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Pre-Code Blogathon: The Marx Brothers

This is my entry in the “Pre-Code Blogathon”, hosted by Danny (Pre-Code.com) and Karen (Shadows and Satin). Enjoy!

These days, when the term “Pre-Code Hollywood” gets thrown around in certain circles of movie fans, it’s usually meant to emphasize the content filmmakers (and studios) were able to get away with before the Hays Code was fully enforced in 1934, like the just-short-of-explicit suggestiveness of Trouble in Paradise or The Divorcee, or being critical of the institutions of the time in ways that wouldn’t have been possible post-1934, as in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The Marx Brothers certainly had their share of suggestive content in the pre-Code films they made at this time (my favorite example still being Groucho’s line from Animal Crackers; “Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’ with a male chorus”), and both Horsefeathers and Duck Soup mocked, respectively, colleges and politics (among other things). But the content of the Marx Brothers’ films made in the pre-Code era – all at Paramount – and the ones they made afterwards isn’t just in the content, it’s how the brothers were used.

Like many actors in Hollywood in the late 20’s and early 30’s, the Marx Brothers came from Broadway, as the studios grabbed talent from there who could handle the adjustment from silent films to sound films. Like many other comedians at the time, the Marx Brothers originally came from vaudeville, which is where they had originally developed and perfected their personas. Groucho was the fast-talking wisecrack artist, Chico was the book dumb but crafty con artist who told lots of bad puns, and Harpo was the silent (by choice) comedian who seemed to be on another planet. To further the Broadway angle, the Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were based on two of the plays that had first brought them acclaim. I’m not a big fan of the former; it’s not just, like many early sound pictures, it looks somewhat stilted, it’s also that no one looks really comfortable, except for Harpo (who gets some good gags, like eating a telephone). There are some good scenes, like Groucho wooing his perpetual foil Margaret Dumont (“Oh, I can see you now, you and the moon! You wear a necktie so I’ll know you”), the auction scene (“Believe me, you have to get up early if you want to get out of bed”), and the famous “Why a duck?” scene. Groucho would blame this on co-director Joseph Santley, whom he claimed didn’t understand comedy, while Joe Adamson, author of the Marx brothers biography Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo felt the fault lay with the other co-director, Robert Florey, who apparently didn’t think the Marx Brothers were funny.* Whatever reason, while it does set the template of their other films for Paramount – in that the plot is just an excuse for them to run amok, especially Harpo – it’s not especially memorable.

Chico and Harpo play bridge with Margaret Dumont & Margaret Irving in “Animal Crackers”.

Animal Crackers, on the other hand, is when they start to hit their groove. It’s not that the plot is that much more sophisticated – in The Cocoanuts, it’s a jewel robbery, while here, it involves a rare painting and two forged copies of it – or that those playing off of the Marx Brothers had much more to work with (Kay Francis plays a thief in the former, while Lillian Roth (the subject of the 1950’s biopic I’ll Cry Tomorrow) plays the ingenue in the latter). It’s more the Marx Brothers themselves seem more comfortable in front of the camera, and director Victor Heerman (who went on to contribute to the screenplays of such films as Stella DallasMeet Me in St. Louis, and both the Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson versions of Little Women) seemed comfortable enough with them. Though one line from “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song that became Groucho’s signature song, was cut by the Hays Office (Groucho’s “I think I’ll try and make her”), there’s some risque material here; in addition to the line I quoted in my opening paragraph, there’s also Groucho’s line about visiting Africa (“We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back in a couple of weeks!”), and his proposing marriage to both Dumont and comic villainess Margaret Irving at the same time (“Why, that’s bigamy!” “Yes, and it’s big of me too”). More importantly, however, once again, it’s the fact Groucho, Harpo and Chico are allowed to act pretty much uninhibited. There’s the occasional bit where someone gets the better of them (like Irving and butler Robert Greig getting the drop on Harpo), but mostly, it’s things like Chico and Harpo humiliating Louis Sorin as art collector Roscoe Chandler (he gives them a check so they won’t reveal to everyone else he used to be a fish peddler; Harpo bounces it on the floor), as well as Groucho (when Chandler says he’s glad Groucho asked him something, Groucho retorts, “I withdraw the question!”), Chico and Harpo playing bridge with Dumont and Irving (naturally, every card Harpo plays is the ace of spades), and the insane ending, where Harpo sprays knockout gas at everyone, including himself.

Making their first appearance in “Monkey Business”.

Monkey Business, which came out the following year, is even less inhibited, and is the only film they made in which they didn’t really have any characters at all and are more or less “themselves”. They’re stowaways on an ocean liner, and while they eventually stumble into a plot involving warring gangsters (played by Rockliffe Fellowes and Harry Woods), the daughter (Ruth Hall) of the former (Zeppo romances her) and the jealous wife (Thelma Todd) of the latter (Groucho flirts with her), once again, it’s just an excuse for the gags. Adamson cites as a highlight the scene where Groucho breaks into Woods’ room, flirts with Todd (“Oh, no. You’re not gonna get me off this bed”), and then talks his way out of being confronted at gunpoint by Woods with nothing but his wit (“I’m wise!” “You’re wise, eh? Well, what’s the capital of Nebraska? What’s the capital of the Chase National Bank? Give up?”), and it’s really funny and anarchic. Just as good are when Harpo gets involved in a Punch and Judy show on the boat (when the captain (Ben Taggart) and first officer (Tom Kennedy) try to pull Harpo out of the booth, Harpo joins them), Groucho and Chico breaking into Taggart’s quarters (“One of (the stowaways) goes around with a black mustache!” “So do I. If I had my choice, I’d go around with a little blonde”), all four brothers trying to sneak past customs by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You” (Harpo, naturally, plays a phonograph he’s hidden in his coat of Chevalier singing), and Fellowes introducing the most “beautiful” creature in the world at his party (his daughter), which Harpo naturally takes as his cue to make an entrance. The movie does have a somewhat conventional ending, with Woods kidnapping Fellowes’ daughter and taking her to a barn, and Zeppo saving the day by beating Woods in a fight, but even that gets mitigated by Chico and Harpo bopping Woods’ cronies on the head even after they’ve been knocked out and Groucho’s shenanigans; he unfurls himself from a haystack and asks, “Where’s all those farmer’s daughters I’ve been hearing about for years?”, he pretends to announce the fight, and when it’s all over, he’s tearing through the hay again (when Fellowes demands to know what he’s doing, he replies, “I’m looking for a needle in a haystack”).

Groucho & Chico do the famous password scene in “Horsefeathers”.

Horsefeathers, which came out the following year, sticks them back in a plot. Groucho, as Professor Wagstaff, the new dean of Huxley College, is told by his son (Zeppo) that he needs to recruit football players to beat rival university Darwin in order to become a successful college, but he ends up recruiting Chico and Harpo by mistake. Oh, and all four of them try to romance a college widow (Todd), who is also involved with a gambler (David Jennings) trying to fix the game for Darwin. Again, the brothers observe the niceties of college life in the same spirit they observe the niceties of being aboard a ship, which is to say not at all; Groucho allows Chico and Harpo (who have become students at Huxley) to throw out a boring professor (Grieg again) so he can take over and make puns (“Beyond the Alps lies more Alps, and the Lord Alps those who Alp themselves”), Harpo can pull out of his jacket a candle lit at both ends (he also points out, at other points in the movie, a cup of coffee, a fish, and an ax to “cut” cards with, among other things), and Chico hides in a locker because he’s practicing secret signals. And while there is a big game at the climax, there’s no sentiment; Harpo throws banana peels to keep Darwin players from tackling Zeppo, then throws one under Zeppo’s feet, Groucho hangs out by the stands or lounges on the field reading a newspaper and smoking his cigar, and as for Chico’s signals, they speak for themselves (“Hi diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle/This time I think we go through the middle; hike!”). Like the Marx Brothers’ other pre-Code films, there’s been some bits here and there that were cut out, though Groucho does get to say to Todd, “I was going to get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn’t have one”). I don’t know who was actually the first one to break the fourth wall in the movie, but Groucho was an early contender; while Chico is playing and singing “Everyone Says I Love You” (a song all four of them perform at one point or another), Groucho walks up to the camera and says, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t got out into the lobby until this thing blows over.” Finally, while an ending involving the four brothers playing cards while the college burns down was apparently cut, the current ending – all four of them marry Todd – is twisted in its own way.

Harpo beats Chico and Groucho to the phone in “Duck Soup”.

Duck Soup, which came out the following year, is usually considered their best by Marx Brothers fans (though I prefer Monkey Business and Horsefeathers). Part of this is because some feel the musical performances by Chico (the piano) and Harpo (the harp) in the previous movies made those movies drag (I wonder why no one complains about the songs performed in Duck Soup, as they’re really not that great), but a lot of it has to do with, unlike the previous films, a genuinely great director was at the helm. Leo McCarey, at the time, was still best known for his work with Laurel & Hardy, and his best films (Ruggles of Red GapThe Awful TruthMake Way for Tomorrow), as well as his best known films (Going My WayBells of St. Mary’sAn Affair to Remember) were still ahead of him. But while, as Adamson points out, there seems to be two movies going on at once in Duck Soup (Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly making wisecracks as ruler of Freedonia, while Chico and Harpo, who are allegedly working as spies for Louis Calhern, ruler of rival country Sylvania, seem more interested in annoying Edgar Kennedy, a peanut vendor outside the government office; not only that, but much of it plays like silent comedy), McCarey does make it all work for the most part. The movie is best remembered for the famous mirror routine, where Harpo, who’s dressed as Groucho to steal Freedonia’s secret war plans, breaks a mirror and has to pretend to be Groucho in the mirror when Groucho arrives at the scene. It’s also been much debated as to whether the movie is consciously a political satire; when Adamson interviewed the principals involved, all of them denied it, saying they were just out to entertain (Groucho would later say it was just “four Jews trying to get a laugh”), but Nat Perrin, who was credited with writing additional dialogue for the movie, did allow that satire might have crept in because of what everyone thought at the time (certainly, Groucho has been political, mocking the blacklist and admitting in a newspaper during the Vietnam War that if he had a son of draft age, he would encourage his son to go to Canada rather than fight). It’s also obvious the movie doesn’t take politics any more serious than it did college; Groucho would rather play jacks than conduct a meeting, he slaps Calhern and provokes war because Calhern calls him an upstart, Chico changes sides because he likes the food better, and Harpo’s idea of recruiting is to wear a sign that reads, “Join the army and see the navy”. And at the end, the four brothers win the war for Freedonia by pummeling Calhern with fruit; when Dumont, once again playing Groucho’s love interest (Groucho says of her to the others, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did”), sings “Hail Freedonia!” in triumph, they all turn and throw fruit at her.

Publicity still of the Marx Brothers.

While Duck Soup, as I said, has become regarded as the Marx Brothers’ best film, starting when it played in revival houses in the 60’s, it was a box office disappointment, and critics at the time weren’t crazy about it either (Adamson quotes Time, the Nation, and the New York Times as all finding it disappointing). Most importantly, the studio wasn’t crazy about the film or about its box office, so the Marx Brothers parted ways with them and ended up at MGM. By the time they made their first film at the studio, A Night at the Opera, in 1935, the new, beefed-up version of the Production Code was in full force, so it was harder to sneak in more risque material (though when Groucho hears about an opera singer being signed for a thousand dollars a night, he claims you could get a record of “Minnie the Moocher” for 75 cents, and adds, “For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie”). More importantly, however, Irving Thalberg was supervising them, and while he found them funny, off-screen as well as on (Thalberg was legendary for keeping people waiting for interminable periods while overseeing the detail of every production he was involved in. The Marx Brothers – down to three, as Zeppo had retired to become their agent – reacted to being kept waiting by, among others things, stripping down naked in Thalberg’s office and roasting potatoes in his fireplace. When Thalberg came back and discovered this, according to Adamson, he called the studio commissary and ordered butter), he also insisted they needed to be “relatable” to audiences, and wanted to make sure the rest of the story and music also worked as a story and music, rather than just an excuse for the Marx Brothers to react to. Therefore, instead of Harpo, for example, simply creating chaos at will, he only reacts to being picked on by the comic villain (Walter King); Chico, who used to always hustle for money, now insists to the romantic hero (Allan Jones) he’s happy without money (though not food); and even Groucho gets a softening moment when he passes along a note from Jones to his love interest (Kitty Carlisle Hart). The film has enough great gags – the contract scene, the stateroom scene, the scene where the three of them, and Jones, are trying to hide in a hotel room from a detective (Robert Emmett O’Connor), and, of course, the climax at the opera – that the film manages to get by anyway, and it was profitable enough and well-received. However, during the making of A Day in the Races (1937), Thalberg died, and Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, didn’t think the Marx Brothers were very funny, and didn’t give them talent to work with. Therefore, while Thalberg at least understood there needed to be some genuine humor to counterbalance the sentiment and story, the later movies, while having maybe a handful of good gags (in A Day at the Races, the scene where Chico cons Groucho out of betting on a sure thing), just don’t hold a candle to the earlier ones. It’s been said the films the Marx Brothers appeared in were never as good as they were, but at least with the pre-Code films (except, as I said, for The Cocoanuts), you see them closest to their unvarnished best.

