Friday, April 20, 2018

Clash By Night

Clash By Night (Fritz Lang, 1952) Interesting. Fritz Lang directing Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe in an adaptation of a play by Clifford Odets (produced on stage by Billy Rose!). Talk about clashes. The events take place in a fishing town and Lang gets a lot of mileage with shots of Nature—seals, gulls and a violently crashing surf—drawing parallels between the various top-feeders trying to take advantage of the spoils of the fishing fleet's daily labors. They're scavengers of opportunities and Lang keeps the beasts on land and sea in the same universe, making a more direct and poetic pictorial comment on the squalid life in town than any amount of purple Odets prose can provide.
Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) comes back to Monterey, after years on the road, to move back into the family house with her brother (Keith Andes).  "Home is where you come when you run out of other places," she snarls. But her purpose is not to settle down so much as to lick wounds. Her search for a better, easier life than working in a cannery (like Monroe's Peggy) or marrying a fisherman and raising kids has proven a bitter disappointment. She slinks back into town ("Home is where you go when you run out of places") and word gets 'round that Joe's sister's back, which attracts the attention of Jerry D'Amato (Douglas), a bachelor-fisherman living with his widowed father (Silvio Minciotti) and sleazy Uncle Vince (J. Carroll Naish). Mae and Jerry start seeing each other, but she rejects any advances he makes, telling him he doesn't even know her, "what kind of animal I am.  Do I have fangs?  Do I purr?"  
He takes her to meet his friend Earl (Robert Ryan), whom Jerry describes as "in the movie business;" He runs the projector at the local bijou. Earl's one piece of work. A sour drinker, married to a vaudeville dancer, he'll tell you all about what's wrong with women to your date. "Take any six of them. Throw them up in the air. The one who sticks to the ceiling, I like."* Mae is repulsed, but Jerry is still loyal to Earl, even though he'll talk bad about his friend behind his back.  "Jerry's the salt of the Earth—but he's not the right seasoning for you." (Ugh. Odets) Again, Mae's reaction to Earl is to be repulsed, which sends her right into the arms of Jerry, and any previous objections she had to marrying him are suddenly forgotten. Before long, they're hitched and have a daughter, which is upsetting to Jerry's opportunistic Uncle Vince, who will never put up with anything that interrupts his mooching lifestyle. Jerry ends up throwing him out.
But, Mae is still restless, and complications ensue that tie back to life in the animal kingdom, and the charm of aggressive males.  Because the movie then starts to take place solely at night, there are those that will call this a "film noir," the genre most commonly associated with gangsters, surly private eyes, never-spoken-of family secrets, and the evil impulses of men. Got the last one right, as the worst of people gets the better of others. But, the film noir genre is less prominent than the soap opera one, and it doesn't help that the material is sometimes eye-rollingly colorful. Still, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Lang's hand is sure, and makes puts everything in the proper perspective.

* This is one of the problems I have with Odets as a writer: that sentiment must mean something—at least to Odets—but it makes no sense to the rest of humanity, which is supposed to be his audience.  I suppose it means that Earl doesn't like any woman; there's a better way to say it, I'm sure.  But then I don't like Odets much—take any six of his works.  Throw them up in the air.  The one that sticks to reality, I like.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Death of Stalin

Dr. Strangebedfellows: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Bury the Politburo
"How Can You Run and Plot at the Same Time?"

"The Death of Stalin is aimed at inciting hatred and enmity, violating the dignity of the Russian (Soviet) people, promoting ethnic and social inferiority, which points to the movie’s extremist nature. We are confident that the movie was made to distort our country’s past so that the thought of the 1950s Soviet Union makes people feel only terror and disgust."
Petition from the Russian Cultural Ministry

"[a] western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society"
Public Council of the Russian Ministry of Culture

Oh, those poor Russkies.  They finagle our elections, annex territories, disrupt social media, and conspire with tyrants, while bagging as many rubles for themselves in their so-called "everybody-is-equal" political system. 

But, criticize them and they bleat like sheep.

Never mind that the director has been making fun of the British and Americans with his past work—like In the Loop and "Veep"—that no doubt cheers them and think are a laugh riot. But, turn the same satirical eye against them and it's a plot to "destabilise" Russia. As if they needed any help doing that themselves.

