Dunkirk (2017)

big_startfilmru1365635Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent of modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old-fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly-anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

Not only that, he continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940.  Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.  In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deck hand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.  Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time.  Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that there are frequent moments when it’s difficult to tell where each storyline is in relation to the others – or to the over-arching action.  The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

The trouble with auteurs, however, is that appreciation of their work becomes a matter of taste which affects their entire canon.  If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

That said, for those who are attuned to Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

It must be mentioned that “Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity.  While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background.  It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry,

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art.  Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.  It focuses on survival over heroism, yet reveals that compassion leads to heroic acts.   Perhaps most impressively, it avoids political commentary while inspiring us to find hope in the face of overwhelming oppression and defeat.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

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Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Paths of Glory, the 1957 World War I drama by Stanley Kubrick, an early example of the filmmaker’s much-lauded mastery of the cinematic medium starring Kirk Douglas as a French colonel who finds himself caught in the middle when the personal and political motivations of his superiors force him to order his men on an impossible mission.  Based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb that was itself inspired by a true-life incident, it was a project spearheaded by Kubrick- who had read the book as a youth- when the critical success of his low-budget film, The Killing, got him hired to develop projects for MGM production head Dore Schary.  Though Schary rejected Paths of Glory for its lack of commercial appeal, he was eventually fired from the studio, freeing Kubrick and his producer, James Harris, to shop it elsewhere, and they managed to salvage their film by gaining the interest of actor Douglas, whose enthusiasm and guaranteed participation allowed them to find backing at United Artists.  With its harsh anti-war sentiments, its cynical take on military politics, and its bleak ending, nobody anticipated it would be a box office hit; it did, however, fare better than expected, despite heavy controversy in the European market- it was withheld from release in France for several years due to diplomatic protests, and it was heavily edited in other countries.  More importantly, in the long term, it earned massive critical acclaim for its director, thrusting him further along on his own “path of glory” towards his future status as one of the all-time great auteurs in the history of cinema.

Paths of Glory is set at the French western front in 1916, where the soldiers endure the hellish conditions of trench warfare while their executive superiors reside in the luxurious nearby palace that has been temporarily transformed into military headquarters.  It is in the comfort of the latter location that General Mireau, who oversees a division near the key German position known as “the Anthill,” is visited by his superior, General Broulard, a member of the French General Staff.  Broulard has come to propose an attempt by Mireau’s men to take the heavily fortified German stronghold, a mission which, if successful, could win favorable response for the French war effort in the press and the political arena- and presumably advance the careers of the military commanders involved.  At first, Mireau is adamant in his refusal of the commission, citing the impossibility of the task and the devastating casualties that would be inflicted on his soldiers; when Broulard brings up the possibility of an upcoming promotion, however, which might be adversely affected by his choice, the ambitious subordinate quickly changes his mind, and agrees to order his troops to make the attack.  Mireau makes a visit to the trenches, a hellish war zone under a continuous blanket of shelling and gunfire, where he takes the time to exchange a few military platitudes with the already demoralized men- and deliver a strict dressing down to one shell-shocked soldier whom he accuses of being a coward- before delivering his orders to the division’s commander, Colonel Dax.  Dax, a dedicated soldier and a capable leader, is likewise skeptical of their chances for success, deeming the attack a suicide mission, but when the general threatens to relieve him of his command, he reluctantly agrees to lead his men in the attempt- though he knows the cost in human life will be high.  The next morning, the assault on “the Anthill” commences, with Dax personally leading the men through a horrific barrage of shells and machine gun fire; the effort proves futile, with most of the first wave killed or wounded without gaining much ground towards the goal, and the second wave refusing to join the attack.  A desperate Mireau, watching the battle from behind the lines, attempts to order his artillery commander to fire on the reluctant men; the officer refuses to comply without written orders, further enraging the general.  Meanwhile, despite Dax’s attempts to rally the men, the onslaught of German resistance proves too much and the surviving troops fall back, putting an end to the mission.  Mireau is furious, accusing his men of cowardice and mutiny; he demands punishment for the failure of the mission, and orders that each of the three company commanders choose a man to be court-martialed and executed for treason, as an example to the rest.  Colonel Dax is appalled, and volunteers to defend the three soldiers in the proceedings against them; a skilled lawyer in civilian life, he is frustrated in his efforts by the court’s disregard for the men’s legal rights and its refusal to hear any mitigating evidence on their behalf.  Despite Dax’s vehement objections and impassioned pleas, the men are found  guilty and sentenced to die by firing squad.  Dax makes a last ditch effort to save the doomed soldiers, bringing evidence to General Broulard about Mireau’s thwarted attempt to fire on his own army; nevertheless, the execution proceeds as scheduled, and afterwards, when he orders an investigation into Mireau’s actions, Broulard offers Dax the disgraced general’s command, believing that he has been angling for the job all along.  The disgusted Dax refuses the promotion, admonishing the wily Broulard for his manipulative role in the whole tragic affair.  Leaving the headquarters, he overhears the soldiers singing along with a young German girl in a pub, and resolves to let them enjoy their brief respite for a short while longer before ordering them, as he must, back to the nightmare of the trenches.

The film’s taut and eloquent screenplay was credited to Kubrick and Calder Willingham, along with noted “pulp” fiction author Jim Thompson; in reality, most of the script was written by the latter two men, though the director took equal credit for his supervisory contributions- a sign of his frequently- noted desire for complete control of his films.  Needless to say, perhaps, the stridently anti-establishment sentiment of the story, combined with its indictment of power and patriotism as a mask for self-promotion and exploitation, generated much controversy in the political environment of the mid-1950s Eisenhower era; despite its setting within the French military, Paths of Glory was decried as un-American and doubtless seen as an example of Communist influence in the Hollywood film industry by the remaining proponents of McCarthyism.  Indeed, actor Douglas was vilified in the press during the production of the film for his involvement in such a project, though he remained unwavering in his dedication to it.  He was not alone in his confidence, either.  Though Kubrick himself had planned, for box office purposes, to compromise the story by changing its ending to a happy one, he was persuaded to keep to the novel’s original, bitter conclusion; when the studio balked at the depressing finale of the script and demanded the proposed happy ending instead, producer Harris resubmitted the original version without changes under the somewhat cynical assumption that nobody would bother to re-read it. He was right, and after the film’s completion the studio execs were so impressed with the final product that they agreed to release it without alteration.  The relative lack of significant opposition for Paths of Glory might have been a sign of the times- after all, another film with a strong anti-war message, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, was one of the year’s big hits, even winning multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture- and despite its relatively humble box office showing, it certainly made an impact on viewers, paving the way for a coming decade in which movies would take critical attitudes towards the accepted establishment to a new level.