*-For the most part, both Florey and Santley’s subsequent careers were unmemorable, though Florey at least did direct the Bela Lugosi version of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders at the Rue Morgue, one of the better pre-Code horror films.

“Barry Lyndon”: Luck O’The Irish Blogathon

This is my entry in the “Luck of the Irish” Blogathon, hosted by Diana & Connie. Enjoy! 

During her career as a film critic, Pauline Kael was notorious for, among other things, never seeing a film more than once if she could help it. Part of that was because her reviews were always about her immediate visceral reaction, and she didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. Part of it was because she didn’t want to be convinced she was wrong about what she had seen earlier. But there was also a part of her that rebelled against the notion that you needed to see a movie more than once to fully appreciate it. It’s not that she wanted movies that were simple-minded – she railed against those types of movies often enough – but she honestly felt there was something pretentious about the notion that you needed to watch a movie more than once to “get it”. That is a notion I can sympathize with to a certain extent, but sooner or later, it runs up against filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (and neither Kael nor her critic rival, Andrew Sarris – who once placed Kubrick in the category of “Strained Seriousness” – was a fan). Of the 13 feature films Kubrick directed in his lifetime, only two of them – Dr. Strangelove and Eyes Wide Shut – did I like unconditionally the first time I saw them (and both of those still have rewards upon further viewing). All of the others I needed to watch at least twice to appreciate more (although, to be sure, in the case of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, multiple viewings have not shaken my view that while both are worthy, they’re still both flawed), and that includes Barry Lyndon, his 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon.  At the time I first saw it, I thought while Kubrick had brought his usual intelligence to the movie, I agreed with critics who found it too slow. After watching it a few more times, however, I now think it’s one of his best.

As Kubrick fans know, Lyndon had long hoped to do a cinematic biopic of Napoleon, and more importantly, he had hoped to do an historical drama that, as he put it in an interview with Sight & Sound in the early 70’s, both conveyed historical information while also capturing the day-to-day life of characters in history without making them seem like they were merely parts of a textbook. However, the financial climate of Hollywood was not at its strongest in the late 60’s/early 70’s, at least when it came to the type of historical epic Kubrick was talking about (low-budget films on the order of Easy Rider were more the rage at the time), and so he had to shelve it (the project remains, like Welles’ version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Lean’s version of Conrad’s Nostromo, one of those great “what-could-have-been” projects). According to John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick, the filmmaker was looking for a project that would take advantage of his research into Napoleon when (as Kubrick put it) he stumbled onto Thackeray’s novel. Kubrick had toyed with filming Thackeray’s most famous novel, Vanity Fair, but that had been adapted before for film and TV several times, so he turned to a lesser known work. Both the novel and film follow the story of the title character, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), over the course of his life in mid-18th century Ireland and England. After his father is killed in a duel early in the film, Barry is raised by his mother (Marie Kean). When he’s a teen, he falls in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who indulges him up to a point – she’s more worldly about sex than he is – but soon accepts the attentions of Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), of the British army. While her family is in favor of the match – Quin has money – Barry is upset, and he and Captain Quin eventually fight a duel with pistols, during which Captain Quin is apparently killed (later, it turns out this was all a ruse to drive Barry away). Barry flees, and is robbed soon after, which leads him to join the British Army during the Seven Years War. However, he soon tires of the war (especially after his family friend Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) is killed in battle), and when the opportunity arises, Barry, posing as another British officer, deserts. When he travels through Germany, he has a brief dalliance with a soldier’s wife (Diane Koerner), but is later discovered as an impostor by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), a Prussian officer, and forced to join the Prussian army. After he saves Captain Potzdorf’s life during battle, Barry becomes a trusted adviser, and when the war ends, Barry becomes a spy for him. When Barry discovers his target, the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), is in fact Irish, Barry changes loyalties, and works for the Chevalier, accompanying him as the Chevalier plays cards with the rich and wealthy in Europe, and helping him cheat. When Potzdorf decides to have the Chevalier expelled, Barry, at the Chevalier’s urging, uses this opportunity to flee with him, and free from the Prussian army, he and the Chevalier continue to travel Europe playing cards, and in Barry’s case, dueling with those who refuse to pay (Steven Berkoff plays one of the latter). Barry soon realizes, however, this isn’t enough to sustain the life he wants, so he courts and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a rich countess, even though she’s still married to Lord Lyndon (Frank Middlemass), though waiting until after her terminally ill husband dies of a heart attack before marrying her. Once he does marry her, Barry seems uninterested in the Lady, and more in continuing his life of gambling and womanizing. Lady Lyndon suffers this in stoic silence, but her son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali plays him as a young man) grows to despise Barry, and ends up causing his downfall.

Barry (Ryan O’Neal) being robbed.

It’s commonly said Kubrick changed quite a bit in adapting Thackeray’s novel (though keeping the basics of the plot), and there is truth to that. For starters, instead of keeping the first-person narration of Thackeray’s novel, Kubrick has Michael Hordern serve as a third-person narrator. While Kubrick keeps many of the events of the story, he also cut some to streamline the narrative (the Chevalier is no longer, by chance, a relative of Barry’s), and most crucially, makes Lady Lyndon’s character more passive (in the novel, she helps bring about Barry’s downfall, and Lord Bullingdon only plays a peripheral part in it). However, a common theme I’ve found in books written about Kubrick is that he meant the audience to view Barry more sympathetically than Thackeray did, and I’m not sure I agree with that. It’s true Thackeray’s novel is more outwardly satirical in tone than Kubrick’s movie, especially in the last half (one of the reasons why Kael slammed Kubrick’s film version is she felt it wasn’t satirical enough in tone), and with the inserted perspective of one G.S. Fitz-Boodle (a narrative device Thackeray dropped from later editions of the novel), we see Barry being mocked and presented as someone who passes himself off as better than he actually is. But while Kubrick doesn’t go as far over-the-top in that respect as Thackeray did, I think he keeps Thackeray’s viewpoint of Barry for the most part throughout; callow but somewhat likable and sympathetic early on, especially when he’s trapped in events he has no control over (like the Seven Years War), but a scoundrel once he finally becomes part of the society he had been excluded from before (except, of course, in the scenes between Barry and his son Bryan (David Morley), particularly his grief when Bryan dies not long after being thrown off of a pony). Kubrick does grant Barry a moment of sympathy during the climactic duel he has with Lord Bullingdon (a scene not included in the novel), when Bullingdon, overcome by fear, vomits and accidentally shoots his gun into the ground and Barry deliberately shoots his own pistol into the ground. Still, for the most part, Kubrick views Barry with the same distance Thackeray did, though more as a character who cannot escape his own fate.

The only way Warner Brothers would greenlight the picture for Kubrick was if he cast a star in the title role, and their candidates were either O’Neal or Robert Redford (who turned the part down). It may be difficult to remember now, but O’Neal at the time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, thanks to his part on the TV version of Peyton Place and his hit movies Love StoryWhat’s Up, Doc?Paper Moon and, to a lesser extent, The Thief who Came to Dinner (in the annual Quigley poll in 1973, O’Neal was the #2 star, behind only Clint Eastwood). But those were all lighter in tone than Kubrick’s movie, and, except for Paper Moon, all of them were set in the present. More importantly, all of them asked little of O’Neal except to project likability (even though his characters in Paper Moon and Thief who Came to Dinner are outside the law, and his character in the former can be abrasive, they still depend on charm). Much as he would later do with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick similarly plays off of O’Neal’s image here, especially the idea of him as a romantic leading man.* In Barry’s early scenes with Nora, Kubrick plays up both Barry’s naivete (she places a ribbon inside the front of her corset, and tells him he can have it if he takes it from her, and Barry is completely intimidated) and his petulant nature (when Nora throws Barry over for Captain Quin, all Barry can do is rudely interrupt a meal the family is having by standing and staring at her). After Barry is forced to flee, Kubrick still places him as someone who has little control over his fate, as when he’s robbed (and meekly asks his robbers if he can at least keep his horse), discovered as a fraud by Potzdorf, and fighting in battles which are hardly glorious. Only in the duels Barry participates in, whether by pistol, sword, or fist (as when he fights a soldier early on during his conscription in the British army), does he seem to be a master of his own fate, but this fighting side definitely played against O’Neal’s light romantic image (conceivably, it could be argued one of the reasons why Lady Lyndon is such a passive character in the film for the most part – as opposed to the novel – is because Kubrick wanted to deny audiences from seeing O’Neal being romantic again).

Barry ignores Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).

Until I viewed the film again recently, I never noticed another way Kubrick emphasizes how much of an outsider Barry is from everyone else, and that’s his Irishness. During a time of relative peace between Britain and Ireland, it’s easy to forget the long history of animosity between the two countries, and while neither Thackeray nor Kubrick have the British characters insult Barry and his other family members with epithets (except when Bullingdon calls Barry an “Irish upstart”), it’s clear Barry’s heritage makes him suspect in the eyes of many of the characters. Certainly, you can see it in the contempt certain British characters hold Barry in, from Quin (who seems to regard Barry as an insect that needs to be stepped on) to Lord Lyndon, and especially Lord Bullingdon (who, until his final duel with Barry, seems to wear only a glare or smirk on his face). But it’s not just done in the obvious ways. Barry’s downfall begins when he tries to flatter and bribe his way into gaining a peerage and therefore being considered among the “respectable” society. This task, difficult enough in a society where who and what you were was determined by what class you were from, becomes impossible when Lord Bullingdon interrupts a recital Barry is hosting by leading Patrick, who walks into the room wearing oversized, and loud, shoes – as well as call out Barry’s behavior (this is when he calls Barry an “Irish upstart”) – and Barry, furious, grabs Bullingdon and starts beating him in front of the horrified guests. Thereafter, when Barry sees one of the Lords he had hoped would sponsor his peerage at a restaurant, the Lord politely but firmly rebuffs him, and as the narrator tells us, this was not the last time Barry was rebuked like this. It must be said O’Neal’s Irish accent doesn’t always stay consistent, but in a way, this makes him even more of an outsider against the other British actors.

Kubrick’s defenders and detractors have always talked about his perfectionism, and that trait was certainly a notorious part of the filming of Barry Lyndon, not just in the length of filming (it took 2 years, though this was partially because filming had to be halted in Ireland after the IRA made a threat against the production, and moved to England), and the multiple takes he had the cast go through (there were claims of Kubrick needing 100 takes for one scene, though Kubrick later claimed this number was exaggerated, and if he always used that many takes, he’d never finish a movie), but also because for many scenes, especially the ones set indoors and at night, he and cinematographer John Alcott (who also shot A Clockwork Orange and The Shining for Kubrick) used only natural light (Kubrick had a lens that had been used by NASA modified so he could shoot these scenes with candlelight). This was part of how Kubrick wanted to avoid the look of most period films at the time, by going for a more naturalistic feel to it. Kubrick also avoided the scores of most period films; instead, the Chieftains provided folk music used in the scenes set in Ireland, while for the rest of the film, composer Leonard Rosenman adapted and conducted works by Bach (“Concerto for 2 Harpsichords & Orchestra in C-Minor”), Handel (“Sarabande”), Mozart (the march from “Idomeneo”), and Schubert (“Piano Solo in E-Flat, OP 100 (Second Movement)”, among other pieces, which also makes the film seem more natural and less heavy than most period pieces of the time. Kubrick, as usual, also used a lot of long takes, such as in the battle scenes during the war (to make them seem as unglamorous as possible) and the scene where Bullingdon and Bryan walk in on the recital (to emphasize the reaction of the audience). Finally, Kubrick drew his inspiration from paintings of the period, which inspired not just the lighting but also the design and the costumes, some of which were even from that time period (though many were also custom made for the film).

Barry fights Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) while the horrified audience looks on.

