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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Billy Budd

"Billy Budd". This is an adaptation of a novella  by Herman Melville and stars Peter Ustinov (who also directed) as Captain Vere, Robert Ryan as Master-at-Arms Claggert, and Terence Stamp as Billy Budd. This film is exceptional in comparison to others dealing with the era of the 'bounding main' in that it concentrates on the dynamics of the crew and not the enemy on the horizon. Only in the last five minutes is there a battle. 

The story is mainly about men thrown together to live in a small wooden world and the politics, jealousies, and friendships that develop as they sail about looking for the French naval forces who are in turn looking for them. Billy Budd is an ordinary seaman pressed from a merchant ship to help fill out the compliment on a Royal Navy frigate. This was a common practice in those days and it was one of the reasons we went to war with the British in 1812 because they were pressing American seamen for their ships. Billy is a likable bloke, easy to smile, a kind word to every one. He suffers from a stammering speech impediment on occasion but even this small handicap he treats light heartedly. His manner is in sharp contrast to the crew of the frigate, who are terrorized by Claggert, the ships Master-at-Arms. 

As played by Robert Ryan, Claggert is sadistic taskmaster who terrorizes the crew with strict discipline and frequent punishments. This rings true with how crews were treated at sea in those days. Very few sailors actually made it their life’s calling to ship out. Most seamen were there against their will or were escaping from the law. Such men, it was reasoned, had to be treated severely to keep them in line. A good "Bucko Mate", or in the case of the navy - Master-at-Arms, was worth his weight in gold. The plot revolves around the relationship of Billy and Claggert. The more Billy smiles and cheerfully does his work, the more Claggert despises him. To Billy, the Master-at-Arms is a mystery. In his short life he has never met a man so full of self-loathing that it manifests itself in sadism and fury. One night on watch, Billy engages Claggert in conversation and for a brief moment Claggert's fa├žade falls and we glimpse a vulnerability that is normally kept tightly bundled away. Before too much is revealed, however, he becomes aware of the slip and hereafter hates Billy even more for exposing a weakness.

Billy is now in Claggerts cross-hairs. The Master-at Arms concocts a story of possible mutiny among the crew instigated by Billy. When the seaman is called to the Captain's cabin to answer to the charges, he is overcome with emotion when he hears Claggerts lies. In his inability to articulate a rebuttal due to his impediment, frustration and anger build to a velocity where he strikes Claggert with a mortal blow. Tellingly, just before Claggert dies his last expression is a smile, as if to be finally liberated of his demons.  It would seem a simple case of manslaughter due to the provocation and accidental death. A board consisting of the ship's officers is convened to either acquit or convict Billy Budd. The mood of the officers is to acquit, however, Captain Vere points out that the Royal Navy Articles of War are quite clear on the subject. Since England is at war with France, the Articles stipulate that a seaman who strikes an officer during wartime will be hung by the neck until dead. "Gentlemen we must side with the law, not justice." Billy meets his conviction with an unnatural calmness, stating that since the Captain and ship's officers are learned men then they arrived at their decision with wisdom borne of such learning. Billy is duly hung from the yard arm. His last words were "God bless Captain Vere". Just as his body gives its last breath, the French attack. Captain Vere, overcome with emotion turns his back in apathy to the attack. We as an audience are left to our own devices as to the fate of the ship since the film ends as the battle rages. 

This film was bracketed by two other films dealing with wooden ships and iron men. "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Damn the Defiant" were released before and after respectively of "Billy Budd." It came out the loser in profits. However, when viewed in comparison to the others in actors performances, It clearly is superior (Brando's eccentric and erratic Fletcher Christian in "Bounty" would mark his long slide into mediocrity). Robert Ryan clearly translates evil in his portrayal of Claggert. Peter Ustinov's gives a restrained performance as Captain Vere, until the execution where we watch the mask fall away as he curses himself for obeying Admiralty law instead of righteous justice. Terence Stamp is superb as Billy Budd. The juxtaposition of his angelic performance makes the contrast to Ryan's sadism that much more memorable. I don't know if this film has been converted to DVD, but if discovered, it's definitely worth a look.