Whether or not Paths of Glory captured the public, it quickly became a darling of the reviewers.  Praise for the film was almost universal, with critics expressing particular admiration for its unvarnished portrayal of the realities of warfare and its stark black-and-white cinematography.  Decades later, it is easy to look at Kubrick’s work here and recognize his familiar style, developed to mastery even at this early stage in his career.  The lauded cinematography (executed by George Krause) bears the hallmark of the director’s fondness for natural lighting, capturing the harsh glare of the uncovered bulbs in the trenches, the cold and hazy sunlight of the battlefield, and the heavy diffusion of the enormous palace interior with a palpable aura of tangibility; the relentless but deliberate mobility of the camera, including the classic and influential reverse tracking shot of Colonel Dax moving through the trenches on the morning of the fateful attack, prefigures future use of the same techniques in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, to name but two notable examples; the thematic motif of a story in which human endeavor is destined to fail because of inherent flaws in the character of its participants, and the shrewdly observational approach to revealing these flaws through the cool detachment of the empirical camera, is classic Kubrick, a thread which weaves its way through every film in the director’s canon; the unmistakable framing and shot composition, the triangulated relationships, the photographer’s fascination with capturing the human face in its myriad expressions of emotion- all these things and more are present in Paths of Glory, bearing witness to the concrete vision this then-youthful genius had already created for himself.  Already established, as well, was his penchant for demanding absolute control and his sometimes excruciating perfectionism.  His insistence on getting every frame of the movie exactly as he wished resulted in numerous confrontations and difficulties on the set, including a notorious incident in which, after 17 takes of a scene with Adolphe Menjou, the veteran actor exploded with rage and frustration at the director and ferociously derided the younger man’s inexperience at working with performers, in front of the full cast and crew of the film; after patiently allowing Menjou to expend his fury, Kubrick quietly called for another take.  It was but a foreshadowing of the kind of troublesome relations with collaborators for which he would be known throughout his career, but his exacting methods resulted, undeniably, in a legacy of masterpieces that continue to influence and inspire filmmakers- and dazzle audiences- to this day.

Though Kubrick deservedly takes the lion’s share of credit for the excellence of Paths of Glory, note must be taken of the fine contributions of the others involved.  To begin with, as noted, the screenplay is a well-crafted, tight piece of cinematic storytelling, peeling away expectation and cliché to reveal the unscrupulous, the cowardly, the vindictive, and the opportunistic qualities of its characters in an unrelenting portrait of war and its tendency to bring out the worst of human behavior.  Justice and compassion are thrown aside in favor of maintaining the status quo, ostensibly deep loyalties and ethics are forsaken at the first hint of personal consequence, and humanity is disregarded in the face of the ego-driven politics of the established social order.  The disparity between classes and ranks allows the free reign of corruption at all levels, and any trace of nobility or true honor is presumed to be just another pose adopted for the sake of gaining leverage in the quest for personal advancement.  Kubrick’s level of involvement in the writing of the screenplay is uncertain to me, but the majority of actual text was composed by Willingham and Thomas, both of whom would work with the director again despite his having downplayed their contributions here; these men have since justly earned proper recognition for this and many other projects, and each of them left the clear imprint of their particular style on Paths of Glory, helping to define its distinctive flavor of gritty humanism and undeniably playing an immeasurable part in making it the instant classic it became.

The cast, too, deserves a nod of appreciation, and not just for enduring their director’s tyrannical methods or the grueling conditions of the film shoot.  Kirk Douglas, who was then a top star, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, helped Kubrick on his road to greatness with his support for this project (he would later be instrumental in getting the filmmaker hired to replace Anthony Mann as the director of Spartacus, a movie which would further cement his reputation and his status as a power player in the industry, and though the two would ultimately fall out during the making of this latter epic, Douglas has remained staunch in his admiration for Kubrick’s abilities as an artist).  The actor may have suffered some backlash for his involvement, but it was well worth it in terms of his long-term reputation; his performance as Colonel Dax is widely considered one of his finest pieces of work, a passionate, intelligent, and utterly convincing portrait of a decent man in the midst of madness, and he not only gives us a hero with whom we can place our sympathies, he serves as a much-needed reminder that even in a nest of vipers, men of quality can still exist.  As for Adolphe Menjou, outbursts on the set notwithstanding, he gives the performance of his long career as General Broulard, hiding his ruthless Machiavellian machinations behind the smiling pleasantries of good manners in a way that makes it clear how much he enjoys being the master of the game; he is the film’s true villain, untouchable in his power and utterly without scruples, the picture of self-serving bureaucracy and elitist entitlement.  George Macready is equally loathsome as Mireau, another species of political opportunist, whose greedy ambition makes him an easy target for the manipulations of men like Broulard, and whose thirst for power- probably stoked by decades of forced subservience- allows him to rationalize the most appalling decisions in pursuit of his personal glory, but also makes him prone to grievous errors in judgment which will ultimately prove to be his downfall; Macready, sporting a facial scar as a constant reminder that he has undoubtedly earned his position (and that he is, in fact, a product of the military system in which he has likely spent his entire adult life), is every inch the blustery martinet, but there is something about the desperation of his manner that makes us almost- but not quite- feel sorry for him.  Also memorable is Wayne Morris, as a drunken lieutenant who abuses his position to eliminate a subordinate that threatens his security (and his conscience); as the three condemned men, Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey offer compelling examples of differing attitudes in the face of death, each of them representing aspects of humanity that defy easy judgment; Richard Anderson (later a familiar face of ‘70s television as Oscar Goldman, the handler of both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) is quietly superb as Mireau’s assistant, an officiously sycophantic administrator who relishes his opportunity to shine as the prosecutor in the court-martial of the accused mutineers, but who gives us, in his final scenes, more than a hint that the moral implications of his actions may be a heavier burden to bear than he had anticipated; and Susanne Christian (who would soon after become Mrs. Stanley Kubrick, a role which she would fill for the rest of the director’s life) is lovely and heartbreaking as the German singer, presumably a prisoner in the French-occupied town surrounding the military headquarters, who captures the hearts and souls of her unruly audience as she is forced to entertain them in the pub during the film’s final scene.

Paths of Glory is one of those flawless pieces of filmmaking that reminds us of just how good the medium of cinema can be.  It is- and has been from almost the moment of its release- a textbook example of great film technique, and its deeply compelling story makes it a riveting experience even for those with little interest in the technical side of the art form.  Director Steven Spielberg is one of many who has claimed it as a favorite film, and its plotline and themes have been borrowed or provided inspiration for countless other works over the years, from an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to a song by Faith No More.  Its status as a true masterpiece is so unquestionable that it tends, sometimes, to be forgotten in discussions of great filmmaking simply because it is such an obvious example.  In truth, though Kubrick’s later, more high-profile works have often been the subject of disagreement and controversy among scholars and critics, this early gem is almost always regarded with reverence by even the director’s most vehement detractors.  If you’ve never seen it, what are you waiting for?  It’s one of only a few films that I can confidently recommend, without qualification, to anyone; whether you are an avid movie buff or a casual entertainment seeker, you are bound to find yourself enthralled by this powerful little movie, and even those with a short attention span can rest assured that, at a fast-moving 88 minutes, it will have no trouble keeping their interest.  It’s a timeless classic, as powerful and riveting today as it was over a half-century ago, proving the words uttered by its star, Kirk Douglas, barely a decade after its release, to have been absolutely prophetic: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.”  You were right, Kirk.  I know it, too.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050825/

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 epic about the controversial military hero who led a successful rebellion by the Arabs as part of the British campaign against their Turkish occupiers during WWI. It’s a film that won 7 Academy Awards, made a star of Peter O’Toole, and is widely proclaimed as the masterwork of its director, David Lean. It’s also my favorite movie. Indeed, my love for it is so deeply rooted that it would be laughable for me to attempt anything like an objective review. However, it would also be unthinkable for me to have a blog dedicated to my passion for movies and not to write about my all-time favorite film; so today’s cinema adventure will be a list of the five reasons why Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest movie ever made. Forgive me in advance: I may gush.

