Monday, January 30, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.12: John Huston's Under the Volcano/Prizzi's Honor/The Dead

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. This week’s entry wraps it all up with a look at Huston’s final three films: Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead.

Under the Volcano Grade: 83 (A-)

After John Huston’s disastrous, bloated adaptation of Annie, the director and actor Albert Finney chose another, more appropriate collaboration: Under the Volcano, an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s semi-autobiographical novel. The film is one of the finest in Huston’s New Hollywood period, one brimming with life and energy. How odd, then, that it is about a man at the end of his life; indeed, it is one of the first Huston films to deal with the director’s impending death.

Geoffrey Firmin (Finney) is a former British consulman, a master speaker, and all-around cut-up. Mostly, though, Firmin is a hopeless drunk in the middle of Mexico. His loving wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) has left and divorced him, and although she still writes him, he has refused to read her letters. Firmin boozes along, gets into spats, and annoys any locals not enamored with him. It’s the Day of the Dead, 1938, and Yvonne has returned with the hopes of bringing him back from rock bottom. But it’s no use. He lives in Hell, and it is Hell he has chosen.

If the plot description makes Under the Volcano seem like an unbearable dirge, fear not: Huston’s trademark wry sense of humor comes in to make the experience more bearable. The film opens with a stirring, off-the-wall mariachi score from Alex North that plays as skeleton puppets wave back and forth. There’s humor to be found in death, Huston says, even if that humor is black as night. The film wouldn’t work without an actor capable of bringing humor with the pathos; fortunately, Finney is more than up to task. His lines range from boisterous bellows to sly smacks at anyone who crosses his path, and when he’s not on the offensive, his drunken stories and ramblings are sadly funny. If we didn’t know what was coming, we might find him a jolly good fellow. As it is, the comedy in his difficulty getting himself together is often too painful to truly laugh at. There’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy; Finney and Huston pretend it doesn’t exist.

What makes Firmin a remarkable protagonist is his ability as a storyteller. The character works as a stand-in for both the author, Lowry (a writer rather than a diplomat), and director Huston, who was no stranger to booze and the seedy side of life himself. His drunken ramblings are almost always delivered as a speech or a story, as if his current predicament is directly connected with a past experience or otherwise being made up by his own accord. He’s slowly losing any remaining control, but he’ll be damned if he can’t tell a story about it. Huston would be dead in three years. His drinking may have slowed down, but he clearly knew his time was limited.

That knowledge of doom carries over to both the time and place and the specific relationship between Firmin and Yvonne. Firmin encounters a German “ally” (it is a year before World War II), and he doesn’t buy the peace between the U.K. and Germany. He’s no longer part of the system (another Huston trope), and he’ll say what he damn well pleases. He claims that “the whole world will learn to laugh at the sight of stinking cadavers” and that there will be “corpses on trains, waiting for transport with first-class ticket holders”. He even claims that the upcoming war will be more or less the same one as the last. When someone claims that this will be over souls rather than territories, he scoffs. He, like many Huston protagonists (and Huston himself), is skeptical of religion, and takes any hint at the supernatural as a hopeless joke. In an earlier scene, he claims that asking the Virgin Mary for his wife’s return is like “asking the Fairy Godmother for three wishes.”

But return she does. Huston’s films often feature doomed relationships; this is no exception. Yvonne is as unsatisfied with her lot in life as her husband, and although she loves him, there’s something within her that knows he won’t change. Her return is a last ditch effort to redeem him, and he’ll try to make it work. But it’s no use: his need for drink is overpowering. He visits a local barmaid, who tells him his wife will return. When he informs her that she’s already back, she ignores him and repeats herself. He’s stuck in an endless cycle, so why shouldn’t everything around him be just as so? As Yvonne finally asks him to leave the country and go somewhere less obsessed with death and drink, he cruelly rebukes her. Huston was married and divorced several times in his life; it’s doubtful he ever found satisfaction or happiness in marriage himself.

Under the Volcano combines several of Huston’s greatest strengths as a technical filmmaker: an economic template, strong sense of location, and strong sense of space of relationships. Like all of Huston’s finest films, there’s not a single scene without purpose or with a wasted moment; it’s looser and more liberated than his pre-New Hollywood films (sometimes a bit too loose), but it combines a shaggy feel within the film with an exact precision in structure. Mexico feels as real and alive as it ever has (Huston knew the area well, having filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre there), and as Finney shambles throughout it’s easy to see both the virtues and vices of the setting.

Finney’s relationship with Bisset, meanwhile, is best defined in two scenes. In the first, Bisset stands at a saloon door, waiting for her drunken, estranged husband to notice her. He doesn’t for the longest time. He looks back, and perhaps notices her, but gives no clear sign. Only after he’s done talking does he say anything. In the second scene, the two walk closely together as they discuss their lives. Finney is smashed, but he tries his hardest to not act drunk. It only makes his drunkenness more obvious.

In the film’s final sequence, Firmin has more or less lost sight at his noble quest for redemption (failed quests are yet another Huston trope). He winds up in a seedy bar and brothel, where he’s hustled by a dwarf. The man offers him women (and boys), but Firmin only wants drink…and his wife’s letters, which he left there the last time he was there. He’s eventually convinced to have a visit with a prostitute. His wife arrives and learns what he’s up to. His redemption is failed. As Firmin drunkenly makes his way out of the bar, he’s robbed and coerced by a group of men. He tries to talk his way out of death, sometimes avoiding the question altogether through attempts at storytelling. It will do him no good. His final words sum it up appropriately: “What a dingy way to die…”

Prizzi's Honor Grade: 84 (A-)
Following the critical triumph of Under the Volcano (capped off by lead actor Albert Finney’s Academy Award nomination), Huston started production on his next film, 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor, despite his failing health (emphysema had hit him pretty hard at this point).  A film about a family in the mafia, it doubled as a family collaboration: Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and her then-boyfriend Jack Nicholson starred. The result was Huston’s biggest critical and commercial hit in years, and at 79, he became the oldest person ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.
Charley Partanna (Nicholson) is a rather dim enforcer for the New York crime family, the Prizzis, run by the nearly skeletal Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey). Charley has sworn an oath of honor “more important than anything else”, though his history with the family is complicated: once engaged to Corrado’s granddaughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston), the two broke it off after an argument, and now Maerose has been shamed out of the family. Charley meets Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) at the wedding of one of Corrado’s granddaughters. The two fall madly in love…only to find out that they’re both hit men (or, in her case, a hit woman), that Walker might have ripped off the Prizzis, and that their lives are about to get complicated.
Prizzi’s Honor is one of the best showcases for Huston’s wry sense of humor; it’s a film that mocks the codes and conventions of mob films that has the audacity to open with a wedding (a la The Godfather) that shows the Sicilian family as a dysfunctional unit rather than a nuclear family. All the major players are introduced: Charley, looking like an ape (Nicholson’s stiff upper lip is a nice detail); Irene, radiant with beauty; Maerose, an outsider in her own family; her father, Dominic (Lee Richardson), calling her a whore for her flashy dress; and Corrado, barely awake during any of the overly solemn, dull ceremony. Right from the beginning, it’s clear who everyone is and what part they’ll play. Huston keeps things moving along briskly while bringing life and sometimes zany humor to every frame. The director gets a lot of mileage out of the ridiculously over-the-top love scenes (Nicholson and Turner roll around in bed like a couple of lunatics), the comical hits (a woman gets shot after getting off on the wrong floor), and precise framing of each characters (in one meeting, Charley’s just on the outside of the frame, away from everyone else).

