"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."
Death Takes a Holiday (1934) - Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Starring Fredric March, Evelyn Venable and Guy Standing.
Imagine Jean Cocteau being lured to Hollywood in the 1930s and directing a romantic comedy/drama in which Death is one of the lovers. Maybe Luis Buñuel collaborates a bit on the screenplay. And Giorgio de Chirico helps design the sets. But it's all very Hollywood at the same time. Well, that's the kind of the territory one enters in the unique and unusual Death Takes a Holiday. I'm not sure I've seen seen a classic Hollywood film quite like it. There's something strange about this movie, something hard to pin down. Whatever lies at the heart of its mysterious charm, I've seen it twice now, and both times I came away feeling like I had just experienced a wonderful and atmospheric little treasure.
Based on an Italian play (La Morte in vacanza) by Alberto Casella, the film features Fredric March in the impossible role of Death. Curious about human experience and angry that everyone is always so frightened of him, Death decides to take on human form for three days. He shows up at an opulent villa in Italy, where an aristocratic family and several friends are currently staying. After striking a deal with the Duke, Death takes form as Prince Sirki, "from a distant land." He spends time with the various people on hand but is particularly drawn to a beautiful young woman named Grazia. Though engaged to the Duke's son, she is equally intrigued by the Prince. As his time runs out in human form, Sirki becomes disillusioned with the endless social activities of his hosts, all of which seem futile attempts at filling up their time. He wants to experience love, but the clock is getting closer to midnight. Finally, he encounters Grazia again at a ball, and he finally understands the "dream that lifts [men] above their dust... and their little days." Grazia longs to go with him to his distant land. Will she follow where he is going?
I've mentioned before what a delicate balancing act Sunset Blvd. managed to achieve among various genres. Death Takes a Holiday accomplishes a similarly impressive feat. It's too funny to be a straight romantic drama, and too serious and morbid to be a straight comedy. The humor is often sly and dark in tone. Since Death has taken a holiday, nobody dies. A broken-hearted lover jumps off the Eiffel Tower but survives. Death/Prince Sirki feels bad about it: "I wish I could've helped him." But it's not really a black comedy, missing the essential cynicism of that genre. It's often classified as a fantasy film, but that doesn't feel quite right. It's more a philosophical Surrealist affair. I don't really know what it is, but it works.
The film pulls off its balancing act in part because of the sturdy, matter-of-fact direction of Mitchell Leisen, who today is probably only known to a few classic film buffs but was well-respected in his own time. I've seen four of his films now, and all of them have been great, and two may wind up among my 100 Favorite Films whenever I finish my new list.
But the real key to Death Takes a Holiday is the incredible performance by Fredric March. Whenever the film needs a counter-point emotion to keep it on track, he delivers the perfect mood. He's funny, menacing, suave, naive, world-wise, poetic, fierce, and romantic. Was there a better actor working in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s than Fredric March? I'm not sure. I don't know who else could've pulled off the role of Death with such sheer ability and panache. Just when you think it's going to ease into a simple, comic Hollywood movie, March suddenly turns dark and brooding. "What a monstrous comedy," he says of his predicament at one point, and we know he means the whole human condition. When one of the young female guests tries to land him as a royal catch, he forces her to look into his eyes. Terrified at what she sees, the young woman freaks out and tries to get away from him. He may be funny a lot of the time, as when he gets initially upset at someone referring to death as "the old man," but he's not messing around. He wants an answer to his question about human experience, and if his hosts don't comply, he has no qualms about taking all of them with him when he goes.
Perhaps it's this setting of Death among the aristocrats that makes me think of Buñuel, who used a similar device for several of his films, including the deliciously dark Exterminating Angel. Also, there is a strong Mediterranean Catholic element at work in the film. It is, perhaps, that which distinguishes Death Takes a Holiday from your typical Hollywood offering. When I realized upon second viewing that it had been based on an Italian play in the Surrealist 1920s, a lot of things came together for me. At the beginning of the movie, while the aristocrats are slumming at the local village festival, Grazia is in a dark church, praying. She's strongly romantic, almost mystical in her outlook. And while one could say her love of Sirki shows a certain obsession with death, it could also be seen as a mystical desire for unity with the unknown. But there's no doubt that the original story owes much to the frequently dark and mysterious Catholicism of Italy, Spain and France that produced Surrealists like Dali, Buñuel and Cocteau.
