Friday, April 29, 2011

The Public Enemy (1931)

1931 saw Warner Brothers release two movies that define the gangster movie of the 1930s. The first was Little Caesar, followed a few weeks later by The Public Enemy. Both were huge box-office hits. Little Caesar remains a classic, a movie that is as impressive today as it was 80 years ago. The same cannot be said of The Public Enemy, a middling movie saved by a stupendous performance by James Cagney,

Tom Powers (Cagney) and his childhood buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are poor Irish immigrants living on the mean streets of the big city. Tom’s brother Mike is a hard-working law-abiding citizen. Tom is a thug from the word go. As a kid he’s a petty thief with a mean streak. As an adult he’s a mobster in the making.
Prohibition gives him his opportunity. They team up with an older Irish crook, Paddy Ryan, and soon Tom and Matt are big shots. Meanwhile Tom is tiring of his live-in girlfriend Kitty, and he becomes even more tired of her when he meets the glamorous Gwen Alllen (Jean Harlow).

The rise of their gang causes concern among rival racketeers and a full-blown gang war is ready to erupt.
Interestingly enough Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role with Cagney in the supporting role as Matt but Wellman decided Cagney was the one with star quality and reversed the roles. Woods is good, but he’s no Jimmy Cagney.

I’m a huge fan of Jean Harlow but she really is terrible in this film. It isn’t really her fault. At this stage of her career no-one had yet discovered that her forte was comedy.
The picture was helmed by William A. Wellman, an erratic director at best although he had his moments. It’s a reasonably good movie but pales in comparison with Little Caesar. While Rico in Little Caesar achieves a kind of twisted grandeur Tom Powers remains just a cheap thug (despite Cagney’s best efforts). The Public Enemy just doesn’t quite generate enough interest in either the plotting or characterisation departments to make it a real classic of the gangster genre, but it’s still one of the movies you have to see if you have an interest in that genre.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hunted (1952)

The 1950s was something of a golden age for British crime thrillers, and Hunted is a fine example of the breed.

It’s the story of two people on the run. One is a sailor, Chris Lloyd, who has killed his wife’s lover in a crime of passion. The other is a seven-year-old boy fleeing his brutal adoptive father.

Chris Lloyd (Dirk Bogarde) doesn’t really want Robbie (Jon Whitely) trailing along after him but he can’t get rid of him. The boy claims to dislike him but he insists on following him. The boy becomes an increasing liability for the hapless sailor who will hang if the police catch him but he gradually grows oddly fond of the kid. And despite something of a violent temper Chris is basically a kind-hearted soul. He’s been hurt himself and he can’t bring himself to hurt Robbie by abandoning him. And in a hostile world they really have only each other anyway. It’s an odd kind of buddy film.

This is a thriller without gunfights, in fact without any actual onscreen violence at all. Of course Chris’s fatal act of violence towards the man who who stole his wife and the violence Robbie has suffered at the hands of his adoptive father are the driving forces of the film even though we don’t see any of these events. The fact that we don’t see the violent acts actually strengthens the film because it concentrates our attention on the psychological results rather than acts themselves.

While there’s no violence there’s plenty of suspense. Director Charles Crichton had a varied career in film and television and does a very solid job.

The key to the film is the focus on the personalities of Chris and Robbie and on their relationship as it progresses from toleration to affection. Jon Whitely is likeable as the kid. Dirk Bogarde initially alienates our sympathies by his apparently callous attitude towards his young travelling companion but as the movie progresses we slowly gain understanding of Chris’s character and the reasons for his bitterness and we gradually come to realise that he’s actually a fundamentally gentle and sensitive man. It takes time for him to regain his trust in humanity. It’s a complex and subtle performance, as you’d expect from Bogarde.

While it can’t really be described a a film noir it does have some affinities with film noir with its doomed protagonist who has led himself in a desperate predicament without ever quite understanding how it happened. There’s plenty of atmospheric and suitably gloomy black-and-white cinematography, so if you’re a film noir fan you’re probably going to enjoy this one.

