Category Archives: ★★★★

The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks)

A lot goes unspoken in The Big Sleep. It’s very much set in a wartime Los Angeles, but there’s never much said about wartime conditions or Los Angeles. When private detective Humphrey Bogart goes around the city, investigating, he’s only ever encountering women (beautiful women at that, because director Hawks’s Los Angeles is solely populated with beautiful women who find Bogart enchanting). Sure, book shop purveying is a reasonable career for Sonia Darrin and Dorothy Malone, but then there’s Joy Barlow as Bogart’s cabbie confidant. Barlow’s definitely taking a traditional male job (cab driver) and role (cab driver confidant to detective). She just happens to find Bogart irresistible.

There’s also a lot of texture in Bogart’s banter with copper Regis Toomey; particular phrases and observations referencing wartime conditions. There’s no mention of the war, there’s no mention of the home front, but it’s there.

Of course, Big Sleep doesn’t just not talk about its texture, it also doesn’t talk about… you know, the solution to the mystery. Or even what mystery is what. Rich, sick old man Charles Waldron (in a wonderful performance) hires Bogart to pay off some guy blackmailing one of his daughters. Martha Vickers and Lauren Bacall are the daughters. Vickers is the one getting blackmailed; she’s younger, Bacall’s protective. So Bacall intercedes with Bogart.

The reason Big Sleep doesn’t worry about its exposition is because it’s got Bogart and Bacall. Their first scene together, while energetic, is nothing compared to where the film’s going to get them. The first scene has them talking over one another, constantly interrupting thoughts and dialogue, frustrating each other. It’s a competition without a clear goal–Bacall wants to know what Waldron gave Bogart to do, but Bogart isn’t going to say and maybe Bacall thinks he’s going to crack, maybe she doesn’t. They irritate each other. It’s marvelous.

In their third scene, Bacall’s got to scratch an itch in her nylons and–it just occurred to me–maybe it’s a metaphor for their relationship at that point.

But more on them in a bit. First, Bogart’s got to investigate–leading him to fetching booksellers Darrin and Malone, then on to blackmailer Louis Jean Heydt (who’s not on screen yet, he’s just been mentioned in dialogue and Bogart tracks someone to his residence–Big Sleep doesn’t slow down at all, you’ve got to keep up–when Bogart sits and thinks things through, he doesn’t share what he’s thinking). Eventually there’s a murder and a coverup and Bogart trying to protect Vickers.

There’s a lot of movement in the first act. It also establishes what will become some of the film’s familiar settings. There’s some exterior shooting, but a lot of the outdoor shots are on sound stages and they’re gloriously done. Beautiful photography from Sidney Hickox, great direction from Hawks (throughout, but also moving around those settings). The physical personality of The Big Sleep is deliberate and thoughtful, even if it’s not the draw of the film. Big Sleep is a bunch of expertly done background to its stars’ romance.

Because, pretty soon, Bacall’s pushed her way back into Bogart’s investigation. Even though he doesn’t know why and she isn’t really explaining why, at least not honestly. They’re adversarial but dispassionately. They’re far more passionate about the rapport they’ve discovered. Turns out Bacall’s got a gambling problem too, just with a different gambling establishment than Vickers. John Ridgely runs Bacall’s favorite spot and Bogart finds himself contending not just with Ridgely, but with his thugs too. They want him off the case he’s not investigating.

Although Bogart’s not officially investigating this case no one wants him on (because Waldron didn’t hire him for it), Bogart’s still actually doing it. And is aware he’s doing it. He’s interested and concerned. He’s sympathetic without ever being a sap, which eventually leads to some great quiet moments in Bogart’s performance. His run in with junior league tough guy Elisha Cook Jr. is affecting, for instance, and his constant attempts at fending off Vickers are nice. There’s a lot going on concurrently in Big Sleep, so much with the mysteries–there are the two murders in the first night of the present action, plus two suspected murders before the film begins–but also with the various players (not just murder suspects, but blackmailers and gamblers and then the sisters). Toomey’s police presence is omnipresent when established but always a little out of focus. He doesn’t bother Bogart too much, just enough to remind everyone he exists.

