Thursday, August 19, 2010

100 years, 100 films metapost: 10 Best Films of the Forties

The Forties were sort of a schizophrenic decade for Hollywood movies in a lot of ways. About half of the films made were super-depressing, super-serious films along the lines of "we're in a war how could anything ever be fun ever again," or, "we've just been through a war how could anything ever be fun ever again". And the other half of the films were ridiculous escapist stuff - intentionally and bull-headedly ignoring everything that was going on around them, reminiscent of John Cleese screaming, "Don't mention the war!"

Actually, now that I think about it, that's pretty much every decade of Hollywood movies. About equal parts sanctimonious b.s. and escapist pap.

Now to the best of them!

10. The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed directed what may well be Orson Welles' best performance. Joseph Cotten doesn't do to badly either. My only problem with the film is how much of a dumbass Cotten's character is. What, he couldn't fake his way through a literary discussion of his own books? What a dumbass!

9. Unfaithfully Yours (1948). For my money, this is the fastest and funniest of all of Preston Sturges' comedies. Generally I find Rex Harrison insufferable, but here his mannered jerkishness is comic gold.

8. Easter Parade (1948). To atone for my grievous sin of not including any Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies in my "best of the thirties" list, I offer Easter Parade, which some people consider "lesser" Astaire. Those people are stupid-heads.

7. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston going crazy in the desert. The harshness of untamed America is on display here better than in any mere Western I've ever seen.

6. Great Expectations (1946). Before David Lean became a director, he was an editor, and in his Great Expectations, it shows. His manipulation of the medium for maximum effect is, quite frankly, extraordinary.

5. Beauty and the Beast (1946). Jean Cocteu's dreamlike fantasy is the definitive screen version of the oft-told story. The ending still feels like a cop-out, but at least it's rushed.

4. To Have and Have Not (1944). Howard Hawks riffing on Casablanca, giving Bogie almost exactly the same role, but giving the Ingrid Bergman role to Lauren Bacall. Bacall does it better than Bergman ever could.

3. Double Indemnity (1944). Before Billy Wilder became a director of decent-but-slow fifties comedies, he was one of the most interesting, experimental guys in Hollywood. This quintissential film noir is, for my money, the best crime movie ever made.

2. Dumbo (1941). The best Disney movie. Short, lean, and packing an emotional wallop, this movie doesn't contain any of the tedious flab that drags down other Disney films of the forties.

1. His Girl Friday (1940). What can I say? I have an undying love for Howard Hawks, and undying love for Cary Grant, and an undying love for this movie. And boy, can Rosalind Russell talk. I could listen to that all day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

100 years, 100 films 40: On The Town (1949)

This is one of those perfectly watchable Arthur Freed produced MGM musicals from the forties and fifties. There's nothing particularly good or bad about it. It's fun enough to hold your interest, the dances are good, the girls are pretty, the songs are... amiable... in a way...

That's not to say that the Arthur Freed unit didn't make some great musicals, but this isn't one of them. There's nothing particularly wrong with the film (except for the performance of Jules Munshin, who makes Donald O' Conner in Singin' in the Rain seem postively not annoying), but, well...

Maybe part of the problem is the fact that I have always been, and will always remain, a Fred Astaire man. I can see that Gene Kelly is good and all, but he's just too... all-American-boy-ish for my taste. When Astaire breaks into song and dance, it feels like it's a natural extension of his exuberant charm and class. When Gene Kelly breaks into song, it can sometimes feel like a stupid American hick getting bored and dicking around. There's just something graceless about him. He always looks like he's having a good time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the audience is.

Maybe I'm being a little hard on the film. It isn't bad. Stanley Donen (who co-directed the film with Gene Kelly) is a sometimes-great director, and the fact that this isn't anywhere near his best doesn't mean that you'll feel cheated of your time. It's just that... well... there are certainly better ways to spend your time. Like watching Singin' in the Rain. Or The Pirate. Or any Fred Astaire movie...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

100 years, 100 films 39: The Big Clock (1948)

This is a movie about clockwork. I'm not just talking about the fact that publishing magnate Earl Janoth, played with admirable creepiness by Charles Laughton, is obsessed with the precision of clocks - both in and of themselves, and as a metaphor for the ceaselessly mechanical way he runs his business. And I'm not talking about the fact that every other line uttered in the first thirty minutes of the film is something like, "do you have the time?" or, "what kind of time do you call this?" And I'm not even talking about the fact that the two most pivotal moments in the movie - the murder (this is, after all, a film noir - of course there's a murder) and the movie's climax - both completely revolve around clocks.

