Thursday, December 18, 2014

Suddenly

"When you have a gun, you are in a way sort of a God."
Suddenly (1954) was a minor Frank Sinatra film until the unspeakable happened. Lee Harvey Oswald caught it on television in November 1963, weeks before shooting John F. Kennedy. Sinatra, so the story goes, subsequently pulled the film (along with The Manchurian Candidate), which languished in obscurity before falling into public domain. Whether or not life imitates art, sometimes it proves too close for comfort.

This tale may well be apocryphal, yet it explains Suddenly's obscurity as well as anything. Given a handsome Blu-Ray treatment in 2012, Lewis Allen's suspense flick anticipates a generation of tense assassination thrillers.

John Baron (Frank Sinatra) leads a hit squad into tiny Suddenly, California. The President's visiting by special train and Baron plans a warm reception. Posing as FBI agents, Baron and his henchmen stake out a house overlooking the rail yard, taking its occupants - old man Pops (James Gleason), war widow Ellen (Nancy Gates) and precocious kid Pidge (Kim Charney) - hostage. They also kidnap Sheriff Shaw (Sterling Hayden), who joins the Bensons to try outwitting the assassins.

Just 77 minutes long, Suddenly is a crisp, engaging thriller. Richard Sale's efficient script borrows from High Noon, from the real-time plotting to Ellen's intervention in the finale. If Suddenly has any politics they're very Cold War conservative; Baron works for unnamed benefactors, apparently a foreign government. We also receive lectures on the righteousness of firearms, the silliness of pacifism, and most of all female nagging, all conveniently embodied by Ellen. Exasperated with her whining, Pops implores her to "stop being such a woman!" Ouch!
In other ways, Suddenly seems ahead of its time. Though a mercenary, Baron curiously prefigures real-life "lone nut" assassins. A war hero-turned-traitor, he enjoyed killing Germans and couldn't shake the habit. Like Arthur Bremer, he muses over his forthcoming notoriety, launching verbose diatribes to defend his sanity. Suddenly treats its scenario as borderline fantasy so one wonders how Allen and Sale imagined Baron. Were they remembering someone like Howard Unruh, who returned from WWII to shoot up Camden, New Jersey? Certainly he's unnervingly prescient.

Suddenly plays its suspense card perfectly. After some awkward stage-setting it becomes a chamber drama: Allen's claustrophobic, deep-focus direction keeps things engaging, while Sale makes brilliant use of limited setting. Baron's long-winded harangues occasionally grate (a sop to Sinatra's star image), yet Suddenly makes them Baron's Achilles heel. Similarly, a cap pistol and a hapless repairman (James O'Hara) provide handy set-ups for the finale. And Allen stage-manages a brilliant climax, with a head fake recalling Anthony Mann's The Tall Target.

Frank Sinatra relishes playing against type. He warps his customary charm into psychotic menace, all brusque swagger and psychotic rambling. Sterling Hayden provides stoic, clever counterpoint. Nancy Gates handles an irredeemable character reasonably well; James Gleason underplays his old man role; Kim Charney's an obnoxious Hollywood kid. Paul Frees, legendary voice over artist, plays one of Baron's accomplices. Willis Bouchey (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) plays a Secret Service agent.

Rarely remembered as a classic, Suddenly is both entertaining and unnerving. Later assassination films preferred elaborate conspiracies to lone nuts; Suddenly splits the difference, having a lone nut head the conspiracy. Viewed today, we can't help sensing premonitions of America's coming nightmare.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

When Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be (1942) hit theaters at the height of World War II, many critics attacked it as inappropriately lighthearted. Funny that few leveled similar complaints against Charlie Chaplin's goofier The Great Dictator (1940), or Lubitsch's own Ninotchka (1938), which turns Stalin's Red Terror into a punchline. Lubitsch's droll approach produces laughs while remaining relatively grounded.

