Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cloak and Dagger

Usually ranked among Fritz Lang's worst movies, Cloak and Dagger (1946) is highly entertaining. Critics lament the film's studio-imposed censorship: it's still well-crafted, surprisingly thoughtful escapism.

Late in World War II, the OSS recruits physicist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) for a deep-cover mission into Italy. The Germans are accelerating their atomic weapons research, with Gestapo agents spiriting Italian scientists north. After Gestapo goons murder Jesper's old colleague (Helen Thimig), he joins Italian partisans to rescue Professor Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), falling for Gina (Lilli Palmer). But the Fascists still have several tricks up their sleeves.

Admittedly, Cloak and Dagger hinges on a creaky conceit: why would the OSS send an untrained physicist to play spy games? If viewers can accept this (and why not, if they can accept Indiana Jones as meek professor-turned-tough guy), it's solid. Lang moves quickly through the first hour, making Jesper's conversion acceptable (if not credible) while mixing action and plot. The second half grows more deliberate, especially the long sequence of Jesper and Gina dodging detection (and falling for each other). Many criticize these scenes, yet their romance provides Cloak much needed humor and humanity.

Lang packs Cloak and Dagger with excellent action scenes. The movie opens with a tense raid, with Gestapo agents shooting up a partisan hideout. Cloak's big set piece is typical Lang: Jesper and an Ovra agent (Marc Lawrence) engage in a brutal wrestling match, ironically underscored by lively street music. There's also a tense seaside landing, during a thunderstorm, presaging a similar sequence in The Guns of Navarone. Other scenes, like the climactic firefight, prove more conventional.
Writers Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr. pointedly examine science perverted by politics. Jesper starts with a creaky bromide, asking why money allocated for atomic weapons doesn't go towards cancer research? Less didactic scenes show physicists trapped into impossible moral choices: Lodor is blackmailed with execution of hostages; Polda's daughter is jailed. The partisans allow Polda to take a stand... which proves personally fruitless. For a movie bristling with chases and shootouts, Cloak and Dagger is surprisingly sharp.

Yet Lang envisioned an even more subversive picture. Glenn Erickson explains that Cloak's original ending contained a pointed antinuclear message, framing atomic power as a genie that can't be uncorked. Instead, the extant film concludes with an abrupt Casablanca rehash. Undoubtedly it was impolitic, a year after Hiroshima, to cast aspersions on the Manhattan Project. Even this excision doesn't compromise Cloak, which delicately balances idealism and atomic dread.

Gary Cooper makes an odd physicist, but proves an agreeable spy: tough, snide and romantic in turn. Lilli Palmer (Operation Crossbow) makes a wonderfully resourceful, sharp-tongued partner. Vladimir Sokoloff (The Magnificent Seven) and Helen Thiming (Decision Before Dawn) score as physicists, Marjorie Hoshelle plays an effective honey trap and Marc Lawrence a sinister bad guy. But Robert Alda and Dan Seymour's partisans are flat characters, besides seeming less Italian than Pizza Hut.

Cloak and Dagger is agreeable hokum, far better than its dismal reputation. Detractors can rightly point to the uneven pacing and Gary Cooper's incongruous casting. Considering everything Lang gets right - the exciting action, fun interplay and smart script - these seem negligible complaints.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear (1944) is Fritz Lang's best anti-Nazi film. More streamlined than Man Hunt and less scalding than Hangmen Also Die!, it benefits from emphasizing thriller mechanics over position speeches.

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) emerges after two years in an asylum. He finds London reeling under the German Blitz, and becomes mixed up in improbable intrigue. A deadly encounter with a crook leads Neale to the Mothers of Free Nations, an organization of German emigres. Neale falls for head refugee Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), but suspects that her brother Willi (Carl Esmond) is up to no good. Other suspicious figures include a sultry medium (Hillary Brooke) and a blond man (Dan Duryea) who appears at the oddest moments.