What I mean when I say that the movie is "about clockwork" is that the enjoyment one derives from The Big Clock comes from the fact that the film is perfectly timed. It's like a good Agatha Christie story, in that everything that happens, happens exactly when it needs to. Every action of every character leads inevitably to the other actions of the other characters. Nothing happens arbitrarily. Nothing happens accidentally. I don't mean that characters don't have accidents, or do things that they hadn't planned. But every accident any character makes is set in motion by something a previous character has done. Much like the gears in a clock, the characters in this film have preset paths they are forced to follow by the fact that the other characters are forced to follow their preset paths by the fact that the other characters are forced to follow their preset paths... and all this seeming chaos works together to create one unified effect - the never-ending ticking of the plot.

Mirroring the actions of the obsessive Earl Janoth, director John Farrow never allows The Big Clock to stop ticking. Because as Janoth suspects at the beginning of the film and knows for certain by the end, when the clock stops ticking, chaos reigns. And this chaos might be good for Janoth's tired and belittled workers, but it is bad, bad, bad for the guy at the top. Fortunately, Farrow never looses his cool, never breaks the clock, never sends his world into chaos. The movie just keeps moving inevitably along, unbroken and entertaining.

Also, this movie has what may be the most thematically perfect murder weapon in the history of cinema. I mean, the film's The Big Clock, it's obsessed with clocks, so yeah, it makes sense that the murder weapon is a clock. But it isn't just any clock. It's a sundial. A mechanical clock is perfect as long as it keeps on ticking, but a sundial has all sorts of potential for error. A human has to line it up exactly right for it to work, and humans make mistakes. Earl Janoth (who is the murderer - not really a spoiler as the film never tries to keep it a secret) absolutely despises the idea of human error. To him, the sundial represents everything that was wrong with the pre-industrial world: it wasn't totally controlable. Also, a sundial has to be used outside, and in Janoth's world, the act of going outside is an act of rebellion. The sundial, to Janoth, is like a sick, twisted, abomination version of the one thing he loves - his clocks. And it is the mere presence of the sundial in his mistress' apartment that sets him into a fit of rage. Moreso even than the fact that she was cheating on him.

Monday, August 16, 2010

100 years, 100 films 38: Brute Force (1947)

This is the kind of movie where characters stand around, spouting pop-philosophy garbage at each other. There's not a character in the whole film who doesn't awkwardly "represent" something - the prison guard is the evils of beaurocracy and capitalism; the doctor is the ineffectual intelligentsia, explaining social problems but unable to do anything to stop them; the warden is the problems with democracy - limp wristed and more concerned with the retention of his job than actually doing it competently; the prisoners are "society" - being pushed around by forces beyond their control. And this stupid symbolism is handled so heavy handedly by the director, Jules Dassin, that the movie stops feeling like a movie and starts feeling like a sociology lesson aimed at mentally retarded people. Characters basically just walk around screaming, "THIS IS WHAT I REPRESENT! I AM THE EVILS OF THE CAPITALIST SYSTEM!" for ninty minutes. It's really annoying.

Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, a hardened criminal with a heart of gold (you can tell he has a heart of gold, because he's in love with a crippled woman. Goddamn this movie is stupid) who is planning the Communist overthrow of society... whoops... errm... I mean a prison break. Lancaster acts as if he's got a slice of lemon in his mouth, spitting out his lines in between stoic grimaces. He's acting opposite Hume Cronyn as the evil prison guard, who is a walking bundle of allusions to sadism, fascism, capitalism, beaurocracy, homosexuality, anything else Jules Dassin can think of to despise. Both of these actors do the best with what they're given, but what they're given is a huge pile of horse shit, so...

To be fair to the movie, the climactic action set piece is actually quite effective (although the effect is somewhat ruined by the doctor's final line: "Nobody ever escapes! Nobody!"), the cinematography is uniformly excellent, the dirt and the grime and the muck all look suitably disgusting. I just wish the film stopped shouting it's stupid points at me, and just let the characters be themselves, rather than conforming to some dumbassed and highly "symbolic" scheme.

Friday, August 13, 2010

100 years, 100 films 37: The Lady in the Lake (1946)

This is more of an experiment than a movie. It's ostensibly an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, but... it's all shot in first person perspective, and I suppose this was supposed to be analogous to Chandler's first person narration, but it just isn't. What would be analogous to Chandler's first person narration would be, you know, first person narration. Robert Montgomery was both director and star of this movie, so I suppose that the idea might have been that the film would offer one ultra-unified vision. But it doesn't. It just offers a cheap and not particularly well executed gimmick.