1. The cinematography. The process of making Lawrence of Arabia took place over a grueling three-year period on location in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain. The conditions were punishing, with the cast and crew enduring the extremity of the elements for a longer period than was taken by the historical events depicted in the film. Nevertheless, cinematographer Freddie Young, using the massive and unwieldy cameras required for the film’s 70mm CinemaScope presentation, was able to capture the beauty and majesty of the desert setting to an extent unequalled before or since. The full character of the land is here to see: from the intricate rivulets of blowing sand that make the pristine dunes into a tapestry of constantly changing patterns, to the vast scope of a landscape that seemingly transforms an army of mounted warriors to the size and significance of ants, to the myriad of colors and textures that exist within the deceptively monotonous veneer. By transferring all these subtle details to the screen, Young successfully allows the desert to serve as far more than the mere backdrop it might have been in a lesser film; it plays a full-fledged role in the drama, with the constant assertion of its presence and its ever-shifting mood exerting a continual influence on the actions and the fate of the characters. In a way, Lawrence of Arabia could be characterized as a love story between its eponymous hero and the desert itself; thanks to Freddie Young, the chemistry between them is palpable.

2. The music. French composer Maurice Jarre was not the first choice for the task of creating musical accompaniment for Lean’s epic; he was virtually unknown at the time and was only approached when William Walton (elder statesman of British film composers) and Malcolm Arnold (who had worked with Lean on the highly successful Bridge on the River Kwai) were unavailable. To say he rose to the challenge is an understatement. His sweeping symphonic score is haunting and multi-faceted, from the magisterial strains of the now-familiar main theme to the rousing military marches interpolated throughout, providing the perfect complement to the enigmatic figure at the center of the story and the diverse, turbulent situation that surrounds him. Jarre’s accomplishment was made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only given two weeks to write the entire score; he also reportedly took over leading the orchestra for most of the recording sessions when credited conductor Adrian Boult was unable to coordinate his timing with the cues required by the film’s editing. It was not only the beginning of a long and prolific career as a prominent film composer, but also of a continuing work relationship with Lean that lasted for the rest of the director’s life.

3. The screenplay. Producer Sam Spiegel talked Lawrence’s younger brother into selling him the rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s own published memoir, to use as the basis for the film. A screenplay was written by Michael Wilson that centered on the political and military aspects of the story, but Lean was unhappy with that focus. Playwright Robert Bolt was brought in to rewrite the script instead as an examination of Lawrence himself. The result is a layered and intelligent portrait of one of the century’s most controversial heroes, presenting him as a contradictory figure- an egotist plagued by self-doubt, torn between loyalty to his country and love for the Arab cause, uncomfortable with his own people, haunted by his ignoble origins, and determined to write his own destiny. Bold for its time, the script overtly implies his homosexuality, depicts his torture and presumptive rape at the hands of a sadistic Turkish commander, portrays his sadomasochistic tendencies and includes his eager participation in the bloody massacre of a retreating enemy column. Yet despite this in-depth treatment, and though he is described variously by other characters throughout as everything from a “monster” to a “genius,” he remains as much a mystery at the end as he is at the beginning- and the film’s most urgent question, as voiced to Lawrence across the Suez Canal by a stranger in black near the end of its first act, remains unanswered- “Who are you?” Don’t assume, however, that this microscopic attention to its central character means that Lawrence of Arabia avoids the other subjects that factor into his story; not content to take a simple us-against-them perspective about war, the film presents a shrewdly cynical picture of the complicated agendas being shaped by both the British and their Arabian allies-of-convenience, offering insight on a historical period that laid the foundation for a complex and volatile Middle Eastern political arena that still exists today. Its treatment of the realities of warfare reveals the horror and tragedy that lie beneath the illusion of excitement and glory. Within its sweeping scope, it explores the larger theme of destiny vs. self-determination, not with lofty philosophical discourse, but through the course of events that arise in its story- calling into question whether history is shaped by men whose actions determine it, or whether the men are in fact shaped by the events which determine their actions, indeed whether they ultimately have any more significance or influence than pawns on a cosmic chessboard. In short, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic of the largest stature, encompassing important ideas, momentous events and literally thousands of people- but it is also the intimate, personal story of a single man and his journey of self-discovery. Thanks to the brilliantly literate and insightful work of Mr. Bolt, it works on both levels.

