most beloved son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), declares that this will only end in blood and chaos and, in a fit of rage, Hidetora disowns him.

Of course, Saburo was right, and soon the blood begins the flow…

Hidetora is not a good person. None of the characters are, except one. The warlord has killed countless people, and after slaughtering kings and other warlords has forced their daughters to marry his sons. The first is Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who is the single righteous character, and has forgiven Hidetora for his sins — a gesture that the warlord cannot comprehend. The other is Kaede (Mieko Harada), who reacted… less sweetly. But more on her later.

Despite being a monster, Hidetora stupidly expects that his sons will live in peace with one another. Oops. Had he waited until after his death to have his intentions made clear, the chaos and bloodshed of the first two acts would have still probably happened in about the same manner they happen in the film. But allowing Hidetora to witness them, powerless to have any effect on them, adds in an extra layer of tragedy.

ran 3Even though we are essentially watching scorpions trapped in a bucket stinging one another until they are all dead, we still invest ourselves emotionally with the characters. Every time I watch the movie, I am shocked that this happens… and yet it does. This is further surprising considering one of Kurosawa’s visual techniques – he shoots nothing in close up. Whereas other directors and cinematographers would lean on those close ups in order to underline emotion and help us engage with the cast, Kurosawa keeps his distance.

And yet we still care.

So much of this has to do with the first few minutes of the film. Yes, we immediately see Hidetora powerfully take down a boar, but later he falls asleep mid-conversation. He might be a warlord, but he is still an old man. In a gesture so small and yet so resonant, Saburo cuts down two large branches and sticks them into the ground near his father, shading him as he sleeps. Horrible people, but through that one act of kindness, we care. Perhaps a comparable movie is the first “Godfather” film. Because Michael cares about Kate, we care about Michael. And because we see Vito in moments of humanity… moments of kindness… our heart aches when he dies. The same is true here.

ran 4Perhaps another part of it is that “Ran” has one of the greatest villains in the history of film with Lady Kaede. For me, she ranks right up there with the Joker, the Reverend from “Night of the Hunter” and Hannibal Lecter. Eyebrows painted high on her forehead, Kaede is the second variation on Lady Macbeth that Kurosawa has given us, after Lady Asaji in “Throne of Blood.” They have the same creepy slow squeak of their kimono whenever they move, but Kaede just blows Asaji away. In my “Throne of Blood” article I wrote that Kaede is “a tornado of a woman capable of slow manipulation and fierce battle depending on what tactic she needed to take,” and indeed she is. But the most interesting thing about her is that she is the only character in the entire film to get a happy ending. After being forced to marry into the family that slaughtered her family, Kaede has rightfully been plotting revenge for (one assumes) decades. And she does just that. The film lingers on her character even after the death of Hidetora to show her moment of triumph, and though she is immediately slaughtered (it happens offscreen, but we do see a glorious spray of blood hit the wall as she is beheaded), she gets the opportunity to learn that she has won. This is purposeful – Hidetora lives just long enough to see everything he built fall and Kaede lives just long enough to see the same thing. As written, it is nearly an impossible character to play, and yet Harada manages to pull it off with a tour-de-force performance. It’s not many actors who can go from begging to strength to literally sucking the blood from the neck of the man who killed your husband as a seduction tactic, and yet she does. Bravo.

If you haven’t seen the film, throw out any notions of how it looks, because you are wrong. While one would expect drab darkness in the costumes and insidious tones in the cinematography, we get neither. Instead we get over a thousand glorious, colorful costumes (which won an Oscar) that Kurosawa often frames against lush colors of green, red and orange. Nakadai is covered in garish overdone old person make-up which in almost any other movie would be laughable (this type of make-up hasn’t gone well for Kurosawa before). The music is sparse where you would expect it to crescendo, and I have already mentioned all the medium shots instead of close ups. It’s almost as if the master set out to turn every visual cliché on its ear, and not only managed to pull it all off, but make it look great.

ran 2It’s a testament to how engaging “Ran” is from a story standpoint that I’m just now getting to the battle scenes, which eclipse anything in Kurosawa’s oeuvre…and indeed probably 99% of other filmed battle scenes. By the time the battles hit, we are so engaged emotionally that the actual warfare is an afterthought – and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. What a joy it is to behold. That shot of Hidetora walking down the stairs of his burning castle. The shots of the cavalry galloping towards the woods, with no music and just the overwhelming thud of the hooves. Watching the sky darken over the field of battle when real clouds block out the sun. The sight of an army atop a hill. Filmmaking doesn’t get much better than this, folks.

