Thursday, August 28, 2008

Colder than a Ticket Taker's Smile at the Ivar Theatre

Being a cinephile can be a tricky thing. One must profess their love for movies and often have this love and knowledge of film thrown back in their face by those other movie lovers out there, the ones who control the box office and "just want to be entertained." As a result our behaviors change over the years; they adapt, modify, and adjust. When my cinephilia began I recommended one movie after another to anyone who would listen. Slowly my recommendations whittled down to just select family and friends until finally it became one of almost complete dimishment. I recommend movies online on my blog and in my comments section to like-minded enthusiasts but in the face to face world, except for my wife, I haven't recommended * a movie to anyone in years. You get older, you get wiser. You learn that some things just aren't worth it. **

When I was a teenager I adored it when someone found out I loved movies. I'd break into a riff on everything from German expressionism to Hollywood consumerism. I soaked it up. I drank it down like Dionysus on a three day Nectar binge. I especially liked it when an older person would mention someone like Irene Dunne or Paul Muni and say, "Oh you wouldn't know them, they're before your time." Oh yeah? That's when they'd get a Dunne/Muni history lesson like they'd never had before. ***

Then I'd find myself arguing for movies I didn't even like! I still do it on occasion but nothing like my early twenty-something heyday. Someone who only wanted their movies to entertain them would remark that they saw [insert name of revered film masterpiece here] on television last night and "it sucked!" Okay. I think to myself, "I'm not wild about that movie either but I know it's excellent, it's just not a favorite. And I know this guy's favorite movie of all time is Police Academy 3 so I'm going to let him have it." But nowadays, faced with the same situation, I am much more likely to say, "Well there you go. Guess it's not for everybody," and quickly add, "Boy look at the time, gotta go."

It's not that the passion isn't there anymore, it's just that I finally learned only about five percent of the movie-going population cares a lick about anything beyond two to three hours of images and sounds to provide accompaniment to their popcorn eating. As for the five percent who do care, they're here online so I don't have to bother whipping my blood pressure into needle busting frenzy anymore over someone who wants to tell me they saw some Welles' stuff once and weren't very impressed. Yeah, that's great. Blow me.

To the outside world I'm an average moviegoer. If someone brings up my love for movies in polite conversation I'll play it down, say something like, "Doesn't everyone," and ask them to please continue telling me about their work on budget oversight with companies in receivership. Fascinating! To them my love for movies must not seem real. I come off as dispassionate and removed, distant and cold. I have no desire to discuss what's out right now with any of them. I have no desire to recommend a single film. If someone does ask, I'll ask them back, using the old tricks that psychics and palm readers have used for years: Ask lots of questions, feel the believer out, then recommend a current movie in release that they will clearly like. "I hear that [insert name of summer blockbuster here] is really good, you should go see that."

Of course, my passion for film is real and immense but I only show it here and with true believers, and perhaps even a few fellow travellers, in the face to face world. And I've grown to like it that way. I'm not a kid anymore and I don't feel the need to agitate, agitate, agitate about film in my everyday life. It's cost me too much wasted time. But I'll keep doing it here and often. If the internet hadn't come along I don't know what I would have done. I've met more true film lovers, more dyed in the wool cinephiles online than I have ever met in the offline world. Here at Cinema Styles I revel in the world of cinema and always will, even if to the outside world I may as well be taking tickets at the Ivar Theatre.


* - Two things I learned quickly: Never recommend foreign-language or Robert Altman films to anyone who is not a cinephile. You will face only heartache and despair.

** - Please insert recommendations you were burned on in the comments section.

*** - This happened with a barber of mine when I was around 14. He found out I loved movies and told me one of his favorite movies was The Last Angry Man with Paul Muni but that I probably didn't know Muni because of my age. He never made that mistake again.

Monday, August 18, 2008

History and the Movies: Let the Great Illusion Drown

No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read. - David McCullough.

I suppose that applies to viewing as well and I agree. But what McCullough is talking about is taking history and making it engaging without changing or distorting it. That's something the movies have never been good at. As a result, I don't go to the movies for history lessons and as a history buff I don't expect them. I'll get my history from McCullough and others and get my dramatizations from the movies. But sometimes, a movie can distort history to a point where it becomes problematic. That point is usually reached when the movie itself becomes popular enough that the majority of people start believing that the history in the movie is the real history.