4. The performances. For the leading role, Lean’s first choice was Albert Finney, then a relatively unknown actor, and producer Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando. Both declined, and another unknown actor was eventually chosen- Peter O’Toole. It was the perfect match of actor and role. O’Toole completely owns Lawrence, commanding the screen with his flamboyant charisma and his piercing intensity. He conveys all the complexities discussed above without softening any of it for the sake of audience sympathy, and yet by virtue of his sheer honesty and commitment, his deliciously ironic humor, and- perhaps most of all- his underlying humanity, he makes this maddening, difficult, arrogant man into someone we can admire, pity, identify with, and yes, even like. He is surrounded by a superb all-star cast of international actors, all delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Alec Guinness, one of Lean’s favorite collaborators, plays Prince Feisal, leader of the Arab rebel forces and heir presumptive to their throne, who transitions from warrior to diplomat over the course of the film, and shows us the qualities of both in each. Every word he utters is laden with significance and layered with multiple meanings, and not one of them seems contrived or forced. Anthony Quinn embodies a lion of the desert as Auda abu Tayi, a shrewd and ferocious chieftain who initially allies himself with Lawrence’s rebel army primarily for personal profit, but whose loyalty and support are unwavering. He, too, captures the multiple facets of a potentially despicable character and makes them beautiful, turning Auda into both a lovable rogue and a force to be reckoned with. Omar Sharif, also then an unknown, at least outside of his native Egypt, is magnetic as Sherif Ali, another tribal leader, who clashes with Lawrence early on only to become his trusted comrade and closest friend- and perhaps more. Sleekly handsome, his intelligence and sensitivity make Ali an ideal counterpoint to the earthiness of Auda, and the chemistry he displays with O’Toole is tangible, clearly establishing the subtext that makes their characters’ relationship feel unmistakably like the film’s romantic subplot. Jack Hawkins is deceptively straightforward as General Allenby, the chief commander of British forces in the Arabian campaign, making his bemused, stiff-upper-lip demeanor an effective mask for the calculated, strategic thinking with which he manipulates Lawrence- as well as a shield against the uncomfortable moral implications of his Machiavellian tactics. Veteran character actor Claude Rains delivers one of the film’s most delightful and memorable performances as Mr. Dryden, a composite figure designed to represent the diplomatic forces at work behind the scenes and to serve as a sort of mentor to the younger Lawrence; oozing with mischievous charm, he wears the obvious duplicity of his role in the proceedings like a comfortable shroud, providing contrast with Allenby, and giving the impression of an expert puppet-master proudly enjoying his handiwork. As Col. Brighton, the liaison between the British military authority and the Arab forces, Anthony Quayle gives us the stolid presence of a career soldier, honorable, loyal, brave and more than a little dull- though not unintelligent; he makes an excellent foil for Lawrence’s dazzling shine, and provides a necessary and refreshing flavor of the ordinary. Arthur Kennedy brings a distinctively American perspective to the tale as Jackson Bentley, a cynical Chicago news reporter who documents Lawrence’s campaigns and makes him an international hero- and also serves as a kind of Greek chorus, providing a more objective viewpoint to the action and giving voice to the outrage evoked by the perspective of an outsider. Jose Ferrer makes a brief but unforgettable contribution as the sadistic Turkish Bey who interrogates and tortures Lawrence, exuding an oily, jaded dissipation as he gradually makes it clear that his intentions are not military but sexual in nature; somehow, even this dark character elicits a glimmer of sympathetic humanity as Ferrer embodies him with the full weight of his circumstance, making us feel the frustration and dehumanizing detachment that arise from his duties and his isolation. I could continue down the list of actors, all the way to the extras who provide stunning impressions in their few seconds of screen time, but you get the idea.

5. The direction. By the time he made Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean was already respected for both his technical skill and his aesthetic vision, but this film would elevate him to the ranks of a genuine master, eventually to be held in the same esteem as auteurs like Hitchcock, Fellini and Kurosawa. It’s easy to understand why. Lean constructs his film with a keen instinct for visual storytelling, establishing complicated situations, relationships, and thematic elements, packing an entire scene’s worth of exposition into a single, elegantly composed shot. He makes every location an integral part of the action, whether it is the powerful, ever-changing desert landscape, the interior of a tent swaying uneasily in the breeze, or the austere and museum-like halls of the military headquarters. His command of the imagery is not just limited to artful composition; with the abilities derived from working as an editor throughout his early film career (a role which he continued to personally undertake when he moved into the director’s chair), he meticulously pieces together all of his remarkable footage to create this epic true-life adventure in a way that conveys all the subtleties of both the global and personal levels of the story even when he is painting in broad strokes, and never feels slow for a second, despite the film’s notorious running time of nearly 4 hours. It’s no wonder, then, that Lawrence of Arabia has provided an inspirational blueprint for directors ranging from Stephen Spielberg to David Lynch; Lean’s perfectionism is obvious in every frame, and with it he crafts a movie of dazzling complexity out of simple, economical building blocks put together in just the right way. It’s a textbook example of great filmmaking, and even if Lawrence had been Lean’s only great film (which it certainly was not) it would be enough to ensure his place on the short list of the greatest directors of the 20th Century.

It’s only fair to point out that the movie has had its detractors over the years. Lawrence’s brother deeply regretted selling the rights to the story after seeing the film, protesting that the man portrayed in Lean’s vision bore no resemblance to the one he knew in life (though others who knew Lawrence said the film’s depiction was accurate, if somewhat exaggerated); in addition, the family of chieftain Auda abu Tayi pursued legal action against Columbia Studios over the movie’s representation of him as driven by a desire for personal gain, and the family of General Allenby also lodged formal complaints. Newsman Lowell Thomas (whose coverage of Lawrence and his desert campaign were responsible for making him and his exploits famous) called the movie “pretentious and false,” disparaging its accuracy, and many historians have taken exception to its mixture of fact and fiction; real people are mixed together with fictional composites, events are chronologically rearranged for dramatic purposes, some important occurrences are omitted entirely while complete fabrications are given pivotal significance, and some of the true politics surrounding this important chapter in world history have been significantly altered in order to facilitate Lean’s storytelling agenda. These criticisms are all undeniably valid, from a certain perspective- after all, a movie which purports to offer a true presentation of historical facts would do well to stick to those facts with a minimum of artistic license. However, Lawrence of Arabia is not such a movie. It’s not a documentary, nor is it really even a biographical drama; it is a work of fiction, based on a true story, yes, but not merely a regurgitation of documented information. Lean and screenwriter Bolt are more interested in exploring the personal and political facets of human experience than in offering a retrospective of facts, and they follow in the footsteps of many other artists- Shakespeare among them- by altering the historical truth in order to get at the more intangible truths inside it. It may not offer up a fair portrait of its hero- or any of its other characters, real or imagined, and it may not be a reliable document of what really happened on the Arabian Peninsula in 1917-18, but it is a compelling study of human strength and frailty, an insightful commentary on political and social interaction, and a gripping saga of high adventure in an exotic time and place. Criticizing it for being inaccurate is the equivalent of criticizing a painting for not being a photograph.

Of course, there are those who dislike Lawrence of Arabia for reasons other than its historical inaccuracies. Those too young to remember when movies were shown with an intermission may quail at its length- even theater owners of its time protested, prompting the unfortunate cutting of several scenes, only some of which have since been able to be restored. Others have criticized it as male-centric, citing its lack of feminine presence (no women have speaking roles, and indeed, few females appear onscreen at all); and many have protested, variously, its perceived negative portrayal of native Arabs and its use of western actors in most of the major Arab roles- even Omar Sharif, an Egyptian, was an objectionable choice in many parts of the Middle East. Some have called the film “shallow” (an unbelievable criticism, in my view) or “Imperialist” (equally ludicrous), and still others have simply dismissed it as the outdated product of a bygone era. To these opinions, I can only say that everyone is entitled to their personal tastes, though for those who see the film as having an anti-Arab bias I would have to point out that its portrayal of westerners is hardly complementary, either. For those of us who love Lawrence of Arabia, however, its heartening to know we are in good company- its a film that consistently places in the top ten of most lists of the greatest movies of all time, and the contributions of almost all of its participants is widely considered among the finest work in their respective careers.

