Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What a Load

All of this makes it tough not only for old movies to survive but for movie history to matter. There is a sense that if you can't tweet about it or post a comment about it on your Facebook wall, it has no value. Once, not so long ago, old and new movies, middle-aged audiences and young audiences, happily coexisted. Movies brought us together. Now a chasm widens between the new and the old, one aesthetic and another, one generation and another. It widens until the past recedes into nothingness, leaving us with an endless stream of the very latest with no regard for what came before. Old movies are now like dinosaurs, and like dinosaurs, they are threatened with extinction.

From Perspective: Millennials Seem to Have Little Use for Old Movies in The LA Times.

What a load of horseshit.  Just more alarmist baloney about how the new generation and new technology and whatever else new we can all get terrified about is going to destroy civilization, and history, as we know it.  It's not true.  It never is.  People age and as they do their curiosity about and appreciation for the past grows.  Most people in their tens and teens couldn't give two shits less about the past.  Most people older than that deride them for it.  And every year someone writes an article about how, this time, it's for real and all of the past will be forgotten or ignored and we will all be drugged and carted off to an "Over 30" concentration camp just like in Wild in the Streets.  And it never happens.  Why?  Because it's horseshit.  A big load of it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Night Train to Munich: Propaganda and Art

I took in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich at the AFI this weekend and couldn't have been more pleased. One of the early Carol Reed's I'd never seen, I was excited to catch it for the first time on the big screen and the AFI's current program, Spy Cinema, running through September, made that possible. Produced in 1940 after Britain entered into war with Germany, it works as both propaganda and thriller but surprisingly much better as a thriller with the propaganda feeling weak by comparison. There's a reason for that, and why the propaganda doesn't feel nearly as potent today, but more on that later.

First and foremost, there's the story. A top armor-plating engineer, Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) flees Prague just as the Nazis come knocking but daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) isn't so fleet of foot and gets arrested and sent to a concentration camp before she can get to the airport. At the concentration camp she meets up with Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid), an anti-Nazi agitator and the two plot their escape. Eventually they hook up with a British agent, Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), and a few twists and turns later the good engineer finds himself captured, sent back to Germany and thrown on the night train to Munich, towards Nazi servitude and oblivion.

Reed handles all of this with the same confident hand that marks his later works in the forties (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man) with only a little roughness around the edges. While it works supremely well as a thriller it does crawl a bit in the third act before the climax and that's mainly due to Reed giving fawning attention to Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, respectively, the exact same characters they portrayed two years earlier in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, making this a sequel of sorts or, at the very least, a story contained within the same universe. Of course, Margaret Lockwood is in both movies as well and plays different characters in each so perhaps the sequel road leads down a path best not taken. The point being, Radford and Wayne are quite enjoyable, always, and Reed keeps the focus on them for much of the third act, which is fine except that it cuts the rest of the movie off for the time being even if they become vital to the plot in the end. Regardless, it's a minor fault because, once the climax arrives, it proves every bit worth the wait.

Watching the mechanics play out today it's clear how many thrillers use the same algebra again and again for their formulations. The car chase that inevitably sees one car cut off from the other by either pedestrian, car or horse-draw cart (in this case, it's the horse-drawn cart); the shootout as the hero attempts to ferry the good guys to safety; the six-shooter with the endless supply of ammunition (Harrison's gun does, finally, run out but only after a good thirty shots have been fired); the false ending in which everyone is safe before a turn for the worse (in this case, a cable car taking Harrison to safety only to be set in reverse by the Nazis); the death-defying mid-air leap as a last ditch grab for life (from cable car to cable car); and so on. It may not feel as tight as a thriller climax today with the advantage of being weened on decades of everything that came before, complete with pounding (and deafening) soundtrack, but it's fascinating to see every element already cemented in place over seventy years ago. In every way, it's a modern thriller, fully formed and terrifically paced.

And terrifically acted as well. Rex Harrison found his groove early on in his career as the arrogant, egocentric type and here he plays the role to perfection. His ego even provides the best line in the movie, spoken by Anna, "You know, if a woman ever loved you like you love yourself, it would be one of the great romances of history." Lockwood, Henreid, Radford and Wayne are all very good, too, but Harrison is the standout.

On top of everything else, Night Train to Munich simply looks great in every frame. Extraordinary miniature work exists throughout, from one of Adolph Hitler's hilltop headquarters to an amazing shot of Bomasch at his factory which combines the actors with the miniatures in camera! Essentially, the camera is set behind Bomasch standing at his office window overlooking the factory and its heavy machinery in operation, intended to be sixty of seventy feet below and stretching outwards maybe a hundred feet except that it's a miniature with forced perspective all contained within about ten feet from the actor himself. Made during wartime, expensive on-location shooting and/or elaborate sets were out of the question so the movie is contained within small spaces with models and miniatures standing in for expanse, to great effect.

Finally, Night Train to Munich is one more thing: Propaganda. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, it's not as noticeable today as it was then. Propaganda usually dates badly and comes off as blind flag-waving or blunt dehumanization of the enemy. There's one exception to this: Nazis. The reason the propaganda against Nazis doesn't stand out as much is because of the simple fact that because we now know the magnitude of just how awful, barbarous, brutal and downright evil they were, no amount of propaganda can ever come close to fully portraying their vile and despicable nature. Showing Paul Henreid get punched and whipped for speaking his mind in a concentration camp probably seemed potent in 1940. Today, the viewer wonders why they aren't showing the Nazis shooting children or performing medical experiments on pregnant women. The thing about Nazis is that they were so goddamned awful that no amount of propaganda against them can ever make them look worse than they actually were.