I've written several reviews on these pages about narrative dramas and documentaries concerning the Manhattan Project of World War II. It's a subject I have had a deep fascination with for decades. I've read everything there is to read on the subject and seen most, but not all, of the relevant films (I've still not seen The Beginning or the End made in 1946 with Hume Cronyn as J. Robert Oppenheimer but I'd love to, if only it were available). The movie Fat Man and Little Boy is a classic example of a film so loose with the historical record that anyone familiar with the record (like me for instance) starts to wonder, "Was it an actual goal of this film to ignore every possible fact?" Hilariously, the director, Roland Joffe, famously stated that his was the most historically accurate account of the Manhattan Project ever made. "Why," he said, "we even have 'Dance of the Fairies' playing on the radio before the Trinity Test, just like it actually happened." Wow. It's true, they do have that (it occurred due to a reception problem with the P.A. system that picked up a local radio station) and lots of other tiny and utterly meaningless little "details" that add up to nothing. The big stuff, who Oppie and General Leslie Groves were, how they acted, what they said and did, is pure fantasy.

But who cares? Like I said, I don't get my history from the movies and since the movie was a flop I don't have to worry about people actually believing that Robert Oppenheimer squeezed an orange and came up with the idea of implosion (hahahahaha - that scene took the movie straight into the comedy genre for me. And by the way, implosion as an alternate way to achieve a runaway chain reaction was already being researched before they even set up camp at Los Alamos). And if I do want history from a movie I'll watch Day One yet again. You want history? That movie's got history. I'd have to say from all that I've read, including the excellent account by Peter Wyden upon which it was based, that a good 98 percent of what is in that movie is on the historical record. It's probably the most accurate historical film I've ever seen.

Then sometimes a movie mixes up its facts and time lines but still gets the right idea across. In fact, I'd say this is the most common of all the possibilities of the historical film. If you know or have read anything about General George Patton, you know that the movie Patton mixed up dates, deleted characters and generally played fairly loose with the facts about the General. And yet, they still did a good job of accurately portraying him. Filling the role with an astonishingly dynamic presence, George C. Scott gets to the heart of Patton so even if the movie isn't quite accurate, it is, if you know what I mean.

Or take The Right Stuff. Much of the information about the actual flight missions were authentic to a fault. If you've read Thomas Wolfe's account or seen any number of documentaries on the Mercury program, you know that Chuck Yeager did indeed break his ribs the night before his historic test flight and had to use a sawed off broom to close the door to his plane so that he could become the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Just like it is in the movie. But you also know that the Mutt and Jeff characters of Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as well as the hilariously overplayed moments of frustration with LBJ (Donald Moffet) are probably more or less fictionalized. And so what? Again, they get the feel right. They capture the proper spirit, displaying the astronauts' courage and honor as well as their fears, egos, tantrums and generally childish behavior. The Right Stuff gets it right, even if the facts aren't all there.

But now I'd like to get back to how I started this post. That is, the movie that distorts the history and becomes popular enough to sell it as the real deal.

This time of year as the baseball season is heading into its final stretch I often think of Ken Burns' documentary Baseball, which I have on DVD. It's a thorough accounting of the history of the game, if not a thorough accounting of every player (they left out Rogers Hornsby?). Whenever I watch the third installment, The Faith of Fifty Million People, which covers the Chicago White Sox World Series scandal where eight players threw the game for a few thousand bucks, I start thinking about the movie Field of Dreams.

Now I'm not here to critique Field of Dreams, I'm here to talk about it's story concerning Shoeless Joe Jackson. (however if you want to read an entertaining story about the movie and its title I recommend checking out this post from Sheila) If you don't know the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and have only Field of Dreams as your guide (and many people do) you'll come away with quite a different picture of what happened during that ill-fated World Series in 1919.

