09 June 2011

Black Legion (1937)

Bad times have a way of bringing out the worst in otherwise normal people, and the Great Depression was certainly no exception. In 1935, a WPA worker in Detroit was killed by members of an organization known as the Black Legion, a northern offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan which was later revealed to have a significant membership across Michigan and Ohio. The sensational headlines that arose in the wake of the incident made great fodder for Hollywood screenwriters -- Warner Bros. adapted the story into a feature film aptly entitled Black Legion, which was released in January of 1937.

Black Legion tells the story of Frank Taylor, a factory worker who aspires to be the next foreman of the shop. Frank is more than a little frustrated, however, when he is passed over for the promotion in favor of Joe Dombrowski, a Polish immigrant with an apparent knack for machinery. Picking up on Frank's resentment, a fellow worker invites him to join the Black Legion, a shadowy organization purportedly out to defend the interests of "real Americans" from foreign infiltration and subversion. Under cover of darkness, Frank and the other legionaries put the torch to the Dombrowski farm and forcibly expel Joe and his aged father from the town. With Joe conveniently out of the picture, Frank is made the new foreman of the shop.

For a while at least, things appear to be going well for Frank -- he finally gets that new car he's been coveting, and his wife Ruth gets a much-needed new vacuum cleaner. Before long, however, Frank's involvement with the Legion begins to interfere with his life at home and at work. The Legion's nocturnal raids keep Frank away from his wife and son, and pressure to recruit new legionaries distract him from his work as shop foreman -- a costly accident occurs while Frank is attempting to enlist a worker into the ranks of the Legion, which leads to Frank being demoted from the position. Mike Grogan -- Frank's Irish neighbor -- replaces him as foreman. Once more, the Legion intervenes on Frank's behalf -- Grogan is dragged from his house in the middle of the night and flogged to within an inch of his life.

Suspecting both foul play and Frank's involvement therein, Ruth takes their son and goes to live with her parents. Despondent, Frank takes to drink and accidentally spills the beans about the Legion's activities to his friend Ed Jackson, who had been concerned about Frank's suspicious behavior for some time. Ed threatens to go to the police, prompting Frank to report him to the Legion. Ed is seized by the legionaries, who intend to beat him into silence. When Ed attempts to escape, Frank guns him down. Frank is overcome with remorse and flees into the night, only to run into the police, who arrest him for Ed's murder.

With Frank about to stand trial and the incident drawing much unwanted attention from the press, a lawyer in the covert employ of the Legion provides Frank with an alibi of self-defense -- and tells him that he'd better stick to it if he ever wants to see his wife and son again. The legionaries even attend the trial to ensure that Frank doesn't lose his nerve. Frank's conscience gets the better of him, however, leading him to confess to Ed's murder and turn in the other members of the Legion. For their crimes, Frank and the rest of the Black Legion are sentenced to life in prison.

Though Black Legion rightly condemns the xenophobia and bigotry it depicts, it does so in a thoughtful manner. Most significantly, the film illustrates quite credibly just how Frank Taylor -- an otherwise perfectly decent guy -- can succumb to the allure of extreme rhetoric, especially when times are tough. While Frank may not be an especially sympathetic character, he is most certainly a believable one. His family life, his professional ambitions and his workplace frustrations are remarkably true-to-life, particularly for post-production code Hollywood. Moreover, Frank's shortcomings ultimately serve to amplify the believability of his character -- most notably, his petty jealousy of Joe Dombrowski's success is the tragic flaw which leads him to join the Legion in the first place. Studio heads initially planned to offer the role to Edward G. Robinson, but for a variety of reasons -- among them the fact that the Jewish Robinson looked a bit too ethnic to really fit the role of a middle-American average Joe -- the role was eventually given to a lesser-known player named Humphrey Bogart. Bogie handles the part of Frank Taylor superbly, demonstrating in this early role the sort of acumen which would eventually land him among Hollywood's foremost stars.

In many ways, Black Legion feels quite similar to others the numerous, gritty "message pictures" for which Warner Bros. became known (it helps that director had many such pictures under his belt after several years at the studio). What sets the film apart from the other message pictures of the day, however, is that while bootlegging and speakeasies are largely relics of the past, the issues which Black Legion addresses continue to be problematic in American society. In one particularly memorable scene, the judge explains to the condemned legionaries that to engage in violent repression against a given group of people in the name of America is an utter perversion of the democratic principles upon which the nation was founded. It's actually one of the better patriotic monologues I've yet heard -- second only perhaps to Jimmy Stewart's impassioned speech before congress in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- and its message is one that bears repeating in the face of the current political climate.