Definitely worth seeing. The out-of-print Australian DVD unfortunately seems to be the only DVD release for this movie. Recommended if you can find a copy.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lonelyhearts (1958)

Nathanael West’s 1933 short novel Miss Lonelyhearts is one of the dark masterpieces of American fiction. The style and structure of the book are such as to make any kind of film adaptation a formidable challenge. The 1958 attempt, with the title shortened to Lonelyhearts, is a major cinematic train-wreck.

West’s novels are often viewed as a response to the Great Depression. This is a monumental misunderstanding of his work. West had no interest in political causes. He was not a social problem writer. He was not concerned with economic poverty. His concern was with what he saw as the deep-seated moral and spiritual bankruptcy of 20th century America. His view is pessimistic and cynical. He admired Dostoyevsky and was fascinated by religious themes. Miss Lonelyhearts expresses a yearning for spiritual redemption but without any belief that it is actually possible.

All of which made Dore Schary completely the wrong person to write a movie adaptation. Schary was a liberal, believing in human perfectibility, something West would have regarded with scorn. Schary, in his days as president of MGM in the early 50s, wanted to make social problem movies with a political message. The collision between the sharply opposed philosophies of West and Schary was always likely to be disastrous and in fact Schary’s screenplay is an unmitigated catastrophe. It tears the heart out of West’s novel, removes most of West’s characteristic gallows humour, and leaves us with nothing but a dreary social melodrama.

West’s novel has little in the way of straightforward narrative. Miss Lonelyhearts is a young newspaperman who handles the paper’s agony column allows himself to become involved in the pathetic personal dramas of the people who write to him. His idealism crumbles under the impact of the pettiness, selfishness, and dishonesty that he finds wherever he goes. It’s a kind of black comedy religious fable with Miss Lonelyhearts as an ironic Christ figure.

The movie preserves the bare outlines of West’s plot whilst comprehensively missing the point. It lacks the courage to preserve the essential bleakness of the story. Schary could not bring himself to present his characters as hopeless cases lacking in any dignity and without any prospect of saving themselves or being saved.

Of course many movies bear little resemblance to the books on which they are based, and are none the worse for it. Unfortunately this movie adds nothing of interest to compensate for what has been lost.

The movie’s problems don’t end there. There’s also the casting. Montgomery Clift has the necessary self-pity but his performance is embarrassingly self-obsessed and mannered. One again I’m left wondering how Clift ever gained a reputation as a great actor. Dolores Hart is insufferably bland as his girlfriend.

The one redeeming feature of this sorry mess is Robert Ryan as the paper’s editor, Shrike. Ryan is the only person involved in the movie who seems to understand what the story is about and how to approach it. His performance makes no concession to dreary realism. It’s theatrical and over-the-top. He does not speak his lines. He declaims them. Which is exactly what is required. He also gets the movie’s best line when he tells his wife he won’t fire Miss Lonelyhearts, "Because I enjoy seeing youth betray their promises- it lights up all the numbers on my pinball machine." Shrike has his own personal demons to deal with and his anguished relationship with his wife (played reasonably successfully by Myrna Loy) is one of the few elements in the movie that works.

Vincent J. Donehue’s direction is pedestrian but at least the movie looks good (as you’d expect with John Alton as director of photography).

Despite its general awfulness it’s worth seeing solely for the joy of seeing Robert Ryan in full flight.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

In his commentary track to Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet Max Allan Collins likens the movie to a collision between the lush glossy world of the Douglas Sirk-Ross Hunter films of the 50s and the world of film noir. And really I can’t come up with a better description of this movie.

It’s based on one of James M. Cain’s lesser known novels, Love's Lovely Counterfeit. It’s a tale of a romantic triangle involving two sisters and one gangster. As the movie opens one sister, Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) has just been released from prison. She’s a kleptomaniac (kleptomania being very popular in the Freud-obsessed 50s). She's the bad sister. The good sister is June (Rhonda Fleming). She’s a secretary to wealthy businessman Frank Jansen who is running for election as mayor on a policy of cleaning up crime in the notoriously corrupt Bay City.

We do have some slight doubts about the good sister though. She lives in a palatial home, which seems a little too opulent for a mere secretary. There are strong hints that she’s actually Jansen’s mistress and that she’s probably been getting paid for more than her shorthand skills. The bad sister certainly has her suspicions.