There are three other crucial aspects of the film that give it weight and solidity. The first is the excellent and atmospheric cinematography by Charles Lang. Though you may not recognize his name, Lang was nominated for 18 Oscars for cinematography in his long career (tied for the most ever) and shot several Billy Wilder films, including Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and Ace in the Hole. His camera work in Death Takes a Holiday shows an obvious debt to Cocteau, whose first film, Blood of a Poet, had come out a few years before. The second crucial aspect of the film, which works in perfect tandem with Lang's photography, is the Surrealist-inspired set design. Most of the action takes place at the villa, with numerous shadowy arches, statues in the garden, and black and white tiled floors that all seem lifted from Di Chirico paintings. Meanwhile, as characters stroll or waltz in this atmospheric setting, the strains of Debussy and Chopin can be heard at times, and the haunting music accentuates the lush, dream-like quality of the surroundings. Somebody on this project had a strong working knowledge of Surrealism and used it to great advantage in what could've easily been a bland Hollywood production.
Besides March, most of the acting is top-rate. Evelyn Venable has an unenviable role as the beautiful, romantically/mystically-inclined Grazia. A lesser actress could've easily gone headlong into schmaltz, but Venable invests her portrayal with just enough dignity. Henry Travers (Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life) provides comic relief and a sly, world-weary outlook as the Baron. Guy Standing, as the Duke, also does well.
The film drags a bit between its interesting opening scenes and the point where Fredric March shows up. And I could've used less of the family and more of March's first two days, which are hinted at more than depicted. But if one stays with the movie, it is a special work, a rare bird from from 1930s Hollywood. Unfortunately, this wonderful film is currently only available in video or in DVD as a part of the Deluxe Edition of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 remake starring Brad Pitt (and of which I've read little that is positive.) That's really a crime, as Death Takes a Holiday is a unique and wonderful American classic and should not only be presented on its own but should be restored to the best condition possible. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Zodiac (2007) - Directed by David Fincher. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.
From 1969 through the early 1970s, a serial killer who called himself Zodiac terrorized San Francisco and surrounding counties. The police were never able to arrest anyone, despite Zodiac sending cryptic letters to them, as well as to the various San Francisco newspapers. David Fincher, who directed Fight Club and Se7en, presents us with a combination feature - part serial killer movie and part police procedural-journalistic investigation. The script is based on a book by one of the people involved in the case - an unlikely source: an editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with the case and worked on it even after the paper and the police had given up on it. Fincher's film is, in fact, ultimately about obsession, both on the part of Zodiac, who couldn't stop himself from killing; and on the part of Detective Toschi, who led the case for the SFPD; the cartoonist, Robert Graysmith; and the Chronicle's crime reporter, Paul Avery. Though we see Zodiac's murders, most of the narrative follows the three men pursuing him. We watch what happens to them, their careers and their families as they become more and more obsessed with the case.
The acting in the film is quite good all around. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, the cartoonist, who was literally an Eagle Scout, and never seems to quite fit in at the newspaper. He loves puzzles, keeps to himself, doesn't drink or smoke. But as he becomes obsessed with the case, he spends more and more time lurking around Avery's desk, "looming," as Avery says. "Remember, we talked about the looming." Graysmith is a nerd. Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr., is a cool hedonist. It's the late 1960s-early 70s, and he enjoys the recreational drinking and drugs available. In the end, that's how he handles (or doesn't handle) his obsession. Meanwhile, Detective Toschi, portrayed well by Mark Ruffalo, struggles to keep his home life together, as well as his hard-fought-for position in the police force.
There are couple of disturbing scenes of violence (this is the director of Se7en, after all), but most of the film follows the somewhat pedestrian aspects of the various investigations. Fincher's direction is good at the beginning, but the film starts to drag after a while. I like what the story is trying to do, following out these obsessions, but strictly as an investigative film, I found it lacking in some respects. Elements are introduced and then disappear. Clues that seem like they might be important are never brought up again. Part of this is due to the very nature of obsession, trying to follow out some mystery to the bitter end. There are many, many dead ends along the way. I respect Fincher's willingness to show us that. But there are also plot holes. I hate plot holes in otherwise intelligent films. And the obsessive people in this film wouldn't stand for plot holes. They spent years and years pouring over holes in the case.
