Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Symphony of American Paranoia: JFK (1991)

 Can a film fail to achieve its stated goals and still be considered good--even great? On the basis of Oliver Stone's JFK, the answer is yes. Stone wanted his movie to implicate the Dallas police, the mafia, the FBI, the CIA, the military-industrial complex, and the White House, up to and including Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, in a massive conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy. Stone points a lot of fingers, often in different directions at the same time, without making a coherent argument for his theory. Yet the film itself is a fine piece of filmmaking, a passionate mystery told on a grand scale. It's also something else Stone didn't really intend, a masterpiece of American paranoia. 

Stepping away from Stone's film for a moment: based on all the available evidence, the only reasonable conclusion is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Every serious study of the case seems to lead to this conclusion. I say "seems" because I'm not positioning myself as an expert. In terms of specifics, I base my opinion mainly on Gerald Posner's 1993 study Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, a book that makes a thoroughly convincing case for Oswald's guilt by following the physical evidence, sticking as much as possible to primary sources, and detailing the short, troubled life of Lee Harvey Oswald himself.

Stone's film, by contrast, is a whirlwind of hearsay, hunches, slanders, speculations, conflations, obfuscations, and outright fantasies. It is a deeply dishonest film from start to finish. As a piece of historical fiction, it is 95% fiction. 

It is also (deep breath): sharply directed, wonderfully acted, imaginatively written, and brilliantly edited. As a piece of filmmaking, it is a triumph. 

So where does that leave us? If JFK is a mosaic of brilliance and bullshit, what does it add up to? Stone's own claims for the film have receded over time. In recent years, he seems to have settled for calling it a "counter myth" whatever the hell that means. 

This brings us to the distinction (always important to point out) between what an artist intends and what they actually create. A film is an object, and it exists in and of itself. Once created, it has a life of its own. 

Watching JFK in November 2020 is a particularly surreal experience. If Stone's goal in 1991 was to undermine confidence in the government, the press, and the whole concept of shared facts, then we are truly living out the consequences of a loss of faith in those same things. As I write this, the President of the United States is attempting to pull off a political coup by throwing last week's election of Joe Biden into doubt. It doesn't matter that Trump's starting with his conclusion (essentially "I could not have lost the election") and working backward to find anything that can be used as evidence to support that conclusion. He began ringing this bell four years ago when he lost the popular vote. Unable to win a majority of votes, he's been insisting his entire term that his loss at the polls can only be evidence of fraud. He now has the entire apparatus of the executive branch trying to cobble together something that looks like proof. 

With this in mind, Stone's Jim Garrison (played to perfection by a rarely-better Kevin Costner) is a hero for the age of Trump. In real life, Garrison was a thoroughly discredited, attention-seeking crackpot. (One of his first theories, as he explained it to journalist James Phelan in 1967, was that the plot to kill Kennedy was a "homosexual thrill killing," which is what led him to hound people like David Ferrie and Clay Shaw, innocent men whose lives were pretty much ruined by Garrison.) Stone's Garrison, though, is an American archetype: the one good man able to perceive the dim candle of truth flickering behind a black veil of lies. Or, really, I should say veils, plural, because in this movie America--its institutions, its government, its culture, its very history--is just one black veil draped over another. Stone's film postulates a worldview where a man's suspicions are the only truth he needs. That's pretty much the operating conviction of about half of America at this point, a national paranoia in place of a national faith. 

In JFK, Stone is never able to wrangle all of his suspicions into a workable theory of the assassination because every conspiracy theory creates too many dead ends or contradictions. So instead he creates a Frankenstein theory that stitches together a bunch of disparate theories. At one point in the epic courtroom scene at the end, Garrison speculates that Oswald was in the book depository on 11-22-63 to "either take part in the assassination or to stop it." This is a massive shrug in place of an answer to the central question of the film. Yet, here again, the brilliance of the film is that it knows it doesn't need to provide answers. The questions are all the proof that's required to accomplish Stone's goal of convincing his audience that the truth is hidden and everybody but him is lying about it. That sense, of a world controlled by dark, unseen forces, is the defining ethos of America in 2020.

At the heart of Stone's film, and the entire JFK conspiracy mill, is a refusal to accept that Kennedy's death was meaningless. In a way, this denial is understandable. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was a disturbed nobody who bought a cheap gun through the mail and then murdered the most powerful man in the world. The only idea more disturbing than the idea that he changed history is the idea that he did it for no good reason at all. In disillusioning an entire generation and essentially handing the presidency to Lyndon Johnson, he arguably made more of a lasting impact on American culture than JFK himself. That's an ugly reality, one that people have never been content to accept. Stone's film--like all conspiracy theories--is really an attempt to make sense of the senseless. After all, if JFK was killed by the CIA and the military-industrial complex because he was going to pull troops out of Vietnam, then he died a hero's death, a martyr's death. If, on the other hand, he died because Lee Harvey Oswald wanted to be famous then he died a meaningless death, shot in the back of the head by an idiot. 

In his final courtroom summation in the film, Costner's Garrison paraphrases Tennyson and implores the jury, "Do not forget your dying king." In lifting up the murder of John F. Kennedy to the status of regicide, Stone places these events into an almost mythic context: a great king betrayed by a powerful web of enemies hidden in plain sight all around him. It doesn't matter that Stone's film is a patchwork of nonsense. JFK has the feel of an expose` that is revealing a dark and complex truth. Instead, Stone captures something else entirely: the distinctly American tendency to stubbornly refuse to accept the truth.

Monday, September 21, 2020


A woman walks out of the rain and into a university concert hall where a cellist is just finishing a performance. The students swarm around him to proclaim his greatness, but then he and the woman lock eyes. They are long lost lovers, separated by the war, each assuming the other was dead. The cellist is Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) and the woman is a pianist named Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis). They embrace and go back to her place to plan their wedding and start their lives over again. Everything’s going great until Karel notices that Christine has a nice place. A curiously nice place. Where, he wonders, does she get the money to afford such a swank apartment with such an impressive view of the New York skyline?

