36 Hours (1965, George Seaton)

George Seaton is a perfectly capable director and he’s got a lot of talent as a writer, but 36 Hours is fairly light. It’s set just before D-Day–and we all know D-Day happened, so the Germans aren’t going to win the big kahuna, which leaves only the little ones. Again, James Garner probably isn’t going to die, neither is Eva Marie Saint. There’s little suspense to the conclusion of 36 Hours and a thriller needs suspense….

The film is about the Germans getting ahold of a D-Day planner right before the invasion and setting him up in a fake U.S. hospital run by Rod Taylor, where everyone speaks English and they try to convince him (Garner) he’s had amnesia for six years. The first hour of the film doesn’t even rightly belong to Garner. It’s mostly Taylor and his dealings with the SS and so on. Taylor, of course, is a sympathetic Nazi, a doctor dedicated to relieving post-traumic stress. Taylor’s really good too, better than Garner, who’s on autopilot for most of the film–his character is incredibly shallow–except the few scenes between Taylor and Garner. Seaton started as a playwright (I think), but I do remember from The Big Lift, he really knows how to write male friendships. 36 Hours has one of those good friendships, or at least the foundation for one.

Unfortunately, the friendship is not the focus of the film… actually, 36 Hours doesn’t really have a focus. It takes place over a few days–much longer than 36 hours, those 36 hours are actually used up by the half-way point–and there’s uneventful chase scenes and McGuffins everywhere. There is a wonderful sequence at the beginning, set entirely to café music. I wonder if Seaton thought of it himself or if he knew what Welles wanted for the beginning of Touch of Evil, since the two are almost identical. The music in general, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is excellent. He never goes too heavy with it and the music helps bring out some of the more amusing elements to the story. It’s also got a good love theme, and since Eva Marie Saint is really bad, those scenes need all the help they can get.

To some degree, 36 Hours just came a little too late… It was released in 1965 and it just feels too much like an attempt to capitalize on The Great Escape. Seaton’s earlier World War II work had some revealing insight into Germany, but 20 years after the war ended, most of that insight is gone. Instead, he does it for light humor. A more serious tone wouldn’t have fixed 36 Hours, but it would have helped.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Seaton; screenplay by Seaton, from a story by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance, based on a short story by Roald Dahl; director of photography, Philip H. Lathrop; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by William Perlberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Maj. Jefferson F. Pike), Eva Marie Saint (Anna Hedler), Rod Taylor (Maj. Walter Gerber), Werner Peters (Otto Schack), John Banner (Sgt. Ernst), Russell Thorson (Gen. Allison), Alan Napier (Col. Peter MacLean), Oscar Beregi Jr. (Lt. Col. Karl Ostermann), Ed Gilbert (Capt. Abbott) and Sig Ruman (German Guard).


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Mogambo (1953, John Ford)

John Ford not only goes to Africa, he also goes contemporary. Ford rarely directed anything but period pieces–as Westerns do fit under that umbrella–and it’s interesting to see how he handles it. I have to wonder if Mogambo was MGM’s response to The African Queen’s success. While the film does contain some of Ford’s best character work–small moments, like the discovery of the love triangle–it’s not a on-location African adventure. It’s a Hollywood film using African locations instead of backdrops. The result is disorientating, but also interesting. The colors are sumptuous, the general green of the African foliage and the cloud-filled blue skies; it’s completely different looking than any other Ford film. In fact, it looks a lot like The African Queen. I’m sure Mogambo is lifted that style, but it doesn’t make the film any less beautiful.

I’ve seen Red Dust, the source for the film, adapted by the same writer (John Lee Mahin) and also starring Clark Gable, but I don’t remember much about it. For example, I don’t remember if Gable’s the protagonist in Red Dust. In Mogambo, he and Grace Kelly’s love affair (Kelly is married to Gable’s client) is a subject the film documents, never personifies. The film only looks at them, never puts itself in Gable’s–or Kelly’s–position. Instead, the film is really Ava Gardner’s show. I’ve seen Gardner in a few films, but she’s fantastic in Mogambo, though the character is well-handled through the whole film. She gets to play with baby elephants, gets to feed baby rhinos… Grace Kelly runs and screams at the sign of any wildlife, no matter how cute. Obviously, the audience is supposed to side with Gardner–the film even gives her an unnecessary sob story to further curry favor.

Gable’s fine throughout, though he looks out of place at the end, when the film has to wrap up tidily. The film also looks out of place, since it mixes naturally-lighted footage of gorillas with the actors on a set. It doesn’t work at all; there’s no energy in the gorilla shots and so Ford gives no energy to the cut-away shots of the actors. Worse, even when there aren’t gorillas around, studio shots mix in with location footage, removing the Hollywood realism aura–awkward as it was–the film created for ninety-five minutes. The film worked its best in the first half, before the location-filled safari, where Ford had something different to do–not just get a film shot–and Gardner wasn’t just popping up in a different outfit each scene (she does have a lot of bags, but it seems unlikely she’d wear a sweater during the day in equatorial Africa). Grace Kelly is good in the beginning too, holding her own against Gable in one scene, then flattens for the rest.