One's tempted to label Ministry of Fear Hitchcockian, with its cake-based Macguffin and Everyman spy hunter, but Lang perfected these tricks in Spies and Dr. Mabuse while Hitchcock was a novice. Indeed Ministry synthesizes Lang's earlier work, from the phony blind man (Eustace Wyatt) and a weird carnival to a Mabuse-inspired seance. Henry Sharp's photography replicates the gloom of Hangmen Also Die!, from the clock-ticking opening to the spooky seance. One iconic image has the medium Ms. Bellane entering in silk dress and up-do like an Aryan dragon lady.

But Lang really scores with his action scenes. In particular, Neale's scuffle and chase with the blind man is breathtaking. Lang revisits a device from M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, using diegetic sound (here, train engines and plane engines) in place of music, coupled with long takes and effective staging. This striking set piece is cut and timed to approaching Luftwaffe bombers, ending with a literal bang. It ranks among the best scenes Lang ever did.

Seton I. Miller's script pares down Greene's novel, leading to regrettable elisions. Greene's protagonist, Arthur Rowe, killed his wife: wracked with guilt, he initially questions whether the spy ring actually exists. Lang's Neale merely abetted in suicide, while the Nazis are unquestionably real. Political commentary is back-grounded, with one character studying The Psychology of Nazism and an unfortunate implication that foreign refugees are traitorous scoundrels.

Yet Ministry doesn't suffer overmuch. The story clicks along briskly, giving Neale time to reveal back story while breezing through plot points and action scenes. Even if Neale doesn't question his sanity, others certainly do: a suspicious psychiatrist (Alan Napier) harasses Neale, and only a convenient discovery convinces Scotland Yard of his innocence. Ministry builds to a predictable climax. One villain is dispatched with disappointing ease, though Neale's confrontation with Willi ends with bitter irony.

Ray Milland makes a nice hero, delivering guilt, confusion and rectitude in equal measure. Marjorie Reynolds gets enough development to avoid being token love interest. Carl Esmond isn't much of a villain, but Hillary Brooke makes a striking impression with brief screen time. The real scene-stealer is Dan Duryea, delightfully wicked as a scissors-wielding psychopath. Lang promoted Duryea to top villain for The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.

Critics typically dismiss Ministry of Fear as lesser Lang and it's certainly not one of his masterworks. But there's something to be said for an entertaining genre film. It's only a small step from Ministry to Lang's wonderful postwar films noir.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed crafting art films within established genres. Psycho (1960) is a warped character study disguised as a B Movie. Even more extreme is The Birds (1963), an opaque thriller engineered like a monster movie.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) pursues hunky lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to Bodega Bay. Shortly after arriving, Melanie's attacked by a seagull. This kick starts an unnerving series of events: chickens won't eat, gulls disrupt a birthday party, a farmer's found mutilated. After crows attack school children, Melanie and Mitch try warning the townspeople, who argue rather than address the problem. Too bad about that swarm of gulls heading for downtown...

The Birds starts comically: Melanie and Mitch's pet shop banter, sexual power plays and Melanie's countryside drive all evoke To Catch a Thief. Melanie's a rich girl desiring fulfillment; Mitch is self-righteous yet vulnerable. Ernest May keeps their interplay light, leaving supporting players like Jessica Tandy (as Mitch's clingy mom) and Suzanne Pleshette's tough teacher (and spurned love interest) to interject drama. Having established cozy domestic discord and chained passions, Hitchcock destroys them with terror only chaos can evoke.

The Birds becomes an exercise in clockwork creepiness. After an hour's build-up Bodega Bay explodes. Hitchcock handles every scene with remarkable sureness, mixing remarkable photography (the God's-eye view of descending gulls) with inexplicable bursts of violence. We don't question the logic of teachers walking children past menacing crows, or Melanie entering an enclosed attic. We're too absorbed in the appalling spectacle: a seagull tearing at a girl's neck, another child's smashed glasses (shades of Eisenstein), birds smashing en masse against a telephone booth.

