Bullitt May 24, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 3 comments
(Note: This post is also up at a new site I’ve established - clydefro.com - which I’m still putting the finishing touches on, but one that will very soon replace my Film Journal. I hope you like it and I’ll set up a post later in the week to invite feedback. Thanks for reading.)
Steve McQueen’s guarded blue eyes drive this Peter Yates film just as the actor forcefully guides his title character’s ‘68 Mustang in that iconic car chase. The number of close-ups Yates gives McQueen is surprising until you realize each and every one works. When Yates cuts to McQueen as San Francisco Police Lt. Frank Bullitt, it’s done so with an intimate focus and typically yields no dialogue. McQueen looks, squints, ponders, thinks, and performs any number of other silent reactions. His eyes subtly volunteer what’s required each time. No film better supported Steve McQueen’s mastery of underplaying scene and character. His two Peckinpah pictures are lovingly patient and blessed with the harsh touch of conflict, but neither lets McQueen so effectively measure his performance. Yates, with no Hollywood films on his resume at the time and mostly here on the strength of the British crime drama Robbery, didn’t have the clout of Peckinpah or Robert Wise or the other more established directors McQueen worked with, and it’s easy to imagine how persuasive the actor was when he insisted on removing bits of dialogue in favor of those wordless close-ups.
There’s a thin line of physical detachment McQueen walked throughout his career, with some films and performances clearly more successful than others. His screen presence was full of silent swagger and minimalist proficiency, qualities that cry out for the silver screen instead of less than ideal television sets of any size. His expertise was not in the conveyance of heightened emotion. He didn’t have a particularly theatrical or broad style, which perhaps limited the types of roles he could effectively make his own. This isn’t to say he wasn’t capable of such parts, but his strength was clearly in the direction of reaction more than action. You can place your own ideas, thoughts, emotions into a McQueen performance because of the narrow opening he left within the characters. The stares aren’t blank, though, and those who pay attention can clearly see the conflict in McQueen’s eyes. When a writer like Matt Zoller Seitz in The L Magazine’s online article “Too Cool?” describes McQueen as the “consummate man of action” before dismissing our beloved movie star with the summation that “calling him a great actor, or even a great leading man, is a bit of a stretch,” you wonder if he really sees or appreciates what his target was doing.
In Bullitt, McQueen has to play a man of considerable skill in his job, and someone who’s both smart enough and decent enough to lead the viewer through the often unaccommodating morass of the plot while still being a believably solitary figure. His Frank Bullitt is first seen awakening from a 5 AM night. This is a character who buys frozen TV dinners by the armful. He has a girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) who would seem to be there mostly due to consequence. That article doesn’t look kindly on McQueen’s stoicism toward women, citing a shot where the back of his head is shown as Bisset lays in bed. There’s a fundamental misidentification of McQueen here or elsewhere as a role model in that sort of thinking. He’s not the ideal and anyone thinking as much is more the problem than what’s on the screen. The reason McQueen’s awkward treatment of women resonates is because it’s consistent and relatable. He doesn’t handle women with James Bond finesse or romantic comedy charm. Women flock to him because of how he looks and the way he carries himself. The fact that he’s constantly distracted enough to overlook them is a revelation of the struggle with intimacy that’s bred into the male psyche. These are problems rooted deeply within the male-female relationship dynamic, and it’s absurd to blame McQueen for truthfully playing the characters this way.
In other aspects, McQueen may indeed be the ideal for filmic masculinity, but that comes as a reflection of how we wish to be viewed more than as a measuring of priorities. If he portrays integrity, rebelliousness, and the cool calm of a man sure in both his capabilities and his methods, the desire to emulate such a path is undeniable. Films once were veritable instruction manuals for males on how to survive the usual rites of passage. These ideas may have contained their share of flaws, but there was still something genuinely comforting about having a choice among several leading male actors as to who best represented the chosen brand of impact. It’s no longer there and we’re instead left with neither the McQueen style of letting professional responsibility fully dominate over personal relationships nor the slightly more sensitive nature of a Newman or Redford making time for the female lead amid his internal turmoil. Blandness has won out and there are no Steve McQueens in modern American cinema. I can’t think of a single leading man this decade who could convincingly step into the role of Bullitt. If you want to disparage McQueen for a lack of intimate risk or an unwillingness to show tenderness, I just think it’s missing the entire point of the portrayal. McQueen’s characters are fascinating and flawed precisely because of their combination of the external assuredness with internal confusion. Witness the final shot, the final close-up, in Bullitt and tell me it would somehow be better if the character was a loving romantic partner. The fact that Bullitt is probably a lousy lay is part of the driving force of the entire film.
To fully appreciate Yates’ movie, I think you have to see it as a character study. As a simple police procedural, it’s still an outstanding and meaty outing, but the reaction is perhaps lessened, especially on repeat viewings. To instead hold McQueen’s character as our compass is to witness one of the true joys of several careers, a genre, and an era. It’s important to be completely in tune with this man, to see everything from his perspective of distrustful caution and uneasy dedication to the job. The Film Society at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, a mere frolic through the woefully brief career of an actor whose life was itself all too fleeting, wears the painfully appropriate title of “Yesterday’s Loner,” and it’s this line of thinking that helps to unlock much of McQueen’s career. Bullitt has an able sidekick in Don Murray’s Delgetti, but our protagonist is still a closed-off guy. Those nitpicks about how McQueen interacted with women on screen conveniently forget that it was the same way he treated everyone in most all of his films. The “Yesterday’s Loner” moniker is thoughtful and apt. He made a career out of emotionally partitioning himself off against the world. It’s okay to find that unpersuasive, but realize that many people could not disagree more. McQueen was emblematic of something that seems so frustratingly foreign to the modern magpie culture where trends go in the direction of telling the world what you’re doing at any given time rather than actually taking time out to fully experience it.
Because I perceive Bullitt as McQueen’s most signature role and film, and because the result was so impressive, it follows that the opportunity to see it on a very large screen was impossible to ignore. Even in an archive print - and you’d think a film as popular as this would warrant something freshly struck - the effect was like seeing it for the first time. Those McQueen close-ups depend so much on where the attention is elsewhere. And the car chase…the car chase! It’s less viewed than experienced. The hilly San Francisco streets inspire that same discomforting stomach jump as one gets while traversing actual roads of that nature, though perhaps not quite with the same abandon of doing so at such raw speed. Engines at full roar have rarely sounded so exciting. The scene lasts a few minutes, but it feels like the blink of an eye. Most movies that try car chases get it wrong, or at least less right, because they struggle to comprehend that it isn’t the suspense or the result that the viewer craves. The key is in how closely we can transport ourselves into the car. Nothing tops Bullitt. When Lalo Schifrin’s score goes silent and we see that great literal image of a seatbelt being buckled, all that’s left is for the cars to forcefully peel out into the chase. It’s a video game, with superb editing, before they existed. And it’s much, much better.