All Mogambo needed was some more thought put into it, which makes its faults incredibly frustrating. Still, it’s worth seeing just for Ford’s work in the first half and Gardner’s throughout, even when she is wearing those ludicrous outfits. Warner’s DVD is excellent, but the print is so clean, it just makes the quality differences in film stock at end (again with the gorillas) more visible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison; directors of photography, Robert Surtees and Freddie Young; edited by Frank Clarke; produced by Sam Zimbalist; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Victor Marswell), Ava Gardner (Honey Bear Kelly), Grace Kelly (Linda Nordley), Donald Sinden (Donald Nordley), Philip Stainton (John Brown-Pryce), Eric Pohlmann (Leon Boltchak), Laurence Naismith (Skipper) and Denis O’Dea (Father Josef).


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The Proposition (2005, John Hillcoat)

I was expecting something more eclectic from The Proposition, an Australian Western written by Nick Cave. I’m not sure if Australia has their own variation on the Western–I suppose something like Ned Kelly might qualify. The Proposition is an American Western set in Australia, with the Aborigines standing in for the Indians. It might be historically accurate–probably is–but it’s still a Western. Cave’s seen some Westerns too, but the most visible influence for the Western part of The Proposition are Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. The Proposition is an improvement on either of those films, because Cave’s got something going on I’ve never seen in a Western before… the bad guys are really the bad guys.

It’s not a situation where there are no good guys (like Unforgiven, though, arguably Ned is a good guy in Unforgiven)–the sheriff character is actually a good guy in The Proposition. I haven’t seen Ray Winstone in anything but Last Orders and I don’t remember him, but he’s amazing in The Proposition. His relationship with his wife, played by Emily Watson (who’s rather good, but not as good as I expected her to be), is Cave’s masterwork in this film. It’s a beautiful, complicated relationship in the middle of a hard, violent Western. It’s a touching and romantic and it’s a rare thing–not just in a Western–to have a marriage start and end a film with the couple carrying for each other. There aren’t even any hiccups in it… It’s wonderful.

Unfortunately, the Western is not. The film follows around Guy Pearce, whose performance consists of being really, really skinny and maybe having a broken nose. It’s the worst work I’ve seen from him, though the film doesn’t give him much to do. The film, however, gives Danny Huston even less to do and makes him out as an outback Charles Manson, but he’s still quite good. John Hurt’s cameo is bad and the film wastes David Wenham (who would have been great in Pearce’s role) as a fop.

The director, Hillcoat, is fantastic. While he frames the shots like any good Western, the Australian Outback provides some surreal scenery. The film doesn’t take full advantage of that surrealism, which is occasionally amplified by Cave’s score, and the third act loses the directorial imagination. The style of that act doesn’t match the rest of the film and the writing fails to convince… for the first time, The Proposition becomes predictable. Still, it’s got that excellent marriage between Winstone and Watson going for it. Hopefully Cave will write his next film sooner than he did this one (there are seventeen years between his first script and The Proposition).

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Hillcoat; written by Nick Cave; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Cave and Warren Ellis; production designer, Chris Kennedy; produced by Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers, Chris Brown and Jackie O’Sullivan; released by Sony Pictures.

Starring Guy Pearce (Charlie Burns), Ray Winstone (Captain Stanley), Danny Huston (Arthur Burns), John Hurt (Jellon Lamb), David Wenham (Eden Fletcher) and Emily Watson (Martha Stanley).


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16 Blocks (2006, Richard Donner)

Bruce Willis has had more comebacks–commercial and artistic–than any actor I can think of… Pulp Fiction was artistic, Die Hard: With a Vengeance was a commercial one, The Sixth Sense was both (his performance any way), and he’s due. (I just realized, the trips tend to come with comedic ventures). 16 Blocks is probably not his best performance–though he’s excellent–but it is the first sign he’s going to age gracefully. Willis’s generation of actor–and even the one before his, if Harrison Ford is any indication–has been rather uncomfortable with the whole aging process. It’s always these fifty year-olds with three year-old babies. None of those perks for Willis in this film. He’s fat and slow and, even when he gets going, he never really moves fast.

The film is far from perfect–it’s got an intense set-up and the first forty-five minutes were incredibly smart, the film kept the audience in the dark, letting the actors do their work. It’s not quite a real-time film, which is good, since those never really work out, but there’s too much thrown into the film… too much construction. Richard Wenk writes good dialogue and good characters, but he runs out of situations. He also plays three major tricks on the audience, all but one are expected, but the film’s so affable it’s impossible to get upset with it.

Mos Def contributes a lot to the affability and he and Willis are great together, with Willis actually doing different work than he usually does in his buddy films. David Morse, of course, turns in the best performance. Watching this guy chew gum is amazing….

There’s also the playful tone Donner takes with the film. Donner knows how to make a film entertaining and never takes 16 Blocks off track. The editing is good and the cinematography is great–so good I thought I’d recognize the name, but did not. It’s a lower budget film for Donner, who–I think–put together the financing himself, and it’s a practice he should stick with. He knows what he’s doing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by Richard Wenk; director of photography, Glen MacPherson; edited by Steven Mirkovich; music by Klaus Badelt; production designer, Arv Greywal; produced by Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin and Jim Van Wyck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bruce Willis (Jack Mosley), Mos Def (Eddie Bunker), David Morse (Frank Nugent), Cylk Cozart (Jimmy Mulvey) and David Zayas (Robert Torres).


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