The Shopworn Angel (1938)

16 11 2010

Sure, this is a seemingly much more conventional than Potter’s crazier and more herald Hellzapoppin’ but it’s still pretty unique in its own way. While it plays out in a very predictable yet charming way, it’s really the ending that makes this stand out.  A majority of the film’s resonance comes from said conclusion which strays from the conventions of the genre, while simultaneously trying to emulate them. As with Hellzapoppin’, Potter seems to take a great joy out of playing against the expectations of the audience members. As far as classic Hollywood is concerned, there was no other filmmaker who had this kind of handling with the subversive.

James Stewart plays Private William Pettigrew, a Texas-born simpleton who is sent to New York for training. There, he inadvertedly gets a ride with theater star, Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullivan) who he convinces to be his “pretend girlfriend” if only for the approval of his friends. They catch on to his lies and begin to probe further, which forces him and Daisy to think up a bigger back story. They continue to “pretend to fall in love” until the actual thing begins to take the foreground.

I’m not sure there’s a more obvious sign to the audience that two people are going to be a couple than if one asks the other if they can be a “pretend relationship.” From the moment Stewart first greets Sullivan we know they’re going to be holding each other eventually. It doesn’t really plague any of the drama, though, as it’s not in Stewart’s courting of Sullivan that we’re interested, but rather her hiding from the man with who she is actually involved. Sam Bailey has his suspicions, but even with his lurking eye, he is never seen as a villain. Instead, he is merely a man that has unfortunately gotten tangled up in Daisey’s complicated love life and his endless but platonic support following her marriage to Pettigrew is more than admirable.

In a way, it’s a little bizarre that Bailey (played here by Walter Pidgeon, pre-How Green Was My Valley) actually does more for Daisey than Pettigrew. Sure, Pettigrew’s martyrdom is pointed out, but his feelings towards Daisey seem to be a little one-sided. Meanwhile, Daisey herself just can’t bear to break Pettigrew’s little heart so she continues to play dumb. When Bailey confronts her about her potential infidelity, she replies in claiming that she is “More like a mother” to Pettigrew.

If it was intended that Daisey would sacrifice her freedom for Pettigrew to have something to look forward to after the war (I guess surviving isn’t enough?) then the film is a bizarre mix of pro-war propaganda and domestication. The latter doesn’t really fit since the film concludes with Daisey in her normal profession: a performer. Instead, I merely see it as finding a seldom fond mix of irony and tragedy. Not in the O Henry/Rod Serling sort of way, but one in which forces us to confront a reality that happens all the time. Maybe I’m giving Potter too much credit here, though, but even then, this odd and charming piece of romance deserves more than the title of being the precursor to The Shop Around the Corner.

Human Desire (1954)

16 11 2010

If a film is directed by Fritz Lang and shot by Burnett Guffey (In a Lonely Place) it is most likely going to look fantastic. Sure, you’re likely to get your fair share of shot/reverse shot conversations and other irritating tropes of the time, but you’re guessing this is going to be filled with images that will ingrained into your brain for a long time. Well, you’re right. The opening two minutes or so here, which is completely devoid of dialogue, produces some of the greatest Antonioni-esque compositions to ever come before the director’s own work. It’s convincingly modern, much like most of the films from the later cycle of noir.

From there on, everything sort of falls apart. Sure, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame are great together, having already done so in Lang’s The Big Heat from the previous year. They both embody your standard principles of noir protagonists. Ford is a rugged and quiet drifter-type, perhaps still reeling from the effects of the war in Korea. Grahame has those standard femme-fatale features yet is actually sort of less sinister and more sympathetic than one would anticipate. The film’s story comes from the Emile Zola’s novel, La Bête Humaine, which translates into English as “The Human Beast.” I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak for Zola, but I do know that Renoir’s film of the same name portrays the lead female interest as something of a beast.

Sure, titles tend to be the concerns of the marketing department, but I can’t help but think the subtle change was a deliberate attempt on Lang’s part to distance Grahame’s character from the usual style of evil seductresses that were invading the screen at the time. Sure, she is seductive and there’s a lot about her that’s left up to the audience’s imagination, but we are still able to see her vulnerable side. More importantly, it erupts in front of Ford. He knows how fragile she can be, which makes his predicament all the more complicated.

So what’s the problem exactly? A noir with slight humanist tone sounds like the best thing ever. I wouldn’t disagree, but there’s too much dead space in between the Arty (with a capital a) sequences from the others that just filler to get us there. Lang is a master at composing and Guffey exists on a similar level when it comes to capturing images, but there’s something about the film, when it’s all put together that doesn’t quite make everything fit like it should. Maybe there’s too much talking. While there is more quiet moments than most noir, it still isn’t quiet enough as it should be. This sounds preposterous, but the writing seems to be constantly walking a thin line between “clever” noir dialogue and being something more contemplative. It’s not quite one but it’s not quite the other.

