Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Directed by William Keighley
Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Runtime: 1 hr, 52 min

In real life, the sort of person who we brand as “politically incorrect” (in mild terms) would be completely insufferable (to put it charitably) and deserve nothing less than a baseball bat to the head (metaphorically speaking).  Yet when put on stage or on screen, this particular breed of jerk is hilarious, shocking the audience into laughter with his wit, rather than to wit’s end with his feeble attempts at humor.  The 1942 film adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner is a perfect example of misanthropy as comedic genius.

Famed lecturer and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) comes to the home of the Stanleys, a well-to-do Ohio family, for dinner.  However, on his way up the stairs, he slips on a patch of ice and appears to break his hip, forcing him to stay with the family for weeks on end.  He then proceeds to make life Hell for his hosts, making ridiculous demands at the threat of massive lawsuit.  Meanwhile, much to his dismay, his secretary Maggie (Bette Davis) falls in love with local newspaperman and aspiring playwright Bert (Richard Travis).  Hilarity ensues.

The center—I’d call it the heart, but that’s a terrible analogy—is obviously Whiteside, who is an unrepentantly horrible person, only redeemable by his intellect and way with words.  He demeans his nurse (Mary Wickes) a constant basis, scares the Stanley family out of their minds with his behavior, and has the gall to invite the murderers he has previously profiled over for dinner without the family’s knowing.  And through it all, Woolley’s performance is a riot, cracking jokes with a smirk so transparently false it raises the humor factor exponentially.

Of course, Woolley isn’t pulling the film by himself.  Well, actually, he is, but that the script’s fault.  The supporting cast members, while lacking the lead’s screen time, turn in outstanding performances as well.  Ruth Vivian is a nuanced sort of crazy as the Mr. Stanley’s strange sister Harriet, while Jimmy Durante pulls off the wacky obnoxiousness of Whiteside Hollywood actor friend Banjo.  The Man Who Came to Dinner boasts such a wide array of characters that to do all of them justice would take up the entirety of this article.

In addition, what makes the film laugh out loud hilarious is the patently absurd developments.  This is exactly the sort of Universe where a lecturer hosts a party of Chinese diplomats, fresh from the White House, as a world-renowned naturalist sends him an octopus as a present.  This is the sort of Universe where the small-town doctor (George Barbier) can write a memoir of his forty-year practice and try haplessly, for weeks, to get the lecturer to actually read it, while someone gets trapped in a sarcophagus.  It quickly becomes a live action cartoon, and the laughs just keep coming.  Only when Whiteside is around can such a bizarre, funny Universe exist.

Yet Whiteside’s self-centeredness and blatant disregard for decorum is what also what makes him so eminently detestable.  The thought of his trusted secretary quitting and marrying a Midwesterner of all people drives him to some terrible actions.  When Maggie gives him the play Bert’s been working on, Bert hatches a plan to break them up.  He calls up his seductive actress-belle Lorraine (Ann Sheridan) and asks her to “play the part” by seducing Bert.  It’s a plan which blows up in his face, and despite the repercussions, it’s one he shows little visible remorse for.

It doesn’t hurt that the relationship he wants to destroy is conveyed so beautifully.  Even though the smoky Bette Davis and the “aw, shucks” charm of Richard Travis would seem to occupy two mutually exclusive sets, their scenes together, spent ice-skating and enjoy hot sweet potatoes, develop a very believable romance.  I would believe that Maggie would spend her energy trying to get his play to Whiteside, and being so brokenhearted when she finds out what her boss has been up to.  It’s hard to think of two lovebirds that deserve Whiteside’s selfish behavior less.

Of course, The Man Who Came to Dinner has its problems, particularly with regards to initial believability.  I would get Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke) would be so honored to have such an illustrious intellect as Whiteside for dinner, but the way that Whiteside behaves, it’s a miracle that, hip injury or no, someone doesn’t immediately have him forcibly removed.  The film’s premise, like everything else in the picture, bears no resemblance to reality, but being the set up, it’s a bit harder to swallow than the rest.

