Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Decision Before Dawn

This review is of a film that I first viewed as a young lad on "NBC Saturday Night at the Movies" back in the sixties. It didn't make much of a ripple when it was released in 1950 and afterward was relegated to late show purgatory, but unlike most films dealing with war it goes deeper into the emotions and morality of people caught up in the conflict. It definitely made an impression on me. I could never locate this movie on VHS, and was bowled over to learn it was recently released on DVD. The film is "Decision Before Dawn". It stars Richard Basehart, Oskar Werner, and
Hildegard Knef.

The story takes place in the closing days of World War II. The US Army has organized a clandestine unit of turncoat German POWs to go back into Germany, and gather intelligence.  Richard Basehart plays a US Army Lieutenant in charge of one such team. Oskar Werner plays a German POW who volunteers after witnessing the murder of a fellow POW who was declared a defeatist. 
This film is loosely based on a factual WWII operation -Jedburgh - a little known chapter of the war where anti-Nazi German POWs were used to assist in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The men enlisted to participate were never quite trusted by their American controllers and if caught, their fate would be a foregone conclusion. A shadow world of the damned. Essentially, this film seeks to explore the meaning of the word "traitor." Is a soldier who risks his life to aid the enemy with the ultimate hope of possibly helping to alleviate the suffering of his countrymen and shorten the war commiting a traitorous act? One can only surmise that the definition is extremely vague and open to individual interpretation.

The team is parachuted into Germany and split up. Werner is assigned to get intelligence on the troop strength of units facing the US Army across the Rhine River. While waiting in line to catch a bus, a wehrmacht motorcycle courier offers him a ride and a place to stay overnight. After some conversation the courier gets suspicious and informs the Gestapo about Werner. From then on Werner is a marked man. Suspecting he is being followed, he confronts and kills the man assigned to keep track of him. After almost being caught by the gendarme it's a race to the location where the team was supposed to meet and then try escape back across the river to the Allies. I won't go into much detail about the ending in the event some readers would be motivated to see this film, but I can say that the ending is much like the rest of the movie, in a word - grim.  

What makes this film so gripping and mesmerizing is that it was filmed shortly after WWII in Germany. The cities were still devastated and it has the look as if it is being filmed real time. Of course, it's in black and white. The mood is frenetic - air raids, artillery bombardment, fire engine bells clanging, sirens blaring, and refugees on the move. It is one of the few war films in existence that conveys the true feeling of a country turned upside down and the ordinary people trying to make sense out of it all. Also making one of his early cinematic appearances (15 seconds) is Klaus Kinski. More on Kinski at a later date I realize my taste in cinema is markedly different from most people, but I've learned that like most things in life if approached with an open mind, you can reap huge benefits and maybe start exploring outside your comfort zone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ballad of a Soldier

Early in my Naval career  I was stationed at San Diego, which we affectionately called “Sand Dog”, and there were two things that preoccupied a sailors liberty time…getting drunk and trying to get laid. Of course, the former was quite easy to do (if you were over 21); the latter took some effort, at least for me. Yes, I remember those sojourns to Chula Juana (Chula Vista), Nasty City (National City), the real Nasty City (Tijuana) and downtown Sand Dog playing my part as the gullible swabbie caught in the cross hairs of the scam artists lying in wait to bag their prey on Broadway Ave.
Eventually I grew bored with this routine and wandered northward to La Jolla, which was refreshingly civilized. There I discovered art house cinema. In a previous post, I wrote about the origins of my passion for classic and foreign movies.  In La Jolla this began anew. The theatre shared residency with a book store which was managed by an arrogant, smug, longhair who was more interested in reading his inventory than attending to customer inquiries. The theatre was a small affair. They obviously weren’t in the business to make big bucks, but showcase foreign, avant-garde, and classic cinema. This is the place where I became enamored with film noir and other classic gems like “Citizen Kane”, “Night of the Hunter”, “On the Waterfront”, and “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. I must say that whoever had the job of planning the show schedule had good taste. Could it have been that snobbish proto-hippie?

It was at this theater that I first viewed the film “Ballad of a Soldier”. This is a Soviet import that first appeared in the US at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1961. What is interesting about the film is that while it is about a soldier and takes place during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, only the first ten minutes or so show combat. The remainder is primarily about the people behind the lines and how the war has affected their lives.

Ayosha scores a four day pass home for knocking out two German tanks at the front. His sojourn back to his farm is the film. He selflessly helps people in various situations as travels east….a soldier who had displayed courage in the face of the enemy and lost a leg in battle, but cannot face his wife because of his infirmary.  A soldier heading for the front asks him to deliver some soap to his wife on his way home, only to find when he locates the woman finds her with another man.