But none of that background–the story–is as important as Bogart and Bacall. Bacall’s character arc has her melting but she never loses the demeanor as she becomes more fragile. And Bogart doesn’t become more protective as she softens either. They’re enthralling throughout–not so much separately because Bacall’s never alone–but as the film progresses, their rapport and relationship take the spotlight off the action and never give it back. Not even during shootouts.

Everything’s good in Big Sleep. Vickers is exceptional, Ridgely’s good, Waldron, Malone’s fun, Charles D. Brown is a hoot as the butler (spoiler: he didn’t do it). Great script from William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman; the dialogue’s better, but only because of Bacall and Bogart, otherwise the plotting would be the winner. Hawks’s direction is spectacular. It starts strong and just keeps getting better, never losing any of the deliberate texture (implied or active).

Good score from Max Steiner (very familiar, incidentally, if you know his King Kong one) with some very nice moves once it gets romantic. Christian Nyby’s editing is excellent as well.

The Big Sleep is phenomenal; Hawks, Bogart, and Bacall make something singular here.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, based on a story story by Raymond Chandler; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by Christian Nyby; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Rutledge), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), Regis Toomey (Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls), Sonia Darrin (Agnes Lozelle), Louis Jean Heydt (Joe Brody), Dorothy Malone (Acme Book Shop Proprietress), Bob Steele (Lash Canino), Elisha Cook Jr. (Harry Jones), Charles D. Brown (Norris – the Butler).


lauren-blogathon

THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND LAUREN BACALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa Akira)

Seven Samurai is about a farming village, under imminent threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crop–and possibly doing much worse–who decides to hire samurai to defend them. They send four men–Fujiwara Kamatari, Kosugi Yoshio, Tsuchiya Yoshio, and Hidari Bokuzen–to town to hire the samurai. They can’t pay them, but they can feed them. The villagers will subsist on millet, the samurai will get rice. Not a great deal and the men don’t have much luck to start.

However, they soon find Shimura Takashi, an older ronin, who’s able to convince others to take up the cause. There’s young Kimura Isao, who looks up to Shimura and the other samurai, but hasn’t got any real experience yet. Katō Daisuke plays an old war buddy of Shimura’s who happily joins up. Inaba Yoshio is the second-in-command, Chiaki Minoru’s the funny one, Miyaguchi Seiji’s the serious one. Then there’s Mifuno Toshiro as the wild one.

After an hour or so–the film runs just under three and a half–the Seven Samurai head to the village. The first hour has the village setup, then the four farmers quest in the city, then Shimura recruiting the other samurai. There’s an intermission halfway, but the period after the samurai get to the village and before the bandits return, which takes up some of the time after the intermission too, is it’s own phase in the film. Then there’s the battle. A little while before the battle, the villagers–who aren’t just providing room and board for the samurai, but are also being trained to fight alongside them against the bandits–wonder if the bandits have forgotten about them.

And it certainly does seem possible. Seven Samurai’s first few minutes promise this bloody showdown between the villagers and the bandits, which then becomes the samurai and the bandits, but then it’s really just a lot of character study. Sure, they’re all training for the impending battle, but it’s character study. Kurosawa and co-writers Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo subtlely explore the villagers and the samurai, with Mifune and Kimura getting the most emphasis on the latter, Tsuchiya and Fujiwara getting the most emphasis on the former. Turns out even though the village decided to hire samurai, they didn’t really think about what it meant for samurai to be living among them. Their only previous experience with samurai being samurai attacking and pillaging villages.

Mifune’s character development throughout the second portion–he shows up in the beginning, then disappears until the night before they leave for the village (the first hour takes place over about a week)–plays off the other samurai. Even though Shimura and company think they’ve got Mifune figured out, they really don’t. And he’s able to transcend the class divisions built into their interactions with the villagers.

Meanwhile Kimura begins romancing Fujiwara’s daughter, Tsushima Keiko, and it becomes clear he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a samurai either. Not from the perspective of a villager, who’s always a potential victim in one way or another.

There’s a whole lot to Seven Samurai. Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t introduce a lot more in the last hour… wait, never mind. Yes, yes they do. Amid the multi-day battle sequence, they do introduce a lot more. Mifune has a whole other subplot, as Kurosawa reveals he’s actually juxtaposed against Kimura, which never seemed to be a thing but was a thing the whole time. Going back to their first scene together (with Shimura). Only they were subplot to the villagers pursuing Shimura at that point.

