Monday, September 22, 2014

Revisiting The Empire of Crime

"When humanity grows bored by the banality of blockbusters... when snobbery has become the supreme law, then the time will have come for the Empire of Film."
I'm on vacation this week, which may influence my blogging schedule. But I rewatched The Testament of Dr. Mabuse tonight and decided to write something for Moviepilot. Hence my article The Empire of Crime: Dr. Mabuse, the Original Supervillain. In which I try showing, in brief, the evolution of Mabuse and his impact on the superhero genre.

This reminds me that I've yet to review Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. A swell idea, but you try making time for a four hour silent movie.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Odd Man Out

"Close the door when I'm gone, and forget me."
Carol Reed's first masterpiece is Odd Man Out (1947).  It's just as stylish as The Third Man but even more affecting: structured like a classic tragedy, Reed promises genre thrills before descending into a snow-blown hell.

Johnny Macqueen (James Mason) leads several IRA gunmen in a Belfast bank robbery. During their escape, Johnny is shot and left behind. Johnny tries hiding from authorities, fleeing across the city while nursing a wound. Various characters, some helpful and others suspicious, encounter Johnny while his confederates and police try to reach him.

Odd Man Out starts as a standard thriller, then immediately subverts expectations. The heist occurs ten minutes in, our hero is crippled and reduced to a walking Macguffin. Obvious plot developments are foiled: the police quickly neutralize Johnny's cell, leaving his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) to try rescuing him. Avoiding political statements, Reed makes Johnny a reluctant terrorist, devoted to Irish freedom but lamenting violence. Yet Reed surprises by rendering the IRA and their police nemesis (Denis O'Dea) equally sympathetic.

Odd Man Out probes ordinary citizens caught in-between An old woman (Maureen Delaney) tips off the cops; loopy artist Lukey (Robert Newton) just wants to paint Johnny's portrait. Most try not to involve themselves, like Maude (Beryl Measor) and Maureen (Ann Clery), two kindly ladies who dress Johnny's wounds, then fret over the terrorist in their midst. Johnny, unwilling to entrap innocents in his fight, politely excuses himself. This touches Maude's previously-hostile husband (Roy Irving), who offers Johnny a cap, a drink and even disposes of his pistol. This vignette exhibits more humanity than most full-length movies.
Odd Man Out's required set pieces play well, like a nocturnal alley chase prefiguring The Third Man's sewer climax. But viewers remember Robert Krasker's oppressive, Expressionist photography and Reed's surreal touches. Johnny imagines a dark alley morphing into his prison cell; later, he sees acquaintances' faces in beer suds, an image borrowed by Godard and Scorsese. Or Johnny delivering a deranged homily to a gallery of paintings. That prefigures the snow-swept climax, with Johnny and Kathleen facing the police together. It's the bleakest finale offered by any '40s movie.

James Mason gets enough characterization early on that we empathize with his plight. Mason conveys anguish and guilt, hoping for redemption. Kathleen Ryan is likeable, if not so fleshed out. Robert Newton gets the showiest role as a mad artist, but other costars register better: Cyril Cusack's hard-edged terrorist, Denis O'Dea's taciturn cop, William Hartnell's conflicted friend, Beryl Measor and Ann Cleary's befuddled civilians.

Odd Man Out's bleakness probably accounts for its obscurity. It's not as "fun" as The Third Man, with the amiably monstrous Harry Lime and playful zither music. But its peerless direction, rich character cameos and relentless doom make Odd Man Out a masterpiece on its own.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) is the rare movie that appeals to everyone. Auteurists love it for showcasing Hitchcock's thematic preoccupations. Film buffs admire its faultless, innovative craftsmanship. Casual viewers like the attractive stars and thriller structure. Everyone wins.

L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photographer who broke his leg on the job. Recuperating in his sweltering apartment, he's taken to spying on his neighbors. Alongside other melodramas, he grows convinced that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murdered his invalid wife. He convinces girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), though the police remain dubious. How can Jeffries prove Thorwald did it? Naturally, by sending Lisa to investigate!