Although not one of classic Hollywood's most renowned pictures, Black Legion is nevertheless a very good one. Its direction is solid, its acting is top-notch (especially where Humphrey Bogart is concerned) and its social themes are as pertinent today as they were in 1937. As fascinating as it is entertaining, Black Legion is definitely a must.

[Image Sauce]

05 May 2011

Characters I Like, Ep. 3

1945's The Lost Weekend might be the quintessential film about alcoholism. Drunkenness was hardly uncommon in films beforehand -- indeed, booze was a staple of pre-code films and and gangster dramas -- but alcohol was almost universally handled in one of two ways. Drinking was either played for laughs on the one hand or vilified as being symbolic of a greater moral failing on the other. The only sympathetic portrayals that readily come to mind are Lowell Sherman's Max Carey in What Price Hollywood? and Fredric March's Norman Maine in the original version of A Star is Born (given the similarities between the two films, these are almost the same character). What sets The Lost Weekend apart from these and other earlier films, however, is that the story is told from the perspective of the alcoholic protagonist, a struggling writer named Dan Birnam.

Dan Birnam -- played very ably by Ray Milland -- is the sort of character who might make easy fodder for a morality play. He lives with his brother, has no real job and goes on spectacular drinking binges with unpleasant regularity. Dan reveals that he dropped out of college in order to pursue a career as a writer, only to have that career stall out when he was unable to produce a successful piece. Increasingly distraught, he found solace in liquor. Don's story is true to life -- in writing the novel upon which the film is based, Charles R. Jackson drew significantly on his own experiences as a struggling writer during the Depression. This touch puts a very human face on Dan and his alcoholism, thereby making his story all the more compelling. Hardly if ever, one ought to understand, does someone take up serious drinking just for the hell of it; rather, alcoholism is more often than not a coping mechanism of one sort or another which evolves into a chemical and psychological dependency. This unfortunate series of events is precisely what has befallen Dan Birnam.

In one the film's most memorable bits of dialogue, Dan offers up a remarkably eloquent description of the allure of drinking:
It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile. Nat, it's the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.
To anyone with a particular fondness for the creature, this sensation described in this passage might seem eerily familiar (it certainly did to me). The painful irony of this is that an inability to write well drove Dan to drink, and yet a few drinks elicit from him a decidedly articulate streak. But when Dan, newly inspired, sits down at his typewriter to begin the book he's been meaning to write for so long, he loses his nerve -- he needs yet another drink to steady himself, which in turn leads to another and another, and further down the slippery slope he slides.

Dan's downward spiral leads him into some rather inglorious circumstances. He is thrown out of a ritzy club for attempting to steal a woman's purse (he wouldn't be able to pay his tab otherwise), he tries unsuccessfully to hock his typewriter for booze money (all the pawn shops are closed for Yom Kippur!) and eventually passes out, only to come to in the alcoholic ward of the local sanatorium. When the staff is distracted by several patients caught in the throes of delirium tremens, Dan manages to escape. He makes his way back to his brother's apartment, only to fall prey to the DTs himself. Dan eventually recovers with the help of his devoted girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), but realized that he cannot save himself and makes plans to end it all. Helen intervenes once more, however, and manages to convince Dan to try his hand at writing his book once more (as an aside, Helen must have a superhuman quantity of patience, having been with Dan for three years at this point. Most reasonable women, I imagine, would have walked out on him years ago, and quite rightly so).

To the casual observer, Dan Birnam is hardly an admirable figure. Indeed, in some regards he seems much like Patton Oswalt's Paul Aufiero in Big Fan. What sets them apart, however, is that while Paul lacks any significant direction and appears to care for little else but football, Dan aspires to great things but feels he is unable to achieve them. Further, Dan is well aware of -- and decidedly guilt-stricken by -- the drain he poses to his friends and family, whereas Paul was largely oblivious to anything beyond the boundaries of his insular world. Dan Birnam is, at heart, a good guy, and it is this aspect of his character that makes him so believable and sympathetic.

