Jeopardy

jeopardy 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli

Based on: “A Question of Time” radio play by Maurice Zimm

Director: John Sturges

Cinematographer: Victor Milner

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Meeker, Barry Sullivan, Lee Aaker

Release: March 30, 1953

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 50%

Barbara Stanwyck is the queen of film noir, but we all know that she was in as many stinkers as she was masterpieces. And that’s okay – even in her worst films, Stanwyck was still awesome, and it made you appreciate her professionalism. So when I viewed the opening credits of this little-seen, little-discussed one-hour-and-ten-minute noir and they were in the font of a bad ‘50s monster movie, I didn’t hold out much hope. Boy was I wrong.

Sure, it starts pretty badly. Stanwyck’s character Helen is given some bland (bland!) filler voiceover to pad the running time, going on about travelling and Tijuana in a film that has little to do with the former and nothing to do with the latter. But as the actual story is set into motion, things get interesting. Helen, her husband Doug (Barry Sullivan) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are vacationing in a remote part of Mexico. They set up next to an abandoned, falling-apart jetty, and thanks to an accident Doug gets his leg stuck under a pole of wood. He’s fine, but trapped, and no one panics… until they realize the tide is coming in and will drown Doug within four hours unless they get him free. Uh oh. Helen races to get help and rope to move the wood, but it’s at least an hour’s drive to anywhere with human beings.

In other words, things suck. They get worse when Helen accidentally picks up an escaped murderer named Lawson (Ralph Meeker) and is suddenly thrust into a battle of wills with him. He wants to get out of the area before the police find him, she just wants to get back to help her husband. And all through this, the tide continues to come in…

jeopardy 3Once the story gets moving, it’s a doozy. Better than that, no one acts stupid. Helen tries to use the car’s jack to get the wood off her husband (why did it feel dirty typing that?). She tries to get away every chance she can once Lawson shows his true colors, and physically fights him often so she can escape (one fight in particular seems so real I’m surprised Meeker didn’t come away with scratches on his face). Though at first Helen seems no more than a cardboard wife character, the more desperate she gets, the more interesting she becomes.

And once Lawson enters the picture, it’s impossible to look away. I am not familiar with much of Meeker’s work aside from “Kiss Me Deadly,” but damn the dude is talented. He has firecracker chemistry with Stanwyck, and though he is a vile, despicable guy, Meeker makes you like his swagger and personality from the moment he starts eating Helen’s crackers (not a metaphor). I almost wonder if they rewrote the ending of the film to give Meeker some redemption and the possibility of escape once they realized that the audience would immediately fall for him.

jeopardy 2Meeker and Stanwyck take part in a very interesting scene at an abandoned house. An increasingly desperate Helen knows her husband only has a few minutes left, so she tries her hand at seducing Lawson. And since it’s Barbara Stanwyck, she does a damn good job at it. You really believe her when she makes sex eyes at Lawson and says “I’ll do anything to save my husband.” Lawson says that, if he helps Doug, Helen will have to go away with him and pretend to be his wife so that, when they are stopped at roadblocks, the police believe them. Helen agrees, and then the duo begin to make out. They kiss, trade insults, then kiss again. Lawson says that he doesn’t like this, kisses her once more, and they cut away. Does Helen have sex with Lawson? Probably. I’m legitimately shocked that they allowed this content in a film in 1953 but hey, good for them. I love moral ambiguity.

Also outstanding is the finale, where Lawson redeems himself by rescuing Doug in a nailbiting sequence (Sullivan seems legitimately trapped as he’s getting smacked hard by some pretty intense waves). And once he does, Helen holds up her end of the bargain by offering to leave with him. But Lawson tells her to stay with her family, then has to run when he sees the police approaching. He and Helen shake hands, and I found myself oddly moved by the moment. The movie also doesn’t even imply that Lawson will be caught – we see him escaping and have hope that he’ll get away.

There are also a bunch of small moments within the subplot of Doug and Bobby waiting at the jetty for Helen to return that just shine. When the water gets fairly high and Doug suspects Helen might not make it in time, he has a frank conversation with his son, telling Bobby that, if he dies, that Bobby still needs to stay there by the car so that he doesn’t get lost in the desert before Helen can return. Then, when Helen and Lawson arrive in the nick of time, they find Bobby embracing his father as the waves smash into the two men. It’s beautiful and touching.

Also impressive are the locations. Director John Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner either built the creepiest jetty I’ve ever seen or found the perfect one on location. It just gives you the chills. And the sequences where Doug is trapped and the tide envelops him are brilliantly staged and choreographed – I’m certain part was done in studio, but I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between the location shooting and the stuff done on the lot.

The crew list is an embarrassment of riches – seriously, what were all these great filmmakers doing on this little tiny B-movie? I’m not complaining, but still. First, we’ve got composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who did scores for little movies like “High Noon,” “Dial M For Murder,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “The Guns of Navarone.” Cinematographer Milner was reaching the end of a storied career that included such diverse masterpieces as Lubisch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.” Perhaps the one guy who seemed fit for the project was screenwriter Mel Dinelli, who wrote great (but underseen) noir films like “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Reckless Moment” and “House by the River.”

And then there’s director John Sturges, who would go on to helm the wonderful “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” Here he keeps the movie moving along at a breakneck pace, building to a fever pitch that you won’t forget and making things like tricky locations and an incoming tide look simple to shoot.

“Jeopardy” really blew me away. For a movie that starts with horrible voiceover that makes you cringe, by the end of the brief running time I cared about everyone involved to the point that I was at the edge of my couch. If you’ve never seen it, track it down, pronto.

Score: ****1/2

Advertisements

Spartacus

spartacus 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 81

Release: October 7, 1960

Writer: Dalton Trumbo (adaptation), Howard Fast (novel)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Star: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov

Music: Alex North

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Company: Universal International

The problem with the “spectacle” films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when studios saw running time and Cinemascope as the answer to the problem of television, is that the actual spectacle lasts about twenty minutes or less in the films’ usually three-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. Over-actors fill the rest of the reels with overblown, stodgy dialogue while looking generally hilarious in bad costumes and worse hair styles. “Spartacus” separates itself by actually having something to say in those long passages between the crackerjack “spectacle” sequences.

Kirk Douglas is the title character, a slave who trains to be a gladiator before leading a revolution, first against his captors and later against all of Rome. He seeks freedom for himself and the ever-growing group of slaves that march through Italy toward a group of pirate ships on the coast. There’s more, of course – three hours of more.

The driving force is no more or less inventive than any other film of this type. It’s all about the execution. The “villains” of the film are genuinely engaging, three-dimensional characters who do not shy away from having ethical discussions.

