Monday, March 30, 2009

Hell's Angels When it Soars

Hell's Angels is no great shakes as a drama. The acting is for the most part servicable, sometimes mediocre, sometimes outright bad. The dialogue, average at best. And yet it gets 7.9 on IMDB's aggregate of user votes and I think I know why: The action sequences, especially considering this was made in 1930 which was not only decades before CGI but a few years before even miniature work was that good, are extraordinary. Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire of reality and legend, may not have been much with actors and dramatic scenes (he had to hire in then unknown but soon to be famous James Whale for those scenes since actors and drama were not of his interest), but damn did he know his way around an action/special effects sequence. Watching the action scenes in this movie makes one wonder if Hughes didn't miss his calling as a second-unit director for special effects sequences.

There are other good parts to the film as well. One was the decision to have the Germans in the film speak German, not English. That very year in the far superior All Quiet on the Western Front, the characters, all German, spoke English. Before sound came in, foreign languages weren't a problem as inter-titles took care of all dialogue anyway. But once sound became a part of the film experience directors had to decide whether to go with foreign language and subtitles or just have everyone speak English. Unfortunately, the latter became the standard until fairly recently. But not here. Hughes has the Germans not only speak German, but only provides inter-titles, not subtitles, for the stuff the viewers can't figure out on their own. All the rest is left up to the viewer to translate.

Finally, the plot itself offers a slight change of pace as it takes the old cliche of friends on opposite sides of the battle and gives it a hard-edged, unsentimental ending. [SPOILER] They all die. All of them. [END SPOILER] But mainly, it's the action sequences, the ones Hughes spent millions on, as dramatized in Martin Scorsese's lackluster The Aviator (2005) that make much of this movie worth watching. That Hughes may have been one crazy bastard but when he set his mind to putting together an action sequence, he was a genius. Below is the finale of the Zeppelin attack sequence in the movie. The sequence lasts for about twenty minutes and builds with a slow, methodical pace that reminds one of the expert pacing in the duel scene in Barry Lyndon. I've put up the last two minutes here. As all the fighter planes have been shot down, the last man standing, his machine guns jammed, makes the decision to go kamikaze on the Zeppelin to bring it down. The sequence begins beautifully, shot from overhead, as we watch the Zeppelin, motionless on the screen as the fighter plane goes from the bottom of the screen to the top, moving to the front of the Zeppelin. Then it circles back around and goes into a dive. Hughes used color combined with black and white throughout the film and this scene is no exception, as you'll see with the flames. Be sure and watch until the blazing conclusion, and note the exceptional use of sound, the airplane's engine heightening the suspense of the dive, the immense roar of the flames, the thundering crash. And remember: It was made in 1930!

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