Engineer Stars!

March 13, 2012

Engineers grouse a lot about how they “don’t get no respect.”  They aren’t paid as highly as lawyers and doctors, and no one makes them the heroes of TV shows and movies.  T’was not always so!

While studying civil engineering, I did some research on the role of the engineer in American literature, and found that we of this profession were indeed seen as heroic in a bygone day.  At the turn of the century, stories often featured engineers, the effect of nearly a century of ‘heroic’ achievement that markedly improved the quality of life:  I speak of the lengthened life span of inhabitants of great cities due to improved sanitation and water supply.  Thus, I was lured to my present slot in the International Work Machine.  I’m not complaining.

Looking at some web forums that addressed the question, “What TV shows or movies show engineers as heroes?”, probably emanating from some undergraduate technical school, I found that most respondents noted only a smattering of recent sci-fi films.  It seems to me, however, that older films, particularly British ones, have a different history.

The Dam Busters (1955) is an excellent example of the British engineer-as-hero doing his part for the war effort.  Michael Redgrave plays Wallace, a man with a good idea about how to destroy the dams that supply electric power to the Nazi industrial region of the Ruhr Valley.  Breaking the dams would cripple their production effort and sow chaos in the regions – good stuff!  Problem is that the bombs must fall just up against the dam and must burst at the proper depth under water.  They cannot be delivered as air-launched torpedoes because the dams have floating protections against such missiles.

Wallace gets the idea for a bomb that will bounce across the water’s surface (from reading Admiral Nelson’s account of the Battle of the Nile), hit the dam face, sink, and then explode.  It requires a specially engineered bomb carried by a squadron of highly trained airmen who can fly very low over water with great precision.  The animated GIF below shows how the bomb was delivered.

The movie is very good at building suspense and excitement, although the enemy is never seen, and the actual combat sortie happens at the end.  The airmen are coolly professional in the face of  death, but the terrible losses attendant on the effort are not glossed over.  Of course, they all act with that chipper can-do attitude we associate with the Brits and WWII movies, but Wallace expresses regret:  If I’d known it would cost fifty men…

The relationships between the various groups involved are interesting:  the officers and the men: the officer and his dog, the death of which evinces more outward emotion than the inevitable deaths of his comrades; the bureaucrats and the engineer; the officer and the engineer.  Redgrave plays a bit of an odd duck,  the commanding officer comes to deeply respect the man with the idea that is sending him on this dangerous mission.  Even Bomber Harris, who rarely saw a bombing plan he didn’t like, tells Wallace after the successful run, “At first I didn’t believe you, but now you could sell me a pink elephant!”

I love those planes!

Celebrating after a successful prototype test – the aftermath of the real thing.

According to Wikipedia, the operation, known as Operation Clandestine, was not as strategically significant as Wallace had hoped.  The Germans were able to repair the dam and resume power generation quickly because the Brits did not follow up with conventional bombing raids.

In the film, one of the military refers to the “Back Room Boys,” meaning the engineers who come up with new weapons or related technology.  These people are the focus of a fine dark tale I learned of at Film Noir of the Week, The Small Back Room.  It’s about one engineer who comes up with ways to defuse German anti-personnel bombs dropped on the UK.  Here too, the technical guys are the heroes, and they are presented as complex human beings, with the lead being a struggling alcoholic with an artificial foot that humiliates him, and a pretty girlfriend who tries to help him come to terms with his situation.  The suspense generated by his attempts to defuse the German booby-trap bomb is strong, and he is clearly a hero to the uniformed servicemen.

Another Brit movie, this time pre-war, that has an engineer-as-hero is Transatlantic Tunnel, about which I have posted earlier.  This film casts the engineer as a hero in the classic mode.  He is capitalist, technical master, and mover of men’s souls all in one.  Almost Ayn Randian.

No Highway in the Sky  pairs Jimmy Stuart, who flew those bombers in WWII, with Marlene Dietrich as passengers on a plane designed by Stuart.  He’s convinced it’s going to crash because of a design flaw, but he can’t get them to stop the flight.  Marlene takes to him because he’s attractive and has real character, but he’s a tortured hero, beset by doubts.


