Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Steel Helmet (1951) - Directed by Samuel Fuller

Sam Fuller's career, a somewhat oddball mix of brutal violence, unsubtle drama, and social consciousness is one of the most fascinating to dissect. On one hand, his films have the tendency to appear low-budget almost to the point where continuity suffers. On the other hand, the extremely well-written scripts are rife with fascinating dialogue, characters and in many cases are socially progressive. The Steel Helmet, Fuller's first masterpiece, was a film that I had seen several years back during a retrospective on his career. Within a month's time in 2005, I saw all of these films for the first time: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, Underworld U.S.A., Shock Corridor, The Big Red One, and White Dog. I watched The Steel Helmet again this week and was reminded of why I love Fuller. It's the way that he blends his life experiences (War Veteran, Journalist) combined with an economy of storyline which is chock full of honesty, toughness, and strangely....a bit of sentiment. The Steel Helmet is an odd movie and one that could have only been made by its director. It is the work of a true auteur.

The Steel Helmet stars Gene Evans as Sergeant Zack. Zack's entire patrol has been wiped out by North Koreans and he is all alone, hands tied behind his back. A South Korean boy finds him and unties him. Zack reluctantly allows the boy to follow him as Zack attempts to find other American soldiers. The two of them come across a black American medic who has also lost his patrol. Together, the three of them meet up with a small American patrol and form a rag-tag bunch. They all find their way to a Buddhist temple where they attempt to hide out, thinking they are safe there. Things get interesting when they find out they are not alone. There is also a climactic battle scene at the temple where the small, outnumbered group tries to out-last some North Korean soldiers. 

One of the great joys of Sam Fuller's films, and this remained fairly consistent throughout his entire career, is the fact that his films were relatively low-budget affairs. To someone who takes these films out of context, I suppose they might appear a bit hokey. I find the low budget quality to be highly endearing. The scenes filmed in the forest during the night are clearly filmed on a set. It almost feels like you can see the back wall. The long shot of the Buddhist temple is clearly a painting. The final battle sequence is filled with lots of inconsistencies....too many to count really. Somehow none of this matters because the script is so good and filled with many socially relevent topics. After the team captures a North Korean, the black medic has a conversation with the Korean about being able to buy tickets on a bus back home, but not being able to sit in front. The Korean then talks to a Japanese-American soldier (who refers to himself as American) about derogatory terms like being called a Jap. Sergeant Zack calls the young boy a "Gook" and the young boy corrects him....causing Zack to hold his tongue the next time he tries to use the term. These moments make the film feel very alive and truthful. These are flawed characters...sometimes offputting....sometimes vengeful and angry, but they feel like real people. Fuller has a knack for how people talk, and his experiences during the war certainly were used to great effect in creating a realistic vibe among the soldiers. There's a great moment when Zack is talking to a bald soldier about why he has bottles of liquid on him. The bald soldier explains that he has bought hair tonic to try to make his hair grow because he lost all his hair when he was a kid from scarlet fever. The details of Fuller's script make this film shine. It's not the action I remember's the interaction.

Another reason for why the film is essential is the magnificent performance by Gene Evans as Zack. Is there a more perfect actor to play a gruff, grizzled Sergeant than this guy? His stubbly beard and greasy, balding head are almost enough to make me accept him, but what takes it over the top is the fact that he is constantly chewing on a half-smoked cigar and talking and giving orders while still chewing on the thing. It is such a perfect accessory for his character. When the young Korean boy, that he somewhat adopts along the way as his son, is shot and killed toward the end, there's a brilliant moment where Zack walks toward the camera and his eyes are closed...his face clenched in anguish. It's as much feeling as he can express in a world dominated by violence and the unknown, and Fuller takes us into that moment and brings us face to face with the anguish of the soldier's grief. His other fantastic moment is the speech he gives to Lt. Driscoll, who has asked to swap helmets with him for good luck. It is the best moment in the film. 

Driscoll- I'd like to swap helmets with ya.

Zack- Oh yeah why?

Driscoll - Sounds a little silly, but I thought maybe if I wore your helmet, it would bring me the same kind of luck it brought you.

Zack- I’d be crossin’ the army if I brought you luck to live.

Driscoll- Sergeant I’ve-a, changed my mind about a lot of things in the past hour.

Zack- You’ll have to change more than your mind to get my steel pot.

Driscoll- You’re too dumb to be an officer so ya take it out on us. You’re a sorehead and you’re jealous. That’s why you hate any officer.