But I was really trying to get to the violence thing. In the first hour, whenever Kurosawa shows violence, it doesn’t have any sound. There are the sounds behind it, but the violence itself–the steel of the swords cutting into flesh–has none. It’s uncanny and directs the viewer’s attention. When it comes time, in the third part, for the battle… Kurosawa handles violence differently. His original approach to it, what he emphasizes, is baked into what he does later, but it’s evolved. Kurosawa’s constantly perturbing Seven Samurai’s style. Like his editing. At the beginning, there are some sharp cuts to bring the viewer back in time to sixteenth century. He doesn’t keep them going once he’s got the time period established; he just takes time and gives attention to getting it established.

Especially since he later calls back to those cuts in a seemingly unrelated sequence, which then informs a bunch of other things as far as character development and revelation.

There’s not a wasted frame in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s precise. The film never drags, never dawdles. The three and a half hours sail by. Even the subplot introductions–after the film shifts over to Shimura and the samurai–are seamless. The pacing is just another of its master-strokes.

Technically, Samurai’s singular. Kurosawa’s direction–which changes stylistically as the plot progresses–is otherworldly. The way he and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu are able to frame the action horizontally make Samurai feel like an Academy ratio Panavision picture for the first two hours. Nakai’s photography is fantastic. Ditto Hayasaka Fumio’s music and Matsuyama Takashi’s production design. It’s all breathtakingly faultless.

Then there are the performances. Shimura and Mifune get the flashiest roles. Mifune in a loud way, Shimura in a quiet. They’re fantastic. Kimura’s good; he’s sort of the viewer’s point of entry for the samurai, but also the villagers. Though Mifune turns out to have similar avenues of insight. Both Miyaguchi and Katō have some excellent moments. But the villagers. Tsuchiya and Fujiwara are awesome; they get the big arcs running throughout, just under the surface; constant. They’re heartbreaking in different ways.

Hidari eventually becomes a sidekick to Mifune, which gives some of the very necessary comic relief once things get intense. And Tsushima’s good as Kimura’s love interest. She, Shimura, Tsuchiya, and Miyaguchi have the most pensive parts. They have these amazing internal experiences only relayed through expression; Kurosawa’s editing, not to mention his composition, showcases their silent thoughtfulness.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a way it could be even minutely improved.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Nakai Asakazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Shimada), Kimura Isao (Katsushirō), Mifune Toshirō (Kikuchiyo), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Rikichi), Tsushima Keiko (Shino), Inaba Yoshio (Gorōbei), Miyaguchi Seiji (Kyūzō), Katō Daisuke (Shichirōji), Fujiwara Kamatari (Manzō), Chiaki Minoru (Heihachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Yohei), Kosugi Yoshio (Mosuke), and Kōdō Kokuten (Gisaku).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE "NON-ENGLISH" BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder)

The third act of Sunset Boulevard just gets darker and darker. The film digs down into one level, then finds another, then another, then maybe even another. Director Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. find a way to fully condemn the film’s setting–Hollywood, with Paramount Pictures (Sunset’s producer) being the generalized stand-in–while offering reprieve to some of its participants. That condemnation (and the conditional reprieve) comes through William Holden’s self-realization arc, which he doesn’t discuss in his full narration of the film. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Holden, playing a B-movie screenwriter down on his luck, isn’t so much a participant as a victim. But he’s a victim of the Hollywood dream, not Hollywood itself. Sort of.

The film’s final descents are real fast and one after another. If it weren’t for Holden’s narration, he might even get lost in them.

Sunset opens with Holden trying to hack out another script he doesn’t like and then having to dodge some repo men out for his car. There’s a quick trip through Holden’s Hollywood–begging for loans–culminating in a really fun car chase. Wilder keeps it light (even if the opening promises some darkness) and Holden’s a wonderfully affable lead. He ends up in the driveway of a rundown mansion, where he soon meets the estate’s Miss Havisham (a comparison in the very narration), Gloria Swanson.

Swanson is a silent film megastar, twenty years later. She has a single companion, butler Erich von Stroheim. Holden and Swanson’s first meeting is full of quips and barbs; Swanson’s very (intentionally) affected and intense, while Holden’s relaxed but pointed. There’s a rhythm to their scene, which maintains for a while as Holden becomes another resident of the mansion–seems Swanson’s written a comeback project for herself, a Salome adaptation. She “hires” Holden to get it into shape for the studio.