Rear Window is the best expression of Hitchcock's skill. He's more impressive on a soundstage than in his larger-scale movies. Key scenes play without dialogue: the panning shot introducing the neighbors and then Jeff (via his photographs, and a close-up on his sweating face); Jeff watching Thorwald leave and return in a rainstorm; Jeff arming himself with flashbulbs as footsteps thud up the stairs. Hitchcock makes peerless use of sound and music, alongside brilliant visual details: one shot of Thorwald's apartment, dark except for a burning cigarette, is bone-chilling.

This restricted setting works better than Rope, a self-conscious experiment. Here Hitchcock creates a diverse little universe, conveyed through striking little playlets. Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), a tarty ballet dancer, entertains hapless suitors; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) contemplates suicide while a neighbor (Ross Bagdasarian) composes music. Hitchcock ties these vignettes together, these characters bonded through diegetic sound and shared space. Each story gets resolved alongside the thriller plot. Such details make Rear Window effortlessly immersive.
Critics relish Rear Window's voyeurism, conveyed in ways obvious and subtle. John Michael Hayes' script decries our "race of peeping toms," viewing other peoples' lives as entertainment. Yet Hitchcock plays with our expectations, even here. Lisa's introduction marks her as a fetish object (that dreamy close-up!) but unlike Jeff, she can act, inserting herself into the drama. Jeff is as helpless as the viewer... or a film director watching an actress go off-script. Flashing Thorwald with camera bulbs makes a wonderfully impotent gesture: Jeff might as well use a remote control.

Besides direct remakes like Disturbia, Rear Window inspired a whole genre of voyeur thrillers. These movies make human perception central to the story, often distorting or subverting Hitchcock's approach. Blow-Up and The Conversation hinge on the hero misinterpreting an event, their intervention only making things worse. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom goes further, making its protagonist a serial killer. Peeping becomes not only morally dubious but destructive.

James Stewart starts off as a frustrated creep (shades of Vertigo?), but his dogged investigation overcomes any misgivings. Grace Kelly's never been better: decked out in Edith Head dresses and breaking into Thorwald's apartment, she's beautiful, brave and resourceful. Thelma Ritter (All About Eve) and Wendell Corey (The Furies) contribute snark from the sidelines. Raymond Burr is equally intimidating across the yard or five feet away.

Does anyone need to be sold on Rear Window? Few films achieve such a seamless blend of art and entertainment.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006) is as safe and commercial a film as Spike Lee ever made. It's a conventional heist film, with some last act revelations that aren't entirely convincing.

Four armed robbers storm a Manhattan bank, taking dozens of hostages. Detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are assigned to negotiate, but lead criminal Dalton (Clive Owen) won't give them much room. After a day of head-games and unclear demands, Frazier suspects something fishy. His suspicions are confirmed when Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a well-connected fixer, arrives with a brief from bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to extract an incriminating safe deposit box.

Inside Man is straightforward stuff; Lee's few auteur touches (parallel long shots of Dalton and Case in a room, nonlinear interrogation scenes) blend into a rather banal narrative. He can't help interjecting some social commentary: NYPD officers casually drop racial epithets and manhandle a Sikh hostage (Waris Ahluwalia), while a child hostage (Amir Ali Said) plays a Grand Theft Auto-style video game. But Lee mostly sticks to familiar genre beats, efficiently handled but wholly familiar.

At least Inside Man makes this familiarity part of the plot. Frazier suspects the very familiarity, noting that Dalton steals his getaway scheme from Dog Day Afternoon! Writer Russell Gewirtz handles the small touches best: Dalton befuddling the cops with an Enver Hoxha recording, or Frazier bluffing Dalton into entering the bank. He's less successful weaving the heist with Case's back story, an anemic attempt to up the ante. Man sweeps the narrative board in the last half-hour: while the solution's satisfying on its own terms, simultaneously it's unconvincing.