The ending is the darkest Kurosawa ever created – even darker than “Kagemusha” and “I Live in Fear.” It seems to argue for the opposite of the themes that Kurosawa usually illustrated earlier in his career, and why not? People change. The world changes. His life was obviously very difficult, but in the end he still remembered that the art mattered. That the art lasted. Like the great paintings, plays, books and films of our time, “Ran” will last. And that final image of the blind man on the edge of the precipice, abandoned by his gods and ever closer to falling, remains possibly the most haunting final moment in film history.

Notes:

  • Because of some shady dealings, “Ran” was not chosen as Japan’s entry for the 1985 Academy Awards. Thankfully, members of the Academy still rallied and got Kurosawa nominated for Best Director (every now and then the Academy gets something right), and the movie was also nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and won the Oscar for Best Costumes. Japan’s entry that year wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Film, and “Ran” lost in all other categories to “Out of Africa.”
  • The Criterion DVD is long out of print but worth spending the extra money for, because the supplements are essential to any fan of the film. Sidney Lumet’s incredible introduction alone makes the hefty secondary market prices worth it.
  • Roger Ebert’s Great Movies entry on “Ran” is also essential.

Murder by Contract

murder by contrast 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ben Simcoe

Director: Irving Lerner

Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard

Music: Perry Botkin

Cast: Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel

Release: December 13, 1958

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 60%

I really wish that “Murder by Contract” was not called “Murder by Contract.” Further, I wish that the poster didn’t feature an image from the last five minutes of the movie that spoils the main thrust of the storytelling. Oh, to be someone who could watch the movie without knowing a thing about it and allowing its nasty world to slowly reveal itself… that would be something great.

The first two-thirds of the film are about as perfect as movies get. It tells the story of a guy named Claude (Vince Edwards) who, one day, decides to become a contract killer. Turns out he’s great at killing, and one day his boss sends him to Los Angeles to plug a woman named Billie (Caprice Toriel). His two handlers George (Herschel Bernardi) and Marc (Phillip Pine) don’t know what to make of his eccentric ways at first, but still help him out in a pinch with things like trips to the beach and shooting flaming arrows.

The economy with which writer Ben Simcoe and director Irving Lerner set up this world is astonishing, especially considering that “economy” usually doesn’t equate with “style,” and yet here both are balanced perfectly. I love the way that the filmmakers use just enough information to get across what needs to be learned by the viewer (often without dialogue), but rarely do more. It makes the viewer an active participant in the film by making them stay alert so as not to miss something… and quite a change of pace considering how often these movies spoon feed us exposition. Look at the scene where Claude first enters a room for his job interview with Mr. Moon (Michael Granger). The camera lingers on Claude as the interview starts, but the moment you begin to wonder why we aren’t looking at Moon, the camera cuts to him. The interaction is stylish, and yet it doesn’t call attention to how awesome it is. Lerner seems allergic to boring set-ups like over/over/two shots, but doesn’t rewrite the cinematic language so much that it’s a distraction for the viewer. Lerner also knows when to hold still and just regard his actor. We watch Claude getting ready for work. Later we watch him spend weeks alone in his apartment… he dresses for no one, pays for food delivery with a table-long line of dimes, works out… building character without Claude saying a word.

murder by contract 2And what a character Claude is, inhabited to perfection by Edwards. Aside from his supporting role in “The Killing,” I have never seen another performance from him (he would reteam with director Lerner for the noir “City of Fear,” unseen by me), but damn I wish I had. Then again, you’ll note the beginning of a pattern here – all of the filmmakers in front and behind the camera do incredible work… work that was never equaled elsewhere, resulting in most of their stuff falling through the cracks of time. I hate to call Edwards a Marlon Brando type, but those are probably the roles he kept going out for in the ‘50s. The movie, especially in its early sections, treats him like walking sex. The camera lingers on his body as we watch him lounge, swim, work out…whatever. Perhaps the studio was worried a film with such dark subject matter needed a beefcake to help sell it? Maybe the filmmakers wanted to underline that the most beautiful things can represent the worst in humanity? Both?