First and foremost is Peter Ustinov as the owner of the Gladatorial school Spartacus trains at. Ustinov’s performance is the best in a film of great supporting performances, and he is so gleeful in his one-track-mind that he earns our love despite his unabashedly-underhanded behavior.

spartacus 2Next up is Charles Laughton, who could have easily walked through the role but injects his Roman Senator with a surprising amount of decency. In the film’s final moments, when he procures safe passage for Spartacus’ wife (Jean Simmons), he surprises both us and himself with the humanity he displays. Usually overlooked is John Gavin, who is just aces as a young, cocky Julius Caesar, whose loyalties are always in flux.

Laurence Olivier plays Crassus, who becomes the ultimate villain of the film even though he only has one scene with Spartacus, and even his motivations come off as more thought-provoking than evil, despite the fact that he crucifies 6,000 slaves and oversees the slaughter of thousands of others. Olivier is one of those rare actors who always seems to be thinking, even when he isn’t speaking in a scene, and the film’s writer, Dalton Trumbo, gives him some of the best dialogue in the movie.

Crassus’ villainy is oddly approached in the film. He’s the villain because the movie seems to insist that he has to be the villain, and some of his actions in the second and third act seem out of character with the intriguing, multi-dimensional person that had been set up before. It’s difficult, because the real thing Spartacus and his army fights here isn’t a person…it’s an idea: Slavery. All the Romans in the film keep slaves, and in theory are all just as evil as the next character. Of course they were never going to “beat” slavery or end the idea, so it needed a face, and that was where Olivier came in.

Alas, in comparison to these fascinating, great villains, Spartacus comes off as horribly two-dimensional. He wants freedom…he wants freedom now! Oh, and he loves his woman. You don’t get much more than that, but Douglas does well with what he’s given, and manages to give quite a good performance despite little dialogue of any depth or interesting characteristics.

Since this is a “spectacle” film the costumes are, unsurprisingly, atrocious and I highly doubt Roman women had the hairspray and conditioner to create such perfectly sculpted over-the-top hairstyles that they have here. Poor Simmons tries to act through horribly overdone make-up and over-touched hair, which almost always manages to be present even though she’s merely a slave. Then again, what else are we to expect?

Of course, there are things to treasure about movies of this type as well. Alex North’s brilliant score is both intimate and suitably epic when it needs to be, and its melodies linger long after the film ends. And there’s something so special about looking at those wide, beautifully shot scenes and sequences where you know you are actually looking at hundreds of soldiers slowly marching toward you. Needless to say, the bloody battle scenes do not disappoint, and the aftermath, where soldiers wander through what appears to be thousands of dead bodies, is rightly unsettling.

The writing is good, though shockingly unbalanced at times. It’s hard to believe the same writer crafted the carefully worded monologues about belief and the sloppy, horrible lines of exposition like “It’s Spartacus again? This time he dies!” And I have to wonder who allowed that atrocious voice-over at the beginning of the film that explains nothing that we need to know.

“Spartacus” doesn’t feel like a Kubrick film, though it has all the technical mastery one would expect from his work. The whole is much too emotional, and there’s too much heart here for it to be real Kubrick. I don’t mean this as a negative, I only mean to say that if I did not already know that he was involved going in, I would not have been able to tell you who was the director when walking out.

spartacus 3I have such mixed feelings about the false hope manufactured by the ending. Yes, the filmmakers should be given a lot of credit for ending the movie without your typical happy ending, and watching Spartacus slaughter his best friend (Tony Curtis) and then be crucified is a pretty ballsy move. And I did feel like having Laughton’s character freeing Simmons and the baby was a beautiful, touching beat…but then she found Spartacus up on that cross. Simmons holds up her baby and declares the child “free.” Well, yes, but so what? How is that supposed to make us feel better? The only reason she and the baby are free is because of Laughton. Every other person who was part of the rebellion is dead. Every. Other. Person. And slavery is still there, and would be there for another two-thousand years. Having the filmmakers try to make it feel like a positive when it really isn’t feels convoluted and doesn’t ring true.

“Spartacus” is a mixed bag, distinguished and great in some respects but tired and overblown in others. It’s the best “spectacle” film to come out of Hollywood in that time period, but is that really saying all that much? I’ll remember it more for the four brilliant performances at the center than anything else about it, but that alone is more than enough to make it worthwhile viewing.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Yojimbo

yojimbo 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1961

Studio: Toho/Kurosawa Production Co.

Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa

Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa, Takao Saito

Music: Masaru Sato

Certain classic films feel like they were a complete trial for all involved – you can see onscreen the filmmakers stretching and just reaching transcendence…despite the hell it took them to get there. Think of movies like “Gone With the Wind,” “Schindler’s List” or “Apocalypse Now.” But then there are other classics that seem to appear fully formed. They play to all of the cast, writers and filmmakers’ strengths and you regard the movie, thinking “Well duh! Why didn’t they do this years ago?” Now think of movies like “North By Northwest,” “Jurassic Park” or “La Dolce Vita.” Everything just seemed to click.

And that’s how I feel while watching “Yojimbo.”

It perfects Toshiro Mifune’s whole jaded/smart/wildcard persona that he seems to have been rehearsing with Kurosawa all the way back to their first collaboration on “Drunken Angel.” Kurosawa (along with his frequent writing collaborator Ryuzo Kikushima) address all the major thematic touchstones of his career – poverty, wicked fools, one man going up against a seemingly impossible institution – and also throws in a samurai because that’s always cool. Mix it all together and, voila!, you’ve got a classic movie. If only it could always seem so easy.

yojimbo 3Mifune plays a samurai who probably isn’t named Sanjuro, but it’s the name he gives when asked. His robes are slightly tattered and, for a samurai, he seems to care one hell of a lot about money. We first see him literally at a crossroads and throwing a stick in order to find out which way to head next. As soon as he walks down the path pointed out to him, the plot is thrust upon him. He finds himself in a small town overrun by two warring crime bosses – and as a result the few good people left are barely surviving. The main street in the town is either filled with evil minions or completely empty (except for a dog that walks around with a random severed hand in its mouth – yum!).

Sanjuro gets the lowdown from two of the only good people in town – the restaurant owner and the casket maker. The casket maker is the only businessman in town who seems to be profiting from the gang war…though later, when the bodies are stacking up, he opines “When the fighting gets this bad, they don’t even bother with coffins.” Sensing an opportunity to make a profit and do some good, Sanjuro calls out the thugs and immediately kills off two and disarms another (literally, he chops off the guy’s arm!) and finds both gangs fighting over who will get him as their bodyguard.

The gang leaders believe that they are playing a game of chess and that Sanjuro is the most powerful player… but what they don’t know is that the game doesn’t matter because there’s a bomb under the table. Not my best metaphor, but still apt. The heavies on both sides are all idiots – Kurosawa puts him in garish make-up that makes them look like silent movie villains (he did the same thing for the bandits in “Seven Samurai”), and so it’s easy at first for Sanjuro to outwit them. They plot to kill him after he does their dirty work pretty loudly in a place where they can be overheard, after all.