Perhaps the most momentous and poignant event to happen to him is when he stows away aboard a train and discovers a young girl also hiding in the same freight car. At first she suspects the worst from him and his hostile but she soon realizes since they are both stowaways they have to work together to survive the trip.  They go through numerous incidents together and their initial wariness turns into infatuation until the time comes when they must go their separate ways and part.

Like the motion of a clock’s pendulum, Ayoshas leave slowly ticks away. By the time he reaches his home to see his mother, he has only a few hours to spend with her before he has to go back to the war. Make no mistake, Ballad of a Soldier is a film about war but not about the meat grinder of the front lines but rather about the human condition of the home front.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


During the 50’s, the studios discovered a gold mine in combining insects with nuclear fallout, which resulted in the mutation of gigantism and lead to them terrorizing the human population. While this scenario doesn’t stand up to scientific logic, it definitely makes one contemplate the observation made by H.L. Mencken that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”.                                                                                        

Tarantulas, ants, scorpions, grasshoppers, the list goes on and on. One film, however, made during this period stands apart from the rest. “THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN”, turns this paradigm on its head. In this film the human gets contaminated by nuclear fallout and gradually shrinks to the size of the insects. This film could have turned out as a run of the mill monster movie but it possesses an intelligent screenplay by Richard Matheson. The special effects aren’t bad either.
Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is on vacation off the California coast with his wife. While on a boat out at sea, he is exposed to a strange fog-like cloud that sweeps over the surface of the water.  No outward effects are noticed and they return home and carry on with their lives. Until Carey notices his clothes getting loose.  He is at even height with his wife. He consults a doctor who after numerous tests diagnoses his malady as - you guessed it - radiation sickness.
This, of course, is not good news. Carey does not adjust to his new condition cheerfully and it causes strains in his marriage. The doctors come up with an antidote that seems to arrest the shrinking process for the time being.
In the meantime Carey visits a carnival where he meets a female midget. They become friends because he can converse with somebody who understands his condition. Not long after they meet he notices he is no longer at even height with the woman and flees in despair. The antidote is failing and he is continuing to shrink. The film fast forwards somewhat to where he is at the size where he has to live in a dollhouse. The couple had a pet house cat before the incident but now that Scott is the size of rodent, the cat has to be kept outside.                      
One day when departing the house, his wife leaves the door open long enough for the cat to get in. Carey is now in mortal danger. He manages to escape to the cellar while the cat is concentrated on getting into the dollhouse. His wife returns to find the cat inside, the dollhouse moved, and no sign of her miniature husband. She believes the worst possible scenario has occurred.

In the cellar Carey has just entered another world where insignificant creatures he once stepped on or laid down poison for are now the dominant species. The tables have turned.  This will be his ultimate fight for survival. His new home is a matchbox. His clothes are burlap scraps. His sword is a straight pin. It doesn’t take long for him to realize his chief protagonist in this realm is a large spider. His time is spent trying to avoid the spider and searching for food. As luck would have it, he discovers a food source but it is located under the spider’s web. His efforts to create a diversion to get at the food go awry and the spider is upon him. He is pinned under the monster with mandibled fangs descending for the kill. Yet even in this impossible situation he manages to draw his weapon and drive it through the spider.
The monster is vanquished and Carey is the master of his world.  His shrinking has accelerated; the scraps of cloth hang loosely on his frame. He wanders to the window screen which he now can climb through.  He wanders into the grass which is like a rain forest and slowly recedes into the tangle of flora and fauna slowly dissolving into the earth.
Now this might sound like just another monster movie, and it could have wound up as one, but Matheson’s script makes all the difference. Narration in films can be a useful tool as to provide a running monologue or as a device to shore up the story. In the case of this film, the narration starts when Carey is consigned to the dollhouse and continues for the remainder of the film because it is the only form of communication with the audience.  In the hands of a less gifted scenarist the narration could sound like an explanation of the obvious, but as Carey crawls through the wire screen and wanders into the jungle he expounds on his place in nature or in his words “between the infinite and the infinitesimal”, to proselytize on how in glaring clarity he “has found the riddle of the infinite, that it is man’s presumption that existence begins and ends – not natures”. As the narration ends and Carey dissolves into nothingness, one final statement to put everything in reference to the cosmological and the theological – “to God there is no zero, I still exist! This isn’t the typical ending for a monster flick. As Carey shrinks his spirit soars.

It has always choked me up!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lets all go to the fair

If you haven't noticed already, I punctuate a good number of these writings with rememberances of times gone by. Well, I've been working on one that came to me after viewing some old monster movie posters from the 1950's. This memory was back in Topeka, Kansas at the county fair.