Christine tells Karel that she gives piano lessons to rich pupils who reward her lavishly. Karel doesn’t believe that, but he tries to make himself believe it, at least until a massively successful and world-famous composer named Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) busts into their wedding reception in a jealous fury.

DECEPTION is a noir melodrama as opposed to a noir crime film. There are no gangsters or bank heists, no femme fatales or hardboiled detectives. This is a love triangle, with two men in love with same woman. One man is good (though capable of jealous rages) while the other man is a possessive, egotistical psychopath. The woman, it must be said, is a liar, albeit a bad one. She tries her best to juggle these two guys, along with the several different stories about her true relationship to each one of them, until everything comes crashing down.

While DECEPTION is no masterpiece, it is a perfectly good star vehicle for Bette Davis. This is the kind of film that demonstrates why Warner Brothers might have made, on average, more good movies than any other studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood. MGM was the biggest studio, and Paramount was the most “classy,” but the average run of the mill production from Warner’s was usually tighter and more fun than those of its competitors. Highly capable, if not particularly inspired, direction from Irving Rapper, economical scripting from John Collier and Joseph Than (adapting a play by Louis Verneuil), and gorgeous cinematography from Ernest Haller, all make for a film that knows what it’s doing. What kicks things up a notch, making this a superior example of the Warner Brothers output, are the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the performances of Bette Davis and Claude Rains.

Along with Max Steiner, Korngold defined the sound of Warner Brothers in the 30s and 40s. (For a few years in the mid-40s, they were joined by the great Franz Waxman.) Steiner was the studio work horse, often forced to compose an entire score in only a few weeks, eventually tallying about 185 scores over the course of thirty years at the studio. Korngold, on the other hand, was treated like a prize horse, given months to work out his elaborate compositions, usually at the rate of about two movies a year. (A former child prodigy who had matured into one of the most respected composers in Europe until the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee to America, he ended up being the “prestige” composer at Warner’s.) For DECEPTION, Korngold composed a cello concerto for the film’s climax, wherein Hollenius tortures Christine and Karel with the promise of a masterful new concerto to showcase Karel’s skill and launch his career in America. Korngold’s composition is such a moody triumph that he expanded it into a full-length work, his Op. 37, the Cello Concerto in C.

To be honest, Paul Henreid almost always leaves me a bit cold, and his performance here is merely serviceable when another performer could have made Karel a truly haunted figure. He’s outmatched by Bette Davis, who holds the screen as well as any actor ever could. Whether she’s lying, making love, or just thinking, you can’t really take your eyes off of her. Having said that, however, the film is stolen right out from under its headliner by Claude Rains as the mad composer Hollenius. At his best, as he is here, there was really no better actor in the 1940s than Claude Rains. Whether he was the lovable crooked policeman in CASABLANCA or the murderous husband in NOTORIOUS (to name just two of his many, many supporting roles), he was always smoothly urbane, undeniably corrupted, and unmistakably human. Here he makes a Hollenius a tiny tower of insecurity, brilliance, and nonchalant cruelty. He’s the best thing about the movie.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020



To be a true cinephile, you need at least one object of obsession that belongs to you alone. Loving STAR WARS doesn't make you a cinephile any more than loving McDonald's makes you a foodie. And being obsessed with someone like David Lynch or an oddball failure like Tommy Wiseau's THE ROOM only means that you belong to a cult. Please understand that none of the preceding is intended to diminish STAR WARS, THE ROOM, or the films of David Lynch. I'm just saying that none of them belong to any one fan, or even small group of fans, anymore. Once an ancillary industry builds around the fandom of a particular film or filmmaker, the original film becomes more of a small business and/or a quasi-religion.

To be a real cinephile, by contrast, means being a cult of one. There are no t-shirts made about your object of obsession, no film-about-the-film, no spinoffs, reboots, sequels, or prequels. There's just a movie that someone made that you saw and fell deeply in love with.

Which brings us to FLESH AND BONE. Written and directed by Steve Kloves, the film is a Texas noir starring Dennis Quaid as Arlis Sweeney,  a solitary man who spends his days driving across the Lone Star State stocking vending machines. One night at a honky tonk, he meets Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), a woman fleeing an abusive husband. Kay just kind of drifts into Arlis's life and decides to stay, but before long trouble arrives in the ominous form of Roy Sweeney (James Caan), Arlis's brutal criminal father. He brings with him uncomfortable reminders of past crimes.

We know what those crimes are. In the film's opening scenes, set in Arlis's childhood, we see the events that tie these characters together. Roy and Arlis attempt to rob a farmhouse in the middle of the night. When the family wakes up, Roy executes everyone in the house. Everyone except a baby girl.

Of course, the baby girl grows up to be Kay Davies and although Arlis assures his father that she never needs to find out what happened on that long ago night, the wicked old man isn't so sure. "It's robbing me of my sleep. And you know how I value my sleep." The final confrontation between father and son is inevitable.

FLESH AND BONE is novelistic in its depth and in the measured way it tells its story. It comes billed as a "thriller" or a "mystery" in most descriptions, though its not really either of those things. There's some gun play at the beginning and again at the end, but it's not for thrills, and there's not really a mystery to be solved, no "whodunit" to figure out. We know from the start whodunit.

Instead, the pleasures of the film are in the character details, the low rolling Texas landscape, and the sense of guilt and foreboding that hangs over everything. There's more than a bit of Jim Thompson here, in the way that genial good ol' boy conversations mask violent intentions, and in the way low-rent grifters drift from place to place doing damage and then moving on.

