Rightwing Film Geek

Other films seen at the weekend

crown.jpgTHE IRON CROWN (Alessandro Blasetti, Italy, 1941, 3)
I’ll admit that I saw this on TCM lying on my couch at a pretty late hour, but I can’t imagine that I would have been enthralled by it under any circumstances. It’s a fairy tale about a crown on its way to Rome that does not leave a kingdom until all has been set right in it. Although conceived as a mythological fairy tale, THE IRON CROWN is not half as much fun as any of the ROBIN HOOD movies (OK, maybe it’s as much fun as Kevin Costner’s PRINCE OF THIEVES, but no more). Massimo Girotti (I think) is very stiff and has no charm in him (at least here). People rave about how lavish and spectacular it looks, but the black-and-white photography hit me as dark and muggy, and lit in too low a key for this kind of fantasy. Too much of the film (in some places, every other shot) is taken up by exposition using fairy-tale book intertitles and the shots themselves are too quickly edited to have much impact. It’s just not a very good movie.

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TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (Jacques Becker, France, 1954, 8 )

Several postwar French crime-thrillers have gotten theatrical re-releases in these past couple of years. TOUCHEZ (it means DON’T TOUCH THE LOOT) isn’t quite as good as RIFIFI, but is notably better than QUAI DES ORFEVRES and miles ahead of the one it most closely resembles, BOB LE FLAMBEUR. In fact, comparison with BOB makes clear the most obvious thing about a policier flick — you need a charismatic actor in the central role. By “charismatic,” I don’t mean in a “big, grand star” sort of way. In fact, the great Jean Gabin is notable here mostly for his underplaying, his “seen-it-all” cool, his worldliness that never shades into worldweariness, his wisdom. But Gabin has “It” to spare, while Roger Duchesne in BOB acts like someone waiting for Gabin to pass out some of “That.” There is only one big set piece in TOUCHEZ and it’s an exchange, not a heist. In fact, the film opens after the gold heist that gained the loot that is the object of contention. Instead, we get marvelous scenes of everydayness and the kind of things villains do when they’re not being villainous. My favorite sequence is one where Gabin brings his weak right-hand man to his super-secret lair and methodically lays out a spread of biscuits, pate, glasses of wine, forks, and plates. And then Becker shows the two men preparing to spend the night, getting into their pajamas, laying out their beds, brushing their teeth (no, really). The sequence doesn’t move the plot forward in any way, and it really only exists to show the everydayness that binds the two men as friends. But I wish the whole movie were this empty.

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OUT OF TIME (Carl Franklin, USA, 2003, 7)

Again, here’s a crime film that succeeds primarily because a great actor (Denzel Washington in this case) whom we instinctively like inhabits (yes, “inhabits,” not “plays”) the central role. Instead of being about the good side of a criminal like TOUCHEZ, OUT OF TIME is about a good man, a police chief no less, trapped in a web of false appearances (some of them the result of his own lies and thievery) when he has to investigate the death of the married woman with whom he had been having an affair. Oh … and the lead investigator is his estranged wife. If Hitchcock could have ever gotten inside the skin of a policeman, he might have made something like this — a series of hair-breadth escapes from investigators while the flawed central character struggles to solve the crime himself. And digs himself deeper. As for Denzel, this film is a smart move after his Oscar-winning turn in TRAINING DAY. Then, as a cop rotten to the core, he played on his previous image of righteousness to lead us on. Here, while there’s never doubt about his innocence and he’s reverting to something closer to his previous attractive image, the memory of TRAINING DAY makes everything feel different, a bit more threatening. Carl Franklin has made a great movie before (1992’s ONE FALSE MOVE); OUT OF TIME has more the feeling of a vacation film (the Florida Keys locations look really nice) “just” trying to spin an entertaining yarn and make the filmmakers some money. But this is as good as ambition-free commercial American cinema gets.

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DUCK, YOU SUCKER (Sergio Leone, Italy, 1971, 5)

I dunno. Maybe if I’d never seen THE WILD BUNCH. Maybe if James Coburn could play Clint Eastwood better. Maybe if Rod Steiger made a better Eli Wallach. Maybe if Leone had more of the dust, the rocks, the 5 o’clock shadow, the sweat on the faces. Maybe if Leone concentrated more on the mano-a-mano retail killing and less on dynamite, massacres in pits or bombings of trains (yes, I know that’s his point with the opening Mao quote; but it’s not what he’s good at it — again compare the insane climax of THE WILD BUNCH with the parched showdown in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, both great scenes, but indicative of completely different temperaments). Maybe if Leone’s great strength, portraying honor among lone men, fit in better with political material (the weakest scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is the one where politics intersects — the attack on the bridge). Maybe if Ennio Morricone had written one of his better scores. Maybe if I just didn’t hold a director as great as Leone to such a high standard. Maybe I’d appreciate more the tense early meeting of Coburn and Steiger. Maybe the prison rescue and the irony of the praise of Steiger would resonate deeper. Maybe I’d remember the faces of the Mexican peasants. Maybe.