Not that the first person perspective gimmick is an inherently bad idea, but it is rarely actually utilised properly in the movie, and it just means that you get a whole lot of actors trying awkwardly to interact with the camera, without really having any idea how to do that convincingly. Also, because the camera is an awkward, clunky, hard-to-maneuver 1940s camera, it always looks weird - like Chandler is walking in perfectly straight lines, standing perfectly still, not moving his head for minutes at a time, keeping his head perfectly straight as he stumbles around drunk. Rather than pulling you into the story by making you feel like you are Chandler (which I assume was the point) the film makes you intensely and constantly aware that you are looking through a camera.

There are moments in this film that use the first person perspective thing properly. There is a car chase sequence, followed by a post-car-crash scramble to a telephone booth, that are surprisingly effective and taut, and where the first person perspective does actually draw you in. But most of the time, when it's just people standing around and talking, the film feels like nothing more than one of those stupid interactive DVD games, where the characters are all trying desperately to make you feel like you're "part of the action!"

And it all moves so slowly. Because there are no editing cheats to speed the movie up. Every scene is one long, uninterrupted take, and the editor can't just cut in the middle of some dialgoue and say, "well, we don't need this thirty seconds". And it's not just the dialogue scenes that aren't edited properly. Because it's all in first person perspective, we get so many agonsizingly pointless shots of Marlowe walking up stairs. Marlowe walking down a hallway. Marlowe openning a door, walking through the doorway, then closing the door behind him. And because these sorts of scenes were difficult to orchestrate from a technical standpoint, the film seems to think that they will be, somehow, inherently interesting to the audience. But no. They're just tedious.

Really the only thing that made this movie interesting for most of the running time was the fact that when you can't see Robert Montgomery's face, he actually sounds quite a bit like Alan Alda. So I just kept imagining Alan Alda as Marlowe. Now that would be a good movie. But then Marlowe would look into a mirror, and Robert Montgomery's face would pop up, and the whole effect was ruined.

If you feel the need to watch something that's shot entirely in first person perspective, go for the British sitcom Peep Show. It's all first person perspective, but there are five things that make it just so much better than The Lady in the Lake:
1. Though every shot is somebody's perspective, they aren't all the same person's perspective, which allows for things like editing, and also visual variation.
2. It's not only all first person perspective, but it also has a lot of first person narration, allowing for some pretty damn hilarious inner monologues.
3. A contemporary digital camera is much easier to handle than a 1940s film camera, meaning that the camera work feels like what the characters would actually see, rather than looking bizarrely staid.
4. It is really, really funny.
5. It's not someone's stupid vanity project.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

100 years, 100 films 36: Open City (1945)

We have been conditioned by thousands of Hollywood movies to think of spies as people with almost superhuman abilities and total emotional detachment. They may enjoy sex, but apart from that, they're pretty much robots. They're always expertly trained in everything, and their motto is always "professionalism". Obviously there are exceptions to these rules, even amongst conventional Hollywood spy movies. But I've never seen a movie that depicts spies like Roberto Rossellini's Open City depicts spies. Open City's spies are real humans - they aren't mythological beings acting out some Kabuki play for the audience's enjoyment. They're average people with average desires and goals, but they're driven to the extremes of heroism by circumstances that seem beyond their control.

The film is set in Italy in 1944. Italy has been bombed ceaselessly by the Americans and the British, and is overrun by Nazis who feel nothing but disdain for the Italians they are forced to deal with. It's this climate of constant fear of death from the Allies, and torture from the Nazis, that forces otherwise regular Italians into working as spies for the Communists, who seem to be the only people not attempting to destroy Italy. These people who become spies don't just abandon all their other problems, they still have to deal with girl troubles, or money troubles, or food troubles. And it's this refusal to abandon their previous lives that make these characters all feel real, and honest, and it gives the film an underlying sense of truth. Sure, some pretty melodramtic stuff happens in Open City, but it never feels fake. It just feels like life is serving up a big hunk of crap to these people, and they've got to deal with it. The overlying sense of realism gives the moments of melodrama a raw emotional power that they just simply would not possess in a Hollywood film.