Lacking a score, The Birds makes unnerving use of diegetic music and bird noise. Long scenes play bereft of music: Melanie rowing across the bay, with only the lapping oar and distant gull cries puncturing the silence. Or the schoolhouse scene, with crows slowly gathering outside as children sing incessantly. We never learn what's causing the bird attacks: a snooty ornithologist (Ethel Jeffries) proves less helpful than the alcoholic sailor (Karl Swenson). The film ends on an equally unsettling note, our protagonists alive but their fates uncertain.  

Tippi Hedren is fine as a light comedy heroine living a nightmare. She's much better here than in Marnie. Rod Taylor's a charming heel. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleschette are better, with characters that allow shades of emotion. The restaurant scenes give to colorful character actors: Charles McGraw (Spartacus), Karl Swenson (Major Dundee) and Ethel Geffries (Billy Liar). Who else but Veronica Cartwright plays Mitch's sister Cathy?

The Birds is arguably Hitchcock's last great movie: films like Marnie, Family Plot or Torn Curtain are muddled, self-parodying or dull. Even Frenzy is memorable mainly for its cold-blooded violence. Perhaps Hitchcock grew lazy with the Cahiers crowd extolling his genius; maybe he simply burned out. Either way, The Birds is remarkable.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Carrie (2013)

Stephen King's Carrie inspired one successful film, so why not a remake? That's probably the only thought anyone put into tonight's monumental mediocrity. Carrie (2013) is wretchedly uninspired, cowering abjectly in the original's shadow.

Recycled synopsis: Outcast teen Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) suffers bullying from classmates and her mother's (Julianne Moore) religious fanaticism. But Carrie suffers from a less common affliction: she possesses telekinetic powers, which manifest themselves at inopportune times. Classmate Sue (Gabriella Wilde) feels guilty for teasing Carrie and convinces her boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) to invite Carrie to the prom. Carrie finally stands up to her mom and brush off the bullies. But her nemesis Chris (Portia Doubleday) plans a nasty prom, with catastrophic consequences.

Assembly line remakes like Carrie are the ultimate cynical exercise. Rarely outright terrible, they add nothing besides new stars and superficial cultural updates (Nancy Allen didn't have a smartphone!). Everything from Scream to Glee has spoofed Carrie, submerging the terror in parody and imitation. To transcend familiarity, director Kimberly Peirce must add auteur flair or a fresh interpretation. Instead she slavishly restages King's set pieces, adding little but artless computer effects and explicit death scenes.

But then Carrie is remarkably graceless. Even Pauline Kael never accused Brian De Palma of subtlety, but his Carrie is Cat People next to this junk. It's not enough for Margaret to be batty, she must mutilate herself with sewing needles. Chris can't be a mere alpha bitch, so she uploads Carrie's freakout on Youtube. And Peirce replays the bucket sploosh three times! Too bad Carrie lacks a personality, cowering fearfully with occasional expressions of bafflement. Sissy Spacek evinced human vulnerability beneath her psychic trauma; Chloe Grace Moretz's Carrie does things because the script says so.

Moretz, usually an appealing actress, rarely transcends one-note timidity. She's decent in scenes with Carrie breaking out of her shell, but her confrontations with Mom and prom freakout flop. Julianne Moore is stupendously awful: her bleary-eyed ham-boning makes Margaret less fanatical than hung over. The other teens are pretty ciphers with talent to match. Playing a friendly teacher, Judy Greer's exasperated perkiness provides Carrie's lone bright spot. When it's Cheryl Tunt's job to provide sanity, your movie isn't working.

Carrie isn't bad enough to be insulting; it's just a waste of time. If you're going to restage the original sans style and invention, why bother remaking Carrie at all?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Groggy on Moviepilot: The Charge of the Light Brigade, Redux

Groggy, if you look before you, you'll see neither audience nor page views. The usefulness of such an article eludes me!
Groggy revisits an old favorite, yet again, with his new Moviepilot article on The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Admittedly, I've tackled this topic several times before. Then again, Balaclava's 160th anniversary is only two days away! What better way to celebrate?