Monday, August 31, 2009

The Red Shoes (1948) - #44

Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by... but the red shoes dance on.

Before getting into my comments on Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes, I want to get a little autobiographical here and reflect on where I'm at in this blogging project with 75 reviews on this site since I started in January 09. August will prove to be my least prolific month of watching and writing about Criterion DVDs. That's partly because I was out of town on vacation for a week and had lots of other summertime stuff competing for attention. I expect that my life and schedule will be just as busy as we get into the fall, so I will probably have to scale back my goal of 120 reviews this year (which I mentioned in a comment awhile ago,) But I'm also finding the films growing in complexity and requiring more time for me to absorb their content and think through all the stuff I want to say here.

The Red Shoes is a good case in point. Back when my approach to Criterion was more scattershot and I focused mainly on films that held an obvious, overt appeal to me, The Red Shoes didn't register on my list of "must sees," let alone eventual purchases. I remember an occasion some months ago when the film showed on TCM and I had nothing else to do and could have watched it for free. I tuned in for a few minutes but soon lost interest, not for any particular reason other than I didn't think there was much chance that the movie would pay off the investment of a couple hours. I mean, it's a ballet flick, for cryin' out loud. Even though I'd heard about the gorgeous use of color, how it had inspired Martin Scorcese and others to make movies, generated a strong cult following and even kicked off a wave of dance-school registrations for a generation of girls in the late 40s and early 50s, none of that convinced me that The Red Shoes was right up my alley. Even though I'm not the overly macho knuckle-dragging type myself (if I were, I wouldn't be this deep into art house cinema, obviously!), I'm still a straight guy who likes sports, lives and works in a fairly "traditional values" subculture, who's never had much interest in dance as an art form (other than a brief childhood fascination with old Busby Berkeley musicals, but even that was more about the kaleidoscopic visual effects of the production than the physical techniques involved.) I mean, I respect the discipline, talent and skill involved to succeed as a professional dancer, and when I happen to stumble upon some kind of dance exhibition, it's easy enough for me to find plenty to appreciate. But professionally choreographed dance, in and of itself, has simply never drawn me in. I've seen it more as an accent, a sidenote that makes an entertainment offering more entertaining, but not as the main thing itself.

Why would that be the case? I suppose it's that I never really learned the vocabulary of dance, so when that's the primary visual medium of telling a story, it requires more thinking and figuring it out for myself than I'm accustomed to in my usual choice of entertainments. I also have to acknowledge an aversion to the effete reputation and mannerisms associated with ballet, especially the men's parts. Probably some residual homophobic biases from my youth that I still have to work through - just trying to be honest here... and I suppose that watching The Red Shoes and other gay-affirming films found throughout the Criterion Collection is good exercise for me toward that goal. This isn't a film that addresses sexual orientation questions head-on; we're still in cultural 1948 here and taboos against open treatment of the subject are still in effect, requiring an indirect, even subliminal approach. But in any case, I present these thoughts for the benefit of any guys like me (or anyone else) who sizes up The Red Shoes and wonders if an apparently dance-focused, melodramatic chick flick is really worth the time and effort. My verdict on that is, emphatically, YES. You can be a sports-watching, beer-chuggin', middle American, self-secure heterosexual dad who occasionally cleans his ears with his car keys and still find a lot to admire and enjoy about this movie. I should know - I'm one!

But to get there, you have to PAY ATTENTION. As with all the other Archers films, this is a film that returns dividends the more you invest in it. And the extra features on this early Criterion disc happily show you the way.

The story begins with a clamoring crowd of young people ready to bang down the doors of an English music hall, so eager they are to immerse themselves in... ballet! I couldn't help but think of the opening of A Hard Day's Night, filmed just 16 years later, when a new generation of British youth were set to screamin' by the power of music... only those kids didn't stop once the band struck up a tune. Within a few minutes, all the main characters are introduced to us and we soon enter into the backstage scene of a world-class dance troupe, the Ballet Lermontov, led by an aristocratic tyrant Boris Lermontov, played by the great Anton Wolbrook, who we've met in more sympathetic roles assigned to him in 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Here he epitomizes Euro ultra-sophistication, a zealously single-minded aristocratic aesthete with no time or concern for the fragilities of human relationships, especially those of the more intimate sort. He sees love and empathy as dangerous rivals for the attention of those rare few who are gifted enough to take their artistic disciplines to the highest level, and considers ballet his religion. His mission is not to cultivate a vulgar popular appreciation for dance or to help mediocre talents work their way toward competence. Rather, he sets out to sift the continent looking for diamonds and pearls among the rubble and place them in settings worthy of their artistic calling. Anyone who no longer fits his plans is swiftly and coldly discarded - he has no time for pity. Though he is generally very icy and serious, we do see him happy on a few occasions, invariably only when he has found a few morsels of artistic ecstasy capable of satisfying his appetite for the sublime.

Into his realm, two young people arrive: Vicky Page, an aspiring ballerina, ward of a wealthy patron of the arts, and Julian Craster, a music student just beginning to establish himself as a composer. Lermontov takes them both into his company, feeds ever so slightly their ambitions, then plucks their fruit when he sees it ripening to his liking. He enlists Julian to first revise, then completely rewrite music for a ballet, The Red Shoes, based on Hans Christian Anderson's story of enchanted slippers. Vicky is quickly cast into the lead role in that same production after he determines that she shares, or at least approaches, his devotion. This clip splices together a few scenes, beginning with Lermontov's meeting with Vicky to tell her she's been chosen and the requisite "rehearsal" scenes that transport us from dreams, through drudgery sweat and toil, to glory under the lights.

Probably needless to say, she succeeds brilliantly in her debut, delighting the audience and the critics, but most importantly, Lermontov himself, who now realizes that he has a disciple capable of becoming a prima ballerina under his tutelage.

So far, we have a pretty conventional showbiz story, even if it takes place in a rather regal, stylish, high society milieu (filmed in gloriously gaudy Technicolor, on location in London, Paris and Monte Carlo.) The challenge for Powell and Pressburger, when the movie arrived at this crucial juncture of depicting just how wonderfully Vicky danced in her big moment on stage, was that it's very difficult to convince a general audience of rubes like myself that her balletic moves are truly that much better than any other dancer they might have cast in the role. The Archers could never be content just having her run through the performance and show the crowd bursting into applause in the pedestrian manner of so many other musical biopics or variations on A Star Is Born. Their ambition is to present to us a more subjective meditation on the experience and meaning of artistic creation. In the following video clips, you can see the film's centerpiece, the Ballet of the Red Shoes, picking up right where the above clip left off. It begins as a conventional documentary of performance, but look for the amazing way the visuals (still breathtaking and surprising today despite all the advances of our CGI-era) bring us into Vicky's inner world as we continue observing her from the outside but begin to experience the dance as she herself might feel it...

Part 1 Part 2 Sorry, I couldn't embed them here!