Then Ben Grace (John Payne) comes into their lives. Ben tells June that he can guarantee Frank Jansen’s election. June and Jansen are both rather na├»ve and they assume Ben is a public-spirited citizen eager to see honest government in Bay City. In fact Ben is counting on Jansen to get the city’s chief mob boss Solly Caspar out of the way so that Ben can step into his shoes.

June is clearly attracted to the smooth-talking and quietly charming Ben Grace but Dorothy has designs on him as well. Just to keep the plot nice and complicated Dorothy has been stealing again and Ben has used his connections to get her off, thus implicating the squeaky clean Frank Jansen in his corrupt dealings. Things get even more complicated when Solly Caspar arrives back in town (he’d fled to Mexico after the election).



The twist to this tale, and the element that makes it a film noir, is that Ben Grace is a gangster but he’s a gangster with a conscience. He’s a nice college-educated mobster who wants to shift his organisation’s activities away from areas like prostitution and drugs. He wants to concentrate in gambling since he figures that if people want to gamble someone will make money out of them and it might as well be him. He’s also a relatively non-violent crime boss. He considers violence to be inefficient and old-fashioned.

While there’s obviously an element of self-deception in all this Ben really does have moral scruples. As gangsters go he’s a nice guy. We care about him and we feel that he’s probably too decent to survive very well in the world he’s chosen.



John Payne gives an excellent performance, making Ben a classic anti-hero. Both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are equally good.

Director of photography John Alton is perhaps the most acclaimed of all noir cinematographers and he manages to create his usual magic. For many people the mere fat that the movie was a widescreen Technicolor movie would disqualify it as noir, but Alton demonstrates that he could get a noir feel just as easily in Technicolor as in black-and-white. The contrast between the brightly lit colourful daylight scenes of June’s idyllic suburban life and the sinister shadows of the gangster’s world actually makes for a very effective noir feel.



The lush and opulent sets also serve rather neatly to emphasise the hidden world of corruption underneath the surface of glamour and wealth.

This is a movie that is generally dismissed as being of little interest. This is a serious misjudgment. Veteran director Allan Dwan does a fine job, there’s an excellent cast and Robert Blees contributes a clever and literate screenplay. It’s an absorbing and entertaining if slightly unconventional film noir, well worth a purchase.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Junior Bonner (1972)

Junior Bonner saw Sam Peckinpah move away from westerns and action movies to make an offbeat little film that is in fact one of his most satisfying efforts.

It’s still a tough guy movie of sorts, but it’s about tough guys who no longer have any place in the world.

Steve McQueen plays JR Bonner (or Junior as he’s also also known), a rodeo star on the long downhill slide to failure. He’s never been any good at anything else and now the years are catching up and he soon won’t even be much use as a rodeo rider. At his last rodeo he tried and failed to ride the meanest bull on the circuit (a bull (ironically named Sunshine). The opening sequences show him thrown from the bull and leaving the arena, a man battered, weary and defeated. Throughout the movie Peckinpah keeps cutting back to these scenes of Bonner’s failure.



Now JR has returned to his home town of Prescott, Arizona for another rodeo. Things have changed while he’s been gone. His sleazy real estate agent brother Curly has sold out the farm from under his father, Ace Bonner (Robert Preston). Ace is another former rodeo star whose life has been a series of failures. Now he’s lost all his money in an ill-advised gld-prospecting scheme. But Ace is undaunted - he’s heading for Australia to go prospecting again. I guess no-one has told him he’s more than a century late for the Australian gold rush. Ace is a cheerful loser who’ll try his hand at anything to make a buck. Well, anything short of actual work.



Junior’s mother Elvira (Ida Lupino) is the one who holds the family together. Life with Ace has been a series of disappointments but she still can’t resist his boyish charm.

JR has been left with one ambition - to ride Sunshine for eight seconds. It would be one last victory. He’s even prepared to offer half his prize money to Buck Roan (who runs the rodeo) if he can ensure that JR draws Sunshine in the bull-riding event.



That’s about all the plot consists of and it’s not much. And what there is doesn’t really go anywhere. But that’s the point. These are people whose lives aren’t really going anywhere. What saves the movie is Peckinpah’s affection for these amiable losers, and the subtlety and depth with which the characters are drawn. And some very fine acting.