That said, Edwards brings much nuance and subtlety to his work. After being quiet or monosyllabic for most of the movie, the screenplay slaps him with two multi-minute monologues that help explain his motivations, one right after the other, and Edwards hits a homerun both times. When one of his handlers asks him if he feels anything, Edwards shrugs, explaining “I’m hot. I’m cold.” The way he delivers the line will give you the goosebumps.

murder by contract 3If the first 50 minutes of “Murder By Contract” are perfect, a few major hiccups get in the way of making the movie transcendent. After thinking he has killed Billie, Vince has a few hours before he heads home, so he hires a hooker named Mary (Cathy Browne). Mary is obviously a sex worker, but the movie (probably because of content restrictions) finds itself bending over backwards to paint her as something else. She works at a law firm as a secretary! She wants to go to dinner when she gets to the hotel room (mmmHmm). That bugged me, but even moreso is the wild, wild coincidence that her uncle (or whoever) works for the police and spilled a secret that Billie is really alive, and that the conversation between Mary and Claude would go in that direction, and that Mary would know so many details. *deep breath* It’s cuh-razy. There has to have been a better way to get that information across.

Even odder is that Claude then refuses to attempt to kill Billie again because this killing is “a jinx.” Nothing we’ve seen of Claude makes this superstitious point of view seem in character. Ugh. The film thankfully rights itself by the time Claude is crawling through a drainage pipe for the big climax, but for awhile there I was worried the filmmakers were about to shit the bed entirely.

Ah, but when the movie is good, it’s great. There are so many small moments that are just perfect, like the moment where Claude turns on the man who hired him, or the way he explains that he was seeing if his handlers were being tailed. It makes you wonder why the writer and director never got more traction in Hollywood. Screenwriter Simcoe wrote a few television episodes and two other forgotten films… and that’s it. Director Lerner may have been a Soviet spy against us (in which case I bite my thumb at him), but he also worked as a director on a bunch of forgotten movies (he reteamed with Edwards on several episodes of Edwards’ television show “Ben Casey”), but was also an editor and producer. Perry Botkin, who composed the tremendous score, was better known as a guitar player than a composer, and his major claim to fame aside from this movie was writing songs for “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Yes, you read that right.

That said, whatever else they did in their lives, they still came together to make this film, which is more than enough.

Score: ****

Kagemusha

kage 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1980

Studio: Toho, 20th Century Fox

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki

Cinematographer: Takao Saito

Music: Shin’ichiro Ikebe

Visually, “Kagemusha” is the best looking film Kurosawa has made so far, eclipsing even “The Hidden Fortress” and “Dersu Uzala.” More than that, every single scene is good, often wonderful. If we are using Howard Hawks’ definition of a great movie (“three great scenes, no bad ones”), then “Kagemusha” is indeed great.

But great as it may be, it’s not very good.

As noted above, all of the ingredients are certainly there… and yet the parts exceed the whole. The movie seems to be about a lot of things, but at the same time is about nothing. You don’t engage with the main character (actually, I’m fairly certain the main character isn’t really our main character), and by the time we come to the final, stunning image…I was left cold. I was wowed by the visual beauty, but not emotionally moved. It’s very telling that none of the main characters take part in the climax of the movie – they all sit at the sidelines, pedestrians to their own fates.

And yet the excellence of the individual scenes and the beauty of what Kurosawa and his cinematographer Takao Saito achieve throughout make you almost able to wave off how impersonal it all feels. Almost.