Now the music and pictures, as pretty as they are, didn't fully communicate Vicky's point of view across to me, I have to admit. I was still a bit clueless about what was going on with her until I was able to hear audio track #3 on the DVD, actor Jeremy Irons reading from a corresponding passage in Powell and Pressburger's 1967 novelization of The Red Shoes. I guess I'm still hung up relying on words to some extent to get the drift! But what a nice bonus that is to have that resource at our disposal - an excellent demonstration of the unique opportunity that the DVD medium brings to understanding cinema.

What I learned in that passage was also spelled out in other ways throughout the course of the movie - that the red shoes, a symbol of the eternal and compelling role that art plays in human existence, have a power of their own that is capable of taking us to exalted heights of experience, but also of overwhelming and burning us out in the process. I imagine that this is something that Powell, Pressburger and the other creative minds who worked on this film discovered themselves in the process of their own dedicated efforts. The dramatic tension in the film arises when Vicky falls in love with Julian and faces the vexing choice between domestic comforts and the rigorous dedication needed to achieve artistic excellence. Admirably, the Archers don't make the choice easy for us. Just when we are gnashing our teeth at Lermontov's stubbornly inhuman rigidity in the face of young love and human nature, we come to realize what an insufferable simp Julian really is and what a mistake Vicky would be making to squander her talents on a moody sulker who doesn't fully appreciate her gifts. I won't be so brash as to outright spoil the ending for you, but I'll just say that the overall storyline bears a remarkable (and not so coincidental) resemblance to what happens in the ballet. Is that giving away too much? :o)

As I've reflected a bit on The Red Shoes over the past few days, I see some natural reasons why Powell and Pressburger decided to make a film about dance, and ballet in particular. The two disciplines share much in common, even though the differences between them are also numerous and obvious. Each require a lot of planning and choosing from an infinite number of possibilities to tell their story. They are large scale productions involving a host of subordinate disciplines, and each take place within a discreet time frame as they invite their audiences into fictive worlds that shed a unique light on both the shared world we mutually inhabit and move within, and our more private inner lives where dreams, emotions and imagination shape our interpretations of experience. And of course, ballet simply offers a vivid, picturesque and exciting milieu in which to tell a story. Others more knowledgeable on the subject than I can fill you in on the historic background and parallels to Diaghilev and Nijinsky (mere names to me, I know next to nothing about them, and I don't expect that I'll be delving a lot deeper into the world of ballet anytime soon either.) What I can say though is that The Red Shoes is a film of great heart, depth and soul. I can easily see myself popping it in some mid-December Sunday afternoon as a refreshing viewing alternative after I've glutted myself on football. That's about as ringing an endorsement as this armchair cultural commentator from working-class suburbia has to offer!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Oliver Twist (1948) - #32

There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear, which is very interesting. He'd make a delightful mute.

I'm trying to mentally conceive the state of the British film scene in 1948 that would lead two of its leading directors to delve back into the past glories of English literature as the foundation for success with movie-going audiences of their times. That's what happened when Laurence Olivier took the Shakespearean route and made Hamlet as his follow-up to Henry V, while David Lean opted for a double-dip of Dickens when he released Oliver Twist on the heels of Great Expectations. Can you imagine something like that happening nowadays? I know that Shakespeare-on-film enjoyed a brief revival in the mid/late 90s (culminating with the dubious Oscar bestowed upon Shakespeare in Love) but that trend has died down considerably over the past decade. And Dickens is strictly relegated to longish made-for-TV mini-series, the better to incorporate all the odd characters, plot twists and period detail that today's Dickens aficionados crave when sitting down to see the visualization of his classic novels. Perhaps Shakespeare and Dickens served as a kind of cultural rallying point for British audiences in that postwar era, as they came to grips with the fact that the old Empire would never quite be the same. Or maybe it's just as simple as the equations drawn up by today's film studios that green-light what seem to be as close to "sure things" as they can figure; if Shakespeare and Dickens were hits in 1944 and '47 (respectively) then, by Gadfrey, they'd be sure to come back for more of the same in 1948!

Well, I'm just glad that Lean and Olivier weren't caught up in some version of a knuckle-headed 1940's "Fast & Furious" franchise, or its equivalent, because their reliance on superior source material, coupled with their indisputable talents, resulted in a pair of films that went on to earn popular and critical acclaim. Hamlet did better in raking in the awards, but Oliver Twist gives the brooding Dane a strong challenge when it comes to evocative characters, vividly imagined settings and sheer cinematic intensity. Having never seen this film before viewing it over the past several days, I have to say that I was genuinely startled by some of the in-your-face techniques that Lean employed, and the ferocious acting as well.

Not only was I unfamiliar with this film, I really didn't know much about the story of Oliver Twist either. Unlike Great Expectations, with which I was greatly familiar from having read the novel and seen several film versions, for whatever reason, Oliver Twist never drew me in. Maybe it was my early childhood repulsion at the musical treatment Oliver!, which turned me off as a kid because I didn't like the idea of watching a bunch of prancing, dancing street urchins carrying on for the amusement of adults. Or perhaps it was just the sense that the novel Oliver Twist was just another variation on Dickens' theme of hard-luck kids who experience some tough knocks in life but go on to meet happy endings after all. Or that I was never assigned to read it in the course of my formal education. I dunno. But a few simple details of the story filtered into my consciousness over the years: Oliver was born into poverty, lived in an orphanage and got in trouble when he asked for a second helping of gruel. He made his way to the slums of London where he fell in with a gang of crooked boys, including the Artful Dodger who was an excellent pickpocket and wore a big hat, and Fagin, a miserly Jewish scoundrel who simultaneously protected and exploited his rascals to suit his own greedy ambitions. I knew nothing about Bill Sykes, his dog, or Nancy. So this story was all pretty new to me, perhaps more so than to the average viewer.

Anyway, the film itself has a lot to offer if you're ever in the mood to pay a virtual visit to some of the grimiest, darkest, dreariest Victorian slumscapes ever put on film. People who appreciate frames full of high-contrast black and white cinematography, with rich depth of detail and a masterful blend of sight and sound will find it easy to get lost in the twisting alleys, musty stairwells and cavernous interiors assembled for the project. Here's a film clip, the transitional scene that shows Oliver running away from the Sowerberry home, where he's been abused and neglected in his apprenticeship to an undertaker. Check out the merry chaos of the marketplace and feel the tension mount as the Artful Dodger and Oliver weave their way through the maze that leads to Fagin's lair!

Lean is not content though to merely create a skillful illusion of 19th century London - on several occasions, he takes a very aggressive approach (compared to other films of this era, anyway) of putting the viewer directly into a first person role with his camera, so that we're taking punches to the face, being dragged by the hand into perilous surroundings, getting woozy and collapsing from dehydration and more. The effect creates a sense of empathy for Oliver and immediacy of experience that I imagine must have startled some in its audience, especially if they, like me, were expecting a story a bit more on the safe and sentimental side than what Oliver Twist delivers - and as for me, I enjoyed the shock!