In a rather reflective "coalition of the willing" The Death of Stalin combines French, British and American forces; it started as a french comic book, and is a combination of Brit and Yank talents to bring it to the screen. Maybe the Culture Ministry feels that's a little too much attacking from the same forces. Satire does raise hackles. However, the satire of In the Loop and "Veep" produced an echoing silence (tacit approval?) while The Death of Stalin creates howls of protest and conspiracy concerns. What's good for the goose is not always good for the self-satisfied gander. 

So, what's causing the fuss? The Death of Stalin looks at the scrambling done by the prominent members of the Politburo following Stalin's death by a cerebral hemorrhage on March 5, 1953.
The events begin when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) requests a recording of a performance he'd heard on Radio Moscow that night. Unfortunately, when the live concert was broadcast, a recording was not made—but one does not disappoint Stalin (one might get shot). So, a second impromptu concert is staged, paying off the piano soloist (Olga Kurylenko), to repeat the performance and rousting a replacement conductor from his bed, after the original one suffers a debilitating accident while fainting at the prospect of any potential consequences. The pianist includes a note with the recording, deriding the Premier, whose reaction (either from the note or the poor rushed recording) prompts his stroke. The guards outside his door hear him collapse, but, having orders not to disturb his sleep under penalty of death, do nothing but hold their post.
The next morning, the dacha housemaid enters the room and finds Stalin unconscious on the floor. Phone calls are made—not to any "good" doctors as many of them have been purged—but to the senior officials under Stalin. They include Georgy Malenkox (Jeffrey Tambor)—who has been rumored to be replaced (and killed) in Stalin's plans, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the security director of the secret police, the NKVD, and Moscow Party Leader Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), who is awakened by the news and is so exercised about the event that he arrives at the dacha in pants and pajamas. Beria manages to get there first, finds the body and searches for the key to Stalin's files and manages to smuggle some out. Before Krushchev and Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) can arrive, Beria convinces Malenkov that he should be the next Premier, knowing that he's weak and easily influenced. When Krushchev and Kaganovich enter the room, Beria and Krushchev begin to butt heads over who can out-blackmail the other to gain a stronger footing.
But, one should never count their hens. When Stalin is moved by the four (with the help of Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Nikolai Buganin (Paul Chahidi) to his bed and examined by the best doctors not currently in prison or a gulag, it looks like the Premier might make a recovery, and the group returns to the fawning postures that (of course) they hope for a full recovery and everything will stay just the same—until Stalin actually dies and they return to dividing the spoils. No sooner do Beria and Krushchev curry favor with Stalin's daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) while marginalizing his drunken son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and leave the premier's quarters, that the NKVD move in and evacuate the building, take over all the possessions and furnishings and murder any witnesses.
Once Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) is brought on board (Beria has released his wife from prison where she was imprisoned for supposedly being anti-Stalinist), the group can start having rather tentative meetings and votes on how to proceed—everyone eyes each other to see how the other will vote, hands tentatively half-raised before committing—and is decided that Comrade Krushchev should be kept busy planning the late Premier's funeral...where the personal positioning for power can really move into full swing.
The political fandango is based (advisedly) on true events, with comedic license for interpolations. To see the power elite of Moscow at their most insecure, even while the stakes are life-changing is a hilarious dance of desperation that shows how petty and craven the instincts of those in power can be displayed (even before Twitter). That's what satire does—expose the frailties, whether in people, in systems, in governments, and how the best-laid plans have beach-like foundations. It's a release valve for the toxic stress involved in the absurdities of flawed circumstances. But, the only way to see the humor of it is to admit the flaws. To not do so runs the risks of making the same mistakes over and over...which really is the height of both tragedy, as well as comedy, comrade.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Russia House

The Russia House (Fred Schepisi, 1990) "Nowadays, you have to think like a hero merely to behave like a decent human being!" Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair (Sean Connery), barely getting-by book publisher, deep in his cups at a Russian Book Fair, seals his fate with those words. His words spark an idea in one of his audience-members and a plan of international repercussions is set in place. 

