“Say!” The actors say that a lot in Fast and Furious (1939) because it’s a beauty pageant mystery, and clues and bathing beauties keep catching the characters off-guard. It’s funny, though, that they should be caught off-guard, since nothing is so surprising as how predictable everything is. It’s sort of a Gold Diggers Dick Powell movie meet a Murder, My Sweet Dick Powell movie, but without Dick Powell. How director Busby Berekley resisted Kandinsky-esque formations of bathing beauties is beyond me—perhaps it is because the girls hardly figure in the picture at all. Perhaps a conversation between Ann Southern and her detective/husband Franchot Tone says it all about the movie. She: “Don’t reproach yourself for that, darling. It wasn’t your fault.” He: “No, but it’s a rotten feeling anyway.”
As a political thriller, Marco Bellocchio’s latest Good Morning, Night (2003), is apolitical and unthrilling. He botches the real-life abduction and execution of political leader Aldo Moro. The story is so replete with intrigue and conspiracy that the only way Bellocchio could have ruined it (as he has done) would have been for him to ignore it. And that’s exactly what he did. The entire political context is missing, as well as is, most importantly, the police’s half-assed investigation and failure to find Moro before he was executed. The only way to make sense of the story is to have read about it beforehand, either from Leonardo Sciascia’s expert report or another source.
But, even as a thriller, Good Morning, Night fails: there is no strong character, nor a mysterious thread, for us to follow: from the outset, it is clear that Moro will be executed. Surprisingly, there are actually a few scenes that cushioned my disappointment, and they’re really quite good. Chiara, the wife-figure of the abductors (who works by day to support and feed them), has several dreams in which she awakens to find her conspirators asleep, and Moro roaming free in the apartment. The way the lunar light strikes his face, so sculpted by age, is iridescent. It’s hilarious, because Moro doesn’t seem to care about his captivity in these dreams: his ambivalence is charming and unfitting considering the circumstances. But, that’s why they’re dreams: Bellocchio doesn’t have to make them fit with the rest of the story. Like dreams themselves, they are momentary lapses in the narrative—regardless of their brevity, they’re a welcome relief.
The Strip (1951) is one of those anonymous genre pics, one of those last gasping breaths as the studio system began to crumble. This one is a murder mystery—hardly a noir—but unlike many of its brethren, this movie was unable to overcome the conventions and trivialities of its genre.
A flimsy frame begins the narrative: a dead man and a woman on the verge of death are discovered in a woman’s apartment. Stanley (Mickey Rooney), the woman’s (Janie) former lover, and the man’s (Sonny) former employee, is pulled into the police station to confess. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was already done in Murder My Sweet (1944), and probably a dozen other films that same decade.
Stanley takes us back to his first day in California, where Sonny runs him off the road. Sonny, as it turns out, is a high profile mobster who takes a liking to Rooney and hires him to run the rackets. After a year, however, Stanley gets a shot at his dream—playing drums in a jazz band—and signs off. He takes the new job in a Sunset Strip club run by Fluff (a wonderful, piano-playing William Demarest) in order to pursue the love interest of the picture, Janie, a “dancer” in Fluff’s club. (Think a Sunday matinee-friendly Constance Towers from The Naked Kiss .) Janie, however, yearns to be a Hollywood starlet, so Stanley hooks her up with Sonny. Yeah—as expected, Sonny and Janie hit it off and Stanley is jealous.
The real kicker of the picture, however, is what Stanley does. He reveals to Janie that Sonny is a mobster. Christ almighty! What a surprise. Well, to Janie it is. As if the picture hadn’t been falling apart at the threads already, here the dog really runs with the thread. What Sunset Strip “dancer” looking to break into Hollywood wouldn’t be aware of the mob connections? And, secondly, what guy, after running the rackets for a whole year, would be as naïve and idealistic as Stanley? Mickey Rooney hardly looks the role of a gangster. In fact, the whole relationship between him and Janie is more reminiscent of his partnership with Judy Garland than it is the lurid romance of a Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.