Zodiac is a creepy, fascinating film, and has a lot going for it. Fincher has a good eye for disturbingly absurd aspects of life. The first victims, a young couple, are listening to Donovan when they're shot multiple times in a violent, bloody scene. But the song is "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which, as Fincher has keenly recognized, has its darker aspects. There is, by the way, a great soundtrack in this film. Go for the ride, don't ask too many questions, and it's a dark, interesting journey. RECOMMENDED.
The Battle of Algiers [La Battaglia di Algeri] (1966) - Written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Starring Yacef Saadi, Jean Martin and Brahim Hadjadj.
Anyone interested in what's happening in Iraq right now should see this film. Hell, even if you don't have any interest in Iraq, you should still see it - it's a landmark motion picture, the father of the modern political thriller. Though it's over 40 years old now, Battle of Algiers seems like it could've been made this year. And, in fact, it was being shown at the Pentagon at some point recently. For one thing, it makes you realize once and for all that the United States of America is involved in a colonialist occupation of an Arabic country. You can talk all you want about "The War on Terror" and all of our noble-sounding ideals about bringing democracy - sorry, free-market democracy - to the Middle East, but once you see how close our situation is to that of the French in Algeria, you can't fool yourself anymore. All you can do is act like Col. Mathieu in the film, the scarily efficient and no-shit Frenchman in charge of combating the Algerian "terrorists." Our version is General Petraeus - sort of. We still want to convince ourselves that our occupation is a "good" one. Mathieu doesn't really bother with the political or philosophical debate. His stance is basically: If you believe the occupation is good, then we have to torture the Algerians. I found his manner refreshing in some ways. How terrifying.
For some reason, I thought Battle of Algiers was a documentary film, and so I avoided it for a long time. But it's not. It's shot in a documentary style and was based on a book by one of the Algerian resistance leaders, Yacef Saadi, who also stars in the film. But it's still a fictional account. The important difference in this fact, is that the movie plays out dramatically as a suspense film. I have to be in the right mood for a political documentary. But give me a suspense film, and I'm there. I don't know what that means. My first instinct is that it's not a good thing, that I'm not serious enough about important things. But then I realize, deep down, it's probably healthier. I believe more in the "truths" of fiction, perhaps, than I do non-fiction. Political documentaries can too often have a smug, self-righteous tone when it comes to doling out the "truth." (See Michael Moore.)
Instead, The Battle of Algiers gives you history, politics and philosophy in an entertaining suspense film, with a powerful human component. That doesn't make it any less penetrating or effective. Or contemporary. A young Algerian woman leaves a bomb in her handbag in a French bar, killing numerous people. Later, one of the intellectual leaders of the Algerian resistance, who has been captured, is brought before the French press. A reporter asks him if it isn't cowardly to plant bombs in baskets and handbags. He replies, "And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets."
This is an intellectually potent and challenging film, as well as entertaining. Most of the story follows a young, uneducated Algerian who slowly transforms into one of the leaders of the resistance. It's also an emotionally compelling film, sending shivers down the spine at times. After most of the Algerian figures in the film have been hunted down by Mathieu's forces and killed, there is suddenly a large-scale and spontaneous resurgence of ordinary Algerians who take to the streets in protest. It's a dramatic conclusion, and also a important lesson: When it seems that you've cut off the heads of the underground movement, the serpent can rise up again, even more powerfully than before. This is why military solutions to situations like this are ultimately useless if they're not part of an overall diplomatic and political solution. Ask the Spanish how many times their government has "cut off the heads" of the Basque terrorist group ETA.
In addition to the feature film, the DVD contains not one but two extra discs loaded with interviews, documentaries, essays, etc. The Battle of Algiers was an important film in terms of style and impact, and it's interesting to hear some contemporary directors talking about its influence on them. It's also interesting to see the interview with Yacef Saadi many years later. Don't miss this great, great film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Galaxy Quest (1999) - Directed by Dean Parisot. Starring Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell.