As exhilarating as the car chase still is, it’s unfortunate that one sequence tends to overshadow the rest of the film. Bullitt’s plotting is layered and confident, but doesn’t care to be clever. There’s no winking or warning to pay attention. This seems to catch people off guard, even causing some to gripe that the film is difficult to follow. But everything’s clearly there. McQueen’s character is requested by the publicity hound DA Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to ensure the safety of a mob witness from Chicago. When the witness is shot up in his dive of a hotel room, following his strange unlocking of the door, the already suspicious Bullitt immediately realizes something about the whole thing is off. To get into (spoiler) territory, the witness proves to have been a married car salesman the real mob guy paid off, leaving the actual witness on the run to kill the car salesman’s wife and fly out of the country with all the cash he’d embezzled. Bullitt finally catches up to him at the airport, where the film’s second great chase occurs, again leaving McQueen with criminal blood on his hands.
The scene where Bisset’s character expresses her frustration with the barrier he’s built up over constant exposure to murder and violence is a little forced, but I think it’s a necessary interaction that also clarifies some of the film’s intentions. Bullitt isn’t a vigilante cop. Yates’ film is sometimes compared against Dirty Harry and The French Connection, but the protagonists just aren’t the same. McQueen plays him as principled, but realistic. The summation in Bullitt comes near the end when Chalmers says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” and McQueen responds without allowing any breathing room: “Bullshit.” That’s the essence of the character laid bare. He’s not the aggressive thug of a Popeye Doyle or Harry Callahan. There’s no joy in violence or killing. The contemplative final scene shows the weight that hangs over this man when he allows it to, and it’s scary because we require people like this to protect us but then ask them to do such horrific things with little regard for the psychological turmoil that really should result.
The police are generally portrayed with an extremely sympathetic eye, and only Baker, the character played by Norman Fell, is shown as corrupt or incompetent. The theme of corruption does arc through the film, but it’s not departmental or criminal corruption. This sort of corruption is internal - the corruption of the soul. Chalmers and his police lackey that Fell plays are both afflicted, as are the real and fake incarnations of the mob witness. A man like Chalmers is so muddied in self-interest that he has little use in determining what the right path might be from a legal standpoint. The compromise he practices is everywhere, seemingly contagious in all professions, and all the more dangerous for how pervasive it is. McQueen lets Bullitt be constantly aware that these corruptions exist but strong enough to avoid the compromises. While the term “anti-authority” is sometimes thrown at the character, that’s hardly true. His hanging up on Baker or spurning of Chalmers isn’t done to rebel against authority. It’s a further rejection of that corruption.
The Man Who Watched Liberty Valance April 29, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , add a comment
The new Paramount Centennial Collection releases arrived here a couple of days ago. I’ll have full reviews up at DVD Times soon enough. (Please read them.) I have to listen to the commentary tracks on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but the review is otherwise written. Fingers crossed for no inaccuracies or other embarrassments that may arise when writing about a film of such stature. El Dorado will follow at some point, before the May 19th release date I hope. For now, here’s a comparison between the previous R1 edition of Liberty Valance and this new issue. I don’t think I’m really allowed/encouraged to have an official review up until two weeks before release, but DVD Beaver will probably throw theirs online any day now. Older release is on top and Centennial Collection is bottom.
(click and click again to fully enlarge each)
More on Dassin April 8, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 1 comment so far
The Film Forum retrospective on Jules Dassin has just ended, right when I return to the area. Anyone arriving to this piece via search or otherwise who caught The Rehearsal, A Dream of Passion, or He Who Must Die is encouraged to share an opinion. Those were the titles I didn’t get a chance to see but would’ve liked to given their rarity. I did catch Up Tight, Dassin’s take on The Informer, earlier filmed by John Ford, with the setting moved from Ireland to Cleveland. The film was his last for a Hollywood studio, though it carries very few of the placations one would expect from something financed and released in 1968 by Paramount. Beginning with footage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral march and letting that wounded anger inform the whole of the movie, Dassin is here at perhaps his most provocative and overtly political without letting it become a full-on diatribe.
The film may work best as a curiosity to gawk at and a timepiece projected squarely against both whites and blacks of that difficult era. Dassin barks more at philosophy than race. Some of this inevitably dates the movie, even prefiguring the blaxploitation films that would come just a few years later, but there are also striking scenes and encounters, albeit played broadly in typical Dassin fashion, that seem to resonate as loudly today as they would’ve at the time. The most immediate example of this would be the carnival scene in the second half of the film, when an inebriated Tank (played effectively by Julian Mayfield in his only major film role) is perceived as the black militant incarnate by a group of stereotypical white people. They reduce him to a harmless caricature of the angry Negro seen on the news as Tank plays along with stories about a planned uprising. Dassin then furthers the nervous tension by filming the sequence with funhouse mirrors, making for a distinctly odd combination of faux revolution dialogue and ironically silly images.
Even with its self-imposed limitations that don’t really have the same effect on Ford’s version (though any true comparisons are useless), Up Tight can still be seen as a partially successful balance of an important topic usually ignored by Hollywood while also retaining the dramatic roots of Liam O’Flaherty’s original novel. A flamboyant Roscoe Lee Browne and the twitchy score from Booker T. and the M.G.’s are additional reminders that we’re not in Ireland anymore. Dassin is credited with adapting the material alongside Mayfield and Ruby Dee, who gives a fine supporting performance as a poor single mother romantically involved with Tank, and some context and explanation behind the motives for this seemingly strange revisiting of an already filmed story might be helpful. The DVD generation has gotten so accustomed to a Criterion-level pinning of films inside perfect-fitting boxes brimming with explanatory material that simply watching a movie on its own can feel incomplete to fully understand it.
Since Criterion clearly loves Dassin and the company has developed a relationship with Paramount, which I’d imagine still controls the rights to Up Tight, I wondered whether a DVD release from the boutique label could be in the cards. After seeing the film, my expectations for that idea took a hit, both because I’m not sure it’s of the quality necessary for Criterion to be interested and because the print shown was clearly from the studio archives. The sound was scratchy and the animated opening titles were full of dirt and marks, damage which settled down as the film went on but still never let the viewer forget the print wasn’t of recent vintage. Film Forum originally had the screen set up for, I believe, 1.85:1 but finally made the necessary adjustments to accommodate what looked like, surprisingly, Academy ratio. The not fully reliable IMDb page doesn’t even list an aspect ratio.