The film isn't perfect. It's attitude towards women is pretty damn mysoginistic, even for its time (which is a real shame, because the film does have some great female performances). And the subtitling on the copy I watched was, quite frankly, woeful. And while the spies are more realistic here than they would be in a Hollywood film, the Nazis are exactly as two dimensional. But the movie is still really damn powerful.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

100 years, 100 films 35: Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw (1944)

I included this film in my stupid film experiment so that I could talk about the way in which World War 2 was infencting every aspect of Hollywood films during the war years. Normally what happens in these Basil Rathbone - Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, is that Sherlock goes and investigates some crime that relates to the War in some way (the bad guy is a Nazi, some of the suspects are soldiers, the crime involves spies and/or army secrets), and then at the end of the film gives a big speech about how great America or Britain or the Navy or whatever is. But by 1944, it seems that the film makers had, in fact, got bored with this formula, and pretty much jettisoned it entirely.

There is still the obligatory war connection, and the big rousing speech, technically. But the film isn't even pretending to care about either of them. The "war connection" is that... the film is set in Canada, and Canada is... part of the war effort... or something. And the big rousing speech is about how necessary Canada is to the winning of the war, but it makes no real sense, and you can just tell that nobody's heart was in it. It feels like Basil Rathbone is sitting there thinking, "well, better get this over with..."

So I guess this film tells us that, by 1944, everyone had pretty much gotten sick of the war. There's only so much rousing b.s. a person can stomache before he just simply isn't roused any more, and there's only so much rousing b.s. a person can make before they just stop caring, and it stops being rousing. And it makes sense. By this point, audiences had been constantly bombarded with messages about how great soliders are and America is and bla bla bla, and honestly I'm surprised it took them this long to get sick of it.

Of course, the fact that the film doesn't work as propaganda doesn't mean that the film is bad. It isn't. It's actually quite good. At this point in the series, Rathbone and Bruce had become truly comfortable in their roles, and their raport together is rather wonderful. The plot is both baffling and insane, two things I like in my Sherlock Holmes, and the atmosphere is remarkably evocative. The supporting cast are all solid, although there is remarkably little Canadian-ness about any of them. I actually kept forgetting that the film was set in Canada, and it was just the occassional dropping of the word "Quebec" that reminded me that I wasn't in England.

This non-Canadian-ness wasn't really a problem for the film, but it does sort of illustrate the laziness with which this film applied its pro-war stuff. I'm pretty sure the film was only set in Canada because the film makers were running through the list of things that Sherlock Holmes hadn't made speeches about, and the only things left were "Canada" and "the Postal Service". After much deliberation, they decided to go with Canada, but nobody could be bothered putting any effort into the thing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

100 years, 100 films 34: Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Based on my experiences with The Fighting 69th a couple of days ago, I wasn't really expecting much from Action in the North Atlantic. And it's far from a perfect film - it's very episodic, and the female characters are marginalised to the point of meaninglessness. But apart from that, it's actually surprisingly entertaining.

Humphrey Bogart is in top form as Joe Rossi, a First Mate on a cargo ship during World War 2. He grumbles and growls and grimaces with his usual aplomb. The dialogue he says is often ridiculous in that hyper-macho hyper-stylised Hollywood tough guy vernacular that was so popular in the forties. Or rather, I should say that his dialogue would often be ridiculous, if it wasn't said by Humphrey Bogart, who seems to have an innate ability to pull that stuff off and still look like a total badass.

Most of the other actors are pretty bland (with the notable exception of Alan Hale), but Bogart has enough charisma and soiled charmed for them all. And what the film lacks in ensemble work, it more than makes up for in some really good action sequences, very well handled by the director, Lloyd Bacon.

One interesting element of the film is the way that it totally dehumanises the Nazis. It's not surprising that it does this, but it is interesting how the American Merchant Marines are depicted as all-too-human - slouching, grime on their faces, shirts unbuttoned, hats askew. Whereas the Nazis are all robots - they speak in an incomprehensible (unsubtitled German) monotone, they stand perfectly straight, their uniforms are immaculately clean. The only time the Nazis ever feel any emotions is in moments of violence - either cheering in victory when an American ship is sunk, or screaming in terror as their sub fills with water. What's particularly interesting about this is the way that the film is such a glorification of the US Merchant Marines, that it actually chooses to dehumanise the US Navy in the same way. Our first introduction to the Navy is a clean, Spartan classroom, filled with immaculate uniforms being worn by faceless drones - they have uniformly perfect posture, clean faces, good hair. And it's only when the Merchant Marines teach the Navy boys how to be proper Americans, that they become depicted as humans.

