Thursday, March 10, 2016

SPELLBOUND

   Many different themes obsessed director Alfred Hitchcock. A person could make a paltry living just compiling them all. Hitchcock movies with train sequences, Hitchcock movies with a MacGuffin, Hitchcock movies with famous monuments, Hitchcock movies where the musical score makes sly commentary on the story, Hitchcock movies involving mistaken identity and espionage, dream sequences, or Hitchcock movies where the director makes a cameo appearance (which, while not technically a theme, probably suggests something thematic)--all of these must take a step backwards and bow to the theme of mental illness. Perhaps the most famous is Psycho, followed closely by Vertigo and the underrated Marnie. A degree of incarceration is inherent in mental illness, whether it be the slavery of addiction, the inability to resolve complex issues, the struggle with identity, a stifling of creativity, or the ability to recall traumatic events. To that end, there is only a superficial difference between the captivity we witness in a movie such as Lifeboat and the psychological imprisonment of Spellbound (1945). 
   This movie conjoins most of Hitchcock's favorite ideas. From the opening Shakespearean quotation ("The Fault is not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves") to the conclusion with a gun firing into the camera, the director grabs our shoulders and shakes us, practically screaming about how important this movie is. That, of course, is the fatal flaw of the film.
   Written by Ben Hecht and starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, based on everything the director thought movies should be about, one would think the bloody thing could hardly miss. 
   Well, it missed, despite its popularity in the film-maker's England. 
   The biggest problem with the movie is also its most visually intriguing element: the Salvador Dali animated dream. Running two minutes, the uncut sequence ran to nearly twenty before the producer sliced it. The importance of free association is paramount to the success of psychoanalysis, a science from which the movie borrows liberally. The segment is indulgent, convoluted, and irrelevant, despite being somewhat beautiful.
   The second element that lets down the viewer is psychoanalysis itself. In spite of getting most of the details correct and implementing their discussion with considerable confidence, Hitchcock simply allows the science to overwhelm the story without having developed the characters enough for the audience to care enough to overlook the extended digressions. 
   In most Hitchcock movies, even minor characters permit the audience to project themselves into the drama. Spellbound plays so hard to the nonexistent sexual tension between Peck and Bergman that by the end of the film we hope the bullet will put us out of our misery. This motion picture would not even qualify for a footnote if it were not for the names attached to it. Ben Hecht was certainly not well represented by this. Other than for Hitchcock fanatics, this is one spell best left to the witches. 
   

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

  You have to willingly suspend a bit more than your disbelief to enjoy this movie, but if you are ready to do so, you are in for one of the best rides of your life.
  First, you must forget that you remember Fred MacMurry from the TV show "My Three Sons."
  Second, you must forget that you have never found Barbara Stanwyck attractive.
  Third, you must forget that you tend to think of Edward G. Robinson as always playing a bad guy.
   Finally, you should try to put the anachronistic voice-over narration out of your mind altogether and just focus on the dialogue.
  If you can handle all of that, you will certainly love this motion picture.
   Fred plays an insurance man named Neff, which fits, since screenwriter Raymond Chandler (the Shakespeare of detective fiction) was once in the insurance racket. (The original novel, of course, was written by James M. Cain.) All he cares about are sales. Sign them up on the line that is dotted and you'll keep the bosses off your jacket and out of your late model car. Unfortunately for him, he runs into Babs, who plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a spoiled wife of a cynical businessman who just doesn't appreciate all the perks of being wealthy. Phyllis would like to have the old boy murdered and lures Neff into a scheme to off the crotchety coot. If the police can be convinced that the death was by suicide, then the price goes up to $100,000 and Fred and Barbara can retire down Mexico way, playing the banjo and slugging back gin fizzes all the live long day. A pretty sweet deal, figures Neff, even though he doesn't actually cotton to a cold blooded murder. But what the hey? A toasty broad like Phyllis doesn't come down the tracks every day, although the midnight train to Croakville just might and the two schemers carrying out their plan with some sophistication.
  Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), as with most everything else written by Chandler, relies less on plot than character ambiance. This is not merely film noir; this is insurance noir, or California noir, or even locust noir. California is, you will see, just a hotbed of soulless souls trying to find their way home beneath the desperadoes under the eaves, many of whom look like crucified thieves (and pardon the lift, Warren). A body grows numb from the palm trees, sunshine and baked freeways. A mind grows blind from the easy living. The heart turns hard and the money looks as fresh as Ellie Mae Clampett sunning herself down by the cement pond. Shadows box with the moonlight while bloodless humans take the elevator to the penthouse to confess their sins on the way out the window. 
   Edward G. Robinson takes the movie and runs with it, leaving the viewer wishing for more. He's brought in to ravel a series of plot twists that never go anywhere and it does not matter one bit because just watching that man stand there waiting for a telephone conversation to wrap up is more exciting than real life outside southern California could ever be. Here he is, as Barton Keyes, lecturing his idiot boss on the facts of life and death in the insurance business:
Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why, they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by *types* of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from *steamboats*. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.