Zack- Look I’ll tell you about an officer…and he wadn’t a 90-day act of congress like you. He was a Colonel and he didn’t have to be that. It was D-day at Normandy. When you were wearin’ bars in the states and we were pinned down for 3 hours by Kraut fire... this Colonel, Colonel Taylor…he got up on easy red beach…and he yelled there are two kinds of men on this beach…those who were dead and those who were about to die. So let’s get off the beach and die in-land. That officer I’d give my steel hat to anyday.

Gene Evans was the perfect choice here for this role and also had another great performance in Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951). Fuller's portrayal of war is anti-heroic. There is no attempt to blockbuster-ize anything here. There are no glamorous set-pieces...nothing that glorifies the act of war nor those that fight in it. It is a humble, modest, and gritty war film about people trying to stay alive. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Wind (1928) - Directed by Victor Sjostrom

Lillian Gish’s final silent film was a great capstone on her silent film career. It was also one of the last great silent films of the era, and in fact released on November 23rd, 1928, already more than a full year after sound had been introduced. In many people's eyes, The Wind is considered the last hurrah of the silent film era. It certainly was the last hurrah for the silent era’s greatest actress. It was purported that Gish herself had the idea to make this film and had pitched it to Irving Thalberg after reading the novel. In her introduction to the home video release in the late 1980’s, she mentions having put together a 4 page story of the film. It’s also purported that she hand-picked the director…the fabulous Victor Sjostrom (Seastrom), he of The Phantom Carriage (1921) and The Scarlet Letter (1926) (also with Gish). They would collaborate to make one of silent film’s great masterpieces.

Based on a novel written by Dorothy Scarborough in 1925, The Wind stars Gish as Letty, a woman from Virginia who is traveling cross country via train to come live with her cousin Beverly and his family who live in west Texas. On the train, she meets a man named Wirt Roddy, who begins to seduce her on the train. She also sees that the country she is moving to is windy and sandy. VERY windy. And VERY sandy. Once off the train, two men named Sourdough and Lige (Lars Hanson) pick her up to take her to her cousin’s home. Once there, Beverly’s wife Cora (A fantastic Dorothy Cumming) soon begins to suspect that Letty is out to steal her husband. She has her thrown out of the house. Letty is proposed to by both Sourdough and Lige and accepts Lige’s proposal. She moves in with Lige, struggles with her feelings and intentions toward him…..and most importantly deals day-in and day-out with the never ending….never ceasing wind and sand battering the house.

One of the interesting facets of the film is its sexual nature both from the aspects of restraint and tension. Gish, normally known for playing meek, rather pensive types, has all sorts of suitors in this film. From Sourdough and Lige proposing to her to Wirt’s sexual predation, to the odd relationship with her cousin Beverly. I’m not really sure whether we’re supposed to believe that she and her cousin have a “a thing” going on, but Cora certainly seems to think that something is in the works. When Letty accepts Lige’s proposal, we know that Letty is desperate for a place to stay. It is quite surprising though, when she refuses to consummate the marriage. Overt mentions of “women going crazy” because of the constant wind, along with the Indian folklore that is mentioned regarding the horses, (replete with imagery of a white horse running, hair blowing and nostrils flared) and the uncontrollable wind evokes a kind of raw, sexual tension. A fantastically composed sequence is when after Letty and Lige are married and they are sitting at home in bed drinking coffee. Letty’s hair is down. Lige is thinking one thing. He realizes Letty is apprehensive. He gets up and leaves the room. She looks for a key to lock the door but can’t find one. Letty stays in the bedroom pacing. Lige paces back and forth in the living room. Shots of each of them pacing and pacing again are shown. Then we see a shot of the blowing wind and sand outside. The tension is broken when Lige kicks a coffee mug and he bursts back into bedroom to kiss her. Much of this sequence is actually shown from the perspective of their feet. Another scene in the film is so magnificent it deserves its own paragraph.

The most famous scene in the film, and one of the most iconic of the silent era is the setpiece where Letty is caught alone in her house during the night when the “Norther” storm hits. This sequence overlays shots of blowing sand and wind outside... the swaying lamp from the ceiling causing shadows and light to swing across the room... stampeding cattle running past the house... images of Gish crouched in fear, her eyes wild with fright.... holes being blown in the window and side of the house... wind and sand creeping in everywhere... a loose board banging on the door... Gish suddenly becoming crazed with insanity... the wind knocking over a lamp causing a fire to start in the house... Gish becoming dizzy and woozy... the entire house seeming to sway... a pounding at the door and a poor decision... door opened to a rush of wind and sand and Gish knocked to the floor... Wirt entering the house and no one to stop him... Gish running outside into the fray, unable to stand, unable to see... image of the bounding white horse... Gish thrust back in the house fainting, carried into the bedroom by Wirt and imagery of a bucking white horse conveying what is about to happen.

