Monday, 7 July 2014

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Critically dismissed and a scant commercial success at the time of its release, Tora! Tora! Tora! marked 20th Century Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck’s repeating his efforts to alchemise the debris of history into popular entertainment as he had managed with The Longest Day (1962). Zanuck’s next pet project took a similar approach to his depiction of the events leading up the attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, kick-starting America’s entry into the Second World War, providing a string of mostly authentic, episodic illustrations of the people involved and the issues at stake. Perhaps the film's unenthused response was all but inevitable: in spite of lip-service to the horrors of war, the D-Day film recalled a great triumph in a giddy, mobile fashion, whereas a sober, docudrama-style movie about one of America’s worst military disasters was only ever likely to be a glum experience for a broad audience, unless one tackled it in a manner like Michael Bay and Randall Wallace would thirty-one years later, as a pulp melodrama of martyred suffering and rousing comeback. 

The utter disgrace that was Bay’s 2001 blockbuster highlighted the qualities of Tora! Tora! Tora! anew. Some criticisms levelled at the film were fair: the special effects swing from beautiful to tacky, and the acting is sometimes patchy. The film lacks a controlling viewpoint, too, not like Patton, Fox’s more successful and lauded epic released the same year, unless it’s Isoruku Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura), the Japanese admiral who concocts a plan to win a war scarcely before it begins, whilst nursing silent dread of the forces he knows he’s unleashing. I quite like the variety of exacting, detail-specific, broadly focused, almost holistic approach the film takes however, as an exacting analysis of what was for one side a military triumph and the other an enraging sucker punch, largely free of hyperbole and histrionic conveniences, and ending not on a note of imminent triumph but of queasy, ominous import. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the kind of film which, in hindsight, is hard to believe ever got made. It certainly couldn’t be done today except on subjects enacted on a far more limited scale, like Paul Greengrass’ reportorial films, which this film certainly anticipates.

Perhaps the most fabled aspect of Tora! Tora! Tora!’s production for cineastes was the involvement of Akira Kurosawa in preparing the Japanese half of the film’s bifurcated viewpoint, an experience that turned toxic for Kurosawa and almost wrecked his career. Kurosawa was fired and replaced by the experienced journeyman Toshio Masuda to handle dramatic scenes, and future cult auteur Kinji Fukasaku, who had already helmed a Japanese-American co-production, The Green Slime (1968), was hired to bring his expertise to bear for more difficult production elements. The English-language side was handled by Richard Fleischer, whose breadth and ingenuity as a helmsman was rarely appreciated in his lifetime. Fleischer was the rare major Hollywood filmmaker of the period who had handled significant special effects work, on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but Tora! Tora! Tora! fits with notable ease into his run of studiously composed, superficially detached studies in true-crime tales, including Compulsion (1960), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971), and even has structural elements in common, based around the careful deployment of detail and a sense of mounting unease before an eruptive fight for survival, with his horror film See No Evil (1971).

The film coherently pits two productions and two world-views against each-other. The proud Japanese naval men under Yamamura, left out of the Imperial Army’s brutal conquests but now expected to cover its ass by fending off the increasingly disapproving US, are geared up for victory but find themselves becoming cogs in an unstoppable apocalypse, where the Americans are split between the generally indolent and the confused and ineffectively concerned. Tora! Tora! Tora! was important not least for humanising the Japanese perspective on the event, an aspect that helps make the film as a whole ahead of its time. Which is not to say the film lacks a moral perspective, as it paints Yamamoto and his opposite Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) as tragic figures who each have fine qualities but also exemplify something seriously awry in their respective nations’ outlooks, respectively war-obsessed and naïvely distracted. Fukasaku's fulminating rage at the Imperial era's militarism, borne of experiences when he was a teenager and which would be worked out memorably if metaphorically in Battle Royale (2000), was unavoidably given little scope here. But the film doesn't shy away from identifying Gen. Tojo (Asao Uchida) as Yamamoto’s Army nemesis, who has shunted him into fleet command for hampering his agenda too often in cabinet, and exemplifies chauvinist aggression when he's brusquely relieved that he can’t call back the attack in spite of a diplomatic entreaty from F.D.R. The film finds time for noting the comradely excitement, almost painfully intense, of a pair of Japanese airmen in realising they’ve pulled off their impossible mission, and note off-hand eccentricities like Yamamoto’s subordinate Capt. Kameto Kuroshima (Shunichi Nakamura), nicknamed “Gandhi” for his monkish, old-fashioned habits, pouring over the raid plan with awe for its “fool-proof” precision, a devotee to the Zen of war satisfied to find a holy text. 

That plan is concocted by Cmdr. Minoru Genda (Tatsuya Mihashi) and put into action by dashing Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura), whose charismatic leadership is key to pulling off the raid with the discipline required. Tora! Tora! Tora! feels like a product of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s penchant for war films with a thornier attitude towards officialdom, hierarchy, and militarism in general, although Zanuck’s main revisionist intent had been to defend Kimmel and General Short (Jason Robards Jr) in their concern for sabotage, which resulted in considered moves that had the by-product of making their ships and planes sitting ducks for the attack that really came. Tora! Tora! Tora! isn’t so much cynical as interrogative and coolly expository about the failure of governance and military exigencies to properly mesh, counterbalancing the chilling perfection of the Japanese war machine with its selfless human parts with the American mechanism composed of faulty cogs, as bucks get passed, poltroons foul up, and foot soldiers bewildered by flimflam before paying the price, as Pericles’ famous oratory about the difference between the warriors of a democracy and those of a military state is reflected via a perfect contemporary illustration. 