For anybody who's ever spent to much time watching (and reading about) Star Trek, this is a hilarious and delightful comedy that manages to skewer the Trekkie phenomenon, but with the kind of care and attention that can only come from great love of the subject matter. Whoever came up with the idea for this film deserves extra bonus points - it's so simple and brilliant. The cast of an old sci-fi TV show called Galaxy Quest is now reduced to signing autographs at conventions and cutting ribbons at the opening of a new megastore. ("By Grabthar's hammer . . . what a savings.") Meanwhile, real space aliens (The Thermians) who are on the verge of being destroyed by their enemies have intercepted old transmissions of the show and believe that their only hope for survival rests on the great Captain Taggart ("Never give up. Never surrender.") and his trusty crew. Naive and desperately hopeful, the Thermians don't seem to realize that their hero, Captain Taggart, is really just a washed up, self-centered actor named Jason Nesmith, who's been reduced to drinking himself to sleep, or that the rest of the crew doesn't really like each other all that much at this point. Still, the actors wind up in space and are forced into the kind of adventure that they played at all those years. They just don't seem to have learned much from their previous experiences. ("Didn't you guys ever WATCH the show?!")
Besides the great premise, Galaxy Quest can also be held up as an example of perfect casting. I was never a Tim Allen fan, but he's very good as the egotistical but charming Jason Nesmith. It's hard to imagine a better portrayal of a William Shatner/Captain Kirk-like figure. Alan Rickman hits every note right as a former Shakespearian actor ("I played Richard III . . . There were five curtain calls.") who hates himself for winding up on TV and hates Nesmith for hogging all the limelight. Sigourney Weaver, as a buxom blond (!), plays off her own fame as the smart, tough Ripley in the Alien films, delivering a hilarious performance. And Tony Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell add their own delightful and wonderful touches to round out the cast.
I don't know how I missed this when it came out. I was in Spain, I guess. Thanks to Liam for recommending it. It's loaded with hilarious lines and perfectly captures both the inanity of shows like Star Trek ("Does it help to roll on the ground?") as well as the adventure and great storytelling. An instant favorite. RECOMMENDED.
The Killers (1946) - Directed by Robert Siodmak. Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O'Brien.
Lancaster and Gardner both became stars after this excellent film noir based on Ernest Hemingway's short story of the same name. In Hemingway's tale, recurring character Nick Adams finds himself in a diner taken over by two gunmen who are waiting for an ex-boxer named "The Swede" to come in for dinner. After a tension-filled time of waiting, the gunmen realize the Swede's not showing up, so they go out to look for him. Nick knows where the Swede lives and goes to warn him about the two killers. To Nick's surprise, the tough ex-boxer doesn't seem to care, as he just lies on his bed in the dark room, waiting for the inevitable. In just a few sentences, Hemingway has gone from gangster thriller to powerful existential drama about facing death.
I've always loved the story, but I wondered how anyone could turn such a perfect little tale into a full-length film. Well, producer Mark Hellinger brought in his co-author from an earlier crime drama they had done together, the classic Bogart film High Sierra. John Huston. By this time, Huston had already begun directing his own films, including the great Maltese Falcon. The only problem was that Huston had joined the army during World War II to make propaganda films and was still in uniform. He was also under contract to a different studio. So Huston's friend and sometime collaborator, Tony Veiller, served as a front, taking Hellinger's money and giving half to Huston. Then Veiller and Huston locked themselves up in a New York hotel room (and in several New York bars) and put together a great script. The question in their minds was: What would cause a tough boxer to wind up in a sad boarding house, surrendering to his certain death?
Well, a woman, of course. So Huston and Veiller constructed a series of flashbacks that show how the Swede got into such a position, waiting for his killers. They left in Nick Adams, but only in the first part of the film. Instead, they wrote in the character of an insurance investigator, played by Edmond O'Brien, who becomes intrigued by the case of this boxer, his gangland connections, and the woman who could lead him into such existential despair. For director, Hellinger got Robert Siodmak, one of the German emigrees who came to Hollywood during Hitler's reign. Siodmak had already directed a series of dark, psychologically interesting thrillers that featured innovative cinematography that was partly influenced by German expressionism, including Phantom Lady and The Spiral Staircase. These were some of the films the French began to discuss in terms of a genre called film noir. Hellinger wanted that same edge for his film, which was his first major project as an independent producer. In fact, he wanted to raise the stakes in terms of a harder, more realistic psychological crime film.