I’ll also make mention here of some writing I did on Dassin’s brilliant film noir Thieves’ Highway for the Noir of the Week site. It was actually the noir of last week there, but I didn’t have a chance to bring it up earlier. When watching the film again after not seeing it for a couple of years, I was impressed with, first, how beautiful the transfer on Criterion’s DVD is, and, also, how tightly Dassin was able to pace everything. There’s quite a bit of plot squeezed into those 94 minutes, but it’s more uneasiness than physical action. I don’t see Dassin as a director concerned with atmospherically setting a mood via short cuts like many of the noir auteurs. He instead built tension organically through situation and gravity, fully realized in the famous Rififi heist sequence where half an hour passes without any words spoken. Thieves’ Highway is his most pure of those prime noirs, and it’s a truly great film.
The Melville Way December 15, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 2 comments
Drastic measures require as much self-advertisement as possible when it comes to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and only a smidgen of views over at DVD Times. I’m not sure what happened, but suspect the new look of the DVD Times site may have resulted in fewer visitors and, thus, fewer peeks at reviews. Whatever the cause, the two pieces I’ve recently submitted on Criterion’s Melville releases (Le doulos and Le deuxième souffle) haven’t been too popular, though admittedly the discs were released in the first part of October. (Blame DVD Pacific for the delay, not me.) I was fairly proud of the reviews and Melville is one of my very favorite filmmakers so, if you’ve not already, you know, clickety clickety.
That nasty ratings system becomes ever worthless when dealing with personal favorites like Melville. I really do try to assign ratings based on an all-encompassing scale of objective reasoning. I only deliver a “10″ when we’re dealing with something like Chinatown or The Apartment or Sunset Blvd. or my favorite television show, Sports Night. Out of 106 things reviewed, those and No Country for Old Men are the only things that I’ve given the highest rating. I see a 9 as just under a 10, and I’ve tried to be stingy with those as well. The result is that a lot of films I really like end up with an 8, like both of these Melvilles. Both are great films and I can’t imagine not owning either, but I like four other films he directed more.
Criterion sort of blatantly dropped the ball with these releases, too, and neither probably warrants the $40 retail tag. I get the idea that a commentary automatically bumps up the price, but Le doulos just has half an hour’s worth of Ginette Vincendeau talking and it’s ported from the BFI disc. The other commentary, on Le deuxième souffle, is pretty good actually, but the rest of the extra features are hardly generous. I also wonder if Melville has unfortunately gotten a bad deal by having Vincendeau show up in almost every DVD release for one of his films. She’s obviously informed, but perhaps a fresh perspective is necessary at some point. Melville’s attention to detail and obsession with professional camaraderie are well explored. It’s troubling, though, that a one-person consensus seems to have bubbled up. I don’t think Melville was such a one-dimensional filmmaker as to only require a single commentator’s voice. It’s bad enough that Criterion turned their release of Les enfants terribles into a veritable love affair for Jean Cocteau, with very little rebuttal to the idea that it’s a film owing more to Cocteau in terms of authorship than Melville.
If all this sounds like heavy complaining, it’s not meant to be. I’m entirely grateful to Criterion for putting out seven Melville films, with only Un Flic existing in R1 outside of their work. (That leaves five unreleased, though Le silence de la mer and Leon Morin, pretre are available in the UK, from Masters of Cinema and the BFI respectively; all Melville R2 titles except Silence seem planned for Optimum in the new year.) I will admit that it’s a bit funny how Criterion has issued two Melville films each of the last two years, just as his Army of Shadows became an unlikely success on the art house/repertory circuit in 2006. Strike while the iron’s hot and such. These most recent titles are interesting especially as transitional films between the two portions of Melville’s career. Le doulos looks like a significant step in the direction of his later films and Le deuxième souffle may have been the official first move. If you’re just starting out with Melville, Bob le Flambeur is an excellent start and Le doulos a fine second, but make sure to save room for Le samouraï and Army of Shadows.
Mister Buddwing August 27, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 7 comments
I propped up Mister Buddwing a couple of weeks ago in my weekly TCM picks. Some minor research left me hesitant but entirely intrigued. James Garner as a guy who wanders around the streets of Manhattan in search of himself sounded familiar. I’ve never experienced memory loss or found myself in Central Park without any idea of how I got there, but there are less literal ways of interpreting the plot.
There’s surprisingly little out there written on the film, and what there is seems mostly dismissive. My enthusiasm is often countered by dolts who act like this or that movie is so appalling as to have devalued their own ever-precious life. The disadvantage of everyone having an opinion on the internet is that, well, everyone has an opinion. Some are well-reasoned and considered while others are from the same type of people who desire, consume, and love the unchallenging byproducts of the entertainment lobotomies beamed directly into their living rooms daily. As someone who does in fact regularly give my own opinion on movies, I recognize the irony in those complaints. Still, dealing too much in absolutes makes me uneasy and I’d be the first person to encourage someone to watch based on one’s own views instead of a negative reaction elsewhere. If a movie sounds interesting, dive in headfirst and sort out the details later.
So that’s what I did with Mister Buddwing, directed by Marty helmer Delbert Mann and based on an Evan Hunter book. The film opens with a first-person point of view shot, black and white, in the city. The man whose eyes we’re looking through peers down at his hands. He’s wearing a ring, broken stone. An inscription of “From G.V.” lines the band. He starts walking from a bench in Central Park and to the Plaza Hotel. When we finally do see the man, he appears well-dressed in a suit and increasingly in need of a shave. At the hotel, he dials a phone number that had been written on a slip of paper he’d found inside the suit. A woman, Gloria, answers. Our man doesn’t know his name and he doesn’t know Gloria either so he has to navigate through some awkward introductions. Gloria, who’s played by the terrific Angela Lansbury, believes the man could be Sam, which is good enough for the stranger. The newly christened Sam makes plans to visit Gloria in hopes of getting this whole identity thing straightened out. He leaves the hotel, sees a Budweiser beer truck, looks at a plane flying through the sky, and decides on Buddwing as a last name.
It’s quickly established that the man is not actually Sam, which turns out to be the name of Gloria’s estranged husband. Gloria doesn’t know Mr. Buddwing any more than he knows himself. She asks him some questions that he doesn’t have the answers for, making the man more and more irritated at his lack of memory. He’s then sent on his way with a few extra dollars and still no idea what’s going on. At this point early in the film, and throughout actually, it’s most intriguing that the viewer is really no better informed than Mr. Buddwing. The line of defeat and frustration James Garner treads in his performance is equally shared by the audience.
I’ve always felt Garner was better as a screen presence than he necessarily was as an actor. He was adept at playing not just an everyman, but the ideal everyman. Who wouldn’t want to be James Garner? That deceptively easy ability to make the viewer identify with him was put to good use in Mister Buddwing. There’s a great deal of psychological undercurrent running through the picture. The mood it sustains reminded me of a less dystopian version of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, released in the same year. Garner has to be believable as a guy we want to solve these personal mysteries, but there also has to be an air of danger where he could slip into almost insanity at any point. The reveal that a murderous mental patient has just escaped from a nearby institution adds enormous possibility, both for the film and Garner’s performance. The actor does well in never entirely hiding how unhinged his character is, creating conflict in the viewer by way of this lingering uncertainty as to Buddwing’s real identity.