But the smartest man in the room taking down dumb people one at a time can get pretty tedious (do you hear me, “House of Cards”?!), so Kikushima and Kurosawa throw in several fascinating wrenches, most notable of which is a new villain in the form of one of the boss’ brothers Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who arrives with a gun and a deep suspicion of Sanjuro. He actually catches Sanjuro red-handed and beats him senseless, which is a nice shock to the system for the audience – this is real.

The movie is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, sometimes matching “The Hidden Fortress.” There is this incredible shot that manages to show Sanjuro arriving for his last battle, Unosuke heading off to the battle and the old man strung up in the middle of the town – all introduced in the least-expected way – that is breathtaking. Though he does this often in other films, “Yojimbo” seems very concerned with getting information across through images alone with as little dialogue as possible (after the first 15 minute endless dialogue dump). And he’s smart to do this – the movie doesn’t feel oddly silent, but the lack of in-depth dialogue makes it feel more like a visceral experience.

yojimbo 2Another one of “Yojimbo’s” strengths is that it does not linger. In “Seven Samurai” Kurosawa took stereotypes and gave them time to create depth, but here we have no real interest in getting to know the scorpions of the town. Sanjuro is an enigma, and we gain more insight into his character by seeing the ingenious ways he responds to situations more than we would through monologuing. His “friends” in town are not afforded any depth, and are essentially interchangeable. And why not? What more did we need to know about them? The movie is under two hours long, and that feels just about right. We get the epic sweep we need and the plot complications a story like this requires, but it also keeps the story economical. Instead of adding epilogue after epilogue (you just know at some point there must have been a beat where Sanjuro threw another branch to choose his next journey), as Kurosawa has done before in lesser films, the maestro simply ends the film seconds after Sanjuro succeeds in saving his friend… and it’s the perfect note to end on and, more importantly, the right one.

What strikes me most about “Yojimbo” watching it again, is that it’s always smarter than it needs to be. For a movie where most of the characters are idiots, it does not talk down to its audience. The dog with the hand, having one of the heavies carry the coffin, Sanjuro hiding under the floor… all beats lesser films would have not spent the extra draft or two crafting. And, as mentioned above, Kurosawa makes it look easy, which is a sign that it was probably really hard.

Notes:

  • Since you are voluntarily reading a blog about Kurosawa, it should not come as a shock to you that the maestro’s next film is a sequel, entitled “Sanjuro.” More interesting is that there are two other unofficial sequels that Kurosawa had nothing to do with. The first is “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” – the 20th film in a series about a blind swordsman. Though Mifune certainly looks like Sanjuro, he gets a real name in the film and is working for the government, so it’s pretty obviously not the same character. The second is “Incident at Blood Pass,” which feels more true to Kurosawa’s vision of the character, albeit with less body scratching. Neither are especially great films.

Vicki

vicki 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writers: Dwight Taylor & Leo Townsend

Based on the novel “I Wake Up Screaming” by Steve Fisher

Director: Harry Horner

Cinematographer: Milton R. Krasner

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Elliot Reid, Richard Boone

Release: September 7, 1953

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 50%

As I watched “Vicki,” which is an almost scene-for-scene remake of 1941’s “I Wake Up Screaming,” I became certain that a very good version of this story can exist… but neither of these films is that. “Laura,” which came out a few years after the original and a few years before this one, is an exponentially better variation on this story. Go see that instead, please.

The carbon-copy-ness of the film begins with the storyarc. Popular NYC celeb Vicki (Jean Peters) is dead, and crazypants detective Cornell (Richard Boone) has apparently decided that her promoter Steve Christopher (Elliot Reid) did it, and will do anything to prove it. Steve teams up with Vicki’s sister Jill (Jeanne Crain) to figure out what’s really going on. Dry, rinse, repeat.

I think it goes without saying that all the storytelling problems that I had with the original film are here as well, though with one or two extra bits. Screenwriters Dwight Taylor and Leo Townsend add in a nonsensical prologue with Cornell going on vacation then realizing Vicki is dead and insisting that he be put on the case (by yelling over the phone like a baby who hasn’t gotten his baba yet). Considering that he is part of the coverup of her death, this detour made me go “wha…?”

vicki 2I have so many questions about why this film even exists. The history of nearly identical remakes of Hollywood films is somewhat varied. When sound became a thing in the industry, studios hurried to remake their biggest silent hits with sound, changing little else. Then, during that same period until around 1940, instead of dubbing the American version of a movie, studios would simply shoot several versions of the film in different languages. That’s where we got the much-superior Spanish version of “Dracula.”

But this is different. Only a little more than a decade had passed since “I Wake Up Screaming” hit theaters and (presumably) did good business… but it wasn’t a classic or anything. One might make the argument that Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters were big (okay, B-list) stars then and it was to cash in on their popularity… but even then they didn’t compare to the continuing popularity of the original film’s stars Betty Grable and Victor Mature. In 1953, the year “Vicki” was released, Grable was starring in “How to Marry a Millionaire” and Mature was in “The Robe.”

And even if you were going to remake the basic story, why not fix it? Why not alter the characters to make them seem like human beings? Why not cast someone in the Cornell role who didn’t act like he was about to have a massive stroke in any given moment? Both films are less than three minutes apart in running time, and even the minor structural and storytelling changes between the two feel more like moving furniture than improvements. Well, at least we aren’t hearing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack every three minutes this time…

It’s an odd experience, seeing different actors inhabit similar spaces saying comparable, sometimes identical, dialogue. It’s like watching the “Psycho” remake or the two versions of the fourth “Exorcist” film.

vicki 3Harry Horner was the director and visually, for the most part, his work is undistinguished and pales in comparison to H. Bruce Humberstone. Everything is flat and television-like. Compare the interrogation scenes from the original to the ones here and you’ll see what a difference there is. Then compare the lobby climaxes and you’ll get depressed.

There are three (small) moments that are improvements – the opening shots, which show Vicki’s Kardashian-like control of every magazine cover/poster/advertisement in New York, culminating in the viewer seeing her name on the toe-tag attached to her dead body. The second is just a few seconds… our first introduction to Vicki. Horner frames it so that Vicki looks up at camera when she first notices the men staring at her from outside the diner, connecting us to her visually. The third is the final shot of the film, showing the happy couple having solved the mystery and marching past an old sign of Vicki’s, which is being replaced by another sign with a different young starlet on it.

Like the first film, the acting isn’t exactly good. Boone is an unfortunate villain while Crain and Reid seem chemistry-free and bored. Peters comes across best (like Carol Landis did in the original), but the addition of a flat scene of her singing and showing off Vicki’s “talents” doesn’t do her any favors.