As I recall, the fair came to town in September. For a young lad, a visit to the fair was like hitching a ride with Alice on a journey through Wonderland. A replica of the Statue of Liberty made of butter, a large faucet suspended in mid air gushing forth water. Such seminal amusements to behold. Of course, there were the rides with names like the Tornado, Scream Swing, and the Cliff Hanger. Then there was the House of Terror, and here is where my recall takes focus. The large billboard facade of the house was painted with the most lurid depictions of gore and dismemberment. The most intriguing aspect of the bloody mural was that the victims were all young women with little or no clothing on hanging from meathooks, draped over tree limbs, or being held in the claws or mandibles of hideous monsters. I'll hazard a guess that the painter of this gory mural might have had huge psycological problems with the opposite sex.

What truly is a wonder was that this illustrated atrocity was right there in the buckle of the bible belt, and people walked by it without a second glance. Except Me. See you at the fair!


"THE SEA WOLF" is based on a novel by Jack London and takes place in the late 1800's aboard a seal hunting ship called the "Ghost”. It stars Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, and Gene Lockhart. The Captain is a brutal, black hearted, tyrant named Wolf Larson. This part is played splendidly by Robinson. Prior to leaving San Francisco and sailing for the hunting grounds of Alaska, they are in need of more crew members.
At a bar on the Barbary Coast sits Charlie Leach(Garfield). He overhears a crimp try to persuade a seaman to ship out on the "Ghost." The seaman knows the story of the ship and the master who runs it and wants no part. He is later forcefully shanghaied. Charlie, innocent of the ships reputation and desperately wanting to evade the law, signs on. As he is being transported to the ship in a small boat there is a collision between a bay ferry and a cargo ship. The boat picks up two survivors, a man - Humphrey Van Weydon,(Lockhart) a writer, and Ruth Webster(Lupino), an escaped convict. Instead of putting them ashore, the boat proceeds to the "Ghost". Good thing too since the male survivor – Van Weydon, is a pivotal character in the narrative.
Once the survivors and the criminal set foot on the ship their life becomes a living hell. The importance of the character of Van Weydon is that the Captain is a highly self-educated man who cannot intellectually communicate with any of the less educated crew. Since Van Weydon is a writer, he now has an equal. The Captain also suffers from debilitating headaches accompanied by temporary blindness -a condition he tries to keep secret from the crew. He rules his ship with an iron fist and the crew lives in fear of his wrath which is projected personally and by the First Mates. In this atmosphere of violence and deceit, it goes without question that the voyage to Alaska will be a grim one. The Captain harbors another secret - he lives in mortal fear and is in cutthroat competition with his brother who also is Captain of another seal hunter. Driven like Ahab to kill the white whale, he will willingly sacrifice his crew in the quest to beat and destroy his brother. This would all be routine except for the three new crewmembers, which by their intelligence, guile, and cunning, disrupt the Captains plans. However in the end it is the Captain's brutality and ultimate total blindness that will be his destruction.
One of the problems London readers have with the cinematic characterization of Wolf Larson is that London describes him as physically powerful with handsome chiseled features. As we all know, this isn't a description of Edward G. Robinson. Nevertheless whatever he lacks in the physicality of Larson, he clearly translates the pessimism and brutality of the character. The basic outline follows London’s novel, but in the desire to make it attractive to a varied audience, the relationship is given prominence as to include a romance where one was lacking. In the book, Leach is a minor character and Ruth Webster isn't a convict, but a poet and acquaintance of Van Weydon.
The bottom line was that it had to be adapted for Hollywood and the masses. Some screenwriters and directors can pull this off with good results(Stephen King's "The Green Mile" being a recent example) or miserably (James Clavell's "Taipan", practically unwatchable). In this case I vote for the former. Admirers of Jack London and classic cinema will not be disappointed.

Monday, January 23, 2012


I've often thought about what were the origins for my love of the cinema. I believe I can thank my Mother for kindling the spark that started the fire. Way back in the sixties when we lived in Topeka, Kansas, Mom bought a pass that let us view foreign films that were screened at the Topeka Public Library. For a town like Topeka, this was as close to "Art House Cinema" as it got. As memory serves, all the films were foreign. The one detail I cannot seem to remember is my reaction to being taken to a foreign, black and white movie. It wouldn't be hard to reconstruct it - "Jeez, black and white, subtitles, are you kidding me?"
However, I do remember being completely mesmerized by the first foreign film I saw: "ALEXANDER NEVSKY." This was a Russian import made before World War II, which is interesting because it's about the Teutonic invasion of Russia in the Thirteenth century. This is an Eisenstein film, which segues into the next entry: "POTEMKIN." This film had everything wrong - B & W, subtitles, and silent. Upon viewing, this film has everything right - the staging of the mutiny on the battleship "POTEMKIN", the emotional, dramatic buildup to see if the rest of the naval fleet will join in the mutiny, and, of course, the climax at Odessa with the famous Odessa steps sequence where the mutineers joined by the masses face the Czars Army.  
 These films were great introductions into the power of the moving image. Other film entries were: SEVEN SAMURAI (Kurosawa), THE SEVENTH SEAL (Bergman), LA STRADA (Fellini), and my favorite - THE BICYCLE THIEF (De Sica). This is such a powerful film - made with non-actors and on a shoestring. In my mind it is the epitome of the perfect movie - simple but so complex in its build up to it's climax. No special effects, no play with light and shadow. Just a straight forward quest for a stolen bicycle that ends in heartbreaking tragedy.  Ihave to admit I fell asleep during THE SEVENTH SEAL, too wordy! This was a good beginining to a lifelong film education. Other genres(noir, melodrama, horror) were acquired by late night movie viewing and the written page. Therefore I thank my Madre many times over for setting me on my journey of cinema appreciation. Love you, Mom!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Dark Side of Mother Goose