Monday, August 9, 2010

100 years, 100 films 33: Arabian Nights (1942)

This movie makes no sense. And by that, I don't mean that it's filled with plot holes (although it is), or that the dialogue sounds like stuff that no human would ever, under any circumstances, say (although it does), or that the basic plot is a cliche riddled mess with no proper through line (although it is and it hasn't). I don't even mean the fact that they've taken the Arabian Nights name, randomly stolen a bunch of character names from different, completely incongruous, tales, and plopped them all into something with absolutely nothing to do with the Arabian Nights. When I claim that this movie makes no sense, what I mean is, is that there is absolutely no reason why the hero is the hero and the villain is the villain.

By this, I mean that the hero does nothing heroic, and the villain does nothing villainous. In fact, at the start of the film, I had assumed that the villain was the hero, given the fact that his introduction was him being tortured by the film's "hero". And not only was the "villain" being tortured by the "hero," and not only was the "hero" saying absolutely nothing to convince me that this torture was in any way justified, but the guy was being hung on a horizontal pole by his arms in a very obvious Christ-like pose. So naturally, I assumed, "oh, this is just poorly handled, very obvious symbolism." But then, when I (eventually) worked out that he was the villain, I had to reassess my judgement, and I thought to myself, "oh. It's just a really shitty film with absolutely no idea what the hell it is doing."

Something else that didn't help matters any - the hero and the villain looked exactly the fucking same. I mean, they were supposed to be brothers, so I suppose you could argue that their identicalness was to stress the whole family resemblance thing, but it just made it really damn confusing. I kept having to think, "wait. Is this the hero, or the villain? Who is saying these things?" And the fact that neither of these idiots had anything remotely resembling a personality didn't help things any either. Here's a tip for any prospective film makers out there: when casting your movie, don't have the protagonist and the antagonist look exactly the fucking same. It's just confusing.

Other ways in which this film had no idea what it was doing: the "comic relief" was just so goddamn terrible. When the "highlight" of your "comedy relief" is Shemp fucking Howard, you should not be allowed to have any goddamn comedy relief. Shemp plays Sinbad the Sailor and spends the whole time attempting to tell stories of when he was at sea. Everyone around him keeps telling him to shut the hell up, but he never gets the damn message. Other comic "highlights": a fat guy making "boing" sound effects when he hits people with his belly, a fat guy in a dress, a man inexplicably falling in lust with a fat guy in a dress. Oh, and Aladdin is trying to find his magic lamp, so he goes around and rubs every lamp he sees. Ha ha ha? I can tell it was supposed to be a joke, because it made no sense in any other context.

The film looked great - the colours were lush and gorgeous, the set decorations were beautiful. But when any of the walls in any of the buildings are more interesting than any of the actors, there is something wrong with your movie. There is something wrong with this movie.

Friday, August 6, 2010

100 years, 100 films 32: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

A while ago I reviewed the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I claimed that about half the film was great, and half the film was utter garbage. Well, this star-studded Victor Fleming directed version eliminates most of the garbage, and in so doing eliminates a good deal of what made that original film great. It's much smoother than the earlier version - by the early forties Hollywood had learnt to add that protective sheen to everything. And, to be perfectly honest, I think that the gloss here actually does make the film better.

After all, this movie is a love triangle between Spencer Tracy (his usual charmingly charmless self) as Dr. Jekyll, Lana Turner (fiance) and Ingrid Bergman (mistress); both of the women have never looked better. All three of these people are much, much more interesting than the three protagonists of the earlier film. And while the Mr. Hyde stuff is a little less viscerally thrilling in the 1941 film, the Dr. Jekyll stuff is just so much better. It's actually competent, entertaining filmmaking in and of itself. The love scenes between Jekyll and his fiance aren't cloying and horrible, because you actually feel like these are people who legitimately care about each other, rather than two actors who don't give a shit. And Ingrid Bergman's first scene is... well... it's probably the sexiest seduction scene ever put on film. There. I said it.

Another reason this film is better than its 1932 counterpart is that, though the film is less visceral, it is actually more creepy. In the 1932 film, Frederic Marsh's makeup as Hyde was, quite frankly, a little silly looking. Here, Spencer Tracy is wearing hardly any makeup at all - he does it all with a creepy smile and some hair dye. After the first transformation, there is a moment when he looks into the mirror and asks himself, "is this the face of evil?" It's creepy and effective because it's not much different from his regular own face. Evil is in all humans, all the time, and it doesn't need bad sideburns and a monkey face to come out.