I’m struggling to find anything else to write about “Vicki,” aside from being thankful that the title at least makes sense this time. Like I said at the top, you should watch “Laura” instead of “I Wake Up Screaming.” And if you’ve somehow managed to watch “I Wake Up Screaming” all the way through, you’ll know better than to visit this little noir. There are much better ways to spend an hour and a half – please scroll up and down this Web page for a few ideas.

Score: *1/2

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

sunrise 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 82

Release: September 23, 1927

Writer: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer

Director: F.W. Murnau

Star: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss

Company: Fox Film Corporation

F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” identifies itself as a fable in the main titles, and in doing so allows itself to fully embrace melodrama and otherwise-ludicrous character beats. Its characters are purposely not well-defined, and the worlds presented here are as specific as they are vague. You embrace the film as you would embrace a well-written poem, the beats of beauty lingering long after it ends.

The story centers on two unnamed characters, a Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor), who were happy long ago. A Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) has drifted into their small town for a vacation, staying for weeks longer than she should in order to seduce the Man, which she does. One night as they hold one another next to a lake, she asks him to drown his Wife and run off with her to the city. The next day he takes his Wife out on the boat with the full intention of murdering her…but cannot. Across the lake they go into the city and rediscover their love for one another through a series of vignettes, but then as they make their return a storm begins that overturns their boat…

As I wrote earlier, all of this is hugely melodramatic. I write this being a fan of a good melodrama, and loathing that film critics have begun using the word as an all-encompassing criticism of any movie with elevated emotions. Look at much of the work of Douglas Sirk, William Friedkin or Brian DePalma for examples of melodrama done right, and if those names make you cringe, then melodrama isn’t for you. The melodrama in “Sunrise” is different and more shallow than the work of the above directors but, again, since the movie is more a fable than a coherent narrative, this is forgivable. And despite being so simply told with broad, melodramatic strokes, that does not mean it is not elegant. Early in the film, the man takes reeds from the lake shore to use as a floatation device after he drowns his wife and sinks his boat. I was struck by the power of a later moment, during the storm, when the Man desperately uses the reeds to save his Wife.

The one beat I still find suspect comes in the aftermath of the couple’s first boating incident. The Man has come very close to throwing his wife overboard and murdering her, but has had a change of heart. The Wife runs away from him once the boat reaches shore, but he catches up to her and apologizes profusely for an eternity (five minutes) while she bawls. After she finishes crying, all seems to be forgiven and the two begin touring the city without a thought that he almost pushed her overboard less than an hour before. The moment is reminiscent (in a bad way) of Maria immediately forgiving Tony for murdering her brother in “West Side Story,” but at least here we get a bit of breathing room before she gets over it.

sunrise 2The couple doesn’t reach the city until half-way through the film, but these passages are the most important and, ultimately, become the heart of “Sunrise.” They surprise us because they manage to convince us that this couple that we thought were beyond repair still deeply love one another. While there are broad moments of slapstick, it is the beautifully realized quiet moments that resonate most. There is a scene where they enter a church, watch another couple wed and, in their own way, renew their vows and re-commit themselves to one another. Later, they exit the church and walk into traffic, too busy gazing into each other’s eyes to notice the cars and trucks piling up around them. Even later, they dance the “Peasant’s Dance” together, at first begrudgingly but soon find themselves completely engaged with it.

The scenes that aim more for slapstick are less successful. I’m thinking here of the beautician scene where they both become playfully jealous of each other, and especially the scene in the restaurant at an amusement park. The Man ends up chasing a pig (!?) through the restaurant, the pig gets drunk on a spilled bottle of wine (I’m guessing the filmmakers greased the floor to make the pig slip and slide) and then the Man finds him. There are genuinely funny bits here, like where a bystander continues to fix a woman’s falling shoulder straps, but they take the focus off the couple and are unnecessary.

Visually, the film is endlessly inventive. My favorite image comes early, when the man tries to forget the Woman From the City. He sits on his bed and the image of the Woman appears behind him, holding him. He jerks away, only to meet another image of the Woman. Then a third appears. It’s an unforgettable moment, one of the finest in all of cinema. The sequence out on the lake where the Man contemplates murder is still unnerving thanks to the camera’s placement. We never see his face. It’s much superior to a similar sequence in the overrated “A Place In the Sun.” When the Woman and Man talk of the City, we are treated to quick swipes and lots of imaginative miniatures that just beg for rewinding and pausing. You know that Murnau is using a lot of tricks and visual gags throughout, but the movie is strong enough that they don’t matter. The viewer stops caring about how the visuals were created and instead just becomes lost in the splendor.

Murnau even surprises us with his dialogue titles. They are hardly necessary in the film, but when he uses them, he makes them count. When the word “DROWN” appears in one of the titles, it seems to become wet and warp.

sunrise 3And yet despite the visual splendor and inventiveness, the movie would not work if we didn’t believe the performances of O’Brien and Gaynor. Though they both overact (as all silent film stars were wont to do), there is a subtlety to their relationship that surprises. They have an easy chemistry with one another and make us fall in love with them in the second act. When Gaynor is lost on the lake and assumed dead, the viewer is devastated because we care just as much for their relationship as they do, and when she is found and weakly smiles at O’Brien, we are overjoyed. In a time when film emotions and romances are more spoken than felt, “Sunrise” is all about feeling. It still has the power to steal your heart, and how many movies that begin with a husband plotting the death of his wife can you say that about?

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

The Bad Sleep Well

bad sleep well 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1960

Studio: Kurosawa Production Co.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Eijiro Hisaita

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa

Music: Masaru Sato

In some ways, it shocks me that “The Bad Sleep Well” is the first film Kurosawa chose to make with his new production company. It’s a dark noir with a bleak ending starring Mifune in a decidedly unsexy role that serves as a public service announcement about corporate greed. Not sure how he expected it to make a profit. And then the other part of me speaks up, reminding me that Kurosawa probably had desperately wanted to make this film with these messages for awhile and may have been hobbled by Toho, so this was a “now or never” moment for him. Whatever the case, I’m happy he did, because this is a damn good movie.

Mifune plays a man named Nishi or, more accurately, he plays a man who plays a man called Nishi. He’s posing as Nishi to help bring down corporate corruption, which years ago resulted in the death of his father. He’s quite ruthless – marrying the lame daughter (physically lame, personality-wise she’s pretty cool) of Iwabuchi, who runs the corporation he’s trying to bring down, just to get closer to the nest of vipers. Well, at first it’s just for that reason, anyway. Things get complicated when Nishi develops real feelings for the woman, named Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa).

