April is shaping up to be a killer month, as in next week (known throughout the land as “@#$!ing Tax Week”) will not only damage me financially but physically, a week of non-stop labor that will (at least) end with a Crapfest, but it’s a Crapfest that largely exists because one of our number passed away recently. More on that later. If I survive.
So at least I watched some movies at Rick’s before this horrible month started. We tend to put together three movies that have some sort of connection, but this time we decided to get all eclectic and see what happened. One of the things that this “Watch These 100 Movies” Challenge is doing is, at least, getting me off my ass as far as Charlie Chaplin goes, and it turns out Rick hadn’t really watched any of his stuff either. One I had on hand was Modern Times, so off we went.
The major memory I carry with me from my first feature-length Chaplin, The Gold Rush, is that in the opening shot I was immediately introduced to Charlie Chaplin, Serious Filmmaker. I’m not kidding about that. That proto-Herzog shot involving hundreds of people made me reconsider my opinion of Chaplin instantly. So what, then, are we to make of Modern Times, an almost entirely silent movie released in 1936, almost ten years after The Jazz Singer ushered in the era of talkies?
In the extended riff on Metropolis that opens Modern Times, the only time human speech is heard is through machinery: the head of the steel mill commanding his foreman to speed things up through a TV screen (science fiction in 1936!) and a sales pitch recorded on a Victrola record. Everything else? as if it were filmed fifteen, twenty years earlier: silent, with only the occasional sound effect. It’s hard arguing with the result: a master working within a format with which he is intimately familiar and comfortable.
As the story progresses and the title character (and modern times is a character in this movie) frustrates and blockades the Little Tramp at every turn, in the final sequence, even he must give himself over to synchronized sound, with – just as The Jazz Singer did – a song. Even then, losing the lyrics written on his cuffs, he has to resort to pantomime and nonsense.
Modern Times was made after Chaplin had spent a year and a half traveling the world, and talking with people as diverse as Henry Ford and Mahatma Gandhi. He returned to an America still deeply mired in the Great Depression, probably not a little politicized – and it shows. The opening section in the factory is based on Chaplin’s visit to Henry Ford’s famous assembly line, where young men were abandoning farm work for better money and, after a few years working that line, suffering nervous breakdowns. After the Little Tramp suffers a similar breakdown, he proceeds to drift from one attempted job to another, where any whiff of unionizing is visited by police wielding batons. This movie was Exhibit A when the House Un-American Activities Committee decided Chaplin was a Commie.
A breath of fresh air is Chaplin’s then-lover, Paulette Goddard, as The Gamin, a young lady down on her luck, who manages to escape the juvenile authorities when the rest of her family is packed off to an orphanage. On the waterfront, the Gamin is like Tarzan (right down to wearing what appears to be one of Jane’s tossed-off dresses), and her and the Tramp’s run-ins with the Law leads to a partnership alternately heartbreaking and uplifting (and hilarious, needless to say). Once they finally seem to have found their ideal place, it’s those same forces of the Law that rousts them (all other problems solved, they still want to bust The Gamin for vagrancy), and they find themselves on the road again. That isn’t a new sensation for the Little Tramp, but he has a companion. Again, not new, but this time we have the feeling that companion is an equal, and that’s nice. And if Chaplin had to put a coda to The Little Tramp character, the silent era in general, and a last word (ha!) to an America in distress – “Buck up! Never say die! We’ll get along!” ain’t a bad one, at all.
We had decided to place a “palette cleanser” in the second position, acting like a raspberry sorbet between courses of a meal. No sorbet this, however, what we had was a blu-ray of Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers. (Andy Milligan on blu. This is an age of wonders.)
Bloodthirsty Butchers is Milligan’s screen version of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, a piece of penny dreadful literature that dates back to 1846. Lots of folks have taken a crack at the story, including Tod Slaughter – there’s even a ballet, for pete’s sake. This is one of two movies Milligan actually shot in England in 1970. (The other one, The Body Beneath, gets my vote as the almost watchable of his films), instead of trying to make Staten Island look like period Europe. Tim Lucas put it best: Andy Milligan’s movies play out like filmed community theater productions. There are one or two good actors, many mediocre ones, and some oy-god-get-off-the-stage actors. And somebody’s mom (in this case, Milligan himself) sewed the costumes out of whatever was available.