Prizzi’s Honor comes near the end of Nicholson’s hot streak of great roles from the late-60s to the mid-80s (give or take a flop or two), before he stopped acting and started doing Jack Nicholson impressions (around the time of Witches of Eastwick or Batman). As an actor, Nicholson was always charismatic and shrewd, so it’s hilarious to see him play a numbskull like Charley, who’s pushed around and manipulated often without even knowing it (Huston’s advice before each take: “Remember, he’s stupid”). Turner, for her part, doesn’t have quite as juicy a role, but she’s nevertheless effective as a gorgeous, bright contract killer whose love for Charley doesn’t negate her hunger for a buck. Great character actors like Robert Loggia and John Randolph populate the margins, but Anjelica Huston and William Hickey are the film’s secret weapons. Hickey represents the old guard, one with a sentimental streak (his offering cookies to Huston is never not funny) , but one that only extends so far. Huston, meanwhile, brings her exotic beauty and intelligence to a role that requires her to alternate between pain, lust, cunning, and all-out ruthlessness.
Huston explores the dark side of capitalism, to an extent, with a group of miserly mobsters, but the focus is much more on love unfulfilled. Charley is in love, but he’s too dumb to know what’s going on. Irene is his soul mate (despite their having known each other only a short while), but she’s ripped off the Prizzis, and that can’t go unpunished. It doesn’t help that Maerose wants Charley for herself, and she’ll stoop to anything to get him. When it looks like Charley’s going to be the new boss of Prizzis (because “he’s a thinker”), it’s no surprise that Maerose has been the architect behind everything; in a way, she’s the real boss: she takes what she wants, no matter what it costs, no matter who she hurts (not to mention she’s a lot smarter than Charley). Above all else, Huston points out that not all families are purely functional worlds; they can be downright killer.

Perhaps even more interesting is how Huston handles the subject of death in the margins of the film. The director always had a darkly comic view of the subject (see: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Under the Volcano), and this is no exception. Aside from the unfortunate fate of one of the major characters, there’s the fact that Corrado Prizzi is a practically a walking corpse, a wheezy bag of bones who’s too frail to be of any real harm (except that he’s giving the orders). Huston no doubt saw his death around the corner, and Corrado’s appearance is a nice, black as night joke poking fun at it.
The Dead Grade: 78 (B+)
Huston addressed death once more in his final film, 1987’s The Dead, based on the short story by James Joyce from the collection The Dubliners. At this point, Huston’s emphysema was near crippling. The director had to film The Dead while relying on an oxygen tank to breathe; he died a few months before the film’s release. Yet where most of Huston’s films offer a darkly comic view of death and its absurdity, The Dead is a tender, sweet, highly romantic film that serves as a final sigh of a great artist. It is the portrait of a man who knows what’s around the corner, and who has accepted his fate. It joins Robert Altman’s swan song A Prairie Home Companion as one of the most relaxed looks at the end of life ever made.
Dublin, 1904: Kate and Julia Morkan (Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delany) host a party. They invite Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), their nephew, and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston); Irish nationalist Molly Ivors (Maria McDermottroe); Gabriel’s drunken friend Freddy (Donal Donnelly); their Protestant friend Mr. Browne (Dan O’Herlihy); retired Irish tenor Bartell D’Arcy (Frank Patterson), and other friends. They spend the night dancing, singing, eating, and generally enjoying each others’ company. Some minor conflicts pop up, but that’s life. When D’Arcy is coaxed to sing the song “The Lass of Aughrim”, Gretta is deeply moved. When Gabriel asks why, he finds that it brings memories of a former lover who died young.

Give or take a detail or two, that’s the whole plot. It doesn’t sound like much, and The Dead tellingly runs a slight 83 minutes. But Huston’s primary concern, at least before the climactic revelation, is in creating and exploring a fully developed world. At the end of the day, Huston could be a warm and funny man, and that warmth comes through in light but elegant family scenes and minor quarrels that brim with love. The Dead may be a bit slight to power a feature film, but it’s a triumph nonetheless.
There’s more: Huston was proud of his Irish heritage, and Joyce was the man who made him want to be a writer. Here, Huston took The Dead as a chance to go back to his roots and explore a world he fell in love with. There’s more: while Huston’s death was around the corner, he was also a sickly child who wasn’t given long to live. With The Dead, Huston looks back on what might have been had he not gone on to live, and what impact that might have had. It’s melancholy and bittersweet, but at no point is this note a dirge. It is merely a final reflection on the significance of life and death, and the acknowledgement that one gives meaning to the other. And with that, Huston was done.

And with that, Director's Spotlight on John Huston is finished. I've kicked around a few different filmmakers I've wanted to write about, but in the cold month of February, sometimes all we want is to laugh. And February is the month of love, right? Who better, then, than the writer-director of some of the funniest and most romantic films ever made, and one of my all time favorite filmmakers: Woody Allen. Schedule to follow, but here's the current entry plan:

4.1: What's Up, Tiger Lily?
4.2: Take the Money and Run/Bananas/Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask
4.3: Sleeper/Love and Death
4.4.: Annie Hall
4.5: Interiors
4.6: Manhattan
4.7: Stardust Memories
4.8: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy/Zelig/Broadway Danny Rose
4.9: The Purple Rose of Cairo
4.10: Hannah and Her Sisters
4.11: Radio Days/Another Woman
4.12: Crimes and Misdemeanors
4.13: Alice/Shadows and Fog
4.14: Husbands and Wives
4.15: Manhattan Murder Mystery/Bullets Over Broadway/Mighty Aphrodite
4.16: Celebrity/Sweet and Lowdown
4.17: Match Point/Scoop/Cassandra's Dream
4.18: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
4.19: Whatever Works/You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
4.20: revisiting Midnight in Paris

Other possible entries, if I can get ahold of them: Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Anything Else
Sidetrack: Play It Again, Sam
These aren't available or loved/loathed enough, so I'm just gonna skip 'em: September, Small Time Crooks (I've seen it, it's mediocre), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.11: John Huston's Annie

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1982’s Annie.

Grade: 16 (D)
It’s a bit puzzling, to say the least, what made anyone think John Huston was the right director for a big budget adaptation of the hit Broadway show Annie. Huston wasn’t exactly known for films with happy endings, and his big budget films (Moby Dick, The Bible: In the Beginning) were generally considered his worst, along with being big financial flops. Then there’s the fact that the bid budget musical had mostly gone out of style at the tail end of the 60s: Camelot, Doctor Doolittle, A Little Night Music and Mame were among the musicals of the past decade or and a half that had bombed, big time. Yet someone figured that a big, old-fashioned musical needed to be made, and that Huston was the right guy for it. The results weren’t pretty.