Anyone who has undertaken an ambitious creative endeavor will tell you that there are few things more soul-crushing that to wish to create without being able to. My own experience has taught me as much. I couldn't help but recognize in Dan Birnam's struggles an exaggerated reflection of my own, to the degree that I occasionally got the feeling that while watching The Lost Weekend I was also watching some sort of dystopian vision of my own future. Like Dan, I struggle with writing and, also like Dan, I have a greater fondness for the creature than I perhaps ought to (I hasten to add, however, that I am hardly as terminally dependent on the stuff as Dan is).

The hard-drinking protagonist has become a fairly commonplace trope in the sixty-odd years since the premier of The Lost Weekend, to the degree that heavy drinking plays significantly in a character's coolness factor (the same can be said of other self-destructive habits, smoking in particular, but I digress). Nevertheless, Dan Birnam's whiskey-soaked odyssey retains the same powerful effect it had back in 1945, in large part because it feels so sincere. Ray Milland won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Dan Birnam, and well-deservedly so -- that Dan is so sympathetic a character is due as much to Milland's affecting performance as it is to the solid writing and direction of the film as a whole (Billy Wilder won the Award in both of those categories, and The Lost Weekend won Best Picture of the year). After only two viewings, The Lost Weekend has become one of my favorite films, and Dan Birnam is easily one of my favorite characters.

31 March 2011

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

1927's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans has the distinction of being the only film in the history of the Academy Awards to receive an Oscar in the category of “Most unique and Artistic Picture.” It is a film quite deserving of that appellation – it is a film that emphasizes atmosphere and theme over plot and characterization. This is not to say that the narrative – or indeed the film as a whole is incoherent or disjointed, only that the film relies on the bare essentials of storytelling to get its point across. The settings and characters remain anonymous, and the themes which the film discusses are hardly groundbreaking. Indeed, Sunrise feels like nothing so much as a fairy tale set to celluloid. It is a rather unorthodox approach, but thanks to the excellent direction and cinematography of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau – most famous for directing the 1922 German film Nosferatu – it is quite effective.

As the film begins, we learn that a Man (George O'Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor) have become increasingly estranged from one another. The reason for their marital troubles is a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), with whom the Man has been carrying on a less-than-covert affair. During one of their moonlit liaisons, the Woman asks the Man to return to leave his homestead behind and go with her to delight in the pleasures of decadent city life. As for his wife, the Woman suggests that she be removed from the picture by an unfortunate “accident.” Unable to resist the Woman's seductive temptations, the Man agrees to go through with the plan.

For several reasons, this decidedly Faustian sequence is one of the most fascinating in the film. First off, we are treated to an impressive montage of the sights and sounds of the City – the music, the booze, the dancing and the rest of the hustle and bustle. In a film where dialogue is absent and intertitles are few and far between, such striking effects are a huge positive (for what it's worth, even the intertitles are visually distinctive in this film). Secondly, Margaret Livingston is perfectly cast as the sultry temptress – she is dark and alluring, and at the same time vivacious and full of sex appeal. A rather convincing portrayal, to say the very least.

The next day, the Man offers to take his wife on a boatride, an offer which the Wife accepts, blissfully unaware of his nefarious intentions. Once the boat is sufficiently far from shore, the Man rises and, looming monstrously over his cowering wife, prepares to throw her overboard. Thankfully, the Man realizes that he cannot bring himself to carry out the deed and relents, rowing feverishly for the opposite shore. Understandably, the Wife flees for her life as soon as the boat reaches dry land. The Man follows her, begging her forgiveness. They ultimately wind up in a chapel where, as fate would have it, a wedding ceremony is taking place. So moving is this ceremony – reminding them, perhaps, of their own wedding – that the Wife is able to forgive her husband for the crime he nearly committed, and the two leave the chapel with a newfound appreciation for one another.

Several reviewers take issue with this scene, specifically, the speed with which the Wife forgives the Man for very nearly attempting to kill her (for more on that, see Chris Edwards' review at Silent Volume). It's an objection I find hard to dispute. This is no mere argument over the dinner table; an attempted murder is hardly the sort of incident one can easily sweep under the rug. The Wife would be perfectly justified in making for the nearest courthouse and filing for divorce and a restraining order. That the Man and the Wife are so quickly reconciled seems more than a little improbable. Far-fetched though it may be, however, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The Wife, by every indication, is a simple peasant woman -- her home, her child and her husband likely constitute her entire world. Without these pillars, that world would come apart at the seams. For her, it is better to have a husband and run the risk of running afoul of his violent temper than not to have one -- think, for example, of the battered women who, for reasons that make sense only to them, refuse to leave their abusive husbands. Attempted murder is obviously more grave than garden-variety domestic violence by several orders of magnitude, but it is quite possible that such a mindset is at work here.