More ammunition for Buddwing’s questionable mental health is sourced from the relationships the amnesiac develops with three random women he spots on the streets of New York. He sees a young brunette (Katharine Ross) and yells out the name “Grace,” but the woman ignores him as she gets into a taxi. Buddwing hails a cab, driven by Marty supporting actor Joe Mantell, and instructs the hack to follow the other car. En route, the driver recounts a fare he’d had recently, an attractive blonde woman who was drunk and less than candid on her $28 ride. Though this moment seems inconsequential, it comes up again later as we realize that much of the film feels like it was thrown into an unreliable blender. Everything doesn’t mix as it might should, leaving ample opportunity for false impressions.
Just as the nervous jazz score and frequent shots of Garner wandering around the city ply into the viewer’s consciousness, so do the perpetually ominous depictions of a city on a completely different pace as our protagonist. This constant unease amid a mass of people who at the very least know more than Buddwing because they know their own name is somewhat underexplored, but entirely effective when given the opportunity. The skyscraper-rich city is enough to induce confusion in anyone, much less a person in total disarray. As with much of Mann’s movie, the tension could have been ratcheted up even further, resulting in a bit of a missed opportunity. As a study in disorientation, however, Mister Buddwing should be re-discovered.
While the film hearkens back to amnesia-heavy suspense movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, as well as foreshadowing more recent fare including Memento and The Bourne Identity, it seems to also accurately predict the oncoming paranoia found in the 1970s. Buddwing becomes so at odds with himself that he can hardly trust his own instincts. In another of the film’s interesting decisions, each potential Grace, starting with Ross, flashes back to Buddwing’s memories of the woman. With every glimpse of the past, the relationship between Buddwing and Grace grows devastatingly harsher. The vibrant optimism of their newlywed days is replaced by turmoil and acrimony, slowly shattering the dreams of youth. That each incarnation of Grace is played by a different actress highlights the stark changes life has to offer over time.
Perhaps done unintentionally, but there’s a strange juxtaposition between how the past versions of Buddwing and Grace move further apart and how amnesiac Buddwing gets closer and closer with his false Graces. Janet, the woman played by Ross, brushes him off completely, even involving the police, but actress Fiddle (Suzanne Pleshette) takes him into her home. The blonde woman (Jean Simmons) he meets next is even more friendly and carefree. Yet, Buddwing seems to become less balanced as he struggles to piece together his past. By the end, when the nobody and the blonde find themselves involved in a high-stakes dice game, his memories spin him into levels near madness.
In trying to get a handle on the film, I found myself curious as to why it’s so little cared about or known, and why there’s not much support among those who have seen this strange portrait of memory loss. It’s far from perfect, not a great film really, and always seems like it could go further than it does (in contrast to Seconds). But there’s definitely something there. That feeling it emits, one of suspense but also caution and deep empathy for the protagonist, is rare in such a tightly wound movie of its era. There’s also a building turmoil we can see coming, but are helpless to stop. Buddwing’s destruction becomes inevitable and that nearly horrific unfolding of how he got to Central Park may be painful for the invested viewer.
The ending changes the game too much for my taste, ultimately making clear that there’s some heavy Christian symbolism at work as it placates the mid-sixties studio film audiences. I’m not impressed with the result, but I do like how it’s handled. The decision to retain a considerable dose of ambiguity is assuring despite an otherwise flat conclusion. I can imagine how I’d like to have the film end, but it doesn’t really matter. Even the apparent happy ending, when kept in the context with Buddwing’s memories, promises little outside the veiled religious undertones.
(Mister Buddwing was made for MGM. Its rights should rest with Warner Bros., but the film is not on DVD.)
Intentions of Murder August 12, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s, Shohei Imamura , 1 comment so far
Forever transforming intricate layers of sleaze into something profound, Shohei Imamura continued on the same path he’d journeyed in 1963’s The Insect Woman with its follow-up, Intentions of Murder. The 1964 film approaches many of Imamura’s favorite subjects, notably an unremarkable and unhappy woman dragged through conflict and emerging with complicated victory. The women in his films tend to be forgotten and ignored. If they had any discernible positives, you could also add underappreciated. Their greatest strength is often mere survival, and in the case of this particular heroine, Sadako, it’s achieved accidentally. Through her repeated displays of common, unrefined mediocrity, she transcends the nature of ordinary and demands interest, even sympathy. Sadako’s suffering becomes a theme of sorts, encompassing more than just herself, and her reactions, while appearing perverse at times, remain steadfastly human.
The lived-in commonness Imamura gives Sadako, a young, but frumpy common-law wife and mother, is consistent with the director’s interest in the lower middle class of postwar Japan. His films resonate through an artificial universality, as the audience may not truly share the heroine’s situational concerns, but Imamura’s jaundiced eye makes us feel like we do. There’s a griminess to witnessing Sadako’s invasion, of home, privacy and self. A man, later identified as failing musician Hiraoko, wields a knife as means to take only a few dollars, but becomes inspired in the process to force himself on Sadako. It’s a repulsive act given full horror by Imamura. What’s unexpected, leaving the viewer further disoriented, is the single tear that falls down Hiraoko’s face when he rolls off of Sadako. Aside from bringing to mind questions of character and motive, the tear humanizes, for better or worse, the rapist and presents him not as a crazed monster, but a multi-dimensional person whose actions disgust even himself.
This possibly makes it easier to accept, though not necessarily understand, Sadako’s behavior in the remainder of the film. Her rapist transitions into a stalker, an admirer, and, finally, a lover. When she has the chance to end the arrangement, Sadako summons up the nature of her own humanity by saving Hiraoko’s life. True to the film’s title, her intentions eventually do include murder, but Imamura warns that this is no answer for a much more complicated problem. Metaphor is tucked away inside Sadako’s actions. For such a seemingly simple woman, her strength in feeling and action lends itself to gloriously complex readings. Imamura’s films, especially of this period, are obsessed with showing that those treated as not mattering by more forward-thinking society people are usually the ones who best represent the hope within humankind. Sadako’s basic good, in the face of mistreatment and shunning to the point of not even being acknowledged as the mother of her own son, doesn’t triumph in a soul-stirring moment, but it does more realistically permeate her every action when those around her often deserve much harsher treatment.
Playfully, Imamura gives just such a fate to a particularly loathsome character, the long-time mistress of Sadako’s librarian husband. The director’s dark humor is almost always sprinkled unexpectedly throughout his films, and the shocking, morbidly funny dismissal of the bespectacled would-be spy is deeply satisfying, perhaps even too much so. One gets the feeling that Imamura especially detests the character and those like her who are so hypocritical as to be humorous. Hypocrisy was always a favorite target for the director, and in the case of Intentions of Murder, the heroine’s world crumbles partially due to the Japanese customs that stray far from consistent or fair. Sadako’s rape, of which she was entirely a victim, would have disgraced her entire family had it become known, yet her husband’s affair raises little concern. She develops, in her own primitive way, a plan to deal with the shame, but her ineptitude also becomes a savior.
