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.

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?

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s most famous movie, is deceptively simple in its presentation. The tricks employed are famous: the continually sinking camera and the continually narrowing lens bring you closer and closer into the claustrophobic action; the parts of a single heated dialogue were often filmed weeks apart as part of a lighting scheme meant to keep the film within its budget. All of this heartache was for a strange purpose: having a movie that seemed to be shot in a single, small, shrinking room. The smaller the set the simpler and cheaper the production, no? If filming on the smaller set costs so much, why not work with something a bit bigger? There is a Russian adaption of this movie which sidesteps many difficulties by having the jurors meet in a gym, but by doing so the play is irrevocable altered; in such a visual medium as film the sense of place can be protagonistic in its effect.

The room into which the men first file is an uncomfortable one: greasy walls, sticky windows, a broken fan, a bare table and a dozen chairs (trials were probably shorter before the advent of AC). It is a room meant for a single purpose and demanding undivided attention for whatever case is to hand: as the truth is approached there is less room—the walls themselves force confrontation with oneself. What is it like to have the world collapse upon you?

Lee Cobb, credited as ‘Juror 3’ and known as ‘The Big Man’ in our discussions about the film, expresses his boredom and feigns an open mind when he attempts to label the matter a clear-cut case. Since only Henry Fonda’s character does not immediately agree with Cobb the focus seems to shift to Fonda, and also, since Fonda is thwarting a quick and easy decision, around him the conversation centers. There are ways to understand this film while taking Fonda as the protagonist, but I believe there is more here than a good man willing to make space for the truth, and that Cobb is the man to watch—if Cobb had held out for another ten minutes he may well have been the only man left in the room threatening him with isolated self-reflection.

We do not wish to be found guilty of our sins, we hope to deny them, or, finding that impossible, we wish others to take them upon themselves. Not thinking the latter is likely, we choose to impose the guilt upon those around us and use their supposed grime to wash ourselves clean.  A man might wish to blame his boss for his own lousy performance or a father his son for their differences; an uncompromising man, however, would know that to rest there is not to escape guilt, for who is party to the strife but themselves? It must go further, the blame must be attributed to a nature, the nature of bosses, of sons, of whomever else can have the accusation laid at their feet: ‘If all sons, if all bosses, are like this, then clearly it is simply accidental that I am involved—the blame couldn’t be mine’.

There is another way, a way which ends in admitting that all are guilty for all before all. ‘I am guilty’ is the beginning of this way, and an understanding of universal guilt the result of seeing the evil around you. Once you can understand this, you can love Him who is willing to come and take your guilt upon Himself although He alone can truly say ‘I am not guilty’. And in that love, and through Him, you can love those around you for the good He has universally given.

Holding to a belief in your innocence will lead you to a solitary isolation as those around you necessarily abandon you and you abandon them to your despair. In your mind, if not in further ways, they shall switch sides and stand against you and your world shall shrink heedlessly into a cell built of your own pride and hate. Forced to confront the truth you must despair or cave beneath the pressure of a collapsing world, condemn yourself, and say of the other: ‘not guilty’.

Braven

There has been a surge in gritty dramas set back in the woods and trying to give you a solid sense of place: the best is Wind River (although a slight back-look would bring Winter’s Bone, the exemplar, to view); the most highly acclaimed, Three Billboards. Braven follows their lead, and signals the cementation of a niche in film. Frankly, it is formulaic and uninteresting except to show that the genera is now established enough to have a formula.

The film is short, only 90 minutes, but could have readily been cut down to a happy  40 if you would be content with watching a logger, Joe, defend his family by repeatedly neglecting the gun near at hand and wielding instead a burning ax, or a winch, or a bear trap. Some movies are the survival by your wits type; Braven makes you wonder if Joe can survive the onslaught of his wits.

If you are not the sort to be so contented, perhaps watch the opening credits which at least will not disappoint you. The best scene of the movie is the felling of a tree just before the predictable 50 minute character build-up, or pile-up, begins. It was nice to see the absence of a troubled past replaced by the presence of a troubled old man who mistakes the present for the past and causes trouble. Other than that, and the slightest deviation of musical score, we are looking at a man who works, who expresses his deep love for his wife by horseplay and teasing, who is followed, even in restful moments, by a camera man who needs to cut back on the coffee and a director who needs to cut back on the cutting. I don’t know if the advent of drone technology is to blame, but it seems you can’t have a car drive down a snowy road these days without the camera peeping over the top of the trees and looking for an epic shot.

Buster Keaton never shot the same stunt twice, if it didn’t work he found another; a scene lost life when filmed again. Braven tried to mimic shots already produced and then when dead shots was all that it had, it tried to bring itself to life by imitating the musical score of the living members of its genera.

Dunkirk

Excerpts from Nolan’s diary:

1

I awoke this morning feeling today will be extraordinary, ambitious, and groundbreaking. Not ordinary thoughts of ordinary men, but I am no longer an ordinary man. Last night I got my hands on a camera with untapped potential, and I am going to tap it. I’ve had ideas since when I was a kid of breaking the barriers of film, and this camera should be the very tool I need. It shall be the star of my movie, the best in a cast of one.

2

I’ve been having difficulties with this camera, I’m afraid it is not all it was toted to be. I had hoped so much to forgo particulars and capture ‘isms’ in their essential transcendence, but I can’t seem to focus on universals with this thing. It is always nearsighted, and so I think I will need to rouse up some people to stand between the camera and the essence of humanity; a few old planes and boats should do to represent the utmost of human endeavor. Sandhurst rang me up, and they have three Spitfires I can use. This is a most excellent bit of luck as I believe the Spitfire is just the craft to represent glorious individualism. (remember to use the Spitfire whenever I don’t know what else to film)

3

Upon reflection, I am glad I only have about ten planes in all: three Spitfires and a half-dozen German planes. This removes the temptation to film a battle while I’m filming my survivalist humanist pic. But war is the sort of thing I need to set my particulars in…damn technology and its inability to transcend.

