Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Wild One

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Sorry, I don’t have a holiday movie to discuss. But you’re probably tired of seeing them on TV at this time of the year anyway.

Marlon Brando is the original rebel without a cause in this 1954 motorcycle gang film.  The actor plays the pack's leader, Johnny, who speaks few words in this movie, but conveys a great deal with his face and actions. He shows his cool with his detached manner, but shows his anger toward the "squares" who make up society, and in particular with the police. 


 

Although the movie seems dated now with its lingo and relative lack of violence, it does mirror the conflicts that were gestating during the 1950's between the established authority and the discontented youth. When the gang drives into town, they disrupt a motorcycle race sanctioned by the citizens. The same activity is either accepted or rejected depending on who is running the event. The bikers mock the race's organizers who want to tell them what they can't do. As they ride in, the youth of the town are shown to be excited as they watch the cool looking bikes. The faces of their elders reflect fear. The local bartender is an exception because he is willing to forget their anti-establishment ways if he can make a buck off of them by selling beer. 


Small actions or words illustrate the themes of the film. The slang and music show the lack of communication between the generations. When Johnny is given a glass for his beer, he ignores it, and drinks from the bottle. Somebody asks Johnny, "What are you rebelling against?" His total rejection of society is revealed when he responds, "What've you got?" Johnny is attracted to the police chief's daughter, Kathy. He asks her what happens in her town. She says that roses grow, people get married, and her father once promised to take her fishing, but it didn't happen. The banal life she is leading makes her attracted to the bad boy Johnny. He tells his friends that they will stay in the town for a while to "wait for crazy." He and his gang can only exist in chaos.


The bikers' rowdy behavior creates destruction at the bar and a hair salon. They are noisy and harass girls. Ironically, they are accused of crimes they do not commit. A double legal standard exists in the town. The citizens want Lee Marvin's rival biker to go to jail during a confrontation, but want the driver of a car who hits a biker to be set free.  Kathy's father keeps trying to smooth things over, taking the path of least resistance, and only arrests Marvin. The bikers exact justice by putting the civilian in jail, too. They take the place of the ineffective police. Then, the citizens go outside the law as vigilantes when the police don't crack down. They throw a tire iron at Johnny, who falls off his bike. The out-of-control bike (symbolizing the whole town at this point) kills one of its elderly citizens. Johnny is wrongly accused of killing the man, until a few fair citizens come to his rescue.

 When Kathy is harassed by the gang, Johnny rescues her, and rides her away into a park area, a kind of sanctuary far from the confrontations. He is a torn individual. He admits during a beating that his father hit him hard, so we get a glimpse of an abused childhood that may have set him on his path. He may reject society, yet he clings to a stolen motorcycle race trophy, showing his desire to be accepted by society. He rejects a biker girl in favor of the "square" Kathy, but he treats her roughly, despite her admitting her attraction to him and his life. She is a policeman's daughter, and he says "you think you're too good for me." She represents what he wants, acceptance, and what he despises, the authority of the "square" world.

Since they are from worlds at war, they cannot be together. But, Johnny finds some peace with the fact that he is justly set free and has found a person in Kathy from the other camp who understands him. Since he feels accepted for the moment at least, he no longer needs the trophy, gives it to Kathy, and shows his only smile in the film as he rides off.

Many actors feel that Brando was the ultimate actor. Do you agree with them?

Next week’s film is Midnight Cowboy.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Marathon Man

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The making of this film has an anecdotal story attached to it. Laurence Olivier apparently chastised Dustin Hoffman for his zealous devotion to "the method." The British legend told Hoffman that instead of mimicking exhaustion by staying up all night, he should just "try acting."


Both actors are quite good here, using their respective techniques. Olivier’s Nazi dentist is actually quite restrained, emanating menace by just repeating the words "is it safe?" to the restrained Hoffman over and over in a subdued tone, referring to the diamond stash he exploited from Jewish prisoners. This sociopath is not interested in the safety of people, only his precious stones. If you don't like going to the dentist, definitely don't watch this movie close to an office visit. 