Imamura may be too clinical to allow a reading of Sadako’s failed suicide as anything other than narratively pleasing. It’s simply one step, the lowest before reversing course, in the continued process of her experiencing life through tragedy. Some viewers have found Imamura cold in his depictions of those barely above the fray, but it’s really more of a chilly empathy, designed as objective though not always staying there. His endings, unlike many of his contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave, tend towards hopeful, perhaps not in a traditional sense, but nonetheless with some degree of optimism. Part of the merit in Imamura’s work is that he doesn’t simply draw attention to a problem and artfully snicker. Intentions of Murder and many of his other films offer subtle reminders that dealing with the issue can be a solution in itself.
Sadako begins the film without claim to her son or husband, not respected by her mother-in-law, and potentially in danger of losing everything. It takes harrowing circumstances to correct these problems, but she emerges, despite the psychological scars, with a more stable situation, and one far better than if she had ignored the rape. If you’re inclined to dig for broad metaphors. Sadako is Japan and her rape is the country’s defeat in World War II, including the twin atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Keeping that analogy, Sadako’s despair was only solved after she came to terms with the attack and its aftermath. Facing it head-on, regardless of intention, became the necessary option.
Though knowledge of Imamura’s films obviously helps put Intentions of Murder in context, it plays quite well even on its own, non-metaphorical terms. The black and white Scope photography is frequently beautiful and framed with great care. A shot of Sadako at the far right of the frame waiting for a train reminds us why 42″plasma televisions should never be the ideal point of reference. The snow storm that hits the Tokyo area near the film’s end cleanses some of the muck, adding purity in mind if not in truth. Visually, scenes like these give the film a richness that begs to be experienced more than simply watched. Another sequence, on a train, is quite commanding, as well. At one point during that particular section, the viewer can see shadows of the camera and its operator in the window. Usually the assumption would be that this was an unintentional error, but given some of the ideas explored in Imamura’s own A Man Vanishes, the director may have at least left it in on purpose. Probably not, but who knows for sure.
Likely to be entirely intentional, and a noted signature in many of Imamura’s films, is the presence of insects or other lowly creatures. Anthropological wonders crawl around the wide black and white frame in obvious parallel to the director’s tread-upon characters. Intentions of Murder has a flashback to a silkworm making its way along Sadako’s thigh before disaster strikes. The worms appear again late in the film and it’s difficult to forget the oozing insides crushed out of one particularly unlucky fellow. There’s also a pair of white mice, pets of Sadako’s young son, featured prominently by Imamura. Though the action isn’t shown, one literally eats through his companion. The image of a dead mouse with a hole through its midsection is another that’s hard to shake after seeing. These apparent interludes are done in such a matter-of-fact style as to be fascinating. I think of the ill-fated worm and mouse and then I think about how Intentions of Murder makes the viewer feel. It doesn’t seem entirely different. Imamura gnaws your insides when he’s not squeezing the life out of you and it’s oddly thrilling.
Harakiri June 21, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 5 comments
Living where I do and having an interest in some form of the popular arts (film, music, literature) has allowed for many opportunities to view people whom I admire up close. It’s a weird sensation, undoubtedly, but even stranger is when it stops seeming like a big deal. I never have anything worthwhile to say or ask so I usually just politely demur or thank the person if there’s an autograph involved. I’m always (overly) cognizant of trying to avoid embarrassing myself, first and foremost, and, additionally, not bothering anyone more than is absolutely necessary. I rarely take pictures, not because I wouldn’t like to have them, but more to avoid the trouble. So I play the role of observer and soak it all in. This establishes a bit of a routine that prevents nervousness and the like, but also keeps me from losing my marbles when so-and-so is a few feet away, especially if I’ve watched/read/listened to so-and-so’s work enough to imprint their sensibilities somewhere in the midst of my own budding tastes and opinions.
That’s a long, explanatory introduction to my experience of watching a beautiful Scope print of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri at Film Forum and then immediately watching the film’s star, Tatsuya Nakadai, get up from his seat three rows in front of mine to read a few prepared statements and take questions from the small, 150-member or so audience. Difficult to not be affected by that kind of breaking of a 46-year-old fourth wall. The idea that Nakadai, whose films essentially are Japanese cinema of the 1960s, would be in the same place where I was still seems unimaginable. This is arguably Japan’s greatest, most versatile movie star. I’m with the Mifune mifunites as much as the next person, but Nakadai has him beat in terms of a filmography to rival most any actor in any country at any time. Nakadai’s versatility alone, moving from Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy and Harakiri to The Face of Another, films with Kon Ichikawa, Mikio Naruse and Hideo Gosha, and starring in Kurosawa’s two epic achievements of the 1980s, Kagemusha and Ran, remains astounding. I’m not saying he’s Japan’s best actor or that Mifune was inferior, only that Nakadai showed a greater range and worked with a wider array of directorial talent than Mifune. I wouldn’t trade the latter for anyone, but if someone put a tantō against the skin covering of my entrails, I’d pick Nakadai over Mifune.
With that unpleasant image in mind, how about upgrading to the entirely gruesome shot of Akira Ishihama trying to commit the film’s titular act with a dagger made of bamboo. On DVD, reclining on one’s couch in privacy’s creature comforts, the scene feels affecting and uncomfortable. But projected onto a large screen, in a darkened room with a full audience, it’s nearly unbearable. The black and white cinematography hardly mitigates the palpable pain, even if the blood is inky black instead of deep red. That crude oil look that blood has in black and white films seems to be far more effective than the distractingly fake stuff of horror movies and Peckinpah westerns. Unless I’m seeing internal organs, this scene in Harakiri ranks with any in terms of audience discomfort. When the viewer is sitting helpless in a screening room, hardly able to even avert one’s eyes, the excruciating length of time Kobayashi lets it play out is squirm cinema at its best. Part of the scene’s extraordinary nature is that it comes in a film that’s largely nonviolent and only contains any action sequences in its very last part, which even then Kobayashi playfully avoids showing in their entirety.
Still, I think those final, vengeance-infused showdowns between Nakadai and everyone else, scored to perfection by Tôru Takemitsu, are what the viewer largely takes away from Harakiri. The actor admitted after the screening that he couldn’t compete with Mifune’s madman swordsmanship, but Kobayashi’s film is only concerned with the climactic scenes of Nakadai against everyone else in the aftermath of a great deal of background having already been established. Though Kobayashi aligned himself with the popular reading of the film as a plainly harsh attack against feudal Japan, as well as the more modern powers behind the country’s entry in World War II, I also think it’s important to remember how essential the title is. This is a film about, concerned with, and in critique of the practice of seppuku, and one wholly without an endorsement. It’s like the samurai equivalent of suicide bombing. Nakadai’s own words, when answering a not entirely well thought out question from an audience member, probably sum things up best. He said something to the effect of not being able to support any government that requires its citizens to kill themselves, regardless of the reason.