If any scene demanded screen shots, it would be that one. Criminally, the film is out of print, unavailable on DVD, with some scattered availability for a steep price on VHS through Amazon or ebay. I have not been able to track down any information for why the film has not been made available by MGM. The film needs a new print badly as the old one that I watched recently on TCM is muted, murky and lacks contrast. Still it packs a wallop. It has some remarkable cinematography by John Arnold and the imagery is fantastic. I think also of the scene where after Letty shoots Wirt and buries him in the sand. She goes back into her house and watching through the window, the wind begins to erode the burial area, exposing Wirt beneath the sand with Gish’s wide eyes telling us everything we need to know. Sjostrom did marvelous work here with what is essentially a vehicle for Gish, though he was able to add lots of flourishes, bringing a more European sensibility to this Hollywood film. He would never make another Hollywood film after this one though, because of the tagged on happy-ending that the studio made him add causing him to leave Hollywood for good. Gish’s final silent role, was also her last great starring role. She would go on to have a long career of supporting roles, but this was the last time she would command the screen in her prime.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Scarlet Letter (1926) - Directed by Victor Sjostrom

If Lillian Gish's films with D.W. Griffith were known for the melodrama, epic scale, and a penchant for depicting Gish's saintly qualities, her films with Victor Sjostrom seemed to tip the scales in favor of naturalism, and darker elements, allowing Gish to play characters who were not so perfect. They were women who were flawed and conflicted, allowing Gish's range to extend beyond the strict formality of Griffith's films like Orphans of the Storm (1921) or Way Down East (1920). Last month, TCM aired a full day of Gish's work and I recorded nearly everything I could. There were two films that aired that day that are not available on DVD and in the case of The Scarlet Letter, has never been available either on DVD or VHS to my knowledge. It was the single film in Gish's career that I've been itching to see and have never seen before.

The Scarlet Letter has of course been filmed on numerous occasions throughout cinema's history and is based on Hawthorne's classic novel. Hester Prynne (Gish) is a seamstress living alone in Puritan Boston. She catches the eye of the local minister and begins a courtship with him. She reveals to him after some time that she is already married and has been for 7 years, but has not been able to track down her husband in that time. The minister leaves for England on a trip for several months, but comes back to find Hester has had a child (with him) and is being publicly scolded and shamed to wear an "A" on her dress from then on. She refuses to let him share in the shame of it and wants him to keep his fatherhood a secret. Their lives go on in a state of suffering for years until Hester's husband finally shows up and throws everything out of balance. The minister reveals his sin at the end to the town and joins her in the public shame that he has longed to have for years. I'm not really concerned with how this film adheres or doesn't to Hawthorne's source material, nor how it compares to other screen adaptations of the story. I'm concerned with mainly how Sjostrom turns this into a marvelous vehicle for Gish.

Sjostrom's naturalist approach allows the film to feel less formal and provides Gish with a character that, although destined by literature, feels somewhat freer than her characters created by Griffith. He achieves some of this by choosing to film some sequences outside in nature and also by employing a playful angle. I particularly enjoy the sequences where Hester is washing her underwear and the minister happens upon her. She tries to hide her underclothes, throwing them into the bushes and rushes off to catch up with him after he has walked away. There is a magnificent little tracking shot following them along the road as they walk and talk together. It's a breezy and lovely scene, playful and fun. Sjostrom allows Gish to let her hair down (literally) in a couple scenes and there's one in particular that provides some wonderful irony after Hester has taken off her bonnet and thrown down her "A" on the ground. She is reminded of her state when her daughter picks up these things and brings them back to her. Some examples of Gish's freedom as an actress here can be found inherent to Hester Prynne. Gish is required to play a character that is morally conflicted and flawed. This allows so much more nuance for Gish to play with compared to much of her work with Griffith. I enjoyed watching her in a role where she is not so much put-upon (Broken Blossoms (1919) etc.), but rather brings on her own undoing through her own choices. This requires Gish to work with a greater range of characterization.