Ridiculous setup aside, The Man Who Came to Dinner is movie well worth seeking out.  I have rarely laughed so loudly or so frequently; it’s right up there with Singin’ in the Rain in terms of sheer hilarity.  As long as the remorselessly, proudly unsympathetic comedy protagonist is not an immediate dealbreaker—and, admittedly, Woolley’s character is an especially unsympathetic one to swallow—then I can all but guarantee that you will find this movie a riot as well.  And remember: always be sure to salt your stairs, lest this man show up for dinner.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
Screenplay by Ubaldo Ragona, William Leicester, Furio M. Monetti, and Richard Matheson, based on the novel I Am Legend by Matheson
Runtime: 1 hr, 27 min

If you will recall, last year was a pretty big time for end of the world hysteria, what with the Mayan calendar and all.  But, as I like to say, we’ve been thinking about the end of the world since the beginning of it, so it should be no surprise that there have been a ton of movies on that subject.  Despite that, I’ve not seen too many films in that vein.  I guess the topic has never interested me that much.  That said, the little description of The Last Man on Earth found on TCM’s website was all that was needed to entice me into watching.

The picture opens in December 1968, three years after a killer bacteria wiped out all of humanity.  All, it seems, except for one man: Dr. Robert Morgan, played by Vincent Price.  We watch as Morgan tries to live a routine life while fighting off the horde of vampire zombies into which the bacteria has turned humanity.  Yes, this movie could probably be re-titled Vincent Price, Vampire Hunter, and if that doesn’t sound like the most awesome thing ever, then you and I will have a respectful disagreement on the matter.

And yet, The Last Man on Earth is not, in fact, the most awesome thing ever, even though just by its premise it should be.  The issue stems from the structure of the movie.  When we talk about a movie having a “three-act structure”, we speak of very arbitrary divisions within the film.  The Last Man on Earth is different in that the three acts are so clearly divided and so varied in both subject and quality that it feels like three different short films hastily cobbled together into a feature length picture.

The first act of the movie is easily the strongest, and it’s also the most adventurous.  The first half-hour of the film is dedicated to Morgan’s day-to-day existence, from wondering what he should have for breakfast to replenishing his supply of garlic to burning the bodies.  On top of that, there’s virtually no dialogue but rather a running inner monologue in Morgan’s head.  I appreciated just how quotidian this section was, giving the audience of good look into life so long after the end.  The film’s first line sums it up beautifully: “Another day to live through.  Better get started.”

But then, after a few days of Morgan’s life, the film enters a flashback to the events leading up to the outbreak.  Morgan was hard at work researching a cure for the disease, which was spreading through Europe and believed to be airborne.  He also has a family to think of: his wife, Virginia (Emma Danieli), and a young daughter (Christi Courtland), along with a friend named Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) who suspects that the disease not only kills people, but also turns them into the vampires.  Slowly but surely, it becomes clear that Ben was right.

There are so many things wrong with the section I’ll have trouble enumerating them.  Primarily, though, I feel that the presence of the flashback itself is a mistake.  The mundane beauty of the first act, the fact that Morgan treats the horde of vampires who want his blood as nonchalantly as possible, makes the back-story so much more mysterious.  That the second act gives pretty definitive answers as to what happened (at least in America) removes the element of the unknown and actually renders the first third of the film less enjoyable in retrospect.

On top of that, the second act is where the technically limitations of The Last Man on Earth are put front and center.  The film did not have very much of a budget, and does it show.  Most blatantly, the dubbing of the dialogue is off far too often to be a glitch; whoever was in charge matching words to lip movements fell asleep at the wheel.  And the acting leaves so much to be desired, most tragically from Price.  Price is great when giving voice-over in the movie, but his spoken dialogue is just pathetic, as if he’s reading from the script instead of conversing.

The final act returns to the present, and while I won’t go into too much detail, you could probably guess that this act contains the big action-packed conclusion.  Only, there’s precious little tension in the proceedings.  The obvious threat, the vampires, are shown in the first act to be so clumsy and slow that it’s no wonder that Morgan seems to think of them as a nuisance.  There is a far more menacing threat which appears in the third act, but their introduction is so rushed that there is no time to build them up as an enemy.

Given the strength of the first half-hour of the movie, I think it’s easy to see my overall frustration with The Last Man on Earth.  There is no good reason why the team involved should have dropped the ball so badly with the other sixty minutes.  And yet, that first act is so enjoyable and well played that I am tempted to recommend the film anyway—if only to get others to share in my disappointment.  Or, perhaps there’s this strategy: when the film starts to fade into the flashback, pretend it’s fading into the end credits.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain
Runtime: 1 hr, 47 min

Film noir is one of those genres (or styles, depending on who you ask) which is resolutely ingrained in the popular consciousness.  Everyone knows the tropes of the genre: the hard-boiled investigator, the femme fatale, the German Expressionist-inspired lighting, the use of voice-over narration and flashback.  Yet, honestly, I could count the number of films noir that I had seen on one hand.  So, in keeping with the blog’s recurring theme of filling in my film knowledge gaps, I decided it was time to finally tackle the granddaddy of the genre, Double Indemnity.

