Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012)

“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.”

Lawless is not a great film. In fact it takes about thirty minutes for the film to hit its stride, shortly after Forrest (Tom Hardy) recites the above quote, to his brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and a change in the pace of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score.

The story isn’t much new, and the editing is strange at times. It confuses perspective, rather than assisting it, giving it depth. It’s slow and it’s stagnating, which doesn’t quite work. I was missing the speed of Boardwalk Empire, which itself went so quickly at times it was hard to follow. Yet that was part of the point of Boardwalk Empire, and the show’s speed assisted it. Here, it’s confusing anyway.

A voiceover in the second half, that he’d heard there were problems in the country but was having the time of his life, is accompanied by a shot of homeless families waiting by the side of the highway, a billboard in the background declaring “highest standard of living”. It’s the failure of the American Dream motif, shoved right up in our faces. Perhaps it’s meant to be funny. In fact, maybe the whole selection of cliches are meant to be humorous, but the film doesn’t own its humour. It’s obvious, it’s clunky, it’s ludicrous. There’s a strange imbalance of restrained and saturated realism.

Then there’s the introduction to the final sequence where all the main men are “preparing” themselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a man preparing for battle on screen but it would certainly be more times than I’ve seen a woman…putting on makeup, for example. Speaking of, that didn’t even happen here, although Mia Wasikowska did change into a new dress, and Jessica Chastain showed her collarbone.

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There’s a quite nice moment, after Forrest has had his throat slit. He falls and stares, rigid, up at the moon, which compares to the headlights of Maggie’s car as she drives back to save him. It’s nice; nothing special.

Jessica Chastain is probably the only thing worth seeing this for, but maybe see something which she’s actually *in* more of instead.

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The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949)

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The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949) contains some expectedly poor-taste jokes, like one that men find it hard to tell women apart at parties, which is actually rather funny in the way the joke is executed through the film although I have a problem with it in principal – but, you know, showbiz. I suppose that Oscar Levant can pull of pretty much anything, including being a deadpan, womanising producer and a killer on the piano keys. And that a wife is always more submissive to a man’s mood than vice versa. But Billie Burke is superb as a party-maker, especially in the first scene where she wears a pink dress much like hers in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), but without so much tulle.

While MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway is almost nothing compared to Astaire and Rogers’ 1930s musicals at RKO, it’s great to see them dancing together again. One of the non sequitur dance numbers in their show, “My One and Only Highland Fling”, is a hoot. But their tap dance rehearsal to “Bouncin’ the Blues”, when Rogers is wearing a marvellous pair of slacks, is just superb. In over two minutes, there are only two cuts, not including one after five seconds of intro music. The first cut takes us to a tighter medium close up of the couple during a spin move, and the second cuts to a crane shot that gives perspective on the stage space and then pans down to level with the dancers. It’s really a breathtaking scene, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off Rogers — not unusual, as I mostly watch her in their numbers, but she just so suits this relaxed tap feel. It’s my favourite moment in this film, when Rogers and Astaire never quite reach the same level of charm as in their earlier films.

Then there a ludicrous scene where an eccentric European artist reveals his impression of the Barkleys as…a pancake in a frying pan. The artist suggests that Josh (the pan, naturally) is in his impression like Svengali — “the man with the beard” he remembers, as he strokes an imaginary one on his own chin — but what it is really suggestive of is Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein’s, of course. Dinah is the pancake, because she’s shaped by her husband’s excessive talents or something as uninspiring as that.

Josh is a pig, telling Dinah that she’s talentless. They separate, they get lonely, and a plot of deceit begins which of course is ultimately forgiven. Astaire sings George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, and they dance it beautifully, repeating a musical union from Shall We Dance (1937) when they didn’t dance!

Josh gets all gallant at the end, and says that Dinah could be great in the part — any part at all — but that Jacques doesn’t know how to direct her. So he wants to help her, and so the final act begins. But see, he was the one being the arsehole to her about her talents in the first place, so I just don’t buy it. He never apologises, but they reach an understanding and fall in love again, which in the end, is the utopian goal of the musical that breeds such desire for its own ending. As entertainment, anyway, in the way Richard Dyer sees it. (In large part, in the sense that the film presents complex feelings “in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid,” apart from an intriguing attention to the fact that Dinah and Josh are merely separated and this is unpleasant for them both.) Earlier in the film, Jacques criticises Dinah’s acting ability and approach to her part, scowling, “This is not a musical comedy, it’s a legitimate play.” It’s the ultimate jerk move, because he has cruel intentions. But Rogers is not actually a great dramatic actress, or at least, not a great melodramatic actress — ie. when she is called on to make dramatic turns in comedies. Early in this film when she has to cry, I’m reminded of her joyous but somewhat pained stint as a “teenager” in Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952), when all she really does is pout and whinge. In something like Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951), both Rogers and Doris Day are excellent.