The casting was uniformly on target, with all of the major and minor characters hitting their marks, and several performances rising to the level of what I consider definitive for the roles, with the aforementioned caveat of my prior unfamiliarity with the original source. The comic players, like Francis Sullivan as Mr. Bumble and the old codger who frequently mentioned his willingness to eat his head in the event of some improbable occurrence, easily met my expectations of always finding plenty of amusing eccentrics in a Dickens tale. And of course they found talented boys to play Oliver and the Dodger - but my highest praise goes to the heavies here: Alec Guinness amazed me with his controversial hook-nosed portrayal of Fagin that stirred more outrage and censorship in Europe, the USA and the Middle East for its proximity to anti-Semitic stereotypes than I think was deserved - but then, it was just a few years after the liberation of the concentration camps... When we first see Fagin, he comes across as a sleazy but roguishly charming leader of a delinquent boy's club, but he reveals deeper levels of manipulative calculation and then eventually generates pathos as we realize just how hopelessly ensnared he is in the web of fraud and deceit he's fallen into. Then there's the malevolent sadism of Bill Sykes, who's role as the big villain is obvious from his first appearance - but who goes on to be a lot meaner and violent than I was prepared for. Finally, in the role that impressed me the most of anyone, Kay Walsh (David Lean's wife at the time) as Nancy, Bill's common-law wife and a lifelong protege of Fagin's, whose passionate emotions come through with bracing clarity, whether she's communicating them through facial expressions, body language or with the full release of pent-up fury produced by her wretched lot in life. Such power and dignity! The exchanges that take place between these characters toward the film's conclusion lift it well above the saccharine melodrama that the story could easily have turned into (and which did afflict, in my opinion, the latter half of Great Expectations.)

Here's a link to an in-depth and skillful analysis of a crucial scene in the film that I won't describe any further, for the sake of those who haven't seen it yet. It's from a blog called Rancid Popcorn that I like so much that I'm adding it to my sidebar. Nice work, Darrell!

Permeating the film is a sharp and incisive social conscience that comes through most sharply in the early scenes, especially the blatant hypocrisy of those who run the Parish Workhouse, basically starving the children (purposefully withholding meat for "behavior management" purposes, as we later discover) while gluttonously stuffing themselves in their dining chamber (while the kids pitifully look on behind iron bars.) Lean doesn't make explicit references to any kind of postwar rebuilding of society in making his points, but he probably didn't need to. He does indicate the kind of attitude most desirable in the hearts and minds of the privileged class through the characters of Mr. Brownlow and his elderly maid Bedwin, who see in Oliver a potential that few others among their peers bother to look for. Of course, their fondness for Oliver is based on a fantastically improbable set of circumstances, so I have my doubts as to how many real opinions this film actually changed. But it did make for a couple hours of fascinating visitation to a time and place that is probably best to have behind us.

As a DVD, this is another one of those old Criterion bare-bones offerings - you get a theatrical trailer and a brief printed essay on the film - that's it! There are a few spots where the image is clearly damaged, indicating that little if any restoration work was done, but the transfer is good and the visual images are for the most part exquisite. As far as Criterion titles go, this is probably one of the "least hip" of their offerings, I suppose, but worth picking up at a bargain price (which can easily be found.) It's hard to justify paying the full $40 though, compared to what you can get for that price in newer sets.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hamlet (1948) - #82

This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.

Despite the obvious allusion to current events, this article has nothing to say about Brett Favre. Instead, our attention rests upon the pensive brow of Laurence Olivier and company as they accept the challenge of adapting the greatest, most famous, daunting and monumental stage production of them all - Hamlet - to the silver screen. In its time, this film earned enormous success, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actor (and two other Oscars besides) as it captured Olivier's brilliance as an interpreter of Shakespeare for posterity and clearly hit a resounding note with the critics and tastemakers of its day. But the movie faces new difficulties today, given the unique and ubiquitous background presence of Hamlet (the play, the character, the quotations) in our culture. Despite a great storyline, solid acting, impressive noir-ish visuals and a moody soundtrack, it can be hard for a younger, contemporary audience to move beyond the surface elements that conjure up campy, ironic responses to scenes, performances and dialog that now strike us as overworked cliches. Indeed, Hamlet is a risky choice for any kind of an "I've heard that line before!" drinking game. I found myself having to work at keeping my senses fresh, in order to fully appreciate what Olivier had going on here. And the presence of my wisecracking family members during portions of my viewing didn't help any!

Just to be clear then, I'm assuming that anyone reading this post has a basic familiarity with the story of Hamlet: a young prince of Denmark, presumably just a few years into adulthood, now faced with a wrenching dilemma as he grieves his recently deceased father and grapples with the sudden marriage of his widowed mother to his paternal uncle. This unseemly arrangement stands beyond public criticism, given the fact that the disreputable couple in question are also King and Queen, thus able to take advantage of the obsequeious allegiance shown them by their minions in the royal court. On top of all that, rumors are buzzing amongst the night watchmen of Castle Elsinore that a ghost bearing resemblance to the late King has been seen in the dreadful wee hours of the morning. Meanwhile, Hamlet's prolonged grieving has generated fretful attention from his parents and others in their inner circle and begun to interfere with the romantic relationship he's enjoyed with Ophelia, lovely daughter to Polonius, a senior advisor to the new King Claudius. Then there's the bit with Laertes, Ophelia's brother, who ships out to France only to return to Denmark in a huff after he's heard all the nasty business that Hamlet's alleged to have put his sister through. And the intrigues only get thicker and worse from there, as Hamlet learns in a midnight apparition of his father's ghost that he was murdered by the very brother who now sits on his throne and beds Hamlet's mother. Swearing to take righteous revenge on this incestuous atrocity, Hamlet gets notoriously sidetracked by his own melancholy meditations, caught up in emotional and political palace intrigues, feigns madness to the point that he begins to confuse himself, sets a mousetrap to catch a killer, and falls victim to some unfortunate twists of timing and circumstance. Polonius blathers, Ophelia melts down, Gertrude wails, Claudius fumes, Hamlet dithers and the plot advances until everything hits full boil in a memorable sword-fighting duel and just about everyone of significance gets dragged off stage dead at the end.

And if that seems like more than two thick fistfuls of plot to squeeze into a film, recognize that Olivier took the controversial step of eliminating the Fortinbras/Norwegian invasion subplot and removed Hamlet's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the story almost entirely (except for a brief mention of their demise at the end.) Even with those two famous chunks of the story removed, we're still left with a 2 1/2 hour film that moves kinda slow for some people's taste, though I have to say that it really felt to me like things skipped along from one familiar bit to another pretty quickly. But then, I've sat through Kenneth Branagh's four-hour, complete text version of Hamlet probably five or six times over the years... so I guess questions of pacing and "action" are relatively subject to taste and experience.

