Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hangmen Also Die!

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943) was inspired by the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. I learn from Wikipedia that Heydrich, nicknamed "The Hangman of Prague," was the Nazi Reich Protector of occupied Czechoslovakia, the number two man in the SS, and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust.

Although the film was made during World War 2 for propoganda purposes, the story--written by John Wexley from a treatment by Lang and Bertolt Brecht--is surprisingly nuanced. In the film, Heydrich's assassin is a physician and member of the Czech resistance, Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy). After shooting Heydrich (an event not shown), he escapes the SS only when a young woman at a vegetable stand, Nasha Navotny (Anna Lee), points them in the wrong direction. The Germans respond to the assassination first with a curfew. With nowhere to go, Svoboda shows up at Nasha's home, which puts her entire family in danger.

In the film as in real life, the Nazis begin rounding up and executing prominent Czech citizens, including Nasha's father, Stephen (Walter Brennan), a university professor. In the movie, characters openly question whether it's worth it to protect one man. (In the end, the Germans killed 1,600 people.)

Although the film has no sympathy for an industrialist, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart), who's collaborating with the Germans, it does contain a rather daring sequence in which a crowd of ordinary, patriotic Czechs nearly turn into a lynch mob. Nasha decides to betray Svoboda to the Nazis and asks a cab driver to take her to the Gestapo. When the driver goes in the opposite direction, Nasha jumps out and explains what happened to a police officer. Quickly a crowd gathers asking, "What does a nice young girl want to do with the Gestapo?"

Hangmen Also Die! doesn't feel at all dated. The story is gripping and suspenseful, and Lang's spare direction feels entirely modern. It's a film that deserves to be better known than it is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

You and Me

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

You and Me (1938) was Fritz Lang's second film with Sylvia Sidney as a woman in love with an ex-con trying to escape his past, but unlike You Only Live Once (1937), which was more of a liberal melodrama, the later film is cynical, funny and boldly experimental with a score by Kurt Weill.

Much of the film takes place in a department store where Joe Dennis (George Raft), an ex-convict, and his girl, Helen (Sidney), both work. Lang establishes the setting with a non-narrative montage scored to "Song of the Cash Register." Disembodied hands push buttons on a cash register and Lang's camera tracks across store displays as an off-screen singer explains how you can't have something for nothing.

In You Only Live Once, the Sidney character was idealized and unconvincing, but Helen is more interesting. She's keeping a secret from Joe (which I won't reveal) and it threatens to tear them apart. When Joe discovers her deception, he goes back to his old gang.

In many Fritz Lang films, there's a scene in which a group of criminals sit around a table in their basement hideout, illuminated only by a single overhead light--but never one quite like this. The scene quickly turns into a kind of improvised musical number with percussive tapping and chanting ("Five years isn't so long"). It's a very strange sequence.

Another great scene: Helen sits down Joe and his gang to explain to them how crime doesn't pay in dollars and cents. You really can't have something for nothing.

You and Me is perhaps the weirdest of all Lang's films before Rancho Notorious (1952). It looks even weirder today than when it was released. The style of montage in the opening sequence is closer to silent and early sound films than a movie from the late 1930s, let alone contemporary technique. It's a very strange film.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Mark Palansky's Penelope (2006) is a combination of three different formulas: (1) the Ancient Curse, (2) the Young Woman Going Out into the World, and (3) the Young Woman Who Might Marry the Wrong Man if She Doesn't Patch Things Up With James McAvoy.

Formula number one: A long time ago some entirely arbitrary events took place with the end result that Penelope (Christina Ricci) has a pig nose in the present. The curse will only be broken if one of her own kind (old money, blue blood) falls in love with her. Penelope's mother (Catherine O'Hara) hires a matchmaker to find some one who meets that criteria, but most of the applicants are so horrified by Penelope's appearance that they throw themselves out the nearest window.

Penelope's parents have kept her in Mormon-like seclusion for the first twenty-five years of her life to keep her existence a secret, even going so far as to fake her death at a young age. Penelope's mother has marriage applicants sign a non-disclosure deal to keep word from getting out, but one applicant, Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (Simon Woods), manages to get away before the family butler can tackle him. When Edward goes to the police, they think he's insane, but Lemon (Peter Dinklage)--a reporter who lost an eye twenty years earlier trying to get a photo of Penelope--believes him. They hire Johnny (McAvoy), a down-and-out blue blood, to pose as an applicant in order to snap a picture.