Annie (Aileen Quinn) is an adorable (just go with it for now), red-headed, 10-year-old orphan in Great Depression era New York. Her parents left her with a locket years ago after leaving her on the doorstop of an orphanage run by the boozy Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). When Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney) needs good PR, his secretary picks up Annie from the orphanage. Warbucks is initially unmoved by the charming (just go with it for now) little girl, but she melts his reservations and warms his heart. He plans to adopt her, but she hasn’t given up on her parents yet, and he comes up with a reward for Annie’s parents if they collect her. Enter Hannigan, her crook brother Rooster (Tim Curry), and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Bernadette Peters), who plot to take the money and run, with Annie in tow.
Let’s get the positive out of the way, what little there is: Huston manages to get much of the look of Depression-era New York right, with its dirty streets, poor masses, and glitz just on the outside. It’s admirable that Huston took a slightly darker tone in certain elements of the film, and when Huston tries to communicate his love for Old Hollywood escapism, it’s easy to see how people used the movies to escape everyday woes.
That’s hardly enough to save the film, however, which shares the same bloated qualities of Huston’s big budget films and the gargantuan-sized musicals that tried and failed to recapture the success of West Side Story or The Sound of Music. Like Carol Reed’s overrated adaptation of Oliver!, the film takes a sweet-natured (if often dark), optimistic, enjoyable musical and blows it beyond its modest proportions. While often impressive on a technical standpoint, the dance numbers and set-pieces feel overinflated and empty where they should feel invigorating. Huston doesn’t even manage to cut to the chase: his talents are buried under the bloat, and aside from a few touches, it’s hard to see his stamp on the product.
Casting was usually a strong-suit for Huston, but it mostly fails him here. Bernadette Peters and Tim Curry hit the right notes (although it might have been interesting had Steve Martin taken Curry’s role as originally planned), but Burnett plays to the back rows in a performance that’s several notches too loud and too big. Finney is worse, too big and with an inadequate voice for the numbers. Quinn…well, she’s certainly trying, but it’s an alternatively mugging and overly-precious performance. Nearly everyone in the film is poorly cast.
The songs, so charming and wonderful in the stage version, nearly all fall flat. Huston makes a major mistake of playing the show-stopper “Tomorrow” over the opening credits, deflating its impact in a later scene. Other songs (“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”, “It’s a Hard Knock Life”, “I Don’t Need Anything But You”) feel lifeless, made worse by Huston’s insistence to insert garish dance numbers that call attention to themselves in the worst way possible.  And whoever decided to replace great songs like “NYC”, “Something Was Missing” , and “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” (talk about a missed opportunity to illustrate how dire the times were) with awful new numbers like “We Got Annie”, “Dumb Dog”, and “Let’s Go to the Movies” clearly wasn’t thinking straight.
There’s no nice way to put it: Annie is a botch of a movie, an unfortunate sidetrack for a director who didn’t have long to tell more great stories. If nothing else, the film gave Huston the freedom to do what he wanted for his last three films, and those were the ones that counted.
NOTE: for a more satisfying, if still imperfect, adaptation of Annie, look to the 1999 ABC movie directed by Rob Marshall (who never did better, as far as I’m concerned), starring Alicia Morton as Annie (far superior to Quinn in every way), Victor Garber as Warbucks, Kathy Bates as Hannigan, Alan Cumming as Rooster, and Kristin Chenowith as Lily St. Regis.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.10: John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King/Wise Blood

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next, 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King.

Grade: 92 (A)

The Man Who Would Be King was one of John Huston’s dream projects. Originally conceived in the mid-1950s, it would have starred Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable as a pair of British soldiers (back at a time when this sort of thing was commonplace in Hollywood). When Bogart and Gable died, Huston then focused on Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. In the 70s, Huston’s eye shifted to Paul Newman (a two-time collaborator on the acclaimed The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and the execrable The Mackintosh Man) and Robert Redford. But these were new times, and a new verisimilitude came with New Hollywood. Newman saw this and suggested Huston cast Michael Caine and Sean Connery. The result was two of the actors’ best performances, and one of Huston’s very finest films.

Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Connery) are a pair of ex-British soldiers in late-19th century British India. Carnehan and Dravot have decided that India is far too small for men of their ambition. As told to English reporter and fellow Freemason Kipling (Christopher Plummer), their plans are to travel to the land of Kafiristan (modern day Afghanistan), conquer the land, and become as rich as kings. Kipling thinks the two are mad, but he gives them his Freemason emblem as a sign of good will. Their journey is perilous, but the two come upon their goal, organizing the people into an army against marauders and conquering the land…until everything goes wrong.

Huston always said casting was the greatest element of his directing, and he casts the roles perfectly here. Plummer as Kipling (modeled after Rudyard Kipling, the original author of the short story) takes a minor role and invests it with enough weight that it doesn’t feel superfluous. The character’s greatest purpose is in the film’s ingenuous framing device: Peachy arrives at Kipling’s office, ragged, dirty, and half-crazed. Kipling barely recognizes his old acquaintance, and becomes a confidant to Peachy, who tells the tale of how everything went wrong. A potential sour note, Huston makes it seem essential enough that it ends up being another part of strong storytelling.

Caine and Connery are ideal here: the two have terrific chemistry, and they bring effortless charm and charisma with their personas. In a way, it’s easy to see them as the British Bogart and Gable. Caine, with his sardonic wit and outsider status, seems a good fit for Bogart’s role, while Connery, with his rugged good looks and suave charm, is perfect for Gable’s. It counts that the two bring their likability to the roles, as well: Peachy and Danny aren’t the nicest people. Peachy is shown in an early scene mistreating an Indian, and the two miss no opportunity to rip off superstitious villages. Not to mention that they seek riches and power over a people and bring their British arrogance everywhere they go. Yet we like them all the same, because c’mon, they’re Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

Huston was always a master of bringing the particulars of a location to life on screen, but he’s working on a completely different level here. It seems that David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia inspired Huston to focus on aspects of Indian life and culture the way Lean did with his feature. So often the film takes time to bask in the color and wonder of the culture and the land, leading to an engrossing experience. The film feels closer to reality, however, as Huston seems to have also taken cues from the New Hollywood movement, with meticulous focus on detail and verisimilitude not unlike what Scorsese or Friedkin did in their portraits of New York. Huston also focuses on Indian rituals in a fashion worthy of Coppola’s wedding scenes in The Godfather. The film is so full of life that the interludes of Indian custom are almost more thrilling as the battle sequences and character moments. This is not to say that Huston’s penchant for brisk pacing is gone, however: even at 129 minutes, the director keeps things moving so that the film’s scope never seems bloated. It’s a matter of taking old-school craftsmanship and adding in New Hollywood flavor. Michael Caine perhaps best described Huston’s method when he compared other directors using cameras like machine guns, where Huston used a camera as precisely as a sniper.