The most fun was finding modern devices in the background, and how every room has the curtains drawn to avoid the 1970 neighborhoods outside; the modern hairstyles and makeup. And yelling “WHO ARE YOU??” every time a new character suddenly cropped up. (Actually, the most fun I had was fantasizing a 40-ish Stephen Sondheim, chilling out from the intense workshopping of Company and catching this crap at a 42nd St. theater. Thinking, “Hey, I bet I could get a musical out of this!”)
Watching Milligan movies is perversely fascinating, but draining. I really can only manage one a year. And I still have these other two blu-rays…
How was the blu, you might ask? Well, it’s quite clear, but so obviously a 16mm print that was blown up to 35mm the grain should get a screen credit. That’s not the fault of Code Red, who put out the blu – that was standard operating procedure for Milligan and William Mishkin. How else do you think he made movies for only $12,000? Milligan always had his framing too tight, so if you’re watching this on a modern 16:9 TV, reset your aspect ratio to 4:3. Andy had enough shortcomings on his own without adding to them by cropping off what little frame he had.
So what were we cleansing our palettes between? Well, Rick has been having a bit of a problem with the entertainment he enjoyed as a youth. Most recently, a few months ago, we watched an episode of Space 1999 which murdered that particular sector of his childhood (the episode had an implied-nude Sarah Douglas, and endless scenes of a slow-motion bouncing ball). Then, a month or so ago, he watched an old cable favorite, Foxes ,with terrible results. So his next attempt to capture the cable glory of his childhood was approached with not a little fear. The movie was Thief, and as I put it, “This is a Criterion blu-ray. How bad can it be?”
Thief was Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, after a very well-received TV movie, The Jericho Mile, gave him enough clout to convince James Caan to take the title role. Caan plays Frank, who is, you might guess, a thief, and an awfully good one. His two-man crew (one of which is Jim Belushi) and he plan and perform heists that specialize only in cash or diamonds locked inside seemingly invulnerable vaults. This eventually garners the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky, a TV actor also making the jump to movies), a godfather type who wants Frank to work for him exclusively.
Frank carries in his wallet a photo collage of the ideal life he wants: house, kids, wife. He convinces a waitress he’s attracted to, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) to be the wife and mother in the collage, and once she agrees, Frank also agrees to Leo deal: a couple of big jobs to sweeten his retirement pot, and then he will retire to his carefully-managed secret identity as the owner of a car lot. And that, as they say, is when the trouble starts.
Mann insisted on authenticity, not only from his actors (and the diner scene between Jessie and Frank is still taught in method acting classes), but from his story: there are several actual high-profile thieves in the cast, who were consultants, and lent the movie their tools of the trade (like that huge drill Caan uses in the opening scene). Apparently Caan learned so much under their tutelage he actually cracked a safe in his sister’s house when the mechanism fouled up.
Rick was gratified: the movie was actually better than he remembered it. For my part, I had owned the soundtrack for something like mumble mumble years, oh, all right, I bought it when it came out in 81. This was only Tangerine Dream’s second American theatrical score, but I had been buying their albums since about 77 or so. So it was nice to finally see the images that inspired some of the music.
But how did I like the movie? Thief is very good, primarily for the reason Rick put forth: its balance between character and technique, Frank’s life and his trade, is almost perfect. Mann is stretching visual muscles here that are eventually going to coalesce into Miami Vice and shape fashion and entertainment for a good portion of the 80s. And the choice of Tangerine Dream is perfect for the neon-lit vistas and brutal technology Frank employs – sometimes the score is almost indistinguishable from the roar of the drill.
It’s also fun to see other members of the Mann Repertory Company crop up – William Peterson as a bouncer in a bar, Dennis Farina as a gunsel. Good stuff.
Now I need to finish this up, post it, and gird my loins for the next two weeks. I may get to slide in a movie or two, but I won’t get to write about them, until the latter part of the month. Enjoy what’s left of your Easter baskets, kiddies, and be excellent to each other. I should be back.