Formula number two: Penelope and Johnny fall in love (natch), but he doesn't marry her for reasons revealed only later. Fearing the curse may never be broken, Penelope grabs her mother's credit card and walks out the back door. She wears a scarf to cover her nose.

This part of the film is a missed opportunity. There's a good scene in which Penelope checks into a hotel, but mostly her freedom consists of sitting in a British pub Johnny recommended and sipping beer through a straw.

Formula number three: For reasons too convoluted to explain here, Edward proposes to Penelope and she accepts. I won't reveal whether Penelope chooses the rich jerk or the guy with the five o'clock shadow. You'll just have to see the film for youself.

I think the movie Penelope wants to be is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001), in which everything depended on the heroine's shy personality. Here, the entire film hinges on plot twists that are essentially arbitrary.

The word for this movie is precious. Maybe if the film really dealt with what it would be like to go through life with a pig nose, it would be too sad to market as a romantic comedy.

It's unfortunate that the film is opening in South Korea only a few weeks after the arrest of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who held his daughter prisoner in his basement for twenty-four years. Despite her years in capitivity, Penelope isn't weird or angry but blandly well-adjusted.

Penelope is not a total catastrophy. O'Hara has some funny scenes as the mother, McAvoy is surprisingly good as the romantic lead, and Dinklage is such a fine actor it's a pleasure to see him in almost anything. It's too bad the material doesn't live up to the actors.

You Only Live Once

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) is loosely based upon the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, but unlike Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which saw them as particular, quirky individuals, Lang's film views them as victims of circumstance. It's not Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) that's bad, it's the world.

As the film opens, Eddie is an ex-con trying to escape his past. When he gets out of prison after serving a three year sentence, his girl, Joan (Sylvia Sidney), is waiting for him on the outside. Not everyone is so understanding. The couple gets kicked out of a bed and breakfast when the owner recognizes Eddie's face from a true crime magazine. When Eddie loses his job as a truck driver, he finds the only people willing to hire him are his old gang.

This is all familiar stuff, but then Eddie's framed for a robbery, and it's here that the film becomes interesting. Joan wants Eddie to turn himself in so he can clear his name, but Eddie doesn't think he'll get a fair trial and wants to make a run for it. As it happens, he's caught before he can and sentenced to death, but that's far from the end of the story.

I won't reveal what happens next. Watching the film I was surprised to find that I didn't know where the story was going.

Eddie and Joan aren't esspeically interesting characters. Although the film gives Eddie a very clear choice, his decision has less to do with his personality than the filmmakers' liberal thesis. Joan is even worse insofar as the script relies on referrences to "Romeo and Juliet" to motivate some of her actions.

You Only Live once is a bit dated but still worth checking out. The plot has plenty of twists, and Fonda commands the screen. There's something effortless about his acting: even while playing a hardened criminal, he seems utterly benign, yet you can't take your eyes off him.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Big Heat

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) is a tough, cynical crime movie that falters only when it attempts to portray its hero's idyllic family life. Its depiction of police corruption is specific and convincing, but the scenes showing Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) at home with his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), are a cliché.

As in M (1931), Lang equates law enforcement with organized crime. After a cop kills himself in the middle of the night, his widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), who doesn't appear the least bit upset, takes the suicide note and phones the local crime boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). He in turn calls his muscle, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who's in the middle of a card game with the police commissioner (Howard Wendell).

This sequence establishes all the major characters, including Vince's girl, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), with the exception of Sgt. Bannion. An honest cop, Bannion is out of the loop.

The suicide note is a maguffin. We never learn what's in it--only that it contains evidence incriminating Lagana, and Bertha is holding it in order to blackmail him--or even why Bertha's husband committed suicide in the first place. She tells Bannion he was worried about his health, but the man's mistress, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), denies it. Shortly after speaking to Bannion, Lucy turns up dead.

The police department is happy to look the other way on just about anything. Lucy's death is deemed a county matter, and Bannion is told to forget about it. When he doesn't, Lagana has one of his men plant a bomb in Bannion's car. Although everyone knows who gave the order, the department has a team of men follow-up on everyone Bannion's put away in the last five years and their families so it looks like they're doing something.