Critics often cite this as a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” attempting to wedge it into an adaptation trilogy with “Throne of Blood” and “Ran.” And sure, if you squint at the “son seeking revenge” narrative and bump the third act of “Hamlet” to the first act of “The Bad Sleep Well” and then squint some more, there’s some truth there. I understand why critics do this – using the word “Shakespearean” makes everything seem more “important,” but it also does a disservice to the world Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters are building and the message of the film (which is quite different from that of the Bard).

In many ways, this is the most daring film Kurosawa has made since “Ikiru,” or perhaps ever. He has such faith in himself and the story he is telling that he does wild things with the structure and narrative that are basically unheard of before or since. His main character does not speak for the first half-hour of the movie (!), he only states his full motive an hour-and-a-half into the movie (!!) and the climax happens off camera (!!!). And yet, in each of these cases, “The Bad Sleep Well” is somehow strengthened by these choices.

The first 20-odd minutes are devoted to one of my favorite Kurosawa set-pieces ever. It’s a familiar setting to fans of the maestro, with a group of people talking about a character or situation in order to get exposition out but also set the stage, almost like a Greek chorus. He’s done it poorly (“The Quiet Duel”), well (“Seven Samurai,” “The Idiot”) and brilliantly (“Ikiru”) and this is one of those brilliant times. A bunch of reporters show up to Nishi and Yoshiko’s wedding to cover the arrest of two members of the evil corporation. They define the situation, the stakes, the rumors of corruption, and also define Yoshiko and Nishi in ways the characters will later overturn for us…but it’s neat to throw down those red herrings early. This is the kind of sequence where the humor is incredibly black and characters scream things like “If you hurt my sister, I’ll kill you!” and no one acts like it’s crazy town.

bad sleep well 2The sequence climaxes with the delivery of a three-foot high wedding cake shaped like the evil corporation’s headquarters with a rose stuck in the window designating the place where Nishi’s father died. Subtle? Nope. Absurd? Yes. If Francis Ford Coppola had put a threat-cake in “The Godfather” the movie would have been laughable. And yet somehow, with Kurosawa at the helm, it works.

Consciously or not, Kurosawa has Mifune dressed exactly like Clark Kent, a somehow fitting disguise for Nishi. Nishi’s arc is one of the most interesting in all of Kurosawa’s oeuvre. He dies off camera just before achieving his goals in a truly tragic finale, but upon second viewing you pick up parts of his character and what Kurosawa was going for. At one point Nishi laments that he’s not wicked enough for this game, and that “To overturn evil, you have to become evil yourself.” Nishi is, at heart, a good man…and therefore unable to achieve his goal. He also states that he wants to do it “…for all the people who don’t even know they’ve been had.” It would appear he misses this goal, but on second glance you realize that he does win over the two most important people – his wife and brother-in-law, children of the villain and blind to his machinations until Nishi opens their eyes. The co-writers underline that this is a victory by having other characters tell Nishi that Yoshiko “will never understand.” Turns out she does.

Hollow victories? You could argue yes, but I don’t believe so. Killing off Nishi offscreen is a baffling decision at first, until you realize that seeing Nishi’s loved ones reacting to the tragic news is far more upsetting than seeing the tragedy happen itself. To understand the power, you have to see the aftershocks, and that is what Kurosawa rightly chooses to highlight.

bad sleep well 3The film is beautifully shot by Yuzuru Aizawa in his only collaboration with Kurosawa…after this he’d be relegated to films like “Godzilla vs. Meglodon.” I don’t know why they never worked together again, because they make an incredible team here – making each frame ooze with noir style, never moreso than in the secret hideaway (That tremendous shot where man and wife are separated by a fallen beam? Beautiful!) and in the long office break-in scene.

Quibbles? The music! Good lord, but what was up with that weird circus music for Nishi in the second half? And could the music in the first half telegraph the emotions we’re supposed to feel any more obviously?

I was beginning to lose faith after the one two suckage punch of “The Lower Depths” and “The Hidden Fortress,” but “The Bad Sleep Well” is a Kurosawa masterpiece. I love that he gives no easy answers but is unafraid to ask the hard questions. It’s a movie that you adore intellectually, but the sucker punch hits you right in the heart. What a special film.

Notes:

-Kurosawa’s obsession with feet continues with all things Yoshiko-related. That first shot of her two feet, one lame and one normal, is impossible to look away from.

-The Criterion DVD is fine, but definitely needs an upgrade.

I Wake Up Screaming

i wake up screaming 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dwight Taylor

Based on the 1941 novel by Steve Fisher

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: Laird Cregar, Carole Landis, Betty Grable, Victor Mature

Release: November 14, 1941

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 50%

I had one of two reactions to every scene in “I Wake Up Screaming.” The first was “girl, what now?” And the second was “what the actual fuck?” Here is a legitimately beautiful film where not a single character acts like a human being for more than 10 seconds, people forget major plot points that happened in the previous scene and no one seems to much care about the dead main character. It also has one of the best name of any film noir – a name that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie itself.

Though the movie plays with time and flashbacks, the essential story is this: Vicki (Carole Landis) was discovered by three guys while working as a waitress in a diner. They helped her become the toast of NYC society, then she decides to leave for Hollywood and is promptly murdered. One of the men, a promoter named Frankie (Victor Mature) is the number one suspect, especially for obsessed detective Cornell (Laird Cregar). Also in the mix is Vicki’s sister Jill (Betty Grable), who is falling in love with Frankie.

I really want to read the original novel upon which this was based, because I have so many questions about the way the story was structured and why certain information is disclosed to the audience when it is. The biggest problem is the Cornell character, who is supposed to come across (I think) as a cop obsessed with getting justice for Vicki no matter what, with the twist ending being that Cornell actually helped cover up her death (a cop’s obsession with a dead girl and the picture of Vicki over the fireplace was a definite precursor to the much-better noir milestone “Laura” three years later). And yet, halfway through the movie, Jill is speaking with police officers about a creepy man who was stalking Vicki for months (months!), and then the second she sees Cornell she points at him, screaming that he is the guy who was stalking her sister. Okay, well now the audience knows that Cornell had something to do with it. This is a major plot development, right? But then every character appears to get amnesia, pretending the last scene never existed. Less than two minutes later, Jill is being questioned by Cornell and not acting like he’s a creepy stalker. She never tells Frankie what happened. The scene appears to be an island all out on its own, ruining the twist for the audience but having no impact on the characters.

i wake up screaming 2That’s just the first of a myriad of problems I have with the storytelling – the second is that no one is acting like someone they loved is dead. After Jill discovers Vicki’s dead body, we find out that she rifled through her sister’s things before the police arrived. She doesn’t seem that upset that Vicki is dead while being questioned by police – instead she’s miffed they are being mean to her. And everyone’s reaction to losing their beloved sister is to fall in love with the prime suspect, right? What little tension and pacing the movie had is completely destroyed by a horrendous 20 minute “falling in love montage” between Jill and Frankie… which includes an endless scene where they go swimming together (!?) in an indoor NYC pool at night. Poor, poor Betty Grable is horrible as Jill, unable to get a hold on such a bad character and sharing zero chemistry with Victor Mature, who likewise seems lost in his role.