As an increasingly conflicted American who hopes to soon find the flame of hope in his own country, it’s too easy to forget the courage of filmmakers and actors like Kobayashi and Nakadai. Japan is hardly the first nation one associates with radical directors of the 1960s, despite the somewhat subtle subversions everywhere in the films of Teshigahara, Imamura, and Oshima, but the ones who did place their politics on screen did so with extreme skill. Certainly Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the most striking and compelling films against the practice of war that I’ve seen. Kobayashi was apparently outspoken all along, somehow navigating through Japan’s studio system for years before turning independent. Harakiri is a stark slap against the cheek of the country’s insincere history on film. Kurosawa romanticized the samurai to an extreme that wasn’t completely his fault, but nevertheless remains to this day. How many wasteful Americans proudly own an “authentic” samurai sword? The answer: too many.
I’m in the minority, but I’ll gladly take Harakiri over any of Kurosawa’s samurai films, or anyone else’s, for that matter. By facing the glaring hypocrisy head on and without apology, Kobayashi destroyed the Western myth of samurai as honorable warrior with one deft slash across cinema. There are few images more damning against a nation’s symbolic heritage than Nakadai destroying the armor edifice late in Kobayashi’s film. The director, as well as Shinobu Hashimoto’s expanded adaptation of the source material, simply refused to adhere to Kurosawa’s wandering ronin populist images found in Yojimbo just one year earlier. Harakiri’s retainers are insects with swords. They obey the orders of a corrupt master without considering any consequences, ethical or otherwise. As Kobayashi brilliantly lays out both with contained subtlety and obvious conviction, true honor is a foreign concept to these men. There’s the idea of maintaining total conviction to the samurai calling, but it’s all at the expense of freethinking. The parallels, essentially, are abundant for any military-based dictatorship, either in confirmed action or Orwellian doublespeak. Kobayashi would not be happy with my country circa the last seven plus years.
Politics aside, it’s a bit of a disservice to assign Harikiri as a film strictly concerned with an agenda. It’s a great movie period. I had it at number twenty in my 1960s list, and, while it may be difficult to really scare up a spot any higher, it’s completely deserving of that ranking. What begins somewhat deliberately envelops the viewer to an extent hardly common or easily explained. The simple storytelling of the Rentaro Mikuni character’s flashback, leading to Nakadai’s recounting of his experiences in broken parts, may be deceptive in its simplicity, but only a skilled combination of artists could keep the viewer repeatedly mesmerized. By the time Nakadai’s displaced ronin unveils one of the great minor twists in film history, affixed in an intricate topknot itself, the viewer is transfixed on the actor’s every move.
Merrill’s Marauders January 14, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , add a comment
Samuel Fuller was trying to find a home for his pet project The Big Red One, intended as an epic account of the 1st Infantry squadron Fuller himself had been a part of in World War II, when studio head Jack Warner instead talked him into making Merrill’s Marauders. As Fuller writes in his autobiography A Third Face, the monolithic Warner Bros. boss insinuated that a successful experience adapting and directing Charlton Ogburn’s book The Marauders might result in an opportunity to get The Big Red One finally made. With this in mind, Fuller relented and the true story of an overmatched and resilient U.S. infantry unit who helped defeat the Japanese in 1944 Burma was set. Fuller had long wanted to work with Gary Cooper and wrote the part of Brigadier General Frank Merrill with him in mind, but Cooper hesitated because he thought he was too old for the role. Fuller’s book seems to imply that Cooper relented and was set to star in the film.
During preproduction, Cooper became sick with the effects of a terminal cancer that prevented him from playing Merrill and ended his life in May 1961. Jeff Chandler was brought in as a replacement and, tragically, would live only a month longer than Cooper. If there’s death in the air of Merrill’s Marauders, it’s unintentional, but nevertheless understandable. Merrill has a vulnerability rarely found in the powerful men of war movies. The heart condition he tries to conceal results in a nonfatal heart attack at the end of the film. Chandler gives the character so much understated pain and quiet suffering that it almost seems like he’s the one with the cardiac problems. In real life, it was his back that caused Chandler to suffer and a botched operation that killed him, a year before Fuller’s film (the actor’s last) hit cinemas.
Merrill’s Marauders isn’t a great film or one of Fuller’s best, but it’s worth seeing for a few reasons. The silence is chief among them. The soldiers don’t yak each others’ ears off with profound or witty permutations on life. There’s really not much dialogue at all. Fuller always felt that Hollywood consistently got it wrong on war movies, especially by giving the grunts meaningful lines they’d never really say. The men here are anonymously average (underlined by the fact that none of the actors are movie stars or particularly well known), and simultaneously frustrated and courageous. Merrill asks and demands more than they think is possible to give of themselves. The majority of the soldiers are killed and most of the survivors are seriously wounded. But the objective (so to speak) is accomplished, the mission’s ultimately victorious. Every member of the volunteer unit was rewarded a Bronze Star after returning home.
There’s no glorification of war or battle from Fuller, which is to be expected considering his previous combat films The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets! are two of the bleakest (and most powerful) of the 1950s. He knew firsthand that war is the closest thing to Biblical hell that humans have ever dreamed up and he refused to patriotize it. The war films he made celebrate the soldiers’ penchant for doggedly carrying on and do so through multi-dimensional and reasonably accurate portrayals. Fuller doesn’t demean or judge them for doing what they’ve been told to do amid circumstances beyond their control. His movies play like honest depictions often at odds with the recruitment fantasies manufactured in Hollywood. Even Merrill’s Marauders, with its comparatively stoic and fatalistic sensibility, is somewhat atypical as a war movie despite the studio-forced ending that Fuller fought against.
Besides that real marching footage Fuller didn’t want, another scene from the film was altered from the director’s original idea because Warner Bros., Fuller claims, deemed it “too artistic” and used a second-unit director for more generic reshoots. Even with the clashes, the movie was well-received critically (the New York Times singled out Fuller in their short write-up as having a “dynamic visual sense” that “sets the film apart from others of the genre”) and made an $18 million profit at the box office when it opened in 1962. Instead of getting to do The Big Red One, Fuller’s reward was a Cadillac of his choice. He had to wait until 1980 to film his baby, bankrolled by the independent Lorimar production company and distributed theatrically by United Artists. Ironically, when The Big Red One was finally reconstructed to fit more closely with Fuller’s intentions in 2004, it was Warner Bros., after years earlier obtaining the rights to the Lorimar library, that put the film out on DVD.