In the end when there are multiple misunderstandings and pretending while the other person knows, and doesn’t know, and double pretending, and then one of those final killer lines when Ginger says she doesn’t want to do any more plays because “no more worrying about the plot” which could be easy to take offence to given the line listed above, but it’s all in good fun and yes, kind of true. Apologies to Richard Dyer for over-simplifying his argument. I was at a conference in the USA in October, and Brent Phillips presented work from his then-upcoming book on Walters, Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

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Film Noir Dreamscapes

I stopped a film noir midway through this afternoon to have a nap, and had a dream to rival one of Adrian’s! I entered into the dream smack bang embroiled in the slowly brewing action, involved with a man in a sharp suit, and a large bag filled with a lot of money. Clearly, these plot elements entered my subconscious directly from the film I had stopped, Killer Bait a.k.a. Too Late For Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949). The film “stars” Lizabeth Scott as the femme fatale who has an okay role as a woman who drives her own life, murdering her husband while desperate for money, but can’t act for peanuts. (“You know, tiger? I didn’t know they made ’em as beautiful as you, and as smart. Or as hard,” says Dan Duryea, absolutely one of my favourite eager slime balls and an actor that Farran Nehme describes as “one of the movies’ most reliable sadists.”) I had been given a large brown leather gladstone bag filled with money, in an underground car garage in somebody else’s apartment building, although the details of my obtaining this bag are hazy. I’m sure that’s what I told the crook who was after me, too. I met this man later that night, or perhaps early the next morning, on the corner of a street, tightly surrounded by canted buildings and streets, and I new he was about to shoot me. I stuttered, and eyed the gun he held at his right hip. I said, “I’ll never give you the money,” and then people started appearing on the streets in their dressing gowns, anxious to eye off the disturbance in the neighbourhood. And he couldn’t kill me in plain sight! His gun disappeared and I ran. At home, in my small apartment, I plugged in and opened my laptop, as I most often do, and went to work cooking up a recipe of explosives (I hope with several slugs of whiskey at my disposal). I looked up minutes later to see that above the table, the devices attached power system had caught fire as it had overheated. I grabbed whatever glasses of water I could from the clutter on the bench, refilling a few more and put out most of the fire, slapping the table hard to abolish the final simmering flames. Then I looked down to the floor, and a mysterious steam was drifting from the cords at the power source, blocking out whatever power source there might have been from visibility. It was almost something like the heavy fog from Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), or Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), something sinister brewing from an evil source. Perhaps Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Surely this was the end of me?!

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But then I awoke. I’m sure this dream was also influenced by my leaving our house yesterday due to visible smoke from a nearby (very small) bushfire — I don’t often have dreams so elaborate or vivid. When I awoke from this dream I had an update from the CFA that the fire in question was expected to be controlled by this evening; also, to a large storm that had descended on the city. Strong, loud wind is careening outside my building, and the sea has changed colour from a sparkling blue to a dark slate, as it does when the blue sky disappears and clouds turn grey. Clusters of sea vapour are forming above the ocean’s surface, carrying with the wind. Hopefully this arrival of a storm won’t mean more lightning-activated bush or grass fires, although I think a few more have started. Anyway, here’s to more vivid, noirish dreams like this one!

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Taxi!

Everyone loves a film with an exclamation mark in the title. I do, anyway.

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The poster doesn’t have one, but the title card in the film print does. Taxi! (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) starts off by being rather inaudible. At first this seems like it could be simply a product of Warner Bros’ Vitaphone mono sound recording practice, that could be victim to quite a bit of distortion. But this is a perhaps thematic and plot-driven distortion. After an audiovisual cross-section of a Manhattan street with the title Taxi! plastered across the screen, and the typical overhead shot of skyscrapers, a newspaper closeup reveals WAR DECLARED! (‘rival taxicab companies  contest bitterly for city’s business’), over which something screeches harshly. It’s like a telephone or radio signal that’s horribly blocked. From the next shot, it is revealed to be the voltage from a mechanic’s welding operation as he puts the finishing touches on some taxicabs. Then in the following scene, James Cagney’s taxi driver and baby-faced  thug, Matt Nolan, speaks to a potential passenger in Yiddish for quite a while — untranslated. It doesn’t really matter than we can’t understand what he’s saying — he’s just hanging about in the bustle of the city.

