“Attack”

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.


Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


The Red Badge of Courage

February 27, 2010

Stephen Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage: only read of them, and conversed with his civil war veteran brother about Chancelorville.  Nevertheless, his depiction of the atmosphere of battle convinced many that he had seen it first hand, and it won high praise from veterans.  He is writer of marvelous descriptions, and uses poetic metaphor with a wonderful economy.  This gives his epic of the Civil War an overarching sense of irony, deflating the romantic pretensions of lawful battlefield slaughter; pretensions which yet lived on, kept alive by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in America, and countless others in Europe.  WWI pretty much finished off that point of view.

The story proceeds on two levels: a realistic tale of a few days in the life of a civil war soldier, filled with telling minor details and marked by a singular absence of glory; and the inner tale of the psychological evolution of Henry Fleming, usually noted simply as “the youth.”  He grapples with the central question that faces him, and all soldiers, and all who contemplate their work:  How the hell do they do it?

A friend told me once that he learned that the most difficult thing to train new soldiers to do is to run the right way.  To run towards danger.  The Red Badge does not deal with the training that Henry got, perfunctory, no doubt, but in a modern army, there is tremendous effort placed on molding the soldiers into a group so that they do not think of their paltry survival as separate from the the unit.  War is not a place for individualistic heroism these days.  That went out with the hoplite revolution of ancient Greece…

After Henry flees the front lines, he engages in a long series of inner divigations to prove to himself that he acted sensibly, if not heroically, and he manages to screw his courage up to rejoin the unit, rather than to desert.  He thinks

…furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of the gods and doomed to greatness?

The pagan theme is sounded frequently, an ironic note of comparison with the myths, legends, and literature of classical antiquity.  When Henry rejoins the battle and falls into a manic frenzy of shooting, continuing alone, long after all others have ceased, unaware that the skirmish is over, Crane says, “He had fought like a pagan defending his religion.” And note the further irony in the quotation above…doomed to greatness! He echoes the common sentiments of new recruits, recounted in a passage I recall from a WWII memoir that went something like this:

At first, everyone believes he is too smart, too good looking, too strong, or too loved by his mother to bit hit.  Then, after a while, that illusion goes, and he realizes he could in fact be killed or wounded.  Finally, everyone realizes that it’s only a matter of time before they leave action, dead or badly hit.

A writer on the Holocaust remarked once that there were no survivors in the death camps, only those who happened to be alive when the war ended.  For the infantry in total war, it is the same.  The casualty rates in WWII were mind boggling for our troops, hastily trained, hastily equipped, not always well led, and facing a hardened fighting machine on the defensive in the Pacific and Europe.  Those who went first, died pretty much.  Some of them had a copy of Crane’s book, no doubt.

Crane did not finish with Henry Fleming in this novel.  A short story, The Veteran, revisits him, now as The Old Man, recounting his experiences to avid listeners.  He does not hide the fact that at first, he ran.  His grandson is very perturbed.  In the climax of the story, the youth is tested yet again, or tests himself.


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