As much as nostalgia like Happy Days (1974-1984) and American Graffiti (1973) try to romanticize the naiveté of the 1950s, films like Clash by Night (1952) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), who present characters equally fatalistic as sadistic, will constantly remind viewers that not every story was so innocent. This is one reason by The Strip feels so unnecessarily dated: the bright lights shine brighter than ever, and there is nothing noir to dim them whatsoever. The character relationships are more fitting to a small suburban setting, where Johnnie loves Suzie, who really loves Jamie, who is a small-time hood (whose major vice is a couple beers). In the end, of course, Suzie realizes her mistake and runs back to Johnnie, where the two of them propagate in the safety of their own home. (Such is the ending of The Strip, as well.) It’s disappointing that The Strip never develops the motivations beyond such meager plot points.
The saving graces to the film are the performances of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines: they’re the house band at Fluff’s. The film graciously allows them to step out and play a few tunes with such rare artistry: most house bands in movies are never allowed the space to develop anything beyond background music. Scarring the music, however, is Mickey Rooney, once more. His drumming (whoever dubbed them) is abrasively loud and untasteful: it really kills the vibe.
The story never brings the frame full circle: the film ends with Sonny being murdered in his apartment, whereas the introduction shows him in Janie’s. Really, such a mistake is the final straw in such a barnyard of oversights.
I finally caught The Squid and the Whale (2005) last night, about a month after all the hoopla started, and while it is not the best long-run film in the city (Grizzly Man and Good Night and Good Luck take the top spots) it deserves some of its laurels. There have been, however, many more worthwhile short-run features that I fear might have been overlooked by the rushing crowds (at least here in New York City), mostly the new doc Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinemateque (2005). Langlois often gets lip service as a footnote to Bazin or any of the Cahiers critics, but director Jacques Richard’s film gives Langlois overdue respect as the real father of cinema studies, worldwide.
The Squid and The Whale is the film that we all have stored in us—the unique and universal story of our childhood, our arguing parents, our growing emotions—and writer/director Noah Baumbach certainly fulfilled many peoples’ dreams, I imagine. His film is very empathetic: the acting solid and convincing, and never reaching for the obvious, earnest emotions. Jeff Daniels, especially, as the patriarch Bernard Berkman, is a misogynist contradiction. He is hurt by his wife’s affairs. More hurtful, however, is the fact that she doesn’t live up to the double standard of fidelity: he encourages his sons to sleep around with different women, yet he cannot tolerate “loose” women.
The crux of the story is the divorce of Bernard and his wife Joan, and the joint-custody of their children, the teenage Walt, and the younger Frank. The family cat is also given particular attention: unable to agree on a permanent home, it travels with the children from house to house. The separation increases all the characters’ neuroses. We see the father change from victim to ardent gaslighter, and the children become increasingly unstable emotionally. Walt, especially, picks up his fathers’ habits: he dates a young girl, only to throw her over in hopes of something better coming by.
The last quarter of the film suffers from poor writing, the final scene especially. The conclusion relies on the “squid and the whale” metaphor, which is a reference to a museum exhibit that Walt would visit with his mother when he was still a child. In it, a giant squid is both attacking and being eaten by a whale. As a symbol, it feels very closed: the victim/aggressor metaphor seems too flaccid, and the memory too personal, to strike that “universal” chord that Baumbach had been playing the entire film. The ending, while avoiding facile reconciliation, is facile in its ambiguity.
Baumbach’s directing relies too heavily on the script. As nice as it is to see such solid actors perform on screen (Daniels, and Laura Linney as the mother), I can’t help but imagine The Squid and the Whale as one of those radio productions that were thrown onto the silver screen in the early throws of sound cinema ecstasy. There is no visual storytelling in the film, and in that sense, it’s a very literary movie. (So fitting, seeing how both parents are part of the New York literati, Bernard on his way out, and Joan on her way in.)