And that leaves Night Train to Munich right where it started, as a thriller. And a damn fine one at that.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Red Dust and Star Turns

My wife and I took in Red Dust (1932, d. Victor Fleming) last night at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, MD.  We'd seen it before but never on the big screen and goddamn, we just love Clark Gable and Jean Harlow so much we couldn't resist.

Red Dust delivers three things and delivers them all strongly even if, in an ideal world, it wouldn't deliver the third at all.  One, it delivers two star-making turns by Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, both of whom are an absolute comic delight together from beginning to end.  Two, it delivers a perfectly tawdry little pulp of a story handled with just the right touch of seediness by Victor Fleming.  And three, it delivers racial stereotyping like that shit's on a "going out of business" sale and if we don't use it all up now we might not have another chance.

First, the star turns.  Gable and Harlow are a scream together with wisecracks back and forth from the moment they catch each other's eye.  He's Dennis Carson, operator of a rubber plantation somewhere in Indochina (now Vietnam - they pronounce Saigon as "Say-Gone" about twenty times) and she's Vantine, a low-rent prostitute looking for... oh hell, I don't know.  She's there looking for something.  She ends up at Carson's plantation and she starts sparring with him immediately.  First she goes on and on about the cheese they're eating (Roquefort and Gorgonzola) and how he wouldn't eat Roquefort if he knew they made it by slapping sheep around to which he responds, "I'll slap you around if you don't shut up" and then enlightens him on how many different cheeses there are which elicits, "Do they make a brand that stops you from talking? I'll order a ton of it."   

Naturally, after about five minutes of this he grabs her, pulls her in, starts groping her, she giggles and the camera pans over to the parrot squawking like hell.  Cut to the next morning when she's leaving and wants a goodbye kiss but he thinks she's asking for payment so he gives her a wad of money.  Classy.  And seriously, that's why precode is so awesome.   No one tries to disguise the fact that he just bedded her and is now paying her because, what the hell, she's a prostitute. 

Meanwhile, Barbara Willis (Mary Astor) shows up with her husband, Gary (Gene Raymond), who's set to work for Carson.  Carson immediately falls for Babs but not before Vantine shows back up and starts giving both of them an endless round of shit.  Carson laughs it off, beds Babs and gives Gary a project assignment that will take him out of the way for a month or so.  

It's immediately apparent why everyone watching at the time thought, "Please cast these two (Gable and Harlow) in as many movies as possible."  Everyone's good in it but Gable and Harlow are simply wonderful.  

Director Victor Fleming handles the pacing of the movie like the pro he was.  He didn't spend a lot of time nailing the camera to the floor and Red Dust feels energetic and alive, with outdoor action filmed mostly via tracking shots, constantly keeping the action moving even if all the action is is Carson talking to his foreman.  And the storm sequence where Carson and Babs are strolling through the jungle when, without warning, Hurricane Camille decides to pay a visit, is filmed so perfectly (the winds kicking up, then the rain, then the actors running and stopping until Carson picks Babs up and takes off like it's the end of the world, which it kind of feels like) that you wish Fleming had done a couple of pictures centered around massive storms, like John Ford did with Hurricane

Fleming knew how to direct action and actors.  A lethal combination that found a home in many movies with Clark Gable, his ever-willing action star.  

Then, of course, there's the all-too casual racism.  It's something a modern viewer has to accept about older cinema but, honestly, for the most part, 90 to 95 percent of all old movies don't have any dialogue or action that calls attention to it.  When it does, though, either through blackface or shiftless servants or happy mammies, it jars the modern sensibility.  In Red Dust, it seems not a five minute chunk goes by without someone disparaging the locals.  They must mention the "coolies" about 30 times in the movie and always as lazy, backstabbing and criminal.  Also, they make it a point to mention how they themselves are white... a lot.  It's kind of weird.  They keep describing themselves as white when they clearly don't need to.  "He's a decent white man," Harlow says about Gene Raymond's character and you think, "Why did she just point out that he was white?' 

Then there's the houseboy, Hoy, a simple-minded Chinese man, played by Willie Fung in a performance that makes Mickey Rooney's performance as a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's feel like Takashi Shimura in Ikiru.  Fung made well over a hundred movies playing a houseboy, cook or laundryman, dying at the young age of 49 (in 1945) before having the chance to graduate into respectable portrayals of Asian characters as Hollywood eased up a bit on the racial stereotyping (Breakfast at Tiffany's notwithstanding). Unfortunately for Willie, his role here is cringe-inducing and predictable: He make funny joke about smelly meat and nice lady underwear and he speak in broken English whole time he do this.  Also, when someone punch him and give him black eye (off camera, by Donald Crisp), he laugh because he simple China man.  Jesus, is it offensive.  

It's funny, when I see these movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), it all seems easier to swallow, not being in the company of strangers and all, but in a movie theatre with anywhere from a dozen to several hundred people (in this case, a couple dozen or so) you get uncomfortable fast.  Every time the word "coolie" came up, I thought, "Oh shit, here we go.  Someone's going to mention how stupid, lazy and deceitful they are," and, sure enough, they did!  After a while, you start asking, "What the hell, are they using the racial slurs as filler for the non-essential plot elements?"  And, oh shit, yes it seems they are.  

Nonetheless, Red Dust has Gable and Harlow and when the camera's just on them, this is one hell of an entertaining movie.  It's pulp at its finest, deftly handled by Fleming and well worth a look any day of the week.  Just be ready for an object side-lesson in stereotyping, too.  It's something that thankfully fell away as the years progressed but the main thing to be thankful for is the splendid give and take between Gable and Harlow, alone worth a ticket to the show.  Red Dust was remade years later as Mogambo, also starring Gable but joined this time by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly.  Directed by John Ford it has many admirers but I'm not one of them.  I say stick to the original.  It leaves the remake behind in the... well, you know.