[1936] San Francisco

I have a funny feeling that many if not all of the films from the 1930s will follow a similar pattern: a type-cast and suave leading man will confront himself and his peers in pursuit of a beautiful woman or a lofty dream – two sides of the same coin, if you will.

This man will have conflicts, both internal and external. He will be a rapscallion, but will show sensitive tendencies. His supporting cast of friends, acquaintances, enemies, nemeses, lovers and extras each will bring out a certain quality in him to move some semblance, or in the best cases, a very clear plot along from Point A to Point B and sometimes to point C or D. There will be a series of obstacles, some grand in nature, a few subtle, for this flawed hero to overcome to achieve his goal.

Nineteen thirty six’s San Francisco fits this mold with some minor edges. For this iteration, Clark Gable in pre-Gone With The Wind form pairs with Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt to form a lovers’ tango in 1905 San Francisco. The plot plays out thusly: MacDonald whisks into the Bay Area as a simple pastor’s daughter, Mary Blake, with a magical voice looking for work as an entertainer of sorts. After little to no luck for several weeks, Blake stumbles into Gable’s saloon/cabaret/bar The Paradise Club, where said club’s proprietor, Gable as “Blackie” Norton, hires her on the spot, because, see, Norton is a natural talent scout and an everyman’s man with an infallible “code.” The movie does a particularly good job in painting two of its leads within the first interaction: Continue reading

[1970] Patton

General George S. Patton, Jr. was a real sonofabitch. Ask his superiors; ask his infantrymen; ask the Germans and Italians; ask the Russians. Gen. Patton was the biggest sonofabitch of them all.

George C. Scott was also a real sonofabitch. Physically and intellectually gifted as an actor – with comically ironic roles in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove alongside the many iterations of comedic genius Peter Sellers and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler alongside man’s man Paul Newman – Scott’s most important and visceral role came with his adaptation of the celebrated US Army General in 1970’s Patton.

Here’s the most true assumption of Patton: George S. Patton and George C. Scott, the character and the actor, were not so far apart in reality that for Scott, playing Patton was no more a role than his left arm was an appendage. He carried the weight of one of the United States’ most controversial field generals so convincingly that he even refused the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1970 (for supposed political reasons), something, after having seen the film would not seem so out-of-place for the real-life Patton to have done. For one of the most underrated war dramas (even though it might be the best) the actor was not done acting when the camera stopped. It adds to the mystique of the film.

Patton is best known for its iconic opening scene where we first meet the curmudgeonly field general against an iconic backdrop of an oversized American flag. He is giving a pep talk to a most-likely beaten-down unit of the American army; time is unknown, place is undisclosed, but with his words, Scott is able to set up the viewer’s expectation and limits of his Patton. In the resulting 160+ minutes, no action or reaction is unexpected or . This is not a movie about plot twists and chaotic politicking. The internal narrative, that exclusive look into the character that only the viewer gets to see, is transformed, instead appearing as a history of battle sequences, from the early Peloponnesian triumphs of Ancient Rome to Napoleonic victories of the early 19th century. Because General George S. Patton, you see, was there, not in a figurative sense. It is the courage and immediacy of Scott that we the viewer can see that Patton truly believed he had a very real part in these wars of old. He reads the Bible, it seems, to infuse his very person from it a form of divine battle strategy. There is little doubt that, to him, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, read less as a philosophical treatise and more of a cut-and-dry guide. Perhaps War of War would have been a better title. Continue reading

[1969] Z

At the end of the alphabet is the letter “Z.” In our youth we could breathe a sigh of relief that we, in fact, did remember all 26 letters of the alphabet and that we weren’t doomed to a life of illiteracy; to be a statistic of the lower, lower class , who among other things cannot afford themselves the ability to read or write or to communicate successfully with the outside world. For too many of these people, the letter “Z” means nothing; mimicable in dirt but without tangibility, dramatic in construction but flaccid in interpretation.

But for those whose language is of a Latin or Greek descent, the letter “Z” – zee, zeta or zed – signifies rarity, hundreds or thousands of words instead of tens or hundreds of thousands. We perk up at the sight of it or hearing of it because it usually signifies an interesting or scientific term. In that way, it’s striking in its rarity. But when Costa-Gavras titled his iconic third film Z he wanted to strike the audience with its ubiquity. Masterfully maddening, meddling and caustically blunt, Z succeeds in pushing its message organically where many of its logical influences, contemporaries and where modern films fall comically flat. This film feels genuine.