For whatever reason, Kubrick, more than any other film he made, used actors he had worked with before, like Berkoff, Magee, Quigley (all of whom had been in A Clockwork Orange) and Rossiter (who had been in 2001). All of them perform well for the occasion, though the ones who come off the best are Magee (in a 180-degree turn from his character, and performance, in Clockwork Orange) and Kruger. I’ve only ever seen Berenson in White Hunter, Black Heart, so I don’t know if she was capable of more than what Kubrick asked of her here, but she handles her big scenes (her attempted suicide) and some smaller scenes (her reaction when she realizes Barry doesn’t love her) well enough. As for O’Neal, as I said, this film represents Kubrick playing against his image, and O’Neal gave himself to that willingly enough**, and while, as I said before, his accent slips often, he does fit Kubrick and Thackeray’s conception of Barry. However, his star power wasn’t enough to help the film at the box office, and while it was nominated for seven Oscars and won four, they were all technical, and Kubrick didn’t win any. The mixed reviews that seem to come with every Kubrick film also didn’t help, but again, as Kubrick himself would say in interviews, more than one viewing helped, and today, rightly, Barry Lyndon is seen in many quarters (including mine) as one of Kubrick’s best films.

*- While I personally believe Redford was a better actor than O’Neal, I also have read enough on Redford to guess – and mind you, it’s only a guess – that given how much Redford seemed to have invested in protecting his image as an actor, I doubt Kubrick would have been able to use him in the same way.

**- The only interview I ever came across where O’Neal talked about Kubrick was one with Malcolm McDowell that’s posted on YouTube, and he spoke warmly of the experience. Still, in Charles Shyer’s Irreconcilable Differences, O’Neal plays an aspiring filmmaker, and while he’s supposedly modeled on Peter Bogdanovich (and Shelley Long and Sharon Stone supposedly play, respectively, parts based on Polly Platt (Bogdanovich’s ex-wife) and Cybill Shepherd (whom Bogdanovich left Platt for)), there is a scene where O’Neal’s character is filming an historical epic and is being a perfectionist about getting the exact shot and sunlight right that plays to Kubrick’s reputation, not Bogdanovich’s, so I wonder.

The Stage to Screen Blogathon: “Six Degrees of Separation”

This is my entry in the “Stage to Screen” Blogathon, hosted by Rosie (The Rosebud Cinema) and Rachel (Rachel’s Theatre Reviews). Enjoy!

To open up a play, or to not open up a play? That is the question. For we’ve all been told that films are supposed to be “cinematic”, and a filmed play is static and boring, therefore, allowing it to move will mean, at the very least, you’re not just watching people in rooms talking to each other. On the other hand, plays are tightly constructed experiences (even lavish musicals), so opening them up for film means you risk tearing apart the dramatic fabric (and even logic) that made them work so well on the stage.  Of course, just as there have been examples of good movies that were just “filmed plays” (as well as, to be sure, bad ones), there have also been examples of movies that opened up the play and were still good movies. One prime example of the latter is Six Degrees of Separation, director Fred Schepisi’s film of John Guare’s award-winning play (which Guare adapted). I chose this not because it’s my favorite movie adaptation of a play (that list would include Stage DoorYou Can’t Take it With You, West Side Story, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the Kenneth Branagh versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, and many others; I left off movies like Trouble in Paradise, Casablanca, and Some Like it Hot because I’m unfamiliar with the source material), but because it’s a good movie to illustrate my point.

Paul (Will Smith) dazzles Geoffrey (Ian McKellen) and Flan (Donald Sutherland).

Both the play and the movie are inspired by the true story of David Hampton, a young con artist who, in the 80’s, was able to convince several people in New York City to let him stay in their homes briefly and even gave him pocket money because he claimed (a) he was a friend of their children, and (b) he was the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. In reality, of course, Poitier has no son, and Hampton never knew any of the children of the people he conned, instead stealing an address book from someone who, like the people he conned, lived on the Upper East Side. Among the people Hampton fooled were Osborn Elliot, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his wife Inger. Guare happened to be a friend of theirs, and when he heard the story of Hampton from them, and read about his subsequent arrest, Guare became interested in turning it into a play. It eventually premiered at Lincoln Center in the spring of 1990, eventually winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for best drama. Three years later, it was adapted into a movie.

Both the play and the movie center on Ouisa (Stockard Channing, who originated the role on stage – according to Guare, she replaced someone during rehearsals – and reprised the role for the movie) and John Flanders “Flan” Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), the couple we first see with Paul. Flan, an art dealer without a gallery (he sells to people who don’t want to go through a gallery for whatever reason), and Ouisa are entertaining Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), a mine tycoon in South Africa, and a potential client for a Cezanne they want to sell when their doorman brings in Paul (Will Smith), a well-dressed man who’s bleeding in the abdomen area (he claims he was mugged). Because Paul says he doesn’t want a doctor, Flan and Ouisa end up patching him up themselves, and when Paul is better, and realizes he was interrupting (Flan, Ouisa and Geoffrey were going to go out to dinner), insists on cooking them dinner. During the evening, he charms them not only by his graciousness and manners, but also by telling them about his thesis (on why The Catcher in the Rye seemed to be a template for people like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.), what he knew about their children, and of course, the fact he was the son of Sidney Poitier (whom, he claimed, was directing a live-action version of Cats, and by the way, would they like to appear as extras in it?). Everything goes well – especially since Geoffrey agrees to buy the Cezanne before he leaves; Flan is so exultant, he ends up giving Paul $50 – until the next morning, when Ouisa goes to wake Paul up, and discovers him in bed with another man. Flan ends up chasing both of them out, and while he and Ouisa are both relieved to find nothing’s been stolen, they’re still shaken.

Ouisa (Stockard Channing) gives the “six degrees” speech to Tess (Catherine Kellner).

Some time later, Flan and Ouisa meet their friends Larkin (Bruce Davison) and Kitty (Mary Beth Hurt), and discovered they too met Paul (though in their version, Paul “chased a burglar” away, and they mostly left him to himself). They eventually go to a police detective (Daniel Von Bargen), though he points out there’s really no crime. They also meet Dr. Fine (Richard Masur), an obstetrician, who treated Paul when he came to his office, wounded, and even let Paul have the keys to his apartment, until he called his son and his son had no idea who Paul was, after which Dr. Fine kicked Paul out. Eventually, they discover Poitier has no son, and they all convince their reluctant teenage children (Tess (Catherine Kellner) and Woody (Osgood Perkins) – Flan and Ouisa’s children – Ben (Anthony Rapp, the only actor other than Channing to reprise their role from the play in the film*), Kitty and Larkin’s son, and Doug (J.J. Abrams – yes, that J.J. Abrams), Dr. Fine’s son) to try and figure out how Paul knows so much about them. The four teens eventually find Trent Conway (Anthony Michael Hall), a former classmate of theirs in boarding school who’s now at MIT, and he admits he found Paul in the street one night, picked him up, and told Paul whatever he wanted to know about the people in his address book (which Paul later stole, along with some other things), simply so he could be close to him. And then the story takes a darker turn with the introduction of Elizabeth (Heather Graham) and Rick (Eric Thal), two struggling actors who met Paul in Central Park, where he was passing himself off as Flan and Ouisa’s illegitimate son.

Ouisa gives the major speech of both the play and the movie – it also gives both play and the movie its title – after she finds out how Paul managed to find them and know so much about them:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.

In the play, Ouisa delivers that speech to the audience, as a soliloquy. In the movie, however, Ouisa says it to Tess, as they’re gathered together in Tess’ bedroom, and this is but the simplest example of how Schepisi and Guare have opened up the play while staying true to the material. The play is presented as a story the characters are telling us in between all of the action. The movie, on the other hand, has the characters telling their stories to others. Each part of the story Flan and Ouisa are telling, except for when they’re being interviewed by the detective, is told to people they meet up with at various events in their lives – at a wedding, at a gallery opening, at a christening after-party – so we not only get a sense of the lives Flan and Ouisa live (as well as why Paul wants to interact with their lives so much), we also see this really is an anecdote told over and over again (Flan and Ouisa will sometimes beg off, or pretend to, only for someone to demand to know what’s happened). This helps lend the other major speech of the story – when Ouisa yells at Flan about how they’ve, in essence, reduced Paul’s life to just another funny story – real force. In his introduction to the play, Guare mentions how Tony Walton (the production/set designer of the play; Patrizia Von Brandenstein (production) and Gretchen Rau (set) handled those duties for the movie) encased the back wall (made of black scrim) into a picture frame, so when the actors first appeared, it made them seem like they were floating almost. Schepisi and Ian Baker, his usual cinematographer (they’ve worked together on all of Schepisi’s features except for Last Orders), capture that feeling by, as per usual, keeping the camera moving, which makes the flashbacks and transitions seem more fluid. Finally, Guare mentions the Kandinsky painting Flan keeps in his apartment (painted different ways on each side; one side representing chaos, the other control) was a big part of the set design of the play, and while Schepisi doesn’t go that far (the replicated Kandinsky is just another object in the apartment, though Flan spins it around to demonstrate to Paul, who’s very impressed), he incorporates art, and its importance to the characters, visually. This isn’t just in the scene where Flan and Ouisa go to the Sistine Chapel (and Ouisa gets to high-five the ceiling while it’s being renovated)**, but also in scenes like when Flan is describing his dream about painting, and Ouisa’s dreams about Paul, where he seems more like an object in a panting than a person.

Ouisa on the phone with Paul, with the Kandinsky in the background.

The film isn’t without its flaws. While every single character in the story is a caricature of some sort, the children come off the worst; with one exception, they’re all written one-note, and the actors playing them all play just the one note (whatever you think of Abrams as a TV showrunner` or movie director, he is clearly not an actor, while Rapp may fall into the category of stage actors who don’t work on film, except for his work in Dazed and Confused). Only Tess is written with any kind of dimension, and Kellner responds in kind; unlike the other actors, she modulates her anger so it seems genuine rather than merely boorish, and in both the scene where Tess interviews Trent, and the scene after, when she’s told her mother, she acts as if she’s really paying attention to the other person.“ More damaging than the one-note younger characters, however, is the soft-pedaling of Paul’s character. When Trent is telling the story of how he met Paul, we see Paul stripping for Trent every time Trent told him something about people in his address book, and when Trent asks Paul to take his shirt off, Paul instead kisses him on the lips and says Trent will get more next time. Smith refused to do this, apparently on the advice of Denzel Washington, who told him kissing another man on-screen would ruin his career (it’s faked through shots of the back of their heads). To Smith’s credit, he later admitted this was immature of him, but it still rankles (also, Hall camps it up a little too much). Finally, while the movie sticks very closely to the play (all of Guare’s dialogue from the play is in the movie, except for a couple of descriptive passages that Schepisi and Baker are able to show instead, such as Paul and Rick at the Rainbow Room and riding in a carriage in Central Park), including the ending, Schepisi does allow for a more hopeful note at the end that is meant to be triumphant, but as filmed, comes across as a little sitcom-ish.

But those are minor flaws compared to how well the movie is able to capture the play’s seamless ability to go from the comic to the tragic without seeming heavy-handed. In her rave review of Atlantic City, which Louis Malle directed from Guare’s original screenplay, Pauline Kael wrote:

“In a Guare play, the structure isn’t articulated. There’s nothing to hold the bright pieces together but his never and his instincts; when they’re in high gear, the play has the excitement of discovery…When I see a Guare play, I almost always feel astonished; I never know where he’s going until he gets there. Then everything ties together. He seems to have an intuitive game plan.”

Six Degrees of Separation is the only one of Guare’s plays I’ve read, and that, Atlantic City and a segment of the made-for-HBO movie Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground (entitled “The Red Shoes”, it starred Christine Lahti as a woman who got upset when a wheelchair-bound vet (Denis Leary) ran over her red shoes) are the only works of his I’ve seen on film (I’ve also never seen any of his plays performed), but from this movie, you get a good idea of what Kael was writing about. The dialogue doesn’t sound stagy at all, even when it’s speeches (such as Paul summing up his thesis, or when Paul, in Ouisa’s dream, explains the rationale for making a live-action movie of Cats). And the intuitiveness shows up in how the film handles the darker turn, when Paul is indirectly responsible for what happens to a character late in the film. Guare doesn’t make light of what happened, obviously, but he also doesn’t make the mistake of flattening the material, either. You can see that in the climax of both the play and the movie, where Ouisa is on the phone with Tess and joking about the phrase “cruelty-free cosmetics” one minute (Tess thinks her mother is endorsing cosmetics companies testing their products on animals, and Ouisa has to explain it’s not the sentiment she finds funny, it’s the phrase), until Paul calls, and Ouisa tries to convince him to turn himself in to the police (Paul, in turn, says he’ll do it only if she comes along with him). The implicit point of the story is Ouisa realizing all Paul wants is what they have, and to be included in that lifestyle, and it also leads to her wondering if maybe that lifestyle, at least for her, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Yet Guare is never heavy-handed about making that point, and Schepisi honors that approach as well.