Given the exaggerated, quasi-canonical familiarity that I and most culturally-literate adults have with the text and narrative details of Hamlet then, I'm a bit reluctant to deeply engage in a literary-critical breakdown of the story here. There's a ton of such analysis available in print and on the internet - indeed, there's probably not a English language text outside of the Bible that's been subject to closer scrutiny than this particular play - and deservedly so, in my opinion. At least, I won't begrudge the attention that Hamlet has drawn to itself over the years. What matters to me here is what the film itself has to offer. I think there's a lot to enjoy here, and my bottom line is that Olivier delivered the benchmark by which all other cinematic Hamlet adaptations (including Branagh's) ought to be measured. The gloomy black-and-white atmosphere is perfectly fitting here, even though the original intention was to film it in color as was the case with Henry V and, later, Richard III. I love the way the camera wanders freely through the murky corridors of Elsinore, up its twisting staircases, across its fog-enshrouded towers and cold brick interiors. The monochrome palette perfectly complements the moral and ethical ambiguity and the somber, depressed affect that burdens all of the major characters. The lack of bright pageantry and gaudy Technicolor hues (for that's the method that would have been used back in 1948) works advantageously to help us focus on the dialogue and dramatic tensions, even as we anticipate scene after scene based on previous encounters with the characters and story.

If by some chance one approaches Hamlet for the first time through this film, I guess it's as good of an intro as I could imagine, though I might recommend Branagh's version first to a younger viewer, simply because it's in color and features a cast that people under 30 or so might recognize. Or I might say, just read the play for yourself first, to get the full sweep of it, and be prepared to deal with the "left out bits" as needed.

Scenes that stood out to me include The Murder of Gonzago, where we get the combined benefit of hearing Shakespeare's insightful commentary on stagecraft as directed by Laurence Olivier, himself a 20th century master of the theater. In filming the play-within-a-play, he puts the camera to work as it revolves around the stage and audience, skillfully capturing both the action and the reaction as just the right times, bringing the segment to life quite delightfully. I also appreciated my third helping of Jean Simmons in this blog series (after her screen debut in Great Expectations and her small role in Black Narcissus.) Here, the young beauty plays Ophelia and does a commendable job in this archetypal but perilous role for youthful female actors. The rest of the supporting cast provide no-frills, straightforward readings that make this version the standard, thereby allowing the kinds of postmodern innovations we see in later adaptations like Ethan Hawke's 2000 version which sets the story in corporate, pre-9/11 New York City.

Still, one's personal enjoyment of this film comes down basically to what one makes of Olivier's handling of the lead role. As I mentioned earlier, his performance runs the risk of provoking laughs if one is in such a mocking frame of mind - I mean, he's the quintessential "man in tights," strutting and posing to and fro, delivering grandiose soliloquies and gesticulating ever so dramatically - well, not quite as preening as Branagh's eye-rolling, jaw-clenching extravagance, I suppose - but you get my point, I hope. Here's a sample clip, featuring probably the most famous (and played-out) soliloquy of them all: "To be or not to be." It gives a fair example of how Olivier used film techniques to break up the long monologues and breath new life into familiar words:

With it's archaic language, shadowy gothic setting and classic pedigree, Hamlet is the kind of film that could be dismissed by many as stuffy, overblown, pretentious highbrow stuff - that is, many in the summer-blockbuster, 3D-CGI-craving, "it ain't worth jack if it ain't in IMAX" crowd. To get full value from a film like this, I recommend a conscious setting-aside of the popular movie-going conventions of 2009. Reprogram your mind to enter a timeless realm where the big questions of existence, purpose and meaning in life can be asked and pondered as they were in the early stages of humanity's ever-expanding self-consciousness. Hamlet (the text) is one of the seminal documents that moved our culture toward a broader awareness of what it means to be human. Olivier approached it with consummate respect (despite his decision to make significant edits) and applied both the great theatrical traditions of preceding centuries and the technological innovations made possible by film to pose those questions sensitively to his audience. There's a reason that this film won a Best Picture award, beyond the cheap appeal to "classiness" that comes with putting a universally admired work of literature on screen. Hamlet addressed, in it's own way, the same postwar world that the neorealists and film noir directors were bringing into focus. It's loaded with thought-provoking existential, ethical and theological questions, too numerous to get into here, though I will mention the one that always gets to me: when Hamlet is about to kill Claudius but changes his mind when he realizes that the king is at prayer. His reason for holding back the dagger is that killing Claudius in an act of piety will send him to heaven, whereas his father was killed in his sleep and died before he had a chance to make final confession. This seems to me like a very superstitious and shallow approach to the question of the afterlife, a set of presumptions unworthy of Hamlet's keen intellectual subtlety. So my theory is that he really just copped out there, hiding behind conventional religiosity to excuse his lack of resolve. But do others have a different take on that decision?

In any case, I'll leave off here by giving in to contemporary tastes with this trivializing lampoon of Hamlet, on the basis of its use of a lot of good footage from the film in question... and to show that I'm not so stuffy that I can't laugh in the face of Shakespearean solemnity.

Just be sure to pay your proper respects before you finally, weepingly whisper, "good night, sweet prince."

Eclipse Review: Women of the Night

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Drunken Angel (1948) - #413

It's not just his lungs that are sick. It's like he's sick to the core.

1948. WWII has been over for a few years and the world is shifting into high gear in the rebuilding process. Well, some places are getting there quicker than others, anyway. It's now time for this blog to swing our attention over to Japan, a nation that probably didn't rank so highly in the consciousness of typical Americans up until the Pearl Harbor attacks took place. The only Criterion Collection film reviewed here from that nation so far was A Story of Floating Weeds which really only made its way into the collection because Ozu eventually remade the film in the 1950s and it makes for a nice 2-DVD set to release the two versions together. (Of course, Criterion has released a number of pre-war Japanese films through their Eclipse line but I'm not including those here. I'll get to them after I've watched all the Criterions!)

The task that Akira Kurosawa set before himself, as he launched into a newly independent phase of his career, was to reckon with the reality of an utterly defeated populace, intent on reconstructing itself yet unsure of exactly which direction to pursue. The old dreams of imperial glory that plunged the nation on a path of conquest have been shattered; starvation and enduring shame are real possibilities, yet still avoidable with collective effort and discipline. Opportunities for exploitation and corruption can be found in every direction, but who has the strength of character to resist? Who dares to believe in a hopeful future when chaos and cynicism undermine so many efforts? Occupation by American troops presents both potential for rebuilding and humiliation at dependence on foreign powers - decisions must be made, but in the wake of a collapse of the old mainstream, no clarity can be found. It's exactly in this chasm that Akira Kurosawa emerges as one voice capable of pointing a way to the future, through cinematic artistry that still stands as a testament to the ages. Whatever nationality you claim, Kurosawa is someone worthy of close study, and here we see his big step forward, though even more audacious efforts will soon present themselves for the world to behold.