The Man Who Would Be King features another of Huston’s classic doomed quests in Peachy and Danny’s quest for glory; in this case, the quest is hardly noble. The two want riches, fame, and power, and they don’t care how they get it. They bring their British arrogance wherever they go, disrespecting the locals and often sneering at customs they find barbaric. They’ve come to conquer, never mind the warning that the land is impossible to hold (I recall Russia having some trouble in the 80s, America in the 2000s) and has only been conquered once, by Alexander the Great (more on that later). They’re British men, damn it, and they feel no need to respect or fully understand the law of the land, and when they do, they do so only to gain a leg up. It’s a stunning portrait of imperialism and its dangers (the two don’t do so well in the end) hidden in a rousing swashbuckling story. That’s part of Huston’s genius: he takes a story from pro-imperialist Rudyard Kipling and completely subverts it, all while crafting a satisfying adventure.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: Luck plays a good deal in Peachy and Danny’s fortunes, and here’s where Huston’s wry sense of humor comes in. When the two travel the snowy mountains, all seems lost as they come upon a gorge. They build a campfire and sing classic British military songs around it, only to cause an avalanche that fills the gorge. Later, when an arrow strikes Danny and is stopped by a bandolier under his clothing, the Indians interpret it as a sign that he is a god. When a high priest doubts it and moves to kill him, he finds the Freemason emblem given to Danny by Kipling. This emblem was used by Alexander the Great, and the priest takes it as a sign that Danny is the long promised son of the god Sikhander (or “Alexander”). Danny is made king, and Huston gets a lot of mileage out of framing Connery above the rest of the world. All good things come to an end though: Danny abuses his power, and his luck turns against him and Peachy. When he takes a human wife against the will of the priests (it is not proper for a god to marry a human), she draws blood from him out of fear, proving he is not a god. From there, it’s all downhill.

With The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston proved himself a still vital director in a world full of young upstarts conquering Hollywood. It was his last true adventure film, a fitting end to the films that made his name. The director’s next film, Wise Blood, would feature another quest of sorts, but a far less literal one. Adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Huston’s adaptation does away with the source’s Southern Gothic trappings in favor of a direct, modern day story of a man on a doomed mission.

Grade: 80 (B+)

Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) has had a difficult life. His grandfather, a preacher, used Motes as a prop for his sermon. He has just returned from war (WWII in the novel, likely Vietnam in the film). Motes tosses his service uniform in favor of a preacher’s suit; but Motes is quick to point out that he’s no preacher. In fact, he doesn’t believe in anything, and he’s leaving for the city to “do some things he’s never done before”. After a run-in with blind preacher Asa (Harry Dean Stanton) and his crazy daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), Motes comes up with an idea: a new movement, a “Church without Christ”, to do away with all the trappings of religion and false prophets.

Wise Blood follows Huston’s typically economical template. Informed by its Southern location, the film is in no hurry, but there’s no mistaking its deliberate pace for dead air. The story zips along at a spry 108 minutes even as Huston allows the characters to take their time to act. Huston’s strong sense of place is also in effect:  Motes returns from the war to find the ruins of his hometown. The small town South has been left behind in the tumultuous decades, its dilapidated homes the skeleton of a world that refused to move on from old traditions. The city of Taulkinham isn’t much better. From the beginning, we know where we are and what the dynamics of the town are. Add in Huston’s mastery of feeling the space of relationships for an even stronger brew: Dourif’s reedy protagonist overpowers and enchants listeners, but there’s a limit to his power. Something as simple as a more confident man on a higher plane can overshadow him. All of the sudden, Motes’ journey to liberate the town from old habits, even one as central as religion, seems outright noble.

Is Motes’ journey noble? It’s important to consider the perspectives of both writer and director. O’Connor was a Catholic in the Protestant South, and her stories contain religious fanatics and hypocrites (many eccentric Southern religious types in art are influenced by O’Connor’s writings). As director, Huston’s agnostic viewpoint wins out: Motes isn’t fighting merely against fanaticism, but against faith in the unproven in general, and his doubts and struggles with his faith are mostly thrown aside. The result is an even less hopeful ending; Motes’ journey ends not with the possibility of redemption, but with outright failure.

And how could it not? Huston’s films often see religion as a fantasy to be overcome, with real love and real values as a focus. Wise Blood is no different, but O’Connor’s Southern grotesques remain. Shortly before blind preacher Asa and his daughter Sabbath Lily arrive, Motes finds a con man selling a novelty product on the street. It’s an apt comparison: Asa isn’t really blind, but a con man appealing to Southern faith and gullibility. Lily’s lust for Motes in an earlier scene starts to make more sense when it turns out she’s no preacher’s daughter.

There’s an even bigger swindler in Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty, a false preacher and crass businessman for the second time after Network). Shoats interrupts Motes’ anti-sermon with an antireligious stance of his own. He doesn’t believe in a thing he’s saying, but he’s got experience in fooling people, and he knows a good thing when he sees one. Soon enough he’s the one everyone’s listening to. It doesn’t help that Motes is wild-eyed and easily flustered (Dourif is perfectly cast here), or that his most devoted disciple, Enoch (Dan Shor), is a dim man-child obsessed with “clean, wise blood” who takes Motes’ call to replace Jesus as a literal search for a new idol.

Here’s where Huston’s wry sense of humor comes in; Wise Blood could be a shrill satire of modern religion, but instead it’s a dryly funny drama that never overplays the carnival sideshow element of Southern preachers. From the beginning, Brad Dourif’s conversations with the local yokels gives a clear sense of the dynamic between the crazed but purposeful Motes and the everyday people. A typical exchange: “I don’t believe in anything.” “Well that’s the problem with you preachers, you’ve all gotten too damn good to believe in anything.”

Huston falters a bit when he brings broad comedy in a strange subplot involving Enoch’s interest in a traveling ape. When it turns out that the ape is a man in a suit (another sideshow), Enoch kills the man and takes his suit to greet an elderly couple. What was no doubt unsettling in the novel is played too broad and too goofy here; it’s one of the film’s handful of bizarre shifts in tone. Alex North’s rustic score also gives way to a distracting oddball gleefulness.

These are small complaints, however, to an otherwise strong showing. Huston’s film deals with an important topic: religious nuts and those who swindle him. It was 1979, and the decade of televangelism was upon America, not to mention the rise of new religions (see: Scientology). Huston’s films often had a strong sense of prescience, and Wise Blood is no exception. It’s a typical Huston tale: a man struggles to do right in the world, only to find that he didn’t know all of the angles.

Director's Spotlight #3.9: John Huston's The Mackintosh Man

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1973’s The Mackintosh Man.