Which brings us to an interesting motif in the film. Olivier was a torturer/experimenter at a WWII concentration camp. But the medical axiom "to do no harm" is alien to this health care practitioner. But, Hoffman's brother (Roy Scheider) is ironically called "Doc," since he is a spy who collaborates with Olivier, delivering the diamonds from the dentist's safe deposit box in Manhattan by way of the ex-Nazi's brother. The German brother is killed in a car accident, causing Olivier to come out of hiding in South America to access the diamonds himself. Scheider says to Hoffman that he should forget about the past.  Obviously he has, letting go of his Jewish background to do business with the Nazi.  Hoffman's character is doing his doctoral thesis on the effect of McCarthyism and how it destroyed his father, so he is very much aware of the past. This movie is not a simple story of good brothers versus bad ones.


Outside of Hoffman's character, the others are not what they seem on the outside. Olivier looks like a harmless old man, but he has a spring blade dagger attached to his arm under his coat, slashing away at anyone who tries to expose him. He wanders around the jewelry section of Manhattan where almost all of the Jews are unaware of the Nazi killer from their past. In that district he ironically tries to determine the price of the diamonds he took from the Jews he threatened in the war. Scheider is supposed to be a businessman, but really is a spy who is a Jew associated with a Nazi and a spy network that should be benevolent, but isn't. William Devane's character as Scheider's boss pretends to want to help Hoffman, but double-crosses him. The girl who becomes Hoffman romantic interest is also working for the bad guys.

In the climactic scene between Hoffman and Olivier, the Nazi accuses the former of being weak, like the rest of his family. But Hoffman is anything but weak. He is a marathon runner who says early on that you forget about the pain while striving toward the finish. Even though Olivier has caused him excruciating agony by drilling into his teeth, Hoffman throws away the pain killing essence of cloves.  He does not want to be numbed into passivity, but lets the pain keep him sharp. He is the one who out of all of the characters survives in the end and triumphs.

Olivier interestingly played a character on the other side of the spectrum in The Boys from Brazil. In that film he was a Jewish Nazi-hunter.

What are your favorite Olivier and Hoffman roles?

Next week’s movie is The Wild One.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sweet Smell of Success

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.


I regret that I only came to this film recently. I sought it out after seeing other great motion pictures, such as All the King's Men, and A Face in the Crowd, which deal with power and celebrity in America



It is amazing how one little line can carry so much weight. Early on in this movie, Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco, a lowly press agent in New York, goes to a restaurant to ask Burt Lancaster's J. J. Hunsecker, a powerful NY columnist, for resumed plugs in his writings.  At the table, Hunsecker, holding up a cigarette, says to Falco, "Match me, Sidney." And Falco says not right now. Hunsecker, probably modeled after gossip columnist Walter Winchell, wields so much power that he can exalt or destroy anybody with his words. For example, at the table he humiliates a U.S. Senator into submission by exposing his lust for a young female wannabe sitting next to him. Falco wants, as he says later, to use Hunsecker to climb "the golden ladder to the place I want to get." So, "match me" isn't just about lighting a cigarette, it's about a fight, like a match in a ring. And, it can be a question, as "Can you match me?"  Falco can't "match" Hunsecker at this point in his cold hearted manipulations. That is why he can't respond to the request. There is a scene which shows their contrasting levels of “success:” Hunsecker receives a phone call from Falco while sitting in a luxurious room in his apartment. He is in a comfortable bathrobe while sipping coffee at a well appointed table. Falco talks from a dingy room next to a bottle of Alka Seltzer, illustrating that he is the one under pressure to please J. J.


Hunsecker has given Falco the cold shoulder because the latter hasn't quashed a budding romance between his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and a jazz musician, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Now Hunsecker's feelings toward his sister are way beyond the normal bounds of brotherly protection. He wants her for himself, and the subtext is incestual.  There is one point where Susan seems to cringe at his closeness. It may be that she represents the one part of innocence in his past life that he is reluctant to leave behind.  Hunsecker uses Falco to discredit Dallas at a distance through a rival writer. Falco lures a cigarette girl, who thinks he is attracted to her, into sleeping with the other columnist, because she has a boy in military school and needs the money. He gives the girl to the writer so that the columnist will write that Dallas is a Communist. Hunsecker also has the goods on a crooked cop, and uses him to plant marijuana on Dallas. Falco initially cringes at Hunsecker's extremes at going after Dallas, but gets on board when Hunsecker promises him the chance to write his column while he is away. Falco has descended so low in the end that when Susan is contemplating suicide by jumping off of Hunsecker's high rise apartment, (the opening credits of Mad Men comes to mind), his only concern is that he will get blamed for her death. Falco grabs her before she leaps, and Hunsecker enters, seething because Falco is holding his sister. It is then that Falco lets out of the bag that Hunsecker was framing Dallas, leading to the break with his sister. The Hunsecker-Falco relationship reminds me of the Gecko-Fox one in Wall Street, only Fox realizes the evil of his ways.