Drunken Angel revolves around the relationship of two people - Senada, a shabby alcoholic doctor living beneath his station in society, and Matsunaga, a sharp-dressed gangster entranced by the illusion of power that's overtaken his life as he temporarily fills in as a big man in the Japanese underworld for his imprisoned boss. Matsunaga seeks medical attention to take care of a gunshot wound to his hand, and in the process, Senada learns that his patient is also suffering the effects of tuberculosis. Despite his deep-seated antipathy to criminals who carry too much clout in the area, Senada acts on his obligation to treat Matsunaga. He's motivated by both a desire to limit the spread of TB (realizing that a guy like Matsunaga really gets around) and a grudging love-hate bond that develops between the two men. Matsunaga vacillates between realistic concern for his own mortality and a hellbent insistence on proving how impervious he is to the effects of mere disease. Senada, for his part, conducts himself almost as recklessly, provoking aggressive responses, mixing his tea with pure grain alcohol, bluntly insulting the "feudalistic" code of honor that the yakuza live by. As a shambling wreck of a doctor with booze on his breath, Senada is more obviously the "drunken angel" of the title, but the term could apply to both men, who each have their own problems handling liquor and a nobility of heart that's easy to miss if one just looks on the surface characteristics. Matsunaga, despite his toughness, style and charm, is easily provoked by any perceived slight on his courage or manliness - and soon finds out just how flimsy the respect accorded to him really is when his boss gets out of stir and reasserts his old authority. Matsunaga discovers that his real role was just to serve as a placeholder, an expendable stand-in playing a bit part in the schemes of the real movers and shakers. Senada likewise comes to grips with the realization that even though he fell short of what his med school classmates achieved, his service to the residents of his messed-up city block has a purpose and value that he scarcely dared acknowledge or believe in.

The drama plays out in the perimeter of an oily, typhus-infested bog that serves as a sump, a low-elevation drainage point in a ruined district of Tokyo. Knowing what we know of Tokyo's futuristic hi-tech look today and over the past several decades, it's pretty amazing to see this relatively recent depiction of the city in such a state of ruin - a vivid reminder of what Japan went through and perhaps a pointer for contemporary war zones like Baghdad of our own era. The sluggish, stagnant pool collects all the scum and trash that tumbles its way and serves as a visual metaphor for the collective misery that the neighborhood's suffering tenants have to endure. Some, like the children playing at the dark water's edge, retain a degree of innocence, but Kurosawa throws a harsh glare onto those who thrive from the public's reliance on black markets and degrading amusements, or who simply remain indifferent to the idea that they have a responsibility to help restore the social order.

Though neither the war nor the American occupation are ever explicitly mentioned over the course of the film (censorship and business-sense prevented that), the audience of its time would have had no trouble at all drawing the connections between recent history and the squalor depicted on screen. The film was shot on a set left over (and dirtied up) from a previous production, but in other respects bears many similarities to what was happening in noir and neorealist films being produced in the USA and Europe at the time. Attention focused on the rougher edges of society, with realistic portraits of the ethical dilemmas that ordinary people confronted on a daily basis. Audiences were confronted to reflect on where they fit into the scheme portrayed on screen, and from what I learned in the commentary and supplements, they responded very positively to Kurosawa's challenge. At the very least, Drunken Angel generated good box office! The enduring popularity of the cool, bleak, self-destructive yakuza criminal milieu in subsequent decades of Japanese film (and beyond) does call into question just how much of Kurosawa's moral lesson sank in - some people probably just enjoyed watching Toshiro Mifune's powerful breakout performance as a doomed street thug en route to a personal redemption that nevertheless registers as futile in its effect on the living situation of his neighbors.

Supporting female roles provide an interesting look at the circumstances women faced in this turbulent time. A shot of "pan pan girls," young prostitutes who made themselves available to American troops, opens the film. A cheerful teenage girl also recovering from tuberculosis provides a more wholesome perspective for Japanese youth to consider. Miyo, a former companion to the yakuza crime boss who's now found anonymous shelter living with Senada, and Nanae who swiftly dumps Matsunaga in favor of the newly-released kingpin, depict the hazards of close association with fast-living criminals. And running throughout the film is a sustained critique of the crass values that Japanese society seems on the verge of adopting en masse. This clip of a nightclub scene, featuring a performance of original music with lyrics written by Kurosawa, shows off both Mifune's dancing skills and the sense of wildness that was taking root in some quarters:

The collective struggles, confusion and validation experienced in varying degrees by these characters constitute Kurosawa's urgent and effective message to his peers, and set the stage for even more powerful pleas/critiques of Japanese society to come. This DVD comes fairly late in Criterion's collection of Kurosawa films, even though it represents a vital stage in the great director's emergence as an auteur. Drunken Angel was his seventh film (a few of his earlier releases are available in the Eclipse Postwar Kurosawa set which I don't yet own) and from this point forward, he'll occupy a major place in the canon, with masterpiece films that stand out even among such illustrious companion pieces as those Criterion has gathered around it. The disc is pretty basic in comparison to some other Kurosawa sets - a good commentary by Donald Ritchie who was actually on the set when this film was made, a half-hour "making of" segment from the Japanese "It Is Wonderful To Create" series that seems to be the standardized accompaniment to most of Kurosawa's DVD releases and a featurette on the effects that the American occupation had on Japanese culture and the film industry in particular. And it's one of those packages where the cover doesn't really communicate very much if you haven't seen the film but makes a lot more sense once you have!

Next: Hamlet

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Naked City (1948) - #380

Dear God, why wasn't she born ugly?

Watching it for the first time from a 21st century point of view, The Naked City is an easy film to underestimate or even dismiss as trivial, dated, irrelevant. It's easy enough to note the quaint cityscapes of New York, nicely photographed and offering an obvious time-capsule of days gone by. And there's a decent little chase scene at the end that generates interest and brings the picture to a suitably rousing finale. But this is one of those movies that can easily suffer from comparison to its cinematic descendants. The Naked City is one of those giants upon whose shoulders subsequent filmmakers now stand.

My first take on the film was along such lines. I nearly made the mistake of violating one of my rules here, which is to watch not only the film but also whatever supplemental features accompany it (not every Criterion release is chock full of goodies, contrary to popular opinion.) Sometimes I am eager to post here and move on to the next film, and my surface impression of The Naked City after one viewing was like that: worthy of a Criterion release because of it's cultural legacy, it's creative team (producer Mark Hellinger who delivered c and Brute Force, and director Jules Dassin who also directed Brute Force and several more great films coming up later in this series) and its significant place in the development of film noir. I had no quibble with any of that, but I let the film's straightforward plot exposition, its apparent embrace of conventional mores, the inclusion of a few fairly cardboard acting performances and some attempts at humor that now come across as lame and dated overly influence my verdict. The fact that I watched recently discovered Brute Force and was looking forward to something that packed a similar punch also led to that underwhelemed feeling. I'm glad that the extras got me looking deeper into The Naked City. I now stand corrected and am sufficiently impressed to say that this film is a true classic and one that I will enjoy watching again and again whenever I want to take a long loving gaze at mid-20th century New York.