But FLESH AND BONE is its own thing. The film's central section, before Roy shows back up, is just Arlis and Kay riding around in his truck getting to know each other, sharing the bond of people who have survived traumas and disappointments, and find themselves falling in love. Quaid and Ryan were married at the time, and unlike some married couples who somehow don't quite click onscreen, their chemistry here is natural and easy. Quaid reigns in his normal energy, that cocky country swagger that made him a star (he only deploys his famous smile once or twice in the film). He's reserved, quiet, repressed. Yet his performance isn't devoid of emotion. "You were always so...sensitive," his father tells him disdainfully, and we know that this is true. Arlis's whole personality is like an oil derrick, slowly measuring out the inexhaustible ocean of emotion just below the surface. Ryan on the other hand gives a performance of charm and bruised wit. It's unlike most of the performances we associate her with, less bubbly than her romantic comedies but not as dire as some of the darker works later in her career. She makes Kay a quirky lost soul, someone who might have had a very different life if not for the tragedy in her past.

I love all the little touches in the movie, like the details of Arlis's vending machine business. He stocks chili, condoms, and candy bars, but he also specializes in "exotic attractions" like Brainy Betty, a live chicken, painted blue, that sits in a glass box and plays tic-tac-toe for a quarter a game. "What makes her so brainy?" Kay asks. "She wins nine games out of ten," Arlis answers.

There are also nice supporting roles that deepen the themes of the story. A young Gwyneth Paltrow plays Roy's protegee girlfriend, a sour-faced grifter who shows up at funerals claiming to be a long lost relative and then steals jewelry off the bodies of the deceased. (Paltrow is excellent, and the role is a reminder that before she became the face of rich white lady cluelessness, Paltrow could be believable as trash.) And Scott Wilson is fantastic in a small role as Arlis's shifty employee, a man who is probably stealing from Arlis but who still emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, anyway. Both these roles mirror the leads in interesting ways, with Paltrow as a meaner, more beat up version of Kay, and Wilson as an older, sadder version of Arlis. 

The result of all of this is a rich film, one that creates its own west Texas universe of love and loss. The central symbol of the film is a single blue star--a tattoo hidden just below Alris's hairline, but also the neon sign at the top of the Stardust motel where he lives, and the Willie Nelson version of the song "Stardust" Arlis and Kay dance to one night--a reminder of a past that can't be escaped. That's ultimately what FLESH AND BONE is all about, the way the past isn't just a distant memory, but a mark made on us that we can't really escape.

I was being a little cheeky at the start by saying that I'm a cult of one for this film. I assume there are other people out there who love it as much as I do. But our number is not legion. FLESH AND BONE lost money at the box office when it was released in 1993, got middling reviews (Roger Ebert, for instance, dismissed it with two stars), and has not developed a noticeable online following. The film's main creative force Steve Kloves, who had previously directed THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, later went on to a hugely successful career writing the Harry Potter movies, but he hasn't directed another film since FLESH AND BONE. Its current IMDB score is a flaccid 6.2 and in the 27 years since its release there has been virtually no scholarship about the film.

And yet, for me, the film is personal favorite, one that's haunted me and intrigued me since I first saw it in a theater in Little Rock 27 years ago. FLESH AND BONE was the first movie I ever saw in a theater by myself. I was 18 and had just moved away from home. I sat there in the dark, in the almost completely empty auditorium, and I knew as I watched it that this film was for me. It's been a guiding star ever since.    

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


What a strange, strange film. Just to describe the story of THE SWIMMER is to be amazed that it was ever made into a major motion picture. A man decides to spend a day "swimming across the county" via a route of suburban swimming pools. That's it. That's the plot. He goes from pool to pool until he makes it back to his house. Just imagine, someone actually greenlit a movie with that plot. Of course, the plot doesn't really capture how the film unfolds, how we learn more and more about about the man, how the movie takes on the weight of a tragedy.

The movie begins on a sunny day in a WASPy Connecticut suburb when a man named Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the woods and jumps into the backyard swimming pool of some friends. Everyone is hungover, lounging by the water, nursing drinks, when Ned shows up in his swimsuit. They seem happy to see him, but where's he been keeping himself? Seems like they haven't seen him in a while. Ned has a drink, flirts with the women, slaps backs with the men, playfully jostles a few expanding waistlines and blithely accepts compliments on his own impressive physique. It's all amiable enough, but there's an undercurrent of strangeness, a certain halting lag between some of the conversation, especially in the way his friends glance at each other when Ned announces his decision to swim the pools back to his house where his wife and daughters are waiting for him. 

Who is Ned? Where has he been? We don't know, but we start to gather information about who he has been and the role he's played in this community. Oozing affluence, boozy charm, and self-entitled lechery, he seems like the kind of middle-aged man who might have been partying at the beach house with Teddy Kennedy and the boiler room girls in Chappaquiddick.

As if foreshadowing the tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne, for part of his journey Ned's joined by a pretty young woman named Julie (Janet Landgard) who used to babysit his two daughters. They run around an obstacle course until Ned turns his ankle. Julie admits she had a crush on him when she was a girl and then confides that she's being sexually harassed at work, but when Ned takes this information as an invitation to put his hands on her, Julie runs away. 

As Ned Merrill continues on his journey across the county, we learn more about him. Some people are happy to see him. Others are not. A few, in fact, are furious. What starts out as a lark turns into an endurance test. At first, the day is warm and sunny. Running around in nothing but swim trunks seems almost normal. But as the day turns darker and colder, storm clouds gather. By the end, he's just a nearly naked man trying to cross a busy freeway, limping home in the freezing rain. 

There's more that could be divulged about what we learn about Ned on his way home, but the film needs to be experienced on its own terms. The less you know, the better. 