Early on in the film, Falco won't wear an overcoat, to save hatcheck tips. But, at the end, he is wearing an overcoat, just like Hunsecker, because he has graduated to that level of "success." Susan through most of the film is cloaked in the mink coat that her brother gave her, symbolizing his dominion over her. But, once she breaks with him, she walks out of his life without the weight of that coat. Also, the film is shot mostly at night. Men like Hunsecker and his minions are predators who do dark deeds, preying on the hidden secrets of others. But, when Susan walks away from the black world of her brother, it is into the dawn of a new day.

Success in this film has a smell, for sure, but it is not sweet.

Next week’s movie is Marathon Man. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tootsie

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I never liked Tootsie Roll candies. They weren't that tasty and they always became stuck between my teeth. But the film Tootsie is a delectable treat to watch. 1982 was an exceptional year for Oscar caliber films. Ghandi is a sweeping, intelligent epic, and the eventual Academy Award winner for best film, director, and actor, Ben Kingsley, in a totally believable performance as the title character. Another film, The Verdict, could also have won in any other year for its performance by Paul Newman and the enduring greatness of the script by David Mamet. And, of course, there was that creature who everyone hoped would phone home, ET. But, Tootsie was another terrific film that year, which, although a comedy, has many thought provoking insights into male/female relationships. It is also a movie that shows how the overwhelming majority of actors are unemployed and desperate to practice their craft. But, it transcends on the theme of identity, and poses questions about who we are.



Dustin Hoffman's character, Michael Dorsey, is a struggling New York actor. Because he needs money to produce the play by his roommate, played by an unbilled Bill Murray, and is perceived as too difficult to work with, he dresses up as a woman and lands a role as a strong-willed hospital administrator. The ironies pile up. As Dorothy Michaels, he is at first considered too genteel, too feminine to get the role until Dorothy asserts herself later in the audition. Dorothy becomes very popular on the show as a breakthrough “woman” who will not be dominated in a man's world. Her strength influences the woman Michael falls in love with, Julie Nichols, played by Jessica Lange in an Oscar-winning supporting actress role. She leaves her two-timing boyfriend, the soap director, Ron, played by Dabney Coleman. Michael starts to understand women in this new role, and says he knows what it's like to get rejected just because he doesn't have the right "look" for a part. Because he is an actor, he realizes what it's like to be a woman, waiting for the phone to ring. He tells his agent (played by director Sydney Pollack) that he has something to say to women like him, but Pollack points out that there are no women like him. 


We see Michael at the onset of the film on the make, just like most. He later lies to Teri Garr's character, Sandy, because he doesn't want to reveal that he has taken the part for which she auditioned. He goes to bed with her to cover up why he is caught half-undressed, ready to try on her clothes. He then stands her up so he can be with Julie. Thus, he is not unlike the director, because he uses women, too. As Dorothy, seeing how the director treats Julie, and calls women "Babe," "Hon," and "Tootsie," he tells Coleman that he understands him better than he thinks, because he realizes now that there is no excuse for how Michael has treated women. It is when he experiences the condescension that women must endure that he changes his outlook.



Early in the film, Murray's character, Ted, tells Michael, who is making money being a waiter, just one role he plays, to stop being Michael Dorsey the waiter, or the actor, just be yourself. At that point, he isn't sure who that really is. It is through the film’s narrative that he learns to become a better man by being a woman.

Julie's dad, Wes, played by Charles Durning, becomes interested in Dorothy romantically. When he later finds out that “she” is a he, Wes is able to admit that he found Michael good company, and they are on their way to becoming friends as they shoot a game of pool together at the end of the movie. So, Les actually likes the person under the costume. He connects to the essence of the other person based on what is below the surface appearance. 