   That bit of monologue should tell you all you need to hook you through the lip with this movie. Then go sit down and read the collected works of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West. You'll want to move to Los Angeles immediately just to see if it's all true, which it is. Frank Zappa's house can be yours for nine million.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

  Hemingway has never translated well to the screen, so it is just as well that scenarist Jules Furthman, co-writer William Faulkner and director Howard Hawks decided to pay little attention to the inspiration for To Have and Have Not (1944) and instead simply focused on telling a great story well. 
   It would be reasonable for people my own age and younger to do a polite roll of the eyes about the nostalgia component that has been attached to this movie for decades. This was the motion picture that brought Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together for the first time, both on film and in real life. Bacall was all of nineteen and Bogart was, well, not nineteen. The original story took place in Cuba, but Hawks caved into to the FDR administration and moved the plot to Martinique, in what was then German-controlled Vichy France. It's quaint that Harry calls Marie "Slim" and that Slim calls Harry "Steve." Then, of course, we have the hipster dialogue, as when Slim says, "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."
   People do not talk that way much nowadays and if memory serves they never have. Nothing about that matters at all. No one has asked me if I've ever been stung by a dead bee, either, but it works great when Walter Brennan asks it repeatedly in this movie. 
   So the tendency is to roll the eyes politely. But once that impulse has been placated, the viewer is in store for the treat of a lifetime. Oh, the movie may lack the intensity of Casablanca, with which it is often compared. The ending may feel a bit unresolved, especially since the real wrap up ended up in another Bogart and Bacall spectacle called Key Largo. None of that will matter much if at all to a contemporary watcher because the damned majesty of the two leads together (and the remarkable sexual tension) as well as the commaraderie between Bogart and Brennan, and the sweetness between Brennan and Bacall, snaps your eyes forward and leaves your mouth agape. 
   It should also be pointed out that, give or take the propaganda impact of an anti-Nazi movie during World War Two, we were after all fighting fascism and this movie makes it clear that Harry Morgan (Bogart) has nothing but contempt for the Fascist regimes. We don't make all that many great films with that subject matter these days, probably because the war has been over a while and there's a tendency to assume that it cannot happen here despite the fact that is has happened here. It is not a gun or a bullet or a grenade that forces innocents into a gas chamber. It is a hard heart that kills. And we as a nation have been slipping into that hard-hearted stance for a long time now, ossifying just a little more with every real or imagined injustice. Whether it's a bum crawling across an alley on his way to the dumpster or an immigrant crawling across Sonora looking for a community, some of us yield to the temptation to perceive these folks as aggressors. All it takes is some small band of psychopaths in foreign garb blowing up buildings in the name of their own private deity and the fear of the unknown, a xenophobia of genesis, sets in. I can't speak for everyone, but I've felt that temptation myself. I have even given into it on occasion, and I should know better. To get myself back in shape, I reminisce with old movies such as this one, and I strain to regain the insight that once came so effortlessly. 
   I confer the same blessings onto you.