The editing also often adds to the overall creepiness of the film. there is a scene where Dr. Jekyll is walking through a park, whistling to himself. He stops, looks around, confused. He continues to walk on, still whistling. He stops again, looks around again, this time visibly scared. He starts to walk on again, but finds himself turning into Mr. Hyde. This scene as described is pretty much identical to a scene that occurs in the 1932 film. But the difference is in the editing. In the 1941 film, Jekyll walks in long shot, whistling. Then, without warning, the sound drops out, and we're on a close up of Jekyll, standing completely still. He then starts to walk away again in longshot, still whistling. Cut to silent close up, he's standing still, looking terrified. The film is dropping small amounts of time, intentionally dislocating us, making us feel as dislocated, confused and creeped out as Dr. Jekyll himself. It's an incredibly well done sequence, and something that the earlier film just did not have the maturity to pull off.

There are things that were great in the early film, that this film doesn't do nearly as well. the transformation sequences in the 1941 film all have an irritating Freudian pop-psychology veneer that makes them seem riduculous and over-thought, whereas the transformation sequences in the 1932 film are just hella cool looking. The 1941 film is also a tad overlong, moreso than the 1932 film. But these minor complaints are basically irrelevant - The 1941 film is just so much better.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

100 years, 100 films 31: The Fighting 69th (1940)

At the beginning of World War 2, before America had joined the fight (lousy bastards, always showing up late, taking all the credit, grumble bunch of jerks mumble mumble...), the Warner Brothers studio made a series of movies designed specifically to encourage America to get in on the action. The films were invariably set in previous wars, when American badassery had been on full display, and they were all heavily laden with monotonous and repetitive patriotic speeches of the "war is tough, but dammit it will make a man out of you" variety. And it is in this cycle of films that William Keighley's The Fighting 69th belongs.

And I guess it was a fine and admirable goal to try to get Americans to join the war against the Nazis, but there's a problem. This movie sucks. I mean, it really, really sucks. Not just in the boring and annoying way I was expecting: I was prepared for the stupid patriotic speeches, I was prepared for the grating religious bullshit, I was prepared for the hammy acting and the weak jokes. I was prepared to put up with all that, because this film had one major asset, something that I thought would cut through the tedium and irritatance. This film has Jimmy Cagney.

But what does this film do with Jimmy Cagney? What does this film do with the toughest, badassest, take-no-prisoners-est dude who ever fired a gun on the big screen? It turns him into a goddamn coward. It says that all of Cagney's bravura, all of his grit and gumption, they're all just an act, masking an underlying cowardice that makes him inherently weak. NO! No no no no no no no no no. NO! Cagney is not weak! You know what Cagney's badassery is masking? It's masking an even more potent underlying level of badassery, that he's having to keep in check, for fear of making the screen literally melt from awesome! He can be crazy, he can have issues, he can be coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs, but he CANNOT be NOT a badass!

And this film doesn't just make Cagney into a coward, oh no. It doesn't just stop there. This film goes so far to make Cagney so much of a damn coward, that his cowardice gets about thirty people killed! AND THEN, after he's gotten all those men killed, he goes and acts like a coward AGAIN, getting even MORE people killed! And yeah, okay, at the end he does get his "I have to prove myself" moment, stepping up to the plate and dying nobly for his country, but it really doesn't make up for the fact that his actions lead pretty much directly to the pointless deaths of about fifty people. And when I say that it "doesn't make up for" all those deaths, I mean both that the character isn't properly redeemed in the eyes of the audience (he is, after all, still responsible for all those deaths), and that this one scene of Cagney badassery doesn't excuse the film of all those other scenes of Cagney whimpiness.

Also, I don't understand how the hell this was supposed to encourage people to join the army. I mean, if CAGNEY is shitting his pants with fear, how the hell are us mere mortals supposed to stand the pressure? I guess the idea is to say that it doesn't really matter if you are terrified, because you'll get your moment of inevitable heroism. Except that the film ALSO says that, if you are terrified (which the film claims to be pretty much a certainty) then your fear will lead directly to the deaths of scores of men. Oh good! I think I'll join the army, so I can accidentally kill dozens of men, just like Cagney! And then I can kill myself in the line of duty, to make up for it!

I suppose the idea was that the endless speeches would make the audience swell with pride and long to die for their country, but honestly, who gives a shit? They're so standard and forgettable that I can't really imagine anyone being moved by them.

Also, if you think you'll be able to be entertained by the movie by playing the "gay subtext" game, and snickering every time anyone says "69", you won't. It's funny at first, but there's no challenge to it, and the crushing awfulness of every single aspect of the film will suck the fun right out. Just avoid it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

100 years, 100 films metapost: 10 best films of the thirties

So I've now reached the end of the thirties on my ever-increasingly stupid-seeming "100 years, 100 films" experiment/waste of time. That means it's time for my "10 best films of the thirties" list. Hooray!