If you are among those who have yet to see Lawrence of Arabia, there couldn’t be a better time than now. In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, a painstaking digital restoration has been prepared, returning it to a level of beauty that reportedly even surpasses its pristine, original magnificence. This new version has been screened at several major film festivals and will enjoy a one-day-only theatrical release today (October 4, 2012). If you are lucky enough to be able to get to one of these big-screen presentations, I guarantee you will enjoy an unforgettable cinematic experience. If you can’t make it, though, take heart; it will be released on BluRay for home viewing soon (its already available in the UK), and given the film’s enduring popularity and reputation, you can be assured it will make frequent returns to the big screen- where it was truly meant to be seen and where its full power reveals itself in ways unimaginable in your living room, no matter how sophisticated your equipment may be- for many years to come. If you are anything like me (and if you are reading this, odds are good that you probably are) you will jump at the chance to see it this way, whenever possible. If nothing else, it will remind you that movies, which all too often serve as mere distractions for us in this era of easy access and rapid downloads, are at their best when they are an event- and there are few films more deserving to be treated as an event than Lawrence of Arabia.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056172/

 

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored

For its 50th Anniversary, David Lean’s Oscar-wining masterpiece has been restored to better than its original glory and is being screened for one day only at theaters across the U.S.  This stunningly beautiful movie can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, so if you are free this Thursday (Oct. 4, 2012) and you are reasonably close to one of the locations, I strongly advise you to jump on this rare opportunity to see it the way it was meant to be seen.  You can get tickets at the website below!  Maybe I’ll see you there!

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored.

The Stunt Man (1980)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Stunt Man, the 1980 feature by director Richard Rush about a runaway fugitive who stumbles into the middle of a film shoot and finds cover working as a stunt man, only to realize that the movie’s megalomaniacal director may be planning to kill him for the sake of filming the ultimate stunt.  A difficult film to place within a genre, it was shot in 1978 and ended up shelved for two years by a studio that didn’t know how to advertise it; when it finally hit the screen it was only given a limited release, and it was largely overlooked by the public.  Nevertheless, it garnered considerable praise from critics and managed to earn several Academy Award nominations, including one for its star- and its main appeal, then and now- Peter O’Toole, whose performance represented something of a comeback in his storied career.

Adapted by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus from a novel by Paul Brodeur, The Stunt Man follows a young Vietnam War veteran who is running from the law, having committed an unspecified crime after returning from his tour of duty.  With officers in hot pursuit, he runs into the middle of a film shoot, inadvertently disrupting a dangerous automobile stunt in which the driver is accidentally killed.  With a sudden new opening for a replacement and only a few days to finish his ambitious anti-war epic, the movie’s director, Eli Cross, takes the young outlaw under his wing, offering him a safe haven and a new identity- in exchange for completing the aborted stunt himself.  As he prepares for the big moment, learning the tricks of the trade and attempting to bond with the gregarious crew of movie-making gypsies that have taken him into their fold, he begins to suspect the flamboyant and mercurial Cross, who is obsessed with realism, of plotting to orchestrate his death in order to capture it on film.  Things are further complicated when he finds himself in a blossoming romance with the film’s leading lady, heightening his dilemma over whether to flee back into a permanent life on the run or stay and risk his own untimely demise.

If the premise seems a bit gimmicky, it is; The Stunt Man offers a highly improbable premise, riddled with plot holes and unlikely conceits.  This, however, is part of the sense of wicked fun that permeates the movie.  Rush and Marcus never take the pseudo-thriller plot too seriously; although they give an appropriate amount of weight to the psychological conflicts of its hero, they make certain that the overall tone is decidedly comic, flavored with cynical irony and self-satire, and they derive a great deal of nudging humor from the tricks they work on their audience.  Within its far-fetched scenario, The Stunt Man plays with our expectations and our preconceived assumptions in order to keep us off balance, establishing its young protagonist as our access point into its smoke-and-mirrors world and ensuring that we, like him, are constantly betrayed by appearances; this is, after all, a movie about making movies, and in keeping with its subject, nothing is what it seems.  At every turn, we are presented with illusions- many of them clearly established as such- and then find ourselves surprised when the truth behind them is revealed.  The film shrewdly manipulates our willing suspension of disbelief, understanding that we want to buy into its various cons, and exploiting our natural inclination to believe what we see.   Rush spends most of his movie exploring examples of the conflict between truth and illusion, from the oft-repeated assertion that King Kong was only 3′ 6″ to the extended sequence of WWI carnage enacted in front of a throng of horrified spectators at the beach, making for a highly amusing display of magic in which the tricks being performed mirror the tricks being played on us by the magician behind the camera.

Of course, this idea of illusion vs. reality, which fits so perfectly into the metaphoric possibilities of a self-reflexive movie about movies, is nothing new; it has been highlighted in works ranging from Fellini’s 8 1/2 to Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, providing fodder for low comedy to high tragedy and everything in between.  The Stunt Man, however, ties it to another theme, perhaps more immediately relevant to the lives of everyday civilians not lucky enough to be working in the film industry- namely, the difficulty of trust in a culture full of deliberate lies and manipulation.  Our hapless hero, ironically dubbed “Lucky” by his newfound protector (or, perhaps, persecutor), is full of paranoia and mistrust, the result of buying into a much bigger and more insidious con game than any cinematic sleight-of-hand perpetrated by Eli Cross and his crew; he has been cheated by a system that sent him to war on the promise of making him a hero and now treats him as a pariah, and had his hopes for a happy future shattered by faithless friends and lovers.  When the nature of his crime is revealed, we discover it was an act of anger and frustration over the raw deal into which he has been suckered- like so many of his generation.  Is it any wonder, then, that when he is offered a new lease on life by a representative of the dream factory, a man who blatantly and unabashedly manipulates truth and illusion in order to achieve his ends, he is wary of being suckered once again?  This is the central conflict of The Stunt Man; in a world devoted to illusion and deceit, where pretty lies often disguise ugly truths and trust is only a lure by which the foolish are led like lambs to the slaughter, the only hope of self-preservation is to doubt everything and everyone around you.  As Eli Cross puts it, late in the film, “Paranoia is a social disease; it’s got by screwing your fellow man.”  Whether he offers a cure or euthanasia is the primary question of The Stunt Man, and I wouldn’t dream of answering it here.  Suffice to say that the course of treatment has a few twists and turns.

Rush guides his film with bravura flair, capitalizing on his rare opportunity to both celebrate and send up the conventions of movie-making.  Infusing it with a certain tongue-in-cheek aura of self-awareness, he nevertheless dives headlong into the numerous opportunities for old-fashioned movie spectacle, with the added layer of showing us the spectacle behind the spectacle; he gives us a delight akin to seeing a magician reveal his secrets, only to discover the revelation itself is part of the trick.  He also takes advantage of the film-within-a-film milieu to capture a sense of bygone Hollywood glamour in the midst of the nuts-and-bolts candor of the contemporary setting, aided considerably by the extensive use of the historic Coronado del Rey Hotel, which serves as a location for much of the film; and though his film is primarily focused on psychological concerns, he fills it with action, not just within the framework of the “meta-movie” but expanding it outward into the surrounding real environment of the film as well.  The result is a movie that takes its time to get to its point but maintains the feeling of a brisk pace, enhanced by all the inherent details of its film-shoot backdrop, and keeps us engaged in its game of interchanging fact and fiction right up to the final playful moment.

