Friday, August 11, 2006

"The John Garfield Story" (2003)

An original production for that cinema trove Turner Classic Movies, The John Garfield Story (2003) is a documentary about the ephemeral but everlasting career of John Garfield (1913-1952) who, in his brief career spanning from 1938-1952, redefined the Hollywood anti-hero in films such as Out of the Fog (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (196) and Force of Evil (1948). His was a wicked charm: more brutal than James Cagney, cagier than Edward G. Robinson, and more handsome than Humphrey Bogart. But his demeanor was more naturalistic than anything in Hollywood at that point; some might say his style was engendered by his lower-class upbringing, or perhaps his experience on the New York stage, but even there his markedly unaffected performances were new. Garfield’s arrival on both stage and screen was a cause célèbre that laid the foundation for such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Even in someone like Michael Imperioli, the remnants of Garfield’s legacy are omnipresent.

The documentary, narrated by Garfield’s daughter Julie, runs a brief one hour but thoroughly covers the actor’s life from his rough beginnings in Manhattan’s Lower East Side through his tenure with the revolutionary Group Theater during the Depression, his quick rise to stardom in Hollywood, and his early death from coronary thrombosis in 1952. Many believe his death, due partly to a weak heart that afflicted the actor for many years, was brought on by the vicious anti-communist crusade that pilfered Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s: the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Garfield was never a member of the party himself—his wife was, his collaborators were (writer/directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky), and association was more than enough to land you a place on the Blacklist. Ironically, Garfield’s own patriotism was used against him: a USO visit to Yugoslavia marked him as a Communist (that the country was not official Communist when he visited, nor that the government sent him there, impacted the accusation).

The film’s strongest points are exploring the political, cultural and artistic context that surrounded Garfield. Director/co-writer David Heeley, along with co-writer Joan Kramer, use choice clips that display not only Garfield’s talent, but are also indicative of Warner’s strangulating type-casting, and Garfield’s struggle to break through. Clips from Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil exhibit the progressive attitude of Garfield’s own production company, Enterprise Productions. Actor Danny Glover, interviewed for the film, discusses the importance of casting Canada Lee as co-star for Body and Soul in a time when no studios would allow a black actor the same opportunities allowed white actors.

While Glover’s commentary is enlightening, many of the interviews featured in The John Garfield Story are merely dead weight. Actors Richard Dreyfuss and Joanne Woodward are so overzealous and melodramatic with their enthusiasm for Garfield that their sincerity is compromised. Excessive gushing is the plight of many documentaries, particularly biographies, where one is apt to overpay ones respect for the subject, and often the opposite is achieved: the interviewees draw too much attention to themselves and offer little insight into the subject. So inarticulate are some of the interviewees that it is as though the mere thought of John Garfield renders them speechless—the act is overwrought and embarrassing, and not a proper act of deference deserved of such a talent as Garfield’s. However, Glover, along with Hume Cronyn (who acted alongside Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice) and film scholar/historian Robert Sklar, illuminate Garfield’s complex history, his intricate acting abilities, and his radiating influence that continues to resound, never diminishing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Crack Up" (1946) Needs Doctoring

Art is no substitute for murder. Crack-Up (1946) tries to be the exception that proves the rule, fails, and only proves to be an exceptionally dull movie.

Pat O’Brien stars as George Steele, an art lecturer at a Manhattan museum who is convinced that he was in a train wreck. The police, however, report that no trains have crashed in months. Undeterred, Steele is convinced that someone has covered up the train wreck in attempt to make him seem crazy. His investigation, aided by Terry Cordell (film noir queen Claire Trevor), uncovers an international art forgery scheme, and it looks to him like his museum is the one behind it. As Steele gets closer to solving the mystery, the police close in on him (convinced that he is crazy), as do the forgers, who will do anything to protect their secret and their secret cache of rare paintings.

The script, written by John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer and based on Fredric Brown’s story “Madman’s Holiday,” is incorrigibly convoluted, poorly plotted, and rife with situations beyond human interest. Compared to other hardboilers from the same time, it lacks the wit of The Big Sleep (1946), the intelligence of Laura (1944), and the intrigue of This Gun For Hire (1942). Other than a plot driven by improbability and coincidence, Crack-Up offers little for us to go on.

Character motivations lack all likelihood. The forgers’ impetus for targeting Steele is that he asked that the museum buy an x-ray machine so that he can see beneath the surface of paintings and uncover previous works that had been painted over. Now, the man behind the forgeries happens to be one of the higher-ups at the museum—one who could easily veto Steele’s request, or fire him for his uncouth, anti-modernist lectures (that are already unpopular with the board of directors). By setting up Steele to make him seem insane, they are only pointing fingers in their own direction.