The film, as the title suggests, centers on the insurance industry.  Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a salesman for the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co.  At the start of the film, we see him confessing his a crime to a Dictaphone, which is revealed in flashback.  He stops by the Dietrichson house one day to attend to their automobile insurance policy.  However, he immediately falls for the smoky wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who is clearly unhappy with her marriage.  Despite initial reservations, Walter hatches a plan with Phyllis to kill her husband (Tom Powers).

“Calculating” is a good word to describe this movie.  This applies to both the film’s murder plot and its impeccable cast of characters.  The scheme Walter comes up with, and the execution thereof, is nothing short of brilliant.  On the night they put the murder plot into action, he leaves an airtight paper-trail to establish an alibi and handles obstacles deftly.  In addition, it is clear that Walter knows the ins and outs of the insurance industry.  This is the reason he convinces Phyllis that the staged accident should occur on a train, to collect on the double indemnity clause.

Walter is calculating in the sense of a tactician, but Phyllis’ calculations are in the forms of emotions.  Stanwyck’s tone of voice and facial expressions make it appropriately difficult to read her character.  There is lingering doubt throughout the film whether she legitimately loves Walter or if she is simply using him to achieve another end.  At times she is eager and passionate, while at others she maintains a cold, ice-water-veined distance.  It’s telling, perhaps, that she is most lively when revealing that her husband has just broken his leg and needs to take the train to Palo Alto.

Ultimately, however, it’s the broken leg that causes the scheme to unravel.  A co-worker of Walter’s, a claims adjuster named Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts to suspect that the Dietrichson case is not as cut and dry as the police seem to think.  At first, he’s tripped up by the fact that the husband, having accident insurance, never filed a claim after breaking his legs.  But the “little man” inside him—a gut feeling established early in the film—keeps nagging him until he suspects that the husband was killed by a duo: Phyllis and an unknown accomplice.

Keyes is easily the highlight of the film.  For one thing, he provides spectacular comic relief to the proceedings, something I’ve not seen much of in film noir.  His references to the little man and his ability to rattle off arcane suicide statistics lighten the tone at critical points.  For another, it’s not easy to tell just how much Keyes knows about the case, that is, whether or not he suspects Walter.  Because of his portrayal, I felt conflicted as to whether I was rooting for Walter to make a clean escape or for Keyes to get to the bottom of the Dietrichson case.

There is a subplot to Double Indemnity which, while integral to the resolution, is not given enough screen time to properly develop.  The husband has a teenage daughter from his first marriage, named Lola (Jean Heather).  Not only does she have a boyfriend her father doesn’t like (Byron Barr), but she also has some dirt on Phyllis which threatens to blow the scheme up all at once.  That Walter seems attracted to Lola presents further complications, but it’s a shame that neither Lola nor her boyfriend appear enough to feel any more than deadweight to the murder plot.

Of course, one cannot talk about a film noir without mentioning the stylistic elements.  The opening credits have a perfect backdrop: a silhouetted man on crutches slowly walking toward the camera lens, foreshadowing the events of the movie about to unfold.  The final confrontation between the leads in film in as close to pitch black as one can get, and Double Indemnity is known for its pioneering use of “venetian blind” lighting.  Overall, the film is as suspenseful to look at as it is to watch (if that makes any sense).

As I said, I’ve only seen a grand total of films noir, two of which (Mildred Pierce and D.O.A.) I’ve reviewed on this site.  As such, I can’t really speak to how well Double Indemnity stands up in the genre, but what I can say is that I don’t think I’ve seen one quite so suspenseful.  Combining the pure mystery-sleuth fun of D.O.A. with the emotional trauma of Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity is a must see picture which, if you are anything like me, will have you on the edge of the couch, wondering when exactly Keyes will see what’s right in front of him.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Passion of Anna (1969)

The Passion of Anna (1969)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Runtime: 1 hr, 40 min

