Night of the Hunter (1955)

I recently re-watched a movie which has somehow slipped quietly from everyone’s minds, Night of the Hunter (1955). Really, though, it never was in anyone’s mind as it failed to appear anywhere in the Oscars, even in a year that was slim pickings and saw a half dozen movies selected which would be lauded and lost without a backward glance (back then such a fate for the Oscars was rare, and the movies from the year before are still household names: On the Waterfront, Rear Window, Sabrina). Perhaps there should be no surprise that Night of the Hunter should pass unnoticed; it is such a strange film that anyone setting out to watch it will be shocked and maybe upset. Want to watch an old movie with Robert Mitchum? Well, here he is but he is no friendly man but Preacher Powell, a widow-killer who goes wherever money might be. Perhaps the darkness of the film means we have film noir on our hands? Well, the only virtue in the film is to be found in a child (John Harper) and an old woman, not in some jaded middle-aged bogartian man. This could be a horror movie but even the unnatural horror of the murdering preacher fails to captivate us and only serves to give us a nightmarish tunnel vision, a focus in which we only see the boy, John, and the strain under which he moves.

There is a strong surrealism that corrals our minds and turns us back to John throughout the film. Wherever he turns for help he is brought up short, and no one in his life possesses a character which goes beyond a frustrating mockery of personhood: doting old men and foolish women surround him and he is forced to keep his own council and protect Pearl, his young and easily seduced sister, in his own solitude. Even Preacher Powell, with his terrifying, powerful presence, fails to be anything more real than a nightmarish figure around whom light and shadow never seem to be quite right. We are unable to do anything but look at John.

So, with all the attention on little John, what is he doing? He is trying his best not to have himself and his sister killed, and to that end is doing what he can to prevent Pearl from listening to Preacher Powell. If Pearl gives away the hiding place of the money then the murdering can begin and she (along with all the other women) has taken a powerful liking to Preacher Powell. Now, it doesn’t seem that John knows that death must follow if he yields to the fork-tongued words of the preacher, but he has promised his father to keep the money hid, and he knows that only evil can come of Preacher Powell. The overt symbolism of the film can’t fail to bring to mind the temptation in Eden and points to what might have happened if Adam hadn’t yielded to Eve but instead had been willing to die for her. That might seem to be a comment from out of the blue and requiring exposition, but I don’t want to have you watch the movie with an analytical eye, but also couldn’t let you watch it and walk away with only an amused and disturbed state of mind to show for it.

I’ve watched this film again and again and never reviewed it because I couldn’t do it justice (and haven’t here)—there is too much to say and too indescribable an atmosphere in this movie. Watch this movie. It is one of the best American movies ever made. It can be rented on Amazon, iTunes, and Youtube and for the couple bucks you’ll spend you will be sitting down to one of the strangest, most terrifying and most beautiful films you’ve ever seen.

All the President’s Men

There are at least two kinds of detective stories, some which are driven by clues and some which are fueled by the characters. Great writers blend the two seamlessly, but even among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries there is a special appeal to A Study in Scarlet because it is a great pleasure to watch Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes become acquainted. Of the two vehicles for such stories, the more sure is character, and so all good detectives are either in partnership or at least ensure they have a good sidekick and work in a big office where they are looked upon as a liability.

All the President’s Men begins with a break-in, a burglary which was to create a sensation, at the Watergate Hotel. Soon after we see the botched robbery, we are placed in the offices of the Washington Post and can rest easy, knowing we are watching another investigative reporter flick. When Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are chosen by the newspaper magnates to pursue the initial leads, it seems as though we know what sort of detective story we are sitting upon: who would pay to have two such actors if their characters were not going to drive the plot?

Indeed, the investigation stands accused just as suspected. Hoffman plays an old hand, whose loose reporting has him in hot water with the brass—he is the sort of reporter who might balk at typing the word ‘allege’ and all its conjugates. Redford is new to the paper and eager to make his mark and, perhaps, is also interested in discovering the truth. There is friction at first: Hoffman takes what Redford writes and polishes it without permission, and when doubt is thrown on their efforts they accuse each other of making mistakes; but their fusion is quickly accomplished and the paper is, for the most part, willing to stand by their reports. The structure of the film is all wrong if we want to hammer it into a readymade hole.