Gate of Flesh

August 12, 2011

This B-movie from 1964 is discombobulating.  Trashy pulp?  Arty, subverting cinema?  Retrograde trash?  All of them??  Well, it’s in The Criterion Collection, so it must be good, right?

Four prostitutes in post-war Tokyo, a bombed out, rickety metropolis of crowds and slums, set up house together with some strict rules.  One rule is supreme:  no man gets sex for free.  That would undermine their business, and that means their survival in the violent dog-eat-dog world they inhabit.  Into this world falls Shin (Joe Shishido) a macho returned soldier who navigates the criminal underworld.  They give him shelter while he recovers from a wound, and, of course, they all start to fall for him.   Who will break the cardinal rule first, and suffer the consequences?

Family Scene

She broke the rules

Watching the girls administer a whipping to a rule-breaker, Shin only says, “Nice body!”  He has learned a lot in the war:  now he lives for two things – sex and food!

An interesting interview on the DVD concentrates on the director (Seijun Suzuki) and his production designer:  both are serious artists, the designer with a background in theater design.  Refusing the directorial assignment was not an option in the studio system, and, he remarks, it was not his role to comment on the nature of the film.  Two creative guys trying to make something good out of pretty low-class material.  The studio wanted something “erotic,” something similar to “Romano-porn,” and the censors had to be placated.  Studio actresses, except one, would not take the roles because of the story and the nudity.

Nude, but not quite exposed

The colors and sets are weird, sometimes surrealistic.  There is no attempt at ‘realism,’ it’s all very theatrical in appearance.  The decrepit Tokyo was built on a backlot with hijacked plywood and whatever came to hand – verisimilitude would have blown their B-movie budget out of the water!  A couple kisses and rotates in front of the camera; a prostitute seduces a missionary in Gothic churchyard (the designer comments that such a church would have never survived intact in reality); and the girls administer punishment in a half-destroyed warehouse that sets the mode for innumerable cheapo-porno-S&M imitations.  Even the girls’ dresses, each a bright solid color, were selected because anything else was too expensive.  (The director comments wryly that later critics insisted on finding significance in their costume colors.)

Two kissing on a revolving platform

Self-degradation by seducing her former benefactor

Keeping the rules

There are things going on in this film that are hard to process as an American viewer in 2011.  Why does Shishido look like what one critic called, the world’s most badass chipmunk?  Turns out, he had cheek augmentation surgery.  Yes!  Before that, he was a typecast as a standard romantic lead – he looked the part, all slick hair, matinée idol good looks.  And there’s the portrayal of Americans and the use of the American flag – not at all positive.  Why should it be?  The director notes that he served in the army when all he did was flee; Japan was reeling and on the defensive.  In this movie, his “grudge” was apparent he remarks years later.

The film has many split scenes in which the thoughts of one character are present as a fuzzy image over the main scene, as well as a lot of short takes representing the fantasies of the individuals.  In one striking sequence, the girl who seduced the missionary is determined to have Shin.  She follows him and throws herself down, shouting, “Take me!”  Never mind the rules!  He looks at her, and there is a sequence of black and white newsreel images from the war with nothing but an infernal racket and images of tracer bullets flying.  Shin lunges for her.

All the women in the house want Shin, but he tells them they are children, playing at being tough chicks.  Only the one who still maintains elements of Japanese culture is a ‘real woman’ to him.  He respects and longs for that – a counter to the humiliation he feels at being part of a defeated army in a destroyed and occupied land.

He resists her advances

With her, he finds love for a while

Shin’s ‘real woman’ is whipped into a pulp for breaking the rules, and he decides to get away after making a deal.  He’s double-crossed and shot at the bridge in the center of the neighborhood.  The last thing he sees is a mother playing with her baby on the edge of the ruins.  Japan and life itself carrying on, reborn, perhaps?