A common thread among a good number of the reviews I’ve written for this blog is, “Hey, how is it that I’ve never seen a film by this director?”  This has been the driving force behind watching films from Buster Keaton, Vittorio De Sica, Francis Ford Coppola, and so forth.  Yet, if memory serves me right, I have most spoken that particular line regarding the renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.  So, by virtue of it being the one Bergman film available on Netflix Instant, let’s take a look at The Passion of Anna (original Swedish title: En passion, or A Passion)

The story begins with a man named Andreas (Max von Sydow), who lives a solitary life and is reeling from the recent dissolution of his marriage.  One day, he receives a visit from a young woman named Anna (Liv Ullman), whose husband—also named Andreas—was killed in a car accident while Anna was driving.  The two eventually strike up a relationship, both as romantic partners and as friends of another couple, Elis and Eva (Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson).  However, it soon becomes apparent that all is not well with any of the characters.

The Passion of Anna is definitely a character driven production, and what drives these characters remains ambiguous throughout.  However, if there were one word I could use to describe the cast of characters, then it would be “damaged”.  Everyone involved has a tragic back-story or gnawing guilt which renders them incapable of functioning in the present day.  Although they try their hardest to live with each other, all four of the leads are clearly repressing some aspects of their personality to get along in life.

As he gets the most screentime, von Sydow is best able to flesh out his character’s worries and frustrations.  Andreas places himself in a self-imposed isolation, rarely interacting with anyone else until he meets the other three characters.  He is an ex-convict and deeply humiliated regarding his failed marriage, and his worn-down facial expressions convey the stress which has been mounting within him.  Perhaps a bit too well, actually, for it makes his later, violently passionate reactions seem out-of-character.

For her part, Ullman excels in communicating her character’s baggage as well.  Unlike Andreas, whose pain is conveyed largely through silence, Anna demonstrates her inner turmoil through language.  Most telling is the scene in which she tells Andreas her version of events regarding the car crash.  Ullman’s bright blue pupils remain dilated throughout the speech, and she rarely blinks during her delivery, which itself is hushed and stilted.  It only gains vigor toward the end, as if Anna is attempting to convince herself of what happened.

The Passion of Anna does not focus too heavily on Elis and Eva except for the earlier scenes, so it’s not surprising that their motivations are the least developed.  Eva appears paranoid that her husband has become bored with her, and she seems to feel trapped in a now-unfulfilling relationship.  Elis, meanwhile, is a tougher nut to crack; he barely has a background.  Given how his unabashed sarcasm contrasts with the apparent earnestness of his counterparts, he could be the voice of reason in the movie, or simply hiding his own frustrations behind a wall of snark.

In addition to the main cast of four, there is a subplot involving an islander named Johan (Erik Hell), who is accused of committing a string of cruel acts on animals which have plagued the island.  Johan’s established past mental problems and his own bouts of isolation give the accusations some credence, and the way that Hell’s character reacts to the threats he has received as a result is masterful.  As with Elis’ sarcasm, the strong, almost stoic front which Johan puts up may serve as a barrier to his personal turmoil, and his arc reinforces the feeling of isolation which permeates the movie.

The acting in The Passion of Anna is all around superb, but I feel that the script has some serious flaws which detract from the experience.  For one thing, the characters are incredibly perceptive.  This isn’t just limited to discerning motivations; having emotional damage may be a justification for seeing through others’ baggage.  No, it extends to knowing things about the characters that the audience would never guess.  For instance, apropos of nothing, Elis guesses that Andreas has done time in prison, even though this fact has never been brought up at any point.  It’s as if they are reading ahead in the script.

For another, Bergman’s dialogue, while actually pretty good during the film’s early scenes, often feels clunky when it’s extended to monologues.  The philosophical musings he is fond of writing make sense when sprinkled in conversations or stated off-handedly, but too often the scenes between Andreas and Anna are so riddled with these deep thoughts that I lose all interest.  It’s not that the topic is necessarily dull; it’s that it doesn’t feel remotely like human dialogue, especially when it’s presented on screen like two disembodied heads having a debate.

From what I can gather, The Passion of Anna is not one of Bergman’s strongest pieces and likely serves as a poor entry point for the director’s work.  Had I the chance I probably would have started with The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries, based on reputation, but you take what you can get.  And I will say that The Passion of Anna is a powerful drama to behold, and that its conclusion is emotionally devastating.  I just wish that the stellar performances had been given a sturdier script to work with.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Directed by Buster Keaton
Story by Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman
Runtime: 45 min

Based on a brief glance at the title, one might expect that this review is a belated tribute to one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whose birthday was ten days ago.  However, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. has nothing to do with the classic series of detective stories—the almost-timing here is coincidence.  That said: it’s about time I finally saw a Keaton flick.  I’ve mentioned this before, but considering that I’ve seen at least one film each from Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, how could I neglect the third part of the silent comedy triumvirate?  So here we go!