THE SWIMMER was a bomb when it was first released, which surely came as a surprise to no one.  It fits into no easy categories, and it does not have a clear auteur. It was scripted by Eleanor Perry from a John Cheever short story and directed by her husband Frank. These days, the gifted Frank Perry is best known as the director of the camp classic MOMMIE DEAREST, which isn't much of a directorial calling card. Plus, the producer (with the apparent backing of the star) fired Perry toward the end of production and brought in a young Sidney Pollack to completely reshoot some of the scenes. This produces a strange jumpiness to the film. For example, Pollack reshot some "outside" scenes between Lancaster and Landgard on a soundstage, creating a trippy contrast to the actual outdoor footage Perry shot for the rest of the sequence. The penultimate scene of the film, where Ned confronts his former mistress, played by Barabra Loden, was also scrapped, the role recast with Janice Rule, and the scene reshot.

So, a troubled production resulted in a box office failure. That should have been the end of it, but THE SWIMMER has only grown in stature over the years. Once seen, it can't really be forgotten. Its strange rhythms pull you in and stay with you. Eleanor Perry's script is brilliant. The Cheever short story is available online and should be read--it's a haunting piece of work all on its own--but the way Perry fleshed out the story in her script builds Ned's world pool by pool. 

At the center of it all is Burt Lancaster, in what may well be his best performance. He had always been a big strapping stud. Think THE KILLERS or BRUTE FORCE in the '40s. (He was one of noir's most swaggering male presences.) By 1968, he was the perfect actor to play Ned Merrill, putting his body and his ego on display, letting them both be torn down bit by bit.

This finally brings us to the swim trunks. Lancaster wears them in every single scene. He has no other wardrobe. In the first scene, he is resplendent, the very model of middle-aged health. It's a sunny day, everyone is lounging by the pool, so it makes sense. But scene by scene, it starts to seem strange that this guy is wandering around the woods and people's backyards in nothing but his tight little swimsuit. Scene by scene, as the weather changes, as the social settings change, as his relationship to the other characters change, this tired, 55-year-old man limping around mostly naked starts to seem sad and pathetic. His physical glory in the opening scenes takes on a tragic grander, until we realize we were seeing the last shining moment before his ego started to finally unravel for good.   


THE SWIMMER has engendered a lot of good writing over the years. I particularly like this piece by Travis Woods "A Life in the Day: The Masculine Irreality of THE SWIMMER."

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Resurrection of GUILTY BYSTANDER (1950)

In a world of unrelenting bad news, here's a tiny piece of good news. GUILTY BYSTANDER--a small, cheap cult noir that only weird guys like me have ever cared about--is back from the dead. After decades of existing in only the shittiest form imaginable, the film has been reborn in a gorgeous new restoration. 

GUILTY BYSTANDER is the best film made by the husband and wife team of director Joseph Lerner and editor Geri Lerner, a couple of mavericks who helped pioneer postwar movie making in New York City. The film stars Zachary Scott as an alcoholic ex-cop named Max Thursday. When we meet him, he’s passed out drunk in a flophouse where he “works” as the house detective. He’s roused from his stupor by his ex-wife (Faye Emerson) who is distraught because their young son is missing. Thursday slaps himself awake and promises to track down the kid. His search leads him through a maze populated by shady doctors, hypochondriac smugglers, and surly prostitutes. In the end, Thursday’s investigation leads right to his back door.

Max Thursday was the creation of the writing team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller, who wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Miller (writing as “Whit Masterson” the pair also wrote the novel  BADGE OF EVIL on which Orson Welles based TOUCH OF EVIL). Thursday was originally conceived and written as a hero in the tradition of Spade and Marlowe, albeit with rougher edges. The curious thing about this film is that it completely neglects to make Thursday into a hero at all. He’s all rough edges. No wonder the authors of the original novel hated the film, feeling that it turned Thursday into a hopeless lush and, maybe worse, something of a wimp.

That criticism, however, only underlines the deeply noir quality of the film. Lerner’s Max Thursday is a drunken antihero with an emphasis on the anti. After his ex-wife pulls him out of his drunken slumber, he offers her “breakfast” from a whiskey bottle:
            “Please Max,” she says. “I need help.”
            “Why come to me?”
            “I’m desperate.”
            “The whole world’s desperate. And I’m tired. Now go away.”

Once she’s told him the kid is missing, he drags himself out of bed to go investigating. His search leads him to creepy Dr. Edler. When Max presses the doctor on the whereabouts of the kid, Elder offers him a drink. Max has three. In the next scene he wakes up in jail and we discover that the police found him passed out drunk in the rain. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a man looking for his missing child. Quite the hero.

The film’s real conflict is Max’s drinking, the “Will I?” or “Won’t I?” that every alcoholic has to comes to terms with. This conflict is visceral and real (more so than the kidnap plot) and it’s the reason why, even though Thursday spends much of the film being a petulant jerk, we grow to sympathize with him. He seems shaky and weak, which makes his trek through Lerner’s shadowy streets take on an aspect of dogged heroism despite the character’s own attempts to sabotage himself.

It helps this interpretation of the character that Thursday is played by the underrated Zachary Scott. The film came at a difficult time for Scott. He’d been typecast as charming heels and cads in films like MILDRED PIERCE, and it had started to cost him parts in big pictures. Around the time that his juice at the studio was starting to thin out, his wife of fifteen years left him for novelist John Steinbeck. To make matters worse, while their divorce was underway, Scott nearly drowned during a boating accident. It is this Zachary Scott — beaten and battered but not yet broken — who staggers down these mean New York streets looking for his child. Gone is the swagger and charm, Scott’s running on pure grit here. His performance, lacking any attempts to grab our sympathy, is the heart of the film.

In the film Scott’s given a remarkably bitter speech in which he explains his descent from cop to hopeless alcoholic:
[Cops] like to shove people around, they’re bad for their kids. They like violence, they like to carry guns. They’re just muscle men who like to use their muscles[...] But what does a muscle man do when he can’t use his muscles? He becomes a longshoreman, a file clerk, a cabbie. Or an insurance salesman. Maybe you don’t know about insurance salesman. Well, I’ll tell you. A little different from being a cop. You don’t tell people, you ask them. You ask them and then you smile until your face aches[…] Gets to be kind of a joke, see. Gets tougher and tougher to walk in, so one day you take a drink to help. The next time you decide maybe two would be better. And one day you decide to take three drinks and not walk in at all.
This acidic speech is all the more amazing because the film never tacks on a “correction” to it. Thursday never fully shakes off the drunkard’s self-pity to reclaim his gallant cop mantle. Though it has the structure of a detective story, Thursday is closer to one of David Goodis’s boozy losers than Chadleresque hero.

