They Drive By Night (1940)

29 03 2009

Almost, almost a masterpiece. For whatever reason, this is only the third film I’ve seen from Raoul Walsh, and it is probably the best. For a good hour or so, he manages to capture this beautiful low-key gritty realism and incorporate it beautifully into a very “genre film” narrative. Once Ida Lupino and Alan Hale’s plot shifts into focus, things get a little messy. The performances begin to skirt the line of over the top, the characters are drawn a bit more broadly, and the tone turns to absurd from realism. Whatever the case, I can still appreciate the first half, which is pretty much about as perfect as a film can be.

Humphrey Bogart and George Raft are brothers and co-workers. They eek out an existence as truck drivers. Up to their heads in debts, they begin to feel the pressure of ahem, “the man” which encourages them to take their services elsewhere. The chemistry between Bogart and Raft is overwhelmingly brilliant, and a result of a casting genius. It’s a very small thing, but the fact that have very similar voices seems to perfectly underscore their (believable) relationship as brothers. There’s little nuances in each of their performances, though definitely unintentional, that contribute a great deal to the realism of their brotherhood.

This may or may not play a significant role in the brother’s relationship, but I’d like to think the gorgeous photography, courtesy of Arthur Edeson – who shot everything from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Maltese Falcon – perfectly accompanies not only the tone of the film, but Bogart and Raft’s performances as well. More often than not, I have a big problem with “snappy” over-written classic Hollywood dialogue, but its delivered here in a very downbeat and deadpan manner and done so perfectly by Bogart, Raft, and Ann Sheridan.

About fifty minutes in, the brothers have a near-fatal accident, which results in Bogart’s character losing an arm. The relationship of the two brothers begins to collect dust, while Ida Lupino’s character, Lana Carlsen, becomes a focus. Her character may have had a romantic affair with Raft (who is now keen on Sheridan) and she is eager to renew it. He politely brushes off her advances, which makes her go completely insane. I haven’t seen enough of Lupino’s performances to classify her as “good” or “bad” but her performance here, especially in the final fifteen minutes or so, is completely ridiclous. Considering all the talent involved with the production, I’d like to think the absurdity is intentional. Never the less, it rubs me the wrong way and puts a damper on one of the greatest films of its kind.

Jesse James (1939)

29 03 2009

Fairly enjoyable intentionally light Hollywood mush. Great performances all around, including a nice supporting role from Randolph Scott, who is nothing at all like the man he would be in Boetticher’s pictures, let alone the man in Allan Dwan’s wonderful Frontier Marshal. Henry Fonda gives a pretty atypical performance as well; The only case I can think of in which his presence doesn’t demand the complete attention of the audience. This is mostly because he’s playing alongside the film’s “real star” Tyrone Power who seems somewhat lost amidst the rest of talent on display here.

Power’s performance isn’t given any help from the rather predictable script. Here, Jesse James is a innocent Robin Hood-esque hero to the local farmers. He only begins robbing trains once railroad agents inadvertently kill his mother. Eventually, he descends into the madness that I’m sure more people are familiar with. Towards the end, he receives a chance at redemption and a promising small town family life, but he loses it in the final act when he is assassinated. It’s a pretty unremarkable and straight-forward narrative, but I’d argue that it shouldn’t be anything else. It’s well-executed escapist entertainment, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

Liliom (1930)

22 03 2009

Frank Borzage is definitely at his best, at least so in my mind, when he’s doing this small town Americana tragic romances such as this film. There’s an odd burst of fantastical elements towards the end, but for the most part, this perfectly captures that tone that Borzage demonstrated earlier in Lucky Star and once again in Bad Girl. Like both of those films, it is easy to be turned off by the potential melodrama here, but the emotional extremity is played off in a genuine, if somewhat naive manner. It’s one of Borzage’s greatest romance stories and one of his best films as well.

Charles Farrell, in one of his earliest speaking roles, plays the title character, a carousel operator at the town fair. He has more than his fair share of lady friends, but that doesn’t stop naive house servant, Julie, from falling in love with him. His crude and frank attitude doesn’t bother her in the least, and he finds that comforting. He moves in with her, but his lazy demeanor quickly becomes a nuisance to Julie’s aunt. Liliom’s friend hatches a plan to provide Liliom with enough money to take him and Julie to America. He is skeptical at first, but when Julie tells him the news that she is pregnant, he reluctantly accepts. The plot fails, and Liliom kills himself, which leads to a very odd experience in the after life.

It’s somewhat surprising how much time Borzage devotes to fleshing out the relationship between Julie and Liliom. Their initial meeting and subsequent conversations make up more than half of the film. Liliom has very little in common with Farrell’s character in Lucky Star. In that film, he was an honest young man with a big heart. Here, he’s not the least bit charming. At the same time, he’s not evil. He’s not bringing Julie down, despite the fact that he does physically beat her. Her love for him seems to exist plainly in the realm of physical attraction and the fact that she sticks with this attraction to the grave (literally) is extremely bittersweet.

Once Liliom kills himself and is taken into the afterlife, which is really a railroad track in the sky, the film takes an innocent reflective tone, not entirely unlike A Christmas Carol. Liliom isn’t as stubborn as Mr. Scrooge, but he finds himself in a similar situation. In this case, the conclusion is more poignant than it is hopeful. Liliom, after ten years of “conventional rehabilitation” (i.e. hell) is given an opportunity to connect with his daughter and Julie one last time. He does so on accident before ascending into heaven.