I don’t mean to gang up on the writing in particular, but it really does sink what should be a great vehicle into merely a very good one. While Grahame definitely flesh out her character, there’s not enough to actively care about her trouble. Maybe this is really a strength, that we never know if she’s as dangerous as she could be, but it does seemingly make things easier for Ford. He has an equally attractive and much less problematic female waiting for him. Why is he so conflicted? It seems like the movie got so caught up in fitting certain conventions that in certain cases, it forgets to include a justification. As it is, Human Desire is so close to being Lang’s masterpiece, but it’s also not. It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who considers themselves a fan, but like a great deal of his American work, the ambition in Lang’s vision seems like too much for Hollywood.

Flirt (1995)

15 11 2010

One story – told three times with only the slightest of differences. This is Hartley at his most experimental, his most deadpan, his most philosophical, but still extremely playful. Perhaps the Godard comparison is a little overused, but it fits all too well here. His characters border on being mouthpieces, which is usually a problem for me, but considering the stilted, deadpan delivery it only enhances the absurdity touched upon throughout all of the Hartley films I’ve seen. His performers never even attempt realism, instead they deliver each line as though they are reading the script for the first. For some reason, this is kind of amusing to me, which is odd considering it might be less acceptable when it’s in a film written by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

To Hartley’s credit, he does seem to be conscious of this type of humor. His wit is dry, but never condescending. In some ways, this is his most accessible work. At the very least, the first segment is a great introduction. It features a slew of his reoccurring performers (Martin Donovan, Parker Posey, Bill Sage) whose star power can maybe push even the least patient film watcher through the film’s first third. Additionally, this is the content at it’s most fresh state. It might be cheating to say since the point of the film is to observe the difference made between the three stories, but it definitely feels best when heard for the first time.

The slight differences found in the two segments that follows are meant to be minor shifts from the dialogue, but for me, the most interesting element comes from the difference in composition to the related lines. For example, Bill Sage’s description of what he’s thinking about in the hospital is read over a sensualist close-up of a nurse’s face, meanwhile Dwight Ewell’s similar speech is made over an extended panning shot. As it is, Ewell’s speech seems to lack the tension of Sage’s but maybe visuals aren’t the only justification of this, maybe it’s the element of repetition.

The third time around, the film sort of loses its momentum. This might be a fair assessment since it is essentially the third retelling of the story within an hour, but it definitely is the least memorable of the three. Maybe it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to watch it separately, but as someone who buys into Hartley’s intended experiment (albeit for only two segments) I have to feel a little disappointed. If there’s any saving grace in the Tokyo section it’s that the great music and beautiful visuals of the previous two segments remain in tact. Maybe that’s the whole theory and Hartley has outsmarted us all, or something.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

15 11 2010

I watched this less than week ago. Upon my initial viewing, I was more than confident that it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen. Now that a couple of days have passed, I’m sort of seeing that’s not exactly true. It’s still an amazing piece of art, one whose influence is immeasurable to Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s the type of picture that is so unique and bizarre, that it’s often a wonder that it was able to be made in a time when Hollywood was focusing on making either pro-war pictures that justified the country’s involvement or films that intended to make audiences forget about the war.

Hellzapoppin’ arguably falls into the latter category. After all, it is a comedy and carries an extremely playful tone of self-awareness for its entire running time, but that’s the sort of thing that elevates it from being a piece of mere entertainment. This is the definitive “movie about movies” from Hollywood, if only because it is constantly cross cutting from the movie to the movie with the movie, and the characters from both seem to be able to communicate with their opposing story. It’s textbook self-reflexive film theory. It seems frivolous, but the film is immensely more intelligent that just simple entertainment.

The story itself was birthed from the original Broadway production of the same name. It was enormously successful, thanks in large part to the charisma of the emcees Chic Johnson and Ole Oleson, who act as the self-conscious narrators in the film version. Much like the stage production, the film incorporates a satirical tone of self-awareness. The most notable example in the film being the skewing of Citizen Kane, which had been released only earlier in the year. It’s a perfect embodiment of Potter (and more importantly Johnson and Oleson’s) motive, that is to relate the audience to the form they’re already experiencing and commentate on it at the same time.