The most emotionally direct moments are indeed not found in combat but in interpersonal exchanges of vehement anger and distress stemming from lines of fouled communication. George Macready’s brief but memorable appearance as Cordell Hull confronting the Japanese Ambassador Nomura (Shôgo Shimada), who’s had to front up with a declaration of war too late, sees Hull release a broadside of devastating anger still couched in statesmanlike wording but finally dissolving into a memorably totemic plea and command, “Go!” Lt. Kaminsky (Neville Brand), having failed to get his superior Capt. Earle (Richard Anderson) to react to an early warning, points to the blazing fleet through the office window when Earle comes in: “You wanted confirmation? There’s your goddamn confirmation!”

The film has its share of potential heroes from the official roster: the matinee-idol Fuchida contends, whilst “Bull” Halsey (James Whitmore) slouches in and out of sight with grouchy, hard-assed humour befitting a John Ford character. But Fleischer’s heroes here tend to be little guys trying to be heard amidst the din of international rivalry combusting: worrisome code-breakers Kramer (Wesley Addy) and Bratton (E.G. Marshall) trying to get bigwigs to pay attention as repeated cries of wolf quickly earn disinterest, radar operators confused by strange signals and unsure whether to stick at their posts, a hapless bomber commander (Norman Alden) perturbed to find himself flying into a war “unarmed and out of gas,” a green young destroyer commander (Jerry Fogel) who finds himself having to destroy a midget submarine, and the two out-of-luck USAAF fighter pilots (Rick Cooper and Carl Reindel) who think they’ve been transferred to a remote landing strip because they win at poker too often, and find they’re the only ones who can get into the air and fight back. 

The film’s middle third is a comedy of errors played straight, except for a finite note of anxious humour found in the unlikely minutiae that compose momentous events, as Kramer has to get his wife (Leora Dana) to drive him all around nocturnal Washington trying to get someone to take his alert seriously, and the precision of the Japanese plan is foiled in one of its most simple yet vital aspects, as Nomura’s embassy aide can’t type out the coded declaration of war fast enough for it to be delivered in time, even after he strips off his jacket and really gets down to work. The most awkward elements are familiar in this kind of filmmaking, with sketchy segues to characters handing out exposition by way of waving at charts or surveying model fleets, and awkward performing from some of the cast, even the normally unflappable Robards, when having to make an impression and a plot point in swiftly telegraphed scenes. 

But the natural intensity of the event gives the film shape and a remorseless, escalating tension that the film relieves with some well-judged if slightly goofy humour, including a flight instructor alarmed to find herself in the midst of a flight of Zeros, and the USS Nevada’s band leader trying to crank out the national anthem before all hell breaks loose. The attack, when it finally arrives, is still a major piece of cinematic spectacle, although some of the Oscar-winning special effects overseen by Fox’s veteran experts L.B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank, looked flimsy even at the time: realistic earthbound effects on the level of what Stanley Kubrick’s team had managed for space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were still in the future, and the film is rife with some annoyingly obvious back-projection and model work. But the blend of maximalist detail including huge mock-ups of battleships and aircraft to be destroyed and model work coalesces into a furious and compulsively watchable inferno where the snatched visions of individual heroism, like Dorie Miller’s (Elven Havard), are glimpsed not for titanic bombast but as noble, gutsy, but essentially futile gestures in the midst of an omnipresent massacre.

The editing that stitches this colossal sequence together is as impressive as the staging, a whirlwind of images of destruction and struggle amidst seething flames and gushing waters, machines ripping themselves apart and juddering under explosive blows. One famously close call for a couple of stuntmen, as a mock-up P-40 exploded, careened through a row of similar mock-ups, and crashed against a fuel tanker bare feet from a stumbled stuntman, is recorded here in breathtaking posterity, and the intended stunt work, including a one-wheeled B-26 landing, is all the more impressive from the perspective of today when CGI is used to take the risk out of opening a can of soft drink. On the other hand, some shots see actors shaking about on flimsy sets with cardboard debris falling on them like a ‘50s B-movie. If Tora! Tora! Tora! occasionally suffers from some busting stitches at the seams, that was perhaps inevitable for a movie made on such a scale at a time when Hollywood was undergoing a prolonged and painful generation change. What’s rare about the film’s cumulative achievement in spite of that is not only that it dramatically and accurately portrays a fraught pivot in human history, but in the way it animates a feeling of genuine disquiet by its closing frames, a refusal to offer closure or false uplift, but rather leaving the film like a gaping wound in a manner that strongly resembles Fleischer’s similarly implacable endings in Ten Rillington Place, Soylent Green (1973), and Mandingo (1975). 