First there's the casting which is, to borrow a term from the game, straight out of left field. You need to cast an actor as a down home country ball player born and raised in rural poverty in Greenville, South Carolina and you cast ... Ray Liotta!?!???! Liotta, without saying a word, screams urban, tough and streetwise. When he says that line about Ty Cobb not being invited because everyone thinks he's an asshole followed by that Liotta Jersey cackle I cringe every time. And it's not even because Jackson and Cobb were friends and respected each other, although that's obviously a problem with the line as well, but because again, Liotta just doesn't convince me he's a rural poor boy. Kind of like casting Woody Allen as the Terminator. No matter how hard he tried, Woody just wouldn't convince me.

But the real problem for me is the way Jackson is presented. Similar problems occur in Fat Man and Little Boy too, but like I said, that movie flopped. Field of Dreams was a smash. And to this day I've heard people make arguments about Shoeless Joe lifted straight from the conversations of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in the movie. That bothers me. Not because I hate Jackson (on the contrary, I find him a sad figure and sympathize with what he went through) but because I don't like it when the whole story, in favor of just part of it, is swept under the rug because of a person's personality or popularity. And that's the tactic of Field of Dreams with Jackson. We don't get the whole story, just enough to turn him into a victim, instead of a man in control of his own destiny.

Kinsella and Mann talk about Jackson as a sainted figure. He was just a dumb bumpkin who didn't know what he was doing. And besides, if he was in on the fix, how come he played so great during the series? How come his series stats were so amazing? Good questions but not quite thorough enough. His stats were fantastic - offensively. Guess what? So were the offensive stats of the other players on the team. So are Kinsella and Mann saying no one threw the Series? What Kinsella and Mann don't mention, but baseball history books do and these characters appear on the surface to know their baseball history, is that the defensive stats were less than stellar. Why? For me it's simple - ego.

Defensive stats are important to a player but not like those offensive ones. The offensive stats (home runs, rbi's, bases stolen, etc) are the glamour stats and, thrown World Series or not, no one on that team was about to screw with their glamour stats. But when it came time to catch an easy pop fly Jackson stumbled. When he picked up balls in play he took an extra step or two before throwing them to the proper base and when he threw them they didn't have the same power they normally had. To be sure, he made some amazing plays defensively during the series too, enough to keep his stats in line there as well. But he stumbled when he needed to, he slowed down when it counted. And that was the difference. All of this was noticed by sportswriters, fans and one Christy Mathewson during the series. The shadiness of what was going on was somewhat of an open secret. *(see below)

Christy Mathewson was one of the games greatest pitchers before an accidental inhalation of mustard gas during training exercises for combat in World War I ended his career. During the 1919 World Series he was asked by a sportswriter to watch the series with him and let him know what looked fishy. Mathewson noticed things immediately, and they were all on the defense. You know, the part nobody talks about in Field of Dreams.

In the end, none of this matters much. It's innocuous really. But that's how it takes hold. If someone distorts the facts about a world changing event in history there's an immediate outcry and the public takes notice. If someone distorts the facts about a baseball game, well...

Still it bothers me and I think it bothers me more in a dramatic sense than in a historic sense. Imagine if the movie had gone with the Jackson as a man in control of his own destiny. Imagine if Jackson was shown to have helped to throw the series and thus lose the opportunity to ever again play the game he loved. And as a result, it cut a wound so deep in his soul that he had to come back from the dead to heal it, to make amends. Now that's compelling. Innocent victim? Not so much.

And all of this leads me to this scene, this favorite moment from the Ken Burns documentary. It is the Grand Jury testimony of Joe Jackson, the testimony in which he confesses to what he did and explains how it all went down. The testimonial record was conveniently lost and not recovered until after the players had been acquitted in trial. Hmmm.... wonder how that happened. The moment from the documentary has the viewer listen to Jackson (voiced by Keith Carradine) tell the Prosecutor about his payoff. The Prosecutor asks him if his wife knew and if so, what was her reaction. When Jackson tells it the full tragedy of his character is on display. You can hear a wife, in just a few simple words, trying desperately to steer her husband in the right direction, and a husband not hearing any of it. And when Jackson repeats the words on the stand you can imagine the deep regret he has that it didn't end that day. He should have listened to the better angels of his nature, but he didn't. And at that moment his field of dreams died forever.