I do not think it is generally advisable to use the title of a work to argue to its conclusions, As You Like It is not a relativistic play nor is the main character of Ivanhoe the knight of that name, but when ordinary means for understanding a work of art are not forthcoming, a return to the title can give the necessary clue without which we could go astray. All the President’s Men is about… all the president’s men. As Redford and Hoffman go door to door and make numberless phone calls their personalities hold our interest and underpin the story, but the story is not about them, it is about those whom they interview. Much of their time is spent trying to confirm their hunches and leads, but they are baffled everywhere they turn; no one is willing to go on record. The film is about all those who could expose the scandal and about their fear. It is about those men to whom the camera never turns, those powerful men within the Whitehouse entrusted with the president’s campaigning. In a clever shot (or rather, a splicing of shots) at the end of the film the television in the lower left shows Nixon’s swearing in while in the top right Hoffman and Redford type out the story which will sink his presidency; the film is finally about the precarious nature of wrongdoing when greed jumps the fence and runs free of the law.

All the President’s Men is available on Netflix, and on many other platforms for rent and purchase. I definitely recommend you watch it if you have Netflix, are interested in the detective genre, or want to learn more about the events surrounding Watergate. The movie is enjoyable, but perhaps not great.

Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock, 1940)

It seems as though I have a dislike for Hitchcock’s style. With eleven of his movies under my belt, I have the data to say, with little extrapolation, that the later the movie the less I like it: The Birds was a grand disappointment; Vertigo was dependent on the twist, the acting, and its grittiness; North by Northwest only held my interest so long as I anticipated the famous blue and yellow scene which was a challenge to make suspenseful. In mid-career he made some great movies, Rear Window or I Confess perhaps being the best of them and Rope the most faux. Early in his career, though, he made the enjoyable 39 Steps, and the movie I watched this evening—Foreign Correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent is a straightforward investigative-reporter film in which we are allowed to see the game before the game is up. Not only are we privy to the gentle insinuations of Hitchcock’s low-key direction, but it doesn’t take long for us to be left alone in a room eavesdropping on the conspirators of the plot, which is a bid to force secret treaty information from a signee of the treaty before general war breaks out in Europe, and we learn what the protagonist will spend his time trying to discover. The good characters are good, the bad are bad, and the ambivalent man is sympathetically so. This simplicity of characters and genre goes a long way toward making the twists and chases unambiguously enjoyable and lets the audience settle back and revel in the pursuit without having the unsettling feeling that the girl will prove a tramp or the hero a shyster. Perhaps the film is blessed by its timing: released in 1940, between the beginning of the war and the entrance of America, it knows who the enemy is and isn’t jaded or calloused.

The forthright story is ably accompanied by deft camerawork. The shots are elegant, and nearly all the work lucid. I don’t know that Hitchcock succeeded in taking the elegance of his early work to the full-spectrum color of his later films, but here, in this film, he is certainly in his element, and the sureness of his camera, which never moves unnecessarily, is a tribute to his grasp of his art. The disconcerting camera angles of his later movies are perhaps foreshadowed, but not indulged, while his ability to place the action firmly in concrete places is superb. There is, it must be said, an unfortunate sequence in a windmill which fails to transcend the set: the lighting in the mill is wrong, the geometries of sight are off, and stairs initially sturdy enough for a man running up them to be unheard by men directly beneath are then loud enough for a man in another room surrounded by the moving mill gears to hear men walking up the stairs. The distancing effect of this failure is particularly unfortunate since the scene concludes the only lengthy chase sequence in the film, but the scene does redeem itself somewhat by being a fitting fusion of the surreal with the mystifying conclusion of the sequence.

One of the real pleasures of this film is the love story. It is understated and a little abrupt, but it fits so neatly into the plot development that it is charming. Much of the dramatic progression and our sympathy for all involved depends on its course so that although it seems as though it should not hold much weight in this tale of the coming of war, it plays the perfect sidekick.

How can I hold a dislike for Hitchcock’s style when I have found him so elegant and lucid? His lucidity, his ability to say what he intends, is only perfected as his makes further movies, but the elegance of his style suffers when he begins to use color. I don’t think he ever masters color and he is incapable of excluding distractions when he switches to it. As for the third element of style, individuality, as he develops, he lets his motifs (manipulative music, unsettling twists, odd angles, and overemphasis on the psychological element) have too much play. But if you watch the early Hitchcock you can see his genius unobscured by his eccentricities.

Foreign Correspondent is available on the Criterion Channel’s streaming service, and for rent from the Apple Store. I strongly recommend abandoning Netflix if you have it and getting a subscription to the Criterion Channel, but if you are only occasionally going to watch a movie, by all means spend a couple bucks and watch this wonderful movie.