Of course, they also have the help of the rest of the cast. While Channing has not only been renowned for her stage work (she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the original stage production), as well as her TV work (her best-known work in that department is probably as Abigail Bartlet, the First Lady, on The West Wing), but hasn’t had a big film career (her best known role, over 35 years later, remains Rizzo in Grease; before Six Degrees, she had also appeared in Without a Trace (the 1983 film that loosely inspired a TV series nearly 20 years later) and Heartburn, among a few others). Of course, stage performers don’t always translate well to film, and revisiting a role you’ve already done many times has its own pitfalls, but Channing avoids them. She plays sophistication well, which makes her the perfect fit for an upper East Side New Yorker, but she also gets Ouisa’s hidden depths – the intelligence, sadness, and anger – especially in that final conversation with Paul. Sutherland, as usual, underplays very well as Flan, and you fully believe his passion for art, yet also his shortsightedness when it comes to Paul. And Davison (who recently worked with Schepisi again in Words and Pictures), Hurt, McKellen, Masur and Graham (who really should have had a bigger career) all do well in smaller roles. Which leads me to Smith. In recent years, Smith has come under fire from many in the media, especially the blogosphere, for his nepotism (the implication he’s trying to buy a movie career for his son), his belief in Scientology, the heavy-handedness of his more recent films (particularly Another Earth, his post-apocalyptic film), and especially how he seems averse to stepping outside his image (whatever you thought of Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/slavery film Django Unchained, taking on the title character would have been the type of risky move Smith has avoided). I can understand, and even agree with, many of those charges, yet I still think Smith is capable of being an engaging performer. It’s also easy to forget how this film was Smith taking a chance; at the time, he was still best known not only for his rapping, but also for the “Fresh Prince” persona he had maintained on his NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When I first saw the movie, I thought Smith was being a little too careful in his performance as Paul, only to realize that was perfect for the character. He didn’t rely on any of the mannerisms from the show (which I was never a fan of) or his goofy persona, but won you over with his charm, yet, except for the instance I mentioned above, doesn’t shy away from his dark side either (the only time he gets angry is when Ouisa calls him stupid). It’s because of his performance that Paul resonates more than just as an anecdote, and it’s because of him, the rest of the major cast, Guare, Schepisi, and the crew that Six Degrees of Separation stands not only as a very good film, but as a very good adaptation.

*-Kelly Bishop (who played Kitty in the original stage production, and also took over as Ouisa at one point), John Cunningham (Flan) and Sam Stoneburner (Geoffrey) all have cameos in the film.

**-Obviously, this wasn’t the real Sistine Chapel (even if the production could afford to go to Italy, they couldn’t get permission to shoot there), but a replica built for the movie. The shot of the Sistine Chapel showed another example of the idiocy of the MPAA, as they demanded the portrait of naked Adam on the ceiling be airbrushed out of the film’s trailer.

`-Abrams would later create a show called Six Degrees, which isn’t based on the film per se, but on the idea of characters connected to each other in ways they (and, supposedly, we) wouldn’t expect.

“-Kellner also gets one of the best lines of the film (which was also in the play), where she mocks her mother’s willingness to appear in a movie version of Cats: “I thought you hated Cats (italics mine). You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatre going. You said, ‘Aeschylus did not invent the theatre to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids in cat suits prancing around wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven’.”

Donald Sutherland: The “O Canada” Blogathon

This is my entry in the “O Canada” Blogathon, hosted by Kristina (Speakeasy) and Ruth (Silver Screenings). Enjoy!

Nearly an hour into The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich’s WWII movie about the title group – American army prisoners, on death row or with long sentences – and how they’re trained for a mission behind enemy lines, Maj. Reisman (Lee Marvin) takes the platoon to a base run by Col. Breed (Robert Ryan), where they’re to train in parachute jumping. Except Reisman and Breed hate each other’s guts – Reisman thinks Breed is too much of a stick-in-the-mud in regards to rules and regulations, while Breed thinks Reisman is an undisciplined troublemaker – and to get Breed off his back, Reisman tells Capt. Kinder (Ralph Meeker), who’s been working with Reisman on behalf of their superior, General Worden (Ernest Borgnine), to tell Breed Reisman’s group is part of a secret mission and is being accompanied by a general traveling incognito. What Reisman doesn’t realize is Breed has set up a welcoming committee for the general, complete with military band (playing “National Emblem”, of course), and with his troops ready for inspection. Once Reisman does realize that, he tells Breed he’ll check to see if the general is willing to do the inspection (telling Breed about the “general” traveling incognito, which Breed understands), going to the back of the truck carrying the others, and asking who wants to imitate a general. He finally settles on Pinkley, and while the somewhat slow-witted Pinkley is reluctant at first (“I’d rather be a civilian, sir”), he eventually agrees to do it. As the others fall into formation behind him, Pinkley, wearing an Army helmet, joins Reisman, and turns around to make a funny face at the others, who all laugh at what he’s doing, to Breed’s surprise. Breed and “General” Pinkley salute each other, and Pinkley walks ahead of Breed and Reisman past one line of soldiers, turns, and starts walking between that line and another line of soldiers. He slows down and says, “They’re very pretty, Colonel, very pretty…but can they fight?” “Yes, sir,” Breed responds. “I hope you’re right,” Pinkley responds. He starts to walk again, but stops in front of one soldier (Reisman and Breed have to stop and fall back). “Where you from, son?” he asks, smiling. The soldier says proudly, “Madison City, Missouri, sir!” The smile leaves Pinkley’s face, and he shakes his head and drawls, “Never heard of it.” Reisman is pissed (when they’re alone a few seconds later, he threatens to beat Pinkley’s brains out if he ever does that again), and Breed is starting to wonder if he’s been had, but the others in Pinkley’s platoon are laughing hysterically.

As Pinkley (posing as a general) in “The Dirty Dozen”.

Pinkley doesn’t figure much in the narrative after this (originally, he had very few lines), and ironically, his character wasn’t supposed to be the one who imitated a general at all; it was Posey (Clint Walker), the soft-spoken soldier who only got violent when pushed around, who was originally supposed to play it. However, Walker felt the scene would be ridiculous for him, and asked Aldrich not to do it, so Aldrich assigned it to the actor playing Pinkley instead. That actor, Donald Sutherland, had been studied to be an engineer, but dropped that to pursuit acting. Though he had worked steadily on the stage in London, his on-screen appearances were mostly in TV (he had played a villain on an episode of The Avengers – the show involving John Steed and Emma Peel, not Iron Man and Thor – modeled on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”), with only occasional film roles (bit parts in Promise Her Anything and The Bedford Incident, among others). However, he hadn’t made much headway in his acting career to that point; according to him, he was once turned down for a “guy next door” part – even though the powers that be loved his audition – because he was told he didn’t look like he lived next door to anybody. He had only gotten his role in Aldrich’s film because another actor dropped out. Yet that one scene in Dirty Dozen ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the movie (Phil Kaufman, who would direct Sutherland a decade later in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, told American Film everyone he knew said about Sutherland, “Who is that guy?”), and while Sutherland has never been a “marquee” actor – though he’s been in box-office smashes, he’s never been the guy who “opens” a movie, and though he’s appeared in Oscar-winning films, he himself has never even been nominated – he’s enjoyed a long and distinguished career.

Directly, Sutherland’s performance in The Dirty Dozen led producer Ingo Preminger to cast Sutherland in what proved to be his breakout role, as maverick doctor Captain Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. As fans of that movie know, Sutherland, as well as co-star Elliot Gould (as “Trapper” John McIntyre), wasn’t immediately receptive to director Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking (using overlapping dialogue, depending on actors coming up with their own methods, focusing on character and vignettes more than story), and he and Gould went to their agent (who handled both of them) and the studio (20th Century Fox) to complain. Preminger stuck by Altman, and Gould eventually went to Altman and apologized once he understood what Altman was trying to achieve, but while Sutherland would later regret his actions, he never went to Altman directly, and the two never worked together again. That’s ironic, as Sutherland seems quite at home in the movie. The whistle he gives when he’s either lost in thought or making a joke (as when he reveals to Duke (Tom Skerritt) and Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) that he’s a doctor and not the driver), the way he convinces Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) to bless Painless (John Schuck) as he’s about to kill himself (or so Painless thinks), or the imitations he does (when Marston (Michael Murphy), the gas passer on an operation Trapper and Hawkeye are doing on a senator’s son in Tokyo, asks Hawkeye who he thinks he is, Sutherland puts on a creepy voice to say, “I’m Dr. Jekyll, and this is my assistant Mr. Hyde”) all are in sync not only with the style, but also the message of the movie; in an atmosphere as crazy as war (though nominally set in Korea, many understood Altman and writer Ring Lardner Jr. were really talking about Vietnam), decorum doesn’t matter, only professionalism. To that end, Sutherland also handles well the closest thing the movie has to a thesis statement, when he tells Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), with whom he had a run-in earlier in the movie, “You may be a pain in the ass, but you’re a hell of a good nurse”.

As the title character in “Klute”, with Jane Fonda.

M*A*S*H was one of five movies Sutherland appeared in that year (1970), which also saw him as a worried director in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (which I’ve never seen, but which was inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2), as one set of mismatched identical twins (Gene Wilder plays the other) in Bud Yorkin’s uneven but funny French Revolution War spoof Start the Revolution Without Me, as a priest with an unusual relationship with religious fanatic Genevieve Bujold (like Sutherland, a Canadian, though she was from Quebec and he from New Brunswick) in Act of the Heart (which I’ve also never seen), and as an anachronistic hippie-ish soldier in Brian G. Hutton’s WWII adventure film Kelly’s Heroes, co-starring Clint Eastwood (with whom he would work again 30 years later). Sutherland didn’t appear in that many films in one year again (he had done it in 1968), but he would work steadily throughout his career, especially in the 70’s. It also showed how varied his choices were. Alan Arkin’s film version of Little Murders (with Jules Feiffer adapting his own play) is an uneven but often biting and hilarious black comedy, with Sutherland a highlight as the somewhat eccentric priest who marries Elliot Gould and Marcia Rodd. That same year, he played the title character in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a detective trying to find his missing friend. The film works best as a character study of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), the prostitute Klute ends up falling in love with, and less well as a thriller/mystery, but while Sutherland’s role and performance are essentially passive, he shows how well he works with other performers. Look, for example, at the famous scene where Bree reacts angrily to Klute after she finds out he spied on one of her clients (an elderly garment factory owner who’s never been anywhere; all she does for him is pretend she’s just gotten back from some exotic vacation, and strip for him); while Fonda (who’s terrific) alternates between angry (“And what’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak?”) and seductive (after Klute quietly asks her to zip her dress back up, she purrs, “Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie”), Sutherland remains quiet and focused, yet the focus is always on Fonda and nothing else. Sutherland and Fonda had a brief affair during and after the making of that movie, and they shared the same passion for left-wing politics (they appeared in the “anti-Establishment” comedy Steelyard Blues two years later – which I’ve never seen – and they were also part of a tour of towns near military bases – which also included Peter Boyle and singer Holly Near – to play for soldiers who were against the Vietnam War, later documented in F.T.A., which stood for either “Free The Army” or “Fuck The Army”), which also probably inspired Sutherland’s appearance in Dalton Trumbo’s heavy-handed anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, with Sutherland, as Jesus Christ (he appears in dream sequences), being the best part.

Don’t Look Now, the 1973 horror/thriller adapted by director Nicolas Roeg from the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, was not only another big hit, it was another turning point in Sutherland’s career. According to that American Film article I mentioned above, he quarreled with Roeg over a particular scene (Roeg insisted on doing it his way, Sutherland wanted to try another way), and it was that experience that led him to see that the director was the captain of the ship, and should be the one people defer to. Other actors have come to the conclusion that the director holds the power in movies – it’s a major reason why many actors say either they want to direct, or that they prefer the theatre – but few have put it into such stark terms (Sutherland called himself the director’s “concubine”, claiming his job for a good director was to be submissive to him), or in favorable ones (in that article, he gave credit to the director for all of his good work, and blamed himself for all the bad work). Whatever you think of Sutherland’s methods or feelings, they work for the film. I must say I’ve never been the fan of this other people are – for a film about the trauma from the loss of a child, it feels curiously detached, as if Roeg saw the story more as an intellectual exercise – but it is a film that stays with you and bears repeat viewings (as do all of Roeg’s best films), and Sutherland is again very good as the methodical character (he restores ancient architecture and paintings) who thinks in terms of logic, not realizing until too late just what it is he sees (he’s implied to be a seer, though he rejects that notion).