Ham actor Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) perform Shakespeare in Warsaw's theaters. Their relationship is strained, with Maria seeing gallant Air Force pilot Sobinski (Robert Stack) on the side. The Nazis invade and Sobinski becomes an RAF pilot; he's galled by double agent Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) into exposing Polish Resistance fighters. The Polish underground recruits Maria to seduce the Professor, while Josef pulls an elaborate con against Gestapo Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman).

A collaboration between Hollywood and England's Korda Brothers, To Be or Not to Be contains the expected rabble rousing. Writers Melchior Lengyor and Edwin Justus Mayer insert narration denouncing Nazi terror, lauding Polish resistance and their pilots-in-exile. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Operation Tempest and the Nazis' destruction of the city, it's hard to appreciate the lighthearted resistance scenes. The fatalism of Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943) seems more appropriate.

Yet To Be's topical content grounds things enough to avoid frivolity. Lubitsch's great gift came in balancing tones: after a screwball first act, To Be's mood turns somber before the playful resistance caper. Maria's worldly wit and surprising spy skills catch our attention, while Siletsky proves a surprisingly seductive avatar of Fascism. This humanization extends to minor characters, like the hammy Hitler impressionist (Tom Dugan) or the Jewish actor (Felix Bressert) who dreams of playing Shylock - and gets his chance under the worst circumstances.

The movie's big laughs naturally go to Josef. We glimpse his monumentally awful Hamlet: one German remarks that "What he did to Shakespeare we're doing now to Poland." Yet he proves a surprisingly adept impersonator, bamboozling Erhart and his Teutonic twits. To Be's best scene is a prolonged bluff where Josef impersonates Siletsky, goading Ehrhardt into yanking off his beard. The movie climaxes in a Hitler-centric switcheroo that prefigures Inglorious Basterds, without the face-shooting.

Jack Benny scores by underplaying Josef; relishing the snappy dialogue, he's fun deceiving German baddies and goggling at his unfaithful wife. Carole Lombard matches him with charm, wit and resourcefulness: Maria's a far better actress than her husband. Tragically, Lombard died in a plane crash before To Be's release. Stanley Ridges (They Died With Their Boots On) makes a charming villain, though Sig Ruman's already rehearsing his Stalag 17 character. Robert Stack gets his breakthrough role, playing Maria's lover.

Whatever its contemporary reception, To Be or Not to Be is rightly regarded as a classic. Mel Brooks remade the film forty-one years later in inimitably broad fashion. Funny as Brooks' version is, he misses the wit and topicality of Lubitsch's original - but then, matching Lubitsch is a tall order for anyone.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Othello (1995)

The early Nineties saw Shakespeare films of all shapes: straightforward (Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet), experimental (Richard Loncraine's '30s-set Richard III), awful (Romeo + Juliet). Oliver Parker's Othello (1995) drew mixed reviews: critics cited uneven casting, lurid sexuality and textual alterations as flaws. All the same, it's an engaging, robust film that overcomes any purist quibbling.

Othello (Laurence Fishburne), a Moorish general in Venice's army, is dispatched to fight Turkish troops on Cyprus. Othello's recently married Desdemona (Irene Jacob), daughter of a disapproving Venetian Senator. Othello's aide Iago (Kenneth Branagh) seethes with anger over Othello promoting Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) over him. Enlisting wife Emilia (Anna Patrick) and Rodrigo (Michael Maloney) as unwitting pawns, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are eloping. Naturally, tragic consequences ensue.

Othello's my favorite Shakespeare play for its delicious plotting and character dynamics. Othello engenders our sympathy as an outsider hero, respected for his usefulness but distrusted for his race. Driven to jealous rage, he reverts from civilized man to hateful alien. Desdemona, played well, is an interesting character: is she wronged innocent, impulsive lover or worldly victim? Yet Iago inevitably dominates. For unfathomable motives (jealousy? homoeroticism? fun?) he torments Othello, using every character's weakness as a weapon: Othello implicitly trusts Iago while suspecting his faithful wife. Only Richard III compares among Shakespeare's villains.