Some time later, he is sought out specifically—by a young Russian woman—not with a potential manuscript to be overseen for publishing, but with documents containing secrets of Soviet nuclear capabilities from a very reputable source. He soon finds himself wanted by both British Intelligence and the Russians, both looking for a hero in a final End Game in the Cold War in John le Carré's indictment of spies who don't even have the sense to come in from the cold.
Scott Blair becomes a hapless go-between for secrets, dispensed by a radical Russian scientist code-named "Dante"* (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who is willing to betray his country for The Good Fight for World Peace. He's enlisted his lover Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) to contact Blair—the one man "Dante" trusts to smuggle his journals into the West for the purpose of publishing them. But "The Russia House," that wing of the Intelligence Service looking East, gets wind of it first and enlists Barley in an effort to learn as much about Russian nuclear capabilities as they can. Soon, he's wired for sound, followed by surveillance by the Brits (working with U.S. Intelligence) and embarks for a Russia about to collapse in Soviet dis-Union. He's starting to fall himself—for Katya—but, constantly monitored and miked, he'll have to resort to whispering sweet nothings in her ear. It couldn't be more appropriate.
It's a master-stroke to get Connery to play this non-spy in John le Carré's literary world of "anti-Bond's." His long association with 007 is cast aside as he approaches the role bearded, curly-haired and gray, crotchety...and vulnerable, set upon by the author's tweedy grey men smug in their patriotism but lacking in honor. Tom Stoppard's screenplay takes a few bends out of le Carré's labyrinthine plot, but none of the complications in the ethics and politics of strange bedfellows in matters of the State and the heart. The production is top-notch, filmed in Portugal and the Soviet Union, with an eye-popping cast of character actors supporting the Connery, Pfeiffer, Brandauer troika. On the British side are James Fox, Michael Kitchen, Ian McNeice, and...Ken Russell! The Americans are Roy Scheider, J.T. Walsh, and John Mahoney, all salamander-cool and not to be trusted.
But the best part of The Russia House is the sub-text, which is all le Carré's. Distrustful of his brethren in the spy-hood, the author has always been able to forecast a new sin for them to exploit or fall prey to, and David Cornwell (le Carré's nom de réalité) could see the upcoming glasnost and perestroika and see the frosty battles continue un-thawed. Nothing worse or nosier than a spy with nothing to do and not know it. So he looked forward and looked to the past and compared and contrasted.
Remember this, if you must: a bitter cad who sticks his neck out for nobody, a committed idealogue fighting impossible odds, and the woman who is caught in between them. It's Casablanca. But the milieu is wrong. Where the 1945 film is about choosing "the cause" and "the good fight" in a "mixed up, crazy world," in the world of The Russia House, lives are being lost in a quest for worthless secrets...worthless because the other side already has them. The only thing to be gained in the cat-and-mouse games being played are the budgets being authorized for the cat and the mouse. In such a compromised clime, the problems of two little people do amount to much more than a hill of beans, they are a world-entire of pledges to be kept and sanctity to be upheld. They are the only ideals left amidst the corruption. In such a world, the fundamental things no longer apply. And by basing his story on that timeless tale of love and sacrifice, le Carré throws into stark relief the world of today and that world. Of a "mature, grown-up love" held against a world playing matter what the future brings, as time goes by

* In the book, he was, more appropriately, "Goethe"—the man who wrote about making deals with the devil, rather than about his territory.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Judgment at Nuremberg

"Judgment at Nuremberg" (Stanley Kramer, 1961) It was Katharine Hepburn who shepherded this film from its origins as an episode of "Playhouse 90"* to this version as a three hour epic.** The movie is padded with shots of Spencer Tracy touring the city (still in rubble in 1960, twelve years after the judges trials at Nuremberg***), and background of the characters, including a chaste meeting of minds with a Nazi widow (Marlene Dietrich, still oozing mystery at the age of 60). Screenwriter Abby Mann makes the citizenry complicit in his expanded screenplay, despite their protestations of ignorance. And the military at the time of the trial was in the middle of the Berlin Airlift, their attention now turned to "the Bolsheviks" and cozying up to Germany for strategic advantage, casting the worth and even the result of the trial in question for political expediency. The movie is allowed much more cynicism than the Playhouse 90 broadcast, where the words "gas chambers" were subject to censorship by sponsor The American Gas Association.
The movie threatens to swamp itself with star-power but leavened it by Tracy disappearing into his role. Maximilian Schell repeats his television performance (winning an Oscar in the process, as did Mann for his adaptation). Of the newcomers, the best performances are Montgomery Clift in face and body language denoting a characters damaged by the brutality of the Nazi regime. And Judy Garland, who'd always seemed like a raw nerve in her films, acts merely from the neck up—and that's all that's required. Not as controlled are Richard Widmark, whose prosecutor is a bit too demonstrative in private for a courtroom strategist, and Burt Lancaster, given a great speech but, a weakness of the actor, aware of it. Laurence Olivier was intended to play German Ernst Janning, but dropped out. I'm not sure that would have been an improvement, but it would have been interesting.
Kramer struggles with the material; he would later become an expert on courtroom directing. But here, he's more intent on making the drama look interesting with camera moves by circling witnesses and, most egregiously, using a fast zoom to zero in on a dramatic moment. It's used sparingly, but even that's too much for the material. He would learn to trust his actors and inherent drama of the scene to carry it.
But, Judgement at Nuremberg manages to be something that eludes most Kramer films—it's a bit more timeless, especially in regards to the short-sightedness of chipping away at bedrock principles for today's political viability and the future's further erosion. One could be speaking of water boarding as torture in Abby Mann's summation speech.
Read it. Read the whole thing. But linger on the words after the picture below.