For the role of the boxer, Hellinger hired an unknown acrobat who had never been in a movie: Burt Lancaster. His muscular, brooding performance has been called the strongest of his career by some critics. But who would Hellinger get for the woman? He needed someone who could make a man "steal, go to prison, die for her," as one film writer put it. After a long, unsuccessful search, a fellow producer happened to see a sleeper of a film that featured a young actress named Ava Gardner. The producer worked next door to Hellinger and knew he had been looking for the right femme fatale. The next morning, he called Hellinger and said, "You better go see this girl." That night, Hellinger went to see the movie. He called Ava first thing in the morning and had her come in for an interview. Later, Hellinger said that Gardner got the role the moment she walked into his office. "It was sex-two-and-even." Would a man steal, go to prison or die for Ava? Well, she got to Frank Sinatra bad enough that he wound up slitting his wrists. Yeah, she works as a femme fatale.
Siodmak's taut direction, the excellent screenplay by Huston and Veiller, the solid acting from unknowns Lancaster and Gardner, and Elwood Bredell's fantastic black and white cinematography make The Killers a great example of film noir. RECOMMENDED.
Other films recently screened:
Foreign Correspondent (1940) 8/10 - Hitchcock directs Joel McCrea and Herbert Marshall in this tale of an American journalist investigating German secrets agents in London on the eve of World War II. Very good but not great Hitchcock.
Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (1948) 6/10 - I've been waiting to see this film for several years. Last Christmas, I was even given an original 1948 movie poster for it, a great, great present from my in-laws. How could it possibly live up to such a title, I thought? Well, it wasn't too bad in the end, saved mostly by a somewhat surreal series of scenes that take place in "Gaboolian's Riding Academy" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It's a warehouse full of mechanical animals and exotic make-beleive sets - a kind of precursor to Disney, but much more humble. Believe it or not, Gaboolian, the old Russian owner of the "Academy," was played by Michael Chekhov, nephew of the famous writer, Anton Chekhov. His only role of consequence in the U.S. was that of Dr. Bruloy in Hitchcock's Spellbound, for which he received an Oscar nomination. But he was a famous actor in Russia and studied under Stanislavski. He wound up as a drama teacher in New York, and his pupils included Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Marylin Monroe, Yul Brenner and other stars. The story of Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven is admittedly slight, but how could I not like a film about Texans hanging out in Prospect Park? There are some interesting shots at the beginning of the film that show Dallas in 1948, but Brooklyn, sadly, is mostly relegated to a studio version in Hollywood. There are several good secondary actors, including Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch), Irene Ryan, (Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies), Lionel Stander (Max from Hart to Hart), and William Frawley. Unfortunately, the print of the film was atrocious, as if someone had videotaped the movie while it was on television and then transferred the tape to DVD. Too bad. Eventually, everyone will realize what an important film this is, and I'm sure it will be restored with great care. (Cough.)
Sahara (2005) 8/10 - I don't know why this got such a bad rap when it came out. As long as you don't take it seriously, it's a very funny, fast-paced action-thriller, involving a Confederate ironclad that may or may not have ended up in the African desert, a deadly plague spreading rapidly through a West African country in the midst of a civil war, treasure hunters, a beautiful scientist from the WHO, and a corporate bad guy who's French. It's become one of my favorite action-comedies from the last few years. Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz were the big names, but Steve Zahn steals the show.
The Painted Veil (1934) 6/10 - Gretta Garbo and Herbert Marshall star in this 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name. Garbo was truly an amazing screen presence and shows why in her portrayal as the restless Katrin. Herbert Marshall also excels as her wounded husband, Dr. Fane. Unfortunately, despite several good scenes, the screenplay never fully develops. La Reina, who also saw last year's remake, says the narrative in that version was fleshed out much better.
Gangs of New York (2002) 4/10 - I've spent the last five years doing extensive research on New York City in the 1860s, and people kept telling me I had to see this film. Well, no, as it turns out, I didn't. I could have easily spent the rest of my life without watching this overblown yet surprisingly dull, tedious, and historically inaccurate film. Scorsese took himself way too seriously on this one. A lot of people ragged on Cameron Diaz's acting, which I mostly found unmemorable, but what about the great Daniel Day Lewis' almost cartoonish portrayal of Bill, the Butcher? The violence at the beginning of the film verges on psychopathic and makes me wonder if Scorsese knows how to advance the emotional trajectory of his films without spilling (literally) buckets of blood. If I hadn't seen his Age of Innocence, I'd really wonder. His use of the 1863 Draft Riots (one of the most fascinating events in our country's history) as a backdrop for the climatic showdown is not only riddled with factual flaws but seems tacked on, careless, and intellectually suspect in its depiction. Bad history. Mediocre movie-making.