A simpler way of getting around this problem, however, might be to consider that, at least in the context of this film, reading too deeply into characterization (as I just spent the last paragraph doing) is perhaps counterproductive. This film presents us not so much with fully fleshed-out characters as with representitives of types. Much like the figures in a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, one gets the impression that one need not understand why a character does what he or she does, but only that he or she does (does anyone question why, for example, Jack is gullible enough to exchange the family cow for a few magic beans, or why Goldilocks has no qualms about sneaking into a house while its occupants are out?). This approach would more than likely fail in a talking picture or a stage production, as those are heavily dependent on on characterization and dialogue to communicate. In a silent film, however, the means of communication is almost entirely visual, so this approach to storytelling manages to be effective.

The scenes which follow the reconciliation -- however improbable it might be -- mark a significant shift in tone from the earlier portion of the film. Whereas the buildup to the near-killing feels dark and increasingly suspenseful, the film takes on a much lighter aura in the wake of the cathartic scene in the chapel -- it's as though the audience is privy to the Man and Wife newfound happiness. The Man and Wife eventually arrive at an amusement park, where they cavort like a young couple on their first date (indeed, their first date might well have been here). The scenes in the amusement park are perhaps the most visually appealing in the film -- F.W. Murnau's expressionist pedigree manifests itself in the art direction here, as the amusement park looks like an amalgamation of Asbury Park and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Having had a delightful evening, the Man and Wife return to their boat and set out for home. A fierce storm kicks up, however, and the boat is capsized by turbulent waters. The Man is able to reach the safety of dry land, but the Wife is nowhere to be found -- a search party is organized, but to no avial. Devastated, the Man returns to his house. Meanwhile the Woman from the city, noticing all the commotion, assumes that the Man has carried out her plan and goes to him under cover of darkness. She does not, however, receive the loving welcome she was expecting: ostensibly blaming her for his wife's death, the Man seizes the Woman by the throat, intent on choking the life out of her. The Woman is saved, however, when an old maid calls out for the man -- the Wife has been found, and is still alive. As the sun rises over the village, the Man and the Wife are joyously reunited, and the Woman from the city makes her exit, sulking on the back of a horse-cart.

Although it isn't without its shortcomings in the plot department, Sunrise is a fantastic movie in just about every other respect. The film is beautifully shot, the performances are solid all around and F.W. Murnau manages to cover a lot of emotional ground without it ever feeling too forced. The film was widely acclaimed by critics at the time of its premiere, but audiences were rather less enthusiastic -- in spite of its unique recognition as an artistic success, Sunries was not a hit at the box office. Fortunately for us, a copy of the film has survived in surprisingly good condition, and was added to the National Film Registry in 1989. Sunrise airs on TCM occasionally, and is also available on DVD. However you see it, Sunrise is an extremely worthwhile investment, and is, at least in my estimation, one the best pictures from the silent era.

13 March 2011

Coming Back for More

I have not been in the habit of re-reading books -- outside of books assigned for college courses, the only books I have re-read have been written by Kurt Vonnegut. I read Breakfast of Champions twice in high school, and I just recently finished A Man Without a Country for the second time. Much to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed it even more this time around than I did on the first read-through. This has convinced me that I need to give more than a few of my books a second reading.

If you are a bibliophile enraged at my ignorance, I must ask you to kindly put down that revolver before you do something you will regret later. Hindsight has made it quite clear to me that my erstwhile reading habits sprang from precisely the wrong attitude. Literature is art, and a work of art is not a merit badge to be earned and promptly forgotten. This is a long-standing  objection I have had to the "1001 Maguffins you must Kerfuffle before you Die" series of books -- to experience something merely for the sake of experiencing it cheapens its value, and dimishes whatever reward you might hope to get out of it. It was only recently that I realized that I was falling prey to the same attitude.

You may be wondering why I haven't read the majority of my  books more than once, especially considering that I have watched the same movies multiple times, have listened to the same albums over and over again and have played through many games more times than I care to remember. To be perfectly honest, I have no real answer -- it just never felt necessary to read a book over again. That reading a book -- especially a sizeable novel -- necessitates a considerable investment in time might have been part of the problem, but that really isn't an excuse. The time it takes to experience a work of art really hasn't much bearing on what I get out of it. This is especially true given that I have kept the majority of the books I have enjoyed.