In Sherlock, Jr., Keaton plays a movie projectionist who is in love with a charming girl played by Kathryn McGuire.  Keaton tries hard to win her affections, but he’s got a rival in the “local sheik” (Ward Crane), a man with a more dignified manner but far fewer scruples.  How unethical is this guy?  He steals a watch from the girl’s father (Joe Keaton) so he can pawn it off and buy the girl an expensive box of chocolate.  Then, when the father realizes his watch his missing, the sheik plants the pawn stub on poor old Buster, who then is banished from the girl’s house.  Now that’s just low.

You might be wondering, then, why on Earth this is called Sherlock, Jr.  After all, no one here works as a detective, right?  I’ll just let the opening intertitles let you in here: “There is an old proverb which says: ‘Don’t try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both.  This is the story of a boy who tried.  While employed as a motion picture operator in a small town theater he was also studying to be a detective.”  Cut to Keaton, reading a how-to book on crime-solving while wearing a fake mustache.

Yes, Sherlock, Jr. is a film which embraces the absurd and just runs with it.  Of course a projectionist is studying to be super-sleuth; what else would he be doing?  This absurdity permeates the entire film, coming to a head in the film's second half: a film-within-a-dream-within-a-film.  Keaton falls asleep while screening a movie called Hearts and Pearls, which has a plot similar to the crime he was framed for; he then imagines that he is in the movie, playing the detective, and dealing with characters that look suspiciously like people he knows.

This dream sequence allows the movie to pile two strange types of logic on-top of each other: dream logic and movie-editing logic.  Keaton is literally able to walk down the aisle and into the scene on screen (dream logic), but then must contend with abruptly changing scenery when the picture includes a match cut (movie-editing logic).  These sequences are the film’s funniest in terms of out loud laughing.  He’s barely got a chance to catch his breath after dodging a desert train before he gets hit with an ocean wave.

Yet—perhaps appropriately for a film starring “The Great Stone Face”—most of comedy in Sherlock, Jr. does not take the form of light-hearted belly laughs.  In fact, much of the humor is used to express sorrow and despair.  The most notable example comes early in the film.  Trying to spite his romantic rival, Keaton leaves a banana peel on the floor for him to slip on.  The sheik fails to step on it, and as a frustrated Keaton storms towards him and the girl, he slips on the peels and flips over.  Did I laugh?  Yes, but that was before the gravity of the situation set in.

I could go all day, though I fear I’m making this movie sound like an exercise in film theory, i.e., a chore.  Not the case, as Sherlock, Jr. is enjoyable in the all the conventional ways, as well.  The acting from both Keaton and McGuire drips with pathos, exuding disappointment and exuberance, betrayal and shock—and stoicism, to be sure.  And the physical comedy that Keaton performs is a clinic.  You can tell that he put his all into the stunt work, and it’s a sight to behold.  (In fact, he may have tried too hard: he fractured his neck during one sequence.  And still kept going.)

But what might be most outstanding about the film is just how tight it is.  Clocking in at less than forty-five minutes—barely feature-length, even for its time—Sherlock, Jr. wastes no time in story-telling and joke-making.  I must applaud it for taking such a simple story with such a short runtime and bringing it to life with spirited performances and perfectly paced gags.  It’s such a breezy little film, yet it never feels slight.  Not a single frame feels unnecessary; every single moment counts towards something, whether its plot, comedy or character.

Overall, I’d say that Sherlock, Jr. was a fine choice for a first Keaton picture.  Okay, who the hell am I to judge that?  I still would have to see The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Our Hospitality, etc. for coming to that sort of conclusion. Still, considering how short the runtime is and how funny and creative the comedy is, it’s a film that I can easily recommend.  It might even make a good introduction into the world of silent movies as a whole.  Really, the only thing that could make it better would be if Sherlock Holmes were actually a character.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, Suso D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri, based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini
Runtime: 1 hr, 29 min

In my hobby of watching classic cinema, one conclusion I have arrived at is that the most fragile situations are always the most heartbreaking.  Whether it’s the car engine sequence in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep or the slowly dissolution of the doorman’s psyche in The Last Laugh, nothing brings about depression quite like life slipping off the tightrope.  Today’s picture, the first picture to ever top the prestigious Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, most certainly fits into that particular mold.

