Drainage Made Him Do It!

December 4, 2012

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Laid low by some sort of virus, Fritz Lang’s House on the River (1950) is just the sort of relatively light-weight confection I needed to keep boredom away.  A low-budget gem to be sure, this gothic-noir features a rich author, Steven Byrne, who is having a bit of writer’s block.  We learn that he has a not-too-healthy relationship with his co-dependent brother, who complains about the thousands of scrapes he’s helped his literary brother escape.  He even lives modestly as a bookkeeper so his brother can have the luxury due to an artiste, all on their joint inheritance.

Steven has a pretty wife and a wandering eye.  He is delightfully twisted, and always speaks with an upper crust calm and suavity, even when he is responding to his wife’s charges that he stays out at night, comes home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume.  “The smell of cheap perfume can be quite exciting, my dear…”  he replies.  Honest to a fault, that Steven.

The plot is set in motion by his desire for the fresh-faced young girl who is the housemaid.  She tells him that the servant’s quarters bath is not yet fixed, and he graciously allows her to use the upstairs one, his wife’s, who is away with friends.  The sound of the bath water sluicing down the pipe is too much for the imaginative Steven – he must have her.  (Pipes in those days were often mounted outside of the walls, as shown here.  The film takes place in the early 20th century.)

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click to animate – drainage!

His romantic advances are spurned, they struggle, he kills her, quite by accident of course.  He enlists his mush-brained brother to help him cover it up by dumping the body in the river.  His brother will do anything to avoid disgrace or discomfort for Steven’s wife, whom he secretly loves.

All seems to go well as they dump the body, but then a leaping fish breaks the calm of the night, terrifying Steven.  The image of the leaping fish will come back to haunt him, called up by the sparkles of light on the vanity mirror in his house.

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When Steven’s brother confronts him, the author admits that he feels he gained something from the murder; his writing is so much better now.  His brother tells him he must be very ill to think that way.  Steven (top image) replies, “Ill…?”  Well, it’s a thin line.  

His relationship with his pretty wife seems rather cool, but here, they are in quite a passionate clutch.  Of course, he’s just about to start strangling her.

That’s Fritz all over.
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M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.

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The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.

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Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.

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He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!

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In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

Rotwang's House

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There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)

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Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.

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Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.

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Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…

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…which ends up being rather successful.

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The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…

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Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.

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click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.

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Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.
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Talk about a femme fatale!

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Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.

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The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.

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The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.

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Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.

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Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.

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Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.

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With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.

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Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!

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White Hot

December 1, 2012

White Heat (1949), a gangster film starring James Cagney, gave us the ‘iconic’ finale of Jarrett shouting to his dead mother, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” from inside a refinery about to explode.  Va va va voom! and he’s gone in a glowing plume of flame. Jarrett is a homicidal maniac prone to crippling headaches, and he has a too-strong attachment to his murderous demon of a mom. A volatile combination.

The plot of the film is pretty dull, involving Fallon (Edmund O’Brien) as an undercover cop who gets close to Jarrett in prison to try to learn the identity of the currency fence who launders Jarrett’s loot. Fallon is too cool, too efficient, and dull, but Cagney and his co-star Virginia Mayo as his wife, Verne, keep the movie crackling. According to Wikipedia, it was said that she “looked like a pin-up painting come to life,” and she plays it for all it’s worth in this flick.

The film has many scenes that are classic sequences, including the mess hall bit when Cody passes word along the tables that he wants to hear how his mother is doing on the outside.  When word is returned that she is dead, he goes wild, flailing away at the guards who try to restrain him until he is carried out horizontally, bawling like a little boy.

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Earlier, while hiding out from the cops in a drive-in movie theater, Verne, Ma, and Cody share the front seat of their sedan, with Ma in the middle in more ways than one.  The kisses that Cody gives his wife and the ones he gives his mother aren’t all that different. He seems to have more feeling for Ma, and not much heat when it comes to his luscious wife.

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Cody hatches a plan to ‘confess’ to a lesser crime in another state, and do a short stretch in stir to get the heat off him for a massive and bloody heist he has just committed.  This gives Verne some ideas about making the separation permanent.

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As these thoughts move through Verne’s head, the WWII movie reels on, and we get a  prefiguration of Cody’s destiny.  Could that torpedo have other significance as well?