Grade: 20 (D+)
After The Misfits, John Huston hovered back and forth between projects he cared about (The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye) and studio films he agreed to make(The Bible: In the Beginning, The Kremlin Letter). Too often Huston went from project to project, clearly uninterested in the script, needing to find an excuse to work. As the New Hollywood movement hit in the early 70s, the revitalized director combined his trademark style and wit with the freedom of modern filmmaking, resulting in offbeat favorites such as Fat City and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Unfortunately, sometimes a director has to return to impersonal projects to finance the ones he cares about. Such is the case of The Mackintosh Man, a lifeless spy thriller which reunited the director with Roy Bean star Paul Newman.
Joseph Rearden (Newman) is an American working for British Intelligence in London. His boss is Mackintosh (Harry Andrews), who, along with his daughter (Dominique Sanda) sends Rearden on missions of espionage (supposedly). When the two send Rearden to steal some diamonds, their man is caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison. While in prison he tracks Slade (Ian Bannen), a former British spy and exposed KGB agent. Meanwhile, Mackintosh learns that Slade may be working for Sir George Wheeler (James Mason), a British politician who is secretly a communist.
If the plot description seems thin, it’s because The Mackintosh Man is frustratingly hard to follow and rarely clear about anything that’s going on, why it’s happening, or what the consequences are. The script was written by Walter Hill, a great writer-director behind genre fare such as The Driver, The Warriors, and The Long Riders. Known for cutting films to the bare essentials (and likely influenced by Huston), his script is bizarrely constructed to the point where it’s difficult to know when the film is being deliberately confusing or when it’s confusing because of how poorly thought out the story is. Rearden goes to jail, although it isn’t clear who fingered him, and claims to have orders to follow Slade…or doesn’t…and the men who help bust him and Slade out of prison work for…Wheeler, apparently. It’s difficult to put together, and worse, it’s impossible to care.
Newman was one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but for some reason he’s an American working for Britain pretending to be an Australian. If his fake Australian accent was supposed to be unconvincing, mission accomplished. No one in the film buys that he’s an Australian criminal, and it’s easy to see why (although that’s likely not the film’s intention). Worse, he isn’t given a real character to play, but rather a complete blank in the midst of a poorly put together spy thriller. The other actors don’t fare much better: it’s difficult to grab on to a character when it isn’t clear why anyone’s doing anything, other than a simple “Britain vs. Russia” motivation.
A lame plot could be overcome by good directing, but Huston is barely engaged here. Late in the director’s career, it’s clear which projects he cared about and which he didn’t. The Mackintosh Man falls strictly into paycheck mode: the director’s craftsmanship is clear, and he keeps things moving best as he can. But the script is lousy, and Huston knows it, so each scene feels like it’s signed with “Eh, good enough”. The framing of the characters is strong, but it’s just not clear who anyone is or why they’re doing what they’re doing. The film has no passion, and any potential to visit classic Huston themes (doomed alliances, outsiders) are glanced over. Huston was asked on the set by one of the actors which of his films he felt was his worst. His answer: “I believe we’re in the middle of that right now”.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Overlooked Gems #20: Warrior

Grade: 73 (B+)

Warrior certainly seems like the kind of film that would be at least a sizable hit. Inexplicably, it was not. It’s hard to see what went wrong: it’s a sports movie (mixed martial arts). Its plot involves two brothers with a difficult relationship and an unreliable parent trying to make right (not too far off from 2010’s bona-fide hit and Oscar-winner The Fighter). It was directed by Gavin O’Connor, who helmed the mostly solid hockey film/Kurt Russell vehicle Miracle in 2004. It stars up-and-comers Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) and Tom Hardy (Bronson, Inception), not to mention the reliably great character actor Nick Nolte. But Warrior came about $2 million short of recouping its $25 million budget. It’s a shame, and hopefully the film will find an audience on DVD. Sometimes an Overlooked Gem is not a work of great ambition by a major filmmaker, but an example of a formula done exceptionally well.
Paddy Conlon (Nolte) is a former Marine and recovering alcoholic in Philadelphia. He has two estranged sons: Brendan (Edgerton), a high school physics teacher and former UFC fighter struggling to pay the bills for his family’s house, and Tommy (Hardy), another former Marine addicted to painkillers and trying to support the family of a fallen comrade. Both sons hate their father for the way he treated them: Brendan has forbidden Paddy from seeing his grandchildren, while Tommy still blames both his father and his brother for leaving him with his mother as she died of cancer; he goes so far to use his mother’s maiden name, Riordan, rather than be identified with his family. When Tommy knocks out a top MMA contender at a local gym, he turns to his father to train him for an upcoming tournament for the toughest men in the world. Brendan, meanwhile, turns to an old friend/trainer (Frank Grillo) to train him, as his house faces foreclosure.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two will end up in the final match, facing each other, settling all disputes in a brawl. But it’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters. Warrior doesn’t go to very many unexpected places, but the fight scenes are genuinely exciting (and often brutal), the sport itself isn’t glorified, and the relationships are believable (although the references to Moby Dick and Greek classics are a bit shaky). It’s impossible to argue that the film isn’t manipulative, but the emotional moments are refreshingly low-key and non-melodramatic (with one notable exception). Edgerton’s character’s wife is thrown in entirely to doubt whether or not he should be doing this, but their arguments never devolve into screaming matches; it’s genuine concern that powers their quarrels. Edgerton and Hardy have only one scene together before their climactic fight, and while it’s a conventional “you should have been there for me” scene, it’s handled exceptionally well. Like Moneyball, it’s another immensely satisfying piece of work, possibly more so.
The three central performances are the real reason to see the film (although many side characters, particularly Grillo’s trainer, are also good). Edgerton’s brings a likable and intelligent presence to his character; it’s easy to believe that this macho-guy could also be a physics teacher. Hardy, one of the finest British actors working today (along with Michael Fassbender and Christian Bale), is even better as Tommy, a man whose posture and face expresses what he’s gone through more than his words (he has fewer lines than the other leads for a reason).
 Best of all is Nolte, a surprise Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor this week, and the man who should win. Paddy’s status as an ex-marine and alcoholic is wholly believable with Nolte in his shoes: a former leading man (and People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” of 1992…yes, really), the actor has gone through a decade of personal disaster (his infamous DUI mugshot) and a series of lousy films (the direct-to-video Neverwas, the sad self-parody of Off the Black). Nolte knows what it’s like to make big mistakes and go through hell because of it. He knows the nature of addiction, how it numbs pain. That knowledge shines through in Paddy, a man who wants to make things right with his sons. He put his family through hell, and his sons have a reason to resent him for it. But he’s a sympathetic character nonetheless, a man who sees his son’s problems and wants to reach out to him. Nolte gets a Big Oscar Moment, but it’s not the most impressive scene in the film. Far better is when his sons rebuke him, and the pain shows through on his face in subtle but heartbreaking ways. It’s a great performance by a great actor, and one that deserves an audience.

Director's Spotlight #3.8: John Huston's The Misfits

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1961’s The Misfits.