*If you read the Wikipedia entry on Jackson you will inevitably find the section about his alleged innocence during the series. It is still an open question and I am not trying to outright condemn him in this piece. The Wikipedia entry however, unlike more thorough baseball history books, ignores the defensive stutters of Jackson throughout the Series as Jackson supporters often do. They also mention nefarious tactics by the Prosecutor and end with a statement by Lefty Williams that Jackson's name was only mentioned to give the plot more credibility. However, this does not tell the whole story either. What Williams meant by most accounts when he said Jackson's name was mentioned to give the plot credibility was that he knew Jackson had to be in on it because he was such a great player that if he wasn't in on it the fix might not work - They might not lose. Jackson was that good a player. Take all of this how you will, my main argument here is against the half-truths in Field of Dreams resulting in a less compelling presentation of Joe Jackson's motivations. My main points here are to the dramatic differences in the story if the full Joe Jackson history is used. If history proves Jackson to be completely innocent I will be extremely happy. In the end, Joe Jackson was kind man with immense talent who made one tragically big mistake.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Come All Without, Come All Within, You'll Not see Nothing like the Mighty Len

Regular readers of Cinema Styles have probably noticed I write about acting more than any other aspect of film. I even have an acting category on the sidebar for all my posts on it but none for directing, editing, writing, cinematography, etc. It's not that I don't love and appreciate those aspects of filmmaking but acting was my first love and it can take me in or out of a film faster than anything else. I am much more riveted by a mediocre film with a great performance than by a great film with a perfectly suitable performance. It's just how I roll with these things. And sometimes that can get in the way of a blogger's street cred. After all, we film bloggers are supposed to write about the classics, about Hawks and Hitchcock, Cagney and Stanwyck. We're supposed to serve up insightful posts about cult and camp classics, all manner of genre flicks and The Godfather. We're supposed to write about the latest big films and the discussions centered around them. We're supposed to write about the latest blockbusters and whether they're art or not. We're supposed to be academic and write about great foreign films and film structure and meaning. And without a doubt I love talking and writing about all those things. But we're not supposed to talk about The Four Seasons, written and directed by Alan Alda. That could result in a total loss of street cred. Well street cred be damned I'm talking about The Four Seasons, or more specifically, just how damn good Len Cariou is in the central role of Nick Callan. Like I said, good acting can rivet me.

Any student of the theatre knows Len Cariou. He originated the role of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and I was lucky enough years and years ago to see a videotaped performance of it with Cariou and Angela Lansbury. Johnny Depp will forever be associated with the role now but with all apologies to Johnny, Len is Sweeney Todd. End of story. He also originated the role of Fredrik Egerman, in another Stephen Sondheim Broadway smash, A Little Night Music. But movie fans most likely know him for either The Four Seasons or The Lady in White, and television viewers will recognize his face in an instant as he has guested on practically every successful television show of the last twenty years. But it's The Four Seasons I want to concentrate on.

The Four Seasons was Alan Alda's sophomore writing and freshman directing effort after the commercial and critical disappointment of The Seduction of Joe Tynan in 1978. The Four Seasons was considerably more successful with the public and the critics. It boasted a cast of seasoned performers (Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Sandy Dennis) mainly going through the paces of a good natured and inspired if unchallenging relationship comedy. But then there was Len.

Len Cariou plays Nick Callan, the central figure to the plot. It is his decisions about his family and marriage that propel the plot along and give the other characters something to talk about. If directing really is 90 percent casting then Alda came up aces when he cast Cariou. Cariou carries the film on his shoulders and doesn't falter for a second.

Every performer in the film seems to have a moment of outburst. Carol Burnett in the hotel bedroom, Alan Alda in the ski lodge, Rita Moreno and Jack Weston (also in the hotel room), Bess Armstrong at the ski lodge. But not Len. Oh it may have been written that way but he doesn't take the bait. When he chews out Alda's character about invading his personal life he seethes, he tenses up, he represses. He doesn't explode. Know why? He's a damn fine actor that's why.

