[1937.4] Dead End

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.

Dead End, a 1937 slice-of-life, riches-and-urchins film is a masterful adaptation of stage-to-screen because the theme works with light hands. In an attempt to backdrop ostentatious wealth against abject poverty, Dead End neither attempts to comment on income inequality nor class politics. Instead, the film, basically confined to a single stage (with a few side rooms, as physical asides) tells the story of a couple of chipped kids with no discernible past and, as the story would lead a reader to believe, no future either. Yet we, presumably not destitute, can connect with these kids because for every “stage” in our own lives, there exists at least one kid who has been beaten down by his milieu. Dead End works in that mysterious middle ground of unintentional brilliance, of unassuming aloofness.

The viewing object – the screen – held enormous weight in early Hollywood; no home video existed and the audience needed to see perspective projected onto it. That said, a screen by itself is not perspectival, so in order to create depth, a cinematographer will use different lens widths and size through distance. This technique is not new and not unique to film. Some artists intentionally bastardize perspective to trick the mind, others unintentionally misuse equipment and shift perspective from the normal human eye’s perspective and either ruin a scene or create some modernist brilliance – cohesive and contentious. Dead End exists somewhere in the middle of intentional because of its adaptation from a play written for the stage and unintentional because the available film equipment in the 1930s limited a director/cinematographer’s options. Continue reading

[1943] Casablanca

I’ve already covered the iconoclasm of a famous quotes when writing about In The Heat of The Night, but it is patently obvious that Casablanca more thoroughly explains this point.

Casablanca is a golden film because in its case the parts far outweigh the sum. As a package, the film is more of a medium for acting, screenwriting, directing, cinematography, set design, costume design, sound editing and sound mixing, which together make a film, but separately craft a legend.

We are almost 75 years from Casablanca‘s initial theatrical run and its lore runs through film history as a standard, a candle that can cast no shadow too far upon any film that wishes itself iconic. But the film itself is a heist half-noir whose myopia falls comically short of leaving a lasting impact thematically, but more than makes up for it in its acting – specifically Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, besides having a memorable name (second only to Englebert Humperdink), pre-memorializes himself in Casablanca, perhaps changing the course of cinema down his path for the better part of two decades. He personified the damaged, irascible man as a likable character perhaps most convincingly throughout Casablanca, but certainly throughout the next 15 years. He was the damaged, lovesick, homesick man represented by so many living and fighting abroad during World War II.

The film also continues to hold allure as a film to semi-fictionalize its reality without dehumanizing it. It is a film about humanity during a time of inhumanity; personal triumph and failure over anti-Reich propaganda. Set far enough away from the European theatre, but with enough connection to it through its characters and mood that the sensation of urgency delivered through dialogue seems authentic. But we must not forget that the entirety of the film’s “plot” hinges on two pieces of paper. We would do best to forget that this entire film isn’t a character study or a masterclass in thematic pacing.  Continue reading

[1948.2] The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Ages ago, someone coined the pseudo-genre “neo-western,” for movies like The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. For decades, Hollywood had romanticized the concept of the old west – the sense of adventure, the wonderment of Manifest Destiny and the cynical beauty of not knowing the source of one’s next meal – without question. As time has passed, so has the fascination with the western genre; we’re more interested in character and plot analysis over setting and mood. It’s become commonplace to, in 2014, fantasize about both eras with an offhanded air. But as we watch ’40s westerns almost 3 generations later, we have to reserve judgement as most of those who grew up fantasizing about cowboydom are long gone and what we’re left with is film and television caricature. What John Huston and Humphrey Bogart accomplish in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is both an homage to the old west and a look forward to modern film – a neo-western.

Most of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre‘s conflict is internal – the pithy dialogue among the three main prospectors shows as much about their nurture as it does their nature. Yes, they’re all romping around the Sierra Madre mountains looking to get rich – but why? For one, it’s wealth for wealth’s sake; for another, it’s to achieve a childhood goal; for a the third, it’s to occupy his time, and seemingly, to learn about other people’s motives. He often assumes the role of moderator, helping cool the direct aggression from Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs to the reactionary Bob Curtin (played by Lou Holt). But he’s also the cause of the aggression, constantly questioning the motives of what they’re all doing trolling for cash. As a result, paranoia often haunts the day and night activities of these three men, shown through various levels of trustworthiness, second-guessing and external and internal threats. Sprinkled within the campfire quarrels and gold-digging, the writer/director John Huston (who casts his father, Walter, in some kind of lucky nepotism) creates minor external conflict to strikingly exemplify a character’s internal motivations. It’s a neo-western: the conflict very western – the constant threat of bandits or dehydration or a deadly desert creature – but the handling is unintentionally modern, instead of facing the threat directly, the characters have lengthy (if occasionally forced) conversations discussions musing on how they’d handle bandits or what constitutes enough for the three of them.  Continue reading