tongue-tied lightning

10 Great Films I Saw in March and April

Yeah, I’ve been neglecting the viewing logs.  I’ll get back to that in May.  In the meantime, here’s the best of what you missed.

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979) – This was far darker, and far better, than I was anticipating it being.  The performance of a career from Roy Scheider and the final musical sequence might be my favorite in the history of musicals.

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) – I suppose it would be an insult to Nicholas Ray to term this one a Sirkian melodrama.  There’s so much subtext going on here, the threat to the nuclear family comes from within.  Every bit as strong as Rebel Without a Cause.  If not stronger.

Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947) – Despite Wise’s directorial style being more Val Lewton than Fritz Lang this is one of the noirest noirs I’ve seen.  Lawrence Tierney completely owns this film.  Though he gets plenty of help from the supporting cast.

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) – I struggle with this film in that its message is one I couldn’t disagree more with.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great piece of filmmaking,  chilling and suspenseful, and contains what is probably the performance of Mitchum’s career.  Strangely, I saw Fritz Lang’s Fury this month which seems to carry the opposite message, one I agree with, but is a much less effective film.

Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952) – A great blend of noir and melodramatic sensibilities.  I reviewed this here.

Cold Water (Olivier Assayas, 1994) – A great coming of age film.  The party scene that is its centerpiece is one of the more stunning pieces of cinema I’ve seen.

Late August, Early September (Olivier Assayas, 1998) – More Assayas, this time with Mathieu Amalric in the lead role.  It’s very much about death but also very clearly a celebration of life.  Assayas is consistently great and this film is no exception.

Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) – There is no narrative to the film but it’s never less than engaging.  Just a stream of captivating images with the loose theme of filmmaking connecting them.  Many techniques we take for granted today were pioneered by Vertov and shown off to great effect in this film.

Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) – An underrated noir.  Considered here.

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004) – A powerful film.  It completely devastated me.  Enough has been said about Imelda Staunton’s performance, but it bears repeating, Hilary Swank’s Oscar belongs to her.


A Glorious Bastard: An Aldo Ray Double Feature

I consider myself a fan of classic Hollywood cinema, yet prior to press for Inglourious Basterds, I had never heard the name Aldo Ray.  Certainly I’m not the only one, yet some poking around has told me he was hardly a nobody, he received above the title billing alongside Jane Wyman, Humphrey Bogart, Ray Milland, Robert Ryan and several others.  He acted in films by George Cukor, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz.  Granted he only seemed to have that kind of clout for a period of about 5 years in the mid-50’s and very few of the films he starred in are remembered as classics.  His star declined in the 60’s and by the 70’s he had resorted taking roles in exploitation films, which led to his acting in even lesser pictures throughout the 80’s (apparently trying to cover medical costs accumulated while fighting throat cancer).  However, viewing a few of his films has revealed that he had a very interesting screen presence, and I’m glad Tarantino has brought his name somewhat back into vogue.  I’d like to bring to your attention two forgotten films he starred in from 1957.

Men in War was either my first or second Anthony Mann film, I feel like I’ve seen The Furies, but I don’t really remember it.  Irregardless, I was very impressed.  The film takes place in the Korean War and concerns a squadron of soldiers who are stranded in enemy territory without radio contact.  Mann very ably places the audience in the soldiers’ boots and creates a sense of uncertainty, a feeling that anything could come from any direction, a feeling that nobody is safe.  In that way it is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.

While the squadron attempts to take a hill with no means of transportation for their food and ammo, Aldo Ray comes rambling by in a jeep, attempting to get his shell-shocked colonel back to civilization.  Robert Ryan’s lieutenant pulls rank on Ray and commandeers his jeep.  Much of the drama in the film is derived from their war of wills.  Watching Ray and Ryan attempt to outwit one another is one of the great pleasures of Men in War.

I’m typically not a fan of war films, but much like the aforementioned Hurt Locker, I feel Men in War is very effective at capturing the horrors and uncertainties of war by immersing the audience in the soldiers’ situation and creating suspense.  It’s a much different approach than many of the hero worship war films of the 40’s (I understand the political motivations behind them) and the sentimentalized war films of the present like Saving Private Ryan.  There are occasions where Mann flirts with these cliches but I feel he is rather successful in avoiding them.

Whether Mann had any grandiose notions or whether he was merely attempting to make an engaging film, I feel he captured some truth with his film.  Robert Ryan is fantastic as Robert Ryan so often is, but in my opinion Aldo Ray steals the film from him.  He gives a wonderfully nuanced performance.  At the beginning of the film he is viewed as a disagreeable impediment to Robert Ryan’s progress, but as the story unfolds new layers of his character are unveiled and by the end we are presented with a complex human being.  His motivations are conflicted and driven by feelings that are hidden behind the tough guy exterior he presents early on.

Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Anthony Mann, an Elmer Bernstein score, it’s a shame that Men in War has been as overlooked as the war it portrays.

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is often mentioned in ‘best film-noir’ discussions, but you never hear about Nightfall, in my opinion a better film.  Some of this owes to Aldo Ray’s performance, but let’s not get crazy,  while he’s a great character actor, he isn’t Robert Mitchum.  No, it’s just a wonderfully constructed film built on Sterling Silliphant’s adaptation of a David Goodis novel.  I think Goodis might be the X-factor here.  He’s known for his snappy dialogue and you rarely come across a discussion of his work in which the term ‘hard-boiled’ is not employed.  His most famous film adaptations are probaby Shoot the Piano Player and Dark Passage.  Nightfall can stand shoulder to shoulder with either of them.

As the film opens we sense an aura around Ray’s character but aren’t sure why he’s acting so cagey or what his problems are.  These are revealed, much like in Out of the Past, via a series of flashbacks, and  we find he’s engaged in a Wrong Man scenario and is on the run.  He’s being chased by two criminals and an insurance investigator, and he develops a relationship with Anne Bancroft along the way, 10 years before Benjamin Braddock had the pleasure.  Ray’s casting may seem a bit odd on the surface, but he has a wonderful vulnerability to his acting that suits the role to a tee.

Tourneur’s moody expressionistic direction is well suited for noir and he makes many choices that add to the story.  There is a scene when the criminals are grilling Ray and they take him to an oil field, with the derricks constantly pumping in the background.  It’s an odd choice of location and it creates an eerie atmosphere.  This is certainly aided by Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, he of In a Lonely Place, Human Desire and Bonnie and Clyde.  The entire film looks great, whether the characters are bathed in shadows and splotches of neon light or out in the snowy wilderness on a bright day.

The climax of the film gathers all the key characters in that snowy wilderness.  It’s a fantastic scene, featuring some of the films best dialogue and an ending that in some ways recalls the Coen Brothers masterpiece Fargo.  The back and forth between the criminals on Ray’s trail is great and it reaches a head here.  It’s a fine ending to one of the better films noir I’ve seen.  When set alongside Night of the Demon it’s easy to look at 1957 as the most impressive year of Tourneur’s career, it’s a shame neither film has the reputation they deserve, and as of yet Nightfall is not available on home video.  I highly recommend tracking it down or keeping an eye out to see when it next airs on TCM.

Clash By Night
March 19, 2010, 5:11 PM
Filed under: film | Tags: , , , , ,

The two previous American Lang films I had seen, Human Desire and The Big Heat, didn’t leave much of an impression on me.  However, I would like to revisit both.  Clash By Night on the other hand, had me at hello.  Opening with stormy seas, it is as much melodrama as it is noir.  The screenplay by Clifford Odets captures the best of both worlds, full of snappy dialogue and sexual intrigue.  It concerns a woman who has had some tough breaks in life coming back home to live with her brother, “Home is where you come when you run out of places” she says.  She meets a nice man and ends up marrying him, only to be tempted by his troubled friend.

The cast is fantastic, coming in I was excited to see Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe in the same film.  Imagine my surprise that Paul Douglas, who I had only seen in Angels in the Outfield, ended up really impressing me.  He has a very unique character, and it’s a shame he wasn’t used more.  Stanwyck is her usual fantastic self and Marilyn Monroe is really good.  I think she is undervalued as an actress these days and viewed as nothing more than a sex symbol.  Even later in her career she seemed to get a lot of roles that demanded little more from her than being cute or sexy.  Robert Ryan is very convincing in his role, he’s despicable, and the combination of him and Stanwyck, who it would seem sees much of what she doesn’t like about herself in him, is explosive.

Lang’s direction is as strong as ever.   I was particularly taken by how much he says with his shot compositions and cinematography.  He uses very suggestive lighting and blocking to get his points across.  There is one shot late in the film with Barbara Stanwyck in the center of the shot in the background with the imposing figures of Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas in the foreground on either side of her.  Imagery like this seems to be a forgotten art, obviously Lang does it better than most, but during Hollywood’s golden age it seemed to be more or less a given.  It’s rare these days to see images composed with such thoughtfulness.  As long as we can see the actors it’s all good.

The ending isn’t as dark as I was anticipating.  When in the projection booth Robert Ryan was talking about how he’d like to cut up the faces of pretty women I assumed it was foreshadowing a violent ending.  Though I’m grateful that wasn’t the case.  As dark as the film is, it is nice that the ending has a modicum of hope, if it isn’t an outright happy ending.  Paul Douglas’s character is so kindhearted it would’ve been painful to see anything less.  It can be a cruel world, but it helps when there is still room to hope.