The premise of "THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" is deceptively simple - a maniac chases two children across the countryside in pursuit of stolen money. A moralistic play on the axiom of money is the root of all evil. Yet in Charles Laughton's hands it becomes something totally different.

Readers might not know this film by title, but you have probably seen a picture of Robert Mitchum with the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his hands. Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a murdering psycho in the guise of a minister who roams the land preying on the innocent and gullible citizens of rural communities. He is thrown in prison for stealing a car, but as is illustrated in the opening scenes this is the least of his crimes.  In prison his cell mate who is sentenced to die tells him about a stash of stolen loot he had hidden on his property before he was arrested.                                    Harry is released from prison and journeys to the executed mans home with the intention of finding the money but acting as if to comfort the dead man's widow (Shelly Winters), son, and daughter. She falls under his spell and they marry.       
It is important to note that her son sees him for the fraud he is from the start. The widow is ignorant of the stolen loot, but her children know the hiding place because their father had put it into the girls doll before he was arrested. Eventually, the mother catches on to the real reason of the preachers affections and threatens to tell the authorities. Of course he can't let this happen so he murders her. He then turns his attention to the children. They escape and head downriver on a boat, Harry Powell in pursuit. 

Meanwhile, the preacher arrives at the town near the farm, and finds out the children are staying there. He tries to sweet talk the old women to give him back his children. She sees him for what he is and runs him off with a shotgun. Through the night he lurks on the fringe of her property, singing the hymns that punctuate the dread that he wears like an aura. Deep in the night the singing stops and he tries to break in the house and receives a load of bird shot for his troubles. One of the orphans runs to get the sheriff, and Harry Powell, hiding in the barn, is taken into custody. The preacher is judged guilty of his crimes and sentenced to be hanged.His last sight before being spirited off to prison is the frenzy of a lynch mob who want instant justice. The children have found solace with the old women. The Angels have dispatched the devil. All is right with the world.

What is it about this film that makes it a classic? It was released in the mid-'50s, and was a commercial failure. Audiences couldn't decide if it was a drama, a horror movie, or a really twisted nursery fable. Featured, flopped, forgotten.This was the first film that Charles Laughton directed and it would be his last. That is most unfortunate. It's tantalizing to speculate what other films he would have made if he hadn't been burned by the critics and the public. Years later it was resurrected and shown at art house theaters and classic cinema revivals and gained a new audience. When you view it you can see why. The use of tone, shadows, and light is remarkable. This film could only be made in black and white. Throughout the film are separate scenes that in themselves are masterpieces. After Harry Powell murders his new wife, he places her in a car, engages the clutch and the car and body slide into the river. Later on, a fisherman sees the car and body from the surface. The camera lingers over the vision of Winter's body underwater, her hair rippling in the current.

Later when Harry is chasing the children across the country side, they take refuge in a barn for the night.They are in the loft with the upper door open.The moon casts a bright light across their sleeping forms, when the voice of Harry Powell singing a hymn in the distance is heard. They awaken and watch Harry travel slowly across the screen. It is hard to convey the visual beauty and impending terror that this scene illustrates. The moon is used like the background light such as you see in Chinese shadow puppet theater. This was all Laughton's vision, and  he shared that vision with an audience that just didn't get it.

Harry Powell is twisted in so many ways. Impostor, pathological liar, thief, and sexually repressed psychotic murderer. This psychosis is manifested in creative ways. One scene is particularly poignant: Harry sits in a burlesque theatre watching the gyrations of the stripper onstage, muttering about harlots and Jezebels but also getting aroused to where he involuntarily activates the switchblade knife he keeps in his pocket, the blade tearing through the fabric of his trousers as if to suggest an erection. In this case, to further enhance the violence that Harry equates with sex, the phallic symbolism in the form of an opening knife blade. Sheer genius.

Robert Mitchum, who sometimes seems to be sleepwalking in some of his films, pulled out all the stops in his role. Later in his career, he was quoted as saying that he considered his performance in "THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" as his finest and I would have to agree.
This film was definitely made before it's time. I believe it has finally found it's audience.