# posted by Victor : 2:44 AM

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October 21, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Gangsters and Nothingness

“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Henry Wilbourne, in the William Faulkner short story “The Wild Palms,” from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”

“Between guilt and nothing, I will take guilt.”
Maxim as reworded to apply to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984)

I saw this film, Leone’s last before he died in 1989, for the first time on the big screen last weekend at the gorgeous American Film Institute theater, where I had already seen two of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns — THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — earlier this fall.

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Though it’s obviously great to see this masterpiece in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was actually one of the earliest case studies in the virtue of home video. After playing at the Cannes Film Festival at 238 minutes, the film’s U.S. distributors chopped it by 100 minutes and completely re-edited the film to ditch its complex 50-year flashback structure (some critics have even suggested that it all takes place in the opium-filled head of the central character) in favor of straight chronology. But at approximately 2:20, it was still too long and remote to appeal to younger audiences, and the savaging it got from American critics as incomprehensible meant that it had no shot at being a succes d’estime.

But when the film was released on tapes in the late 1980s, just as home video was becoming ubiquitous, Leone’s cut was the version released in the United States. What videotapes and discs did was to provide a reliable mass market for films after theatrical release. Thus some movies could get a potential second bite at the box-office cherry, and it made potential sense to go back and revisit bad box-office decisions with specials like Director’s Cuts (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA only grossed 1/6 of what it cost to make). What was done to the film was obviously a crime, but home video enabled the amelioration of some of the damage, giving Leone’s actual film a chance later to succeed or fail, to find its audience, a chance it might not have gotten otherwise. Roger Ebert called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA “a murdered movie, brought back to life on home video.” And now, coming back full circle, some spiffed-up theatrical prints are making their way across the country, often in concert with those spaghetti Westerns that first made Leone’s name. And if you’re in a city where they’re playing — run, do not walk …

leone.jpgThe gangster film put Leone’s talent in a new light. He lost something in having to forgo the grungy pictorialism of his landscape- and face-dominated Westerns, but gained that much back in the kind of ravishing luxury more suited to the kind of movie he was making here — an intimate, elegiac opera.

Unusually, for a film that spans 50 years and looks like an epic on first glance, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an interior psychological film, primarily about the guilt of one gangster (Noodles, played by Robert De Niro) over betraying his boyhood friends (the closest being Max, played by James Woods) to the police and having them die in the resulting shootout. The drama unfolds in three relatively short spans in the teens, early 30s and late 60s. But the chronological juggling is needed, because certain scenes have to take place in the order they do for emotional sense, not chronological sense (including the last, more anon). The film is fundamentally about what time changes and doesn’t change, and a chronological structure is too naturalistic for such a story.

The virtuoso opening sequence tells the basic plot, about Noodles’ betrayal (we don’t know why), the death of his three closest friends, his fleeing town with no money (we don’t learn the source of the money he’s picking up or why or how it disappeared) and as he sinks into a guilt-wracked opium haze, we hear loud telephone rings on the soundtrack. They continue long after we’ve gotten the point and learned that the phone is at a police desk. And that *is* the point. The telephone never stopped ringing in Noodles’ head. We flash to the late 1960s and Noodles getting a call to return to New York (he doesn’t know why), and then we mostly follow the principal characters as they grow from child delinquents into hoodlums and then gangsters (with some flashing forward to the late 1960s). Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the original cut “it takes real concentration to follow … (but) is compulsively and continuously watchable.”

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is full of wonderful moments, touches and grace notes — a young boy debating between flattering the neighborhood tramp with a cream cake and eating it himself, Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” a frisbee coming out of nowhere, the line “Noodles, I slipped,” Ennio Morricone’s mournful theme as played on a pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir (yes … THAT Zamfir), the limo driver rejecting Noodles’ money and leaving him incredibly alone, Deborah closing the window curtain as the train departs, the dissolves between the Jewish neighborhood at various times … it’s all lovely and sad. When it gets to the late 1960s, we reach a revelation (SPOILER WARNING).