Eventually it becomes clear Swanson’s interest in Holden isn’t only in his copyediting. He’s initially resistant but acquiesces once he realizes Swanson’s mental health is more fragile than he thought. At this point, that relaxed but pointed Holden disappears. When he finally does return in the third act, it’s jarring. Not just because the temperament had been gone so long, but also because–when its aimed at someone else, it’s clear how it’d never been affable at all.

That someone else is Nancy Olson, who plays a young script reader at the studio. She goes from a professional detractor of Holden’s hackier work to an acquaintance (engaged to his friend, Jack Webb) to his collaborator on a new script. The film never has Holden’s two screenwriting projects concurrent. The kick-off of Holden and Olson’s collaborating comes immediately following the Salome project’s culmination. Swanson, von Stroheim, and Holden pay Cecil B. DeMille a visit on the Paramount set; there’s a lot of character and narrative development, plus important Hollywood commentary. That commentary will inform a lot later on.

At any given time in Sunset Boulevard, Holden, Swanson, or von Stroheim are giving stunning performances. Usually Wilder gives each actor a spotlight in the scenes; the script, which is wondrously plotted, keeps them from stepping on each other’s toes. Holden and von Stroheim always accompany Swanson’s presence, which–even with Holden’s narration sometimes in between the dialogue lines–never crowds out the other actors. Maybe because Swanson’s a star; her crowding out the characters is a given.

For the first act, it’s Holden’s movie. As an actor. His performance makes Sunset. Once he’s around Swanson more–and the plot perturbs–she becomes the essential factor. Even in the third act, when he gets his big scene and she gets a number of big scenes–even as the narrative focuses more and more on Holden and Olson, as their collaboration starts to become less professional than intended, Swanson’s still omnipresent. Olson doesn’t even know of her existence, which makes it all the more impressive. There’s a certain audacity to the film. There needs to be. And Wilder runs with it.

But then at the finish, turns out maybe von Stroheim’s been the essential factor all along. His background performance, which never gets a full spotlight, brings it all together.

Swanson gives the best performance, no doubt. She’s got the most to do, the hardest stuff to do. Obviously stuff like a Charlie Chaplin impression, not obvious stuff like building towards the dark finale… it’s phenomenal. Holden’s great too. von Stroheim’s great. Olson’s good, though–intentionally–it’s not like she’s got anything on the level of the three main stars. And then there’s pretty much no one else in the movie. Webb. He’s in it for a bit and he’s good but it’s less than five minutes. DeMille’s extended cameo is good. There are some smaller Hollywood cameos–Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper make the most impression. But Sunset is all about Swanson, Holden, and von Stroheim. And their self-made Hollywood success prison.

Wilder’s direction is excellent. He and cinematographer John F. Seitz create these artificial realities–the one Holden lives in, the one Swanson lives in, the obviously artificial one Olson and Webb live in. Sunset’s all about not understanding make believe even if you make the make believe.

Wilder is restrained as far as composition goes. He saves his severe angles, waiting until just the right moment to cut to them. They’re release valves for built-up narrative intensity, something Franz Waxman’s score is always heightening. Great score.

Sunset Boulevard is an ambitious, difficult film. But it’s difficult not in how Wilder constructs it–in fact, the script’s anything but; there’s obvious foreshadowing and forecasting. It’s just hard to get past being starstruck. For Holden, for Swanson, for the viewer. It’s exceptional; in fact, to succeed, it couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Wilder; written by Charles Brackett, Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Brackett; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Jack Webb (Artie Green), and Cecil B. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille).


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Hoosiers (1986, David Anspaugh)

Hoosiers rouses. It rouses through a perfectly measured combination of narrative, editing, composition and photography, and music. In that order, least to greatest. There’s no way to discount Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the importance of his music during the basketball game montages. They’d be beautifully cut and vividly photographed, but they wouldn’t rouse without that Goldsmith music. In the second half of the film, the music replaces Gene Hackman as the star presence. The film extends its narrative distance from the cast (Hackman least, but still Hackman) to emphasis the narrative effectiveness of montage. And it works. Hoosiers rouses.