The Stunt Man benefits from Mario Tosi’s cinematography, with its exploration of various qualities of light, both natural and staged; and the rousing score by Dominic Frontiere conjures the circus atmosphere of the movie-making world with a bravado that matches that of its director (the one onscreen, that is), and even includes a haunting vocal tune, “Bits and Pieces,” co-written by veteran songsmith Norman Gimbel and performed by the iconic Dusty Springfield.  As for the cast, a fine ensemble of likeable faces clearly enjoys itself with the material.  The titlular hero is played by Steve Railsback (whose careeer was mostly defined by his portrayal of Charles Manson in the TV film of Helter Skelter), who lets us see the vulnerable little boy inside even as he pulls off the hard-edged toughness he uses as a protective mask, and conveys the impression of a young man walking around in a state of prolonged shell-shock- which, of course, is not far from the truth.  The beautiful Barbara Hershey is highly effective as the leading lady (of both the film and the film within it), marvelously embodying the multi-layered quality of an utterly contemporary woman; she is sensual, independent, confident and full of a zest for her life and her work, but she also reveals the insecure little girl underneath the worldly actress- and, most importantly, she manages to find the balance between candor and mystery that keeps us from really knowing the sincerity of her feelings for “Lucky.”  Alex Rocco is memorable as an exasperated local lawman, as are  Allen Goorwitz, Chuck Bail, Adam Roarke, and Sharon Farrell as various members of the film’s cast and crew; but, without question, The Stunt Man belongs to its star, Peter O’Toole.

As Eli Cross, O’Toole’s famously over-the-top persona finds its perfect match; zooming around in his helicopter, descending from the heavens on his crane, and constantly enfolding his underlings with the enormity of his personality, he gives us the ultimate egotistical film director.  He is vain, dictatorial, demanding, pretentious, manipulative, and arrogant; yet he is also generous, gregarious, compassionate, and clearly more aware than anyone else of his own ridiculousness.  Cross plays himself with gusto, and O’Toole plays Cross with just as much of it; the legendary actor has said he based his performance on David Lean, the famously godlike director who helmed, of course, Lawrence of Arabia.  This may account for the unmistakable air of authenticity that underlies his work here, for despite his fully appropriate chewing of the scenery, every moment of his performance is infused with an absolute honesty and a fully recognizable humanity.  O’Toole’s Eli Cross is exactly the kind of larger-than-life man who is both worshiped and feared by those beneath him- and considering his God-or-the-Devil role in the proceedings of The Stunt Man, it’s a quality that fits to a tee, and makes the entire film work like gangbusters.

The Stunt Man is one of those odd little films that time forgot; a staple in the early days of cable TV, many have seen it- and liked it- and yet it has slipped into relative obscurity, no doubt due to its effervescent qualities that are likely to disguise its deeper matter for audiences who aren’t paying close attention.  For myself, I have noticed that when it comes up in conversation with someone, almost invariably the other person’s eyes light up- “Oh yeah, that’s a great movie!  I haven’t thought about that one in years!”  I’m happy to say that it holds up well, perhaps seeming even better now, though clearly the behind-the-screen technology it shows us is a bit dated in some ways.  The high-spirited camaraderie it depicts among its film-making “family” is timeless, however, and so are the themes it so cagily explores.  After all, today’s world is as full of phonies and liars as ever, and it is perhaps more difficult than ever to let our defenses down, for fear of being taken in and played for a fool- or worse.  The Stunt Man, in its quaint little tale of Machiavellian plotting in an insular world, provides an apt metaphor for the difficulties of overcoming paranoia in our own.

 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081568/

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the 2012 feature based on the bestselling historical fantasy/horror novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, casting the already-heroic 16th American president in the even more heroic role of a secret slayer of the undead.  Directed by Timur Bekmambetov and adapted by the novelist himself, it’s a movie that hinges on a bold juxtaposition of historical fact and supernatural adventure, with a flashy visual style and an emphasis on bloodshed and action.  The plot follows Lincoln from his childhood, when his mother is ostensibly poisoned by his father’s former employer; upon reaching manhood, he seeks to avenge her murder, only to discover that her killer is in fact an undead monster.  Narrowly escaping death himself, he is rescued by a mysterious stranger, who reveals to him the secret existence of vampires living in the midst of human society and offers to teach him the skills he needs to become a warrior in the ongoing battle against them.  He becomes a master hunter, and his discovery of an insidious connection between vampires and slavery fuels his parallel political career, culminating in his presidency and providing underlying motivation for the Civil War.

With such a blatantly ridiculous premise, one might expect a substantial amount of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery, coupled with a sense of goofy fun for its own sake.  These elements are definitely present, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes a decidedly serious tone in its approach to this genre-mashing mixture of history and hokum; Lincoln’s secret calling is no parenthetical side job, but is integrally woven into the events that shape both his private and public lives, as well as into the fabric of some of our nation’s still-most-painful memories.  It would be unforgivably glib of the film’s creators to make these connections without investing an appropriate amount of weight in the proceedings; accordingly, Lincoln’s dedication to vampire-killing stems from deeply personal motivation, rooted in the monsters’ victimization of his family, and their thirst for blood is linked directly to the most contentious and shameful issue ever to face the United States.  Of course, tying these various personal and national tragedies to a narrative about inhuman, bloodsucking parasites may have rich metaphoric possibilities- which, unfortunately, remain largely unexplored beyond the obvious implications of the situation- but it doesn’t do much for fueling the kind of escapist melodrama promised by the audaciously wacky concept.

Most of the critical unkindness towards this film has revolved around its insistence on anchoring its bloodlust-fulfillment fantasy in a sense of earnest importance, as if its purpose were to present a legitimate portrait of Honest Abe and his far-sighted principles.  Indeed, the world of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a place where lofty ethical considerations seem moot, a given condition of the larger political order, perhaps, but out of place with the more immediate conflicts of our hero’s secret occupation.  The situation cries out for the kind of unapologetic amorality found in a down-and-dirty exploitation film, contrasting Lincoln’s public face as a wise and compassionate leader with his role as a one-man boundary between the forces of darkness and the unknowing society he is sworn to protect.  The very title of this movie suggests a no-nonsense, merciless killing machine, and that is not only what we expect to see, it’s what we want.  Instead, we are given an idealized version of the real man, and a slice of his personal drama thrown in to boot- for which, presumably, we could easily wait until next year’s highly anticipated Spielberg biopic.

All of these problematic reservations can be attributed to the screenplay, written by Grahame-Smith with an eye towards keeping the emotional stakes high enough to keep viewers connected to the characters in the midst of all the slaughter.  By giving the plot a sense of purposeful noblilty and including a substantial dose of Lincoln’s private life as a lover, friend, husband, and father, the author hoped, presumably, to avoid turning the whole affair into a garish cartoon.  The effort is commendable, as is the attempt to maintain at least a tenuous connection to historical accuracy (with a few notable exceptions), in the use of names and relationships, actual events and chronology, etc., even if the details are rearranged considerably.  However well-intentioned he may have been, and however well these factors may have worked in his novel, the writer may have miscalculated; though normally I am adamantly in favor of the thoughtful, character-driven approach to storytelling for the screen, in this case I believe the film as a whole would have benefited from a lighter, less self-consciously sincere touch- and more scenes of Mr. President wielding his silver-edged axe.  The very notion which drives the plot demands a film which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thanks to its script, this one often does.