With Brooke Adams in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

The Day of the Locust, director John Schlesinger’s adaptation of the notorious Hollywood novel by Nathanael West, is another film that doesn’t completely come together, but Sutherland was nevertheless very good in it. Fans of a certain long-running animated TV show will, of course, get a chuckle out of his character name, Homer Simpson, and it’s a part that may seem unplayable (an accountant who seems to be the one “pure” character in the cesspool of 30’s Hollywood). But Sutherland makes believable his Homer’s naiveté, his devotion to Faye (Karen Black) – the aspiring starlet who damages the lives she touches – even as he realizes she doesn’t love him and never will (the scene where he reveals that is touching, and all the more powerful for being one of the few scenes in the movie that’s still instead of frenzied), but also the danger behind him, as when, near the end, he attacks his child tormentor (Jackie Earle Haley), which starts the climactic riot at the end of the film. Homer’s especially short haircut and height (in real life, Sutherland stands at 6’4”) make him look out of place as well, yet Sutherland never overdoes it. The same can not be said, unfortunately, for the Fascist character he plays in Bernardo Bertolucci’s unwieldy epic 1900, where his overacting threatens to derail the movie (once again, Sutherland blamed himself rather than Bertolucci, even as he acknowledged the performance was all wrong for the film).

1978 saw two of Sutherland’s biggest hits, National Lampoon’s Animal House and the remake of the 1956 low-budget sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Michael Crichton’s film version of his novel The Great Train Robbery, which saw him, Sean Connery and Lesley-Anne Down rob a train in mid-19th century England – inspired by a true story – was a more modest hit, and a modest though entertaining film). In the former, Sutherland played another character out of step with the others, here a literature professor who professes contempt for what he’s teaching (he calls Milton boring, but says teaching it is his job), and is more interested in smoking pot (which he does with three students, played by Karen Allen, Tom Hulce and Peter Riegert, and he later has an affair with Allen’s character). This is another film I’m not as much a fan of as others – fratboy comedies are not my style – but Sutherland helps ground the movie in his few scenes. The latter, according to that American Film article, represented another turning point in his career. Tired, as he said, of being typecast as “weirdo” characters, he lobbied hard for the role of the film’s hero, a health inspector who at first doubts his partner’s (Brooke Adams) assertion something strange is happening to people (insisting, yet again, there must be a logical explanation), only to realize it’s even more horrifying than he previously guessed. Director Phil Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter follow the lead of Don Siegel’s original film in using the story as metaphor (placing it within the self-help and cult movements of the time, especially in big cities like San Francisco, where the movie is set), but go beyond the original by upping both the humor (upon told the object he’s found in a soup pot is a caper, not a rat turd as he claims, Sutherland deadpans, “If it’s a caper, eat it”) and the viscera (we actually see the pod bodies being formed, as well as Sutherland smashing his clone, though he can’t bring himself to smash the others). And again, Sutherland’s performance is crucial to why the movie works so well (though he’s not the only highlight; Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy are all terrific as well), as he again grounds the movie in reality. That reality is also what makes the ending – the only version of this story that doesn’t end on a triumphant note – so shocking.

With Timothy Hutton at the end of “Ordinary People”.

Wanting to play, again, more ordinary characters naturally led him to a movie with “ordinary” in the title, Ordinary People, based on the best-selling novel by Judith Guest, and marking the directorial debut of Robert Redford. Sutherland plays Calvin, an upper middle-class man who is trying to connect with his troubled son Conrad (Timothy Hutton, in his film debut). Calvin at first may seem excessively cheery, but then you realize he’s the main one who’s trying to make sure Conrad is okay (as the film opens, Conrad’s just back from the hospital after trying to kill himself), and you also see how devastated he is when he realizes how much his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) has cut herself off emotionally from him and Conrad. The picture is mostly remember today as the film that deprived Raging Bull of winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Director, and that’s unfair. The film is somewhat schematic at times, but it is ultimately touching, and features terrific work from Hutton, Judd Hirsch (as Conrad’s psychiatrist), M. Emmet Walsh (as Conrad’s swim coach), Elizabeth McGovern (as a student Conrad becomes friends with), and, of course, Sutherland. The highlights of his performance are his scene with Conrad’s psychiatrist, and the scene near the end of the movie when he tells Beth he doesn’t think he loves her anymore. Sutherland plays it both times as if the emotions roiling underneath were just occurring to him, making them all the more powerful. Yet again, it’s surprising how, considering everyone else in the main cast (Moore, Hutton and Hirsch) received Oscar nominations (Hutton ended up winning), Sutherland was ignored, as his performance, next to Hutton’s, is arguably the most crucial.

As I mentioned earlier, Sutherland was a prolific actor when his career got going (in The Eagle Has Landed, a rote 1976 adaptation of Jack Higgins’ novel about a Nazi plot to kidnap Churchill, he co-starred with Michael Caine, arguably the most prolific star at that time), but starting in the 80’s, for whatever reason, he seemed to take things easy for a while. In that American Film article, he mentioned how while he loved acting, he felt it had become a compulsion, and he wanted to get back to working because he wanted to, not because he felt he had to (this also may have had to do with an attack of meningitis he suffered in 1979). But as with many actors who came to prominence in the late 60’s and the 70’s, he wasn’t able to find as many good movies and roles in the 80’s. Sometimes, he’d be the best thing, or one of the best things, about a mediocre or bad movie, as in the leader of a group of would-be robbers in Crackers, Louis Malle’s indifferent remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street, as the firm but fair priest in Michael Dinner’s uneven comedy/drama Heaven Help Us (though, to be fair, he’s not the only highlight; John Heard and Mary Stuart Masterson are equally good), or as a doctor who tries to help troubled teen Adam Horovitz (aka Ad Rock of The Beastie Boys) in Hugh Hudson’s overwrought Lost Angels. However, he also seemed to show indifference, as when he played a British colonel in Hugh Hudson’s abysmal Revolution, or played the warden menacing Sylvester Stallone in the equally abysmal Lock-Up, directed by John Flynn, or was surprisingly flat, as when he played a South African who becomes radicalized in Euzhan Palcy’s well-meaning but heavy-handed A Dry White Season (to be fair, Marlon Brando and Zakes Mokae were the only ones who came off well).* The only films where he not only seemed engaged, but the film seemed to support that engagement, were Eye of the Needle, which is not a great movie, but sizzles when Sutherland, as a Nazi agent, is stranded on an island with lonely housewife Kate Nelligan, Threshold, where he and Jeff Goldblum shone as doctors who performed the first artificial heart transplant, and the Neil Simon-penned Max Dugan Returns, where he plays a police detective investigating con man Jason Robards. And while all three of those were watchable, none measured up to his best work in the 70’s.**

With Stephen Rea in “Citizen X”.

As the 90’s began, Sutherland started to work more again, but seemed no better off than he had been in the 80’s. For the second time in his career, he played Norman Bethune, a well-known Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese during their war with Japan in the late 30’s, in Bethune: The Making of a Hero (he had earlier played Bethune in a made-for-TV movie in 1977), but the film was somewhat stilted. John Irvin’s Eminent Domain was at least an interesting try – he and Anne Archer play a couple in 1979 Poland whose lives are turned upside down when he’s drummed out of his government position for what seems to be no reason – but the film runs aground after a suspenseful first half. As the psychotic arsonist in Ron Howard’s impressive looking but shallow firefighter drama Backdraft, Sutherland gives the movie its only charge, particularly in his scene with Robert De Niro (as the arson investigator who caught him), and he does it by underplaying. By contrast, while Sutherland’s hardly the only reason why the movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nowhere near as good as the subsequent TV series – director Fran Ruben Kuzui made the film campy and joke-filled, cutting out the emotion that helped make the show so memorable – he is completely bland as Merrick, the man who reveals to Buffy (Kristy Swanson) her destiny (fans of Joss Whedon, who wrote the script and created the show, know he and Sutherland clashed during filming). Only his cameo in Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK, as a “Deep Throat”-type figure who gives crucial information to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), seemed to not only fully engage him, but also be worthy of his talents. In 1993, however, he gave a terrific performance in Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John Guare’s Tony-nominated play Six Degrees of Separation. He played Flan, an art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing, reprising her stage role), is charmed by Paul (Will Smith), a man who claims to be friends with their children, and the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. Understandably, he was overshadowed by Channing and Smith’s performances, but Sutherland is very good in showing the hypocrisies of his character without being condescending.

Sutherland hit his 60’s in the middle of the 90’s, and whether by happenstance or design, ended up playing mentors or authority figures. Often, the films ranged from mediocre (Disclosure, which was better than the Michael Crichton novel it was based on, but not by much, The Puppet Masters, adapted from the novel by Robert Heinlein, The Assignment, a fictional film about trying to catch the terrorist Carlos with a double) to awful (A Time to Kill, an overheated adaptation of John Grisham’s overheated novel, Shadow Conspiracy, a dopey governmental conspiracy movie), though it must be said he was good in all of them. However, he gave his two best performances of the decade – and two of his best performances ever – in mentor roles as well. The made-for-HBO movie Citizen X, directed by Chris Gerolmo (who wrote the screenplay for Mississippi Burning), is based on the true story of a serial killer that terrorized the former Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Sutherland plays Col. Fetisov, the one military officer who is sympathetic to the efforts of forensic specialist/detective Lt. Burakov (Stephen Rea) in trying to solve the case – the official Soviet position was that “serial killers” were an entirely Western phenomenon, and the government was more interested in locking up gays than in trying to find the real killer – though he does so by pragmatism and even blackmail while Burakov has no talent for dealing with bureaucracy, at least at first. Sutherland, of course, had played this type of part before, but what was especially notable was the sharpness and humor he brought to it (when Burakov, late in the movie, actually butters Fetisov up in order to get what he wants, Fetisov dryly notes, “I’ve created a monster”), and he also underplayed his character’s hidden decency as well. Arguably the best scene in the movie is after communism collapsed, and Fetisov tells Burakov they are now free to conduct the investigation the way Burakov has wanted to all along. Rea has the showier role here in that his character breaks down in tears – though it’s understandable, and he doesn’t overdo it – but Sutherland perfectly compliments him, especially when he’s retelling an FBI agent’s praise of Burakov. Sutherland deservedly won his first Golden Globe (for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-Series, or Made-For-TV Movie) for his performance here. I’ve written about Sutherland’s performance as track coach (and co-founder of Nike) Bill Bowerman in Robert Towne’s Without Limits, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for that performance as well. Again, the role shows off his humor (as when Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), frustrated by all the orders Bowerman is giving him, asks if he thinks there’s such a thing as over-coaching, and Bowerman deadpans, “Yeah…I’m against it”) and his ability to underplay (as when he tells Pre about his relationship with his wife (Judith Ivey), whom he doesn’t understand but loves anyway).

With Keira Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice”.

Nothing Sutherland did after Towne’s unjustly neglected film has been quite as memorable, although he has had a few bright spots. When Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, about four aging astronauts (Eastwood, Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner) who go into space on a mission, is a comedy, it’s on sure ground (it loses its way when it becomes an action movie in the second half), and Sutherland is a hoot as lech (when Blair Brown, as a doctor, comes in while the four are naked, the other three all try to cover themselves, while Sutherland stands still with a smile on his face and tries to flirt with her). Playing another mentor – albeit a twisted one – in Panic, another unjustly neglected film (written and directed by the late Henry Bromell), he’s quite chilling as the father of reluctant professional killer William H. Macy. Though he doesn’t give the standout performance in John Frankenheimer’s last film, the made-for-HBO road-to-Vietnam docudrama Path to War – Alec Baldwin, as Robert McNamara, has never been better in a dramatic performance, and should have received the Golden Globe Sutherland won – Sutherland is very good as Clark Clifford, the close adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon), and one who, like many others, parted way with the President over Vietnam. Joe Wright’s adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel Pride & Prejudice wasn’t well received by many Austen fans for being grittier than Austen adaptations usually are, but Sutherland is very good as Mr. Bennet, especially in the scene near the end when Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) tells him she wants to marry Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), and Sutherland also brings a dry humor to the role. And whatever you think of the Hunger Games movies to date, Sutherland is appropriately creepy as totalitarian leader President Snow (I also liked the movies Cold Mountain, the remake of The Italian Job, and to a lesser extent, Reign Over Me, but admittedly, his work in those films was routine, if watchable). Whether he’ll find another role or movie as good as his best work (which, IMHO, is M*A*S*H, the remake of Invasion of the Body SnatchersOrdinary PeopleCitizen X, and Without Limits) remains to be seen, but overall, Sutherland remains, after a career spanning nearly 50 years, one of the best actors working today. Not bad for someone who supposedly didn’t look like he lived next door to anybody.