Judge Haywood: The trial conducted before this Tribunal began over eight months ago. The record of evidence is more than ten thousand pages long, and final arguments of counsel have been concluded.

Simple murders and atrocities do not constitute the gravamen of the charges in this indictment. Rather, the charge is that of conscious participation in a nationwide, government organized system of cruelty and injustice in violation of every moral and legal principle known to all civilized nations. The Tribunal has carefully studied the record and found therein abundant evidence to support beyond a reasonable doubt the charges against these defendants.

Herr Rolfe, in his very skillful defense, has asserted that there are others who must share the ultimate responsibility for what happened here in Germany. There is truth in this. The real complaining party at the bar in this courtroom is civilization. But the Tribunal does say that the men in the dock are responsible for their actions, men who sat in black robes in judgment on other men, men who took part in the enactment of laws and decrees, the purpose of which was the extermination of humans beings, men who in executive positions actively participated in the enforcement of these laws -- illegal even under German law. The principle of criminal law in every civilized society has this in common: Any person who sways another to commit murder, any person who furnishes the lethal weapon for the purpose of the crime, any person who is an accessory to the crime -- is guilty.

Herr Rolfe further asserts that the defendant, Janning, was an extraordinary jurist and acted in what he thought was the best interest of this country. There is truth in this also. Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary -- even able and extraordinary -- men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat at through trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen.
There are those in our own country too who today speak of the "protection of country" -- of "survival." A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient -- to look the other way.

Well, the answer to that is "survival as what?" A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult!

Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

* if you want to see it, it is here.
** Probably to give her love and paramour Spencer Tracy another plumb acting role. His health (owing to his tendency to drink to excess) was always improved when he was working.

*** Although shots of Richard Widmark driving through the city are obvious process shots.

**** William Shatner's sitting in front of Tracy. Tracy was Shatner's hero and when he saw Tracy do the speech in one take, he blurted "I didn't know film actors could DO that!" Tracy shunned him for the rest of the shoot.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Moonstruck

The Set-Up: Another of those scenes that I see and go "classic." But I have nothing more to say about this scene from Moonstruck, other than why I love it.  It's all Nicholas Cage—not one of my favorite actors, but when he's "on," he's "on." Cage ramps up his game with good material and John Patrick Shanley wrote a great script full of indelible characters and great lines. But this scene is all Cage going over the top with high comedic result, playing a wolf of a character who hangs back in bitterness, waiting for a moment to explode in dramatic self-pity. No wonder Cher's Loretta reacts with a taken aback "who is this yay-hoo?" expression.

The whole scene is so overdone ("Bring me the big knife!""Maybe I should come back another time"), it's hilarious, and the stunted reactions of the observers only makes it more so—right to the punchline of the mousy baker-girl who professes her love for this goof-ball.

Love is over-the-top in this one.  You might say it's over the moon.

The Story: After years of widowhood, Loretta Castorini (Cher) has accepted the marriage proposal of her boyfriend Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), who leaves for Sicily to care for his dying mother.  Johnny asks Loretta to see his estranged brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage) to invite him to the wedding.  Loretta goes to the basement bakery where Ronny works.


This script had some changes on its way to film.  Deletions are in red.  Additions are in green.


There are two coal-fired ovens, one at either end of the room. There is a large wooden table roughly center. And various pieces of baking equipment, dough-mixers, etc., scattered willy-nilly. And everywhere there is bread.