In the 1500s, three clans battle with one another. When the leader of the Takeda clan (Tatsuya Nakadai) is assassinated by a sniper’s bullet, he lives long enough to put into motion a plot for a common Thief who is virtually identical to him (Nakadai again) to pretend to be him for three years’ time, preserving the clans’ safety. And thus the leader’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is tasked with ensuring that the Thief completes his mission.

Why three years and not until the young heir to the crown is an adult? No idea. There’s also a subplot where Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), the illegitimate son of the leader, is grumpy because his son has been chosen as the heir, not him.

kage 2There is so much potential for the story here…potential that is never really acted upon. Kurosawa has returned again and again throughout his career to the question “What is the measure of a human being?” and one would think he would be exploring that here as well, considering the premise. And perhaps he was, as evidenced by one of the final shots – when the Thief races through the bodies of the murdered armies and is himself shot, Kurosawa interestingly cuts to the empty chair of the clan leader, implying that the Thief had become the leader metaphorically. There are discussions between Nobukado and other characters about how the Thief had started to resemble the leader more than just physically, but this isn’t justified by any of the Thief’s actions. The Thief creates a close relationship with the leader’s grandson, but the grandson is quick to point out that he was afraid of his real grandfather. The Thief tries to ride the leader’s horse, but is immediately thrown. The Thief is asked to make a single military decision, but his answer is merely a mimic of something he heard earlier, not his own thoughts. Finally, the Thief has a dream where the ghost of the Leader is chasing him, not embracing him or merging with him. I would have bought that the Thief became completely loyal to his adopted clan, but the end takes it three steps too far because it is not set up.

Or Kurosawa and his co-writer Masato Ide could have taken it in the other direction, where the Thief runs the clan into the ground because he is not the equal of his double. But that film was not to be either.

These are all symptoms of the main problem of “Kagemusha,” which that it does not know who the Thief is. Yes, it’s inspired that Kurosawa and Ide chose a Thief to, essentially, steal away the identity of the clan leader. But who is this guy? He seems to fervently disagree with the clan’s politics at the beginning, but that never gets paid off. He seems to have a sense of humor, but aside from a scene or two that is never paid off. He seems to be a lot of things, but the only real trait he has is being a cipher.

It’s not Nakadai’s fault – he’s a very good actor and shines extremely well when given something to play with… though you still can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Toshiro Mifune had played the role. This is the fault of the writing. Because the writers do not define the Thief before he takes the place of the leader, the actual act of the impersonation doesn’t have the suspense or pleasure it should bring the viewer.

Speaking of the impersonation scenes, this is also a major missed opportunity. Every time Nobukado walks the Thief into a room of the castle, he introduces the Thief and then says that the people know the secret. The brother does. All the generals do. The illegitimate son does. A group of seven bodyguards do. Basically everyone in the castle except the mistresses and the leader’s grandson know the secret… and that robs most of the scenes of any suspense they might have had. There’s one very funny scene of the Thief and the leader’s mistresses where he almost blows his cover, but that’s really it. It’s never played for real suspense, there are no real shocks and, when the cover is finally blown, it feels like a major anticlimax.

Perhaps Kurosawa picked the wrong protagonist. Shift the film over to Nobukado and perhaps it would have been a masterpiece. Every time he speaks with the Thief, he is essentially talking to a carbon copy of his dead brother – talk about a weird grieving process. And all of the pressure is really on him… he’s got to keep the Thief under control, the Generals happy and the clan together, all while keeping a titanic secret. Now that’s a story I would love to see, and it’s telling that in many scenes your eyes shifts to Nobukado, even though he is not the primary focus.

Now that I’ve walloped the movie for 1,000 words, I should underline that I still think you should see it… and as soon as possible. There are things in “Kagemusha” I have never seen on film before, and moments of transcendence that basically reach out of the screen, grab the viewer and shake him.

kage 3The movie lives in moments both intimate and sweeping. There’s a scene early in the movie where a messenger delivers an important report. It’s been done thousands of times before, many by Kurosawa. But he finds a fresh perspective here, with the messenger running through what appears to be a sea of dead bodies… that are revealed to only be sleeping. There’s a shot of soldiers framed against an orange/red sky that is the most beautiful image of war ever put on film – better than anything Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg ever cooked up. The first shot of the film is endless, in a wonderful way. It shows the throne room, with three virtually identical men sitting near one another, facing away from each other. The dialogue content is great, but Kurosawa’s simple frame has you searching desperately for where the split screen is, and just when you think you’ve figured it out (it’s gotta be the candlestick!), he then has the characters move in such a way that makes you scramble to rethink again.