There are some insightful scenes in the film. As Dorothy, Hoffman can't get a cab to stop, but when he uses his real male voice, the cab stops. In that small scene, volumes are spoken about how society will follow the commands of a male over a female. Dorothy, at Wes' farm with Julie, has to share the bed with her. He wears a fake hairnet and the wig gets stuck and looks backward when he turns his head around on the pillow, illustrating the reverse universe of the film. In another scene, Julie tells Dorothy that it would be refreshing if a man would just say I want to make love to you, showing her desire to want sex just like a man without game playing: however, when Michael as himself says those words to Julie at the party they attend, it comes off like just another pick-up line, and she throws a drink in his face – acting like a woman is supposed to act with a forward man. 

Michael also begins to realize how much money and time women spend on wardrobe and makeup since appearance is what is valued above all else in society's assessment of women. At one point, the older actor on the soap says, after Dorothy receives candy from Les, that giving chocolates to a woman is a thoughtless gift, implying that it just adds weight to the female form – another reference to the emphasis on looks when it comes to women. When Julie finds out that Michael is Dorothy, instead of slapping him, like a woman is supposed to do, she instead punches him hard in the stomach, showing a role reversal, and how she has been influenced by the strong Dorothy even in this moment of the unveiling of his deception.

The first scene of the film shows Michael, putting on make-up, (which is really Hoffman, an actor, pretending to be an actor preparing for an actor’s role) presenting an outward appearance that is part of a role, something that is different than who he is in real life. But, don't all people play roles, dress up as doctors, teachers, office workers, firemen, policemen, etc.  And, don't actors, as well as others, bring forth to the outer performance inward qualities? And sometimes, doesn't the role, the outward action, transform the inner person? What do you think about how much the inner person is like or unlike what appears on the outside?

Next week’s movie is Sweet Smell of Success.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ordinary People

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I know film critics went into rage mode when Ordinary People took the Academy Award for Best Picture for the year 1980 over Raging Bull. Where do you stand on this argument? In my opinion, it was a worthy winner. The acting and the directing, by first time helmer Robert Redford, hit artistic marks with Oscar caliber ammunition. The theme about the tension between the desire for control and limitations on behavior and thoughts and the conflicting need to break rules and boundaries has always been a subject of interest to me.


The very first scene lets you know where this film is heading. We see a placid lake with a hovering bird, both representing calm and peace. We then view reassuring vistas of autumnal trees and a safe, affluent suburban setting as the ordered, hypnotic sounds of Pachebel's Canon in D wash over us. We zoom in on the youthful choir singing words accompanying the music. Then, almost brutally, there is a cut to the main character, a sweat soaked Conrad (Timothy Hutton), waking up from nightmare. Thus, the conflict has been immediately presented to us between order on the surface and caged chaos raging beneath the controlled world above.


The water references above are intentional. Conrad survived, at least physically, a boating accident, in which the only other member of the crew was his older brother, Buck, who drowned. Conrad is psychologically underwater now, suffocating from guilt, not only for what happened to his brother, but because he attempted suicide by cutting his wrists in the bathroom, which, of course is associated with water. He is a member of the high school swim team, which symbolizes how he is unable to get out of the mental ocean threatening to swallow him up because of his "faults." When he finds out that a friend at the psychiatric hospital committed suicide, the first thing he does is throw water on his face, revealing his scarred wrists, implying that he feels guilty that he could not help her. Eventually his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) makes him realize that he has to let himself off the “hook” (fishing reference) about saving himself in the boating accident. And, that he has to forgive his mother for her limitations. He tells his patient that he is not big on "control" which stifles feeling. Conrad's independence is illustrated when he quits the swim team.


His control obsessed mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), cannot cope with the upheavals in her family and deals with the problems by going on as if nothing has happened, submerging all attempts to openly deal with the pain suffered by her son and her husband, Cal (Donald Sutherland). Conrad states that his mother will not forgive him, that it was almost impossible to wash out the blood stains in the bathroom after his suicide attempt. Water is also used as a symbol showing the desire to clean up a mess similar to trying to wipe the memory clean of disturbing thoughts. Beth immediately shoves Conrad's breakfast down the garbage disposal when he says he is not hungry one morning. She tries to stifle her husband from mentioning that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist, because this would acknowledge that a problem exists. She heatedly rebuffs Cal at lunch after he suggests that they all get things out in the open by seeing the psychiatrist. Then she quickly shuts up and puts on a happy face when the waitress approaches their table. Outward conforming appearances are what matter to her. If things look okay, then things must be okay. When they do a get-away to Texas, she and Cal argue over including Conrad in a future trip. He says that all her son wants is to let him know she doesn't hate him. She says, "Mothers don't hate their sons." She says it like it's a rule she is reciting from the Good Mother’s Handbook. She doesn't make it personal by saying that she cares for Conrad.

