Saturday, February 26, 2011

Touch of Evil (1958)

Directed by Orson Welles.
Starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh.
In a Nutshell: A corrupt sheriff and upright narcotics officer clash over a murder case.

Given a final bid at an American audience, Orson Welles pulled out all the stops for his B-movie cop-thriller noir. Panned then, acclaimed now, it offers the goods with such immense conviction that it rejects an involvement beyond admiration. It is a film that broaches themes as varied as drug enforcement, racial tension and corruption without using them for more than framework for its plot. And yet it hardly needs thematic discourse, not with such energetic filmmaking prowess on display. The plot itself is overshadowed by the ideological showdown between two investigators of a recent murder; self-righteous narcotics official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and crooked “police celebrity” Hank Quinlan (Welles). While Vargas officiates a by-the-book approach, Quinlan is suspected of planting false evidence to incriminate the most likely suspect (who may be a target of Quinlan’s racism). Vargas suspects this as all too commonplace for Quinlan’s investigations while Quinlan is choked with bitterness, believing that his past police work let his wife’s killer go free.

Drowning in fatsuit padding, Welles makes for a memorable tyrant. His pathos is cohesive, but never in the foreground as the film calls for comeuppance without enlightenment. Again, the audience gets a plot detail rather than anything “meaningful.” But again, it hardly detracts. In fact, Touch of Evil teems with so much detail that it illuminates its own stark luridness and amoral complexity, maybe even for film noir as a whole. That famous opening shot oversees the hustle and bustle of the bordertown, zeroing in on Vargas and his bride, Susan (Janet Leigh). Their newlywed bliss is centered in a shot beginning with a bomb being wound and ending with its detonation in a car’s trunk. It is a flicker of pleasure that becomes trapped within our witness to the main crime. By the end, Susan will be brutalized by the film’s characters and marginalized by its story.

Taken as mere execution over concept, Touch of Evil exemplifies the sort of tonal and visual panache that can make film such an intoxicating medium (pardon my hyperbole). It is a film built on strokes of filmmaking, from Welles sweeping camera movements and jagged cutting to colorful bursts of acting from the stock players. Henry Mancini saturates the screen with a jazzy soundtrack that veers from sinister to vulgar to explosive rage. It is no wonder it became a staple influence of the French New Wave’s experimentation. Touch of Evil is nothing but craft, a dark, indelible testament to the surface medium.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.
In a Nutshell: A teenage hoodlum is brainwashed into rejecting immorality.

A directorial career rife with controversy, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ satire may stand as one of his most contentiously debated. Branding it Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange seems adequate for the crucial variation on Burgess’ thesis. Violence and sexual deviancy are not just youthful sins that time’s passage shall erode but traits ingrained within our very being (just as the apes evolved into violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). We can choose to obey such instincts; the film argues that the ability to retain that choice is far more crucial than leading a chosen life of compassion. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) has made the wrong choice, beating, stealing and raping the denizens of dystopian London. Far from acting out of desperation, Alex feels an unexplainable zeal for his actions, matched only by his appreciation for Beethoven. An accidental murder lands him in jail where he volunteers for an experiment that would “cure” him of sin. Alex’s treatment is a success, but due to an unintended side effect, listening Beethoven brings on crippling sickness. A hollowed-out soul, Alex must face a future eager for his suffering.

There is a lot to love in this film including McDowell’s magnetic performance and Wendy Carlos’ bizarre score. Its thematic presentation can be a difficult experience to detach from, if only from Kubrick’s brazen manipulation of his audience. Alex is our first-person perspective, and the entire film is shaped in his morally repugnant mind. Scenes of violence and rape are distinguished by inappropriate soundtrack cues (typically classical music for an air of faux-refinement). Many of those scenes burst with vitality while several post-incarceration scenes drag from thematic repetition and over-attention to detail. Supporting performances are grotesque caricatures, with authority figures characterized as corrupt and self-interested.

All of this seems destined to elevate Alex into the only true sympathetic character. One can only ascertain Kubrick’s intentions from these elements. Alex may find joy in the pain of others, but those restricting that choice seem just as immoral (or in this context, worse). The film seems to thumb its nose at those angling to reform “instinct” but seems more willing towards juvenile condemnation than anything too probing. Its subject matter may be too polarizing to be viewed without one’s biases providing its own interpretation. But it is still admirable how Kubrick never falters in his devil’s advocacy. If you do not agree, who is he to make up your mind?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Directed by John Huston.
Starring Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern.
In a Nutshell: A group of criminals pull off a heist with devastating consequences.

It can be said with some confidence that nearly every heist movie can be traced back here, one that owes that distinction to weakening censorship of the Production Code. Specifically this refers to the actual heist itself, a detailed centerpiece celebrated for its authenticity. Every action, every move is studied, slowly sealing the fate of the crooked men behind it all. The Asphalt Jungle is pure noir abandoning a potboiler appeal for a thesis on societal decay and amorality. Though that is markedly less engaging compared to its narrowed character focus; seasoned criminals upholding their degenerate lives with dignity, if only to escape desperation. Atalented cast of supporting actors handles the characterization; highlights include Louis Calhern as the financer wrestling with a burdensome conscience, and Sam Jaffe as the mastermind whose clipped delivery suggests an incarnation of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Director John Huston revels in constructing the house of cards, though it may leave some finding the first act shapeless. But once the heist collapses, the plot momentum moves with crushing intensity, undoubtedly the film’s greatest strength. Despite its judgeless lens on the criminal element, it offers little authentic insight. Its portrayal of the law is no better; cops are flabby, corrupt or John McIntire’s snarling bulldog. Though such complaints feel extraneous given its necessity to the plot, one already colored by enough fine atmospheric detail. The Asphalt Jungle leaves little to chew over, but it exists beyond its moralistic musings. A well-to-do stroke of masterful Huston storytelling.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Secret Honor (1984)

Directed by Robert Altman.
Starring Philip Baker Hall.
In a Nutshell: A fictionalized portrayal of former President Nixon’s reflections.

What sort of truth can be ascertained within fiction? Particularly when it so brazenly skews well-documented fact? Secret Honor attempts this, showcasing a memoir, drunkenly dictated by Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall). The account is near-complete fabrication, but portrayed as if it could have happened. Nixon himself is not quite the man we know, more of an expansion on his public persona. Though that would in fact make him a more familiar figure than the “real” Nixon; self-righteous, bitter and willing to stand before the American people their victim. Hall treads that line between embodiment and impersonation in a similar vein, running the emotional gamut to near apoplexy (not a criticism per se, but a clear example of how jarring stage acting can sometimes feel on film). He veers from emotional high to low, dotted with sputtering digressions and unconscious profanity, expertly exposing Nixon’s wounds underneath.

Ever the dependable “actor’s director,” Altman observes with little fanfare. Though he does restate one noticeable motif; Nixon’s image in a television monitor; a parallel to his own self-created image, now washed out and trapped in recorded history. This image created by Altman, Hall and writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (the latter a former lawyer for the Justice Department and the National Security Agency) is able balance both sides of the political spectrum. Nixon is still the left’s adversary, but abused by his friends on the right into a man willing to extend the Vietnam War for drug money. This Nixon can only absolve himself by his own hand and the movie presents an intriguing invention to the Watergate scandal. Without aligning with any real history, it does well to exploring the shady moral waters that run our country, and what sort of man it produced. Or could have produced and probably did anyhow.