Ida Lupino still lights up the screen. Robert Preston (as always) steals every scene he’s in. Joe Don Baker makes a wonderful Curly - he’s sleazy but he’s not a mere monster. He’s just moved with the times. The rodeo now exists purely for the tourists. It lures them to the town where locals like Curly can have a shot at fleecing them.



Steve McQueen in the title role gives a marvelously effective performance. JR is watching his life slowly slip away. You know he’s going to end up like Ace, drinking too much and living on past glories and dreaming of a future that has passed him by, But he has no regrets. He knows no other life. And if he had a choice this is still the life he’d choose. This is one of two superb performances he gave for Peckinpah in 1972 (the other being The Getaway), both of which are seriously underrated.



The two great dangers facing a movie like this are excessive sentimentality and overdone irony. Peckinpah skillfully avoids both pitfalls. He even manages to end the movie in a perfectly satisfying way. It’s a finely crafted movie. Arguably one of the most unfairly neglected, and best, American movies of the 70s.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Other Men's Women (1931)

Other Men's Women is the kind of cinematic oddity that could probably only have been produced in Hollywood’s wild and crazy pre-code era.

This 1931 movie starts out as a rather laboured comedy, then switches to melodrama. It makes no concessions to realism. That would usually endear a film to me but I found this to be a very hard movie to like.

Two childhood buddies work as railroad enginemen. Bill (Grant Withers) is a likeable drunk while Jack (Regis Toomey) is a quiet steady family man. Jack decides that the best way to settle Bill down is to invite him to live in his house. Maybe sharing a house with Jack and his wife
Lily (Mary Astor) will encourage Bill to change his ways and start becoming a responsible citizen.

Jack’s plan is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course what actually happens is that Bill and Lily fall in love. And then Bill and Jack quarrel, with violent and tragic results, results that lead to a spectacularly melodramatic conclusion.

The support cast is strong, headed by Joan Blondell and James
Cagney.

The ingredients are there for a good film and it certainly has some great momen
ts. These moments are entirely visual, demonstrating a formidable and delightful visual wit. James Cagney in evening dress prancing along the tops of a series of railway wagons, James Cagney arriving at a dancehall in his railway engineer’s uniform and stripping it off to reveal a tuxedo underneath, Bill jumping off his slow-moving train at it arrives at a station giving him enough time to have breakfast and flirt with the waitress before jumping back on the train as it finally leaves the station - these are classic pieces of cinematic magic.

And yet despite this the movie is something of a chore to sit through. Part of the problem is that the supporting cast (Cagney and Blondell) is a whole lot more impressive than than any of the three leads (Withers, Toomey and Astor). Withers and Toomey are simply awful, wooden and embarrassing, and Astor (usually a very competent actress) is unconvincing and dull. If only director William A. Wellman had had enough sense to promote Cagney and Blondell into the leading roles he might have had a terrific little picture on his hands.

As it stands the weak leads expose the contrived nature of the script and it all falls rather flat.

William A. Wellman had a somewhat uneven career and his reputation today is arguably a tad overrated.

An odd little movie that has some curiosity value but its main interest is seeing James Cagney on the brink of stardom and already displaying signs of the extraordinary charisma that was the hallmark of his glorious career.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Forty Guns (1957)

Sam Fuller’s 1957 offering Forty Guns may not be the oddest western ever made but it must come close. It’s an outrageous triumph of stye over substance and I loved every minute of it.

The outrageousness is established right from the opening scene. Famed gunslinger-turned-lawman Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his brother Wes (Gene Barry) are riding into town on a buckboard when they encounter Jessica Drummond and her dragoons in a spectacular sequence that demonstrates Fuller’s mastery of the Cinemascope screen. Jessica (Barbara Stawnwyck) is the boss of Cochise County and her forty dragoons are her forty hired guns. Given that this movie is awash with sexual innuendo we’re bound to speculate that the dragoons might also form Jessica’s private harem. Yes, this movie is that outrageous.

Griff has come to serve a warrant on one of Jessica’s men, but before he has a chance to do so he encounters Jessica’s no-good brother Brock terrorising the town’s blind city marshall. When Griff gets around to calling on Jessica it’s clear there is an attraction between them, but the issue of Brock and his increasingly violent and out-of-control behaviour seems destined to keep them apart.