In the end, Cal gives a concise assessment of his wife. He says that everything would have been fine it there hadn't been any "mess." That she cannot deal with mess. This fact means that she is not really strong. This conclusion is the crux of why someone rigidly adheres to rules and accepted behaviors. They are crutches for the weak, who cannot face anything without supports to prop them up along life’s paths. People like Beth are not willing to let themselves test their inner strength by facing reality with an open, inviting mind.

There is so much layered in this movie, I think a thorough discussion can go on much longer. The performances by Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch are pitched perfectly. And Timothy Hutton, in his Oscar-winning role, hits every note, except maybe when he tries to sing. And blame Redford for the overuse of the Pachebel Canon at so many weddings.

Next week's movie is Tootsie.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Man for All Seasons

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Even if you do not subscribe to any established religious faiths, the issues raised by religion are essential to human nature. And religion's impact on history has been immense. One might think that a story set during Henry VIII's time about a conflict between the King and the Chancellor of England over the Catholic prohibition concerning a divorce would not speak to us today. But, that's not what this intelligent film by director Fred Zinnemann is really about. Its focus is on honor, integrity, and the courage to adhere to one's convictions no matter what the consequences.

Henry the VIII, played by a larger than life Robert Shaw, appoints Sir Thomas More, a lawyer and magistrate, as Chancellor to make him beholden to him in his battle with the Catholic Church. Sound familiar? The same situation is depicted in the film Becket, which has similar themes, and which I will discuss in another entry. Henry was given approval by the Pope to marry his brother's widow (considered by many as incest). He then wants to divorce her, saying that he shouldn't have been allowed to marry her in the first place. He now wants to marry Anne Boleyn (a wordless Vanessa Redgrave). Although I do not agree with the positions of the main characters in Becket and this film, I still find myself admiring them because the kings they oppose are not arguing an opposing ideology, but instead are only interested in fulfilling their own desires.  


Shaw's loudness is offset by the quiet strength of Paul Scofield's Oscar winning performance as More. Thomas tries to walk a moral tightrope as he tries to not open himself up as a traitor to the crown and at the same time keep his allegiance to the Pope.  So his fate hinges on what he says and especially on what he does not say. Words are very important in this story, and More's brilliance shines as he plays this legal cat and mouse game. The King, in order to get what he wants, breaks with Rome, and establishes the Church of England, with himself as its head. Those who oppose him on this action are considered traitors. Thomas resigns as Chancellor when he sees he cannot openly support the King, who requires his followers to sign a loyalty oath, which More will not do. And so he is brought to the Tower of London. But, he is very careful not to ever say that he opposes the King, not even to his wife, played by Wendy Hiller. It is ironic that he tells her at one point that he does not consist of the stuff of which martyrs are made. It is Richard Rich (John Hurt) who betrays him, perjuring himself by saying that More told him that the King through Parliament could not undermine the Pope's authority.

More is a complicated character. He is a devout Catholic, believing in the Pope's authority handed down from Jesus to St. Peter and his successors. He refuses to have his daughter (Susannah York) marry Will Roper (Corin Redgrave) until he renounces support for Martin Luther and thus stops being a heretic. But, he believes in the laws of man, too. He tells Will that he would give the Devil himself benefit of the law for his (More's) own safety's sake, stating that for the law to be effective, it must be applied universally. What More objects to in Roper, and especially with Henry, is that they have no codes to live by, no core belief systems, and that they change the rules on a whim to suit themselves. More says to Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) that when a man in office ignores his own morality, he leads his country to chaos.


The motifs in the film enhance its themes. There is a great deal of going back and forth by boat between the seat of government and Thomas' home. This fact comes to symbolize the ethical distance between the King and the affairs of state and More's religious morality. At one point, because he is now considered out of favor with the King, the water taxi boatmen will not shuttle Thomas, and he must find his own way home, which emphasizes the loneliness of the person taking a moral stand against those in power.