This is the first time Kurosawa has really used color to his advantage. “Dodes’ka-den” was a failed experiment (not just visually, but that’s another story), and though “Dersu Usala” is definitely one of the most visually appealing of the maestro’s works, it uses natural forest colors for most of its running time. Here, the entire movie looks like a colorful painting. From the stunning costumes and fabrics to the shots of rainbows, weather and clouds, the master is working on a different level here. It never gets more beautiful than the aforementioned dream sequence, which feels somehow like a silent film ascetically while also resembling a Monet painting. It’s the kind of sequence where you want to rewind it as soon as you finish it, just to drink in its beauty over and over. It all never looks real (the blood at the finale might as well be literally paint brushed on the horses and soldiers by Kurosawa himself), but in this case the palate makes it visually transcendent.

Then, of course, there’s my favorite sound effect in the movies: hundreds of horses galloping all at once. It’s not quite as overwhelming and awesome as “Ran,” but it’s pretty close.

It’s interesting to compare “Kagemusha” to “Dersu Uzala.” If I were stacking the two together, “Dersu Uzala” is by most definitions a lesser film. The dialogue is a trainwreck, the pacing off and the premise told thousands of times before. It’s got a couple of great moments, but just as many clunky bits. And yet, I still like it more than “Kagemusha” because I love Dersu as a character, and this film might be really pretty in all the ways that count, but it’s also soulless.

Notes:

  • The Criterion disc is incredible. It has an unmissable conversation with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who helped Kurosawa find funding for this movie, as well as a 45 minute video comparing Kurosawa’s artwork to the finished film.
  • “Kagemusha” was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, as was the Art Decoration.

The Lodger

the lodger 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Barre Lyndon

Based on “The Lodger” novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Director: John Brahm

Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Sara Allgood, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

Release: January 19, 1944

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 50%

The only way that “The Lodger” works is to think of it in relation to the film it remakes. That film, 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early works and is oft-considered the movie where the iconic director found his mojo. The story beats, which track a mysterious new tenant renting a room in a family home and their growing suspicion that he may be a serial killer, are uniform until the third act. In Hitchcock’s version, the “Lodger” is innocent. In the 1944 version, he is indeed the killer.

For someone who has seen the 1927 original, the revelation is a genuine surprise. For everyone else, though? Talk about an anticlimax. We spend a little over an hour watching a creepster acting very creepy while the idiot family that has taken him in wave away every big flashing neon sign pointing at his guilt to discover that there is no twist. Ugh.

The other notable change is that the serial killer in Hitchcock’s version was named “The Avenger,” though he was obviously inspired by Jack the Ripper. Here, the filmmakers explicitly use the Ripper killings as their jumping off point, which is also odd because they change so much of the story – it’s forgivable that they change the victims from prostitutes to actresses considering the production code, but altering the ending so that the killer is caught? Not so much.

the lodger 3Anyway, here the title character is named Slade (Laird Cregar), and he moves into the home of Robert (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Ellen (Sara Allgood) and their daughter Kitty (a much-too-bland Merle Oberon). Kitty is a much-lauded actress/dancer who Slade finds himself increasingly obsessed with, and the entire family notices his behavior is a little off. He comes in and out at all hours, keeps burning his clothes and medical bag, and no matter what part of the room he’s in, his face always seems framed at the edge of shadows. Weird, right? Especially considering Jack the Ripper is killing women in town every ten days. Kitty is being courted by a police inspector named John (a wonderfully restrained George Sanders), who also seems unaware that Slade is acting totally cray.