And then there's the way he effortlessly portrays that guy who's always got to be the macho man. You know, the older guy who was a friend of your parents and drank all his booze straight, had effortless charm and talked about that time he broke his collarbone at a frat party the night before the big game and still scored a touchdown the next day. And you can secretly see that your mother and her friends have a little bit of a crush on him. Nick Callan is that guy and dear lord does Len Cariou inhabit his spirit perfectly. It's a wonder to watch.

But Cariou does something else too. When he leaves his wife of twenty years for a younger model he makes you believe by the end of the movie that he really actually did it because he fell in love, not because his penis was getting restless. He may well have divorced her two years later but within the confines of the movie he makes you see his side, and you don't hate him for it.

Len Cariou was not nominated for either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for The Four Seasons. Too bad really, because it's one of the best performances of 1981. He did win a Canadian Oscar, the Etrog, for the film One Man, which I have not seen, in 1977 and has a list of theatre credits that is incredibly impressive. He has multiple Tony award nominations and finally won the Tony on his third nomination for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd. But he has no Oscar or Oscar nomination and I guess that's okay as he doesn't seem overly concerned with film acting anyway. The theatre appears to be his first love. But when he is on the screen, even in small roles like The Lady in White I sit up and take notice and by now you know why; I like good acting. There's something about a sturdy, reliable performer that's reassuring, even comforting. So even if a movie he's in doesn't have a lot to recommend it, even if everybody's in despair, every girl and boy, when Len the actor gets here, everybody's gonna jump for joy. You know the rest.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Brothers, Sisters, We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thing

I watched H.G.Wells Things to Come last month for the 7th or 8th time and once again found myself fascinated by this 1936 sci-fi drama. Why do I keep watching it? Several reasons.

One, the set design by director William Cameron Menzies is extraordinary to behold as well as the overall design (how different fonts and animations are used for different expository scrolls, costumes, sound, etc).

Two, Ralph Richardson is terrific in his small but crucial role as the Chief, the thuggish postwar dictator of Everytown, the town featured in the film.

Three, like many sci-fi movies it unknowingly stumbles upon some amazingly accurate predictions of technology.

And Four, it's politics are insanely stupid. Let me say that again: It's politics are insanely stupid. So stupid in fact that critics at the time unfamiliar with Wells' book and his views asked if Wells' was aware that a film based on his work was supporting fascism. Oh yes, it turns out, Wells was quite aware. Quite aware indeed.

H.G. Wells operates on a sliding scale with me. For imagination I rank him near the top. For his prose I rank him somewhere in the mediocre middle, writing in a somewhat wooden style that has a droning quality to it, and for his intellectual ideologies I rank him somewhere in that region just South of the bottom of the barrel, scraping about with other like-minded political dimwits. He was intelligent yes, but sometimes very intelligent people can be political incompetents. Wells was one of those.

I'd love to point you towards a thorough and exemplary article published in 2000 in the Journal of Contemporary History by Philip Coupland that is available on JSTOR (Journal Storage Online), the invaluable archive of academic writings, but unless you work at an institution that does scholarly research, a publishing house or a library you won't be able to access it. Thanks to my job I can access it but it's a locked PDF file so I can't copy and paste from it. Nonetheless, if you're reading this in any one of the above mentioned places, here is the link. For the rest of us, allow me to summarize in a painfully simplistic fashion.

H.G. Wells expounded the political philosophy of Liberal Fascism, which he first called for in an address to the Young Liberals at Oxford in 1932. The Coupland article, "H.G. Wells's 'Liberal Fascism,'" contains generous amounts of quotes and excerpts from that speech as well as from interviews that illuminate these ideas. Wells had quite a bit of praise for Italian Fascism and German Nazism but didn't like their end results. Wells would build a free society by means of an "authoritarian elite."

First, you have to find your Authoritarian Elite, which Wells described as "public-minded, masterful people." Wells' big problem with Italian Fascism and Nazism was the cult of the charismatic leader, hence the need for a committee, so to speak, an "authoritarian elite." This is a magical group of men who are intellectually superior to the rest of us (Wells of course was one of them) and they use technological and industrial superiority to suppress the masses under their thumb, but for their own good. When everyone understands that the Authoritarian Elite are looking out for them and that they are really free, the Authoritarian Elite release their grip and everyone lives in a free society in peace and harmony. The Authoritarian Elite are never tempted by the reins of power and know just when to let up (like I said, they're magical). In the novel, The Shape of Things to Come, when peace is achieved, the elite retire as they are no longer needed. They want to build a society based on freedom of thought and expression, and as soon as everyone learns what they should be thinking and how they should express themselves the elite can go away leaving everyone to leave in a communal utopia. Although you may have guessed already, Wells' Liberal Fascism also renounced "parliamentary democracy, private property and individualism."

