A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part three

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Double Indemnity (1944)

double-indemnity-1All the various pieces of film-noir intersect in a perfect specimen of the genre, creating Venetian blind lighting motifs that would be appropriated over and over again into the next century.

Fred MacMurray was convinced by director Billy Wilder to take leave of his usual light comedy roles to play Walter Neff, a highly successful insurance salesman who runs afoul of Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck in a horribly cheap blonde wig), an unhappy housewife who desperately wants to be rid of her loveless oil executive husband. Once these two finish playing bedroom games, Neff manages to get Dietrichsen insured for double indemnity in case of accidental death, then carefully rigs the murder, using his knowledge of insurance scams to commit the perfect crime.

Unfortunately, Neff’s best friend is insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a Sherlock of Statistics who at first figures the death is just bad luck for the insurance company, then homes in on the one tiny inconsistency in Neff’s plot. Keyes has a blind spot toward his old friend, Neff, and believes someone else is her accomplice – but the salesman watches in dread as that blind spot shrinks and his relationship with Phyllis starts to sour and curdle, and they begin to turn on each other.

double-indemnity-1944-movie-screenshot-495pxDouble Indemnity quite simply does everything right, from a beginning that grabs the viewer (and gives a perfect reason for Neff to spend the rest of the movie narrating his own downfall) straight through a twisted story that never strays from the logical – at least insofar as anything concerning human emotions can be – to a wholly satisfying end. MacMurray probably surprised the hell out of everybody. Stanwyck already had a reputation as a solid, versatile actress, and this movie established her as the Dark Lady of film-noir for many years, proving that the right actress can even overcome a director’s horrible choice of wigs. But the real standout for me is Edward G. Robinson, taking a step down from his usual starring roles to play Keyes, in his own way the hard-boiled detective of the story. Robinson has several dynamite speeches that he delivers perfectly, rapid-fire. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler made sure to be on the set when Robinson did those.

It amazes me that Hollywood made two James M. Cain novels with similar themes – unbridled lust and adultery lead to murder – under the  restrictive Hayes Code.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

birth_of_a_nation_CHoly shit, people. Just holy shit.

I’ve been warned enough times about Birth of a Nation. But it still winds up in reference books, still on Ebert’s list, because it is a remarkable technical and artistic achievement a mere 20 years after the exhibition of the first motion picture. It undeniably kicked off serious American cinema. It possesses a stature worthy of reckoning, but also an unfortunate message.

Right up front you get a warning with the title card “The Birth of a Nation (Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman)”. The first hour and a half tells the tale of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, whose sons are great friends (and whose eldest boys quite fancy the daughters on the opposite sides). The Stoneman family hail from the North, the Camerons own a cotton plantation in the South. Then the Civil War hits, and of course the boys wind up facing each other on the battlefield. The youngest die, the two elders survive. Lincoln pardons Cameron from an unjust execution when Miss Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and mother Cameron beg for his life. Gish refers to him as “The Great Heart”.

Lincoln’s assassination is fully and well-staged in a recreation of Ford’s Theater (but out in the open air, for lighting purposes). The Camerons read of his death and sadly look up from the newspaper, stating, “Our best friend has died. What will happen to us now?” If you’re slightly dubious of that being the actual reaction of defeated Southerners, just wait.

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915As I’ve said, that first 90 minutes is a good enough retelling of the period before and during the Civil War, but I wasn’t smitten with it when it was called Gone With the Wind, either. Then the second half of movie starts with a card that reads “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” In other words, We are about to get racist, but we are not racist.

Stoneman takes over after Lincoln is assassinated, and while he does not hang the Southern leaders, as he had previously advocated, he does go full-bore into making sure the freed slaves of the South become fully equal to the white citizens. This takes the form of whites being turned from the polls and blacks being bribed to elect rascals and carpetbaggers to the local government. My God, you can just hear current political talking points being freshly minted. Stoneman’s choice to head up the Reconstruction is a villainous (of course) mulatto named Simon Lynch, who secretly aims to establish his own Black Empire, and not incidentally marry Lillian Gish against her will.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, 1915Luckily, at the two-hour mark, the elder Cameron son has established the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and it is these brave sheet-beclad horsemen who rout the Black Apocalypse that Lynch has created (to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, no less), save Lillian Gish from Lynch’s vile mixed-race clutches, and, at the end, keep the Negros in their homes during the next election.

That last hour is a total mindfuck to rival The Holy Mountain or Holy Motors, let me tell you. Ideally, you try to cast yourself in the same mindset of a person watching the movie contemporaneously, and you just can’t. You can’t erase the image of blacks on the legislature floor leering at white women in the balcony when intermarriage is legalized. You can’t forget Gus the Rogue Negro (obviously a white man in blackface, as are any actors who come into contact with white actresses), stalking the teenaged Cameron girl, who leaps from a cliff rather than endure his touch. And it is really hard to forget sweet little Lillian Gish telling her Klan boyfriend, “Kill one for me!”