The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers is one of the great comedies, and comedies are a hard thing to pull off. Why is this so? Since the primary aim of comedy is to let you give yourself up to laugher for a few hours, albeit such an aim does not preclude the inclusion of deeper currents of thought, there is a danger that the comedy will never develop enough depth to withstand a slowing of the comedic pace. That there are very few films which elicit continuous laugher throughout is sign enough that comedy itself is a fickle vehicle for a movie; a comedy driven by laugher alone cannot sustain momentum through its less raucous scenes. Look at modern comedies: how many of them fall flat after twenty minutes? Nearly all of them. Their problem is that although they have a promising premise, they lack a structure which permits the divorcing of character and plot development from laughter; when the laugher becomes sporadic to make room for development, they stall. Structure and pacing are paramount in comedy, which may explain in some way why we speak of comedic timing but never of tragic timing.

The Ladykillers is one of the great comedies because of its structure: its laughs are as golden as they come, as good as those in its more famous cousin, Arsenic and Old Lace, but its structure is what sets it apart. The film runs for ninety minutes, and if you divide it in half and then roughly into fifteen minutes segments you can see the carefully constructed foundation upon which it builds its laughs. It is at the halfway point in the film that it takes a sinister turn, turning from a light comedy to a dark one. Of course, the characters are the same, and sinister, in the second half, but instead of having robbery in mind they have murder. Here is a chart in which the movie is broken in half and sixths:

1st 2nd 3rd
Intro to Situation
Conflicts introduced (lighthearted) Climax: Robbery
Boccherini Boccherini
In the house, odd angles
ends with unitive roof scene
Begins with separation of antagonists
4th 5th 6th
Intro to situation
Conflict Introduced (hard-edged) Climax: Murder
2nd musical piece 2nd musical Piece
In the house, muffled angles
ends with divisive roof scene
Begins with separation of antagonists

 

This structure is not perfectly rigid, but the exceptions to it highlight the unity of the parts. Take, for instance, the Boccherini theme which plays continually in the lighthearted 2nd and 3rd parts, is identified at the halfway point by the old lady of the house, Mrs. Wilberforce, and then never heard again until the end where it takes on a maniacal form.  Again, the frightening aspect of Alec Guinness’s character is present, but played for laughs, in the first moments of the film although it properly belongs to the darker 2nd half where it helps define the mood.

One particularly brilliant move the film makes is having the same sets of antagonists in the first and second part and tying the two conflicts together causally. When the first conflict turns from trying to use a clueless old lady as an unwitting accomplice for a robbery to trying to kill her, the second conflict turns from questioning what sort of faith a man of action can put in such a plan to how to escape from the ghoulish brain who came up with the plan to begin with. Whereas the music and setting of the scenes unify the parts which are separated temporally, the unity of the different narrative threads is achieved by the causal connection between them.

As you watch this movie you may not really see the structure, you may be laughing too much to notice it beyond the abrupt dropping of the Boccherini theme, but it is the form on which the movie rests. Whether this brief description of that form is enough to make you watch the movie only you can say—I’ve yet to meet someone who watched a comedy for its structure. Watch it for its laughs, but be thankful that someone once put so much effort into giving you something to unwind to.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7 begins with a consideration of death. The only color in the film is that of the tarot cards in the opening sequence; after that there is an exquisite black-and-white. The color had illuminated a gritty world which the descent to monochrome masks just in time to face the despairing Cleo’s bracing manifesto ‘As long as I am beautiful, I am even more alive than the others.’ The film might well take these words to itself.

Cleo and her film together step away from the presence of death and conceal themselves: Cleo into the bustle of a Parisian evening, the film into the intimate life of Cleo. How intimately can she be seen? Only as much as she will expose herself. On the way to her rooms she stops to buy a hat and is momentarily, yet tellingly, roused from her poor spirits. From 5 to 7 are the lovers’ hours in Paris, and when she returns, crushed by death’s portend, to her flat from the fortuneteller’s apartment the arrival of a lover is expected.

The lover arrives and goes, a man too busy to look at Cleo and see her panic; she is outside his life and he outside hers. What we need is some music: enter the songwriters, those who ought to know the passions, desires, and needs of Cleo. They cannot, even with music, touch Cleo’s soul, and when they accidentally do, they are wrapped up in something beyond their comprehension. In the most powerful scene of the film Cleo sings of the loneliness of the ugliness of death, and no one gets it—to them it is just a song, they dare not let it be more.