10. The Rules of the Game (1939). A bunch of upper middle class French idiots gather at a country house and try to have sex with each other. Jean Renoir's film is a masterpiece of camera movement, social commentary, and gentle anger.

9. It Happened One Night (1934). Frank Capra can be really funny, when he isn't making films about how great America, God and small towns are. Here his funnyness is in full effect, and the small town b.s. is toned down to an absolute minimum.

8. Scarface (1932). The moment when I officially decided I hated Oliver Stone was when he claimed that the dreary 1983 Scarface remake, which Stone had scripted, was better than Howard Hawks' original (which Stone claimed "wasn't that good.") Screw you, Oliver Stone. Paul Muni could beat the shit out of Pacino any day.

7. Holiday (1938). This George Cukor directed gem would be the definitive screen pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, if it wasn't for the existence of film number 2 on this list.

6. Little Caeser (1931). It may not be a "great" film, but Edward G. Robinson's bravura performance rips the film from its standardness, and turns it into something special.

5. The Awful Truth (1937). Leo McCarey and Cary Grant team up and master the screwball comedy. Magic.

4. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Errol Flynn's most lavish and beautiful film is one of the greatest screen spectacles of all time.

3. Horse Feathers (1932). Duck Soup may be crazier, but the Marx Brothers' fourth film, Horse Feathers, was much funnier. It may be standard comedy fodder - dumbasses at college - but, oh, what the Marx Brothers do to that college...

2. Bringing Up Baby (1938). The definitive screwball comedy. Howard Hawks was pretty damn close to perfection with this manic, insane mess.

1. The Invisible Man (1933). I know most people think that James Whale's masterpiece is the excellent Bride of Frankenstein. But for me, nothing beats Claude Rains' voice going crazy and wreaking havoc on the most ridiculous and eccentric English village ever put on film.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

100 years, 100 films 30: Love Affair (1939)

Leo McCarey's Love Affair is a great movie for half an hour, a pretty good movie for the next half an hour, then an abysmal piece of shit for the last half an hour. This is because the film works as three completely tonally and stylistically different short films, haphazardly jammed one after the other. The first short film is a naturalistic character study about a French playboy (played with an abundance of charm by Charles Boyer) and an American chanteusse (played silkily, but with an underlying level of vulnerability, by Irene Dunne) - they meet aboard a ship sailing from France to America, fall in love, and have to work out what that means for their prospective futures. It is funny (sometimes hysterically so), but more importantly, it has a real feeling of authenticity to it. This authenticity was achieved because of Leo McCarey's directorial style. Rather than having all the dialogue and blocking of a scene worked out before the beginning of filming, he preferred to have a loose, improvisational atmosphere, leading to a surprisingly honest tone.

This honest tone is carried over into the second short film, which is a strange little religious tale. This would be terrible if it weren't for the redeeming performances of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, as well as the always marvelous Maria Ouspenskaya, as Boyer's mother. This is a short film about the importance of Christ and... family... or something. It was pointless and message-y, but it still managed to be entertaining enough, and it did nothing to ruin the greatness of the first short film.

The last short film, however, does manage to almost obliterate the greatness of the first. The film just suddenly shifts to infuriating and goddawful melodrama, for no reason except that McCarey needed to pad out the running time. It's not the ridiculous coincidence of what happens that bugs me (Dunne gets in a car accident that leaves her crippled, right before she and Boyer are about to be married), it's the fact that what follows is the biggest and worst example of what Roger Ebert has dubbed the "Idiot Plot" that I have ever seen. Why doesn't Dunne just tell Boyer what happened? Why is she acting like such a goddamn moron? WHAT IS WRONG WITH HER AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS MOVIE?

I don't know why a movie that started out at greatness chose to degenerate into piffle, but it did. It's still worth watching; for that first half an hour; for the performances of Boyer, Dunne and Ouspenskaya; and for Leo McCarey's directorial style. But, yeah, maybe it would be better to just turn the movie off after the scene at the top of the Empire State Building. Seriously, you won't be missing out on anything. Except, I guess, being bored and infuriated.