In Things to Come, the movie, the town of Everytown falls under the control of a local thug, the Chief, played by Ralph Richardson, at the end of a worldwide war that lasts for decades. But secretly, a group of the Authoritarian Elite have been building another society that is technologically advanced, Wings Over the World, and is itching to throw its weight around Everytown. They send an emissary, played by Raymond Massey, to inform the Chief that individual sovereign nation states are no longer allowed to exist because... well, because they say so. Really, that's it. There's no other justification given. They have decided you can't run your own nation anymore, even if it's only the size of a small town in England. So those noble elite drop "gas bombs of peace" on Everytown, the Chief dies, is killed or commits suicide (it's not really explained) and Wings Over the World take over Everytown.

The movie then conveniently skips over the "re-education process" that follows and moves to a grand speech made by John Cabal about how wonderful the new world is going to be, the one that follows their rules. A long montage shows the construction of this world, followed by a Luddite uprising over sending a man and woman to the moon. The rocket is shot off and Oswald Cabal, John's son, also played by Massey, gives his final speech of hope to the audience. The Luddites? Probably subjected to some more happy gas bombs and re-educated but we're not told for sure.

Wells was taken to task in interviews at the time about the ideologies in Things to Come and in those interviews he does not come off well. He describes the Communist Party as "that band of Russian Jews" and yet later, supported Joseph Stalin.  Asked about the Chief in Things to Come being a fascist too, which would defeat Wells' own ideals, Wells corrected saying that no he was not "intended to be a caricature of a Fascist or Nazi leader" but that he was more "South American or Haitian..." In other words, if you're white and oppress people you're a progressive, like John Cabal, but if you're brown or black and oppress people, you're a thug. Sadly, Wells' Utopian ideologies were tinged with a suppressed racism.

Wells tried desperately to get support for his ideas. He spoke about his views throughout England and America but no one of any consequence ever signed on to his ridiculous notions. In the end, Liberal Fascism's biggest fault was that it was a muddle. Give people freedom but oppress them first. Allow them to think for themselves but squash individualism. Build a Utopian society based on the will of an elite few. It's a mess. A jumbled, garbled mess. And despite it's belief in the superiority of technology, that science will set us free, it rests its faith on the whims of men, a few elite men who will definitely not stay in power a moment longer than they need to. That's a leap of faith so vast the Pacific Ocean couldn't swallow it up. And it's all there in watered down form in the movie, preserving for all time the dimwitted political views of H.G. Wells. And that makes for some fascinating viewing. Again and again and again.


After watching it I put together a beginning to end video, much like I did for Forbidden Planet, to the music of Steve Tibbetts. Here it is if you'd like to watch it.


Quotes for this post taken from:

H. G. Wells's 'Liberal Fascism', Coupland, Philip, Journal of Contemporary History, volume 35, number 4, pages 541-558 url = Copyright © 2000 Sage Publications, Ltd.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

"There's Nothing at the End of the Rainbow...

... there's nothing to grow up for anymore." - Richard Thompson

Fifty seven years ago, this August 28th, Robert Walker died in his home in Brentwood, CA under bizarre circumstances. He had become excited and anxious and his housekeeper was worried. Around 6:00 p.m. she called his psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, and asked him to come over immediately. When Dr. Hacker arrived Walker was frantic and according to his New York Times obituary "kept saying, 'I feel terrible, Doc – do something quick.'" Dr. Hacker tried to calm him for a couple of hours to no avail when he finally called Dr. Sidney Silver. Dr. Silver had assisted Dr. Hacker with Walker in the past and had previously given him sodium amytal to calm him in times of anxiety.