Jessica Drummond owns just about everyone who matters in the territory - judges, politicians, the governor, the county’s sheriff. The sheriff, Logan (Dean Jagger), is a weak man who nurses a hopeless passion for the formidable matriarch of Cochise County.

The plot is mostly a collection of familiar western themes but it’s not the plot that matters, it’s Fuller’s over-the-top treatment of the material and his stylistic excesses. Fuller uses the Cinemascope framing in spectacular fashion, and there re more fancy camera angles than you’ve ever seen in one movie. That sort of thing can be cheap and gimmicky but Fuller does it with enough visual wit to get away with it.

There’s a memorable scene in which Wes Bonnell admires his lady love (who happens to be a gunsmith) through a gun barrel. It’s typical of the risque humour that permeates the film. The scene in Jessica’s house with all forty of her dragoons seated at the immensely long dining table and all accommodated within the shot is a fine example of Fuller using what might have been dismissed as visual gimmickry to tell us all we need to know about the power dynamics between Jessica and her minions.

And Fuller tells us all e need to know about the feelings between Jessica and Griff by putting them in the middle of a tornado. It’s over-the-top but it works.

Even stranger are the musical interludes! Including the song about the high-ridin’ woman with a whip. They add an an almost surreal element to an already wildly eccentric movie. When it comes to the important scenes such as the climactic gunfight though Fuller is in complete control. It’s one of the best scenes of its type you’ll ever see, visually brilliant and full of black humour.

Stanwyck is superb. She was clearly enjoying herself and did all her own stunts including a frighteningly dangerous scene where she’s dragged behind a horse in the middle of a tornado. The supporting cast is generally good. Barry Sullivan has the right kind of masculine presence to perfectly complement Stanwyck’s matriarchal dominatrix. Gene Barry mixes charm and likeability and serves to lighten things up a little. John Ericson does everything but foam at the mouth as Brock but in a movie like this it’s a perfectly valid acting approach.

Forty Guns makes the supposedly revolutionary revisionist westerns of the 70s seem boringly conventional and staid. Fuller gives us an extravagant idiosyncratic but highly entertaining view of the wild west. This is a must-see western.

The region 4 DVD is bereft of extras but at least it preserves the correct Cinemascope framing and it looks pretty good.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quicksand (1950)

A film noir starring Mickey Rooney might sound like a spectacularly bad idea but Quicksand is actually not a bad movie.

Rooney plays Dan Brady, a motor mechanic whose relatively uneventful life becomes a nightmare when one rash action triggers off a chain reaction that threatens to swallow him in the quicksand of crime. All he wanted to do was take a girl out and show her a good time. What harm could there be in that? The only problem was, he realises at the last moment he has no money until payday. And Vera is a glamorous blonde, and if he doesn’t take her out some other guy will get her. And surely there’s no real harm in borrowing $20 from the till at the car repair shop where he works? He can pay the money back as soon as he gets paid.

It seems like a reasonable plan, but this is the world of film noir and once you take one false step you’ve landed yourself in a trap from which there’s no escape. Dan should be safe because the accounts are only checked once a week and he’ll have his pay cheque before then. He would indeed have been safe, if the bookkeeper hadn’t turned up early for some other reason and decided he might as well check the till while he’s there.

This will require fast thinking. Dan’s thinking is certainly fast, but maybe not all that sensible. He figures if he buys an expensive watch on the installment plan for one dollar down, and then hocks the watch for thirty bucks, he’s home free. This is just not Dan’s day however. That plan backfires badly, and each new plan he comes up with involves more risk and he’s just sinking deeper and deeper into that quicksand.

He does get the girl though, but dating Vera turns out to be not such a swell idea as it originally seemed to be. Vera wants the good things in life and she wants them now and her desire to have these things draws Dan even further into the mire.

Rooney is quite effective. He plays Dan as more or less an innocent which works well enough in the noir context. It’s plain though that Dan is not just a hapless victim of incredibly bad luck. He has the kinds of flaws that always bring noir protagonists unstuck. He has an unshakeable belief in the wisdom of taking short cuts. He also has a flexible moral code, the kind of moral code that allows him to consider stealing as not really stealing if you intend to pay the money back. Or if you’re stealing from someone who doesn’t deserve to have more money than you have.