Monday, August 2, 2010

100 years, 100 films 29: Pygmalion (1938)

I've never fully understood people's obsession with George Bernard Shaw. He's a decent enough writer, but it seems to me that his abilities with dialgoue are somewhat overpraised. Not to say that he's bad at writing dialogue or anything, but to compare him to, say, P.G. Wodehouse, or Oscar Wilde, or Douglas Adams, or Mark Twain... it just seems wrong. He just strikes me as a second tier author, who's been misplaced on the first tier by people who like My Fair Lady more than they should. He can write good dialogue, but it rarely soars. Yes, you do get the occassional gem, like, "I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe," but most of the time it's just... solid. Each of his characters do have a different and unique voice, but most of the time those different and unique voices aren't really all that interesting.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that I dislike Pygmalion, either the original play, or the 1938 film version directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard. I just don't think it's some amazing work of genius. It's a solid piece of romantic fluff, that was thought to be something more by some of its makers. Yes, it works as a criticism of the social class system in England - it points out the injustice of people being placed in different social spheres based on their accents and grammar. Except that the film (or the play) never go so far as to say that people shouldn't be judged based on their accents, just that the poor should be taught to speak properly. So the play (and the film) basically hold the exact same prejudices that they are trying to criticise.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

100 years, 100 films 28: Heidi (1937)

I chose this film for 1937 because, well, I'd never actually seen a whole Shirley Temple film. I'd seen bits and pieces over the years, but I'd never sat down and watched one right the way through. And after watching Heidi, I know why.

God this movie was horrible. The plot made no sense, the characters were all annoying, and ugh, god, did I want to slap Shirley Temple in her stupid fucking face. There was one moment where she gets butted in the arse by a goat. That was the only good part of the film.

I mean, Jesus Christ, there's a point in this film where Shirley Temple uses her powers of cuteness to make a crippled child able to walk again. It was so fucking terrible.

Oh, and there's this one scene where Shirley Temple is reading a picture book with her grandfather, and for no goddamn reason she just imagines herself into the book. Then we get this bizarre and totally out of place dance sequence about how much Shirley Temple loves her shoes. I guess she was reading a book about a girl who loved her shoes so much she started singing about them? Sounds like a pretty terrible book to me. And the only possible explanation for this scene is that Shirley Temple had a "bizarre pointless dance sequence" clause in her contract.

I hated this fucking movie so fucking much.

100 years, 100 films 27: Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is a throwback to the silent movies of old, made at a time when the death of the silent movie was relatively new. There is talking, but you only hear words through technology - radios, records, telecommunication systems. Otherwise, the dialogue is conveyed through silent movie-style interstitials, or is gibberish. Chaplin felt the addition of sound to movies was basically pointless, but by 1936 it was pretty clear that it wasn't going away. But the fact that it had become a necessary part of movies didn't mean that Chaplin had to like it. So Chaplin made a movie that just wanted to be a silent film, but that technology kept forcing in all these spoken words.

And this idea ties nicely into the overall point of the film. The film is about how the overindustrialised and over-technologised world of 1936 destroys people's humanity and turns them into soulless robots. If it wasn't for the advancing technology, all these people would be able to be happy and free - and if it wasn't for the advancing film technology, Chaplin would have been able to make the film a silent, like he so clearly desired.

The problem with all this "technology - bad" moralising is that it doesn't really make sense in the context of the rest of Chaplin's filmography. I mean, in this film, the past is presented as some sort of pre-industrialised wonderland, where if you want some milk, you just went outside and got it straight from the cow. But this view of the past doesn't really make sense if you think about it in terms of Chaplin's films from that "pre-industrialised wonderland". His characters in those films are just as miserable and lonely as the characters in Modern Times. The only real difference is that those characters didn't have technology to blame their unhappiness on.

This problem is illustrated perfectly by the ending of Modern Times. Chaplin's films from the era Chaplin is yearning for always ended unhappily - the Little Tramp would have lost the girl, and would end the film wandering unhappily into the sunset, sad and pathetic and hungry. But in Modern Times, the film ends happily - by spurning the technological world, the Little Tramp manages to win the girl, and wanders into the sunset holding hands with his love and smiling. But if technology was the problem (as it so clearly was in Modern Times) then why weren't his previous protagonists happy and contented? If all one needs is a technology free world, then why are his characters who live in a technology free world intrinsically unhappy?

None of this is to say that the film is bad. It isn't. It's actually pretty damn good - almost as good as The Gold Rush. The ending, with its sweet and happy tone, is actually better than the usual Chaplin ending. Both types of ending are over-sentimental tripe, but with most of the endings, Chaplin seems to be punishing his audience for laughing: "Oh, you thought that was funny, did you? Well here's a downer ending, so you don't leave the cinema feeling happy. I mean, what is this, a comedy?" But at the end of Modern Times you actually do feel happy. But the fact that I liked the movie doesn't mean that I have to like the message of the movie.