If there’s anything inherently wrong with Borzage’s picture, it’s that the tonal shift that comes with the introduction of the after life is a little bit awkward. We get a harsh, brutual, yet beautiful world for about an hour and then get something of pure fantasy for the final thirty minutes. Borzage pulls it off, though. Farrell’s Liliom is neither smart nor likable, but like the after life’s train’s conductor, we sympathize with him. We, too, fall in love with the faithful and innocent Julie and we, too, want to help her. There’s something ridiculous in the narrative, but thankfully, it does little damage to the film’s overall power. No question, this is one of Borzage’s very best.

Dodes’ka-den (1970)

22 03 2009

Not so long ago, before viewings of Drunken Angel and No Regrets for Our Youth, I was not at all pro-Kurosawa. Now thanks to those films among others, I am. But before then, I got this film recommended to me as a effort that would convert me. I can see what the numerous people that recommended this to me were thinking, but at the same time, it is the most un-Kurosawan film of his I’ve seen. It took all of three minutes for me to realize this. This isn’t exactly why the film doesn’t work, but it kind of explains many of its flaws and curious choices.

I’d imagine that most people that have seen this know the back story, but here it is anyway: Kurosawa had just been fired from his job on Tora! Tora! Tora! and desperately needed a new project to work. He, along with Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Masayaki Kobayashi formed a production team Yonki-no-Kai. This film was their first and only production, and it’s failure may or may not have contributed to Kurosawa’s suicide attempt. Needless to say, it’s hard not to see this film as an extremely personal one for Kurosawa. He most likely poured his heart into this project, even though it took far less time than any of his other films.

Have I established yet that this film is pretty bizarre? It revolves around the lives of the people living within in a Tokyo slum. These people have quite possibly the most surrealistic experiences imaginable. The whole thing is pulled together by its central character: a retarded kid who pretends he is a train conductor. Beware readers, Gummo and Pixote references are likely to be seen. Like those two films, there is sense of amazement that comes from bizarre situations, all of which seem completely natural.

So why isn’t this as great as Babenco and Korine’s aformentioned masterpieces. Well, it is a difficult thing to put my finger on, but simply stated, I think Kurosawa’s film is a little bit too bizarre. In addition to the surreal realism, there is goofy technicolor fantasy tone, which seems to stem a little bit from Shuji Terayama. It is a little bit awkward to compare Kurosawa to all these directors that function in a world of transgressive behavior, while Kurosawa became popular for such classical works as Seven Samurai and Rashomon. This may or may not explain why Kurosawa comes off so earnest here. It seems like he’s trying too hard. I admire his intentions here, but I can’t say he isn’t contributing anything entirely new to the “glue-sniffing” faux-genre. A curious piece, undoubtedly, but not a masterpiece by any means.

Mes petites amoureuses (1974)

22 03 2009

The only thing that Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore has in common with this, his follow up, is an abundance of beautiful insights and observations. Otherwise, it may very well be the work of a completely different director all together. While the much more remembered Mother and the Whore goes a more talkative, almost proto-mumblecore (anyone rolling their eyes here?) route, this film is closer to being a companion piece to Maurice Pialat’s wonderful debut, L’Enfance Nue. Fittingly, Pialat himself has a nice, if brief, appearance here.

The protagonist here, whose name (Daniel) we only learn towards the closing moments, is a little bit older than Pialat’s Francois. The common ground of the two films is shared in their aesthetic, which is both austere and compassionate. Cold, in a way, but comforting in an another. Both directors are taking some pretty obvious cues from Robert Bresson. Pialat masks his a little bit, if only that his camera is much more mobile than either Eustache’s or Bresson’s, but all there directors create this quiet and cruel yet endlessly fascinating universe. It’s difficult to describe, but the tone is so apparent, and thus, so effective.

Like Pialat’s protagonist, the camera documents Daniel transitioning between two ways of living. In the beginning, he is living peacefully in the country side with his grandmother. Later on his mother retrieves him and introduces him into a world that is similarly quiet, yet somehow more chaotic. Daniel’s fascination with women begins to develop, he starts smoking, and hanging out with slightly older children. Never, though, are we given the impression that living with his mother made him worse, or that it even tainted his otherwise calm persona. Instead, it is understood that he is becoming an adult. It sounds hokey and I’m sure most of the world doesn’t need another coming-of-age story, but Eustache’s is so tangible and right that I am willing to beg people to experience it.

I actually lied in the opening paragraph. There’s one more thing that this shares with The Mother and the Whore: it goes by so damn fast. Eustache’s more talked about earlier feature is known for its long length, but in a way, it goes by faster than most 90 minute long features. Unfortunately, this effort only runs just under two hours. The whole experience is so fleeting, perhaps because I can relate to so much of it. After all, the stuff Daniel is going through is fleeting in and of itself so it is only fitting that the movie proceeds without a drop of pretentiousness, or self-conscious seriousness.

“Unassuming” would be a decent adjective, but I have trouble loading up on words in an attempt to describe the beauty of this masterpiece. It’s definitely a personal film, maybe not for Eustache, but instead, for anyone that can relate (or want to) relate to Daniel’s experience. Calling a film honest seems like an entirely empty gesture, but the reality is so overwhelming, touching, and beautiful that I can’t think of anything else to call it.