Birth of a Nation is culturally important, but it’s nightmarish. It may be even more culturally important, for just that reason.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

el_puente_sobre_el_rio_kwai_1957_7My decompression from The Birth of a Nation involved some more twisted ethics, but ethics that were slightly easier to relate to.

Based on a true story, it involves a platoon of captured British soldiers sent to a WWII Japanese labor camp in Siam, where they are supposed to, you guessed it, build a railroad bridge over the Kwai river. Our main conflict comes from the insistence of the camp’s commandant, Major Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) that the British officers also work alongside the enlisted men, which Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) rightly points out is a violation of the Geneva Convention. This insolence gets Nicholson thrown in The Oven, and his officers in The Punishment Hut until they give in to Saito’s demands. The soldiers, meanwhile, keep sabotaging the construction while the officers bake in the sun. I should mention that the American prisoner who actually starts the movie, Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the jungle, though nearly dying three times in the attempt.

Nicholson is made of incredibly stern stuff, and Saito finally finds an excuse to accede to his wishes under the auspices of a Japanese holiday. Once Nicholson sees what a wreck the bridge is, and what a rabble his men have become during his imprisonment, he decides that the best thing to do, to return discipline to his ranks and to show the Japanese what a British soldier can do, by God, is to build the bridge, and build it well. Saito, desperate to finish the bridge by his deadline, agrees, even conscripting his own men to construction work under the British officers, several of whom had built similar bridge in India.Nicholson becomes ever more obsessed (though in a genteel way) with the bridge’s completion, unaware that Shears has been basically blackmailed to make an unwilling journey back to the camp to blow up the bridge.

bridgeontheriverkwaiBridge gets fascinatingly complex in its character’s motivations; Saito sinking slowly into depression as his enemy does what he could not, to the point of planning seppuku after the bridge’s christening; Nicholson’s slow metamorphosis to slave driver, finally, ironically, putting his officers on the work force, and eventually even injured and sick men from the dispensary; and Sears, more or less forced – genteely, you gotta love the Brits – into the commando force and finding himself voluntarily risking his life once in the field.

William Holden always had an appealing vulnerability under his gruff handsomeness, and honestly should have been the only actor considered to play Shears (that didn’t stop them from offering it to Bogart, Grant, and Olivier). Like Fred MacMurray, Alec Guinness was, to this point, mainly known as a comedy star. The role of Nicholson had been offered to Charles Laughton (!), Ronald Coleman, Ralph Richardson, James Mason… the musical chairs even extended to directors. Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks… only eventually David Lean. The two screenwriters were Michael Wilson and Carl Foremen, both Blacklisted. It is amazing that this movie exists at all, much less turned out to be the masterpiece it is.

Research finds the story a bit more interesting, though less cinematic. The real Major Saito was apparently a much more enlightened gentleman, negotiating with his charges for their work duties. In fact, the real-life version of Colonel Nicholson testified on his behalf at a war crimes tribunal! Two bridges were made, both were bombed by Allied forces, but the sturdier one was repaired, and much like Nicholson’s dream, is still being used today.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

11160955_oriEventually, I had to run up against another movie I just couldn’t love, though lots of people do.

Thief of Bagdad is an Alexander Korda production, impossible to trace to one director, as Korda kept switching them in and out like drill bits. It’s an Arabian Nights fairy tale concerning a kindly ruler, Ahmed (John Justin), who befriends the title character, Abu (Sabu) when he is deposed by the evil vizier, the sorcerer Jafar (Conrad Veidt). Both men are in love with the princess (June Duprez) of a neighboring city, and when magically blinding Ahmed and turning Abu into a dog doesn’t work, Jafar shipwrecks them with a summoned storm. At which point things get weird.

Abu finds a genie (Rex Ingram) who flies him to the top of the world to steal a jewel called The All-Seeing Eye, which works like a magic TV, allowing him to locate Ahmed. The treacherous genie then sends Ahmed to Bagdad and execution, and strands  Abu on top of a mountain, As luck would have it, Abu’s destruction of the Eye of the World in a rage unlocks the gate to the Land of Legends, where the Thief gets the tools he need to rescue his friend.

2510033843_e3031446e3I don’t expect fantasy movies to necessarily be tightly constructed, but Thief’s plot feels sadly thrown together – I really missed my three act structure. The movie’s harried production – it had to move from its British studio during the Blitz into America – along with the directoral musical chairs works against it. But if I was somewhat bemused by the movie’s fevered insistence to cram nearly all the fantastical elements into the final third, it was fun to watch it while pretending to be a young Ray Harryhausen and see the inspiration for the green men and the six-armed goddess in Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

And Rex Ingram is a fine genie. Conrad Veidt excelled at playing villains with a soul, and Jafar, who would be able to hypnotize the Princess into loving him, but knows this would be a hollow victory, qualifies. The relatively new Technicolor process gets a real workout, and we see the first instance of the blue-screen technology that would enable traveling mattes for years to come, and the matte lines that would plague visual effects artists for the next fifty years.