The film has some great lines, and some great scenes for the early 30s. Loretta Young plays Sue Riley, and her best friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) declares: “I’ll marry any guy that’s got a clean car and shirt. And if it comes to a pinch I’ll marry him without the shirt.” Her character is played for laughs, targeted as more pathetic than, say, Una Merkel in any number of her sidekick roles, but very funny. And Sue is stalwart and single, too, until Matt Nolan seduces her. With a sly turn, we don’t see the seduction. One scene has Matt declare, “I wouldn’t go for that dame if she was the last one on earth. And I just got out of the navy,” and then next has them an item. Later there’s a cute snippet of Cagney doing some impromptu living room tap-dancing to impress her, alongside the sprightly George E. Stone.

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Aside from the script, there’s footage of a brightly lit Times Square, complete with animated light advertising, and a typical shot of a cross section of a Brooklyn street and a rail overpass. Much of this could be real. Then, a shot of an underground subway station, and photography inside a subway car, with light flashing by outside the windows in a way that it never really does in a subway tunnel. This is obviously a set, and one used in other films, too —  and there are some terrific scenes of dancing, drinking, indulgence, in the interior of a nightclub, and some great shadows.

Of course, as with an unfortunate number of men from that era, although more so in that this particular one is James Cagney, Matt Nolan is an absolute arsehole. It’s horrible how much Sue forgives him. It’s a fun film otherwise, but the relationship dynamic kind of makes it much harder to forgive, from this side of the screen.

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Manhattan Melodrama (“Can I have a hot dog?”)

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Manhattan Melodrama (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934) begins with a formative moment in the lives of two young boys, Blackie Gallagher and Jim Wade, in which they lose their parents in a maritime disaster. Later, during a group meeting to rally the troops for revolution (“Trotsky’s getting’ wilder every year”, a listener scoffs), the Russian immigrant father figure who came to their rescue (George Sidney) goes on an anti-Russia tirade bolstering the American dream, blasting Russia for giving him nothing and praising America for servicing his basic human rights. Mid-speech, his Slavic lilt falters and the actor’s American accent takes over — “woik”, he says. Another accuses, “You dirty capitalistic stoolpigeon!” and a brawl breaks out. It’s all very transparent but you can say one thing for co-writer Joseph L Mankiewicz: his sure demonstrates his sharp talent for expressionistic dialogue.

When Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and their thuggish companion venture out to Gable’s new yacht, the thuggish companion stares out to the bay and says, “Them ships don’t look real.  They look like etchings drawn against the sky.” (“Why Spud, there’s a bit of poet in you.”) It’s great insurance against their set design — although James Wong Howe does an excellent job, as always, of photographing the film. There’s more humour, later: just before Gable murders a notorious yet weaselly welsher, he says, “You better cross yourself, Manny, and make it double. Because this is once you double crossed yourself.” It’s a great line, especially when spoken with Gable’s slick tone.

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The scene in the coffee club, when William Powell — the childhood friend — and Loy are waiting for Blackie, Shirley Ross sings “The Bad in Every Man” with a backup orchestra and fancy, floating camera, that gets in to the groove of the song. The scene is one of those “meaningful” scenes, of course, and later Loy gives up Gable for Powell, the “better man”. The lyrics of the song are excellent, as is the tune — after the film’s release it was rewritten as “Blue Moon”. I’ve never been a fan of the rewrite, but the original here is too good to pass by.

Arthur Caesar won the Academy Award for Best Story, but by now, these things aren’t too original. The plot elements become obvious before they’ve hardly begun to roll out. Two men, friends since childhood and closer than brothers, head down different life paths, and ironically, bitterly, one’s success depends on the other’s downfall. Both make sacrifices for the other until there’s nothing left to sacrifice. And in this ultimately uplifting, very moralistic picture, Clark Gable is more of a good sport about heading to the chair than James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1937). “I’m just a no good guy, that’s all,” Gable chirps up, matter of factly. But then MGM had to slap something on, given that this was released at the beginning of the heaviest censorship cycle in Hollywood — in the first few months of the Hays Code. Couldn’t let a man get away with murder, and had to give the Catholics something for allowing a man and woman to broadcast their sin. So he died a noble hero, and a happy one; up until Carole Lombard was killed and his life shattered, that was just about all Hollywood allowed him to be.