For years, GUILTY BYSTANDER was basically lost, existing only in chopped up, muddy prints that looked like they'd been stored in a sewer and chewed on by rats. In 2020, however, the director Nicolas Winding Refn restored the film, working from the last known 35mm print, which was in the care of the BFI. The result, believe me, is shocking. This is the single most impressive restoration of a film that I've ever seen. Scenes previously swamped in murky black are now pristine, and the cinematography (of Glen Hirschfield and Russell Harlan) can finally be appreciated for its low-budget beauty. Just as important, about eight minutes have been restored that were missing from the film’s last act, including scenes that clear up certain plot elements, and a fantastic chase through the subway tunnels of New York City, one of the first sequences of its kind.    

The film itself is still a rough hewn piece of work. Interiors were shot at various locations including on stages at the ancient Fox studios on W. 56th Street, in abandoned warehouses, and at “the Tombs,” the Manhattan Detention Complex. Exteriors were picked up on the streets, “guerilla style” as Geri would later explain it, including a finale under the Brooklyn Bridge. This marrying of low budget aesthetics to the odyssey of its skid row protagonist will probably never make GUILTY BYSTANDER a crowd-pleasing hit, yet it remains a movie worth seeing, and it was certainly one well worth saving.

You can watch the restored GUILTY BYSTANDER and read related articles at byNWR.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What If: Judy Garland and the Fifties Musical

I like to play little what if? games sometimes with classic films and filmmakers, asking myself what would have happened if X Y or Z had occurred. It's fun (at least I think it's fun) to contemplate the different ways film history might have changed. I was thinking about one of these what ifs last night, and I thought I'd share it. (Maybe I'll make this a semi-regular feature on the blog. We'll see.)

This what if concerns Judy Garland. Before I get to the question itself, let's set it up. In the mid-1930s, while she was barely a teenager, Judy did her apprenticeship at MGM. She was most successful playing the female sidekick to Mickey Rooney. By the time she made THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939, however, the studio was already wondering if Judy could start carrying movies by herself. Although OZ wasn't an immediate hit (it did good box office but cost a lot to make and didn't turn a profit until it was rereleased a few years later), it did establish that Judy was worthy of the spotlight. The studio kept her paired with Rooney for a few more years to squeeze out as many "Mickey and Judy" dollars as possible, but it also began easing Garland into her own star vehicles like FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942) and PRESENTING LILY MARS (1943). When she struck box office gold with MEET ME IN ST LOUIS in 1944, Judy Garland was officially a star in her own right. For the next six years she enjoyed hits like THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946), EASTER PARADE (1948) and SUMMER STOCK (1950). 

As her star rose, however, Judy began to be a problem on set. She had crippling stage fright which, when combined with deepening drug abuse, made her steadily more difficult to work with. In practical terms that meant that some days it was impossible to get her in front of a camera, costing the studio thousands of dollars for every minute the crew stood around waiting. Finally, after she completed SUMMER STOCK in 1950, MGM did the previously unthinkable and fired Judy.

Now, this is where we might do a what if? What if Judy had somehow pulled herself together and didn't get fired from MGM in 1950? It's interesting to consider, though I think the answer isn't as simple as 'we would have gotten more great Judy MGM musicals.' Yes, we would have gotten her in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, which she'd already begun shooting when she was fired. (She was replaced by Betty Hutton.) Yes, she probably would have starred in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN with Gene Kelly, which is what he wanted. That would have been interesting.

But by 1950, Judy was burned out doing the whole 'happy and I know it' song and dance routine at MGM. What happened to her when she got fired was that she was forced to go and become Judy Garland the singer, to tour and record fulltime, rather than being Judy Garland the singing movie star. And this is the key, because it was only at this point in her career that Judy really became the auteur of her own career. While she had been one of the greatest and most iconic of movie stars, she'd also been a cog in the machine, a commodity for the studio to shape and distribute as it saw fit.  On her own, however, she shaped her art to her own will. She became a legendary live performer with historic runs in London and New York, culminating in her smash hit album JUDY AT CARNEGIE HALL in 1961. What's notable is that her studio albums and live recordings have more of an edge to them than her previous work for MGM. Their pathos is deeper, their wit is sharper.

In the sixties, she returned to movies, making a handful of films, but it's notable that she mostly made dramas like JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and A CHILD IS WAITING. Her only film role in the 1950s was her triumphant performance in George Cukor's A STAR IS BORN (1954).

And it's A STAR IS BORN that leads us to our big what if. Although the film was heralded as a masterpiece and a great comeback for Judy, it failed to make money. I won't get into the details of why this happened (it has a lot to do with Warner Brothers, the studio that released it), but it will suffice to say that Judy took a lot of blame that she didn't deserve. But what if the film had been a success? What if Judy could have set up her shingle at Warner Brothers and made two or three (of more) musicals for them?

Because one thing that is fascinating about A STAR IS BORN is that it's more of a Judy Garland joint that any other film she made. She and her husband Sid Luft were the primary movers and shakers on the production. The entire film was geared toward being a showcase for the talents of Judy Garland: belting out up-tempo tunes, crooning slow torch songs, and displaying her acting chops. (She lost Best Actress to Grace Kelly that year, and I'd say that time has offered a different verdict except that even at the time it was obvious that Garland should have won.) More tellingly, the movie was dark. This wasn't a musical comedy like all those smiley pictures she made for MGM. This story ends with a suicide. This is a musical drama.