Cleo flees, and finds herself, in the end, seeking out her friend, who models part time and is comfortable with her nakedness, a nakedness which makes her happy, not proud. Where Cleo was unable to await her lover naked, instead adorning herself in pretentious, carefully considered negligee, her young friend happily reveals her beauty to a consort of unknown artists. Until this meeting I do not think Cleo could be taken seriously when she equated beauty with life, but suddenly, seeing her contrasted with her friend, she is taken in deadly earnest. She claims that she is worn out always looking at herself while pretending that she is looking at others looking at her. Here she touches upon a question worthy of minds like Walker Percy and St. John Paul the Great and exposes the film in all its depth.

The film is no longer hidden away, but is Cleo also able to return to a sense of innocent nakedness? That is the question the film is willing to reveal, but I do not think I will answer it here. Whether or not this film is a tragedy depends on the answer to this question. Does she see another and is she seen by another’s loving look, as St. Augustine describes man’s desire? That is the question behind the film’s art; mirrors and reflections are almost constantly present on the scene forcing us to keep this question in mind; Cleo is living in the eyes of others, terrified of ceasing to be, and knowing that ‘man is a being who tries to have an air of being, even if he does not wholly succeed in convincing himself that he is somebody’. The fear of being an ‘anybody’ hinders her from being a ‘somebody’—there must needs be a person to affirm Cleo. But is she looking in the right place? In the unnamed Parisian crowds? Jeramiah warned, ‘In vain you beautify yourself; your lovers despise you; they seek your life.’ Does she heed the warning or does she smother her beauty in artificial illusion?

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

This movie, with its convoluted punctuation, is a fun way to spend two hours and ten minutes, the downside being that you are nearly required by etiquette to stay in your seat for another twenty minutes. It delivers what we have come to expect from the Mission Impossible franchise: clever twists in the plots, action-packed sequences, and Tom Cruise’s good looks. I smiled broadly at the revealing of the first twist in the film, and that silly grin remained plastered on my face for a good two hours more. The clever, tongue-in-cheek exchanges between Tom Cruise and his cocky CIA counterpart are good for a few laughs, a few classic who’s-wearing-a-mask tricks tickle your apprehension, and the myriad of good looking girls (some of whom are quite handy in a pinch) keep up the glamour which, in justice, should surround a man with Ethan’s talents. I guess there are perks to always being undercover. I guess there is a downside as well: arriving in Kashmir only to find that your ex-wife who has been ‘ghosting’ for years is there with her new lover and is in danger of being killed in a nuclear blast and also of derailing your action driven plot. Thankfully for Cruise, there is nothing more to do than to fly around in a helicopter and then kill the bad guy, all pleasing and distracting cleverness was left behind in the sewers of Paris. It is from Paris onward that the film devolves into a monotonous race against time, and what better way to add intensity than an ex-wife? Nonetheless, Tom Cruise does not disappoint, and is as enjoyable to watch as he ever has been.

Titanic (1943)

Although this movie is thoroughly enjoyable, it is unable to rise beyond the propagandist element. It was made by a German during the Second World War, and it shows. It belabors an Anglophobic message, introducing each German character at length and even spending much time explaining their presence on this English-speaking enterprise. Our hero is a German officer; the true-love story (the only one blind to money) is between two German third-class passengers. According to this story, the ship sank because of a Wall Street (or Fleet Street) feud between the owner and the richest American on board.

Because of this feud, which dominates the first two-thirds of the movie, the actual sinking of the ship is only seen accidentally and as a consequence of British greed. If you missed the implication, it is literally spelt out at the end of the movie. This subservience of the sinking to the propaganda artistically takes away from the tragic nature of the catastrophe; the panic among the passengers and their partially constructed stories are muted throughout the beginning and unfortunately rushed at the end.

The acting and directing are quite good; in an effort to first immerse the audience in the glamour and arrogance of British industrial might and then in the dynamic panic and rush of disaster, Titanic is shot in such a way that nearly every shot is magnificently layered and crowds and mobs are frequently moving in the background. This gives a certain spectacular effect which the British film A Night to Remember does not match, but takes away from the necessary impression that these characters are people who are each facing their end in their own way. As for special effects, which demand a note, Titanic too clearly uses a model and thus there is a separation between the ship’s floundering and the characters affected.