I have always, however, been an advocate of taking a movie on its own terms, and with that in mind, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a failure.  Though the weighty trappings of pseudo-biographical drama make for some slow going from time to time, when the movie does release the giddy adolescent joyride at its core, it takes off like a silver cannonball.  Director Bekmambetov delivers the same kind of flashy, multi-speed, computer-assisted action that helped to make his previous film, Wanted, a hit, transporting us decisively into the realm of superhuman feats, where we can at last get a taste of the thrills inherent in the idea of our chief executive moonlighting as a bad-ass monster-killer.  There are a number of these electrifying set pieces scattered throughout the film- a chase across the backs of a stampeding herd of horses, a gruesome monsters’ ball in a decrepit plantation, a climactic fight on the rooftop of a moving train- all saturated with grisly, blood-spattered, and deliciously satisfying violence.  It is in these segments that the movie really comes to life, and, like a true showman, Bekmambetov always leaves us wanting more; though everything in between often feels like filler, the payoff we receive from this kind of exciting screen action is almost worth the patience it takes to get there.

Bekmambetov ‘s slick modern style brings a contemporary edge to the movie that contrasts sharply with its period setting- which is firmly established with authenticity in the clothes and the physical surroundings, and further complemented by the effect of using muted, faux-sepia tones in the cinematography (possibly the film’s finest asset, accomplished by the legendary Caleb Deschanel).  This color palette has the odd benefit of seeming both old-fashioned and yet somehow very high-tech, a double-edged description that could be used to sum up the overall production design (by François Auduoy); the look and feel of the film, heavily reliant on computer graphics, creates a heightened reality, reminiscent of the dramatic visual style of a comic book.  Though this stylized environment adds a layer of artificiality to the proceedings, it also reinforces the supernatural atmosphere necessary to sustain the film’s absurd conceit.

The actors are more than adequate for the task at hand, with Dominic Cooper and Rufus Sewell standing out in the showiest of the supporting roles- Lincoln’s mentor and the vampires’ supreme leader, respectively.  Obviously, though, it’s the title character who must shoulder the heaviest burden here, and young Benjamin Walker’s shoulders are broad enough to do it.  He does a fine job of walking the thin line between Lincoln the man, Lincoln the statesman and Lincoln the terminator, and, on top of that, is convincing playing the great man from youth to weathered middle age.  He even bears a resemblance to Lincoln, though he is considerably more handsome- a requisite Hollywood touch.

There is something about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that draws me in.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for this kind of preposterous “what if?” speculation, or maybe I’m just a big kid at heart, but from the very moment I heard about this movie, I was excited to see it.  Though in the end it was not quite the kind of adrenaline-pumping silliness I was hoping for, I can’t say I was disappointed, either.  Sure, I would have liked a little more of the gory action that worked and a little less of the pedestrian costume drama that didn’t; but there is plenty in this movie to tickle my juvenile fancy and keep me interested throughout its running time.  Even if that weren’t the case, the final scene contains an amusing twist that left me fairly delighted as the end credits rolled- and if I can walk out of the theater with a smile on my face, I think that’s a good enough reason to recommend a film.  So consider it recommended, but with the following qualification: it’s a stupid movie, but perhaps not stupid enough.  If you can get past that, you’ll have a great time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1611224/

Casablanca (1942)

Today’s cinema adventure: Casablanca, the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as a pair of former lovers who are reunited amidst the turmoil and intrigue of the title city during the early years of World War II.  Frequently classified as film noir, this iconic gem is really more of a romance, though it shares many features- the cynical tone, the shadowy lighting, the focus on corruption and betrayal-  with the then-still-developing noir genre; but classification aside, the fact remains that Casablanca is one of the handful of films that can be indisputably called an iconic classic, an example of Hollywood’s golden era at its finest, and one of those cultural touchstones that never seems to lose relevance, despite the passage of years and the changing attitudes of society.  The reasons why are intangible; examining its elements individually, there seems no reason why it should have more power than any other relatively well-made pot-boiler of its time, and its production history was famously messy, with continual changes and second-guessing by its writers and producers that should logically have resulted in a complete muddle.  Instead it was, well, Casablanca.  It’s an example of one of those fortuitous combinations of people and circumstance that can only be ascribed to fate.

Though it may not be possible to fully explain the mystique of Casablanca, it is certainly easy to understand its initial success within a historical context.  It depicts a place where justice and decorum are merely a façade, creating the illusion of a level field in the deadly game of manipulation being played underneath; where sentiment and desperation are weaknesses to be exploited in the pursuit of shameless self-interest; and where law and diplomacy exist only to serve the powerful in the enforcement of their will.   In this cutthroat arena, Rick- a worldly-wise American expatriate- is the champion player, a representative of the “lost generation” who has transformed his disillusionment into a badge of honor, and who thrives in the niche he has carved for himself because he maintains a strict policy of isolationism- as he puts it, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”  It’s a strategy that works- at least until a romantic shadow from his past re-enters his life and forces him to choose between his self-protective shroud of indifference and a chance to use his position in the service of a greater good.  It was a perfect metaphor for an America that was hesitant about entering WWII after becoming jaded by the long and painful hardship of the Great Depression, and to make the allegory crystal clear, the story is populated by an assortment of international characters in various states of uneasy alliance with an ever-more-insistent Nazi presence.

Of course, if Casablanca were only notable for its heavy-handed political parallels, it would never have stood the test of time and would be remembered only as a piece of pro-war propaganda.  It is so much more than that.  The backdrop of then-timely politics serves as a stage upon which a timeless and universal drama is played, in which a man, burned and haunted by the disappointment of his past, rediscovers his humanity; and the cornerstone which allows him to do so is also the primary reason for Casablanca‘s enduring popularity- the iconic romance at the heart of the action.  Rick and Ilsa are without question one of the most famous pairs of star-crossed lovers in the history of film, perhaps even more so than Rhett and Scarlett.  Their story tugs at the heart of anyone who has loved and lost- which means, of course, everyone- and the connection is all the stronger for those who have had the experience of losing it due to the intervention of larger forces beyond their control.  Seeing this tender couple, played so perfectly and with such exquisite chemistry by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, find their opportunity to be together in the middle of the momentous events swirling around them is both bittersweet and cathartic, and their famous, final exchange on the foggy nighttime runway is surely one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting scenes in the history of cinema.