What if Judy had been able to make more musical dramas in the 50s? Her drinking buddy Humphrey Bogart took on darker and darker roles in the 50s, deepening the meaning of his onscreen persona. What if Garland had been allowed to do that with the musical? Listen to her song "Me and My Shadow" off her 1957 studio album masterpiece ALONE, and ask yourself what kind of film that song would have fit into. I want to see that film. I bet it would have been great. 

Friday, March 13, 2020


A brief note at the start: I wrote this little piece a few years ago because I was interested in film noirs about outbreaks. The best known “contagion noir” of the classic era is probably Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950). It’s a superior piece of craftsmanship, and it features a you-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it performance by Jack Palance as a psycho. Having said that, however, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (made that same year) is more paranoid and more obsessed with contagion itself. With its all too serious docu-noir feel, it’s actually the more disturbing piece of work, especially watched at this particular moment in time in 2020. Some people reading this will doubtless think, “Well, then, why would I want to watch it?” Others will want to watch it precisely because it is scary, its creepiness acting like an exorcism for a certain anxiety around the spread of the coronavirus. You know who you are.

One of the constant themes of film noir is anxiety. You find this theme expressed many different ways: anxiety about gender roles, anxiety about the cops, anxiety about Communist infiltration. You find this theme over and over in noir. What makes THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK such an interesting addition to this litany is that it’s about a different kind of anxiety: the fear of contagion.

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK concerns a diamond smuggler named Shelia Bennett (Evelyn Keyes) who, as the film begins, has just snuck some stones back into the country from Cuba for her no-good husband Matt (Charles Korvin). What she doesn’t know is that she’s also brought back a case of smallpox. In no time at all, she’s spread it around the city and people start dropping like flies. Meanwhile, Shelia’s husband runs out on her—taking the diamonds—and leaves her to deal with the cops and a growing epidemic. The plot runs on different tracks: the cops (led by noir stalwart Barry Kelley) are chasing a jewel smuggler, while the doctors (led by William Bishop, Dorothy Malone and Carl Benton Reid) are chasing the carrier of the plague. It’s fun watching these people run around—the doctors racing against time—until their twin investigations converge on poor Shelia Bennett.

Shelia’s got her own problems, of course. She knows the cops are after her, but she doesn’t yet know she has smallpox. Things only get worse when she finds out her no-good husband has been having an affair with her younger sister. When Shelia confronts her sister (Lola Albright), the confused girl—distraught that Matt has abandoned both of them—kills herself. Once Shelia finds out she’s carrying smallpox, her only goal becomes tracking down her husband so she can extract revenge before she dies.

This is a promising setup for a film, but as a drama it has one serious drawback: a pompous voiceover narration that intrudes over most of the first thirty minutes and then chimes in from time to time, coming in at the end to reassure us that the world didn’t end. Here’s an experiment: watch the first ten minutes of this film and imagine them without the voiceover. They not only would have worked, they would have worked better, with the audience discovering the plot in tandem with the characters.

Still, the film does work. It is directed proficiently by Earl McEvoy who juggles these different narratives without letting us get confused. He should have cut the voiceover—but what can you do? A lot of noirs have this device. It’s done often, if seldom done well. The cinematography by Joseph Biroc is a nice blend of location footage in New York and some atmospheric soundstage work such as Shelia’s final confrontation with her shiftless husband. Keyes is as good as usual as the vengeful Shelia, though because she’s unaware she’s carrying the disease for most of the film, she doesn’t have a whole lot to do.

To make up for this, the script by Harry Essex (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) does a particularly good job at building suspense around the emerging smallpox epidemic. These scenes are all business, especially with noir regular Carl Benton Reid barking orders and twisting arms, while doctor William Bishop and nurse Dorothy Malone confront a quickly mounting number of cases. One of the purposes of a movie like this is to function as a public service announcement, and I’ll be damned if this one didn’t work on me. Human beings are nasty creatures, so thank god for the Centers for Disease Control.

It probably worked even better at the time. In 1950, the world wasn’t too far away from the influenza pandemic of 1918 which had killed more people than WWI. Following WWII, where the world saw wartime carnage reach unthinkable proportions, Americans were fed a steady diet of propaganda about Communist infiltration and subversion. Even as we moved into the flattop fifties, with suburbia laid out on grids and a cheerful mother supposedly baking apple pies in every kitchen, it seemed as if contagion were everywhere. (A contagion that was often—as it is in THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK—associated with foreign elements.) The cleaner the surface became, the more we feared the filth inside. People began to fear obliteration, fearful it would arrive in a pestilence that would wipe out everything. By 1957, Ingmar Bergman could make THE SEVENTH SEAL, a film about the Black Plague that many people read as an allegory for the fear of nuclear annihilation.

In 1950, you can see the beginnings of the fear in something THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, the title itself conjuring the image of a serial-murderer on the loose. The fear of mass death is legitimate of course, and this film captures that dread, that sinking feeling that something could be happening right now that could mean the end of us all.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Note on SUSPICION (1941)

I'm continuing my big Cary Grant rewatch, and tonight I caught up with SUSPICION. Something occurred to me as I watched it that I wanted to make note of.

Before I get to that, it's important to say that one of the reasons that Grant has come to pretty much embody the idea of Movie Star for a lot of people is that he managed to play a range of roles while always staying Cary Grant.

For instance: look at him in THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), HOLIDAY (1938), and BRINGING UP BABY (1938). Three romantic comedies released within the space of two years, and yet Grant is playing very different characters--a blithe ladies man in the first, a guileless idealist in the second, and a befuddled professor in the third--and yet two things are true. 1) He plays each role differently, and 2) Each performance fits within the persona we understand to be "Cary Grant." He could play many different variations on that persona.