Sjostrom's greatest achievement in this film is, as I mentioned, allowing Gish room to breathe. I tend to think that with certain actors, there is a sort of "auteurist" angle to those that have such deep, ingrained talent and screen presence as someone like Gish. Especially from this era of the star vehicle, Lillian Gish tends to make a film come across a certain way. No matter what the director, there is a certain quality to her films. What Sjostrom allowed to come across in particular is the massive amounts of subtlety that Gish was capable of. Sjostrom, even more so than Griffith, was content to let the camera rest on Gish's face and let the film roll. She has such small changes in facial features, if the camera were to cut away we would miss so many nuances. I think her work here, although not as big and iconic as her work in say, Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, or later in Sjostrom's The Wind (1928)is as good or better than anything else she ever did. Yes the film's story is well known, but Gish makes Hester her own. She makes her flawed, conflicted, impassioned, tragic. It's a magnificent star vehicle kind of film with fine, assured direction from Sjostrom. I just wish it was more available for people to see.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

L'Argent (1983) - Directed by Robert Bresson

Watching a Robert Bresson film is always such an elemental film experience. He seems to wring out every bit of excess (exposition, dialogue, action and reaction) from the proceedings that it feels like a very unique film experience. There is nothing else like it. L’Argent was Bresson’s final film in a career spanning only 13 features. Bresson may have been the director least reliant upon cinematic tropes of any kind. He avoids melodrama, sentiment, emotion, and action. He doesn't rely on acting, flamboyant cinematography, or swelling music. He distills cinema down to observance. Pure and simple observance. In some ways, L’Argent is a recap of his career and a summation. In other ways though, it feels distinctly different from anything else he made. Perhaps it’s the ending of the film here that leaves a different taste in my mouth. It’s challenging stuff and Bresson at his most penetrating. 

L’argent details a sequence of events and those people tied to the events. Two young boys pass along a counterfeit 500 franc bill at the local photo and camera shop. The owner realizes it’s counterfeit and in order to get rid of it, passes it along to a gas-man named Yvon. Yvon attempts to pay with this money at a cafĂ© where the waiter calls him out for attempting to use counterfeit bills (actually unknowingly) and calls the cops. He is arrested but avoids jail time. Yvon loses his job though and thus begins a downward spiral for Yvon. As a way to make money to provide for his wife and child, he takes a job as a getaway driver for a heist. He is caught, arrested and thrown in jail. While in jail, his child dies and his wife abandons him. When he is released, he turns to a life of theft and murder.

Bresson is concerned with the evil in society and the fact that one person’s petty actions can severely affect another’s life. The fact that callousness and evil run roughshod throughout this film, without any sense of intervention from God, or friends or anything resembling grace or forgiveness is thoroughly Bresson and thoroughly part of his dogma. I always find his films to be filled with a sort of despair for society or despair for humanity. This is our world. We are lost. Yet even the way Bresson wants to show the action is resigned and reserved, as if Bresson, nor the viewer, can look upon the cruelty. There are a few examples of scenes shot so perfectly here it humbles me. The first is when Yvon grabs the waiter and pushes him down into the table, knocking plates everywhere. We are only shown the grab of the shirt and a quick shove, lingering on the shot of Yvon’s open palm. We hear the crash and then we see a shot of the table knocked over and the plates on the ground. We don’t see a shot of the waiter in the act of falling down and crashing into the table. It’s all about the intent and the aftermath, not the middle part of the action itself. Another sequence has a woman carrying a coffee mug. She is confronted by her father whom we see raise his hand to strike her face. The film cuts to a shot of her hand and the coffee mug. We hear the slap and the coffee spill on her hand. Again, we see the intent and the aftermath, but we cannot look upon the action. This sort of pattern plays out in the film in many other scenes as well.

What makes this film perhaps a departure for Bresson, is the violent lashing out of the Yvon character when after he gets out of jail, he becomes a murderer. Many of Bresson’s films end with the death of a protagonist, but it comes not at the expense of others per se. I’m thinking of Mouchette’s suicide in Mouchette (1967) or the priest’s death at the end of Diary of a Country Priest (1951), or even the donkey's death in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Those are moments of resignation and sadness, but in them there is also transcendence as those characters are no longer suffering. That's one of the great things about Bresson.....the way he finds the humanity in even the darkest or saddest moments. For Yvon, there is a different approach though…. taking the axe to a woman and her family (among others) who has taken him into their home and sheltered him. Is Bresson showing us the inevitable conclusion of a society built upon one evil act after another. Is this the logical summation of the chain of sin? Unless someone breaks this chain, is this where we end up? I think that this is Bresson’s most challenging work. It is not altogether tidy and it leaves a messy aftermath to deal with.