*-One area Sutherland did sometimes struggle with in his acting was in expressing anger. He could either be merely self-righteous, as in A Dry White Season, or monotonous, as he was in playing an evil army general in Wolfgang Peterson’s disease thriller Outbreak.

**-For my money, the best thing Sutherland appeared in during the 80’s was Kate Bush’s music video for her song “Cloudbusting”, where he played Wilhelm Reich.

The Spielberg Blogathon: “Munich”

This is my entry in the Spielberg blogathon, hosted by Kellee  (Outspoken & Freckled), Michael (It Rains… You Get Wet) and Aurora (Citizen Screenings), taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs. Hope you enjoy my post.

Whatever your opinion has been of Steven Spielberg over the years – I count myself as a fan of many, if not all, of the films he’s made – his fans and detractors alike can probably agree he’s a director of emotion and of viscera (where they disagree, of course, is how he applies emotion and viscera in his films). One of the knocks against Spielberg has been that he’s not a filmmaker of ideas (or a filmmaker interested in ideas), and while I like Amistad more than many people do, I have to admit it was a struggle for him (albeit an intriguing one) to make a movie like this dominated by ideas (which is why he tried to throw in stabs of emotion like the “Give us free!” scene). However, Munich, in my opinion, managed to be a film of ideas while also using viscera and emotion to effectively communicate those ideas.

Munich, of course, is where the 1972 Olympics were held, and where 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and later killed by a Palestinian terror group calling itself Black September, and the beginning of Spielberg’s film (credited to Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, adapting the book Vengeance by George Jonas) shows both the kidnapping of the athletes and the coverage the kidnapping and eventual botched rescue attempt received (most of it by ABC, through Peter Jennings – who was hidden in a room where he could see what was happening – and Wide World of Sports anchor Jim McKay). Some time later, Avner (Eric Bana), a German-born Mossad agent who knows Europe, is hand-picked by Israeli Premier Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead a small group to track down and kill the members of Black September (the only conditions being they don’t go into Soviet countries for diplomatic reasons, and Arab countries for safety reasons). Except for Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a former Israeli soldier whose job is to clean up after every job, the other members of the group are diaspora Jews; Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African driver and gunman, Hans (Hanns Zischler), a Belgian forger, and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy-maker whose specialty is defusing bombs and who is now being asked to make bombs. With money supplied through a bank in Zurich, Avner and his team go to Europe, and through Andreas (Moritz Bleibtreu), a friend of Avner’s, and Tony (Yvan Attal), a friend of Andreas, they come in contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric), leader of a group who sells information to anyone and any group as long as they aren’t working officially on behalf of a government, and who gives Avner and his group (who pretend to be working on behalf of “rich Americans”) information on how to find their targets.

Avner (Eric Bana) being briefed by Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush).

In basic outline, this is a thriller, and Spielberg does fulfill the requirements of the genre, and in his trademark fashion. Take the second target the group attacks, Mahmoud Hamshari (Igal Naor), a PLO member who is now living in Paris with his wife and daughter. Robert gets into Mahmoud’s apartment by pretending to be a reporter who wants to interview Mahmoud about the Arab hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to get three Black September members released (and the press conference they held afterwards), and when Robert pretends to need to phone his editor, he goes to the phone and draws an outline of its shape and its bottom. When Mahmoud and his family have exited the apartment one day, Avner and Robert pose as workers (while Carl watches over them) to sneak in, and Robert exchanges the phone in the apartment with one wired to go off when Mahmoud answers the phone. Sometime later, Carl is in a phone booth, while Steve, Hans and Robert are in a car across the street from the apartment building, and Avner is on the sidewalk near the building, waiting for Mahmoud’s wife and daughter to leave. When they do, Avner takes off his hat, Carl gets ready to call, and Robert turns on his device to activate the bomb. Except a cargo truck pulls up alongside Steve’s car, and Avner temporarily halts Carl while he checks with Robert to see if the signal still works; unbeknownst to them, the car with Mahmoud’s wife and daughter returns so the daughter can get the phone book her mother left behind; when Avner is assured there’s nothing to worry about, he signals Carl to resume, but when the daughter answers the phone, and Avner sees the car has returned to the building, he and Carl frantically rush to Robert to prevent him from activating the bomb before it’s too late. Finally, when the daughter (along with her mother and their driver) leaves, Carl makes the call and the bomb goes off, but it doesn’t kill Mahmoud, it only wounds him.

That, of course, shows Spielberg, Roth and Kushner playing with genre expectations, but they had already laid the groundwork for it earlier. Meir had been criticized for trying to negotiate with Black September to get the Israeli athletes released (she tells Avner she couldn’t go to their funeral because she had to go to a family member’s funeral, but Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), the Mossad head who becomes Avner’s handler, guesses she didn’t go to their funeral because she didn’t want to be booed), but is now authorizing the (unofficial) hunt for Black September, and muses, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”. Ephraim, who first appears at the meeting Avner attends with Meir and other government and military figures when Avner is first assigned the job (he’s sitting at a desk behind where Avner is standing, and only speaks after everyone else leaves), gives the type of information to Avner you’d expect in this type of thriller (“We deposit money from a fund that doesn’t exist into a box we don’t know about in a bank we’ve never set foot in. We can’t help you because we never heard of you before”), but even has a little humor about it (Ephraim offers Avner baklava, and when Avner turns it down, claims it’s good Avner turned down sweets, because, now that he’s no longer officially with the Mossad, he no longer has dental insurance)*. And while Avner is willing to follow orders without question, at least at first (Ephraim praises him for not asking questions at the first meeting), he can’t help being a little cynical about the whole operation at first; when Meir says Avner was one of her favorite bodyguards, Avner can’t help asking, “You like having the son of a hero around?” (Avner’s father, a war hero, is now in prison) The rest of the group is also cynical at first, especially when they find out, except for Avner and Carl, no one is really an experienced soldier, and they’re not even sure about them (when Steve asks Avner why he was made team leader, Hans cracks, “Because he really knows how to cook a brisket”, which cracks everyone up).

Avner breaks bread with Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and Papa (Michel Lonsdale).

That early cynicism, however, turns into something more pronounced as the team continues to chase their targets. After they shoot and kill Abel Wael Zwaiter (Makram Khoury), their first target (who’s now a poet living in Rome), Avner decides they should use bombs from then on because of the statement it makes (“it terrorizes the terrorists”). However, this proves easier said than done; while Robert gets criticized for using too small a bomb against Mahmoud, he’s criticized for going too far the other way when he tries to blow up the hotel room where Hussein Al Bashir (Mostefa Djadjam) is, and the bomb not only blows up Hussien’s room, it also blows up the hotel room where Avner was (he was giving the signal from the balcony), as well as the room between them where a couple was staying (since Louis supplied the explosives, Robert blames him; naturally, Louis claims Robert messed it up). Things become even further strained between Avner and Louis when Louis gives Avner the names of three PLO members in Beirut, and Ephraim lets the team go on the condition an Israeli commando team accompany them, which angers Louis because of his rule of not working for governments. Then there’s the close call when the team happens to be in a safe house with a PLO group they eventually have to do battle with (again, the safe house was set up by Louis’ father (Michel Lonsdale), who is in charge of Louis’ group). More important than any of that, however, is while Avner is disinclined to question their orders at first (he tells Carl at one point, “Stop chasing the mice around in your head”), he and the rest of the team are soon having doubts about the mission. They don’t know for sure if the people they’re killing are really Black September or not, as the Lufthansa hijacking and other incidents make clear, the people they do kill are being replaced by people even more dangerous (and who are targeting them), and Avner (and some of the others) are having trouble sleeping at night and are being plagued by nightmares by what they’ve done.

The ideas from that last part – that violence begets violence, and the cost to your soul for using the same methods your enemies use to stop them – aren’t particularly new ones, of course, but they are as relevant now as they ever were, thanks not just to what’s going on in the Middle East right now, but given our memories of the War on Terror here. Spielberg, Roth and Kushner were slammed on both sides for this movie – some thought it was pro-Israel, others pro-PLO – but I’d argue they’re less interested in demonizing either side than in grappling with those questions. Part of that is dealt with in dialogue, of course (Robert at one point says, “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it”), but again, Spielberg, along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn communicate those ideas viscerally and visually as well. With the exception of the very first hit they undertake, none of the jobs they undertake go smoothly (the one person who was supposedly the mastermind behind what happened in Munich is never killed by the team), and Spielberg are able to make you feel all this without descending into what has been called “chaos cinema”. Even something as simple as taking revenge – when Avner and Steve kill Jeanette (Marie-Josee Croze), a Dutch assassin who tried to seduce Avner so she could kill him, and when he turned her down, seduced and killed Carl instead – doesn’t go away; Hans refuses to treat her as human (when Avner tries to cover up her naked body after killing her, Hans angrily tells him to stop), but then confesses he’s had nightmares about killing her. The most controversial method they use comes at the very end, when Avner is having sex with his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) after he’s joined her in Brooklyn, and he’s reliving the moment when the Black September group killed the Israeli athletes. When I first saw the movie, I agreed with those who said this was, at best, misguided (particularly since it’s showing events Avner couldn’t have possibly seen). However, I now think it’s another way of showing just how haunted Avner is by what he’s done, and how it’s never going to leave him, even doing something he obviously enjoys as much as having sex with Daphna.

Ephraim with the team.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Spielberg does trade in emotion, and one emotion his detractors normally tag him with is sentimentality, which I’ll admit can be a fault of his, in films such as Hook and The Terminal, for example, which are two of my least favorites of his. Spielberg does brush against sentimentality here, but always manages to pull back in time. The scene where the team (who is pretending to be from other revolutionary/terror groups like the Red Army Faction) and the PLO team end up at the same safe house is a good example. Steve and one of the PLO members look like they’re going to get in a confrontation over which music to listen to on the radio until Steve finds Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, and they both grin at each other briefly. Spielberg, Kaminski and Kahn hold the moment just long enough to see the temporary bond, yet also show the discord, as we see Avner and the leader of the PLO group arguing over Israel. The women characters don’t get a lot to do in this movie, but Daphna avoids sentimentality as well. After she’s given birth, Avner tries to get her to move to Brooklyn because it may not be safe for her in Israel, but she doesn’t want to move because Israel is home to her; when Avner says she’s the only home he’s ever known, she laughs, calls him corny, and wonders why she married a sentimentalist (earlier, when she was pregnant, Avner asked her how long into pregnancy was she supposed to stop having sex, and Daphna cracked, “Labor”). The final shot of the movie, from a distance, is of the World Trade Center, which is less a nod to sentiment, I think, than a reminder. Finally, even though Avner does come to see Louis’ father as a father figure to him, we also see the resentment it causes Louis, and we never forget Papa, as he is called, is dangerous.

The performances are all terrific across the board as well. Bana’s had a tough time in Hollywood since coming over on the strength of his work in Chopper, and this is probably his best performance in Hollywood, as he not only carries himself like a soldier, but also shows the toll the work has taken on Avner without overdoing it. Kassovitz has talked about wanting to devote himself exclusively to directing, and I think that’s a shame, not only because I’m not a fan of his as a director, but because he’s so good as an actor, as he is here in playing Robert as someone way over his head. This isn’t the best of Craig’s pre-Bond work, but he does show a lot underneath Steve’s bluster, and Hinds and Zischler are dependable and good. Amalric is spot on as the amoral Louis while also showing the bitterness and hidden code underneath. Croze, up till this point best known for her turn as the drug addict/dealer in The Barbarian Invasions, only has a couple of scenes, but is both alluring and dangerous as the assassin. Best of all are Rush and Lonsdale, both showing the worldview of people who have seen too much (along with Rush, Lonsdale also gets food-related humor as a way of humanizing his character; Papa complains he and Avner both have hands that are too big to be effective as cooks, and calls that “tragic”). At one point in the movie, Carl tells Avner, “The only thing that really scares (guys like you) is stillness.” By not being scared of characters who have seen too much, or of ideas, yet not abandoning his prodigious gifts to communicate those ideas or show those characters, Spielberg, in Munich, has made one of his best movies.