Which brings us back to SUSPICION. This film is famous for being a 'nearly great' movie that was sabotaged when the studio made Hitchcock change the ending. The film concerns a shy young woman (played by everyone's shy young woman Joan Fontaine) who meets and marries a handsome rake, played, of course, by Cary Grant. As the film progresses, Fontaine and the audience start to suspect that Grant is more than just irresponsible and loose with money. We start to worry that he might be dangerous. We start to worry that he might even want to murder his wife. 1941 Spoiler Alert: in the original conception of the film, Grant was indeed the killer, and Hitchcock devised a wickedly smart finale in which the lovesick Fontaine lets Grant murder her but tricks him into mailing a letter to the police in which she fingers him for the killing. (You can see this idea being set up in the movie's opening moments when there is much ado about Grant borrowing some stamps from Fontaine.) In the revised ending, however, Grant turns out NOT to be the dangerous man that the rest of the film has painstakiningly prepared us for him to be. 

Opinions differ as to how much the new ending was the result of studio interference and how much was Hitchcock. Either way, Hitch would openly lament the revised ending, and just about everyone who sees the movie agrees. Grant should have been the bad guy. My feeling is that if Hitchcock had gone ahead and kept the original ending (it was never filmed), SUSPICION would certainly rank as one of Cary Grant's finest performances, and might even be considered his pinnacle. 

He's charming but cold, smooth but scary. He's a villain, but he's still somehow Cary Grant. What's interesting is that the ending was rewritten because, the thinking went, "Cary Grant can't be the bad guy." In other words, Cary Grant can be dashing, heroic, comic, goofy, innocent, or sophisticated, but he can't be evil. The great loss of SUSPICION is that the movie itself shows the opposite. His performance here is sheer Cary Grant. You see what she sees in him. Of course you can. After all, he's Cary Grant. And yet as the film goes on, you start to dread him, first because he's such a liar and a sneak, and then as the film progresses, because he seems like he's hiding even darker secrets.

In the fifties, stars like Wayne, Bogart, Stewart, and Cooper all played darker variations on their basic screen personas. Grant really didn't. And, tellingly, he was a marquee romantic leading man longer than anyone else. People just seemed to want him to keep being Cary Grant. So he did. It was good business and a legendary career.

But SUSPICION shows that, if he'd wanted, he could have played a much darker variation on that same persona. This a flawed film, but it contains fascinating hints of what might have been.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The HOLIDAY Handspring: A Lesson in Grace from Cary Grant

I'm in the middle of a big Cary Grant rewatch right now, and last night I caught up with HOLIDAY (1938). I first saw this movie about twenty years ago, and while I liked it well enough back then, I think I was vaguely disappointed that it didn't reach the never to be reached heights of insanity in BRINGING UP BABY (released that same year). With age sometimes comes wisdom, though, and watching this film again I'm floored by its gentle sweetness and light comic touch. (That's George Cukor finding the perfect pitch for everything, I think.)

There's so much to praise here, from the deft comic turns of Grant and Hepburn and the wonderful supporting performances of Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, and Lew Ayres. What I really wanted to talk about with this little post, though, is Cary Grant's flipping.

In this movie he does some impressive gymnastics. Now, while some bits like the final backflip at the film's climax have been edited in such a way to make me think that it's someone else performing the stunt, other stunts like the handspring shown above, are clearly Grant himself.

Grant honed these skills while performing with an acrobatic troop in his youth. His handspring is all the more impressive for the fact that he uses one hand to keep his hat on as he goes over and then plants the landing with a wink and a flourish of charm. Charm, of course, is what we so often talk about when we talk about Cary Grant.

But what we should also talk about is his grace, and this movie gives us a perfect example of his grace to discuss. I don't mean the flip itself. I mean the fact that he didn't do this all the time. Most actors, if they could have done these kinds of gymnastics, would have done them in every movie. They would have turned this acrobatic skill set into a gimmick and then run it into the ground. After all, turning inspiration into gimmickry and then depleting its power through repetition is what Hollywood has always done. 

But Grant knew better than to run his acrobatic prowess into the ground. He saved it like a special gift for his audience, something he could break out once he found a perfect showcase for it. Since I haven't seen the entirety of his filmography I can't say for sure if he ever did these kind of gymnastics in another film. Perhaps he did. What I can say for sure is that he doesn't do it in any of the dozens of films of his that I've seen, which includes all the films for which he's best known. Which means that for all intents and purposes, HOLIDAY is the one film where you can see Grant doing his flips. He saved this trick for the right role in the right film. Then, he retired it, and glided away to the next role.

That's grace.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

MARY MAGDALENE and the Jesus Movie

I was on Twitter pontificating about Joaquin Phoenix's probable Oscar win tonight for his performance as Joker. I argued that the actor's best performance last year was as Jesus in Garth Davis's MARY MAGDALENE. (The film was released first overseas in 2018 and then had a brief limited run in the US last year.) Someone asked me if the movie itself was any good. In trying to answer that question, I started to reflect on the genre it belongs to, that subgenre of the biblical epic, the Jesus movie.

MARY MAGDALENE is an interesting addition to the corpus of Jesus movies. All Jesus movies have a different theological focus. This reflects (probably unintentionally) the way we receive the original story of Christ in the New Testament.

A digression: If you read the Christian Bible as a unified work, the break between the old and new testaments is a shocking transition. After the OT collection of myth, poetry, law, and history, we suddenly transition into four different takes on one story--a multi-fractured narrative biography of Christ. Why the different perspectives? Even among the three synoptic Gospels there's a striking difference in style (the critic Harold Bloom once said that with its emphasis on demonic possession and dark forebodings the Gospel of Mark read like something written by Edgar Allan Poe), and that's before you even get to the epic Gospel of John, which takes things in radically different cosmological and Christological directions. 

All of which is a way of saying that the story of Jesus has been open to varied interpretation from the beginning. On film, his story has been told regularly since the earliest days of silent movies, starting with George Melies's short CHRIST WALKING ON WATER in 1899. In fact, the first MARY MAGDALENE film (at least I think it was the first) was released as far back as 1914.