Monday, March 7, 2016

SHADOW OF A DOUBT

  Imagine Alfred Hitchcock pitching this movie to some executive at Universal. The exec says, "Give it to me, Hitch, baby, in twenty-five words or less."
  The grand man leans forward, oozing contempt for this schmuck, and says, "A young girl finds that her Uncle Charlie, her namesake, is not the man she believes him to be."
   Taglines for movies have a history of being somewhat lame. Casablanca is a war time love story. The Godfather is about a family having trouble with the law. Citizen Kane is a tale of yellow journalism. Sure. And tonight's movie, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is about a young girl who discovers.. . 
  Thornton Wilder wrote the script with a little help from Mrs. Hitchcock. You may know Wilder. He also wrote Our Town, By The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other gems. The theme, somewhat predictable in hindsight, is the facade of the suburbs as an idyllic place where white people can hide from urban confusion, but a place that has its own ugly secrets bubbling like the brew of the three weird sisters, a place where fate is predetermined and gruesome, a place where nothing is quite what it seems.
   I am one of the few people I have ever met who will admit with some cheer that he loves the suburbs. To me they symbolize garage bands sweating in the summertime, bicycles racing through dangerous construction zones, stalled trains begging to be investigated by tiny hands, and, yes, places from which escape often feels insurmountable. Wilder, for what it may be worth, grew up in a literary family and may well have longed to escape the humiliation of being smart around classmates he feared were idiots. The connection between this and the suburbs seems obvious. Growing up in the 1970s, I dare say that everyone I knew who was even vaguely interesting yearned to be anywhere except where he was and felt the need to be anyone other than who he was. As much as I loved my little town (as Paul Simon, in a rare moment of lucidity, said it, "After it rains there's a rainbow and all of the colors are black; it's not that the colors aren't there--it's just imagination they lack"), I couldn't wait to get out of there. Where did not matter. Where I went does not matter either. 
   Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) worships the Uncle about whom she has heard so much. Yet no sooner does Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) arrive than little clues of oddness materialize: items are clipped from the newspaper, the name of a certain familiar song cannot be spoken, and the like. 
   Part of the genius of this film lies in the realization that until the very end we cannot be certain if Uncle Charlie is as bad as we suspect him to be. It is as if in memory we have decided that our own childhood--especially the teenage years--were actually worthy of repeated reliving rather than being banished down the cesspool from whence they no doubt originated. If you really want to see evil, mediocrity, passive hostility, desecration of the scared and downright meanness, just revisit the years of your life from twelve to eighteen. It is like reading a history book of your own country only to discover that you were the Indian and everyone you knew was a settler. You may have had to resolve some cognitive dissonance to survive those putrid years, but there is no need for the delusion to continue into adulthood. 
   Shadow of a Doubt has no split screen window treatments, no Salvador Dali nonsense sequences, no elucidations on the repressed sexual desires of transsexuals. The pace is reasoned and reasonable, the acting chilling in its commonplace attitude. The only riddle that is not overtly answered is the name of the song no one quite can remember ("The Merry Widow"). And yet I will bet that once you see this movie you will list it on your paper under the Gideon as one of your favorite Hitchcock films. Once you've seen Psycho or The Birds, you really have no need to see them again. You'll gain no new insight into anything there. But I double dog dare you to watch Shadow of a Doubt only once. 
  I'll expect to see the For Sale sign in your yard the next day.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

THOUGHTS ON THE ELECTION

If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars. --Sam Phillips, 1954, weeks before discovering Elvis Presley
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.--George Wallace, 1963
 George C. Wallace gained the support of about one-third of the black voters in Tuesday's primary election, according to various analyses today.--NY Times, 1982
  The first thing to get through your head is that nothing much changes. When things do change, they change big, but that does not happen often. Immediately following the Civil War for the Emancipation of African Americans, the United States government enacted something called Reconstruction from 1865 through 1877, the intent of which was to make certain the southern states and their governments treated black people as human beings. During those brief years, more than 2000 African Americans were elected to public office in the South, from local offices all the way to the U.S. Senate. (Hiram Revels became the first black U.S. Senator in 1870.) Not everyone thought that was peachy and so resistance grew. Even now you can find t-shirts in Tennessee souvenir shops with an image of an old Confederate soldier bearing the caption "Hell no I ain't forgot!"