When the King visits Thomas, he jumps from his boat into the mud. He laughs and, following his example, his followers all jump into the mud. The mud symbolizes the moral muck in which the King and his followers now reside. Henry's filthy mind is seen in how he lusts after Thomas' daughter, but turns away from her when she exhibits the beauty of her mind with her fluent Latin. Ironically, the man of no morals seeks the approval of the man of truthfulness to legitimize his selfish, lustful ways. Rich is tempted by Cromwell (Leo McKern) to inform on More, and when Rich falls backward into the mud after he is offered a post for his collaboration, you know that he, too, now wallows in corruption. 

Thomas tells Rich that he cannot employ him at Court or recommend him for a job in public office because he knows he will accept bribes. Thomas asks him what he would do with the money from a bribe. Rich says he would buy proper clothes. As we see Rich become more involved with Cromwell in the conspiracy against More, Rich's wardrobe becomes more expensive and elaborate. His exterior increases in adornment as his soul declines in worth. 

At the end of the film we are told that Cromwell, like any henchman whose mission in life is doing the dirty work their superiors delegate to them, was executed at the end of his usefulness. Henry died, appropriately, of syphilis. Rich, however, became Chancellor of England, and died in his bed. In this world, alas, the bad are not always punished. Thomas, whose moral constancy made him a man for all seasons, says at his execution that he was "the King's good servant, but God's first."

Does this film make a good argument about the need for the separation between church and government? What do you think?


Next week's film is Ordinary People.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Vertigo

(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)

My father was a big Alfred Hitchcock fan because he was the “Master of Suspense.” But, there is so much more going on in his art. He addresses voyeurism often, which is fitting, since his audience lives vicariously through the characters he presents on the screen. However, he goes further, making the audience, from the perspective of the camera lens, an unseen presence stepping into the stories themselves. We become a Peeping Tom, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; we observe Janet Leigh through the hole in the wall, in Psycho; we are accused directly in the diner scene of causing the coming apocalypse, in The Birds.

In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart's weird obsession with Kim Novak takes this voyeurism to the point of obsession. The voyeur has no respect for the individual, who is only a means to satisfy the voyeur's fantasy. In the opening credits we see a woman's face and then her eye. We then look into that eye, and there is a spinning pinwheel. Right from the beginning, Hitchcock is saying that a man can become unbalanced with obsession over a woman.



Stewart's detective Scottie discovers that he has acrophobia while hanging from a gutter after chasing a criminal. He is then traumatized by witnessing a fellow policeman fall off the roof trying to save him. Falling becomes a motif in the film. The story takes place in hilly San Francisco, which symbolizes the precariousness of Scottie's predicament. (Scottie lives right near Coit Tower.)  Probably because he feels guilty about the dead police officer, he dives into the bay to save Novak's character. But the jump also shows how dangerous his obsession can become. Of course, there are the falling deaths from the tower, and Scottie has dreams of falling off the tower. After the death of his fantasy woman, he drops into a state of catatonia, unable to be in the real world. The falling theme also refers to the danger of falling in love with the wrong person, for both Scottie and Novak's Judy. One could push it and say, for Scottie, the towers are phallic symbols, and the fear of falling could symbolize the fear of impotence in real life, thus encouraging the escape into fantasy.

The acrophobia is not only a plot device so that Scottie can't witness Thomas Helmore's Gavin throwing his wife off the tower. It also symbolizes Stewart's inability to see the big picture from a height. He can only see as far as his version of a dream woman lets him. The first scene deals with beauty and sex, as Scottie’s ex-fiancĂ©e, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) draws fashion pictures and discusses a newly designed bra. She is not the Hitchcock ice-goddess, since she just draws beauty and clinically describes the bra's engineering. When she draws a picture of Novak as Gavin's wife Madeleine and substitutes her own face, Scottie quickly departs the room, showing how she does not fit his sexual requirements. She is real and can't compete with a dream girl. Gavin is an old friend, who knows of Scottie's disability, and wants Stewart to find out where his wife is going on her mysterious trips. At first Scottie is the voyeur spying on her beauty at the restaurant. Hitchcock places the audience in the car seat, following Novak, joining the detective in his fantasy. When he follows her through a dark walkway and opens the door, the scene lights up with the beautiful colors of flowers which the equally beautiful Novak is buying. It reminds one of Dorothy opening the door to her drab house to witness the awe of Oz, which, of course is a fantasy land, and which can be dangerous, just like Scottie's obsession.