Grade: 92 (A)
By the early 60s, several of the great early Method Actors weren’t doing too well. Marlon Brando had torpedoed his career with his notoriously difficult behavior. James Dean had died in a car crash, cutting his promising career short. Montgomery Clift’s own accident left him clearly disfigured and in chronic pain, which he self-medicated with alcohol and pills. Marilyn Monroe spent her career dealing with physical and mental illness, depression, addiction, dissatisfaction with her marriages, and a feeling that not enough people took her seriously as an actress. Her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote a story about a divorced woman and aging cowboys in Reno, Nevada, and felt that she might play the lead role. John Huston, who had given Monroe her break in The Asphalt Jungle, was one of the few major directors who still took Monroe seriously, and their resulting collaboration became more famous for its troubled production and tragic aftermath than anything else. What a pity: The Misfits is one of Huston’s finest films, a mournful last hurrah for the Old Hollywood crowd.
Roslyn Tabor (Monroe) is a recently divorced woman in Reno. She and her elderly friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) meet a pair of auto-mechanics: Guido (Eli Wallach) a middle-aged man whose wife died in childbirth, and Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging ex-cowboy and womanizer with a distant relationship with his children. Both men take a liking to Roslyn, but she falls for the more glamorous and charming Langland. Roslyn also meets the men’s friend Perce Howlan (Clift), a drifter rodeo rider with a history of emotional trauma. The three men compete for Roslyn’s affections as they go on a trip together to capture and sell a group of wild, misfit mustangs, but it isn’t long before Roslyn sees the ugliest sides of each of them.
Huston’s mastery of location is in full effect here: Reno’s seediness is felt in its bars, restaurants, and social gatherings. It is a place for abandoned men and women who drink away their pain, a background for failed relationships and dying dreams. Drinking and gambling can lead to a good time, but they can also be used to fill a void (Huston knew this all too well). Miller’s script is more character-driven than Huston’s usual plot-driven films (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but the director keeps things moving briskly anyway. Every conversation reveals something heartbreaking and essential to a character’s being, and it’s damn near impossible to imagine any scene being cut (that Huston is working with one of the greatest of all American playwrights doesn’t hurt). It’s a noir by the way of American realism, underlined by a terrific Alex North score that’s spiked with loss.
The director frames each shot precisely to highlight the relationships between each character from scene to scene: Roslyn dances with Guido (who knew Eli Wallach had such moves) without ever getting too close to him; her focus is on Gay. When she meets and grows close to Perce after a night of heavy drinking, it’s telling that a passed out Gay is in the back, Roslyn is in the middle with a passed out Perce resting on her, and the lovestruck Guido is driving. The space tells the whole story without ever being heavy-handed.
The most prominent of Huston’s pet themes in the film is that of the doomed lovers in a rather frank look at divorce and adultery for the time. Gay and Roslyn fall for each other, but he’s old enough to be her father (Gable was 59, Monroe 34). He’s a womanizer, she’s lusted after by every man in town. He sees through her beauty and sees someone who’s profoundly sad, she sees through his bravado to find a man without any real love in his life (he sees his kids “from time to time”). She also sees how he uses a drunken, messy Perce to win money in a rodeo, and his treatment of animals leaves something to be desired. Guido, meanwhile, yearns for Roslyn, claiming he never knew a woman (not even his wife) that made him feel quite the same way; it’s no use, he’s too plain. Even Isabelle, the sweet, funny old woman, has her own sad story: she has a sweet spot for Guido, who’s too busy focusing on Roslyn. Worse, when she runs into her ex-husband and his current wife, she’s overjoyed to spend time with them. Her bubbly personality hides some serious pain.
While Huston’s literal “quest” films were largely finished with Moby Dick, The Misfits features a failed quest of its own, aside from relationships doomed to fail. In the film’s final act, as Roslyn, Guido, Gay, and Perce go mustang hunting, Roslyn learns the purpose of the hunt: the misfit mustangs are to be made into dog food. Suddenly the mistreatment of animals in the rodeo and Gay’s attempt to kill a rabbit in his garden seem like frightening precursors to Roslyn, an animal lover. Huston himself was an animal enthusiast, and this marks the director’s willingness to engage subjects others were uninterested in or unwilling to address. It’s a case where the doomed quest isn’t even a noble one. Miller’s script uses these last remaining wild horses as a clear symbol for the major characters, lovers cut down for ugly purposes, tied down against their will. The symbol could have been an overwrought ending to a great film, but Huston handles everything with such a light touch that it becomes a rather beautiful image of compassion.
One of Huston’s greatest strengths was his ability to perfectly cast his roles; he succeeds on all counts here, with Ritter as a perfect mother figure for Monroe and Wallach, one of the all-time great character actors, as a regular guy filled with genuine pain and ugly secrets. It is with Clift, Gable, and Monroe, however, that Huston makes the greatest impression, in no small part due to how the actors’ roles mirror their real lives.
Clift was suffering from illness and struggling with addiction. Once considered one of the finest actors of his generation, the actor was now in shambles, and he would only finish three more films before his death in 1966 (including another outing with Huston, 1962’s Freud: The Secret Passion). Perce is a young man whose past is filled with hurt and frayed relationships. His mother gave his stepfather the estate Perce’s father had promised him, and he feels he has no one to depend on. He now wanders the world, taking cheap rodeo jobs that have left him permanently scarred (which mirrors Clift’s own disfigurement from the car accident). In Perce, Roslyn sees a kindred spirit, another young person kicked around by the world (Monroe described Clift as “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am”). In Roslyn, Perce sees one of the few people who truly understand him, not to mention one of the few who are kind to him. His act of goodness towards Roslyn near the end of the film is then a rather moving gesture, both as an act between the characters and as a symbolic act of kindness between the actors.
Clift, Monroe, and Wallach were the first Method actors Huston worked with. Gable, on the other hand, was as old fashioned an actor as they came, a movie star with unlimited charm but limited range. Gable was intimidated by Clift and company’s Method talents, and that intimidation shows through in his performance as a man fading away. He’s alone, without love in his life (Gable was never quite the same after his wife, Carole Lombard, passed away), and the person whose presence has given his life new meaning finds him sad. When Roslyn’s attention shifts towards Perce, Gay begins to drink heavily. This brings out the worst in Gay as he meets his children by chance in a bar; before he can bring Roslyn back to meet them, they’ve already left. Gay is distraught, a blubbering, screaming, drunken mess. It’s the rawest, most vulnerable piece of acting Gable ever put on film, and the actor felt it was the best performance he ever gave. Ten days after the film wrapped up, he was dead of a heart attack.
Finally, there’s Monroe, a gifted actress put into a ditzy-blonde box, idolized by millions but understood by few. Huston was one of the few directors who took her seriously anymore, and he took a gamble casting Monroe, given her frequent illnesses, depressive bouts, and tendency to show up late. Huston recognized that Monroe was “on her way out”, her marriage to Miller failing, her career waning, her health deteriorating. That pain and suffering shines through in one of her finest performances. Roslyn’s latest marriage ended badly, men desire her without understanding her, her new lover kills innocent animals and has a poor relationship with his children, and everything is going to hell. Men treat her as an object: one notable scene features a bet that she can’t hit the ball on a paddle-ball ten times in a row; as she tries, she dances around with glee. Men focus on her body, and one man spanks her. She’s been sexualized her whole life, and she hardly feels whole anymore. The film’s optimistic ending after such a rough going could seem like a cop out.  I’d like to think of it more as wish fulfillment: none of these people found happiness in real life. Giving them the opportunity to make right, to “raise a child as a full human being”, is Miller and Huston’s hope that after everything goes wrong, it will all turn out alright.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.7: John Huston's Moby Dick