  Something else that has not changed is that the winners still write the history books. One of the best ways I know to determine who won a battle or war is to look at what the victors were fighting and then compare that to what is written about those victors, which is why I suspect the Axis Powers may have won World War II. Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain: today these are all allies. 64,000,000 people murdered because of these regimes and within a few months they were among our dearest friends. If the United States can get along with foreign countries who attempted global domination through conquest and extermination, it would seem reasonable that black people could go through their days without fearing state and local police, much less getting beaten at Trump rallies. 

   My brilliant and beautiful and long-suffering girlfriend Lisa Ann screamed at the TV news tonight, "We're having another Civil War!" I would not be surprised at all if Rachel Maddow were to break in with just such a story one of these evenings.

   But we are not supposed to accuse the great unwashed out there of racism. We are supposed to be tolerant of what is clear and present bigotry because some grizzly redneck shit-kicker would get his silk panties in a bind if someone were to deny his right to guzzle cheap whiskey while staggering down MLK Boulevard waving a sawed-off .410 at passersby, anyone of whom he suspects of wanting to deny him the privilege of shooting down same-sex marriage advocates while he himself not so secretly faces domestic assault charges for his actions against both his wives, one of whom made this month's centerfold in Ammunition Guide Magazine. We are urged by these skinheads and their brethren to display tolerance because all men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain rights, including, it would seem, the right to hate and destroy whomever gets in their way.

   As a wiser man than I once said, "Fuck that shit."

   Let me be clear: I do not know shit about Donald Trump. Also, I do not care shit about Donald Trump. 

   What I do know is that in the 2012 Presidential election, of the ten states with the lowest white support for Obama, seven of them were in the south.  Mississippi had the lowest, with only ten percent of white people voting for Barack Obama. The other six southern states were Louisiana (10.5), Alabama (13), Georgia (14), South Carolina (19), Arkansas (21) and Texas (23). Is it just a series of coincidences that Obama's lowest popularity is in the same states that used to utilize slavery? Not on your life. 

   In the 1968 Presidential election, George Wallace won 13.5% of the popular vote, carried five states (all in the South) and won forty-five electors. He also won eight percent of the vote in the North.

   Regardless of the choice of the Republican Party for their Presidential nominee, the above serves as a predictor for the eventual outcome of the upcoming election. Since the federal election in 1980, the Republican Party has consciously endeavored to court the most extreme elements of the American populace. In the same way that the best answer to the question of defeating Isis is to attack their source of income, so is the best way to wipe out the danger represented by the GOP to attack their financing. This is crucial because in 2016 someone such as Trump or Cruz or Rubio may only get ten to fifteen percent of the popular vote (assuming there are no Middle Eastern attacks on the United States or its satellites), but within four years I would not be surprised if racial and gender tension had transmogrified to the point where a Wallace wannabe could mobilize a more substantial base. Knowing that thirteen percent of the people around you can be bought and sold by the likes of the wealthy into supporting a candidate who works against fairness--that is frightening enough. But when those numbers hit twenty-five percent, it will be time for some of us to look downward and tell our feet to do their stuff. But this is my home, too, just as it is yours. So we should not have to flee to Canada just to get away from the scourge of the wealthy industrialists who determine our choices by channeling the bigotry they help foment. Nothing much may change, but as our blood pressures rise with every attack on the civil rights of our fellow Americans, solutions that lie outside the voting booth gain popularity.