The name of the film is Ladri di biciclette, literally Bicycle Thieves.  Though often translated into English as The Bicycle Thief, that title is a bit misleading; there is more than one such character in the film.  Our protagonist is Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a struggling family man in post World War II Rome, has just found work placing posters around the city.  It has given him the chance to provide for his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) and his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staioli).  On first day on the job, however, his bicycle is stolen; unless he can recover it, he is going to lose the position.

Losing the bicycle is devastating for Ricci.  That we see the build-up to moment makes it even more wrenching for the audience.  From the Ricci’s cramped quarters to the throng of people in the opening sequence desperate for work, the film’s universe is riddled with poverty.  Just acquiring the bicycle involves tremendous sacrifice for the family.  Ricci had previously pawned his bicycle, so Maria pawns off the bed sheets from her dowry to raise the money to buy it back.  Even then, they don’t get all that much from it: 7,500 lira, less than what Ricci would make in one month pasting up posters.

And then, in one fell swoop, it’s all for naught.  Someone pilfers the bicycle before Ricci can react.  It’s a position of hopelessness and weariness which Maggiorani portrays beautifully.  Despite, like the rest of the cast, being an amateur actor, Maggiorani's performace is completely convincing.  His demeanor is bleak throughout most of the film, oftentimes frustrated and occasionally rage-filled.  Yet, every once in awhile, he is able to reach down and find something, even the most insignificant thing, to smile about.

Equally as powerful is Staioli as Bruno.  Unlike his father, Bruno has yet to be beaten down by harshness of lower-class Italy.  He’s ecstatic to give his father’s bike a cleaning before his first day of work, and has the mental acuity to instantly recall the serial number when they go searching for it in the markets.  This is not to say that Bruno is never depressed.  Far from it—in fact, he probably has a wider range of emotions than Ricci.  He is the mirror for the audience, reacting to the plight of his father as best as someone his age can.  In this sense, then, Bruno is the heart of Bicycle Thieves.

As wonderful as the two leads are, the real star of the film is post-war Rome.  Virtually the entire city is in some way desperate.  The apartments are all cramped, the police are unresponsive and the unemployment office is in way over its head.  All of it beautifully photographed, with intimidating empty space for the exteriors and deep gray shadings indoors.  Some of it borders on expressionist, but grit underlines nearly every frame.  The Rome of Bicycle Thieves is most definitely the place where as stolen bike really is a matter of life and death.

Of course, good luck telling the picture’s aristocracy that.  Even more heartbreaking than the loss of Ricci’s bicycle, to me at least, is the indifference of the wealthy.  Two instances stand out.  First, when Ricci first reports his stolen bicycle to company, the man in charge just shrugs and tells him to look for it; when another worker asks what’s been lost, he replies, “Nothing.  Only a bicycle.”  There’s no reason for the boss to bother doing much, since there’s no shortage of unemployed men with bicycles.  What gets lost, though, is Ricci’s humanity.  Only a bicycle, indeed.

The second incident, involving Bruno, is even more gut-wrenching.  At one of the few happy sequences post-theft, Ricci and Bruno stop in a restaurant to get food.  The clientele is much for refined and the waiters clearly look down on the two.  But what is most unnerving are the looks that Bruno keeps getting from the rich family having lunch at the table behind them.  Ricci attempts to reassure his son, but their presence only reminds the father of all the money, of the promise of a stable life, that the stolen bicycle has robbed him of.

So, in conclusion: Bicycle Thieves is the sort of film that, when you've finished watching it, makes you hope somewhere in the back of your mind that you accidentally walk in front of a speeding train.  When even the momentary reprieves from the daily grind serve to remind the protagonists that their lives are broken, you know that the Earth is actually a cold dark place.  I cannot stress how moving Bicycle Thieves is as a motion picture.  Just make sure you keep several boxes of tissues on hand for the last ten minutes.  Fair warning to you, there.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Montenegro (1981)

Montenegro (1981)

Directed by Dušan Makavejev
Screenplay by Dušan Makavejev, Donald Arthur and Branko Vucicevic
Runtime: 1 hr, 31 min

I’m going to level with you here: I was kind of frightened to watch this film.  I’ve not watched any of Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev’s other films, but as a fan of the Internet video series Brows Held High, I did have a passing familiarity with his work.  From watching the episodes on W. R.: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie (both NSFW), I gleaned that Makavejev’s oeuvre was both nonsensical and sickening.  Yet, I had also heard good things about one of his more conventional films, so I took a deep breath, pressed play…and had a wonderful time.