The almost exactly halfway adjustment in narrative distance is a smooth one. The film has been focusing on Hackman’s acclamation to a new job in a new town and then that plot comes to a close. Then it’s time for basketball. The film–and ostensibly Hackman–have been waiting for it to be basketball time. The distractions are gone; director Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo have precisely plotted out all the subplot resolutions. Hoosiers isn’t a particularly short film. It’s six minutes shy of two hours so halfway is about an hour; meaning the second half, the mostly basketball half, is an hour too.

It’s particularly impressive since there’s zero exposition about what’s going to happen in the second half, based on Indiana state high school basketball playoff systems from the mid-twentieth century. Pizzo’s narrative logic for Hoosiers isn’t something the audience needs to worry about. First, they’ve got to worry about Hackman. Then, they’ve got to watch some basketball.

The film opens with Hackman arriving in a (very) small Indiana town. Old pal and now school principal Sheb Wooley has hired Hackman to coach basketball (and teach civics, which doesn’t turn out to be a subplot). The townsfolk are suspicious of outsiders and don’t want Hackman coaching. They want Chelcie Ross, whose part is small but it’s one of those excellent risible asshat Chelcie Ross performances.

Barbara Hershey is a fellow teacher. She thinks Hackman is just going to try to get her erstwhile ward, Maris Valainis, to play basketball again. She doesn’t want Valainis to play (the previous coach died–before the movie starts–and it profoundly affects Valainis). Hershey also doesn’t like basketball, which gets more attention than Valainis’s arc. He’s present a lot, but he’s an enigma. Or he would be an enigma, if the movie were interested in the interiority of its characters. Hoosiers demands they have interiority, either through performance or filmic presentation (though none of the performances in the film, even from the amateur cast members, are bad–Anspaugh is outstanding with his actors). It just doesn’t want to show that interiority. It’s not interested.

Not while there’s basketball to be played.

Though Hershey’s basketball arc could be seen as the audience’s basketball arc. During one of their early bickering scenes, Hackman tries to get Hershey to understand the magic of the game. Hoosiers, in its second half, creates that magic (for Hershey and the audience).

So the first half is Hackman’s problems. The ones he makes for himself, the ones the townsfolk make for him. The one the basketball team makes for him; specifically the players. Even though the players are in most of the movie, only two of them have actual subplots. Valainis’s gets left offscreen because he’s an enigma (he and guardian Hershey don’t even share a shot together). David Neidorf gets one as an extension of Dennis Hopper’s subplot. Hopper’s the former high school basketball star now town drunk who Hackman tries to reform.

Some of the other players get little things. Steve Hollar is the one who pisses Hackman off the most frequently. Scott Summers is the religious one who Hackman eventually finds lovable–Hoosiers has its Americana, but it keeps it at a certain distance. Like it’s pretty and all but don’t get it too close. There’s probably some cut material with Hackman on that arc (Anspaugh and Pizzo’s version runs an hour longer), but what’s left is a nice recurring theme in the montage sequences.

The film ably pivots between its various pacing speeds. Once it gets comfortable relying on the montages, Hoosiers stays with them. It slows down a bit for the Hackman and Hershey subplot, which is nicely, gently done. Ditto the Hopper redemption slash recovery arc. The film slows down for those two. Otherwise, it’s got to fit in those montages.

Hopper’s great. Hershey’s good. Hackman’s great. Hackman gets the least showy role in the entire film. Even when it turns out he likes to get into screaming matches with referees, he’s still not showy. The film’s rising actions are muted; Hoosiers’s narrative distance is something else.

The production is outstanding. Carroll Timothy O’Meara’s cutting, Fred Murphy’s photography, David Nichols’s production design. All phenomenal.

Hoosiers is a fantastic film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Anspaugh; written by Angelo Pizzo; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Carter DeHaven and Pizzo; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Norman Dale), Barbara Hershey (Myra Fleener), Dennis Hopper (Shooter Flatch), Maris Valainis (Jimmy Chitwood), David Neidorf (Everett Flatch), Brad Long (Buddy Walker), Steve Hollar (Rade Butcher), Fern Persons (Opal Fleener), Brad Boyle (Whit Butcher), Wade Schenck (Ollie McLellan), Kent Poole (Merle Webb), Scott Summers (Strap Purl), Chelcie Ross (George Walker), and Sheb Wooley (Cletus Summers).


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