Parker lops off entire scenes, rearranges dialogue and streamlines Shakespeare's plotting, but this is forgivable telescoping. More contentiously inserts interstitial material: Othello and Desdemona's wedding, several love scenes and dream sequences, mixed with additional historical context. The film's eroticism underscores the tragedy: Othello and Desdemona's marriage embodies reckless passion rather than epochal love. Iago's scheming seems credible, as Othello hasn't far to go for suspicions to fester.

Certainly Parker's direction proves handsome. Filming in Venice and other locales, he mixes period richness with the crowded shadows and uneasy angles of film noir. Parker's best device has Iago soliloquizing to the camera, chortling over the credulity of his costars. Othello's rich in imagery, from the Venice lido to the Cypriot beaches and ornate corridors, despite clunky symbolism like Iago's chess metaphor. Matched by Charlie Mole's excellent score, mixing mandolins and ominous strings, it's a treat to watch.

Laurence Fishburne does fine work: despite a bizarre accent, his vitality and anguish enliven Othello. But Kenneth Branagh steals the show. After his courageous Henry V and charming Benedict he turns to Shakespeare's greatest villain, and Branagh's smug, snappish Iago offers endless fun. Sadly, Irene Jacob's limited English and one-note simpering undermine our sympathy. Anna Patrick's Emilia proves more tragic. Michael Sheen grabs an early role; Gabriele Ferzetti (speaking English!) briefly appears as the Duke of Venice. Nathaniel Parker, Oliver's brother, plays Cassio.

Anyone adapting Shakespeare needs to square the source material's elegance with the exigences of film. Oliver Parker didn't provide Othello's most faithful adaptation, nor the most artistic (see Orson Welles' version). But it certainly scores as a lively, handsome dramatization.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Macbeth (1971)

Roman Polanski made Macbeth (1971) in an extremely dark place. Depressed and guilt-ridden from Sharon Tate's murder, he channels his despair into William Shakespeare's dark tragedy of ambition. Along with Ran and Chimes at Midnight it's one of the few Shakespeare adaptations emphasizing visuals over language, very much to its benefit.

Macbeth (Jon Finch) helps Scottish King Duncan (Nicholas Selby) suppress a rebellion, and is awarded the title Thane of Caldor. Goaded by three prognosticating witches and wife (Francesca Amis), Macbeth dreams of becoming King. He murders Duncan and seizes the crown, plunging Scotland into despotism. Wracked by guilt and paranoia, Macbeth can't enjoy his rule: he murders dear friends, close colleagues, even children. Steeled by the witches' prophecy that "no man born from a woman" can vanquish him, Macbeth defies rebellious squire Macduff (Terence Bayler) and his English allies.

From its opening image of the witches burying a severed hand, Macbeth presents an unremitting carnival of violence. Before the film's ten minutes old we're subjected to death by mace and mass hangings. Shakespeare's offstage murders become brutal set pieces: blood flows with each stabbing, sword cut and beheading. Banquo's ghost isn't an unearthly specter but a hemorrhaging ghost. There's a protracted home invasion-murder that can't help invoking Charles Manson. Yet it never feels excessive: Polanski's merely conveys Shakespeare's text, transcending theatrical limitations with cinematic flair.
Macbeth's unsettling atmosphere isn't limited to bloodletting. Photographer Gil Taylor provides unsparingly bleak shots of the Scottish (actually Welsh) countryside, submerging period spectacle within relentless, crushing dourness. Polanski contrasts the Court's civilized pretensions with its unsettled landscape and pagan past. A courtly dinner's interrupted by a raging thunderstorm; Macbeth's court mixes business with bear-baiting. Macbeth abandons his stately castle for midnight consultations with a witches' coven. The capper is an eerie, discordant score by The Third Ear Band.