As I hinted earlier, screenwriter Barre Lyndon and director John Brahm aren’t exactly subtle at pointing the finger at Slade. They frame Cregar’s face in the most villainous way possible in almost every shot. Almost as soon as we meet him, he psychotically turns all the paintings of females over in his room while gasping for air. Slade first burns his medical bag seconds after hearing that the killer has a medical bag just like his, and later burns his blood-covered shirt directly after another murder. Both times family members catch him – he seems physically incapable of closing a door – but both times Robert’s character waves it off. “Anyone with that type of bag would burn it!” Robert says as an excuse, to which I responded “!!!!!????!!!!” After the second incident, Robert calms the women down by saying “Remember when you were wrong about the bag?” instead of what any rational person would say: “Golly, there’s a lot of evidence piling up. Let’s talk to your cop boyfriend.”

Then again, the London police department doesn’t seem much better off – there’s a long sequence where Sanders admits that the entire police force cannot tell the difference between a left hand and a right hand. You get where I’m going with this, right? Why should the viewer invest himself or herself in a storyline where all the characters you are supposed to root for are idiots who basically deserve to die because of their stupidity? Anyone?

There’s a fascinating article on TCM.com where David Kalat writes that the first two acts do an incredible job of illustrating the paranoia and suspicion that the circumstances of having a serial killer at large have on normal people. That argument would only work if Slade was innocent, though. Instead, you find yourself wanting to shout helpful advice to the screen when the characters do stupid things, which is often. You want examples? The parents decide it would be best not to leave Kitty alone in the house with Slade, and in the very next scene do just that. In the climactic sequence John says they should stay inside the theater where the murderer is because they can keep an eye on Kitty easier there… and then immediately abandon her on a fainting couch.

the lodger 2I suppose my genuine frustration with “The Lodger” stems from the fact that it could be a very good movie. Cregar gives a marvelous performance as Slade, making you wish the movie were told from his perspective, a’la “The Sniper.” Brahm and his cinematographer Lucien Ballard make the movie look stunning. Yes, stunning. One of the first shots is of a police officer stepping into an abandoned, fog-covered London street that countless other film and television shows have tried to mimic, usually not as well. There are several memorable visual sequences, like the first murder long-take (though, amazingly, the same actress is killed here who shows up later as another “actress” that is killed!), or when the police officers climb the buildings of the slum trying to catch the Ripper. And the finale sequence, which sees a shot Slade trapped in the theater and racing to-and-fro like a cornered rat, is amazing. There’s a shot of Cregar holding a knife and a slow pan in that captures the killer’s mania perfectly.

Brahm never made a masterpiece, though he did make quite a good career out of remaking other movies. Aside from “The Lodger,” he remade “Broken Blossoms” and “Time to Kill” (as the unfortunately-titled “The Brasher Doubloon”). I like his visual style and am curious to see his other films noir, which include “Doubloon” and “The Locket.”

Jack the Ripper has inspired many horrible films, and several wonderful ones (“Murder by Decree,” “From Hell,” “Time After Time”). “The Lodger” sits right there in the middle of the road, certainly memorable but still not all that good. It made me want to rewatch the original, and I’m going to recommend you do that instead of watching this one.

Score: **1/2

All the President’s Men

all the presidents men 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 77

Release: April 9, 1976

Writer: William Goldman (adaptation), Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (book)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Star: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards

Music: David Shire

Cinematography: Gordon Willis

Company: Warner Bros.

For most of its running time, “All the President’s Men” is a fascinating, absorbing portrait of the slow, sometimes-desperate uncovering of the truth behind the Watergate break-ins. It takes a “just the facts, m’am” approach to its subject, content with the thought that the clues, details and conspiracies will be enough to make the film worthwhile while pushing aside characterization and emotional arcs.

The film begins showing us the details of the break-in, with a guard at the Watergate offices discovering a door has been taped so it cannot lock and reporting it to the police. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a reporter for the “Washington Post,” is called to cover the arraignment of the men who broke in, and is surprised to find they have an expensive lawyer on their side, the kind no one would expect. Woodward presses and begins to realize things aren’t right.