Perhaps the film’s most powerful motif is one of beholding dreadful spectacle, anticipating Steven Spielberg’s obsession with that grace-note, as Kimmel does first from the crisply cut lawn outside his residence, then again later as the Arizona explodes and a spent bullet smacks through the window, injuring his stomach, but leaving him to lament that it didn’t kill him. Kaminsky’s abuse of Earle and the beggared survey of Halsey and his crew as they sail into the maelstrom of smoke and fire similarly invoke witnessing as a dread but important event in the face of such horror, the spirit indeed that animates the film: to look, to know, and to understand in doing so. The bleak impression of the conclusion is partly thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring, with the last images of Yamamoto standing upon the deck of his flagship, an ant-like human in command of, and also now at the mercy of, a colossal war machine, his probably apocryphal “awakened a sleeping giant” quote hanging menacingly in the air as a useful piece of foresight nonetheless as the end credits roll over the blazing ships of the line. The filmmakers make it clear that what’s coming, from Midway to the Atom Bomb, will be a calamity, and any time this Pandora’s box is opened is a grim one for humanity in general

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Banshee Chapter (2013)

The debut film of neophyte writer-director Blair Erickson, The Banshee Chapter is that rarest of modern cinematic beasts: a genuinely creepy horror film. Superficially, it seems to be another entry in the found-footage movie stakes. But actually Erickson uses the device sparingly, via pieces of footage the characters in the movie proper watch, or interpolated through the film as a whole as a narrative refrain, offering piecemeal glimpses of unholy experimentation and a legacy of evil that dogs the film’s unwitting characters. In fact The Banshee Chapter is a very classical horror film, evoking the Val Lewton method of horror by suggestion with all brief, snatched glimpses of things strange and chilling. Moreover, Erickson exploits some genuine and disturbing phenomena with rich and authentic folkloric power, particularly the real-life horror of the infamous CIA-backed MKUltra experiments which saw volunteers given doses of drugs, including LSD, in the hunt for behaviour-altering power: Ted Kaczynski, the future Unabomber, was one such volunteer. Placed in the mix as well are an equally eerie real-life phenomenon, numbers stations, enigmatic broadcasts from the far reaches of the Earth that can be filled with strange drones, number-reciting voices, Morse code and musical snatches, well-known to radio enthusiasts (and musicians, including Wilco and Boards of Canada, both of whom have included samples from real numbers stations in albums). Erickson’s cunning tale gathers together these fillips of modern paranoia into a story that condenses conceits from several disparate sources in the modern horror and sci-fi genres, but manages to feel skittishly original and manages to maintain tension to almost the end.

Anne Roland (Katia Winter) is the spunky, whip-smart young internet journalist who is haunted by the mysterious fate of her college pal and not-quite-boyfriend James Hirsch (Michael McMillian), who was writing a novel based on the MKUltra experiments. James went missing after taking a potent drug developed for the government program, sent to him by a source he only describes as “friends in Colorado.” As recorded by a an alarmingly discontinuous video of the event taken by his friend Renny (Alex Gianopoulos), James was quickly visited by a paranoid conviction that something was coming to his house, whilst a strange broadcast began to sound on his radio: a shadow looming at the window is followed by shattering glass, and then a brief glimpse of James grossly transformed, with black eyes and bloodied mouth. Renny was interrogated by police who suspected he killed his friend, but then Renny went missing too. Anne sets about investigating, checking out James’ house in rural Nevada, where she finds some clues about where the drug might have come from, as well as a partly erased video tape that contains footage from an MKUltra project that involved the synthesis of the drug using samples from dead bodies, and the spectacles of terror and pity inspired in test subjects. Anne is creeped out by strange noises in James’ cabin. She talks to a radio expert, who might also be a former NSA spook, who identifies the strange radio noise in the video as a numbers station whose broadcasts can normally only be picked up somewhere out in the Black Rock Desert’s wilds in the middle of the night. Only good things can happen doing that on your own, right?

Anne heads out to the desert fringe to listen for the radio broadcast and does pick it up, only to suspect something is stalking her in the dark, and when she catches sight of a vague figure in the fringe of her headlights, she hurriedly flees the site. Her editor Olivia (Vivian Nesbitt) helps fill in a missing piece of the puzzle when she suggests the missive to “friends in Colorado” might be a reference to a novel written by author Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a burlesque on Hunter S. Thompson, although Ken Kesey was the actual noted counterculture writer who did participate in MKUltra. When Blackburn tells Anne over the phone that the title of his new novel is “Fuck Off,” she approaches him in a bar in the guise off an enthusiastic fan (giving Winter a nice little spot of acting within acting as Anne, who’s English, puts on an acceptable American accent), and seems to charm him sufficiently so that he invites her to his place to take the drug along with his friend, alt-cultural chemist wiz Callie (Jenny Gabrielle), who synthesised the same batch that James took. Blackburn soon enough reveals that he’s rumbled Anne’s secret identity, and fools her into thinking she’s taken a dose of the drug, whilst Callie, who really has taken it, falls into the same trembling, terrified state as James did, raving that something is approaching the house, and that “They want to wear us!” Something indeed seems to invade the house and knock out the lights before snatching Callie off into the night, with a brief glimpse of her face now similarly misshapen and gruesome.