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While Jarrett’s away, Verne and Big Ed get to spend more time together.  Big Ed has a lot of moxie, but his plans to get Cody bumped off in jail don’t pan out.  Instead, Cody breaks out and is headed back to the gang, with some scores to settle.  Verne is all for fleeing, but Big Ed wants to stand and face down Cody.  To keep Verne around, and who wouldn’t want to keep her?, he threatens to tell Cody how his ma died, shot, in the back, by Verne.  Yep, they’ll face Cody together…

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Well, things don’t go so well for Big Ed, and Verne and Cody are back together.  Maybe there is some chemistry between them after all?

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Fallon rigs Cody’s car with a tracking device, a primitive GPS setup, to foil his last heist.  I always enjoy the use of maps in these old movies, shown here as the cops demonstrate their newfangled toys for following Jarrett’s car remotely.

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Fallon is still undercover with the gang, right up to the end when he’s found out after the heist goes bad.  Cody wants to use him as a hostage to get out, but Fallon tells him the obvious, it won’t work.  With the gang armed, dangerous, but surrounded, Verne shows up to try to make a deal with the cops, claiming that she can coax Jarrett to give up.  No deal – her charms fall flat on the copper.

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The last gang member tries to give up, but Cody shoots him down in cold blood.  No deals for anyone!

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Those tanks are ready to blow!

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21 Grams – Darwinian Fable?

October 24, 2012

Click for explanation.

21 Grams (2003), is a tale of the intersection of strangers’ lives, by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  In structure, it is similar to his later film Babel, although in this film, the story does not follow a linear path forward through time.  The actors are great, but I did not find it credible or compelling.

The film left me wondering…is Iñárritu a Darwinian ironist of some sort?  Mr nice-guy architect, married to Naomi Watts, is run over and killed with his two young daughters by del Toro, who is shown above suffering in mental hell for his sins.  Sean Penn, a self-centered jerk,  gets Mr. Nice-guy’s heart as a transplant, and ends up “staying in his house and fucking his wife,” i.e Watts, widow of dead Mr. Nice-guy:  her words.  And in the end, Watts is pregnant again, and Penn’s estranged wife is going to get pregnant by artificial insemination with Penn’s sperm.

So Mr. Nice-guy is dead and gone, along with his biological progeny, while Penn’s character, also dead, lives on in the form of two children to be born with his genetic legacy.

Nice guys do finish last.


Va va va voom!

September 17, 2012

Angel Face must be added to my list of film noirs featuring ladies with black hair, big eyes, who are out of their minds.  Robert Mitchum, cool, but not so smart, and Jean Simmons (she ain’t doin’ Shakespeare here) weirdly magnetic, do a pas de deux that ends up in reverse.  Not a very compelling storyline, but as the critics all say, Otto Preminger does it very well.  You can’t get that final acceleration out of your mind. 

Everything in their relationship is centered around this sports roadster and the throaty roar of its engine:  their meetings; their lovemaking; their future; his past; and the denouement.


Big Eyes, Black Hair, and Out of Her Mind

September 12, 2012

This is a post about one film, Where Danger Lives (1950), and by extension, all those  femme fatale sisters to Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) that prey on weak, flawed, emotionally impotent young men.  Oh, and they’re nuts too.  I am thinking of  Ann Savage in Detour, Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and Ann Byth as Veda, the helium voiced neurotic daughter of Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford).

Where Danger Lives was directed by John Farrow, married to Maureen O’Sullivan, who has a small and awful part in the flick, and father to Mia.  The story seems too slow at times, and it almost veers into comedy on a few bits.  What stays with you is Margo’s character, her looks,  and the fantastic scenes with noirish lighting.

Robert Mitchum is Dr. Jeff Cameron, a fine young man who lives to help his patients.  The film starts with his tender ministering to a girl in an iron lung, and a young boy with a neck brace.  His girlfriend Julie (Sullivan) helps, and looks on approvingly. We hardly see her out of her mask.  A young woman is rushed in, an attempted suicide, and Cameron is put on the case.  The big hunk saves the helpless beauty’s life, but who is the strong one?

As she wakes from her stupor, Margo notices the big handsome guy taking her pulse, and she  instantly takes his, so to speak. Clasping his hand, she whispers sultry nonsense while nurse Julie gives Cameron the eye.  She takes off for home before Doc can look in on her next morning, and sends him a telegram, begging him to visit her:  she owes him an explanation.