It’s also clear that whenever an attractive woman comes along Dan’s moral code becomes even more flexible. He had a really nice girlfriend who as devoted to him but he dumped her because he didn’t want to be tied down. Especially if there were glamorous blondes around. He’s not a bad guy but underneath a cocky exterior he’s weak and his judgment is poor.

Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy Cagney’s sister) plays Vera an it’s an interesting performance. She’s the femme fatale of the piece but she’s rather like Dan - she’s not evil so much as weak and she has the same kind of flexible moral code. Barbara Bates as the film’s good girl Helen (Dan’s former girlfriend) is less impressive but it’s a much less interesting role and there’s not really much she can do with it.

Peter Lorre adds to the movie’s noir credentials with a memorably sleazy and nasty performance as amusement arcade operator Nick. He used to be Vera’s boss and there’s bad blood between them, presumably because of Nick’s lecherous designs on her. Lorre adds the edginess the movie needs and that Rooney can’t quite provide.

Like so many entries in the classic film noir cycle this one is let down badly by a clumsy contrived ending. If you can ignore that there’s still plenty to enjoy here.

This one’s in the public domain and is included in various budget multi-movie PD collections. My copy came from a Mill Creek set and while the print was a bit rough it was still quite acceptable (and since the cost of the movies in Mill Creek’s 50-movie Mystery Classics works out at around 40 cents a movie there’s no reason for complaint). This one’s worth a look.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Parallax View (1974)

Paranoia and American cinema go together like ham and eggs. And the 1970s was a vintage era for filmic paranoia. One of the lesser known examples is Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View.

Warren Beatty is second-rate newspaper reporter Joseph Frady (is there any other kind one might ask) who is present at the assassination of a US senator. But this is the 70s and that sort of thing is taken for granted. He stops taking it for granted when he discovers that almost half of the witnesses to the killing have died. They have apparently died from natural causes or from accidents, but it still seems a little odd. And then the woman who pointed this out to him winds up dead as well.

He decides to do some digging. His investigations lead him to the remote town of Salmon Point where the sheriff befriends him and then tries to kill him by leaving him in the path of a dam overflow. So now he’s getting really suspicious. And where does the Parallax Corporation fit in? The sheriff has some unexplained documents from this mysterious company in his possession. Frady determines to get inside the Parallax Corporation.

A paranoia/conspiracy theory film made in 1974 is inevitably going to be compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful The Conversation, made in the same year. Stylistically it could be argued that The Parallax View is the better movie. And it has the atmosphere of paranoia, in spades. It also has some surprisingly good action sequences, and some quirky little scenes that contribute to the feeling of unreality and insanity, of a world gone mad. The meeting on the miniature railway is a case in point and it’s very effective. The use of interesting and unsettling locations and the even more unsettling ways that Pakula shoots key scenes, with the action happening in long shot and often in two different parts of the frame at the same time, also adds to the feeling that Frady is trapped in a nightmare that is rapidly running out of control.

The acting is impressive as well. Warren Beatty is an unfashionable actor but this was one of his finest moments. Paula Prentiss contributes a terrific cameo.

So there’s a good deal to like in this movie. But there are problems. Big problems. The first of these is the script. I’m all for ambiguity, but this screenplay isn’t ambiguous, it’s just plain vague. There is no sense to anything. What is the purpose of the conspiracy? Why does no-one notice that so many witnesses are dying? And since nobody suspects that the original assassination was anything other than the act of a lone madman, who on earth would the perpetrators no draw attention to it by murdering witnesses who didn’t see anything?

The other major problem is that the paranoia is too amorphous, too vague. The bad guys are plotting a conspiracy because they’re bad guys and that’s what bad guys do. And it’s all hopeless because everything is corrupt and there are conspiracies everywhere. This movie illustrates perfectly what has gone wrong with politics (at both ends of the political spectrum) in the last forty years. Once everything is reduced to wicked and almost universal conspiracies you’re left with nothing to do except wallow in ever-increasing paranoia.