Despite a lack of distinction in regard to plot, acting or essential insight into the human condition, The Naked City casts a very long shadow over the subsequent development of popular American film and entertainment. It won Academy Awards for cinematography and editing and got a nomination for best writing, underscoring just how innovative the film was in its day. We're watching here the ancestor of not only a long-running TV show of the same name, but also Dragnet, Adam 12, Hill Street Blues, Law and Order, CSI and all the other "procedural" cop shows and movies made over the years that aim to take us step by step through law enforcement's investigation of a particular case and pursuit of the guilty parties. Beyond that, The Naked City marks a signicant breakthrough for Hollywood in the use of location shots and reduced dependence on studio magic to create the illusion of authenticity. As the first major studio film to be shot on the streets of New York City, we're treated to an almost documentary-like survey of the customs and sights of a metropolis now highly familiar to most of us, but at a bygone stage of its historic development.

We enter the picture through a montage of scenes showing the great city at night, with voiceover narration by Mark Hellinger himself. Prior to being a film producer, he'd earned considerable fame as a man-about-town columnist for the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror and was well-known as one of the city's greatest fans and story-tellers. So it made sense in this case for the producer to take such a creative role in presenting the film to the public. The story concerns the murder of an attractive young model, Jean Dexter. Around 1 a.m. on a summer's night, she's chloroformed and shoved into a bathtub to drown. The next morning, a housekeeper shows up, finds the dead body and erupts into the standard screaming reaction shot. The cops are called in and Homicide goes to work. The two characters at the center of it all are Muldoon, a wizened old Irish detective, and Halloran, a prototypical "new guy" just learning the ropes and ready to make all sorts of assumptions and flubs that imperil the investigation (and his personal safety) but still turn out OK in the end. I say prototypical because by now the old cop/young cop buddy formula has been worn into a deep flat rut, where even parody struggles to find a new, untested angle. But introducing this convention is another feather in The Naked City's cap.

Even though we get to see some establishing shots of the two detectives at home (I especially enjoyed the visit to Halloran's suburban Long Island domecile, complete with central-casting perky wife and rambunctious son; it's a nice peek at a young 40's family unit though one can also detect incipient strains of Ozzie & Harriet-ism creeping into the atmosphere) I never got the same sense of authenticity and complexity of character that I saw in their counterparts from Quai des Orfevres, a French policier produced right around the same time. In my review of that film, I mentioned my eagerness to compare the two - let me say right now that in terms of moral complexity and gritty realism, Quai des Orfevres wins the competition hands down! The French film is teeming with life's richness and depth - there's so much going on in just about every scene. In The Naked City, by contrast, most of the interior scenes have a distinctly "staged" feel to them, with the characters on screen often coming across as actors playing a role, saying their lines, reacting the way they're supposed to in order for the plot to advance to the next stage. That doesn't mean that the performances aren't enjoyable. The cast is solid, workman-like, entertaining to watch as they go through their motions. The dialog is directly expositional, with the aforementioned, occasionally unfortunate interjections of humor thrown in, and the indoor shots have a distinctly TV-like feel - straight-on, bright and clear lighting - apparently a deliberate move away from the sultry, stylized, high-contrast glamour of early classic noir.

The filmmakers sought to address the imbalanced view that earlier private eye films placed on the role of lone, eccentric individuals who solve mysteries and bring criminals to justice. They hit on the novel premise that fighting crime was a collective, institutional enterprise that relied on the patient, coordinated labor of a vast network of specialists. Though they had no real inkling of how their procedural would look some sixty years later, I'm glad they captured on film some of the clunky, inefficient technologies used at the time: switchboards operated by banks of men in uniform; telegraphed memos stuck on bulletin boards that notified police departments in other cities of information requests; beat cops sent out on a moment's notice to canvass neighborhoods, investigate alibis and shadow suspects around the clock (the expense of all that manpower apparently a non-issue to those issuing the orders.)

In his spoken introduction, Hellinger announces to his audience, in that verbose, unambiguous manner seen in marketing materials of the time, that this film is "a bit different from most films you've ever seen," and I'll assume that he's right, even though so many of the elements on display here are familiar to us now. As we'll soon see when this series moves on to Bicycle Thieves, Italian filmmakers were developing the neorealist style that took movie cameras into the streets, used non-professional actors and sought to represent life as it is, a movement partly borne of necessity (European studios were either in ruin or corrupted by the taint of fascism) and partly from a desire to capture the truth. I give Dassin and Hellinger credit for their gutsy willingness to move from Brute Force's claustrophobic Westgate Penitentiary into the broadest canvas imaginable, a great city of sprawling breadth and dizzying heights, in order to realize the vision of screenwriter Malvin Wald, who basically conceived the whole project himself and lived long enough to record a full-length commentary to the film which played an absolutely pivotal role in my own reconsideration of The Naked City's merits. He passed away last year and we are so fortunate to have his recollections from near the end of his life captured here.

It's when the camera gets outdoors that we get to the most wonderful, memorable aspects of what The Naked City has to offer. And thankfully, those scenes are peppered all through the film from beginning to end for our lasting enjoyment. I've only been to the Big Apple once, for a weekend back in 2005, but I've spent a good chunk of my life watching the city on screens of various sizes. Given the prominence of NYC back in the postwar heyday of American culture, and the countless films shot there chronicling the city's development since then, we're fortunate to have a document like this on hand to serve as a moving, two-dimensional time capsule of a great metropolis. We get to visit all sorts of places - there were 107 separate location shots used in the film, from grimy alleys to uppercrust playpens, Park Avenue apartments to the actual city morgue, skyscraper construction sites and East River piers. As pointed out in one of the supplements, the film was shot in 1947, just on the verge of the TV revolution, which irreversibly changed the nightlife of the city as the majority of citizens now stayed home to watch the tube after the sun went down. The districts and neighborhoods shown here would inevitably change in the years ahead and of course the city itself continues its fascinating evolution as the cultural capital of the United States. It's not an exaggeration to say that the moment was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Postwar America was coming to grips with its new status as the pre-eminent world superpower, with a wary eye cast on the Soviets and by extension, anyone whose politics veered too far to the left. That atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia was even at the time of Naked City's release beginning to coalesce into the tragic abuses of McCarthyism and the HUAC witch-hunts, and would cost Jules Dassin and others dearly. (We'll cover more of that story in future installments!)

So let me offer you a couple of clips to show you what I'm talking about. This first one shows the climactic chase scene across the Williamsburg Bridge. Even without knowing the story up to that point, you'll have no problem figuring out who's the bad guy! Take in the sights and textures of a hot mid-40's summer afternoon in the Big Apple... notice the big cars, the teeming crowds of white people, the cameo appearances by several Jack Kerouac look-alikes! Enjoy the cross-cutting and the mounting tension as a fast-paced horizontal chase scene suddenly, hopelessly turns vertical, with the vibrant life and monumental architecture of the city offering mute impersonal witness to the small individual ruin taking place at one fleeting moment in time...