Making a film about Christ isn't simply a matter of assembling a collection of his greatest hits (of both the rhetorical and miraculous variety) and topping it off with the death and resurrection. A film about Christ has to stake out its own distinct theological point of view. What is the story this particular filmmaker wants to tell about Jesus? What's important about this story? What's less important? What's the final message of this story?

Something like Mel Gibson's PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a good example of what I mean. Gibson made the first fundamentalist Christian movie about Christ. He stripped the story down to one message: Christ took our much deserved punishment upon himself. Gibson hammers this message relentlessly for two hours. Christ suffered and died for us, and that is why we owe him our allegiance. Nothing else he said or did--the other 90% of the story of the Gospels--is important. And this message perfectly captures a fundamentalist understanding of the story of Christ. As a Southern Baptist, I heard this message preached three times a week every week, 52 weeks a year.

There are other good examples of what I mean. Pier Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW casts Jesus as proto-Marxist, focusing on the way his message is directed toward the poor and downtrodden living under imperial rule. Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST uses the Gospel story as a meditation on the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Because it gives itself wide leeway in telling this story, the result is probably the most psychologically dense Jesus movie ever made.

MARY MAGDALENE is unique in that it focuses on Christ's relationship with Mary Magdalene. It decenters the story, making Jesus the object rather than the subject of the film. This decentering has been done before, of course, most famously in BEN-HUR, where Jesus isn't much more than a Very Special Guest Star. (The Coen brothers' brilliant and generally underrated HAIL CESAR! has a lot of fun lampooning BEN-HUR'S hamfisted attempts at big budget piety.) What makes MARY MAGDALENE unique is the way it shifts the focus to Mary Magdalene, arguing that she was Christ's primary disciple, the holy woman to his holy man, and that their message was rooted in a sense of liberation that might best be described as feminist.

There are so many ways this could go wrong, and doubtless some viewers will reject the film outright just on the basis of that description, just on the basis of the word feminist itself. And yet, it must be said that the film's primary strength is that it is a serious, even pious work, one that actually tries to wrestle with the notion that the core of Christ's message was a shattering of traditional hierarchies. It deals with one element that every serious consideration of Christ must deal with, the fact that his message was never fully understood by his disciples and followers, and that according to the Gospels themselves, this was by design, that Christ kept his own counsel. In this film, Mary is the one who wrestles with it the most, the one who comes to the best understanding of Christ's earthly mission.

As Mary, Rooney Mara is quite good, emotional but contained. She anchors the movie. But every Jesus movie, even the ones that decenter him, are about their Jesus, which brings us back around to Joaquin Phoenix.

I didn't love or hate JOKER. I thought it was okay. I thought Phoenix, fearless performer that he is, did what he had to do, but I also don't think there was anything terribly surprising about his performance. To hear that Joaquin Phoenix is playing a guy with mental health issues who descends into madness and becomes the Joker is to pretty much have already seen his performance. He plays crazy. He plays it with absolute commitment, but he's kind of just playing crazy.* 

As Jesus, however, Phoenix is offbeat and unpredictable. He plays Christ as a mystic, not as tortured as Willem Defoe in LAST TEMPTATION but similarly haunted and unsure of himself. He's not the smug know-it-all that we sometimes get from the onscreen Jesus, the guy who already knows the answer and is just making the rest of us guess. Phoenix's Christ is a man coming to the dawning realization that he is also god, that he is communing with the spirit world in a way that no one else ever has. His relationship with Mara's Mary is chaste in large part because they've both transcended the body, with him showing her the way to a larger understanding of human existence and with her taking that message and trying to apply it to the real world.

If Phoenix wins the Oscar tonight, good for him. He's one of the best actors we have, so I'll be happy for him. But his best performance last year wasn't as the Clown Prince of Crime but as the King of Kings.

*I can't remember the episode but the podcast Keep It recently did a good job articulating this same idea about Phoenix's performance in JOKER.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

My Year at the Movies 2019

above: Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

I saw 102 movies on the big screen in 2019. That's a quite a dip from my all-time high of 126 movies in 2018. Not that it's about numbers, of course. (Though to be honest keeping count of my moviegoing is as close as I get to playing sports.) 

I began the year with a bang, seeing BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938) in Paris. For a Gary Cooper fan, to see one of my favorites among his comedies on the big screen in Paris was a joyful experience. The last film I saw this year was Terence Malick's beautiful A HIDDEN LIFE (2019), a profound work of Christian humanism, and his best film in years.

My favorite new films this year, aside from A HIDDEN LIFE, were (in no particular order) the hilarious and horrifying PARASITE, the empathetic divorce drama MARRIAGE STORY, the loving documentary tribute THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES, the loving biopic tribute JUDY, the irresistible HUSTLERS, and the darkly elegiac THE IRISHMAN. My favorite blockbuster was ENDGAME, which did the big bloated blockbuster thing about as well as it can be done. My favorite overlooked movie of the year was MARY MAGDALENE,  a feminist retelling of the gospel story featuring compelling performances from Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix (whose turn as Jesus was far more nuanced than his work as Joker). 

As is always the case, I've seen a lot more old movies than new ones this year. (The benefits of living in Chicago, a town that loves its repertory movie programming.) Highlights included a retrospective of all four of Bogart/Bacall vehicles, an all-night program of four Dolly Parton movies (9 to 5, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, RHINESTONE, and STRAIGHT TALK), Chabrol's shocking LES BONNES FEMMES, and three Judy Garland films (EASTER PARADE, THE CLOCK, and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS). I also got to see a lot of noir, including IN A LONELY PLACE, SUDDEN FEAR, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, PUSHOVER, THE RED HOUSE, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and both versions of THE KILLERS.

All in all, it was a hell of a year at the movies. Hope to match it this year...and maybe get those numbers up.