The Banshee Chapter ingeniously builds drama around real things that coherently if abstrusely combine real-life tropes that reek of post-World War 2, Cold War-era atmosphere, laden with hints of totalitarian power, amoral experimentation for furthering the ends of that power, and technological ephemera that speaks of the grey zones in the modern world’s cohesion, the toxic fall-out of an age of super-science and super-states. There’s some similarity here to the paranoid, white noise-fixated otherworldliness of The Mothman Prophecies (2002), as well as that modern touchstone for all things based in covert flimflam and wingnut suspicion, The X-Files. Erickson cross-breeds this with familiar supernatural menaces that deserve comparison with M.R. James, and indeed the mixture of immediate and layered storytelling here comes close to James’ writing approach. The film makes overt reference to H.P. Lovecraft, as Blackburn recites the general plotline of “From Beyond” at a most inopportune time for Anne as she ventures into an abandoned house, not congenial to resting shredded nerves. This turns out to be the right reference point, however, as Anne comes to realise that the drug operates on the human mind in the same way that the tuning fork in the story is supposed to, turning it into a kind of chemical receiver and conduit that attracts…what? Beings from unseen planes of existence that really do want to “wear” us. The extended, increasingly intense periods of nothing happening following by side-swiping pay-offs, often in the fake footage sections, is reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, but the film’s ability to sustain similar tension in more traditional sequences suggests the influence of Ti West, if rendered a touch less preciously than that tyro’s work. Elements of the finale, particularly the unknown thing beating mercilessly on the door, recall no less a horror film than Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), where that director recalled some of the lessons he’d learnt from his mentor Lewton.

Thus Erickson is perfectly able to justify his unseen threats via a low budget by eliding them nimbly, building tremendous tension in some extended stare-at-the-screen found-footage patches and more traditional forays into old dark houses and abandoned military bases. The old taped fragments of the MKUltra experiments depict apparently dead bodies suddenly grabbing doctors and strapped, dosed patients in isolation chambers somehow escaping their bonds and pounding on two-way glass in mortal terror. Sometimes Erickson does lapse into a gauche theatricality with some of the punchlines to his expert tension building, and what The Banshee Chapter ultimately lacks is a proper, methodical approach to its dramatic exposition. Apart from some early refrains recalling Anne and James’ collegial days and her signalled regret at turning down his romantic overtures, the film’s time for characterisation is pretty scant. Which is a pity, because a feeling of blasted, haunted romanticism lurks within the material. Anne is driven by pain associated not just with the loss of a great pal and intellectual soul-mate but also of the openness of young adulthood, whilst Blackburn is tormented by a connection to the ensuing horrors to a degree he doesn’t seem aware of. Anne is an appreciably determined heroine, perhaps a little too much so, because the film’s urgent, tormented last hour that sees circumstances forcing her and Blackburn to do what any sane person would least like to do in such a predicament, might have had more impact if the characters were just a little more rattled by their situation. But Anne ploughs forthrightly in and Blackburn’s who-gives-a-shit attitude carries him in her wake.

The film doesn’t really live up to the realistic menace invoked by the MKUltra experiments either, which are used chiefly to give the film a crackle of verisimilitude, whilst the narrative moves into some familiar settings for terror-mongering, like a deserted old government research station filled with creepy medical equipment and tanks full of weird shit. Levine’s faux-Thompson is an unusual and inspired protagonist for a horror movie, and Levine’s performance is a great reminder of what an unusual, physically imposing, charismatic actor he can be. Blackburn’s presence offers ripe opportunities to coalesce Thompson’s famously scabrous worldview with events worthy of his famous catchphrase, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” and explore the real, subterranean link between the MKUltra experiments and the burgeoning of the counterculture, which annexed and repurposed its wares and assumptions. Certainly the film’s narrative cleverly literalises the psychedelic culture’s idealisation of reality-shifting and drug use as a tool of contact with higher powers, and takes it a step further in making it prove to be a very bad trip indeed. But Blackburn never takes on much depth, a last minute revelation about his connection to the experiment adds very little to what’s already been guessed, and his part in the film remains a sketch for a better version. 

Whilst the film mostly obeys the Lewtonian principles it sets out to honour with rigour, with the emanation stalking Anne only ever seen in the most vague and swift of manners, it could be argued that the inclusion of the found-footage conceit violates a basic rule of Lewton’s template, which was based around creating a dissonance between viewer and film that implied the untrustworthiness of the film as a record of the characters’ fears. And this in turn hurts the film’s thematic engagement with a porous sense of reality created by mind-altering experiments. The compressed, same-night rush of action in the film’s second half both helps Erickson sustain his nightmarish tone but also retards his opportunities to make deeper incisions into both the drama he’s created and the themes he’s pursuing: he’s put a lot of effort into making his film scary but not enough into make it substantial. Erickson also gets a bit too cute and familiar in its “unexpected” resurgence of the seemingly defeated dark force, which is by now so regulation that to do anything else would see revolutionary. But it’s no sin that Erickson wanted to make an effective horror film first and foremost, which he’s certainly achieved. The climax is a terrific piece of extended menace in the abandoned facility, which bears traces, ominously, of having been hurriedly evacuated and left to whatever godforsaken entity now uses it as a hive. Erickson manages to whip a frenzy of alarm whilst still keeping his evil menace off screen, and the rush of action hurls Anne through states alternately distraught, fearsome, and desolate. Winter’s strength is a major pleasure here. For all its faults, hesitations, and final impression of subtle but definite letdown, The Banshee Chapter is still a relishable experience.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Night Has Eyes (1942)