Last thing he sees

The End


March 16, 2011

I was wondering Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, so I watched the movie finally.  It’s a sick, dark tale of derangement and family dysfunction, with a heavy dollop of really black comedy.  Of course, the real attraction is Bette Davis in a wonderful star turn, with Victor Buono doing a memorable supporting bit.  He manages to convey contempt, pity, amazement, self-disgust, and greed all with a few twitches of the lips and eyebrows.  The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, who made one of my favorite noirs, Kiss Me Deadly. (The two films use the same stretch of beach for their final scene.)   Looking into Aldrich’s career, I found that he also made the 1956 film, “Attack.”

As this interesting review suggests, the quotation marks around the title of  “Attack” are original with Aldrich.  This is no ordinary WWII film, and it was made on a very small budget with no cooperation from the military.  It is based on a play, and it runs like one – the drama is in the characters and their conflicts, so no need for big budget effects.  The themes are cowardice and corruption; not the stuff of your usual GI Joe flick of that era.

Eddie Albert (later of Green Acres fame) plays Cooney, a captain with no guts.  (In reality, Albert was a decorated combat veteran.) Worse, he’s a full-fledged coward.  In civilian life, he’s a businessman with a big-wheel father who tried without success to beat some virility into him.  As a captain, his fear of doing anything, and his need to cover up his failure,  leads to the needless deaths of nearly twenty men under his command.  One of his men decides it’s time to change the chain of command.

Cooney’s commander is Bartlett (Lee Marvin at his slithery, frightening best).  He doesn’t care what Cooney does or how he destroys his men:  he’s more concerned with keeping in good graces with Cooney’s dad back home in the states.  He despises Cooney, but after the war, he’ll get his payoff for getting Cooney through the war, maybe with a medal.

The review linked above mentions the “rampant” phallic imagery in the film -tank guns, big cigars fondled and chomped, rifles…- and remarks that it is typical of the era.  I’m not so sure that this is not over interpretation.  Below, a German tank on the prowl; the view of the German gunner in the tank as it moves in on Costa; Costa tries to blast the tank with his trusty bazooka, but the trigger won’t work!  You connect the dots if you like…

The brutality of the war is conveyed through spare, frightening combat scenes:  the men make a terrifying run under enemy fire over a long open field; a tense confrontation with a German sniper is resolved with some backwoods trickery and good shootin’; Costa (Jack Palance) screams like an animal as his arm is crushed by a tank.  When the bodies of Costa and Cooney are laid side by side, Cooney’s look likes he’s sleeping; Costa’s face is frozen in an anguished scream, his mouth and eyes wide open.  The men are loyal to one another and fixed on their mission, the proverbial GI grunts.  When they are trapped in a basement in a town during house to house fighting, they resolve to carry one of them, Bernstein, out on stretcher since his leg is broken.  He’s a Jew, and the SS in town won’t take him prisoner.  Cooney wants to surrender, so the men shoot him.

The moral corruption of Bartlett is just as brutal as the combat.  He knows what happened, and he couldn’t care less.  As he kicks Cooney’s body he says, “Well, the judge wanted a son, so I guess he had to loose one to get one!”  He’ll write the coward up for a medal and get the next in command, Woodruff (William Smithers) to sign-off on it.  He’s got no choice…or does he?

Cooney collapses in a heap and fondles his sheepskin slippers, wishing he were home safe in bed.

Woodruff approaches the bodies of Cooney and Costa before deciding what he must do.

One more thing about Baby Jane:  when Jane is a young girl in 1917, a vaudeville sensation, Blanche hates her and smolders inwardly over the favoritism shown her spoiled brat sister. In 1935, the tables have turned, and Blanche is a big film star, while Jane, with no acting talent at all, works in a series of junk B-films.  A few clips of these movies are shown in a scene in which some film executives bemoan the fact that they have to humor Blanche by giving Jane work in the studio.  Boy, that young woman in the clips  sure looked like Bette Davis!  Where did they find her?  Turns out it was Davis, and Aldrich dug up clips from some truly awful films that Davis was in at the start of her career.  Did it hurt Bette to see them up there on the screen?  I doubt the sting was too great, given the acclaim she got for her performance.