Perhaps it's time to revisit the old favorites after all.

21 February 2011

Pandora's Box (1929)

Once in a blue moon, a director will chance upon the perfect player for a particular role. When such a stroke of luck occurs, the result is often a thing of beauty. One would be hard pressed to produce a better example of such perfect casting than director Georg Wilhelm Pabst's decision to choose Louise Brooks to play the role of Lulu in his 1929 film Pandora's Box. From the moment she appears on screen until the film's final fadeout, this is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Louise Brooks' movie.

Pandora's Box -- or, if you prefer, Die B├╝chse des Pandoras -- tells the tale of Lulu, a woman with a dubious past and an irresistible sex appeal. The latter is a potent means by which she procures whatever it is her heart may desire, leaving in her wake a string of ruined men and discarded lovers. She is the archetypal "bad woman" about whom mothers warn their sons. Lulu's escapades take her from the stage of a Weimar cabaret to a dockside gambling house and finally to the slums of London, where she meets an inglorious end at the hands of a serial killer very much reminiscent of Jack the Ripper.

Lulu's story is told in a series of chronological acts that illustrate episodes in Lulu's torrid life (this narrative structure has the added bonus of keeping the story moving at a healthy pace; rarely, if ever, does the film feel as though it's dragging on). Lulu's only constant companions throughout her travails are a crusty old drunkard named Schigolch and Alwa, a young man who is hopelessly in love with Lulu. Schigolch is a particularly interesting character who would hardly be out of place in a novel by Charles Bukowski. Lulu describes him as her "first patron," which leads us to believe that he may be some sort of pimp. Later, however, our understanding of their relationship is muddied significantly when Lulu, in an attempt to save him from one of her lovers, claims him to be her father. This may not necessarily be true, but it is a tempting possibility, as there are a few instances in the film where Schigolch does seem to display some genuine paternal affection for Lulu. Furthermore, Schigolch is the only major character in the film whom Lulu does not screw over (or, just plain screw, for that matter). It's difficult to fathom a father who has no objection to his daughter sleeping around and eventually prostituting herself, but this is just the sort of moral ambiguity of which this film is quite fond of presenting to its audience.

Alwa, meanwhile, is quite possible the most pitiable and sympathetic character in the film. Even though it is painfully obvious that he is little more to Lulu than a boy toy with a well-stuffed wallet, Alwa is much to smitten with Lulu to bring himself to leave her. One can almost feel his soul being pounded into dust as he watches Lulu flirt and philander with other men (and women, as the case might be). The hopelessness of his emasculating circumstances are hardly lost on Alwa -- having fallen with Lulu into the gutters of the London slums, he laments to a curious Salvation Army worker that nobody can help him.

As complicated as are Lulu's relationships with her companions, her relationship with the audience is no less conflicted. Lulu is unrepentantly wicked and undeniably ruthless, yet in spite of that she is also somehow sympathetic. Reviving the theme of moral ambiguity, one finds that one is caught between wanting to see such an unscrupulous character get her much-deserved comeuppance on the one hand, and to see her escape punishment on the other. That such a contradiction is able to exist is due in no small part to the inimitable screen presence of Louise Brooks: here is an instance where one should believe the hype.

As Lulu, Louise Brooks blends a vivacious, girlish innocence with an artful and imperious sexuality -- she is no mere man-trap but a veritable Charybdis of feminine wiles. It is night on impossible to imagine a contemporary actress who could have handled the role as perfectly as Louise Brooks -- in the hands of a lesser actress, the character of Lulu might have suffered, but Louise gives the character such life that she almost seems to be playing herself (it is appropriate, if accidental, that the actress and the character should be so similarly named). Walking out on Paramount might have curtailed her career in Hollywood, but the end result is that Louise's legacy has far exceeded that of any of her more conventionally successful contemporaries.

Pandora's Box leaves me with little about which to complain (a noteworthy achievment, considering how much I like to gripe). To find fault with this film, at least for me, would be to split hairs. This is easily one of the best films of the silent era, and moreover one of the best to be created during the fruitful but all-too-brief flowering of the cinematic artform in the Weimar Republic (German cinema, it seems, can be added to the list of things which the Nazis ruined). Pandora's Box is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection -- a bit pricey, perhaps, but a worthy investment for anyone who enjoys quality films. This one is not to be missed.