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next, 1956’s Moby Dick.
Grade: 48 (C)
The moral of today’s story, folks, is that when you have a director who excels with small stories that move at break-neck pace, you don’t ask him to adapt a 900-page behemoth. John Huston spent the first decade of his career making one great movie after another, almost always with the benefit of a tight, controlled production and a great location to work with. His longest movies tended to run at around two hours, and never more than needed. He was not, then, the ideal choice to take on a big-budget adaptation of Herman Melville’s seminal classic Moby Dick, a novel known for its size and scope as much as for its “bunch of guys hunting a whale” plotline.
Ishmael (Richard Baseheart) is a wandering sailor in Massachusetts. He and his new friend, the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), sign aboard the Pequod, a whaling vessel, despite the warnings from a mysterious man named Elijah (Royal Dano), who warns that the ship’s captain is dangerous.  Ishmael soon learns that Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) is a tyrannical man obsessed with hunting Moby Dick, a white whale that took his leg and scarred him. Ahab’s obsession overtakes any other concerns the men may have, and soon it will lead to their doom.
It sounds like a potentially rousing adventure story, helped by being yet another chance for Huston to explore his pet themes: doomed alliances, failed quests, looks at man’s doomed battle against nature, the dark side of capitalism, and man’s struggles with and battles against faith. The problem is that Melville’s novel features numerous passages involving the particulars of whaling, and other stuff that’s inherently unadaptable for a film. The solution, as most filmmakers see it, is to strip those passages, but they have far greater importance to the story than just as side passages. They help create a complete world and add the novel’s great ambition. Take them away, and it’s a much thinner story.
This wouldn’t necessarily be terrible, had the right filmmaker and cast been given the material. Huston, however, is all wrong. The director famously said to his co-writer Ray Bradbury that he had “never managed to finish the damn thing”; a director admitting he had never finished the source material is not a good sign. Furthermore, Huston and Bradbury chose to preserve much of the novel’s original prose. This isn’t always terrible (some of the character interactions are interesting), but Ishmael’s narration, while no doubt essential to the novel, feels over-expository and flat in the film. Even more telling, Huston included a scene involving the whaling community’s parish for Orson Welles to deliver a sermon as Father Mapple; no doubt a striking scene that added to the novel’s ambition, it makes for weak drama and it stops an already slow film in its tracks. It’s clear that Huston and Bradbury didn’t know what to cut.
The film plays against Huston’s strengths, taking a still-complicated story that’s almost inevitably slow-moving (not Huston’s forte) and dealing with expensive sets and props that never manage to quite work. Some of the set-pieces are thrilling, but everything in between feels too talky and lacking Huston’s usual momentum. His wry sense of humor is also gone, buried beneath the gargantuan budget and the difficulty of the novel. The result is one of Huston’s few truly dull films, a slow moving film full of wasted moments and purpose. The project wouldn’t be the only big-budget film Huston took on, but it certainly set the tone for further monstrosities as 1966’s elephantine The Bible: In the Beginning, a project that saw Huston taking on a similarly unfilmable work (at least as a whole).
Huston’s usual strength in casting fails him as well: some of the supporting actors thrive (Leo Genn as Starbuck), but an ineffectual Baseheart as Ishmael gives the film a weak center. Worse, Gregory Peck is comically miscast as Captain Ahab, the megalomaniacal, obsessed whaler. Peck was a great actor, but he’s almost eternally noble (see: To Kill a Mockingbird), and casting him as a man raging against God and nature is doomed to failure. Huston reportedly took interest in the film as a way to feature his father, Walter Huston, as Ahab, but the actor died before filming began. The studio needed a big star in the role, and they pushed Peck, despite the director’s misgivings (not to mention Peck’s, as he believed Huston should play the part himself). Both the actor and the director give it their all, but they can’t save a project so damnably ill-suited to their talents. It’s an unfilmable project, the director’s own white whale on a quest doomed to fail.

Director's Spotlight #3.6: John Huston's Beat the Devil

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1953’s Beat the Devil.

Grade: 67 (B)
From 1941 to 1953, John Huston directed Humphrey Bogart a grand total of six times, and rarely did either of the two find a collaborator more suited to his talents. Huston’s wry sense of humor and healthy dash of cynicism matched that of Bogart’s, and Bogart’s simple, direct, gruff presence perfectly complimented the direct nature of Huston’s films. Their final collaboration together, 1953’s Beat the Devil, is generally regarded as a footnote compared to the great triumphs of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen, but it’s a pleasant lark of a film all the same, and it’s refreshing to see the two send-up the noir/caper movies they helped create.
Billy Danreuther (Bogart) and his wife, Maria (Gina Lollabrigida), are part of a group of criminals stranded in Italy, also including blustery leader Peterson (Robert Morley), his effeminate sidekick O’Hara (Peter Lorre), and his unhinged henchman, Maj. Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard). Their plans, if their cruise ship starts up and its captain sobers up, are as follows: to take advantage of Kenyan land, buy up uranium, and sell it. They don’t know much about uranium, but how hard could it be to handle? Their plans grow complicated as they run into British couple Gwendolen and Harry Chelm (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown), who believes the British may have some stake in the uranium himself.
If the plot seems like it doesn’t make any sense…well, that’s the point. Huston and co-writer Truman Capote (yes, that Truman Capote) looked at the often convoluted plots in noirs and decided to take those conventions to absurd lengths. The heavily improvised film is, as a result, one of Huston’s loosest films, a shaggy little gem that’s not particularly concerned with something as dull as a plot. The drawback is that with little concern for what’s at the heart of the story, the film doesn’t actually go much of anywhere. But with a cast and crew like this, going nowhere can be a lot of fun.
The plot’s macguffin isn’t too far off from a Maltese Falcon (although infinitely more ridiculous), and Huston borrows liberally from his previous film: Bogart’s another cynical outsider, Lorre’s another effeminate sidekick, Morley’s a big blustery leader (in a role initially written for Sydney Greenstreet), and there’s another loose cannon henchman, this one a dagger-wielding lunatic with an obsessive respect for fascist leaders. There’s even a seemingly prim “femme fatale” in Jones, although the character’s lies are described as a part of her “active imagination”, and she’s not nearly as dangerous. They’re characters from the previous film, the only difference being that they’re all idiots (Bogart excepted, of course). Added in the mix are the exotic Lollabrigida and the constantly exasperated Underdown, a man with a permanent stiff-upper-lip and stick up his ass. All parts, as in the best Huston films, are perfectly cast, and everyone’s clearly having a blast.
Borrowing liberally from The Maltese Falcon leads to another look at the dark side of capitalism (along with references to British imperialism), but these are fleeting explorations at best. Beat the Devil is most concerned with mocking the conventions of noirs: the flirtations are comically noir-ish, the double crosses absurd, the doomed quest is flat-out stupid. All the while Huston shows his irreverent sense of humor with quick pacing and dialogue (“I was in love with him!” “He was a very pleasant acquaintance”; “I’m a British subject!” “I wouldn’t say that too loud”) and making great use of the Italian locales. If Beat the Devil doesn’t ultimately add up to much, it’s at least one hell of a fun ride, and when it comes to Huston, it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Overlooked Gems #19: Cutter's Way