Tolstoy and the Master Race

December 17, 2010

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.

Some very ugly Americans

November 28, 2010

House of Bamboo (1955) is a technicolor, wide-screen noir gangster film set and filmed on location in Tokyo.  Robert Stack plays a tough-guy Army inspector going undercover with some very slick and vicious gangsters who pull big heists in the city.  The main attractions of the film are the locations, the sociopath character Sandy, played by Ryan, and some very cool Sam Fuller touches.

Baths are a very important part of Japanese culture, and they figure prominently in this movie:  First, as Shirley Yamaguchi, an actress with quite a tangled past, leaves the communal bath in a hurry to escape Spanier, Robert Stack, whom she thinks is a gangster out to kill her, just as he killed her husband.  The entire sequence is a wonder of suspenseful choreography and erotic teasing and she rushes to get dressed and make her getaway.  You can watch the sequence in this rather strange Youtube clip from the film that has Yamaguchi on the soundtrack – not from the movie! – doing one of her pop hits.  I think there are few frames snipped out when Yamaguchi steps out of the tub – her work with the towel is awfully fast!  This film probably had enough issues with the censors without having to deal with excess cross-racial sexual titillation.

[Note:  I spoke to several Chinese friends about Yamaguchi, and they all know of her by her Chinese name.  Her songs are still popular.  The song on the Youtube clip is “When Will You Come Back?” which does, in a way, relate to the action from the film.]


…Also, an Ugly American can get cute as he is introduced to Japanese bathing customs while eating his bacon and eggs;

Baths make for a good mise en scène in this shockingly violent rub-out .

The thugs carry on their work in Japan with seeming impunity – they don’t even bother to learn a word of Japanese.  Their hangout is a former baronial residence in aristocratic Japanese style, and they are always dressed for success.  After Sandy takes a fancy to Spanier – top image – he invites him to join the gang, and hands him a wad of bills:  “Get yourself a nice suit.  Make yourself presentable!”

The culture-clash aspects of the plot are played up by Fuller – Here Spanier, who only speaks in English to the Japanese, tries to question some performers who tell him, “Sayonara means goodbye.

The sexual energy between Yamaguchi and Stack is hardly more than chaste:  their most passionate moment comes at the beginning when he assaults and wrestles her to the ground.  She thinks he’s going to rape or kill her, but he’s only trying to help.  (It’s at the end of the video clip linked above.)  On the other hand, the energy between Sandy and some of his underlings seems charged with homoerotic tension.   It’s very evident in this scene where Sandy chats with his dead former right-hand man whom he killed thinking he had turned informer. “Riff, you aren’t responsible for what you do.  You’re too explosive.  I was right, as always.”  He seems to be addressing a former lover.  Which was more taboo then?  Man on man sex or interracial sex?

I was taken by the staging of the first big heist, especially this scene of the gang racing down an industrial alley with the loot.  Call me crazy, but it brought to mind another image from 1955, New York, New York, by Norman Parkinson.  Oh, what a blast it is to be alive!  But the thugs have a code to which they adhere ruthlessly – anyone who is hit in the action is finished off by the gang so he can’t be taken alive and forced to talk.

Well, love conquers all, and despite the rule on leaving no wounded behind, Sandy spares Spanier only to realize later that he’s a spy.  He tries to frame him so he’ll be killed by the Tokyo police.  (That’s Star Trek’s Bones holding the gun there).  It’s a bit inept, but then as Spanier tells him, “A straightjacket will fit you just right.”  Yes, Sandy is a bit of a delusional megalomaniac, or maybe he’s just rattled by the betrayal handed him by his new love object.

The entire adventure is resolved nicely in a shootout in an amusement park on the top of a high-rise featuring a giant rotating globe.