Montenegro, despite the title, is actually set in Sweden, while the main character is an American.  Marilyn Jordan (Susan Anspach) is a frustrated and bored housewife, married to Swedish businessman Martin (Erland Josephson).  Marilyn feels trapped in her domestic life, but does not have proper way to vent her frustrations.  At first she engages in behavior that ranges from strange to borderline psychotic, which eventually raises Martin’s suspicions.  He has a psychiatrist (Per Oscarsson) analyze her, but it is to no avail.

I have not yet begun to describe this plot.  This is one element of Montenegro that delights me; the plot relies on so many ridiculous contingencies to move forward.  So: the Jordan family accidentally calls to two taxis to take Martin to the airport.  Marilyn decides to take the second in order to travel with Martin, but she gets detained by security over gardening shears.  She just so happens to meet a woman emigrating from Yugoslavia; with nowhere to go and not knowing Martin missed the flight waiting for her, she joins her party and ends up at “Zanzi-Bar”, a combination commune and strip-club.

A rational story, I’m sure you will all agree.  Yet insanity, both clinical and situational, lies at the heart of Montenegro.  Sometimes, it’s played for laughs, as is the case with the scenes at Zanzi-Bar, including a remote controlled tank with a phallus for a gun turret (I never thought I would have to write that).  But during the film’s first half, the madness draws sympathy.  The audience can tell that Marilyn is not happy with her husband and home life, but it is difficult to determine whether her attempts to poison the dog and set the bed on fire are acts of rebellion or of a woman losing her grip on reason.

Whatever state her character actually is in, I must argue for a round of applause for Anspach; her performance is phenomenal.  She embodies so many emotions all at once: delirium, anger, despair, curiosity.  Given both the loveless environment he lives in and the ridiculous world of Zanzi-Bar she moves into, such confused feelings are expected and delivered expertly.  Though her early scenes come close to being silly (the way she eats all the family’s Wiener schnitzel sticks out), Anspach is consistently a fascinating screen presence.  The other players are wonderful, too, but all pale in comparison.

Aside from the group of Yugoslav immigrants, why is this movie is called Montenegro?  It turns out that a man who calls himself Montenegro (Svetozar Cvetkovic) becomes Marilyn’s love interest over the course of the film.  Cvetkovic is one of the weaker actors in the film, and the chemistry between Montenegro and Marilyn is very shallow, but that’s kind of the point.  Montenegro is Marilyn’s sexual liberator; he is largely an object of lust that gives her an avenue to express her own frustrations, but it is abundantly clear that any future between the two would not end well.

Given the lustiness of their scenes together, it’s surprising that the consummation of Marilyn and Montenegro’s attraction is not the most explicit part of the film.  Then again, at least compared to what I’ve seen of W. R. and Sweet Movie, I was shocked by how restrained Montenegro is.  There is no nudity whatsoever until the start of the third act, and even then it only pops up sporadically.  A sequence involving the phallic tank and a stripper at Zanzi-Bar does carry a lot of connotations of sexual assault, but it’s clearly part of an act and the rest of the film is rather tame.

Makavejev does make some choices in the picture that don’t quite work.  For one, the use of Marianne Faithfull’s version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”—written by Shel Silverstein of all people—is, while, thematically appropriate, far too on the nose play over the opening credits.  Also, there’s this odd international motif in the film which Makavejev plays up: an American woman, living in Sweden, meets a group of immigrants from Yugoslavia who live in Zanzi-Bar and for some reason flew there on a Japan Airlines flight.  Maybe Makavejev had a grand statement in mind, but the juxtapositions are just off.

Those, obviously, are nitpicks.  Montenegro is such an enrapturing film that I kind of feel guilty for being so skeptical of it.  Makavejev knows how to get the pathos out of film and while he has an affinity for the weird, the bizarre, and the use of gratuitous nudity, his finished product is never boring but always enticing.  This doesn’t mean that I’m in any rush to watch Sweet Movie; filmed defecation is several lines too far.  But I definitely come out this experience respecting him as a storyteller.