And to wrap it all up, readying us to move on to the next drama, the new spectacle, a fresh twist in our endless search for interesting amusement, here's the ending of the film, with that tag line I know you've heard before, even if you've never seen the movie:

There's no better conclusion that I can come up with!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Quai des Orfevres (1947) - #193

Let's get all this down in writing. You'll feel better.
I sat down to watch Quai des Orfevres the other day, mentally prepared for some kind of dark cynical gaze into the seamy underside of postwar Parisian life. Given the reputation of Henri-Georges Clouzot as cinema's "great misanthrope," and the bitter sniping and suspicion that permeated Le Corbeau (made during the Nazi occupation,) such expectations make sense. But even though Quai des Orfevres certainly brings us into contact with some rough characters in seedy environments, I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of warmth and benevolent compassion these sad-sack characters generated in me. Don't let the noirish atmosphere or the crime drama categorization put you on the wrong track - this is a movie about likeable souls trapped by their emotional vulnerabilities, at risk of falling into the teeth of an impersonal system that seems to function for its own sake rather than benefitting actual people.  
A marriage relationship sits at the heart of the drama, between Maurice, a bourgeois musician, and his wife Jenny, a singer whose sassy energy and flirtatious manner win her more attention than Maurice can comfortably rationalize to himself. Maurice has a hard time managing his jealousy when he sees her talking with other men, and can't fully accept her protests that she truly loves only him. He's afraid of losing her to any man who might best him in any number of ways - wealth, looks, showbiz connections, wit, charm, what have you. Jenny copes with the jealousy and overprotectiveness of her husband to a point, but her frustrations begin to show when Maurice forbids her to meet with Brignon, a repulsive but wealthy industrialist who happens to have some clout in the movie industry. Confident of her ability to fend off his lecherous advances, Jenny goes behind her husband's back to set up a private lunch, but Maurice finds out and breaks up the plan, erupting into a tirade that goes on to have grave repercussions.

That clip is the only good piece of video from this film I could find on the internet. I was amazed to discover that no one has posted the clip of Jenny's "petite tra-la-la-la" song - it seems like such a natural to me - funny, charming, catchy and creatively sequenced as we see her first learning, then rehearsing, then performing the tune on stage. In any case, this little gem of a film is either too obscure or just not appreciated enough to generate a bit of YouTube piracy, so I had to install this gadget instead. Sorry - no subtitles! But it does introduce you to most of the main characters and provides an adequate taste of the film's atmosphere and look.
Spicing up Quai des Orfevres quite a bit is a supporting cast of world-weary characters. Chief among them are Dora - a beautiful photographer who loves Jenny just about as deeply as Maurice does but has no hope of advancing the relationship beyond girlfriend/confidante - and Detective Lieutenant Antoine, a crusty old cop called in to lead the murder investigation on Christmas Eve after Brignon is found dead on the floor of his mansion. Beyond those two, the action surrounds a lively bunch of eccentrics inhabiting the world of a Parisian music hall or the city's police headquarters, located on the street after which the film is named. Their disarmingly cynical banter and Clouzot's willingness to pursue risque humor (for example, a kitchen pot boiling over in a cutaway shot when Jenny greets Maurice wearing a fur coat with nothing but pin-up girl lingerie underneath, or Dora spitefully kicking Brignon's corpse) must have provided a pleasant jolt to audiences of its era and marks a degree of progress toward "telling it like it is" that we'll see as we move through more films in the Criterion Collection.   
Further details add to the richness of Quai des Orfevres - Clouzot found adroit ways of communicating Dora's lesbian affections for Jenny without directly saying so (in accordance with the customs of the times, I guess) making her a very sympathetic character in the process. Likewise, Detective Antoine's rough edges are softened considerably as we see him in the role of a tender, attentive father to his mixed race son, all (besides malaria) that he was able to bring back with him from his service in the Foreign Legion in the colonies. These and dozens of other touches provide plenty of amusement even through several viewings now. I enjoyed the backstage glimpses, dancing girls popping on and off screen in absurd costumes, the banter of tabloid reporters waiting for a sensational murder story to break on their Christmas Eve beat assignment. And there are some pretty nice street scenes of Paris at night (oh, maybe they're studio shots, I'm not sure - but they create a cool shadowy atmosphere in any case.) 
Of course, audiences then and now need something more than a simple character study to make most movies worth their time, and Quai des Orfevres offers a pretty good example of the "policier," or police procedural as we refer to it in English. Our next film, The Naked City, serves as a classic American example of that genre and I'm eager to compare the two, released so closely together on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Detective Antoine doesn't enter the action until roughly halfway through, even though Louis Jouvet was the film's big star. I'm not familiar with any of his other roles but he does a great job here, working his body language and unfiltered cigaret to perfection, tossing off gruff observations, blowing smoke in faces and conveying a lifetime's worth of hard knocks whenever any of the characters try to make a play for his sympathies or push back with feistiness of their own as he goes through the course of his investigation. The psychological pressures build and build as the detective zeroes in on the culprit - Maurice, Jenny and Dora all have reasons to hide the truth and take the fall if the trap springs on one of their loved ones instead. It's a battle of wills to see who will be the first to snap, and what will it take to get a confession? We really don't know how it's all going to unfold, right up until the end.   
Clouzot's conduct during the filming of Quai des Orfevres added the final touch to the production as he went all out in establishing his own auteur credentials, haranguing and slapping around his actors to prepare them for demanding interrogation scenes and filming an actual blood transfusion on a lead actor when the character was depicted recovering from a suicide attempt! (I learned about this in a supplemental clip featuring interviews with the director and the actors who played Jenny, Maurice and Dora - a nice featurette.) Clouzot had no lack of motivation, it would seem. His wartime cooperation with a German-owned film studio in Le Corbeau earned him a long-term ban which was eventually lifted, allowing him to make this film. Though some continued to despise him for his refusal to take a bolder stand during the occupation, Quai des Orfevres went a long way toward restoring his reputation and preparing him for future masterpieces like Diabolique and The Wages of Fear. This DVD, just back in print after a year or two out of distribution, offers an entertaining and tightly crafted look at a society in recovery at all levels, populated by people who still dare to dream of something a little better in life waiting for them around the next turn of fate, but hardly to be surprised if the whole thing falls to pieces any minute now.  
Next: The Naked City

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Brute Force (1947) - #383

We're buried, ain't we? Only thing is, we ain't dead.

Moving from Black Narcissus (the previous film I viewed in this series) to Brute Force delivers enough contrasts to give a guy mental whiplash. In Black Narcissus, a small group of British nuns willingly accept a vocation to leave their homeland to do ministry in a beautiful, exotic and intoxicating palace in the remote Himalayas, where they teach children and offer medical services to poor natives while escaping the man problems they left behind at home. Their story is filmed in glorious Technicolor and, with a few easily managed plot-twists, could have been rendered with all the predictability of a heartwarming romance were it not for the psychic fury unleashed at the end.