In the 1940s, bombs were dropping on Britain and its fresh-faced young men were doing their duty in khaki. Meanwhile, black-haired, velvet-voiced James Mason became Britain’s hottest domestic film star by turning women on with characters antipathetic to the Blitz spirit: dark marauders, demon seducers, Byronic antiheroes, and highwaymen wielding pistols and double entendres. He tapped into the latent sado-masochistic fantasies of his audience, whether trying to clip Ann Todd’s fingers with his cane (in The Seventh Veil, 1945) or hacking Margaret Lockwood to death with a sabre (in The Man in Grey, 1943), before finding sainthood through blood loss in Odd Man Out (1947) and thus earning his ticket to Hollywood. Many of the films Mason strutted his stuff in during this time were made with crisp method and propulsive energy by Gainsborough Pictures, one of Britain’s most prolific studios before it was eventually swallowed up by Rank. Quite a few of the “Gainsborough melodramas” and their ilk were essentially prototypical Harlequin romances, except with a vital strain of fetid sexuality and delight in finding the hot collar under the stiff upper lip and a quality of knowing, pulp energy that tickled the audience by taking their fantasies seriously, but not too much. Such films were the flipside to the era’s reputable war films, historical yarns that took a battered audience and let them bathe in a bit of lusty materialism for a while. Lockwood was Mason’s closest female equivalent, and the duo tussled with barely concealed erotic force and naughty dialogue in one of the most successful films of the period, Leslie Arliss’s The Wicked Lady (1945), where even Mason was forced to second-string status by Lockwood's florid villainy.

The Night Has Eyes, also made by former journalist and screenwriter Arliss (no relation to the acting star George), seems to have laid down some of the blueprint for the melodrama craze, and represented one of Mason’s first real starring vehicles after several years of prominent supporting roles. Produced not at Gainsborough but by Associated British Picture, The Night Has Eyes casts bubbly blonde Joyce Howard against her type as Marian Ives, an uptight school teacher, crisply dressed and bespectacled in a manner reminiscent of Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941). Marian ventures into the unknown with her fellow teacher, the horny Doris (Tucker McGuire), in half-conscious search for any sign of what happened to their friend and colleague Evelyn one year earlier, when she disappeared whilst on a hiking holiday. Their vinegary elders in the school theorise snidely about her vanishing, which gets Marian up on her hind legs for swift rebukes. Doris tags along with Marian in protective acquiescence as they venture into the perpetually gloomy studio moors, with Marian’s obsession blinding her to the attentions of a good-humoured doctor on the train Barry Randall (John Fernald). With almost otherworldly compulsion, Marian leads Doris across the moors until they happen upon a remote house where the sole inhabitant is Stephen Deremid (James Mason), a dour recluse and former composer who greets the ladies with lines like, “I enjoy storms” and makes sure their doors are locked to any unwanted visitations during the night. 

Deremid has retreated from life since fighting in the Spanish Civil War and receiving a head wound. He’s oddly in a hurry to get rid of the two attractive women who stumble into his tiny world, but of course such brooding antisocial behaviour lights Marian’s fire, and she finds excuses to stay behind even after Doris departs in search of some less complicated men. Clearly made in the shadow of Hitchcock and the permanent mark he left on the British thriller, The Night Has Eyes also anticipates places Hitch would go. It also represents a pole of the romantic melodrama perilously close to the horror film, a genre banned for the duration of conflict by the British censor (indeed, genre historian William K. Everson included the film in his early ‘70s survey Classics of the Horror Film), although the film constantly hints at both imminent eruptions of violence and intimations of the supernatural that never quite resolve. Rather, the film strips the mechanics of Rebecca (1940) and its myriad Gothic predecessors down to the bare essentials of spooky house, naïve heroine, and brooding lover/killer, and also a bit of Gaslight (1940) and its ilk, whilst defining some vital thematic strands of the coming noir film, including having a hero who can’t be sure of his sanity because of war wounds. For further critical archaeological interest, here’s also distant anticipation of not just Psycho (1960) but also the giallo film’s appropriation of Gothic fiction canards for psychological symbolism, as Deep Red’s (1976) sealed room with skeletal secret is prefigured. Deremid is the archetypal stormy artist, possibly based on the composer Peter Warlock, and a Rochester type who tries to repel Marian with stern disdain that conceals his febrile desire, of course making Marian all the more determinedly interested (note to men: this only works if you’re James Mason). 

The dance of attraction and repulse between the duo deepens as Marian dons a Regency gown dug up from the attic after peeling off those wet things, hinting at social regression in a remote place to a different time, recasting the modern duo as their historical avatars, to better enact longed-for sexual roleplaying, thus essentially writing the thesis for an oncoming genre of historical bodice-rippers. Romance between the couple continues in violent alternations, from Marian dancing in liberated abandon to Deremid’s piano-pounding, to advancing on the camera in face-twisting anguish after he tries to run her off with insults, only for him to lose his nerve and chase after her. Intimations of that S&M quality common to these tales are on hand, as Deremid laughs over Marian falling into a water trough and then hefting her on his shoulder like a potato sack. Like the Women’s Pictures coming out of Hollywood, however, the appeal of this style of moviemaking very much hinged on appeal to female moviegoers, and The Night Has Eyes contains common motifs of the style, particularly in its heedless heroine on an adventure of self-discovery. Far from the odd blend of full-on melodrama and tongue-in-cheek proto-camp of The Wicked Lady, however, Arliss maintains a firm control and generates a deliciously treacly atmosphere and a precise pace in a 79 minute film. His fantasy Yorkshire a place of never-ending overcast, the old dark house bordered by one of those natural features you know is going to figure in the plot prominently, the grim swamp where a slight misstep means horrible sucking death. Three paths through the mire are on hand, but only one is safe, which someone is inevitably going to have to choose between by film’s end.