The husband says a dead woman is possessing his wife. She goes into spells, visits her grave, and looks at the dead woman's painting on the wall of the gallery. Scottie observes that the curl in Novak's hair mirrors the curl of the dead woman in the painting. We realize that the circular curls also echo the theme of spinning wheels, leading to actual and symbolic vertigo. The story of the ghost plays into the whole unreal, fantasy theme of the film. Scottie sees Madeleine check into a hotel, but the concierge says she was not there that day, and there is no evidence of her in the hotel room. After Scottie rescues Madeleine from the bay, the camera shows her clothes hung up and drying in his home, and Novak naked under the covers in his bed. This is kind of creepy, knowing that she has been undressed by a stranger. It is as if Stewart's character presumptuously has actually taken possession of her (in contrast to her pretending to have become possessed) as an object in his fantasy world. When they are in the sequoia forest, Madeleine seems to disappear for a while, like an unearthly spirit. After his release from the mental institution, Scottie looks for Madeleine wherever he goes, like a morbid ghost hunter. It is ironic that he becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman who pretended to be haunted by another dead woman. Of course, when Scottie accidently sees Judy, thinking she is only a Madeleine look-a-like and not part of the murder conspiracy, he wants to resurrect the dead Madeleine, forcing the now-in-love Judy to again play the same part. When Scottie finally recreates her with make-up, hair styling, and clothes, Hitchcock makes Novak look like she is a ghost, as she materializes out of the hotel room's wall in a neon sign induced mist.


Scottie's obsession is a kind of madness. Gavin says there is madness in Madeleine's family, which sets the stage for the belief that she would commit suicide (her name has the word "mad" in it).  And, Scottie's madness leads to a sort of personality suicide as he realizes at the end, as Roger Ebert says in his book, The Great Movies, that another man (Gavin) created the woman he wanted to forge. Thus, Scottie's dream was not even his own. First he lost the person he wrongly thought was his ideal woman incarnate, and then he loses the woman he thought he created to be his perfect reproduction of his ideal.  For Hitchcock, the desire to possess one's dream person is an impossible act and can only turn life into a nightmare.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dr. Strangelove

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen the film, the plot will be discussed. I guess you have to be strange to love this movie, and I fit that requirement. Again, I have to thank my parents for taking their young child and respecting him to be able to appreciate this great film at such an early age. Even as a thirteen-year-old, I enjoyed the dark comedy in this flick.

Over the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick's film there is a plane fueling a bomber with a phallic-looking line connecting them, suggesting a symbolic sexual exchange of fluids. Right from the beginning of this perfect satire of the insanity of modern warfare the director shows the connection between the male desire for sexual power and making war.


There is General Jack D. (the "d" sounds like "the") Ripper's preoccupation with bodily fluids as he puffs on a cigar, another phallic symbol. He is compensating for sexual impotence (as he says he denies women his "essence"), by spewing forth his military machismo. He tries to place the blame of his own shortcomings onto an outside entity, the Communists, who, through fluoridation, have undermined his manhood. He lives up to his namesake, Jack the Ripper, by also substituting violence as the outlet for sexual aberration. George C. Scott's General Turgidson, (the name suggesting the swollen male member), is first seen with his half-naked secretary, and says he will return to her for "blast off," making the sexual/rocket analogy. He is intrigued at the end of the movie at the suggestion that there should be a ten to one female/male ratio in the brave new world that will follow the nuclear holocaust. When Peter Sellers' President Muffley (a name which suggests the female pubic region) first talks with the drunken Russian Premiere, it is stated that the latter is, first and foremost, a man, and the President is literally causing coitus interruptus.  Seller's ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove, has a hand that wants to salute Hitler, and the spasmodic raising of the arm could be seen as the desire to achieve an erection. Slim Pickens' bomber pilot has a survival kit that contains lipstick, nylons, and prophylactics.  As he says, a guy could have a good time in Vegas with the items. He is seen looking at a Playboy magazine, and the safe that contains the bombing codes has half-naked pictures on it. His plane's primary target is "La Puta," which translated from Spanish is "The Whore."  In the end, he straddles the penis-shaped bomb, riding the weapon of mass destruction, waving his cowboy hat. The image of the American love of the violent, shoot-'em-up Wild West is hysterical and chilling. The film associates guns and bombs exploding with the male orgasm.