More importantly, there is nothing compelling about the characters to keep our interest. The villains lack any sinister facets, other than the basest element of committing a crime. Likewise, our hero Steele’s only motivation seems to be proving that he is not insane—even a hackneyed love interest would spruce up this picture. As for Claire Trevor and the rest of the near-anonymous cast, their roles are so vague that they spark only the most peripheral of interest. Likewise, director Irving Reis has only the slightest presence in the movie—the direction is functional, but Reis seems to take little interest in what is happening in front of the camera.

The most interesting moment in the film—a sign of the times, no less—occurs during one of Steele’s lectures. After ostentatiously dismissing modernist art, a German-accented patron with a small, square moustache under his nose—ala Hitler, if wasn’t obvious enough—creates a stir, dismissing Steele as behind the times and old-fashioned, before being carried off by museum security. World War II had been over one year when Crack-Up was made, but anti-German sentiment still resounds quite clearly in this scene. The coupling of Nazism and modern art is fascinating, if slightly disconcerting and off-putting. Considering that the notorious Armory Show in New York occurred in 1913—an exhibition of impressionist and cubist paintings that spurred President Theodore Roosevelt to comment, “That’s not art!”—and that Salvador Dali, the painter obviously referenced by the faux-surrealist painting in the film, was working with Hitchcock in Hollywood on Spellbound in 1945, Crack-Up can only be considered conservative in its views on modern art. Retrogressive and conventional might be more apt—so much so that they perfectly describe Crack-Up as a whole.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924)

Arguably the pinnacle of silent cinema, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann) (1924) is still revelatory eighty-two years later. Director Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund exceeded the gamut of film techniques to render cinematically—without the aid of intertitles (there is only one in the whole movie)—the shame and anxiety felt by an aged hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) when his position and uniform are taken away from him. Demoted to bathroom attendant, Jannings feels to ashamed to return to his lower-class neighborhood without the flashy buttons and dangling tassels that featured so prominently on former uniform. To continue the charade, he steals the uniform from work and dons it every evening on his way home, only to remove it before he arrives at work. However, when a neighbor shows up to bring Jannings soup for lunch, his true position is unmasked.

Jannings is, perhaps, most famous for magnificently playing Professor Rath in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). In The Last Laugh, he similarly plays a tragic character that suffers a loss of face and respectability. Whereas in The Blue Angel it was his lust for Marlene Dietrich’s Lola that brought him down, Jannings is in no such control of his fate in The Last Laugh. The doorman’s fall is inescapable: the body grows weak and weary with age, and less useful in the competitive work world. Jannings, with his full chest and long, elegant moustache that extends from his nose all the way up the side of his face, is the embodiment of dignity and pride. Expertly, he uses his posture and facial expressions to subtly convey his deepest thoughts: it is as though his body were an expression of his soul. So convincing is his performance and appearance that Jannings’ doorman has become one of the lasting images of film history.

Written by Carl Meyer (who also penned the 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the story achieves a rare reticence that eschews convoluted plot for direct simplicity. Were the same story to have been directed by Vittorio De Sica, The Last Laugh could easily have been a Neorealist film along the lines of De Sica’s classic Umberto D (1952), which tells the story of an elderly man who’s pension isn’t enough for him to rent a room but who is too ashamed to beg for money. Both films handle the universal theme of how difficult it is to endure the loss of one’s dignity, and the unjust personal humiliation that follows.

But The Last Laugh was the result of a much different collaboration—Murnau and Freund—and is now considered one of the highpoints of German Expressionist cinema. Expressionism is a style that proliferated in the early 1920s, noted for its creative use of chiaroscuro lighting and fantastic sets that bend and distort reality. One of the goals of Expressionism is to outwardly convey more subjective emotions. The sets, sometimes markedly fake, seem almost theatrical, yet their purpose isn’t to replicate reality but to distance itself from reality. Effects are used to push the film further into nightmare, into subjectivity.

In the case of The Last Laugh, we experience the inner anxieties of Emil Jannings. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Jannings’ hotel seems to fall forward, crushing him as he runs away after having stolen his uniform back. The montage of his neighbors gossiping about his demotion highlights gestures—a mouth moving, a hand behind an ear—like a magnifying glass. But for all its magnifications, there are moments of equal subtlety, such as Jannings flipping up his collar after leaving work for the first time without his uniform. Framed in a long-shot, his body seems tiny against the mammoth building, and his flipped collar even more insignificant. Futility abounds, but as the wind rocks his white hair, the determination of his gesture arouses great sympathy within us.

The film’s epilogue, a twist ending that the sole intertitle describes as “improbable,” is such an ironic dose of poetic justice that it doesn’t spoil the grim poignancy of the story. To see Janning flourish with such excess—mounds of food caught in his moustache’s white tufts—is to realize how impossible the outcome really is. In the final shot, Jannings rides off in his carriage, a beggar cradled at his feet ready to receive Jannings’ generosity. We see Jannings’ hand rise, turn, and wave to the hotel employees behind him—his hand and the receding structure fill the frame. The shot is elegiac, and Jannings’ wave his last gesture, a goodbye to life.