They gave him a small dose, seven and one half grains, supposedly much less than half of what they had previously given him with no apparent side effects but this time was different. Within seconds, according to the doctors and the housekeeper, Walker stopped breathing and started to turn blue. All efforts to resuscitate him failed. Mere minutes after receiving the dose Robert Walker was dead. He was 32 years old.

Some actors die young and become icons (James Dean) and some die young and fall through the cracks, at least for a while. Movie fans and cinephiles know Walker of course and any Alfred Hitchcock fan will be familiar with him due to his magnificent performance as the sinister stalker Bruno in Strangers on a Train. But for most people he is an unknown quantity and that's too bad because he was one hell of an actor.

The two performances that best exemplify this are the aforementioned Strangers on a Train and The Clock, with Judy Garland. Why? Because they are two characters existing at opposite ends of the ethical spectrum and yet Walker inhabits both of them as if it was second nature. His character of Bruno in Strangers is one of the oddest characters to ever appear on the screen. He is a killer, he is spiteful, he is vengeful and yet... yet... he's trying to do the right thing. Bruno thinks he's helping Guy (Farley Granger) by ridding him of his cheating wife. Bruno doesn't understand why Guy won't return the favor and kill his father. By the end of the movie, as Bruno desperately tries to plant Guy's lighter at the murder scene of his wife the audience is, in some bizarre way, rooting for him. When he drops the lighter through the sewer grate both Hitchcock and Walker build up a tension so palpable that when Walker finally recovers the lighter we feel relieved. And we shouldn't. He wants to use the lighter to frame an innocent man. But Walker, somehow, makes Bruno sympathetic. We feel sorry for him. We want someone to be his friend. We feel that if just someone understood him they could make it all better. That's not explicitly written into the role, that's Walker. That's what he brings to Bruno. That's how he makes the character his own.

He does the same thing in a roundabout way in The Clock. Here again he is a stalker, this time of Judy Garland, but in a benign way. He's a fish out of water in New York, just there for a couple of days before shipping off, and meets Garland in the train station. He likes her and wants to date her and won't take "no" for an answer. She finally reciprocates the feelings and they do see each other but until then Walker's behavior should creep us out, but doesn't. He's tall and stands close when he talks to her and won't give her any personal space. And yet he doesn't feel menacing at all. He seems sweet and gentle. That was Walker too. He brought a concrete feel of humanity to the roles he played. They felt like real people and real people you could see yourself caring about.

Maybe it was who he was. Sometimes personal demons attack the most sensitive people because they are all too aware of their own feelings. I've found that to be true in my life with friends and family. And Robert Walker had personal demons.

After Jennifer Jones left him for David Selznick he was devastated. He disappeared from the set of See Here, Private Hargrove for a couple of days during filming. In 1946 he was arrested for a hit-and-run in Beverly Hills. Just two years later he was arrested for drunk driving and sent for treatment to the Menninger clinic in Topeka, KS. There he had his most infamous incident, escaping from the clinic, being arrested for public drunkenness and then tearing up the police station he was brought to before being subdued. Walker was on a downward spiral and the papers then, as now, made sure everyone knew about it. To the left is a famous picture of Walker at the police station snapping his fingers in a mocking "oops I got caught" fashion.

By 1949 he had cleaned himself up and resumed his career in Hollywood. But the anxieties remained and kept resurfacing. On August 28th, 1951 they surfaced for the last time.

Recently Sheila O'Malley wrote a couple of pieces on both The Clock and Strangers on a Train that are much more detailed than what I wrote here and I feel it's time Walker was rediscovered. He doesn't have the iconic Rebel status of a James Dean but he's got the talent and he deserves all the rediscovery he can get. His characters from Bataan to Since You Went Away to Strangers on a Train all have a sweet sympathetic feel to them and that had to come from Walker himself. Robert Walker felt like the kind of person you wanted to befriend, the kind of person that when things were rough you wanted to help. That's a rare quality in people but Robert Walker had it. If you're not familiar with him see his films and definitely see The Clock and Strangers on a Train. You'll see a fine actor in both but you'll see something else too. You'll see a real person, a human being up there on the screen. And that's not something we're used to seeing in a medium based on disbelief and deception. But from Walker, you get it in spades.