The ingenuity most likely has to do with the immediacy of the subject matter and the political zing afforded to it; it helps that this story takes place before the deux ex machina era of cellular technology and the Internet. The story has to be logical and syllogistic becaiuse there is no quick out to a discrepancy in logic here. Title character Z (Yves Montand) plays a rather pensive leader of an anti-war faction, whose rallies upset the incumbent profit-focused regime. Fittingly, the military whose “democracy” takes extreme liberty with the word does everything it can to upset an impeding rally and speech by our main character – sudden venue change and lack of active protection – and in the midst of the rather obvious confusion that follows the speech (radicalized youths + “freedom” of speech and expression; what could go wrong), Z is struck on the head, and after several quick surgeries, dies. Continue reading

[1952] High Noon

An aging Gary Cooper’s star power wanes in Fred Zinneman’s 1952 western, High Noon.

Throughout much of the film’s scant 85 minute runtime, the characters often wonder aloud and in-depth to one another in anticipation of some event happening – some event no one is even sure will happen. This technique often does wonders for character-driven film, whose setting and plot always take a backseat to exposition, character development and relationship building and especially does magnificent work in the “western” genre, much of whose canon has boiled down to archetypal plot and character assignments.  Couple this narrative with a tight budget and above-average writing, and you could have a winner on your hands – and this one almost was.

But in High Noon, this methodology falls short – the writing is too frank and too choppy; the acting is underutilized and overwrought with cliches. One or more of these faults can create accidental genius (see: Good Will Hunting) and none of these faults creates sterility, but both of these faults create a trainwreck. Gary Cooper is old enough, experienced enough and weather-worn enough to force his character, Will Kane, into believable, but the villains aren’t “real” enough and his supporting cast is dull. This movie is known for helping to launch Grace Kelly’s career, but her evident talent is largely wasted, as her character Amy, threatens to leave on the “noon” train with or without him. Trouble is, Cooper as Kane is believable as a tenacious sheriff but not as Amy’s white knight; so you don’t care if she leaves or not. What a tremendous waste.

Let’s talk a bit about what this movie does right, thought, because it’s still worth watching as a piece of history and as a well-shot Point A To Point B narrative. Mexican actress Katy Jurado is great as a foil to many of the important male leads and some of her dialogue adds an unintentional bit of comedy (in Gen Y standards); her fiery passion helped to break up an otherwise monotonous plot. Yet because of this relatively straightforward story – especially for a western – the film was a box office success and allowed the development of important actors in Kelly and Jurado. Continue reading

[1961] Judgement at Nuremberg

Maximilian Schell took home the “Best Actor” award this year (1961) for his performance as a bombastic and highly nationalistic defense attorney, Hans Rolfe, in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement At Nuremberg. Tasked with defending a prominent judge charged with crimes against humanity, Schell (as Herr Rolfe) argues an impassioned defense wrought with big, humanitarian questions: who bears responsibility when charged with direct orders? Is it ever just to defy international and humanitarian law to protect national interest or to prolong self-survival?

The backdrop to explore these issues in Judgement and Nuremberg is the Nazi conflict draped by World War II. Sixteen years after the surrender of the German forces in Europe, the atrocities still fresh in the minds of anyone with a pulse, Kramer decides to tackle the Big Issues in a courtroom drama starring not only the aforementioned Schell, but also a wizened Spencer Tracy as a wise elder statesman, Dan Hayward, and a brazen Burt Lancaster as indicted Nazi judge, Ernst Janning. The cast does a supreme job showing the story, with perhaps a touch of overacting to do the bloated script a semblance of justice.

Abby Mann – an American – adapted his own dramatic screenplay of Judgement and Nuremberg for the screen, and at over three hours, it’s hard to imagine that all 186 minutes are necessary. But remember the scope of this narrative: we, as an audience, are asked to follow along with the Big Issues through the lens of ideologues in Tracy’s adjudicator and Schell’s defense attorney; we are asked to question the notion that Nazis were Nazis were Nazis. That is, within the scope of a mere three hours, we are asked to reevaluate our revisionist history of the Third Reich and come up with an impossible verdict. Three hours! All while the story is half-heartedly developing a benign relationship between Marlene Dietrich’s Frau Bertholt and Judge Hayward asking us to examine “correctness” in sterilizing the feeble-minded. Three hours is quite short to develop opinions on these matters. Continue reading