That cat on the doorstep will be important later on…and not in a good way.  She looks healthy enough; so much so, Cameron forgets all about Julie.    Still, for the moment, he’s just being the doctor, trying to make sure she doesn’t try to kill herself again.  She’s so weak, needs his protection, his help…

Margo refuses to submit to proper care, so Cameron goes for the phone, and grabs her wrist when she tries to interfere.  You can tell by the look on her face that she’s thrilled to have her arm twisted by him.  “You’re hurting me!”  She says it like an invitation to sex.  The good doctor still has a few wits about him, and he’s thinking, “What’s with this dame?

We learn later that Cameron is not, repeat not a psychiatrist, so how could he tell that Margo is totally crazy?  Perhaps her eyes distracted him?  He’s a man who is easily diverted from the straight and narrow, a classic noir type.

Next thing we know, Cameron is walking through a club in a very long tracking shot filled with extras coming and going.

He sees Margo’s back, waiting for him in a booth.  Lots of shots with windows and mirrors in this one.  He bends over behind her to greet her…

She turns, and begins to slip the mink stole from her shoulders…

This action, as the mink drops away, is as close to stripping as you can get without actually doing it.

We learn that they have been seeing each other for a week.  She says her father insists that she leave that night for the Bahamas:  she must obey, or she’ll be cut from his will and have nothing!  He only wants her, of course.  Oh, it’s not to be. After a last kiss, he gets drunk, and gets an idea.

A totally drunk Cameron takes a cab to the house to retrieve Margo.  Claude Rains has one scene in this film, and he makes the most of it.  He’s Frederick Lannington, father…er…the husband of Margo, and he wants to tell Cameron what a “long road” he’ll be going down, with “no turning back,” if he runs off with her.  He sees right through Cameron, saying “her clinging vine act makes you want to protect her.”  Margo pulls out the stops, pretending that he bloodied her by ripping an earring off her.  Cameron responds on cue.

A fight ensues, and Lannington beats Cameron with a poker before he’s knocked out with a fist.  Cameron goes to get some water to revive him, but he’s suffering from a concussion.  He’ll be in and out of lucidity for the rest of the picture, a damaged, weakened male, in thrall to la belle dame sans merci.  While Cameron’s out of the room, Margo finishes off  hubby with a pillow

Only in his concussed and lust-besotted state would an intelligent doctor with a thing for helpless people listen to Margo’s pleas and decide to flee with her to the Bahamas.  She’s convinced him that he killed Lannington with his punch, accidentally, of course.

Their escape has several vignettes that border on screwball, and includes a lot of sharp characters and ironic misunderstandings. They flee the airport at the sight of some cops looking for Lannington (Cameron poses as him.) but they are only trying to deliver a bon voyage message.  Later, they narrowly avoid a police blockade, supposedly set up to catch them, but it’s just the agriculture department looking for contraband vegetable imports. They end up in a scruffy border town where they are ‘arrested’ by a bunch of cowboy types who inform them that because they are not wearing whiskers, they must make a donation to the local fire department…or get married.  They choose the latter.

Things don’t go well when they share a room.  Margo rips the power cord out of the radio:  she doesn’t want Jeff to hear the news – he’ll learn that she has a long history of hospitalization for mental illness.  She doesn’t like to be pitied!

When they finally make it to a seedy border town, they are tricked into giving up their last valuables to pay to be smuggled across the border.  Jeff begins to have his doubts, about her, and about whether he’ll survive his head injury.

He tries to talk sense to her after she finally admits that she killed Lannington.  He’s too weak to restrain her as she follows her own ideas, and decides to smother him the way she did hubby.

Margo thinks Jeff is dead, and she goes out to cross the border on her own.  She didn’t do the job right, though, and he follows her. She shoots at him, and is shot by the police.  Cameron gazes pitiably at her dying figure while the cops say he’s the accomplice.

Ha!  A final dollop of scorn from the dangerous woman as she informs the police that he could never kill anyone!  Didn’t even have the sense to know that she had done it!  (Ah…Jeff is in the clear now!)  No way he could ever have given her what she wanted, what she needed.  She loathes him. “Nobody pities me!”  She dies…

Steve recovers from his concussion, and in the last scene, Julie returns to him.  Uh…why?  Because somebody said they needed a happy ending.