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The Little Foxes

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An early scene in The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) features Birdie Hubbard (Patricia Collinge) sitting in her house, alone at the table, after the husband and son she doesn’t love have left her for the bank they both work at. Framed with the table in front of her, and staircase behind, she sits below a birdcage, which has a little birdie flitting about inside the bars. An obvious metaphor, the birdcage is still a powerful figure to provide a parallel visual to a woman trapped by society and expectation. But there is more, in the case of Birdie’s entrapment. She must suffer the punishing comments and intimidation of her sister in law, Regina Giddens (Bette Davis).

Regina is a bitter woman, whose eyes flicker with hatred. She is as excellent as so many Bette Davis characters are, and her eyes flickers as much as any of her characters should. The moment in the film’s final chapters when she pauses, as though she is really shamed by her estranged husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) and genuinely scared that she will be left with nothing. It’s not only her eyes that betray her but her entire body, which tightens back into her armchair and grips against its form. For a long time, her demeanour doesn’t change, except that, perhaps, she seems to be getting more and more fearful. Then she acts; her eyes widen and she darts out of her chair, shouting for the housekeeper; a complete reversal from the still, silent, listening body of only a moment before. It is a powerhouse Bette moment.

The film is one that is defined, visually, by Wyler’s use of thirds to divide up the frame.  This is largely spatial, with the large houses of the aristocratic South set up perfectly for such shots. As well, though, these shots always pit one person against another, or leave them excluded. It’s a technique that travelled with him through his career, threaded through even until Funny Girl in 1968. He wasn’t entirely happy with Davis’ performance, with whom he had worked before with great results (on Jezebel [1938], The Letter [1941],  but Wyler certainly makes a good film.

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The final set of thirds is this; Regina withdrawing into the shadows. Is she now trapped? Only by what she has done herself. Not surprisingly, because Bette Davis is the star with whom we should associate and because Marshall, extremely pleasant as always, does not have enough screen time, I want her to succeed. It is her versus her even more vulgar brothers, after all; more vulgar because they they possess the automatic privilege of their gender, or of what society is able to provide to their gender. Regina, along with Birdie, is alone, behind bars.

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Casque D’or

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It took a little while for Casque D’Or (Jacques Becker, 1952) film to lure me in. At first I was confused by the many male characters all rotating in the same criminal circuit, and the particular roles they played. (Their clothing is nice, though, and the super rich one wears great suits.) But at the end of the film’s first act, when Manda (an endearing Serge Reggiani) murders a gang rival with another man’s very swish switchblade, I was drawn in.

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I was also not entirely happy with Simone Signoret in the part of Marie until a particular moment, surely intended to draw in any stragglers, when I became besotted with her. She lays a trap for Manda, in search of a hideout, to recapture the flame they kindled earlier. He believes he’s waiting for a friend, falls asleep on the deserted banks of a river, and is woken by Marie in the gentlest, most adorable fashion. He wakes, and we get a POV shot as he sees her, his eyes, still foggy with sleep, against the glaring sun. To Manda, she is perfection, an angel rescuing him, or joining him, in his fugitive life.

Becker represents their reunion with his typical joyous humour and tenderness. Manda and Marie spend much of the film then sharing blissful love in a peaceful French countryside setting. There are some cute pompom slippers, cups of coffee, and a very comfortable bed. Until, of course, jealousy rears its head and the tragedy becomes inevitable. Manda is lured away from Marie, giving himself up to the police as murderer to save his friend, Raymond, who has been wrongfully arrested. And even though the capital punishment is lined up for him, Becker’s treatment of the subject makes it fall heavily, like the drop of the guillotine. Manda’s final triumph, although he is sure to die, is to shoot the man who double-crossed them all — after he begs for his life.

Marie’s resolved involvement in the final murder demonstrate her acceptance of her lover’s place in the world — his preordained role not only as one who exists in but also as one who perpetuates the role of the masculine defender. She climbs the stairs of a hotel nearby the prison, where the proprietor clearly knows she has a fine view of the guillotine and provides a viewing platform often. Marie watches the blade fall on her lover’s neck — we see him struggle as he is lain down, but we are watching Marie’s desperate face when the thud sounds. While she lives in a man’s world, her suffering, and her bravery, is what matters to Becker.

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