PIETRO, a baker, is working at one of the ovens with a long wooden spatula. RONNY is working at the other oven.

Actually, he is just staring in the open door at the baking bread and burning coals. He's dressed in black jeans streaked with flour, a white restaurant shirt, white cotton gloves, and around his neck, a red handkerchief. He is black-haired, handsome and intense.
ROCCO Ronny!


ROCCO Somebody here to see you.
Ronny turns and takes in Loretta.
RONNY Have you come from my brother?
LORETTA I'm going to marry him.
RONNY You are going to marry my brother?
LORETTA Yes. Do you want...
RONNY I have no life.
LORETTA Excuse me?
RONNY I have no life. 
RONNY My brother Johnny took my life from me.
LORETTA I don't understand.

Everything in the oven room has stopped and everyone is watching.
RONNY And now he's getting married. He has his, he's getting his.
RONNY And he wants me to come?
RONNY What is life?

He picks up the wooden spatula and slides it into the oven.
LORETTA I didn't come here to upset you.

Ronny slides a bunch of loaves out of the oven on the spatula, turns them around, and slides them back in.

RONNY They say bread is life.
RONNY So I bake bread, bread, bread.

(He's picking up loaves of bread from one of the boxes on the floor, and casually tossing them across the room.)

RONNY And the years go by! By! By! And I sweat and shovel this stinking dough...
RONNY and outta this hot hole in the wall...
RONNY ...and I should be so happy...
RONNY ...huh, sweetheart?
RONNY You want me to come to the wedding of my brother Johnny?!!
RONNY Where is my wedding?
RONNY Chrissy! Over by the wall!
RONNY Gimme the big knife!
CHRISSY No, Ronny!

Barbara appears in the doorway and comes down the stairs into the room.
RONNY Gimme the big knife!
RONNY I'm gonna cut my throat!
LORETTA Maybe I should come back another time.
RONNY No, I want you to see this!
RONNY I want you to watch me kill myself so you can tell my brother...
RONNY ...on his wedding day!
RONNY Chrissy, gimme the big knife!
CHRISSY I tell you I won't do it!
RONNY (to Loretta) She won't do it. 
RONNY Do you know about me?
BARBARA Oh, Mr. Cammareri!
RONNY (To Barbara) WHAT?! 
RONNY (To Loretta) Do you know about me?
RONNY  'Kay. 
RONNY Nothing is anybody's fault, but things happen.

(holds up his left hand to Loretta)


He pulls off the glove. The hand is made of wood.
RONNY It's wood. It's fake.
RONNY Five years ago I was engaged to be married.
RONNY Johnny came in here, he ordered bread from me. And I said "Okay, bread."
RONNY I put it in the slicer and I talked with him and my hand got caught cause I wasn't paying attention.
RONNY The slicer chewed off my hand. It's funny 'cause - when my fiancé saw that I was maimed, she left me for another man.
LORETTA That's the bad blood between you and Johnny?
RONNY That's it.
LORETTA But that wasn't Johnny's fault.
RONNY I don't care!
RONNY I ain't no freakin monument to justice!
RONNY I lost my hand, I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand, Johnny has his bride!
RONNY You come in here and you want me to put away my heartbreak and forget?
He goes to the big table, which is floured and covered with bread. He sweeps everything off the tabletop during the next.
RONNY Is it just a matter of time till a man opens his eyes and gives up his one dream of happiness?
RONNY Maybe.
RONNY Maybe.

RONNY All I have... Have you come here, Stranger, Bride of my Brother, to take these last few loaves from my table? Alright. Alright.
The table is bare. He stares at it blankly. He wanders away, to the back room where the flour sacks are kept. We hear a single sob escape him from that room, and then silence.
Everyone in the oven room looks after him. Then Chrissy approaches Loretta. She holds the big knife at her side.
CHRISSY This is the most tormented man I have ever known. I am in love with this man.
CHRISSY He doesn't know that. I never told him cause he can never love anybody since he lost his hand and his girl.
She holds out the knife.

CHRISSY Here. Why don't you just kill him? It would be so much more kind than coming here and inviting him to a wedding like he'll never have.

Loretta considers Chrissy, decides what she's going to do,
and goes to the flour room.


Words by John Patrick Shanley

Pictures by David Watkin and Norman Jewison

Moonstruck is available on DVD from M-G-M Home Video.