R.I.P. Robin Williams

In the introduction to an interview he did with Pete Townshend for Musician magazine, Bill Flanagan called him “the rarest of men – he gives in to his impulses and analyzes what he’s doing the whole time”. That certainly describes Robin Williams, who died yesterday at 63. It’s part of what gave his stand-up, at its best – and at its best, Williams was one of the greats, just below Pryor and Carlin -its charge; wherever his free-association came from (his addictions, his agile mind, the madness of his life, or a combination of all of those), it was dizzying to watch, and at the same time, you wondered just how he processed all of it. In fact, he did as well; one of his great early routines was taking you inside the brain process of the typical stand-up comedian, and he did a brilliant riff about comedy on Inside the Actors’ Studio, among other places. The capacity for giving in to his impulses while analyzing why he did so is also what seemed to make him candid in interviews when he talked about battling his demons (his addictions, his failed marriages), and it managed to tie together both his cerebral (he’d often reference Einstein, Gandhi and Shakespeare, among others, and lest we forget, he attended Julliard) and scatological impulses (he also did a whole routine on Lorena Bobbitt when she was in the news) both in his act and during his interviews. Stand-up appearances, and talk shows, was where he could both give in to his impulses and analyze them, and make doing both funny. Movies are a different medium, of course, and there were certain impulses he gave into some of the movies he made that didn’t bring out his best side (I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of Popeye or Mrs. Doubtfire, for example). But when he was at his best, he was able to show how he was more versatile than you might think. Here are my favorite Williams performances on film:

(1) The World According to Garp: John Irving is a novelist whom I’ve never quite been able to warm up to, as I’ve often found him self-consciously quirky (except for The Cider House Rules). When George Roy Hill and Steve Tesich adapted the film in 1982, however, they played it straight (just as Hill did a decade earlier with another adaptation of a strange novel thought unfilmable, Slaughterhouse Five), and it works. The movie was also the first demonstration Williams was perfectly capable of submerging himself into the part instead of tailoring it to suit his persona. Though he admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone that he might have done the role even better at the time he gave the interview (1988) because he knew more then about being a parent than he did while making the movie, he still shows someone totally devoted to his kids (the scenes where he just wants to watch them work very well). He’s also convincing as a writer and as someone who loves his activist mother (Glenn Close) even as he’s exasperated by her sometimes. Williams isn’t the only one who shines in this movie – Close, Mary Beth Hurt (as Williams’ wife), and John Lithgow (as a transsexual former football player) are all terrific as well – but he’s the one who holds it all together, and make Irving’s quirkiness endearing instead of being annoying.

(2) Moscow on the Hudson: Many directors who broke out in the late 60’s-early 70’s had trouble during the blockbuster era of the 80’s. One of the few who seemed to flourish, after a slow start, was Paul Mazursky, who made a string of comedies (even Enemies: A Love Story finds comedy in its dark subject matter) that were both funny and genuinely intelligent (Moon Over Parador was the weakest of them, but it had its moments). His streak began with Moscow on the Hudson, which saw Williams play a Russian saxophonist who, while visiting in New York City with the Moscow circus (whom he plays for) decides, on an impulse, to defect in Bloomingdale’s. The rest of the movie deals with the consequences of that decision. The central joke of Mazursky’s film is that everyone is trying to assimilate in their own way, from Fernando Rey (as the immigration lawyer who helps him, to Cleavant Derricks (as the Bloomingdale’s security guard from Alabama who takes Williams in), and to Maria Conchita Alonso (as the perfume sales clerk whom Williams falls in love with), and while Mazursky is generous with all of the characters (even the KGB agents who warn the members of the Moscow circus against defecting are overwhelmed by New York City), he never lets the film dive into sentimentality. And Williams manages to be both convincing as a Russian (he speaks the language through the first part of the film) and as a saxophone player, while also being funny and staying in character; so we get, for example, how it’s endearing when he hides under Alonso’s dress (when he first decides to defect and is trying to get away from the KGB), but when he does it later in the movie (when he’s trying to win her back after they’ve argued), it isn’t.

(3) Good Morning Vietnam: This was the first film Williams did that attempted to filter his stand-up sensibility into a film role. Barry Levinson’s movie, a fictionalized version of the experiences of real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer’s stint with the Armed Forces Radio Network in Vietnam, doesn’t wear as well as it did when I first saw it in the theater (for a movie set in Vietnam during the war, it shows only a cursory interest in the Vietnamese, and the three prominent Vietnamese characters are all stereotypes), but Williams’ on-air routines are as funny today as they were over 25 years ago (especially when he’s imitating Ethel Merman jamming Russian radar, as well as their response). And again, he also shows his capability for drama, as in the scene after he witnesses the aftermath of a bomb going off at a restaurant and is ordered by his superior officer (J.T. Walsh) not to report it; the way his voice cracks as he’s trying to be funny and failing still gets me every time. And though Williams can sometimes steamroller over other performers, he works very well with Forest Whitaker as the officer who works most closely with Cronauer (and who fights to get him back on the air after the brass, led by Walsh, suspend him following the bomb incident).

(4) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Williams wasn’t the first choice to play the King of the Moon character encountered by Baron Munchausen (John Neville) and Sally (Sarah Polley), the little girl who escapes with him from a battle in her town. Sean Connery, who had worked with director Terry Gilliam on Time Bandits, was the first choice, but when he pulled out, Williams, who was a big fan of Monty Python, signed on. As Levinson did on Good Morning Vietnam, Gilliam gave Williams (billed as Ray D. Tutto – “but you can call me Ray”) free reign to improvise his part, and the result was a perfect showcase of the split between his cerebral and scatological impulses while also being true to the character. After all, the King is someone whose head can literally separate from his body, and while his head talks about higher things (“I think, therefore you is”) – or wanting to, anyway (“I have tides to regulate and comets to direct! I have no time for flatulence and orgasms!”) – the body simply wants pleasure of all kinds, from eating to tickling his wife’s (Valentina Cortese) feet (and no, that’s not a double entendre). While watching the King’s head go off on one of his tangents, Sally says, “He’s gone funny”, and for me, she’s right, in both senses of the word. In later years, Williams would occasionally make cameos in both films (as a mime instructor in Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown) and on TV (with Billy Crystal on an episode of Friends), this five-minute (or so) appearance remains, for me, his best appearance in that regard.

(5) Dead Poets Society: I am also not as big a fan of this movie as others are (I don’t think it earns its sentimentality), but I will say Williams is terrific here. While he does a few comic bits (as when he’s imitating Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare), he mostly stays in character in playing a teacher who inspires his poetry students at a 1950’s New England prep school. You believe Williams knows his subject, especially when he gives this speech:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me, O life, of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer; that you are here, that life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

And again, the film shows how a strong director (Peter Weir) is able to not only rein him in (Williams gets top billing, and was nominated for Best Actor, but is arguably playing a supporting role), but also gets him to interact well with the young actors playing his students, particularly Ethan Hawke as a student trying to live up to the legacy of his older brother and Robert Sean Leonard as a student with a difficult relationship with his father. However I may object to the turns the film’s script takes, I have no quarrel with Williams’ performance here.

(6) Awakenings: The same year as this film, Williams also starred in the underrated comedy Cadillac Man, playing a car salesman who tries to calm down Tim Robbins after the latter takes the dealership Williams works at hostage. Awakenings, based on the book by Oliver Sacks, is the one that received more attention, and while director Penny Marshall doesn’t always rise above sentimentality, I do think it deserved the praise and box office it received. As Leonard, a patient who’s been catatonic for several years until a drug treatment revives him for a time, Robert De Niro received an Oscar nomination, and he’s fine until his character relapses (at which point he seems to rely on tics), but I think Williams was actually better. Malcolm Sayer (the doctor Williams played; he agreed to change the name so he’d avoid the problems that came up with the liberties taken in playing Cronauer) is a familiar type – the scientist who’s brilliant at his work but has a hard time with human interaction – but Williams makes it work. Whether trying to convince his superior (John Heard) the treatment he’s proposing works, or his awkwardness with Julie Kavner (as a nurse who has a crush on him), Williams never steps outside the character, or condescends to it. And again, he’s generous with his co-stars;  as I said, I think De Niro’s performance goes awry when the side effects of the drug take effect on Leonard, Williams stays patient, calm and sad.

(7) Dead Again: When he was on Arsenio Hall’s talk show in the early-to-mid 90’s, Williams was asked about the possibility of playing a villain in a movie (this was around the time he was bandied about as a possible candidate for the Riddler in the next Batman movie, before Jim Carrey got the role), and he replied he had already played a bad guy, in a way, with his character in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again. I have to confess, when he told that to Hall, I was a bit surprised. But when I watched the movie again not long after that, it made sense. When you first meet his character, “Cozy” Carlisle, a disgraced former psychiatrist turned supermarket clerk, he’s definitely abrasive (when Mike Church (Branagh) comes to tell him Myron Spargo has died, Carlisle snaps, “Who the fuck is Myron Spargo?”), as well as bitter and resentful (he’s still angry about being investigated by the state because he slept with a couple of his patients). But you also see his sharp mind (he’s able to pick up right away Church is trying to quit smoking) and even compassion (he says wistfully he used to not charge half his patients because he loved being a doctor that much). So it’s believable when Church is pressed into helping Grace (Emma Thompson), a woman who’s (temporarily) lost her voice and her memory, and Church is skeptical when a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) reveals the only memories Grace has are of Roman and Margaret Strauss – a couple (also played by Branagh and Thompson, respectively) who had been married in the late 40’s until he was convicted of murdering her, and executed for the crime – that he’d go to Carlisle for a second opinion. Williams, of course, makes Carlisle’s intelligence and compassion believable (he takes Grace’s problem seriously, even as he’s dismissive of Church’s skepticism), and he gets to explain the storyline that made many uncomfortable (“There’s a lot more people on this planet who believe in past lives than don’t”). But in the last of his three scenes (all with Church), after he finds out the big secret of the film (which I won’t reveal), Carlisle turns totally chilling as he gives Church a piece of advice, and Williams makes it believable.

(8) The Fisher King: There are certain films Philip Seymour Hoffman has made that I’m not quite ready to watch again just yet, and I have a feeling The Fisher King, which reunited him with Gilliam, will be that way with me for Williams’ films. He plays Parry, a deranged homeless man who has been this way ever since his wife was killed when a deranged man shot up the restaurant they were in, and who ends up, improbably, bonding with Jack (Jeff Bridges), the former shock radio DJ who’s life has gone downhill ever since a show he did inspired that deranged man. In later years, when Williams got near this type of role, he indulged his unfortunate tendency to get mawkish, but Gilliam keeps that tendency and check, and Williams gets at the pain in Parry’s existence that’s underneath his front. Williams also has to carry the metaphor of the plot, as Parry is on an insane quest to get the Holy Grail (the title of the film alludes to the legend, as does Parry’s name), and he carries it with aplomb. He also makes believable Parry’s crush on Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a painfully shy accountant he watches every day in Grand Central. And again, it shows his generosity; the scene where Parry and Lydia go out on a double date with Jack and his long-suffering girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), and Lydia keeps making things awkward because of her table manners, the way Parry copies her actions without making fun of her is both funny and touching.

(9) Aladdin: Williams, of course, had long been a fan of animation (he presented Honorary Oscars to both Walter Lantz – the creator of Woody Woodpecker – and Chuck Jones), and he had done some voice-over work before (most memorably in FernGully: The Last Rainforest as a bat who’s escaped from an animal testing lab). But it was Aladdin, even more than Good Morning Vietnam, that allowed him to use his stand-up gifts on film.  Until the Genie character shows up, I found this Disney reworking of the Arabian Knights tales kind of bland (admittedly, I’m not the fan of Disney many of my friends are). But when Williams shows up as the Genie, the movie takes off. I can understand the criticism that the references Williams makes as the genie (he imitates, among others, Hall, William F. Buckley, Carol Channing, Jack Nicholson and Ed Sullivan) basically stop the movie and don’t make sense (whereas in FernGully, they do), but whereas that would bother me in a live-action film, it didn’t here. I think it’s because not only is Williams really funny thoughout (especially when he’s listing his “rules”), but because he does take the story seriously and remembers the character even when he’s off on one of his riffs.