Halfway through I was saying to myself that at least it wasn’t as silly as JFK. By the end I was saying to myself that it was much much sillier than JFK. And JFK is my touchstone of cinematic silliness.

Pakula himself is an odd director. He made Klute , one of the best American movies of the 70s, but the rest of his filmography is decidedly unimpressive. Including the almost unwatchable Sophie's Choice.

The Parallax View is a good example of both the strengths and the fatal weaknesses of American cinema in the 70s.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933)

In 1922 with Dr Mabuse the Gambler Fritz Lang created the first great cinematic diabolical criminal mastermind. In 1933 he was persuaded,despite some initial hesitations, to make a sequel. It was to be his last German movie for almost three decades.

Dr Mabuse’s earlier criminal career had ended in madness. As the second film opens he remains a near-catatonic madman in a lunatic asylum. But has the world really heard the last of Dr Mabuse?

Kriminalkomissar Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is pursuing the mysterious case of ex-police detective Hofmeister. Hofmeister had ben thrown off the police force in disgrace but had hoped to redeem himself by carrying out his own investigations into a counterfeiting racket. Hofmeister is now a babbling lunatic. The threads of this case lead Lohmann to an insane asylum operated by Professor Baum. Baum’s star patient is none other than Dr Mabuse, and his interest in this very special patient verges on the obsessive. In Baum’s eyes Mabuse was both genius and madman. Baum has been collecting the Mabuse’s notes, which at first seem to be nonsensical but which after a time start to assume a sinister significance.

Also drawn into this web is a man named Kent, an ex-convict who works for a vast criminal organisation. Kent is a decent man who has become involved in crime through a series of misadventures and misfortunes but he has no taste for the extreme methods used by this crime syndicate. And he has fallen in love with Lili, a woman whose belief in his fundamental goodness is unshakeable.

Of course none of this can have anything to do with Dr Mabuse. He is incurably insane and hasn’t spoken for years. And yet the criminal activities convulsing the city seem to have the unmistakable Mabuse stamp, being concerned more with spreading fear and confusion than with actual profit. And these activities are on a grandiose scale such as could only be conceived of by a madman whose mind works on such epic scales.

This is the paranoid world of Fritz Lang, a world of people trapped in vast webs of deceit and manipulation from which escape seems impossible. They know they are trapped but they don’t even understand how or by whom, much less have any idea how to extricate themselves.

Lang pulls off a number of spectacular visual set-pieces. The room in which the young lovers are trapped, the sabotage of the chemical factory, the criminal mastermind seen only as a shadow behind a curtain, all these scenes are not merely impressive but they act to increase the feelings of entrapment and of a world in which corruption and violence flourish (very similar to the atmosphere of his first talkie M in 1931). There’s also a superb night-time car chase. Lang uses lots of high-angle shots which again have the effect of making the characters seem somehow puny and insignificant, up against forces beyond their control.

Lang adapted very quickly to sound and uses it in striking ways to add to the overwhelming sense of imprisonment. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force of sound effects, with an incessant hammering sound that makes both the unfortunate Hofmeister and the audience feel that the world is inexorably closing in on them.

The acting is impressive and restrained, which is appropriate given the fact that most of the characters are mere playthings of fate. Rudolf Klein-Rogge once again plays Mabuse. Otto Wernicke is particularly memorable as the determined Kriminalkomissar Lohmann, a character who in some ways anticipated Glenn Ford’s tenacious and obsessive honest cop in Lang’s 1953 the Big Heat.

Lang later claimed the movie was a kind of allegory of the methods used by the Nazis but Lang was always conscious in interviews of the necessity to further the Lang legend and his public statements were often spectacularly unreliable. It seem more likely that the film was intended as a criticism of political extremism in general, of both the left and the right, and of the use of violence and terror as means of gaining political power. Personally I think this makes the movie’s achievement more impressive. Like most of Lang’s great movies it deals with universal themes and the themes of this particular film have remained frighteningly relevant right down to our own day.

The Eureka UK all-region DVD release is a restored print that allows us to appreciate the visual brilliance of Lang’s German films. Both the movie and the DVD release are highly recommended. A must-see for anyone who is even vaguely serious about movies.