Speaking of commentary, there’s an especially groundbreaking sequence in which Ole, Chick, and the film’s producer watch dailies while providing their own commentary, dialogue to mask the actual audio from the “film within the film.” Maybe I’m giving the film too much credit but the way in which it (perhaps) unintentionally references the practice of benshi narration in Japan and then forms it into comedy is something that bears a remarkable similarity to the entire premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a less polished example, sure, but the foundation is certainly there.

Hellzapoppin’ is a movie that is impossible to describe if only because it is layered in so many levels of filmness that opening them up in words seems futile. Perhaps the best description I can use is Sherlock Jr. but on a broader level. It teases film and filmmaking as much as it teases the audience and film-watching. It’s a complicated process and even though the film might not have the longevity I would like it to, it is still a remarkable experiment, and an insanely entertaining one at that.

Underworld (1927) and The Last Command (1928)

4 11 2010

These are the two earliest von Sternberg films I’ve seen (the only other silent of his I’ve seen is The Docks of New York, my personal favorite) and with that in mind, they both represent very interesting progressions in the filmmaker’s career. The first, Underworld is more of an impressive formal exercise than anything else, but it does deserve some credit for anticipating one of the most popular genres in all of Hollywood, even though it was most certainly not the first gangster movie. As it is, it provides very few conventions for the gangster films of the 1930s, but that’s part of its charm. The latter, though, is much closer to being a full-on masterpiece. Emil Jannings’ performance is exaggerated little (both on screen and in film history, calling it “subtle” is a bit too much) but there’s something so painfully heartbreaking and that’s before the film even becomes a redemption story for and against its protagonist.

In Underworld, George Bancroft plays “Bull” Weed,  an extremely successful gangster, who likens himself to Robin Hood. “No one helps me, I help them” he explains when Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) offers some sort of repayment for all the help he has received from Weed. Weed has taken Royce from being the janitor of the local bar to something, at least superficially, much more respectable. Royce, however, is something of a self-loathing individual, who tends to think in a more philosophical way than anyone else in the film. Of course, Royce becomes infatuated with Weed’s sidekick female, Feathers.

If it’s not obvious by now, the underworld depicted here is one that is indeed gritty and realistic, but like Docks of New York later, there is a romanticism that underscores all the poverty and shady dealings taking place. It might be simply be the visual splendor of von Sternberg’s world, but there’s definitely a sort of appreciation for the unsavory reality being presented. This might be the single element that most resembles the gangster films of the 1930s. Unlike many of said films, this doesn’t really have a central premise – a big problem or heist or something. It just sort of flows around with Weed falling further into a depression and Royce and Feathers falling further in love. It’s odd, we feel for all three. There’s no real “bad guy” (except for the faceless police and Buck Mulligan character) to help improve the tension. It’s more of just a sad movie that happens to have gangsters.

If Underworld is setting up the foundations of von Sternberg’s stylistic tendencies and emotional motifs, then The Last Command is close to being a perfect second model. We’re thrown into the contemporary Hollywood scene and we follow a hopeless extra, who, as we quickly learn, was a affluent Tsarist officer in Russia barely a decade earlier. Even with the political weight that immediately arises from depicting pre-Revolution Russia, von Sternberg avoids all the traps and steers his film away from providing a ideological statement that is specific to the time. Sergeus Alexander  fully embraces Tsarist Russia, but he is not a bad guy. In fact, there is an immediate sadness when we realize his current occupation is one that is so pathetic it seems to dissolve the past.

Alexander captures revolutionary Leo Andreyev, while keeping his female accomplice, Natacha for his own personal enjoyment. Natacha’s intention is to kill Alexander, but she gets soft when she sees his loyalty and dedication to the country. They remain together, but are ultimately torn apart following a violent protest, which transforms into a full scale riot. All of this occurs in a flashback that is triggered towards the very beginning as Alexander waits for another job as an extra. It’s difficult to explain, but there is something so troubling and hell, just goddamn sad about the way von Sternberg juggles Alexander’s chaotic, exciting, and meaningful past with his painfully mundane present.


Adding insult to injury, the film in question’s director is, of course, Leo Andreyev. Who, in a picture perfect set up for redemption, decides to cast Alexander as a general in his war film. I don’t want to say more about what happens from here, but I’ll say that the film ultimately manages to collide all the feelings it was built on into one truly heartbreaking finale. The Docks of New York probably remains my favorite, if only for its visual excellence, but this is a worthy runner-up. Calling a movie “emotionally unique” seems really vague, but this is the sort of experience that makes film-viewing worthwhile. It’s a different form of resonance and it is more than enough to validate Josef von Sternberg’s excellence. His first true masterpiece, and from what I’ve seen, his most Sternberg-ian work.