The romance may be the centerpiece of Casablanca, but Rick and Ilsa are fully realized characters on their own, too.  Bogart, though he had been active for years as a second-string movie thug and had recently made a promising splash in The Maltese Falcon, here established once and for all the screen persona which made him one of Hollywood’s most durable stars.  His Rick is the ultimate smooth operator, classy but rough-edged, sophisticated but down-to-earth, confidant but unassuming; one look and you know he is not only the toughest and most dangerous guy in the room, he’s probably also the smartest.  To complete the picture, his wisecracking irony and his stoic demeanor do nothing to hide the noble and sensitive heart that beats inside him; it is clear from his very first moments onscreen that he is a man of honor, kindness, and charity, no matter how enmeshed he may seem in the dirty politics of Casablanca, and when he is revealed as a romantic and a champion of the underdog, it comes not as a surprise but rather as a triumphant confirmation of what we already know.  It’s a role that seems tailor-made for Bogart, in retrospect, and it is virtually impossible to see how anybody else could have pulled it off.  Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, though not as defining a role for her as Rick was for Bogie, is nevertheless one of her most memorable creations; she is, of course, beautiful, but she also radiates sadness, nobility, compassion, and sophistication; at the same time, she wears her own shade of the resigned, hard-edged irony that colors Rick’s persona, and watching it melt away as their rekindled love transforms her into a passionate woman is one of the key elements of Casablanca.  Besides all that, she also deserves a lot of respect for being able to credibly deliver some of the most ridiculously corny lines ever written for an actress.

Of course, Rick and Ilsa are not the only memorable characters on the scene: the entire cast, comprised of several of the era’s most familiar stock players (many of whom were real refugees from the Nazi Reich), turns in superb and memorable performances, far too many to mention here.  It would be an unforgivable oversight, however, not to make special note of Claude Rains, as the charmingly corrupt police prefect, Renault, whose friendly rivalry and good-natured banter with Rick provides a grounding counterpoint to the love story, and whose heart of gold ultimately breaks through his cynical armor.  Also iconic are the delicious turns by film noir staples Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; the former as Ugarte, an unlucky black marketeer who seeks assistance and refuge at Rick’s nightclub (though he knows Rick “despises” him), and the latter as Signor Ferari, a bold-facedly opportunistic rival club owner with whom Rick has a grudgingly mutual respect.  Dooley Wilson projects loyalty, patience and heart as Rick’s trusted piano player- and his warm rendition of the signature song, Herman Hupfield’s ”As Time Goes By,” is one of the most memorable aspects of the film.  Conrad Veidt serves as the primary villain of the piece, an arrogant and bullying Nazi colonel whose deference to the local status quo is abandoned whenever it stands in the way of his absolute authority; a remarkably subtle and nuanced performance in a caricature of a role, delivered by one of Germany’s greatest actors, who, sadly, passed away soon afterward. Finally Paul Henreid manages the seemingly impossible task of making the character of Victor Laszlo- the underground resistance leader seeking escape from the Nazis through Casablanca, and Ilsa’s secret husband- not only believable in his too-good-to-be-true nobility but likable in spite of his position as the man standing between the film’s beloved romantic leads.

The many other delights of Casablanca are obvious in every frame.  Most noticeable is its rich visual design, beautifully captured by Arthur Edeson’s lush black-and-white cinematography, which features a synthesis of exotic and stylish elements into a mythic landscape that contrasts modern utilitarianism with decorative antiquity, a continual and elaborate play of shadows, and fantasized notions of its mythic locale.  The Casablanca of this film bears little resemblance to the real-life city which shares its name; it is pure Hollywood fantasy, designed to evoke the danger and intrigue associated with it in our imaginations.  Rick’s café, a place where Western elegance is imposed upon the Moorish sensibilities of its architecture, provides the central base for the film- it feels familiar without being quite safe, an oasis in the harsh (but still irresistibly romanticized), foreign atmosphere which makes up the rest of the city.  It’s a triumph of artistic design, influenced by Hollywood glamour and German Expressionism, and executed by Art Director Carl Jules Weyl and Set Decorator George James Hopkins.  The costumes by Orry-Kelly similarly provide a distillation of the early forties visual milieu, giving us timeless styles flavored with fantasized exotica; in particular, the powerful simplicity of Bogart’s white-jacketed evening wear, which became an instant classic, still represents the epitome of elegance in male fashion.  The musical score, by the legendary Max Steiner, is perhaps his definitive work, with its interpolation of familiar European anthems and the romantic melody of “As Time Goes By” into his own highly flamboyant and evocative compositions, and goes a long way toward setting the heightened tone which has burned Casablanca into the collective consciousness of subsequent generations.

All this excellent artistry is in the service of the film’s now-revered screenplay, by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on an obscure play, called Everybody Goes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.  It is now well-known that constant rewrites kept the actor and crew uncertain throughout production, with Bergman, for instance, never knowing during filming who she was supposed to be in love with, and nobody certain of how the film would end.  This no doubt contributed to the cast’s loathing for the project at the time, and their belief that they were almost certainly making a horrible dog of a movie; fortunately, they were wrong.  Loaded with now-familiar classic lines, marked by excessively melodramatic dialogue which nevertheless wins us over by its sheer audacity and the committed, straight-faced delivery of the cast, it’s a screenplay that transforms its time-specific scenario into a tale of eternal significance, an exciting and emotionally resonant portrayal of love and idealism blossoming in a hostile environment.  The full power of these themes, however, might still have been lost or obscured without the contribution of Michael Curtiz, a versatile workman of a director who is often overlooked by cinema scholars despite an impressive and prolific body of work; with the skill of a master he weaves all the disparate threads together into a cohesive package, which revels in its intricately embellished atmosphere and its lush moods even as it drives its intrigue-laden plot at a steadily building pace towards its immensely satisfying conclusion.

Casablanca is full of memorable scenes: the capture of Ugarte, the arrival of Ilsa at Rick’s and the flashback to their romance in Paris, the cafe patrons drowning out the singing Nazis with a rousing chorus of “La Marsellaise.”  Indeed, more than almost any other film, it seems a progression of one remarkable moment after another; but, finally, it is the ending that sticks with us.  Rick and Ilsa’s farewell on the runway hits us in a place that the artificial thrills of the plot cannot, and it feels so right that it is impossible to believe that any other ending was ever considered.  Then, right on its heels, there is the not-so-surprising defection of Captain Renault from the dark side, just in time to walk off into the foggy night with Rick for “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  The emotional wallop is potent; and maybe the reason it hits us so hard has to do with the choice that affects us all, at one point or another, to serve our own needs or to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  In a world full of suspicion, greed, and deliberate cruelty- or even just a world where nobody wants to look like a sucker- it’s a tough choice to make, and maybe Casablanca affects us so deeply because it lets us believe in the notion of “doing the right thing” even when everyone else is afraid to.  In a way, it’s a bridge between the noble sentimentality of a world long gone- if, indeed, it ever existed- and the hard-edged realism of the modern era.  We are still human, after all, even in an inhuman world, and (as the song so aptly expresses it) “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/