One can’t really blame Mature, because his role is almost as badly drawn as Jill’s. Frankie seems to wave away any importance to the police investigation, cracking jokes to police officers and calling them stupid despite the fact that one of his best friends is dead and he’s the prime suspect. Why isn’t he taking this seriously?! Then when Cornell begins to seriously stalk him, he cracks jokes with him and gives him rides, only to seem angry at Cornell’s behavior two minutes later.

I have some other logical questions regarding the screenplay. Why is no one reporting Cornell’s cuh-razy behavior to his boss, which includes – breaking into Frankie’s apartment at night and watching him sleep, breaking into Jill’s apartment and grabbing evidence without a search warrant, trying to beat up Frankie and literally stalking him when his direct supervisor tells him not to. How can Frankie keep getting away with threatening police officers multiple times? Does no one in New York lock their doors? And why the hell is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing on the soundtrack ad nauseum? That last bit wasn’t about the screenplay, but still.

The director, H. Bruce Humberstone, has a super awesome name and directed some of the best entries in the Charlie Chan franchise, and perhaps that’s a clue as to why no one is behaving like the murder matters. In those films, all the characters except for Charlie and his son are suspects, and no one ever seems particularly upset about murder. But while it works for Charlie, the character behavior seems cuckoo for cocoa puffs here.

i wake up screaming 3It’s a shame too, because the movie is beautiful to look at. Sure, it’s weird having the name “I Wake Up Screaming” up in Broadway-style lights for the opening credits, but after that things get interesting. All the police interrogation scenes involve smoke, profile shadows (Humberstone loves the profile shadows) and some fantastic lighting. These scenes are precursors to dozens of similar scenes in later noir, most notably the opening to “Murder, My Sweet.” It never gets better than a sequence involving the lobby in Vicki’s apartment building, with well-placed lights breaking through an intricate metal elevator to create amazing shadows, particularly on Mature. That scene is one of the most indelible of early noir.

But sadly, it’s stuck in this film. The screenplay, as previously stated, is inane. The acting from leads Grable and Mature is awful. There are two great performances, from Cregar and Landis. Cregar is a fantastic villain… it’s a pity the movie uses him so poorly, because if the film raised itself to the level of his performance, it could have been great. Landis blows everyone else around her away in her few scenes – it makes you say “Shucks, I wish she hadn’t been killed off before the movie started.” It’s a shame to think that these two great actors would be dead in only a few years, never to become the stars they should have been.

The weird irony to finally getting through the torture of watching “I Wake Up Screaming”? Now I’m going to immediately watch its noir remake, “Vicki,” which came out in 1953. Ouch.

Score: *1/2

The Hidden Fortress

hidden fortress 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1958

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujita, Misa Uehara

Cinematographer: Kazuo Yamasaki

Music: Masaru Sato

“The Hidden Fortress” is without question the most important film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre to American audiences. People who have never watched another foreign film in their lives will have heard of and probably seen at least sections of this film because of its connection to “Star Wars.” It represents most people’s introduction to Kurosawa – and why wouldn’t it? It helped inspire one of the greatest films of all time, has a manageable running time (unlike “Seven Samurai”), doesn’t involve an intimate portrayal of death (“Ikiru”) and doesn’t have a confusing title (“Rashomon”). A viewer will often start with “The Hidden Fortress” and then move on to Kurosawa’s other, greater works.

It’s also obviously one of the most important works to any scholar of Kurosawa – representing the first time the master worked in TohoScope, the Japanese equivalent of CinemaScope. To me, this is the most beautiful film I’ve seen so far on this journey. And not just barely – by a landslide. Images from this movie and the way Kurosawa frames the characters in widescreen are stunning, equal to anything in the careers of Hitchcock, Kubrick or Malick. There are shots in this movie so beautiful they are impossible to forget.

So you cannot overstate how important “The Hidden Fortress” is to film history and to Kurosawa’s body of work.

That said, I really dislike the movie.

hidden fortress 2When I first watched it a few years back, I hated it. I was in the middle of watching a bunch of Kurosawa’s classics and loved every one… and then “The Hidden Fortress” happened. Going back into the movie this time, I felt like I had a new perspective and understanding of what Kurosawa was attempting to achieve. The lower classes, the everyman perspective, is the most important theme in his career – one he went back to again and again (so far it was a major driving force in “The Most Beautiful,” “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail,” “No Regrets For Our Youth,” “One Wonderful Sunday,” “Drunken Angel,” “Stray Dog,” “Scandal,” “The Idiot,” “Seven Samurai,” and “The Lower Depths”). So of course it makes sense that Kurosawa would frame “The Hidden Fortress” from the perspective of two fools.

Inherently, I like the idea of framing a film from the perspective of the lowest character or characters. Chaplin, of course, did this to great acclaim, as did Welles with “Chimes at Midnight.” And certainly most of the all time greatest directors have some variation on “the fool’s film” in their oeuvre. Using that point-of-view is an interesting perspective, one that worked beautifully for Kurosawa in several of the above films.

But if you choose to do nothing with that perspective, what exactly is the point of doing it in the first place?

Our two fools (Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto) start as fools, are horrible human beings and remain horrible human beings throughout the film. I’m just going to refer to them as “the fools” instead of giving them names because their characters are absolutely interchangeable. They have no loyalty to one another, let alone the trio of presumably smart characters who do nothing but save their lives over and over again. And yes, for a beat or two their squabbling is funny and enjoyable. Then it’s tedious. Then it’s frustrating. Then you just wish they would go away. Then you cringe every time the movie cuts back to them, especially when they draw straws to figure out who gets to rape a woman first. They attempt to sell one another out. Then they attempt to sell out their protector. Then they attempt to sell out the princess. They are greedy. They are useless. And at the end they are rewarded for it.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the story those fools find themselves in. After trying to enlist in the army but being mistaken for the other side, the fools escape and make a plan to head home. The only problem is that the border between their countries is well-guarded, so they intend to go south to a third country and then cross into their own country from there. Also needing to get across the border with hundreds of pounds of gold is a Warrior (Toshiro Mifune) and a Princess (Misa Uehara). The groups uneasily team up to cross the borders together, all while the enemy General (Susumu Fujita, returning to Kurosawa’s work after being his first leading man in “Sanshiro Sugata”) closes in on them.
Why are we wasting our time focusing on the fools when every other character is more interesting? They are comic relief, sure, but Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters (all of whom worked with him on his other masterworks) surely should have understood that the main characters in a story should have an arc. The Fools should change as individuals thanks to the events of the film. And no, I don’t consider three lines of dialogue thirty seconds before the finale changing. I presume that if the camera would have followed them for another twenty seconds they would be slitting one another’s throats for the gold. Why are we supposed to root for them? Why should we care?