One interesting, uncommon element here is very real: Deremid’s bitterness as a has-been veteran of the Spanish conflict, mentioning his spurning by his government and resentment that his health’s been used up and now has to sit out the new struggle against fascism. Although Arliss' script assures that the world has caught up to his prescience, the acknowledgement is rare from a film of the time. Deremid’s abusive angst is soon revealed as more rooted in the fear that his wound has left him mentally unbalanced. He’s prone to blackouts during the full moon and fits of murderous stalking. Marian seems to witness good cause for this fear, as she comes across him in the night with the strangled body of a pet monkey in his hands. His housekeeper Mrs Ranger (Mary Clare) and handyman Jim Sturrock (Wilfrid Lawson) confirm this to Marian, as Ranger has remained to take care of Deremid since encountering him as a nurse in the recovery ward. Lawson gives a nicely off-kilter performance as Sturrock, seemingly a buffoonish hillbilly (calling his Capucin monkey a “cap-oo-cheen-ee”) but has the faintest hint of something perverse and threatening under the surface. The inevitable suspicion comes to Marian that Deremid might have killed Evelyn in such a spell, who finds signs around the house that she had visited it and constantly feels her presence, as if her shade haunts the place. Marian soon suspects the house’s fabled hidden room might contain her remains. 

Penetrating this potential larder of Bluebeard is the last stage in Marian’s mission which has brought her with inexorable purpose from the cosy environs of her Girls’ School to the blasted heath of primal sexuality and lunacy. And indeed a skeleton sits boding in a chair waiting for her. But Arliss has a cool twist up his sleeve about both the nature of this discovery and the mystery enfolding the assailed lovers. He wraps up the film in a gleefully nasty confrontation out on the swamp where, of course, those three paths turn into Russian-roulette punishment for villainy, a one-in-three chance to escape, with the added kicker that although the safe path is chosen, hysteria and frenzied self-interest ends up feeding the swamp regardless. Howard, only 20 years old at the time, was a charmer in the mould of English film roses like Googie Withers, Binnie Hale, or a less posh Madeleine Carroll, and had made a mark in Love on the Dole (1941) where she worked with future ex-husband Basil Sydney; subsequently she made the equally nifty They Met in the Dark (1943) again with Mason before her acting career faltered and sank. She reinvented herself as a writer, anthologist, and socialite in Hollywood, whilst of course Mason went on to become a huge, if rather perpetually underrated star. The Night Has Eyes is one of the modest but real pleasures of ‘40s British cinema, but sadly good prints are hard to come by.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Widely acclaimed at the time as both a revival of the grand movie epic and a revivification of the Western genre enabled by a pro-Native American tilt, Kevin Costner’s debut film as director captured the 1990 Best Picture Oscar, only to be remembered chiefly thereafter by cinephiles for cheating Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas of that glory. In retrospect that was classic divergence of artistic outlook in two different takes on the concept of genre revisionism, between Costner’s sad but elegiac, idealistic take on terribly known yet still unfinished history and Scorsese’s scabrous anatomy of modernity’s id. The AMPAS always knows which choice to make in such situations. Dances With Wolves wasn’t really that original in its outlook or incisions, standing in the shadows of films like Little Big Man (1970), A Man Called Horse (1970), Soldier Blue (1971), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or: Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), and other scattered Westerns from the genre’s sunset decade. It could be said Costner’s film lacks the ambivalence of some of those films, which tended to look askance at the savage side of both white and red men. Dances With Wolves is unabashed in manipulating the audience into loving its Sioux heroes and presenting the emissaries of European settlement apart from damaged war veteran John Dunbar (Costner) as brutal, sleazy, or moronic caricatures. 

Costner’s film, a leisurely three hours in release cut (four in the director’s cut, which I watched when I finally caught up with this film), is at least admirable for its refusal to hurry, trying to attune the viewer to the beauty of the unspoilt west and the notion of natural harmoniousness, offering a space around the characters and their ways of seeing the world that prevents the film from lapsing entirely into either smarmy new-age fable or sado-masochistic fantasy like A Man Called Horse. Dunbar is introduced on a Union Army field hospital table about to have a leg sawn off after receiving a wound in a Civil War battle: rather than suffer the fate of a cripple, he pulls his boots back on and rides out hoping for the enemy’s coup-de-grace. Costner makes a play immediately for cinematic grandeur as Dunbar rides in slow-motion before the guns of the Confederacy with arms spread in best crucifixion pose, suggesting Dunbar – whose background and life story remain irritatingly opaque throughout the film – is a Christ figure and sacrificial lamb for white civilisation who is reborn as a new prophet of frontier race relations. 