Noodles has been invited to New York by a “Secretary Bailey,” a Cabinet member and successful businessman who is on the verge of losing everything in a widening corruption probe (imagine Richard Nixon in June 1974). Only Bailey is actually Max, who really wasn’t killed in the shootout whose memory has consumed Noodles’ life. Instead, Max fooled Noodles into betraying him and their two friends, so Max could make a clean break, take the group’s stash, and start life anew — respectable and able to climb the greasy pole of success. Now, to avoid exposure, Bailey is offering Noodles a chance at revenge by killing him. “I took your money, I took your girl, all I left you was 35 years of grief over having killed me,” “Secretary Bailey” tells Noodles.

noodles.jpgBut Noodles doesn’t bite, refusing to look back at Sodom. Partly, he doesn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, but also because he can’t have the 30 years back. There is no redemption or undoing the past, because the past is what has made you what you are. Throughout the scene, Noodles refers to him as Secretary Bailey, not Max, and pretends not to know any of the back story. It’s as if he would rather live as he has for the past 30 years — a guilt-ridden ex-gangster — than look back. “It’d be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste,” Noodles tells Max. He’s referring on the surface to “Secretary Bailey’s” achievements, but he’s also referring to himself. His last 30 years would have been a waste if he were to acknowledge having been conned by taking vengeance on “Max.” Between guilt and nothing, he’s taking guilt.

In some ways, the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME resembles the last scene reversal in MEMENTO — both have a man prefer the delusion he can live with to an empty, meaningless truth. But it’s also the opposite — in the later film, the last scene turns Guy Pearce’s character Lenny from victim to agent (even if it’s the agent of his own self-delusion); here, Noodles says agency and autonomy isn’t worth it to him. He’s turning his back on the most fundamental of Today’s Virtues — being your own man and leaving the past behind.

As a result, the last shot of the film justifies the complex, jump-around-in-time structure. It’s a full-facial closeup of a young adult Noodles smiling after retreating to an opium den, taking a hit, and rolling over under some netting, and it’s the film’s emotional punctation even though it takes place 30 years before the final dramatic scene. De Niro’s expression and all the ambiguities contained in it *are* what the film is about. In fact, I was kinda mad at Leone for only holding the shot for a few seconds before superimposing the credit crawl. That image needed to be held for an unnaturally long time (30 or 40 seconds at least, whatever is needed to call as much attention to itself as the telephone rings at the start do). And then fade to black.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Charles Bronson remembered

bronson.jpgBy coincidence, I saw Charles Bronson’s greatest film for the first time in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, just a week or so before his death at the weekend. Bronson was not a great actor, in the histrionic sense (he had no range, subtlety or wit), but he could do something just as difficult and (in the hands of the right director, like Sergio Leone) just as good. He could *be* on screen. He embodied in himself an image, a screen persona with consummate comfort, as if he was just being himself. And if you doubt that even literally playing yourself on screen is not as easy as it looks, check out Brett Favre in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY or Monica Lewinsky in her SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE appearance.

Bronson’s character, which almost never changed, was taciturn and brooding like John Garfield, stoic and tough like John Wayne. He followed trails blazed by Clint Eastwood, both in Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and then later in the urban-vigilante genre. He was a man you didn’t wanna mess with, but was righteous enough not to mess with you for no reason. In other words, it was an image of pre-therapy masculinity. This summa cum laude graduate of the School of Hard Knocks (in real life as well as a screen persona) had all this chiseled onto a face that was perhaps the ugliest ever on a Hollywood leading man. But that leather face was perfect for Leone’s grubby, dusty, gorgeously-lit and -framed pictures. And the harmonica.

Besides being raw material for the virtuoso Leone, Bronson was also good in solid unpretentious 60s action films like THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE (the latter of which is one of the few films I remember seeing and liking quite a bit before the cinephilia bug bit in the late 1980s). I also think the first DEATH WISH film is not bad (it got boring by repetition; the reputation of the original ROCKY suffers for this same reason). But Bronson’s great late role is his lead character in the Walter Hill tough-guy picture HARD TIMES. The climactic bare-knuckle-boxing fight at the end could star nobody else but Bronson, because it *was* Bronson. Its virtues were his virtues. It’s an aging man, scrapping through the Depression with nothing but his bare hands, and doing it with no histrionics or self-analysis. The fight is shot like no other climactic fight that I can recall. It takes place in real time, with no music and not much editing or any form of flash. There’s a lot of grunting and pushing, and is grubby and tough. The fight has both a logical trajectory and is competitive enough for long enough (and then increasingly less so) that you see how difficult it is to beat up somebody who’s just as tough as you. And it ends as it does because of an understanding of masculine honor and virtue. You may lose the game, but there’s still honor in playing by the rules. Don’t pretend you won’t lose though. Bronson finally lost the game of life, like we all do … eventually. RIP.

September 3, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 27 Comments