More than that, they don’t affect the plot in any major way aside from coming up with the plan to skirt the borders. Every other major decision is made by the Warrior, the General and the Princess. In fact, the fools actively hobble the adventure on multiple occasions. What is the point of putting them front and center if you are not going to have them push or pull the plot machinations?

That’s bad writing, plain and simple.
hidden fortress 3Meanwhile, every other character seems more dimensional, fascinating and endearing. They also have arcs. And this is the thing that kills me about “The Hidden Fortress” – there is a great movie there, one that could match Kurosawa’s mastery of the camera. One with real emotional resonance. The Warrior sacrifices his sister to save the Princess. The Princess learns to become a good leader from the journey. There’s a former prostitute Girl who the Princess saves and immediately becomes impossible to look away from. She has absolutely no allegiance to the Princess and Warrior, but chooses to stay and risk her life time and again for them. The evil General turns out to be not so bad after all, and his friendship with the Warrior is unexpected and moving. There’s a scene near the end of the second act where the Princess, the Girl and the Warrior have been captured and are speaking with the General… and they just address one another as human beings – all inherently good people who have flaws but have learned things on this journey together… and I actually teared up. It’s beautiful – one of the best scenes I’ve seen in Kurosawa’s films.

But the Fools? Nope.

They start stupid, stay stupid and end up stupid. In “Yojimbo” most of the town stayed stupid, but there was a point behind it. In “Sanjuro” they were fools at the beginning, but the group slowly came around to understanding and respecting the samurai. The fact that the other characters continue to include the Fools on the adventure actually reflects badly back on them and makes the viewer think they are less intelligent than they are.
Alter the main perspective to the Warrior, or the Princess, or the Girl…hell, even the General, and you’d have a great movie. It’s quite telling that all of the best scenes in “The Hidden Fortress” have the Fools offscreen. And not just the amazing action set-pieces like the horse chase or the spear fight. I’m talking about the smaller moments like the Princess’ heartbreaking reprise of the song she heard at the ceremony the night before. That said, the Fools and their lack of evolution wrecks the movie for me every time they come onscreen. This film is shorter than much of Kurosawa’s work, but it feels much longer.
I honestly feel like, if George Lucas hadn’t cribbed the first 15 minutes of “Star Wars” from this movie, “The Hidden Fortress” wouldn’t even be mentioned as one of Kurosawa’s notable achievements. It makes fundamental storytelling errors and no one seems to talk about it. The underlying message appears to be as follows – It’s good to be a Fool and let everyone else make the decisions for you and maybe things will turn out okay. Don’t trust anyone, even your friends. Life is about money. I disagree with every one of those sentiments, and I cannot imagine that’s what Kurosawa intended when he was crafting the film, especially considering his other masterpieces directly speak against these values.

Also, can someone please explain to me how that gold got in the wood?!?!?

Notes:

-I am obviously in the minority with this opinion. Critical reaction is overwhelmingly positive. Even Armond White loves it. That said, give me C-3P0 and R2-D2 any day.

Gun Crazy

gun crazy 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dalton Trumbo (uncredited at the time), Millard Kaufman, MacKinlay Kantor

Based on the “Gun Crazy” story by MacKinlay Kantor

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cinematographer: Russell Harlan

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Harry Lewis

Release: January 20, 1950

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 80%

Peggy Cummins has one of the most interesting faces in all of film noir. Undeniably beautiful, every aspect of her face seems perfectly proportioned, and taken together with her styled hair she looks like a porcelain doll. Aside from “Gun Crazy” and the horror treasure “Night of the Demon,” Cummins’ never worked on any other major features, which is a shame because she brings a very unusual quality to her performance here. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I believe that some people would call it “star quality.”

“Gun Crazy” has essentially been pigeonholed in history as “the precursor to ‘Bonnie & Clyde’” and no discussion of the film (including this one) seems able to separate this film from that. This is a damn shame, since “Bonnie & Clyde” is a cinema touchtone that helped to fundamentally alter the way the public watched movies, and this little gem could never live up to that. Oh well…

The film follows John Dall’s Bart, who has been obsessed with guns since he can remember. We first meet him as a young boy stealing a gun during a rainstorm. Later, we flash back further to Bart playing with his first bb gun. Writer Dalton Trumbo and director Joseph H. Lewis give us an indelible moment in film history here – the young Bart first seems so adorable shooting the gun into the middle of nowhere, but then he sees a nearby chick. His eyes narrow. He aims. He kills the chick. And in two seconds the audience has gone from sympathy to absolute horror.

gun crazy 2Bart becomes an army brat and returns home years later to find a carnival in town. There he meets Cummins’ Annie (name’s a bit on the nose, no?) and gets into a shooting contest with her. At one point in this scene, she bends over and shoots her gun through her legs right under her crotch. We get the imagery. Bart joins the carnival, but when they have trouble with the owner Packett (Berry Kroeger), who has been raping Annie, they run off together. Money is tight, so they start using their God-given talents to make ends meet.

Lewis is one of those geniuses who managed to fall through the cracks of history, only to be rediscovered when noir became a thing. This is his crown jewel in a filmography of many great, forgotten films. Here he crafts a one-take sequence that is completely audacious in terms of style, tone and storytelling. The camera stays in the back seat of Bart and Peggy’s car the entire time. We follow them as they drive through a town (all shot on location), making small talk with one another about parking and such that could represent any couple as they’re out for a daily drive. Then they pull in front of a bank. Bart goes in. Annie stalls by making hilarious gun-centric small talk with a cop. Then the getaway. All in one, breathless, amazing shot.

gun crazy 3There are two other iconic sequences in “Gun Crazy.” The first is another robbery, this one in a slaughterhouse. Bart and Annie have gotten fake jobs there (too easy? Probably.) and Annie murders two people in cold blood on the way out. Can one make metaphorical discussions about the dead pig carcasses hanging around being equated with our two leads? Of course. But I think they picked a slaughterhouse ‘cause it looked fucking awesome.

The final sequence is the other great scene. Annie and Bart are lost in the California woods and crawl into a small marsh at the center of a pond to hopefully hide from search dogs and get some rest through the night. The fog rolls in, and they wake up hearing people approaching, but are unable to see anything. The sequence uses many of the same tricks as the pool scene in 1942’s horror classic “Cat People” (directed by “Night of the Demon’s” Jacques Tourner), panicking the audience by what they can’t see and using a moody, soundtrack of footsteps and splashes to build tension. “Cat People’s” moment still works, but the shadows and weird animated blobs in the background have aged it, whereas Lewis’ atmosphere here is as sharp and intense as ever.