I never posted about Mildred Pierce, so here are two images of Veda the Destroyer in all her glory.

Click for the action!


Rodriguez, Detroit Sugar Man

September 4, 2012

Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit.  Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there.  The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below.  This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.

Detroit Jazz Festival

The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.

Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s:  he put out two albums, but they were flops.  The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on.  But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular.  He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.

Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide.  Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit.  (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.)  He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour.  He sells out stadiums.

This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead;  the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of  a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself.  This last bit is what fascinated me the most.

Rodriguez is an very unusual man:  that come through clearly.  He is deeply non-materialistic.  When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi.  He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music.  That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music.  He seems like a Buddha-type.  When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker.  (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.

His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements.  Why didn’t he make it?  He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story.  He’s touring now, though.


Once Upon a Time in the West

August 14, 2012

A spaghetti western courtesy of Sergio Leone, made in 1968, after he became known in the USA with his Fistful trilogy and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Wikipedia reports that Fonda was not sure he should take the job, but his friend Eli Wallach urged him to, saying “You’ll have the time of your life!”  It’s not hard to feel that Fonda and Jason Robards are enjoying themselves, maybe enjoying themselves a little bit too much, as if they’re playing!

I liked the film a lot, the rituals of the violence, the politics, the ‘realism’ of the grungy, beaten-up looking people (not common in westerns in 1968!) and the music too.  It’s like a grand epic opera, without the dramatic punch.  Too much fun, too stylized, too obviously an homage to the great westerns of the past.  It’s almost like a meta-western, the western you would make after studying and researching all the westerns ever made in the USA, which is something I believe Leone did.

Fonda is cast against type as Frank, the villain, a real cold sadist, and his blue eyes and clean-shaven face reflect his sociopathic nature instead of down-home folksiness.  This was radical for the time!  And the film takes a ‘revisionist’ view of the West, although I’m not sure if it was ahead of or just behind the scholarly curve on that.  Instead of a West peopled by self-reliant individualists, we have one developed by rapacious and murderous railroad tycoons.  In one scene, Frank, and his boss, Morton, have a chat in Morton’s opulent rail car.  He’s a cripple, slowly dying of tuberculosis of the bone, and his dream is to build his railroad to the Pacific so he can finally see that ocean.  He finds Frank sitting at his desk, and asks him, “How does it feel to be behind that desk, Frank?”  Frank, a rough character, but a quick study in the ways of capitalism, replies, “As good as holding a gun, but more powerful.

Frank is pursued by a man known only as Harmonica (he plays one), and the shot below is typical of those establishing tension in the ritualistic gunfights.

Eventually, “on the point of dying,” we learn the mystery of Harmonica, and what drives him on his revenge quest.

Claudia Cardinale is the beautiful widow who knows that a tub of hot water can wash away just about any bad feeling, not to mention the smell of filthy men she has had to sleep with.  Speaking to her, Cheyenne (Robards), delivers the improbable lines, “You remind me of my mother.  She was the biggest whore in Almeida.  Whoever my father was, for an hour, or a month, he must have been very happy.

Morton, the greedy railroader, had his own ideas of the saving qualities of water, but his dream of the Pacific was ended by his death in a muddy desert puddle after his violent plans to evict the widow from her land went awry.


And unto us a son is born.

July 17, 2012


I was watching The Terminator 2 the other day since I’d never seen the whole thing.  Also, I watched the first of the series a few weeks ago, and that finally made clear to me why Arnold was a villain first, then a good guy, or machine.  As science fiction, it is ordinary, but as an action film, I thought it was terrific.  Of course, anything with a chase in the Los Angeles River gets my attention.

I also thought it was an entertaining re-do of the Nativity story, and I’m always up for that.  Some guy from the future comes back in time and impregnates an unwitting female, about as immaculate as you can get without actually doing it, because, you see, the father isn’t even born yet.  And John, the boy, is born to save man from the machines after Judgment Day falls upon them as a nuclear Apocalypse brought on by their own sinful pride in their technology.  John goes through a period of trials until he realizes his calling, in the desert of course.

So, does this make the Terminator robot a stand-in for John the Baptist?  He too gave his life for standing up to a prophet of evil.


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