(10) Insomnia: Williams’ output for the rest of the 90’s showed him indulging his worst impulses, with a few exceptions; his turn as the anarchist in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent was the best thing about that problematic film (though he was only in a couple of scenes), while I’m not a fan of The Birdcage, he played it subdued (except for his dance demonstration) and, to me, was the funniest part of the film, and while I only like, rather than love, Williams’ Oscar-winning turn as the psychiatry professor who helps troubled math prodigy Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (he had done that type of part better in other films), he did draw on his own battles with alcoholism without getting too sentimental, and two great scenes – where he tells Damon’s character he knows nothing about life or love or pain, and when he and Damon talk about Carlton Fisk’s memorable home run in the 1975 World Series (unlike Damon, Williams in real life was not a baseball fan) – showcased his talent (his cameo in Branagh’s version of Hamlet, and his voice cameo Steven Spielberg’s A.I. were decent but undistinguished). In 2002, Williams decided to change direction in his career and play three roles that were unsympathetic and twisted. In Danny De Vito’s uneven but often hilarious Death to Smoochy, he went over-the-top but lent real anger to the role of a disgraced former children’s show host. And until Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo goes awry by trying to explain his character in a simplistic way, he’s genuinely creepy as a seemingly kind and efficient drugstore photo clerk who develops an unhealthy fixation on a family (played by Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith). But it was his turn in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Swedish film, that best showcased his talent. As with Awakenings, he went toe to toe with another acting legend, this time Al Pacino. Williams is a novelist suspected of knowing something about a local teen girl, and who witnesses Pacino (as a shady cop called in to help with the investigation) accidentally kill his partner (Martin Donovan) and therefore blackmails him about it. Williams plays the character completely normal, resisting the urge to go over the top or be a “villain”, even in the scene where he confesses over the telephone to Pacino how he killed the girl; he admits the panic, and even says it feels good to confess before asking about what Pacino did. The darkness of Pacino’s character in the original film was muted somewhat in the remake, but it’s thanks to Williams the remake doesn’t cop out on how dark the story gets.

As I alluded to before with his appearance on Friends, Williams, who broke out on TV with Mork & Mindy, made appearances on TV from time to time as well, coming off best on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (done as a favor to Barry Levinson to help the struggling show in the ratings), playing a tourist who’s life goes downhill when his wife is murdered during a mugging gone wrong. Today, the episode stands as an example of how David Simon (who co-wrote the episode and wrote the book – “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” – the show was based on) not only gets the drudgery of police work right, but also shows compassion for all sides, but Williams also takes things down a notch playing the angry and grief-stricken husband. During the 1999 Oscar telecast, he gave an inspired performance of “Blame Canada”, the Oscar-nominated song from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. And while I’m not a fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, he’s memorably creepy as a man who gets people to defy authority, even if the episode ultimately becomes ridiculous (I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch the episode of Louie that he appeared in, as it’s about a funeral). I don’t pretend to know why Williams’ choices, at least for me, weren’t as good after Insomnia (except for the SUV appearance), and I certainly won’t speculate on the demons he dealt with (he fell off the wagon and suffered a heart attack in the past decade) that may have led to his death. I can only say that in the stand-up appearances and talk show appearances I saw him  do, he made me laugh an awful lot, and while his film and TV career had its ups and downs, the performances and films I mention above are enough of a legacy that I’m very sorry he’s gone.

John Ford Blogathon: “They Were Expendable”

This is my entry in the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by Anna (Bemused And Nonplussed) and Christianne (Krell Laboratories). Enjoy!

Though John Ford was one of the most, if not *the* most, highly regarded directors of the studio era of Hollywood, by critics (Andrew Sarris and others put him in their pantheon of great directors), the Academy (he won four Best Director Oscars) and other filmmakers (when making Citizen Kane, Orson Welles said he prepared by watching movies by old masters, by which he meant, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford”), Ford himself never talked about himself in much regard. During the notorious battle between Cecil B. De Mille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the Directors Guild in 1950, for example (when De Mille wanted every director to sign a loyalty oath), Ford prefaced his speech by introducing himself and adding, “I make Westerns.” He was notorious for not talking about his pictures or their meaning, with the actors he worked with (Henry Fonda has told of Ford ripping pages from the screenplay if an actor dared ask about them), and even with admiring critics or younger filmmakers (during much of the documentary Directed by John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich is unable to get an answer out of Ford). What Ford did like to talk about was his war service – not necessarily the combat he’d seen, but just the fact he served at all. And that war service helped inform one of his best films, the 1945 drama They Were Expendable.

Like many in Hollywood at the time who were able, Ford signed up eagerly to serve in WWII. Unlike most of his fellow directors, however, who served in Europe and Africa, Ford, who was in the Navy, was mostly involved in the War in the Pacific (though he was part of the crew filming D-Day). And so it seemed fortuitous the first film he decided to take on after he finished his service in WWII was about a naval hero. William L. White’s book (adapted for the screen by Frank “Spig” Wead – whose own story Ford would tell over a decade later in The Wings of Eagles, with Ford regulars John Wayne and Ward Bond as, respectively, Wead and Ford – with an uncredited assist by Jan Lustig; Sidney Franklin and Budd Schulberg also did uncredited work on the film) is an oral account by Lieutenants John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly, along with two other men, about their experiences fighting in the early days of the war in the Philippines on PT Boats. When the film was originally conceived, it was meant, as with the book and the other combat movies being turned out by Hollywood at the time, as a way of boosting morale at home. By the time Ford was put on inactive status in October of 1944, the war was thought to be winding down (though it wouldn’t end in Europe for another seven months, and the Pacific for three months after that), and Ford wanted a more sober and clear-minded view of the war than Hollywood was turning out (one of the reasons why he was reluctant to take on the job at first was he thought MGM would insist on more of a flag-waving movie), which, as it turned out, the public was ready for as well.

Lt. Brickley (Robert Montgomery) plots a course with Lt. Ryan (John Wayne) and others.

The film begins in December of 1941 in the Philippines, as Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) informs his superior, Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), that he’s applying for a transfer to a destroyer, where the action is, as Brickley once again has been unable to convince the navy brass of the usefulness of PT Boats in warfare, and Ryan is frustrated with sitting on the sidelines. However, everything changes when Brickley, Ryan, and the other members of the crew hear the news of Pearl Harbor, and Brickley’s crews are eventually used in the war. At first, they’re just used to ferry people out of the Philippines after the Japanese invade, including General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat), but after Brickley and Ryan, on separate boats, are able to sink Japanese ships with their torpedoes, the PT Boats are approved for combat. During this time, Ryan strikes up a relationship with Lt. Nancy Davyss (Donna Reed), a nurse who treats his finger (shrapnel grazes it while he’s steering the boat, and he starts to suffer from blood poisoning), though he’s not able to see much of her after he gets back into combat duty.* But while Brickley and Ryan are eventually able to prove to the brass how well the PT Boats can work in fighting conditions (at the end, both of them are called to go back to the States to help train the Navy use them), they end up losing some of the boats, and many of their men, in the effort.

Part of how the movie differs from other war films of the time is the look. Cinematographer Joseph H. August (who had shot The Whole Town’s TalkingMary of Scotland and the documentary The Battle of Midway for Ford) gives this a darker look than most movies at the time.** Obviously, in scenes such as when Ryan reluctantly goes to the hospital, the low lighting can be explained by the fact these were places under blackout conditions. But even in the scenes where the ships are in combat, such as in late in the movie when the boats go on a nighttime run, Ford and August shoot those scenes so you can barely see the faces of anybody, giving it a level of authenticity. In keeping with the seriousness of the subject matter, and the elegiac tone Ford is striving for throughout, there’s also less humor on display, and much of it is sarcastic, as when sailors who have been stuck on shore while their compatriots have either been on escort or fighting missions tell anyone who’s excited about where they’ve been about the conditions they’ve had to put up with back at the base. The humor is also used to cover up other feelings, as when Brickley and his men visit one of the sailors who’s dying, and they joke around with him to keep him from figuring that out (he sees right through it, of course). As sentimental as Ford could be, he handles this scene just right, without ever getting cloying.

Ford has been accused in recent years of racism in his films, especially in his westerns, but what’s striking about this film is how he avoids the jingoism of many, if not all, of the war films of the time. The Japanese are referred to as “Japs”, but only a few times, and in an offhand manner; also, early in the film, when a naval officer at a bar announces the attack at Pearl Harbor, Ford, August and editors Douglass Biggs and Frank E. Hull cut to a shocked Japanese woman. Also, Ford treats the Filipino characters with dignity for the most part; after the announcement of Pearl Harbor, a singer bursts into a rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (which Ford claimed actually happened) that’s mournful rather than patriotic, we later see how the destruction of the navy yard at Cavite has affected the Philippine natives as well as the U.S. navy, and when Lt. Davyss joins Ryan and the other officers at dinner, the waiter is respectful without being obsequious, and doesn’t speak in forked tongue either (only the owner of the bar Ryan crashes after saying a eulogy for his fallen crew can be seen as speaking in the broken English Asian speakers were often stereotyped with).

Ryan having dinner with Lt. Davyss (Donna Reed).

Another departure from many combat films is just how little combat there is. Except when Japanese planes attack the base (this is when Ryan hurts his finger), and two sequences where we actually see the boats fighting, most of the fighting is done off-screen. What we see instead is mostly the waiting (making everyone’s impatience, particularly Ryan’s, that much more believable), as well as the sequence near the end when Ryan has been separated from Brickley after his PT boat has been sunk by the Japanese, and he tries to find Brickley. This is both believable and accurate to White’s book, but it does have the effect of making one wonder why PT boats (which were smaller and faster than most boats, and were thought to be able to hit enemy ships, especially destroyers and supply ships, more effectively) were held back by the navy so long (Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge, a Ford regular) and Major James Morton (Leon Ames), to some extent, say the boats wouldn’t hold up to heavy fire, but we don’t get much of an argument from them or Brickley). The other debit of the film is the music by MGM house composer Herbert Stothart (forced on Ford by the studio) is undistinguished, though at least it isn’t used too often, and the best musical moment comes during the dinner Lt. Davyss has with Ryan and the others, and a group of sailors, led by “Boats” Mulcahey (Ford regular Ward Bond) serenade them. However, those are minor quibbles.

As with most, if not all, Ford pictures, he singled out one actor to display his wrath towards. On this film, it was Wayne, though in this case, the rancor was especially pointed; Ford never really forgave Wayne for not serving during the war, even if, for many filmgoers at the time, he was fighting the battle at home (the hardship deferment Wayne claimed – trying to support his family – didn’t impress Ford). By contrast, Ford treated Montgomery, who had commanded a PT Boat (as well as observe Bulkeley to prepare for the movie), kindly; according to Mark Harris’ Five Came Back, Montgomery felt uncomfortable coming back to acting, so Ford told him to go out on a boat by himself, take all the time he needed, and they would wait for him to be ready (it took three days). Montgomery even shot some scenes when Ford fractured his knee while on a sound stage, and he even made Ford apologize to Wayne for his treatment of him.

Whatever Ford did to his actors, they all responded with terrific performances. I must confess I’ve always found Montgomery flat as an actor, but he’s able do some complex work here while saying very little, whether masking his disappointment when Admiral Blackwell turns him down yet again, or the way he handles Ryan, or the kind reserve he greets Lt. Davyss with when he finally meets her. One of Ford’s most quoted remarks about Wayne was his line, “I didn’t know the son-of-a-bitch could act” after seeing him in Howard Hawks’ Red River, but by this film, Ford must have known something, because Wayne has a more complex character than he played under Ford before, and he responds in kind. Ryan is constantly warring with himself throughout between thinking of himself (which is why he wants a transfer) and of the unit and his commander, and Wayne does a good job with that conflict. He also isn’t afraid of showing Ryan’s more abrasive side either, as with the nasty way he treats Lt. Davyss when he first gets to the hospital, or when he refuses to go to a dance with her at first. Finally, while Wayne was often called upon to give gung-ho speeches, there’s very little of that here; his most memorable scene for me, in fact, comes when he’s speaking over the coffins of his shipmates who have died, he reads the only poem he knows, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” (“Under the wide and starry sky/Dig the grave and let me lie”), and his voice cracks. Reed manages both toughness and vulnerability, as well as a certain playfulness when she flirts with Ryan. And there’s good work from Bond, Russell Simpson (as “Dad” Knowland, a shipbuilder), and Louis Jean Heydt (as a soldier at the hospital whom Ryan bonds with), among others.

Though the movie only received a couple of Oscar nominations in technical categories (Best Sound Recording and Best Special Effects), it did well at the box office and received good reviews (James Agee, a tough critic when it came to fiction war movies, wasn’t impressed with the story, but he praised Ford’s direction, the photography, and Montgomery’s performance, and Bosley Crowther praised the sober tone of the movie). Today, They Were Expendable stands as one of the best WWII movies ever made, and one of Ford’s best. Not bad for a director who only said of himself, “I make Westerns”.

*- Lt. Beulah Greenwalt Walcher (known as Peggy Smith in White’s book), the nurse Lt. Davyss was based on, sued MGM for implying she and Lt. Kelly had gotten involved romantically (to be fair to the movie, in White’s book, Kelly implies he has feelings for her, and the movie never shows anything explicit); Kelly also sued for Wayne’s portrayal of him, which Bulkeley has stated was accurate. Wayne and Reed were also named in the suits, and they and MGM eventually settled out of court with Kelly and Smith.

**-Ford originally wanted Gregg Toland, who had shot The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home for Ford, to co-direct and shoot the film, but Toland was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn at the time, and Goldwyn refused to release him.

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