The whole business got started when the thugs robbed an army supply train and an American soldier was killed.  That got the U.S. Army investigators involved.  Fuller gives us a depressing shot of the dead guard that he no-doubt witnessed many times serving in the Big Red One.

War, Noir, Atheism

October 2, 2010

On the beach

In earlier posts, I have commented on the connection of film noir and the experiences of millions of men during WWII.  I thought of this yet again after reading this human interest story in the NYTimes about two men who both landed at Normandy on D-Day and happened to be next to each other in a hospital ward in NYC awaiting open heart surgery.  Naturally, they formed a bond quickly.

Before the surgery, the doctor told one of them not to be afraid.  The patient, who is 90, scoffed.  He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do that I can’t get through — I’ve been through Normandy.”  There’s a man who has built his life on bedrock.  Later on, he remarked, “After getting out of World War II, I’m not afraid of nothing and I’m not impressed by nothing.

The two men profiled worked in retail and construction.  Another war story I have read comes from Victor Brombert, who taught 19th century French literature at Princeton for many years.  (He is a noted expert on Flaubert and Stendhal).  He came from a family of secular, unreligious,  prosperous, bourgeois, French Jews who had the sense to leave before Hitler could rout them out and gas them.  After attending school in the USA, Brombert enlisted in the army and found himself on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.

The saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.  I’ve never heard much evidence for this – to me it sounds like wishful thinking on the part of advocates of religion.  I have read stories similar to Brombert’s.

He relates that he was scared beyond belief, scared senseless.  He was trying his best to make his body as small as possible, clawing the ground so hard that his fingernails were in agony as he forced sand under them.  He was deafened and stupefied with terror at the sound and concussions of the shellfire around him.  At that moment, he came as close to prayer as he ever came in his life.  He promised himself that if he survived, he would never complain about anything again.

Not exactly a prayer to God, but not a bad way of life, either.

Dahlias Everywhere

September 18, 2010

Millions of young men were demobilized after WWII – the scale of it is hard to imagine in this era of small wars and a volunteer army [a related post].  The Blue Dahlia, picks up where the war left off, with three buddies out of uniform at last, and back home in Los Angeles.  One of them has a large plate in his skull, and suffers from neurological problems, as well as what we would call post traumatic stress disorder.  In those days, it was just shell shock.  My encyclopedia of noir says that the amnesia theme in many of these films is directly related to this.

The film stars Alan Ladd, in the center of the frame below, and Veronica Lake, famous for her peekaboo hair style, which has not been in evidence in the roles of hers I know so far.  Both of them have very low-key acting styles, almost minimalist.  Both of them hit hard times and died as confirmed alcoholics.

The plot hinges on what must be the biggest fear of every enlisted man far from home, apart from being blown to bits, that he will return home to find his wife or lover has cheated on or dumped him.  Johnny’s has.  Then she ends up dead.

The cops are pretty dull in this caper, in fact, they seem to work at it.  But in the end, it turns out that they are pretty sharp after all, unlike some noirs.  They question the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub who was having an affair with the dead woman, an obvious prime suspect.  While leaving, he asks, “I’m not under investigation, am I?”  The captain replies, “Oh, I dunno.  How do you feel about it?

There’s not a terrible amount of suspense, and the plot is pretty creaky, I think, but the coolness of Ladd and Lake is fine.  Lake picks him up when she sees him walking alone in the rain.  He says goodbye and remarks, “Every guy has seen someone like you.  The trick is finding her.”  He finds her in the end, of course.  The only femme fatale around is Johnny’s wife, and she’s killed early on.  Lake plays a different kind of attactor, the blonde goddess.

It’s nice how blue dahlias turn up everywhere.  The club’s name, in the wife’s apartment, as part of the police investigation, but through it all, I hear the rumble of the guns of the war, the ones that Johnny’s buddy hears every time someone insists on playing that big band music – monkey music, he calls it.

At one point, to jog his memory, Johnny and his buddy, whom he led through 124 missions in the war, play a little game with guns, the sort of thing old war pals do.  He holds a match while his friend lights it with a pistol shot from across the room.