4

I’ve thought of the perfect event, Dunkirk. It has all the elements I need: individual-humanism against God-nature-indifferentism, human-individualism against human-machine-destructionism, humanity against rationalism and defeatism and big government. I want to do something different here, put in some twist. I am thinking of making the Germans be the ones on the beach and the British be the bad guys with the Stukas.

5

I’ve decided to go with the complexity of three different timelines instead of a twist. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the movie couldn’t be affected by the swapping the Germans and the British and I didn’t want to bother with the German accents which I find not as convincing as the British sentimentalism.  If the audience is German or sympathetic to them, I am sure their accents will not get in the way of their imagining that the British are the Germans. (I sometimes think now about how humanity in its essence is able to be impacted by events and my films)

6

I’ve come a long way with the timelines. One is a day, one a week, and one an hour. This is very exciting and groundbreaking. I thought of also making it meaningful, but was afraid I might have to add a story line or human interest on a particular level to do that, and I must continue to stand firm against the flaws of the cinematic medium. Another possibility was to have the different threads meet up in an interesting way, but have opted for a couple overlaps in shots and a little backtracking. I am afraid that if I start putting characters together they might come to resemble government, or community, or something other than the quintessential individualism that has brought humanism to the fore.

7

Spitballed with Hans today. Sketched the idea for him and he was aboard in a moment. He told me he was inspired and would start working on something pronto. 45 minutes later he phoned me back and told me he had just sent over my soundtrack. I was of course delighted and surprised. Listening to it I realized it was just the sort minimalist modernism I needed, with a lot of that brilliant squeaky fast stuff which is SOOO suspenseful. I was flummoxed by the note he attached:

I’ve long wished for a visionary to bravely come forward and make this film. Raymond is a danger to our culture, my involvement with his creation and deification is truly the one regret of my professional career. Euthanasia is the new frontier, and I am glad that having worked together on the last frontier in Interstellar, we have together broached the next. DUA.

But the score was perfect, and so I merely thanked him for his ingenious help and chalked up the note to his eccentric humor.

8

Began filming today and found my lead. I had an excellent idea for the opening shot. It is going to be quite the most perfect shot of the movie. I had a few guys in British uniforms browsing a street and told some of them to die when shots were fired. They took it a bit far and all of them died but one and I figured that I may as well make him the focus of the week-timeline until he decided to fling the old arms up. It was a bit confusing really, since I hadn’t meant to be quite so focused on a single person in the beach scenes, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be one of a set of triplets, but now I think that my decision to run with him is justification enough for H calling me a visionary.

9

I added an old man in a boat today. I was only going to have a boat going across the channel for the day-timeline, but Kenneth Branagh said that he had difficulty bring the tear to his eye when the home pleasure fleet arrived and that listening to Hans’ wailing violins on loop was only making him irritated, not tearful. I thankfully remembered a punch article I read as a kid which listed the 40 stereotypical lines sure to invoke English stiff-upper-lip patriotism and not so formal gratitude. So I gave my boat a captain and a mate. There was some kid hanging around the wharf who insisted on being in the movie, and I was feeling benevolent so I let him onboard. It is a bit crowded on this boat and the kid can’t act, but I’ll figure something out.

10

I’m a bit worried about where my boat captain is going with this part of his. Give a mouse a cookie…

I brought Mr. Rylance on board to help Kenneth relate to the arrival of the fleet, and now I find he is threatening the whole endeavor; he is trying so hard to break through the script and be a virtuous hero. Thankfully he is erring on the mushy sentimental side, but even that is not quite as abstract as I could wish for.

11

Whenever I become too stressed from MR’s attempts to portray a character I switch over to Tom Hardy and his Spitfire: thank God for Sandhurst and Tom’s eyes. (Those eyes!) He is perfect in the role, and the role is perfect: no real interaction with anyone and the surreal voice of Michael Caine self-consciously proclaiming Oedipus prognostications. Humanity and Fate alone in the void—that is the fiber of my vision. I really didn’t write much for Tom to say, but I spent much ink on the stage directions ‘zigzag with a ME 109 for a long time and stagger gunfire effects too late on all the passes’. HVH is a master at interpretation here.

12

It has been a long time since my last entry, the work has been overwhelming. Of the 400,000 extras I had hired only a few thousand showed up. Of the extras that did show up some  thought they were not extras at all, the strangest being some dude who just started talking in the beached boat scene, and accused one of the other extras of being a spy. It was very strange and I thought we would have to continue to reshoot the scene, although we are going to use it after all now that we have been through the first full screening. Thankfully he hadn’t said anything which would date his accusations and we could use his paranoia to our advantage.

That screening was rough. No one there understood what I was doing. They wanted story, plot, character, involvement. No ‘ism’ was even mentioned. They insisted that I add development, climax and resolution. I haggled with them and pleaded with them to leave my brainchild essentially untouched, and eventually we compromised. I didn’t have to add any story arcs or structure, but instead was permitted to add vignettes, little burps of climax without resolution, which incidentally solved some residual problems, like the dockhand who couldn’t act, and permitted us to insert a very pretty Stuka dive we hadn’t found a place for.

I think this is a masterpiece.