Grade: 94 (A)
Before his Oscar-win for 2009’s Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges had a reputation as being perpetually underappreciated. There was no doubt among his peers that he was one of the finest actors of his generation (the finest, I’d argue, and one of the all time greats), but he was never one of those “capital A acting” actors that you’d too often relying on stunt-acting tricks like mannered tics and big Oscar speeches, and he rarely picked the most awards-friendly projects. Bridges starred in the more idiosyncratic projects from great directors (Peter Weir’s Fearless rather than Dead Poets Society), and as a result he might be the ultimate star of the Overlooked Gem. For another example, look no further than 1981’s Cutter’s Way, a seedy character study with a noir structure.
Richard Bone (Bridges) is a boat salesman at a marina in Santa Barbara, California. He drifts through life, rarely speaking up or causing trouble. His closest friend is Alex Cutter (John Heard), a Vietnam War veteran with one eye, one leg, and one arm. Cutter is an unstable, unpredictable drunk known to say anything to get a rise out of someone (an early scene in a bar features him loudly saying several racial epithets to get a rise out of a group of African-Americans). Cutter’s wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), is another drunk deeply dissatisfied with her life. When Bone witnesses a man dumping a young girl’s body in a dumpster, he becomes a suspect in her murder. But Bone thinks that the man he saw might have been local bigwig J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott. He’s not certain about it, nor is he willing to pursue the mystery, but Cutter becomes obsessed; he convinces the dead girl’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) that Cord is responsible, and strings Bone and Mo along, danger be damned.
 The film was originally released under the title of Cutter and Bone until studio executives demanded the title be changed to avoid being confused as a comedy about surgeons (seriously). United Artists’s famously botched release of the film killed it’s already limited commercial appeal, and director Ivan Passer (a Czech filmmaker whose previous credits include co-writing many of Milos Forman’s early features) never had the same chance to make an impact in America. It’s unfortunate, considering Passer’s deft hand here. Cutter’s Way is a noir, but it focuses more on Cutter’s state of mind and its effect on Bone and Mo than it does on the plot itself. It’s oddly similar to The Big Lebowski, in that it features Bridges as a man content to coast through life, roused out of his day-to-day drift by his unruly friend and a crime.
John Heard might be more familiar to moviegoers as Macaulay Culkin’s dad in Home Alone or other yuppie roles. He’s nearly unrecognizable here under his shaggy hair and unkempt beard (not to mention the disfigurements). It’s extraordinary that his gruff demeanor and unpredictable behavior never seems affected or over-the-top, but rather the actions of a man who’s been to hell and back. It’s a shame he’s rarely had a chance to show his range since (see his work on The Sopranos for more). Bridges has the less showy role, but it’s no less impressive a performance. He reacts to Cutter not with horror but with disappointment or mild irritation, and only as Cutter grows more obsessed with the murder case does his fear truly show through. It’s remarkably subtle work.
The noir plot is used mostly to explore Cutter and Bone’s existence. Cutter is a man who fought for his country only to be dumped, and he’s never trusted “the man” because of it. Bone went to UC-Santa Barbara (where much of the protesting took place) and coasted. Cutter’s resentment and Bone’s guilt is never explicitly stated, but its presence is felt nonetheless. Mo, meanwhile, feels left behind by the world and by Cutter, and her depression is palpable. As Cutter gets mixed up in the conspiracy, Mo and Bone have nowhere to turn but each other for comfort, for both the cruel world and their relationship with Cutter. Cutter can’t prove anything, but he can’t stand to see another young person cut down by the men in charge just because no one will stand up for them. It’s never clear whether or not Cord did kill the girl or not, and a good case can be made for either Cutter or Bone’s argument: Cutter is mentally unstable and unable to prove much of anything, but Bone is never willing to fight for anyone or anything. Who’s right? It’s never clear, but that’s the beautiful ambiguity of Cutter’s Way.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Director's Spolight #3.5: John Huston's The African Queen

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up is 1951’s The African Queen.
Grade: 84 (A-)
Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage wasn’t quite the triumph it should have been, but the director had little time to mourn its death. He was too busy prepping and shooting The African Queen, a film inspired by the director’s own love for adventure, boating, and Africa. His fourth collaboration with Humphrey Bogart saw the two and co-star Katharine Hepburn as liberated as they’d ever been, and the result is one of the most exhilarating films of their respective careers.
1914: Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother, Samuel (Robert Morley), are British Methodist missionaries in East Africa. Canadian steamboat captain Charles Allnut (Bogart) pilots the titular boat and delivers the Sayers mail and supplies. The two barely hide their disdain for Allnut, but when the Germans destroy the village and Samuel dies of fever, Rose has no choice but to accompany Allnut up the river. When the two learn that a German gunboat, the Queen Louisa, blocks the British counterattacks, Rose comes up with a plan: take the explosives on the African Queen and ram into the Louisa to give the British a fighting chance.

Huston knew the importance of casting the right people in the right roles, and it matters in The African Queen more than just about any other: Rose and Charlie are the only real major characters in the film, and the vast majority of the film takes place on the boat with the two, essentially alone. It’s fortunate, then, that Huston rarely found an actor more suited to his purposes than Bogart, and vice versa. Allnut is another classic Huston outsider, but he’s no Sam Spade/Fred Dobbs cynic: Allnut is fun. He enjoys boating, drinking, smoking, eating, and being alive in general. Bogart was always great, but rarely was he ever this joyous; it’s almost as if Bogart channeled a bit of Huston’s spirit. The role won the actor his only Oscar, and while it’s hard to imagine him winning over Marlon Brando’s revolutionary performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s still one of his finest. Nearly as good is Hepburn, prim and proper as ever but a bit less brass than usual; it’s fun to see a gentler version of the Hepburn character, although she’s just as stubborn as ever (the character was reportedly modeled on Eleanor Roosevelt).
Their energy matches that of the film. The African Queen is, as Huston’s best films are, brilliantly constructed, well-paced, and wonderfully alive. The film doesn’t cut quite as deep as The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (the look at Western imperialism is fleeting), but it hardly matters: Huston and company are putting on an adventure film of the highest order, with set-piece after set-piece. Bogart and Hepburn face rivers, rapids, Germans, crocodiles, mosquitoes, leeches, swamps, and storms, and when the action lets up, the characters clash (or come together). Huston fell in love with Africa, and he shoots it as if to say, “this place is goddamned incredible”.
That isn’t to undersell the danger: the African setting is well used, but the performances and action often become frantic in the later going, no doubt inspired by the very real dangers of shooting in the Congo (Hepburn later wrote a tell-all book about how trying the filming was). Bogart and Hepburn grow dirtier, sweater, and more ragged as the story progresses; no doubt the real trials and tribulations took some of the Hollywood out of the great Old Hollywood actors. There’s some drawbacks: the cinematography is sometimes frustratingly one-note, a necessary evil given the difficulty of shooting on the river; the reliance on stock footage is also unfortunate. These are minor quibbles, however, when the film is so consistently exciting.

The African Queen features the sweetest love story in any of Huston's films; the director often dealt with doomed romances, where at least one of the principals would end up dead or in jail. Not so here: it’s a classic case of characters first disliking, then understanding, and finally loving each other, and love triumphs over all. It’s an old story, but the people involved are so talented that it works. Rose first dislikes Allnut’s drinking, coarseness, and general unkemptness, and Allnut doesn’t take kindly to her orders (he thinks her plan is nuts). The two gain respect for each other as Allnut keeps them alive and Rose’s idea turns out to be the right thing to do. They keep each other alive, bond over shared near-death experiences, and eventually fall in love.
When they first kiss, they spend the next several minutes trying to carry on as if nothing happened. It’s no use: they’re in love all right. When it comes time to destroy the Louisa, they argue over who should stay on board and steer the boat. The plan fails as the African Queen sinks during a storm. When they’re caught by the Germans, they’re given a last request before they are to be hung: they choose marriage. It’s a wonderfully sweet moment that would have been some solace had the two actually died (not unheard of in a Huston film). But the Louisa happens to drive into the half-sunken African Queen right before the hanging, and love ends up conquering all after all as the two swim towards the shore and marital bliss. It’s a fitting ending to the most pure piece of entertainment Huston ever crafted.