In an odd move, Merrill’s Marauders was quietly released on R1 DVD in November exclusively via DeepDiscount.com. It’s unknown (though expected) whether the DVD will be available elsewhere or when. The only extra feature is a full screen theatrical trailer introduced by the production technical adviser Colonel Samuel Wilson. Video quality is outstanding, with a very impressive 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Warner Bros. released a couple of war-themed box sets already so maybe we’ll see the disc pop up soon. I’m sure there are lots of people interested in owning the DVD who aren’t aware it even exists or would prefer to buy it from a more familiar store.
Top 50 of 1960s November 1, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 6 comments
As the weather cools and the leaves fall, the Lists Project’s oversized, bespectacled head emerges once again. After working my way through the 1940s and 1950s, the decade of radical changes is now up. The 1960s marked a stinging decline in the quality of Hollywood films, but the international output blossomed beyond expectation, enjoying perhaps its strongest decade in cinema history. Unlike the previous two lists I contributed, I’m not terribly satisfied with the number of films I’ve seen in this period. There are many that remain unreleased and even some things available that I didn’t have time to view. I still had a really tough time whittling a full decade down to only fifty films. (I don’t know what happened in 1965, but nothing released that year made my top 50.) Any previous writing I’ve done about these films has been linked to, and I’ve tried to be as brief as possible in providing comments and justifications for each selection (though the intended couple of sentences often ballooned to a full paragraph or more).
1.) The Apartment (Wilder, 1960) - A very personal choice, not because of a kinship to the subject matter, but due to it being my favorite film by my favorite director. Billy Wilder’s beautiful and bittersweet triumph was always going to be number one and I’d imagine it always will be. I’m going to refrain from any more praise because hopefully I’ll be able to put together a more in-depth piece someday, but I adore The Apartment almost as much as C.C. Baxter adores Miss Kubelik. (Here’s that more detailed review I hinted at.)
2.) The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) - An amazing time capsule that somehow has aged very little. Simon and Garfunkel’s music feels a tad ’60s, but I think it still evokes the timeless confusion of love. The film is the youngest forty-year-old you’re likely to find. And it’s actually very funny, too. Benjamin Braddock’s familiar awkwardness is flawlessly captured by Dustin Hoffman and the idea of “arrested development” of the young American male was given its perfect representation in Mike Nichols’ film. They’ve been trying to loosely re-make The Graduate ever since the original, but nothing has really come close.
3.) Le Samouraï (Melville, 1967) - Melville’s most perfect character in all his films is Jef Costello. Played by Alain Delon, Costello is an emotionless assassin who lives a spartan existence. Trenchcoat and fedora perfectly in place, he follows a samurai’s code and maintains a lonely solitude comforted only by a pet bird. Like the bird, Jef is in a cage, but his is of his own creation and he must follow the rules that go along with his chosen profession if he wants to stay alive after an uncharacteristic misstep. This is the quintessential Melville film, arguably his best and definitely the one that most successfully exhibits the sparse, no-nonsense approach taken by the classic Melville protagonist. Its inspirations are numerous, notably This Gun for Hire and Murder by Contract, as are the films it inspired, namely The Killer and Ghost Dog.
4.) Persona (Bergman, 1966) - I’ve seen eight Bergman films from this decade and this one packs the biggest punch by far. It’s really the only unequivocal masterpiece of his I’ve found so far, but that’s good enough really. Telling a ridiculously involving story of two women, one an actress gone mute and the other a nurse, the Swedish master explores themes almost never approached by other filmmakers. The two women share a home and, eventually, much more. The implication that these two women somehow merge is both extraordinary and unnerving.
5.) Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962) - Few movies make instant legends of previously little known actors, especially on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia and Peter O’Toole. Premiere magazine named his performance the greatest in movie history not too long ago and, notwithstanding personal preferences, it’s almost difficult to argue otherwise. I don’t usually go for “epics,” but I really can’t comprehend how someone can sit down to watch Lean’s film (assuming the screen they’re viewing is of reasonable size) and not be awestruck. The reason I don’t usually like epics is because they often seem to eschew normal film conventions for bombastic spectacle. That isn’t Lawrence of Arabia at all. It could have been split into two parts, released a couple of years apart, and both would be equally as good as the whole. And has the film ever been more timely than it is now?
6.) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Leone, 1966) - I always hear people rave about how great Sergio Leone is and the quality of this film, yet I don’t consider myself one of those zealots. Still, put this DVD in and I can’t take my eyes off the screen. Three hours (in the newest cut) of incredible entertainment and near-perfect execution. When Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef spend what seems like an eternity staring each other down as the camera creeps further in, I can’t help but wonder if any other filmmaker could have gotten away with such a dynamic bit of bravado. Somehow, it works, as does most everything in the picture.
7.) The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962) - Of all the re-watches, I think this got the biggest boost. It’s really an incredibly gripping political thriller, as well as technically brilliant. Frankenheimer’s film also holds up remarkably well. It’s a good decade ahead of its time, considering the paranoia conspiracy thriller subgenre that bloomed in the 70’s. Probably the most suspenseful film made in Hollywood this decade, and one of the scariest.
8.) The Face of Another (Teshigahara, 1966) - This is the film that started me on the journey of writing about what I was watching and it was also my introduction to the Masters of Cinema line. I still find it fascinating and haunting, painful even. Masks and identity, what makes us who we are, and how can we change ourselves are all topics approached, but never explained by Teshighara and writer Kôbô Abe. Certainly a face is only so important and the physical nature of appearance, again, defines our actions only to a limited extent. I didn’t get a chance to watch this again in compiling my list, and I struggled with exactly where to place the film, but it’s as philosophically powerful as anything I’ve seen from the ’60s.
9.) Army of Shadows (Melville, 1969) - I saw this last year for the first time at New York’s Film Forum and was entertained, but, as with nearly all of Melville’s films, felt somewhat deprived. More characterization, more action, more explanation. It’s not there, and it needn’t be either. Jean-Pierre Melville had an incredible foresight, intentional or not, to make films that demand multiple viewings in order to better understand his characters and their motivations. His heir apparent Michael Mann is currently doing the exact same thing in Hollywood. Army of Shadows develops additional power and resonates on each additional viewing in a way few films do.
10.) Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) - The best pulling the rug out from underneath the audience in movie history, courtesy of Janet Leigh’s untimely and still-chilling demise. I’m not sure how to best think of Hitchcock’s film, as it’s basically two completely separate halves of a whole, but maybe there’s no need to, as the director fills the brisk running time with wrong turns, red herrings, and a $40,000 MacGuffin. Copied and ripped-off past the point of excess, Bernard Herrmann’s scoring of that scene has rightfully become perhaps the most famous combination of music and editing in film. The psychological wrap-up feels out of place, but it’s somewhat redeemed by setting up Anthony Perkins’ final scene.