There were more Arabian Nights-style movies over the years, but none matched the scope and fancy of Thief of Bagdad until that young Harryhausen fellow in the theater started making his own movies. For that, if nothing else, Thief of Bagdad gets props.

A Movie Weekend

The buildup to this is semi-complex, but I don’t want to be too specific. Perhaps you will see my dilemma.

Back during the last Crapfest, pal Dave gave me back a DVD that had been on perma-loan to him, which was The Prestige. He had borrowed it long, long ago, back when he was living in an apartment, in fact. I had dropped in for a visit, and had stopped at a Hollywood Video (to show you approximately how long ago this was) to raid their pre-viewed DVDs. One of them was The Prestige, Dave asked to borrow it, I said sure, why not, knowing full well it would be a long time before I got around to watching it, anyway. This was also back when I was wasting every evening of my life playing City of Heroes, which squandered many a movie watching hour. Don’t regret it, I enjoyed playing it with my friends. But I’ve now walked away from that particular teat.

Anyway, Dave handed me back the DVD, and off-handedly stated, “You know, I never guessed that (EXTREME SPOILER).” There was a brief pause, after which I said, “Well, now I guess I don’t have to watch it.” There was a brief scene after that, but Dave was far more upset than I. There is, as Penny Arcade points out, a statute of limitations on spoilers. That I had managed to successfully avoid that particular spoiler for 6 years is remarkable, but Dave was innocent of wrongdoing. Even so, he felt really badly about the whole thing.

About a week after, I sent him an e-mail suggesting we get together to watch The Prestige, because, after all, he had said he wanted to watch it again, and I wanted to watch it for the first time. Earlier that year, when he found out I still hadn’t seen Inception, he urged me to come over and “watch a good movie for a change.” Well, I spoiled that by watching Inception one lazy Sunday morning. Much as I love my wife, Dave would have been a better movie-watching companion for that particular movie. Lisa enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the multiple layers of the central caper, which is something Dave and I would have chewed over with gusto.

So. We watched The Prestige.

I like Christopher Nolan movies because you have to pay attention. And I like them because he doesn’t make that hard, at all. The Prestige has a very fluid timeline, constantly jumping back and forth through the chronology of the two main characters, but it is never confusing in that respect. The tale of an increasingly destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, there is a lot about setup, artifice, and pay-offs, and when Nicola Tesla is brought into the mix (a nicely strange turn by David Bowie), things take a turn for the downright weird. As Dave rightly pointed out, every scene means something different on a second viewing, and the movie is as meticulously constructed as a stage illusion. The seeds of Dave’s spoiler run throughout the movie, and I flatter myself that I would have spotted them, though as Dave points out, we’ll never know for sure. Ah well.

There are a couple of “oh, come on” moments for me, a couple of minor plot points that don’t affect the story that much, I just get curious. Nolan’s eye for casting remains solid. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both great choices, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson and Piper Perabo. Michael Caine is Michael Caine, which is pretty much what you pay him for these days. I swear to God Nolan cut-and-pasted at least one Caine speech from this script into one of the Batman scripts.

Good movie. Quite recommended.

Dave had, just that day, received a disc from Netflix: Cowboys and Aliens. Neither of us had seen it, so into the player it went.

There’s your setup right there: amnesiac Daniel Craig has a high-tech super-weapon locked onto his wrist, aliens keep flying overhead and lassooing innocent people. Hardass cattle baron Harrison Ford recruits Craig to attack the alien’s main base and rescue the people, which is okay by Craig because it seems to be tied into his missing past. In short, this is Terminator: Salvation in a Western setting.

It is also 20-30 minutes too long and wastes a lot of good actors in insignificant roles, like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. There is quite a bit too much time spent marshaling forces for a final battle that seems scattered and, like the movie, over-extended. Can’t find fault with the visual effects, at all, and the actors are a solid lot. It’s entertaining. but not enough for a whole-hearted recommendation. Netflix, definitely.

Well, that was Friday night. Saturday night, I usually have The Show, but as there were no reservations, that was cancelled. This is usually a cause for moping more than celebrating, because missing out on that small paycheck puts my fragile economic ecology in danger. But, I thought, none of that this week, dammit. Last Christmas, I got my wife her favorite movie in the world, Doctor Zhivago, on Blu-Ray. I had never seen Zhivago, so I figured it was high time.


What a dreadfully cramped trailer for a Panavision film!