Another reporter becomes involved named Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and though the movie gets thousands of the small details of journalism right, his first major interaction with Woodward feels wrong. Woodward has typed up his version of certain events, turns it into copy and then Bernstein immediately takes it away and starts to rewrite it, citing the fact that Woodward did not introduce the main person involved with the story until the third paragraph. I understand that Woodward’s character is meant to be a new reporter for the “Post,” but I don’t buy that. I have a Bachelor’s in News Journalism, and just about the first thing they teach us (aside from that the AP Stylebook is our bible) is to write news stories using the pyramid structure. There’s no way Woodward would have ever been hired in the first place if he didn’t know better and was burying leads like that in news stories. It’s a small moment, sure, but it took me completely out of the movie.

all the presidents men 3Woodward and Bernstein (fellow employees at the “Post” jokingly call them “Woodstein” and it sticks) don’t have a lot to go on at first, and watching the investigation take its first fleeting steps toward being viable is engaging because it feels so real. This is what real newspapermen do when following leads and trying to envision the facts of a story. They reach wildly through smoke and hope to catch something, making calls and using their names to get people to talk (though their job clams people up ten times as often). An entire scene is devoted to Woodstein cheering and using the fact that a secretary double-talked as a major breakthrough, even though nothing she said could ever be used in the paper.

From these shaky first steps, the duo continues punching water, making hundreds of calls (there’s a great long take of Redford juggling two calls that is both funny and gripping) and looking for something…anything…that can help them. Director Alan J. Pakula gives us a spectacular shot from God’s point-of-view that sums up their journey wonderfully. He begins close on Woodstein going through thousands of library request forms and then slowly pulling back and up, the tables and library around them creating a complex labyrinth.

We learn little about Woodward or Bernstein’s relationship outside of the investigation and even less about their personal lives. This is purposeful, and we do get to know them a bit through their personalities. Though Bernstein is better at the writing, Woodward is fantastic with interviewing and knows how to contort a question or ask just the right thing so that, even if the answer isn’t explicitly stated, it’s inferred. There are interesting, barely visible moments in the first half where Bernstein is visibly annoyed by Woodward’s questions, but as the movie progresses, Bernstein gets better at asking the right questions too. This movie gets another aspect of journalism exactly right in that many of the people being questioned just assume that the reporters know everything already and, as a result, tell the reporters much more than they knew in the first place and, sometimes, give a big breakthrough to the story in the process.

all the presidents men 2Despite the lack of character development, Hoffman and Redford shine. Redford, in particular, proves here definitively that he is one of the great actors in the history of film. Though his good looks sometimes work against him, here he simply disappears into the character, leaving no trace of the movie star we thought we knew. Also of special note is Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee, who convinces us early and often that he’s a grizzled editor who cares enough about the story to let the team follow it, even though more experienced reporters might have been better suited.

Pakula gives the movie the feel of a thriller even if we know the reveals and the ending, and for most of the movie the pace is taut and the events suspenseful. I’m surprised it flows as well as it does and kept me engaged as fully as it did, especially considering the lack of character development. Sadly, the movie is over two hours long, and by about the one-hour-and-forty-five minute mark the reversals and doors kicked open to reveal nothing become repetitive and the pace disappears. Things get a bit interesting again when Pakula begins to play up the conspiracy angle, with the reporters afraid their homes are bugged and are looking behind themselves all the time to make sure they are not being followed.

Then, suddenly, the movie ends. Structurally, it feels like we have reached the end of the second act, with high-ups in the government denying what Woodstein are writing and Woodward learning from his contact Deep Throat that his life is in danger. Then Bradlee gives him a motivational speech to end all motivational speeches…and the movie ends. There’s a little closure in the form of an AP teletype showing us headlines for the next three years, ending with Nixon resigning, but that’s it. It’s a non-ending that endlessly frustrated me, especially considering the care Pakula and writer William Goldman took in making sure all the details of the build-up were right. To make a bad metaphor, we see the dominos set up but aren’t given the opportunity to enjoy watching them knocked down.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2