The visual language here is mythic, the actual mechanics of the sequence pretty absurd. Costner’s posing also harks back to other male movie stars who courted messianic suffering and ascension like Brando, Hopper, and Newman, but Costner never matches their gifts for capturing the suffering. Dunbar is a blank slate for the modern audience to project upon as he survives this unlikely adventure, is saved and decorated by a General, and, as is his privilege, volunteers for duty on the further fringes of the frontier. Dunbar’s journey west is punctuated by glimpses of such moral and mental rot in his world visualised in the most clichéd terms as he encounters gross and pathetic emissaries of that world, including an alcoholic Major, Fambrough (Maury Chaykin), who urinates in his own pants and shoots himself moments after Dunbar leaves him, and Dunbar’s slovenly agent escort to the frontier, Timmons (Robert Pastorelli). The hapless CO in charge of Dunbar’s intended post leads his bedraggled and mutinous men away just before Dunbar arrives, leaving behind a scarred and blemished place that haunts Dunbar with its Marie Celeste-like quality. Dunbar however enjoys his solitude and respite from conflict, kept company only by a single, bedraggled coyote, and then has his little world visited by a nearby encampment of Sioux. 

The film is at its best in the section where the solitary soldier and the aboriginal warriors suspiciously, half-foolishly probe each-other for signs of aggressive intent or potential amity, and develop friendship in a manner Costner does his darndest not to rush. Oneida actor Graham Greene plays Kicking Bird, the tribe’s medicine man, and the first to encounter Dunbar, scared off by the sight of the soldier advancing on him in anger whilst stark naked, as Kicking Bird seems to be stealing his horse. Kicking Bird, like the Reverend who saw Yossarian in the tree in Catch-22, discerns a magnificent omen in this, whilst his fellows, like hot-headed Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), at first see only an intruder to be chased off or killed. Contact is soon made, however, as Dunbar charms his neighbours by grinding coffee for them and saving a tribally adopted Anglo woman, Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) from suicide after her husband is killed in battle with the Pawnee. He’s finally accepted as a friend by the tribe when he alerts them to a passing buffalo herd and helps in the hunt. He is steadily absorbed into their number, even landing the name Dances With Wolves for his habit of cavorting with his wolf pal in the moonlight, and begins to romance Stands With a Fist, a pairing that pleases his fellows although she’s still supposed to be in a mourning period for her first husband.

Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, who had painted the Aussie mythological west in similarly sprawling, hyper-vivid terms in The Man From Snowy River (1983), won an Oscar amidst the film’s clutch of awards for his efforts here, and his work was certainly integral to the film’s lustre. Dances With Wolves is constantly punctuated with Semler’s lovingly crafted images that paint the Dakota locations in roiling curves of brown and rays of gold, cleansed by nature and cleansing the soul of the receptive. But Costner’s directing is uneven and largely prosaic, settling for a moseying pace and simple scene set-ups, and using Semler’s vast landscape shots as punctuation rather than poetry: if the film’s substance and drama are flagging at any point, here’s another gorgeous vista to knock your socks off. Whereas for David Lean or John Ford landscape was an expressive instrument tied to the psyches of their characters and the ebb and flow of social values upon the arena of an antipathetic environment, for Costner it’s Edenic tourism, a clean and pretty universe to match his idealised vision of Native American life as communal idyll about to be disrupted by big bad civilisation. Still, Costner’s direction reveals acuity for occasionally eye-catching images, including of himself standing bare-assed before a vast landscape. He often effectively mimics Ford’s method for animating a potentially empty frame with diagonal and lateral compositions, as columns of horsemen and wagons cross the screen, mobile islands of humanity on oceanic plains.

Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake (adapting his own novel) noticeably cop out of studying any clash between Dunbar’s PTSD humanism and the inimical aspects of the Sioux’s attitude, and set up conflict situations where the wheels of cross-cultural communication might jam, but then abandon them. Dunbar looks askance at their casual butchery of some hunters for doing the same to some buffalo, and his romance with Stands With a Fist, which violates a taboo, only to be casually let off the hook by Greene’s grumpy but indulgent Kicking Bird. Such discursions essentially turn the bulk of the film into a frontier situation comedy where a man gets along with his kooky neighbours and learns to laugh and love with them, in spite of all the pretences. Apart from intimations of unease about how the tribe will eat before the herd shows up, Dances With Wolves feels romanticised to a tendentious degree, offering a cleaned-up wild west where hunger is not a problem at the moment, the bad guys are an evil band of Pawnees (led with swagger by the ever-striking Wes Studi) who relish murdering Timmons, or sweaty, uncouth Union thugs, whilst life amongst the Sioux adds up to an idealised vision that even the commune dwellers of Easy Rider (1969) might find a bit dubious. Dunbar’s low-key romance with Stands With A Fist would be less funny if McDonnell’s hair didn’t look like the before shot in a Garnier Fructis ad and played as so decorously pre-Raphaelite. Certainly nothing as humorously bawdy as Little Big Man’s extended sister shag gets through here. 