The Manchurian Candidate October 16, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 8 comments
It’s easy to forget just how good John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate is. Despite the director’s lofty accomplishments, especially throughout the 1960s, he’s most remembered for this film and, perhaps, decades of struggles afterwards, probably reaching a low point with the Marlon Brando abomination The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996. Sure The Manchurian Candidate ranked #67 on AFI’s initial list of the greatest American films ever, but it got bumped off completely the second time around this past summer. Before re-watching the film recently, I remembered that I had enjoyed it quite a bit the only previous time I’d seen it, but a new viewing found that my judgment has greatly matured since then. Where I looked mostly at plotting and story the first time, I now had my eyes opened to a bit more of what Frankenheimer was doing.
A good example of what I mean is when James Gregory’s Senator Iselin, the Joseph McCarthy stand-in who’s married to Angela Lansbury’s evil incarnate character and the stepfather of Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw, spews anti-Communist venom by declaring an ever-changing number of Department of Defense members to be reds. I’ve never seen anything like this that I can recall. Frankenheimer puts Lansbury on the left of the frame, with Gregory behind her, and also on the technology-challenged television to the right. This is a scene to swoon over, to marvel at, and appreciate with everything I have to give. Not only is the McCarthy comparison spot-on, but it’s recreated in the same old-television look that countless news programs have recycled even in the decades since this film was made. And he’s got Lansbury on the screen too, giving as strong and complex a performance in such a hideous role as I can recall.
I don’t think that’s even the most impressive aspect of the film though. That honor would belong to the superb editing work done by the Oscar-nominated Ferris Webster. Early on, in flashback, Frank Sinatra’s Bennett Marco and Harvey’s Shaw are shown to have been brainwashed (or dry cleaned, if you will), along with the other members of their platoon, by a conspiracy of Communists. This scene alone should have secured Webster’s little gold man (alas, he lost). The soldiers think they are in a hotel lobby listening to a New Jersey ladies’ garden club party, when they’re actually surrounded by Communists of various nations. The seamless cuts between the innocuous women of a certain age dressed in their Sunday best to venal Communist military leaders is on a plane of brilliance all its own. It’s the kind of filmmaking you want to run up to a stranger in the street, give them the DVD, and beg them to watch. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
There’s at least one other moment in The Manchurian Candidate that’s good enough to be worthy of jawdropping disbelief. It’s the quite famous portion of the film when Sinatra is on a train from Washington, D.C. to New York City and he’s wracked with nerves, a victim of nightmares induced by the very real Communist brainwashing. He goes to the space in between two train cars and is followed by Janet Leigh. “Maryland’s a beautiful state,” she says. “This is Delaware,” replies Marco. “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.” Viewers of the film know the conversation doesn’t get any less strange from there, as both inexplicably ask each other if they’re Arabic, among other things. Normally, I wouldn’t endorse absolutely senseless dialogue that’s never explained, but it completely works here. Janet Leigh’s character is an enigma to end all enigmas, but it plays perfectly in the context of the film.
I can just imagine Leigh reading her script and being completely clueless as to anything about her character. This is a woman who makes zero sense throughout the movie. She makes a connection with Marco that the audience cannot understand on any level, picks him up at the police station, and breaks up with her fiance so that she can be with Marco. There’s absolutely nothing this woman does that can be rationalized in the normal world we live in. Leigh, who persuasively adds to my long-held theory that women often look their best when in their mid-thirties, plays it completely straight, never giving away anything about the character or letting on at the absurdity of the situation. You can watch that scene between her and Sinatra on the train as many times as you want and it never gets old because there’s no definitive explanation anywhere in the film for what takes place.
The easier to understand portions of Frankenheimer’s film more than make up for what’s inexplicable. The movie was closely adapted from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel by George Axelrod and his screenplay is a gem of a screen puzzle. The larger plot, of Shaw as a brainwashed Communist zombie commanded by solitaire and, specifically, the queen of diamonds, is executed with near perfection and culminates exactly how it should. Has there ever been a creepier kiss in the movies than when Lansbury plants one directly on Harvey’s mouth? That entire speech from Lansbury leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable and confused. It’s easy to comprehend what she’s saying, but the revelations of how she says it send the audience’s collective heads spinning. And who did Angela Lansbury lose the Best Supporting Actress to in 1962? America’s sweetheart, Patty Duke, for her portrayal of
Anne Frank Helen Keller. (Note: Lansbury has been nominated for 3 Oscars and 15 Emmy awards, losing every time.)
So back to my original contention, that it’s too easy to undervalue The Manchurian Candidate, I believe that what Frankenheimer did after this film maybe has lead people to believe his work here was a fluke or possibly even overrated. Firstly, it wasn’t and it’s not. Second, Frankenheimer was a key director this decade and highly influential as a controlling auteur for the Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s. His “paranoia trilogy,” consisting of this film, Seven Days in May, and Seconds, are all brilliant, essential works of the decade. Seconds, in particular, still looks innovative and daring, as well as giving Rock Hudson his greatest role, as a man who chose to leave his middle-aged existence in favor of a more youthful life as an artist who ends up looking like Hudson. Frankenheimer would, several years later, hit a resurgence with television work like Andersonville and the excellent miniseries George Wallace. His career still looks like a bit of unrealized potential, but nearly all of his films are worth watching.
As most people know, there was a remake of The Manchurian Candidate directed by Jonathan Demme a couple of years ago. I saw it in the theater once, and haven’t watched the film since, but I did like it. Why a film the caliber of Frankenheimer’s original needs to be done again is a question I can’t answer, but I thought Demme and, especially, Denzel Washington put everything they had into the effort. If the new version works at all, it’s because Washington brings an actor’s chops to the character of Marco. Sinatra was a good actor for a singer, but otherwise his abilities were limited. Washington added the depth, that quality of being on the brink of unhinged craziness, that Sinatra and the 1962 film just missed. As good of an actress as Meryl Streep is, though, she didn’t really approach Lansbury’s characterization. The least you can ask of a remake is that it doesn’t disgrace the original and certainly Demme’s movie accomplished that. Actually, after watching Frankenheimer’s film, I was anxious to watch the remake again. Whether that’s a compliment to the original or the second version, I don’t know, but I’m sure I won’t undervalue the former again.
The current MGM special edition DVD available in both R1 and R2 is outstanding. Picture quality is very good and the extra features are everything one could ask for. Older interviews with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra, as well as recent pieces with Lansbury and admirer William Friedkin (who seems to think Lee Harvey Oswald was definitely brainwashed like Raymond Shaw), are highly worthwhile. There’s also a commentary with Frankenheimer. It’s a great value at only $15 retail and any self-respecting film fan should probably own the disc. There’s even a little booklet, a facet of DVD collecting that too many companies overlook, in my opinion.