There are many inspired moments in this film. There is a deadpan Keenan Wynn saying that breaking the soda machine for change to call off the nuclear attack will result in the dire consequences of having to answer to the Coca Cola Company. The look on Scott's face as his General, in an elated depiction of how great his pilots are at carrying out their mission, turns to a realization of the horror of the situation, is great acting. He also hysterically says that General Ripper "may have exceeded his authority" in ordering a nuclear attack. Equally funny is when Turgidson says that the whole military decision making process should not be scrapped because of "one slipup." The Russian leader's name is "Premiere Kissoff," which is appropriate for what is happening to the human race. Pickens' Major Kong says that there will be citations and promotions for his crew after their mission, as if there will be any "after" following the explosion of the nuclear weapons. The plane's H-bombs outrageously have written on them "Nuclear Warheads - Handle with Care," as if they were only some dinner plates in a crate. The use of the music from the song "Try a Little Tenderness" at the beginning as bombers are depicted, is truly ironic, as are the signs at Ripper's air force base stating "Peace is our Profession," which is the actual the motto of SAC. Dr. Strangelove is in a wheelchair, suggesting that the fascist movement has been crippled.  But, at the end, when the bombs are exploding, he is able to walk again, showing that, ironically, we have resurrected the dark angel of death.

This film is my favorite satire, although Wag the Dog and Thank you for Smoking are up there, too. Do you have favorites under this category?

Next week’s film is Vertigo.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Forbidden Planet

I have enjoyed watching movies, discussing them, and just plain having fun thinking, quoting, and referencing them as long as I can remember. In recent years I have taken a number of film studies courses. My scholarly background is in literature, and those films which weave images and words, as do certain stories and poems, into fabrics of meaningful themes appeal to me. I think the relevance of movies is valued by many people, particularly Americans, since they are part of the backdrop of our existence.  Films bookmark our personal narratives.

I am exploring movies, one a week, after this post, usually on a Sunday, in depth.  SPOLIER ALERT:  In order to deeply delve into its meaning, I will have to reference a movie's narrative. Most of what I say will be my own views on the subject matter. If I am borrowing from others, I will provide references. 

I was lucky to have a father who loved movies. He especially liked science fiction. I guess that’s why the first movie I saw in a theater was Forbidden Planet. I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare when I saw this film after it was released in 1956. And it was much later that I learned that it was a sci-fi version of The Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon playing an intergalactic scientist version of Prospero. I do remember that seeing luscious Anne Francis in shiny skimpy outfits propelled me into an early puberty. The invisible monsters generated from the main character’s id accompanied by the film’s eerie soundtrack frightened me into the cringe position in my all-too-vulnerable theater seat.

The movie is an overachiever. It has special effects that rival and probably inspired some of the scenes in Star Wars. Picture Obie-Wan walking on the catwalk and compare the background scenes in FP showing the world of the Krel. Also, see how the humor of CP30 and R2D2 owe a debt to Robbie the Robot. You can also find foreshadows of Captain Kirk in the form of Leslie Nielsen’s ship captain and “Bones” McCoy in Warren Stevens’ doctor. Its themes are mature:  Is it better to withdraw from society and its problems, as does Morbius, or participate in it and try to improve conditions; By isolating a child in an attempt at protection, does a parent not prepare an offspring for the tests of life?; How do we protect ourselves from our own demons that lurk below our civilized surfaces? 

The film established high expectations that other science fiction and horror films of the time did not meet for me. I remember hearing someone on TV calling these films “Insect fear flicks of the Fifties.” You would have needed tons of Raid to deal with all of the big bugs in those films. (I’d have to say that Them!, even with its hokey giant ants, was the best from that hive of entertainment). At the other end of the quality spectrum, although not vermin-infested, and released later, who could forget, as much as you might try, the schlock winner Monster Zero, staring Nick Adams and an all-Japanese cast?  The Japanese actors play alien clones. That’s right – these Asians really do all look alike! Do you have any favorite sci-fi films from the 1950’s?

I'll be talking about all types of movies, the good, the bad, and the ugly (yes, Clint Eastwood films, too), which have interesting ideas and ways of presenting themes. I invite you to participate in this quest for meaning in motion pictures.


Next week’s film is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.