Inevitably, Polanski and writer Kenneth Tynan (yes, that Kenneth Tynan) pare Shakespeare's text significantly, trimming scenes, conflating minor characters and turning soliloquies into voiceover narration. These alterations will rankle purists, but Macbeth flows extremely well. Though produced by Playboy, it's hardly exploitative: nudity is minimal (one scene with the witches, a discreet sleepwalking scene with Lady Macbeth) and the violence is organic to the story. Polanski only stumbles with a few ill-conceived literalizations, like the cartoon dagger that drives Macbeth to murder Duncan.

The best Shakespeare adaptations approach their oft-told tale with some fresh angle. Polanski gives us an uncharacteristically youthful Macbeth, less a conniving conspirator than young man in a hurry. Unsatisfied by praise and promotion, Macbeth won't stop until he rules Scotland - only to find he's completely out of his depth. If anything, this heightens the story: Macbeth and his wife are swept along by megalomania without appreciating the cost or consequences, making tragedy inevitable. And a disturbing coda suggests the killing's only beginning.
Jon Finch (Frenzy) gives Macbeth dark, sexy charisma, effective as conniving usurper and guilt-ridden despot. Interestingly, Francesca Amis's Lady Macbeth isn't the snaky schemer we'd expect. She's more supportive than hectoring, dismayed by the dimensions of Macbeth's deed (and her own complicit). The supporting cast is workmanlike: actors like Martin Shaw, Nicholas Selby and Terence Bayler give solid performances, but no real standouts. Well, except Sydney Bromley's gleefully cracked porter.

Ultimately, Macbeth endures not because of Polanski's notoriety or its grisly violence. So many subpar Shakespeare adaptations use the Bard's language as a crutch; why bother with camerawork or subtext? A Shakespeare film so bracingly, unapologetically cinematic is highly commendable.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Breakheart Pass

 
Alistair MacLean exports his high adventure tropes to the Old West in Breakheart Pass (1973). More whodunnit than Western, it's an enjoyable mix of action and suspense.

Responding to a diphtheria outbreak, a train containing soldiers, medical supplies and Nevada's Governor (Richard Crenna) races towards Fort Humboldt. Joining the passengers is John Deakin (Charles Bronson), arrested by Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson) for murder. Turns out the epidemic's a ruse by a band of renegade Indians and gun-smugglers. And Deakin's really a Secret Service agent who knows at least one passenger's involved in the conspiracy.

Breakheart Pass resembles an Agatha Christie yarn, though it strongly echoes MacLean's Where Eagles Dare. Passengers turn up mysteriously murdered, while its undercover hero joins with an oblivious straight man. There's even a train top battle recalling Eagles' tram scene. MacLean burns through possible suspects pretty quick, with the Indians added to ramp up the suspense (and body count). Still, not many whodunnits finish with an epic battle scene!

Indeed, Breakheart Pass gets by because it's so much fun. When the mystery angle sags, director Tom Gries interjects beautiful Idaho scenery and exciting action. There's an impressive train wreck early on, while Deakin gets the rooftop fight with a second-string baddie. Gries cuts loose in the finale, with a convoluted showdown involving Deakin, the villains, Indians and late-arriving cavalry troopers. Bolstered by an energetic Jerry Goldsmith score, Breakheart Pass crams a lot into its 95 minutes.

Charles Bronson gets an excellent role: he's tough and uncharacteristically dapper, reportedly performing his own stunts. The deep supporting cast plays broad archetypes: Richard Crenna's snotty Governor, Jill Ireland's distressed damsel, Ben Johnson's taciturn Sheriff, Bill McKinney's hellfire priest. Playing a stuffy cavalryman, Ed Lauter gets the film's best moment, dispatching a villain with a stylish saber cut. Charles Durning plays a slimy railroad boss while Roy Jenson, Joe Kapp and Archie Moore play dubious passengers.

Breakheart Pass provides solid entertainment. Seasoned moviegoers can predict the twists, but Gries' efficient direction and MacLean's crisp scripting make it worthwhile.