Going back to Langlois, for a moment, one can clearly see his influence (in the guise of New Wave filmmakers) on Baumbach. The father has a poster of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973) in his house, and right before medics lift the stretcher into the ambulance, the father brushes his lips with his thumb, mimicking Belmondo at the end of Breathless (1960). A more subtle allusion is to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959): the torment of living with two fighting parents, and the children’s way of coping with them, is akin to both films. Antonie Doniel, however, is more of a hard-ass in the tradition of Cagney, whereas Walt and Frank seem a world away from stolen typewriters and military schools: they are definitely the product of a privileged, middle-class. But, unlike New Wave directors, Baumbach doesn’t quite understand the mythology of cinema. Yes—Baumbach does reference the mannerisms of Belmondo, but by having the character explicitly say what the allusion is, words once more overpower the image, and more than a cinematic reference, it becomes a literary allusion. Words predate every image. The picture fails to have a “look” of its own, and because of that The Squid and the Whale is an underdeveloped film.
Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is as emotional as dried fruit. Supposedly inspired by Sam Fuller (who later made the similar-minded Shock Corridor (1963)), the story is about a reporter who frames himself when the police fail to find a suspect in a murder case. The reporter (Dana Andrews) needs a scoop for his new novel, so he and a journalist (intent on debasing capital punishment) go about leaving clues at the scene of the crime and photographing them in the process: evidence to acquit Andrews at the last moment. Everything goes according to plan, and Andrews is arrested, tried, and found guilty…only on the way to the courthouse with all the photographs, the journalist is killed in a car crash. The evidence, needless to say, burns along with Andrews’ only alibi.
Lang’s condemnation of the judicial process is insightful, if caricatured. The DA is a silver-haired conservative with a nineteenth century moustache. He hams up every speech with such emphasis that only the most gullible jury would fall for it. But, on the other hand, Andrews planted such convincing evidence, ambiguous as well as condemning, that their finding him guilty seems plausible. Lang really takes to task social phobia: one man’s fear of another, as well as the “want” for guilt, the need to find a guilty party.
The final twist to the story should be a revelatory moment—something as shocking as the end of Witness for the Prosecution (1957) where Marlene Dietrich bares the knife—but the drama never develops (a criticism of the entire film, in fact). After finally unearthing evidence and being acquitted, Andrews reunites with his fiancée. He lets slip, however, a fatal clue…Andrews, who claimed never to have known the murder victim, uses her real name instead of the stage name she had been using for years. He, in fact, was the murderer. The look on his and his fiancée’s face is more suited to fixing a furnace.
Such a scene should throw the audience on their ass; only the script mishandled the situation. Nowhere in the film was there mention of Andrews’ relationship with the murdered woman, and no background information about either of them. Our empathy evolves solely on a visual trust: Andrews is a well-dressed, wealthy gentleman, therefore we trust him. The victim is never seen: that she is a cheap burlesque dancer (such a prim euphemism for prostitute) is enough to mark her off any possible relationship with such the princely Andrews. However much Lang reveals about the spectator’s instinctual feelings toward wealth and beauty, it remains facile and impotent.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is the photographic evidence that is destroyed in the car wreck. If the evidence was all fake, then why was it so hard to prove Andrews’ innocence? Something so ephemeral as a photograph really carries a lot of importance. The issue of anonymity and existence is also a key to modern living, and, if he were alive today, Lang would be fascinated by the Internet’s ability to track where we go online, and the Patriot Act’s invasion of private records. Even the Nazi’s (whom Lang fled in the early 1930s) were intent on the systemization of life: the yellow, star patches on jackets; and later, the tattooed numbers. It is not only us that document our lives, but it is a larger, conspiratorial “they” who keep track of us for their own reasons. This, the need to prove one’s own identity, is Lang’s most vehement concern.
Cineholla is branching out. My review of Hong Sang-Soo's "Tale of Cinema" is up at the link above. Being There is a good online magazine, writings about cinema and music ('holla loves the music as well).
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Moving Image Source, Spinetingler, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review.