The other big revelation here is John Dall. Everyone knows him as the repressed gay murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Here he’s a killer again but the performance could not be more different. The guy is sympathetic, loving and tragic in all the right ways – it’s such a shame that Dall never became a bigger star, because the kid had range.

Cummins is well-matched with him, and has a harder character to inhabit. You never can doubt that Annie fully in love with Bert, but you have to believe that she’s a loose cannon and could fly off the handle at any time. In some ways, she’s as coldly calculated as many of noir’s best femme fatales (the moment she says they should steal a baby because no one will shoot them if they’re holding a baby), but elsewhere she has to seem vindictive, petty and running on nothing but instinct. I love the moment she’s running for her life, drops her fur coat and tries to go back for it.

Lewis goes all in visually here. He likes shooting through objects toward the action, first through broken glass in the first scene, then through Annie’s legs later, then through the car window in the aforementioned robbery sequence. He is also willing to go for style over logic if it means great shot composition. When the young Bert is brought to court for his crime, he is not seated anywhere one would think a young boy should be sitting, but way over by himself in front of the window. Why? Because it creates the perfect shadow across the floor, of course!

“Gun Crazy” is one of the essential films noir, and one of my personal favorites. You really engage with the crazy couple and their deaths are tragic in just about every way (Bert is forced to shoot Annie to protect his friends seconds before he is shot himself). Lewis is in top form and Trumbo’s lean, mean script is loads better than his bloated historical epics from a few years later. It really hits the mark.

I’m so sorry about the pun.

Score: *****

Titanic

titanic 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 83

Year: 1997

Writer/Director: James Cameron

Star: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

Studio: Paramount & 20th Century Fox

Music: James Horner

Cinematography: Russell Carpenter

“Titanic” is proof that there is such a thing as good melodrama and that sentimentality can be deeply affecting when done well. Here is a film filled with tremendous special effects that remains grounded because we believe in its central love story.

Everyone knows the story of the “unsinkable” Titanic, and it has been filmed numerous times at varying levels of quality, ranging from overblown tedium in the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle to gripping realism in “A Night to Remember.” This version begins in the present, with an undersea explorer (Bill Paxton) searching for a fabled blue jewel called, rather obviously, the Heart of the Ocean. They don’t find the jewel, but do discover a charcoal drawing of a nude woman wearing it that is dated the night the ship sank. An elderly woman named Rose (played in the present by Gloria Stuart and by Kate Winslet in flashbacks), claims she is the woman in the photo and offers to tell her story.

titanic 3Rose boarded the Titanic trapped in a loveless relationship with her fiancé Cal (Billy Zane doing a great tip of the hat to Orson Welles) and, on the night she intended to commit suicide, was saved by a spirited wanderer named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is first-class, Jack is third-class, and yet first they form a friendship that leads to intense passion and romance. Even if you have not seen the film, you are familiar with the sight of Jack and Rose kissing on the front of the ship at sunset, and it is indeed one of the greatest romantic moments in all of film. What surprised me, visiting the film again after a decade, is how beautifully Cameron sets up this moment. One of the best moments in the film is a quiet one, without any of James Horner’s great music or any of the numerous impressive special effects, and that is the moment Jack and Rose discuss her attempted suicide. They dance around each other in their dialogue, Jack unafraid to speak his mind and Rose unsure of how to speak hers after a lifetime of suppressing her voice. Another splendid contrast between their lifestyles comes first when we see Jack attend a dinner in first class (Cal invites him as a “prize” for rescuing Rose) and later when we see Rose dance and drink cheap beer in third class. I cannot underline enough how easy and unforced the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet is here, and how quickly we accept their love despite the class difference between them.

A bit more hazy is the relationship between Cal and Rose. Yes, Cameron establishes early that, from Rose’s perspective, it’s just for the money. And yet, with the way Cal is characterized in the first half of the film, I cannot fathom him being attracted to Rose or choosing her as a mate.

As both a screenwriter and director, Cameron takes great pains to paint around the edges. He fills the screen with great character actors (most notably Kathy Bates as the unsinkable Molly Brown and Victor Garber as the soul-heavy ship designer) that make huge impressions in their few lines so that, when they either die or find salvation in the film’s second half, we feel something.

Structurally, “Titanic” is as close to perfection as any film I have seen. In the frame story, Cameron ingeniously shows us the exact circumstances under which the ship sank in a video Rose watches. Everything he introduces in the present is paid off in the past, and every character, subplot and idea he introduces before the iceberg is struck is paid off dramatically. Moments before the ship finally goes under, Rose suddenly realizes “Jack, this is where we first met!” and you can’t help but getting goosebumps. Yes, some of the dialogue is less than fantastic and a few modern beats (Rose flipping someone the bird) feel out of place, but these are easily forgivable.

TITANIC 3DFor me, the reason the disaster genre (and I’m not reducing “Titanic” to a mere “disaster” movie here because it’s much more than that) remains so viable when done well is because after characters encounter the impossible in their everyday lives and then have time to process what is going on and react to their probable deaths in very different, very “human” ways. In the last hour of “Titanic” we see acts of great humanity, but mostly we are shaken by the horrors. The third class is literally locked below deck until they die. The first class lifeboats refuse to return to pick up survivors. It’s sickening, and not only do we wonder how we would act in those situations, but the movie has made us care about these characters as human beings. The fact that not a single character we meet from the third class survives is heartbreaking, as is the fact that unlikable characters Cal and Rose’s mother get away so easily. It’s unfair, and all the more impactful because of it.

Cameron (who was also one of the three editors on the film) is amazingly skillful at making the sinking of the ship both sickening and gorgeous. The first reveal of the sinking ship, seen after an emergency flair is fired off, is beautiful, and the way Cameron comes up with new ways to show the Titanic going down is always inventive. It’s visceral, and the special effects throughout are flawless. In fact, I’d wager that the effects seen here could not be done better today, no matter how much technology has advanced since 1997.

Of course, all that would be moot if we didn’t care about the sinking on a human level. Though “A Night To Remember” is a great film, it lacks a soul thanks to its straightforward presentation. Ultimately, “Titanic” offers us the definitive version of the story because it touches our hearts while offering us plenty of suspense and eye candy that is only underlined by the inevitability of the circumstances.

As the movie draws to a close, the elderly Rose says the line, “He saved me…in every way a person can be saved.” After returning the Heart of the Ocean to the sea, Rose dies quietly in her sleep and we follow her soul down into the ruins of the sunken ship, but we see it anew. All of the dead passengers wait for her, including Jack, who kisses her on the grand staircase. In most other films, that dialogue and finale would be cheesy, but “Titanic” earns them. It’s the rarest of spectacles—an uncynical love story where the grand special effects never outshine the film’s soul.

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