Brute Force switches all that around. Here we have a seething mass of men imprisoned in a hell-hole for relatively minor, even morally defensible crimes, trapped in their own country, contained by concrete, razor wire and machine-gun manned watchtower. Lacking decent rehabilitative work, living at the whim of a sadistic guard and ineffectual administrators, their only recourse is to plot escape, or if that fails, revenge, as they brood and yearn for the women whose movements and actions haunt their memories and imaginations. Filmed in classic noir monochrome, Brute Force exploded across the screens of 1947 America as one of the most violent, harrowing mainstream studio productions ever seen up until that time, with no material well-suited to provide a conventional "moral of the story" conclusion that Hollywood pictures typically considered obligatory according to the dictates of the Hays Production Code.

Nevertheless, I loved both films! And I think they benefit from the comparison and side-by-side viewing. Try it yourself sometime!

I also recommend that you take a couple minutes to watch the trailer to this film if you haven't seen it before. The clip provides, along with the poster up top, a great way to get into the mindset of its original audience. Brute Force hit the cultural marketplace just at the point where the USA was making up its collective mind about what direction to go in its emergence into the postwar era. Like many other classic film noir offerings, Brute Force was aimed at men who'd experienced direct encounters with sex, violence and their own mortality while fighting World War II and were looking for entertainment that didn't pull any punches, gave 'em something gritty they could sink their teeth into. Caged men, trapped in a system that didn't give a damn about their individual needs or desires... women on the loose, maybe not always trustworthy but capable of offering the kind of pleasures that made it worth surviving the grim ordeals they'd endured in Europe and the Pacific islands.

Produced by renowned Broadway columnist Mark Hellinger and starring Burt Lancaster, the same dynamic combo that put The Killers on the screen, Brute Force veered slightly away from the near-amorality of its predecessor toward a message more progressive and class conscious, though not pedantically so. Instead of the grifters and hoodlums at the heart of The Killers, the prisoners we get to know in Brute Force are, for the most part, men caught in a vice grip of desperation as they find themselves incapable of supporting the women they love by honest means. A series of short vignettes provides backstory on the six convicts who share Cell R17 and they all turn out to be pretty likable guys, all capable of being identified with positively by most of the fellas in the audience. Towering above them all, of course, is Collins (the great Burt Lancaster), the strong quiet type who we first meet sopping wet in the rain as he returns from a ten-day stretch in solitary. He manfully resists the taunting of a nebbishy runt of a man, Capt. Munsey, who we come to discover is the real force behind the misery the inmates suffer. When Collins enters his cell he strips off his shirt and without a hint of presumption accepts the cigaret and lit match offered to him by his cellmates. He's a man who knows how to suffer with joyless stoic resonance, and it fuels his passion to get out. Out.

The rest of the inmates have their reasons for being in prison, but the essential nobility and passivity of their crimes stands out here. There are no psychopaths, sadists or exploiters among the prisoners, and the only acts of violence that a resident of Westgate Penitentiary has to fear are those perpetrated on him by the petty tyrant Munsey or that which they bring upon themselves if they knuckle under and turn informant against their peers. There are several acts of prisoners exercising righteous vengeance against their betrayers throughout the film, and as one peers beneath the surface to explore the leftist politics that inform the project, it's easy to see a call to workingman's solidarity being issued to viewers: "Don't be a stoolie or this could happen to you."

An excellent commentary track on the DVD points out, among many astute observations, that Brute Force picks up where most noir films leave off - after the protagonists have succumbed to the law and taken their rap. Other than anecdotal flashbacks of memory, the action never leaves the prison compound, situating us within a sealed off microcosmic society, dreadfully out of balance without a trace of femininity, leaving only the brute force of corrupt and ineffectual authority figures to set the terms of the arrangement and the wiles of the forlorn men at the bottom of a barbaric pyramid to work out some measure of justice. We have a hard time respecting and practically no sympathy for the men who run the place. Warden Barnes is washed up and beleaguered, concerned primarily with hanging on to his post until retirement and can't find it within himself to rein in Captain Munsey's manipulative cruelties. In an effort to preserve the job now threatened by a political bully, he resorts to pleading with the men over the prison intercom (rather than face them directly) to behave themselves, lest he take drastic measures. And when his bluff is called due to Munsey's subterfuge, his over-reactive punishments exhaust the last reserves of goodwill, setting up just the kind of leadership vacuum that Munsey seeks to exploit so that his quasi-fascist authoritarianism can not only have unimpeded sway over the prison, but even win official state backing.

Which leads to one of the most fascinating aspects of this film: its veiled warning of just such a uprising of insidious repression within American society itself. Captain Munsey is a perfect example of the "little Napoleon," a short man who over-compensates for whatever insecurities he's acquired through life by taking out his resentments on others within the confines of a legitimizing chain of command. In his crisp dark suits and officers hat, even the way he holds his cigarets and takes barely concealed delight in the agonizing dilemmas he sets up in his relationships with prisoners, Munsey has all the characteristics of a stock Nazi movie villain, except for the swastika emblem and the German accent, of course. It's practically impossible to not notice the resemblance, even without having the connection pointed out to you through a commentary or a written essay. Director Jules Dassin and many others working on this projectd would go on to be blacklisted by Hollywood within the next few years due to their involvement with Communist or other left-wing political associations. They rightly recognized that a wave of ideological suppression was beginning to develop and in my view, Dassin was right to bravely address the problem and do what he could through his films to alert the public to the danger.

Some of that threat now seems diminished with the passage of time; the verdict of history doesn't seem to be all that kind to the McCarthyites and their supporters. But let's not lose sight of the real damage that this period of American history inflicted on a lot of good people, and the seeds of prejudice and intolerance that the ideology behind it continues to breed. Even though most of us look on the anti-Communist hysteria of the postwar era as an unfortunate period of over-reaction on the part of some within our government (and society at large), I think it's too easy to view the problem as one that's "over and done with." The USA is still a society afflicted with Munseys who would rule, to whatever extent they are allowed, with brute force to suit their own needs, and has-beens like Barnes who can't stand strong on behalf of the working class if doing so puts their own comforts and privileges at risk. Brute Force (the film) doesn't really offer a solution to the problem - I'm not ready to advocate on behalf of 1940's Marxist ideals as the way we should go in the 21st century! But the movie does show with blunt, riveting directness the kind of despair and futility that ideological totalism breeds in those it exploits, on whatever scale it's waged.

Before I wrap up here though, let me reiterate my admiration for Burt Lancaster's performance here. I've known him as one of Hollywood's chiseled, clenched-jawed, iconic tough guys prior to studying these Criterion films more closely, but his commanding presence on screen has generated a new level of respect from me for his talent. He may not speak much more than a hundred words or so from the script, but he has a way of directing his gaze and posturing himself that says an awful lot. I found him totally convincing as the man among men who would lead his doomed posse into a futile jailbreak attempt and have no regrets when the whole thing fell apart, because it was simply the right thing to do. I've watched the cathartic prison riot at the end several times now and even though the violence is fleeting by today's prolonged standards, it still provides a tremendous sense of release after a masterful build-up over the course of the preceding 90 minutes. Politics aside, Jules Dassin showed himself to be a master at the construction of elaborately choreographed, edge-of-the-seat, high tension scenes - and I'm happy to know that I've got a big chunk of his filmography waiting for me to discover in the months ahead!