Zhivago is, no surprise, the life story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), Russian poet and doctor, and Lara (Julie Christie), the woman whose life keeps intersecting his. The chronology of this relationship passes through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, more than enough turmoil for a historical romance. On Twitter I opined that this was the longest chick flick ever, which is the sort of thing you say when you are limited to 140 characters.

To be sure, it’s still shorter than that other over-long chick flick, Gone With the Wind, and it covers two vast conflicts instead of GWTW‘s single Civil War – and that is the larger story I took away from my viewing. My wife prefers to think of Zhivago as a great love story; I think of it as the tale of a man buffeted along by events much larger than he. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous movie – director David Lean, cinematographer Freddy Young, and Omar Sharif’s dreamy countenance provide a very compelling look at how poets view the world. GWTW is very obviously compacting a whole lot of novel into its last half-hour, and I never got that impression with Zhivago – Lean doesn’t make short movies, but those movies are very full without obvious compression.

I’ve long been a fan of the Arthurian legends, probably dating from the first movie I can recall seeing in a theater: The Sword In The Stone. A good friend through college constantly took me to task on this: “How can you possibly like it? It’s a love story based on betrayal.” (Likely because I didn’t focus on the love story, I was more taken with the idea of armored knights as a force for good, rather than medieval stormtroopers, but that’s neither here nor there) Zhivago‘s love story is also one of betrayal, as Yuri falls in love with Lara during their time in a makeshift hospital at the end of WWI. It is to the credit of the characters that nothing comes of it, Lara telling Yuri, “I don’t want you to lie to your wife because of me.”

Yet, after fleeing the wretched conditions of Moscow after the worker’s revolution, Yuri seeks out Lara, and the inevitable betrayal occurs; though both are married, Lara’s husband has been given up for dead (He has in fact reinvented himself as the terrorist insurgent Strelnikov), but Yuri’s wife, mere miles away, is pregnant with their second child. Zhivago is taken from this personal turmoil to another turmoil, as he is press-ganged into a Red Brigade bringing justice (and a whole lot of death) to White Russian forces. During his servitude, his family escapes to Paris, allowing him to live in sin with Lara and her daughter for a time, until the World steps in again.

As is the case with Gone With The Wind, this is not my cup of tea. I can appreciate the craft that has gone into this, the efforts at authenticity, the sheer awesomeness of the cast – but I still honestly cannot connect with what my wife considers to be a great love story. She loves it, I accept that. I shrug and continue on.

That was also the weekend my landline cratered, and because I have DSL, I was incommunicado through everything but my smartphone. So Sunday morning, while my wife was out at the movies with her friends – I had seen everything at the cinemas I had wanted to see; her friends went to Cabin in the Woods and she went to The Lucky One, that pretty much tells the tale – I finally watched Chushingura.

Chushingura, it seems, is the general term for fictional re-tellings of the tale of The 47 Loyal Ronin, which looms large in the landscape of Japanese culture. In the early 18th century, a corrupt Master of Etiquette is dissatisfied with the bribes offered by one of the younger lords, and goads that lord into attacking him in the Shogun’s palace, a breach so serious the young lord is sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his clan dissolved. His retainers, now all ronin – masterless samurais – bide their time, as retribution against the offended Master is forbidden. Finally, after two years of pretending to be workmen, monks, and in the case of the Chamberlain, a dissolute, drunken womanizer, forgetful of his duty to his dead master – on the second anniversary of the ritual suicide, the remaining 47 gather and attack the household, finally avenging the death of their master.

This is the 1962 version of the story, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, and I strenuously wished I had been more familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin before I had seen the movie. There are a lot of characters in play throughout, and I’m not just talking about the 47 ronin – wives, hangers-on, courtesans, brothel entertainers, not to mention the crew around the spectacularly corrupt Lord Kira, who feels an existence based entirely on lust and greed will grant him a long life, and that other samurai are fools for their predisposition to die at the slightest provocation. It gets dizzying after a while. Familiar faces like Takashi Shimura helped anchor me, but I still found myself confused as relationships proliferated as the fateful evening approached. Toshiro Mifune, featured prominently on all the advertising materials – especially the ones destined for Western eyes – has only a supporting role, as the lancer Genba Tawaraboshi, who is the hard-drinking badass we always love to see Mifune play.

So curse my blind ignorance, I am unable to make an objective judgment of Chushingura. It is well-made, acted and directed, and on those points alone I rank it highly; though how effective it is as a re-telling of a major legend, I must leave to those more knowledgeable. What it is, I can tell you, is a damned fine snapshot of the layered society in Japan at that time, the grinding rituals of proper etiquette, deference, and station; and the sometimes incredible insanity of the bushido code.

Then that evening, I watched Lolita. The next time I have a weekend like this, I really must find shorter movies.