Denzel Washington plays to type, charming but tough, here given a cynical edge Conversely, Willem Dafoe does well against type as a gruff cop; amoral, brassy Jodie Foster almost steals the show. Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a nice match for Washington. But Clive Owen is an expressionless drone, neither intimidating villain nor convincing character. And Christopher Plummer is wasted playing a shallow cartoon. Other players are lucky to be obnoxious stereotypes.

Ultimately, you won't regret the two hours you'll invest watching Inside Man. Slickly directed and mostly well-acted, it's a decent time-waster - yet ultimately proves underwhelming.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Trials of Oscar Wilde

Ken Hughes' The Trials of Oscar Wilde was one of two 1960 films addressing the playwright's conviction for "gross indecency," released amidst fierce debate over Britain's anti-gay laws. Fortunately, Trials is no well-meaning artifact: indeed it's a minor classic, beautifully shot and impeccably acted.

In the 1890s, Oscar Wilde (Peter Finch) enjoys renown for his successful writings, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere's Fan. But Wilde's indiscreet relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (John Fraser) draws undue attention. Lord Alfred's father, the redoubtable Marquess of Queensbury (Lionel Jeffries), accuses Wilde of "posing as sodomite." Wilde sues for libel, making his private life uncomfortably public. Even if Wilde drops the lawsuit, he's vulnerable to criminal prosecution.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde isn't an overt topical drama like Victim (1961), but it's impossible to divorce the film from its context. As debate over the Wolfenden Report raged, Hughes crafted a drama explicitly showing Wilde and "Bosie" as illicit lovers. They never kiss or show overt affection, but their familiar manner says everything - before we hear their rhapsodic love letters. Queensbury's defense is weak but apparently impropriety is enough: counsel (James Mason) even uses Dorian Gray as evidence! Wilde goes from hero to pariah, ostracized (and ultimately jailed) for his sexuality.

Drawing on H. Montgomery Hyde's profile, Trials makes Wilde an intellect with a quip for every occasion, arrogant ("I have no knowledge of the ordinary individual") but benign. Douglas is more complex: deceitful, impulsive and selfish, he uses Wilde to settle scores with his father. The trial transcript is readily available: Wilde seemingly goads his opponents into trapping him, admitting affection for young men while claiming aesthetic privilege. Was he merely reckless or deliberately courting martyrdom? Hughes simply paints Wilde as the victim of an unjust society: understandable yet incomplete.

Hughes' direction is a treat. Cinematographer Ted Moore provides regal color photography, capturing marvelous period recreations in glorious detail. Hughes' screenplay draws on trial transcripts and other documents, retaining zest and liveliness through character interactions and courtroom scenes. Wilde plays brilliantly off humorless foils, especially Queensbury's counsel Carson, who can't fathom the concept of humor. A screenwriter couldn't envision a livelier courtroom - but then, reality had Oscar Wilde.

Peter Finch ably conveys Wilde's wit, arrogance and anguish. It's a great performance, though Finch lacks the style of Stephen Fry's later portrayal. John Fraser (Tunes of Glory) combines boyish charm and simpering selfishness. James Mason and Nigel Patrick square off as opposing barristers, Mason especially relishing his small but showy part. Lionel Jeffries (Royal Flash) makes a ferocious villain, self-righteous to the last. Yvonne Mitchell (Sapphire) makes a sweetly vulnerable wife, befuddled by Oscar's predicament. James Booth (Zulu) and Laurence Naismith (A Night to Remember) have minor roles.

Unsurprisingly, The Trials of Oscar Wilde's modest daring seems tame today. But it shows how relaxed censorship influenced not only art house releases but mainstream dramas. Now a prestige drama could seriously argue for gay rights, and be acclaimed rather than damned. It's the curtain-raiser on the tumultuous cinematic decade to come.