Not to suggest that represented any more realistic a version of Native American social niceties than this, but Costner’s film certainly smoothed the crude fodder of both history and art down to a palatable paste fit for equitable consumption, the earthiness the film proposes to celebrate actually carefully tamed. Costner’s approach is actually diametrically opposed to the gritty ethics of the ‘70s genre redefinition. Costner films a few buffalo slaughtered by hunters as a tremendous tragedy – effectively and efficiently sensitising the viewer to the Sioux viewpoint of this as disgusting waste – but then essentially dismisses the subsequent killing of the hunters, which happens off-screen, only momentarily stalling Dunbar’s emotional gravitation to the tribe, thus leaving Dunbar’s emotional landscape seeming awfully shallow. That Costner gets away with this sort of thing is chiefly thanks to the quality of his casting, and the loping-paced but enveloping rhythm he hits on, a rhythm that gives the illusion of contemplative realism and a quiet emotionalism. Greene’s effectiveness as the quietly philosophical, concerned Kicking Bird matches Costner’s generally unshowy performing, and the two men interact well, especially in a later sequence when Dunbar works up the nerve to warn Kicking Bird what’s coming in the inevitable white invasion. Grant is excellent as the fearsome but deep-feeling Wind In His Hair, as is Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears, the village elder. By comparison, Chaykin is humiliated by a foolish few minutes of overdrawn instability.

The film’s most famous sequence is the tribal buffalo hunt, staged by Costner and filmed by Semler as an ebullient piece of widescreen showmanship, rendered with a skill that cuts to essence of both the corporeal and spiritual sides of the Western genre, liberation of the spirit and unification with the land enacted in the most primal and pragmatic of activities. Another, less effective action sequence comes when Studi’s Pawnee band raids the Sioux whilst most of the warriors are away, forcing Dunbar to loan out his guns, allowing victory with old folks and women and cementing Dunbar as Dances With Wolves, the name he finally claims as his own when he’s captured and beaten by Union soldiers who turn up uninvited at the outpost. Costner’s seriousness repeatedly wanes when he tries to incorporate blunt melodramatic satisfactions. He makes sure no-one objects to the Sioux killing white soldiers by rendering them as mostly a collective of obnoxious bullies who beat and maim Dunbar, in a study of excess: he’s knocked out after trying to attack one of them no less than three time, and his fellow soldiers also kill his horse and his wolf friend. That, sir, will not stand. The Pawnees are also signalled as evil because they kill a Sioux guard dog, as if it wasn’t enough that Studi has already riddled Timmons with arrows and scalped him alive. Costner adds a smidgen of ambiguity by having a well-behaved Yankee officer killed in the attack that saves Dunbar too.

Dances With Wolves never however feels like a work that’s had a deep amount of thought poured into it. It represents rather a series of strong if convenient emotional postures. Native Americans are good, except those ones; white Americans are bad, except for that one. War is bad at the start, but murderous revenge is cool. Dunbar saves his new community by introducing it to the arts of mechanised slaughter he’s supposed to be running away from, and Costner and Blake have no apparent interest in the contradiction. Visual oppositions and cultural clashes are simplistic. Whereas the final image of Jeremiah Johnson moved me greatly because it offered a moment of recognised kinship that came in spite of and because of the acknowledged brutality of the West, Costner’s film offers pat escapes and dull uplift. But his film is a long way from bad, for it remains absorbing and sleekly watchable even at such a length, and has genuine love invested in its frames. Undoubtedly, Costner’s arrow hit its mark in his moment’s culture, taken as a much-needed corrective, whilst turning himself into the biggest star in the world in the process, for a reign that proved very short as he overreached. The impact of the film also all but rescued the Western from total oblivion (along, perhaps, with the successful teen-oriented Young Guns, 1988) after Costner had starred in one of the last major entries, Silverado, five years earlier, whereas a small glut followed, some of them trashy and popular (Tombstone, 1993), some epic and doomed (Geronimo: An American Legend, 1993; Wyatt Earp, 1994), and another Oscar-garlanded hit, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven following just two years later. But two filmmakers who ran much further with Costner’s thematic ball were Jim Jarmusch with Dead Man (1995), which, most tellingly, picked up on the spirituality in Costner’s narrative and turned it inside out, along with some of the racial politics, and Terence Malick would take up the theme of violated Edens and imminent calamity in more inventive terms with The New World (2005). Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai (2003) is a rip-off in different locale, whilst James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is remake in sci-fi clothing.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Spare Poetics of Gordon Willis

Gordon Willis, who died yesterday at the age of 82, was a great cinematographer, one whose gifts found the perfect time and venue to mature, and ideal collaborators whose works he could lend them to. The famous use of underexposure in the photography of The Godfather films imprinted a certain visual language in the minds of a mass audience, a sombre palette of muted colours and invasive blacks, where the mystique of family pride and historical survival always seems under assault by a hostile universe, by an inky moral rot, eternally poised between Manichaean extremes. Alan Pakula's stringent modernist nightmares demanded and received Willis' equal achievement, stripping these cinematic worlds down to glades of assailed humanity amidst implacable space, ruthless systems, and paranoiacally elliptical viewpoints. Willis' work for Coppola, for Pakula, and even for Woody Allen exemplified a stylistic hand who could build an image with a precise sense of effect - nostalgic or realistic, romantic or incisive, painterly or abstruse, mysterious or revealing, or, sometimes, many of these at once. He could be as cold as Klee, he could be as warm as Velazquez. Willis’ works throughout the decade and beyond nonetheless confirmed his independent eye with a gift for oblique composition, and belonged to a generation of cinematographers including László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, Vittorio Storaro, and Michael Balhaus, who inflected the era’s cinema with an expressivity that today has a legendary patina, for the sensual and aesthetic thrill of artisans in love with the very tactile nature of their art.