The scenes showing Bannion's marriage aren't convincing. Katie is the perfect, submissive, uncomplaining housewife who lives only to cook steak for dinner and take care of their young daughter.

The film has a bare, minimal look. The sets are totally generic, as if Lang were re-using sets builts for other films. (This might account for the near-constant camera movement.) The weather is always neutral: no wind, no rain, no extreme heat or cold. And apart from the dialogue and foley--that is, sounds dictated by the story--there isn't much to listen to.

The film is famous for a scene in which Vince throws boiling coffee at Debby. This action is foreshadowed only by the off-screen sound of coffee boiling a few seconds before he throws it. The pot seems to materialize at the moment it's needed.

This is supremely confident filmmaking. (I haven't seen Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt [1956], but apparently it's even more minimal.) The content is so extreme that perhaps Lang felt no need to embellish it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Woman in the Window

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang made The Woman in the Window (1944) the year before he directed Scarlet Street (1945), which again starred Edward G. Robinson as a meek every man, Joan Bennett as the younger woman he's infatuated with, and Dan Duryea as the homme fatale who exploits her.

It's not so surprising for a director to repeat himself, but seeing the two films together, I was aware of other continuities between them that are more subtle and mysterious. For instance, both films associate one character with a pork pie hat.

Stylistically, however, the two films are rather different. The Woman in the Window is less atmospheric with nearly wall-to-wall music. The settings are generically upscale, and even the blackmailer wears a dinner jacket.

The story is set in New York in the summer. Richard Wanley (Robinson) is a professor of psychology whose wife and children go on vacation indefinitely at the beginning of the film. That night, Richard goes out for drinks with two friends, Frank (Raymond Massey), the district attorney, and Michael (Edmund Breon), a doctor. They point out to Richard a portrait in a store window of a woman they've decided is their dream girl. Coming home from the club, Richard stops to stare at the painting when he notices the reflection of the model, Alice (Bennett), standing behind him.

From there, the film develops into a modest thriller. Richard and Alice go back to her place for drinks until her boyfriend shows up and tries to strangle Richard. He kills the boyfriend in self defense with a pair of scissors, and then dumps the body in the woods. After it's discovered, Richard exploits his friendship with Frank to stay one step ahead of the cops.

The film's only serious flaw is the ending, which I won't spoil for anyone since its lameness should be self-evident. I'd seen the film once before and knew it was coming, yet it managed to enrage me all over again.

Is The Woman in the Window a better film than Scarlet Street? It's impossible for me to answer, because the former aims so much lower. It's not one of the great Fritz Lang films, but for the most part, it hits its marks. I think that's enough.

Scarlet Street

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) is based on the same novel and play that inspired Jean Renoir's La Chienne (1931), but Lang pushes the material away from comedy towards existential tragedy. Renoir's film ends with laughter. Lang's ends with madness and despair.

Lang moves the story to New York's Greenwich Village. The hero, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), is a meek cashier and Sunday painter. At an office party, Christopher and his co-workers catch a glimpse of the boss getting into car with his young mistress. Christopher, who's in a loveless marriage, wonders what it would be like to be loved by a young woman. On his way home that night, Christopher sees a woman being attacked on the street and comes to her rescue.

In the Renoir film, the woman was a prostitute and the man who assaulted her was her pimp. Although Lang's film begins with the image of a street lamp behind the opening credits, Kitty (Joan Bennett) isn't a prostitute, even if she sometimes acts like one. We learn that she used to have a job, but after she started dating Johnny (Dan Duryea), a small time card player, she "could never get to work on time." Johnny calls her "Lazy Legs."

Johnny is a homme fatale. He needs money to enter a high stakes card game, and when Kitty doesn't have any to give him, he beats her up. To impress Kitty, Christopher tells her he's a painter, and Johnny leaps to the conclusion that he's got some money. (Eventually, Christopher steals some bonds left to his wife by her first husband in order to pay for a studio apartment for Kitty.) Johnny doesn't seem the least bit concerned when Kitty tells him how much she hates it when Christopher tries to kiss her.

Kitty tells Christopher she's an actress, and in a sense, she is. Christopher starts storing his paintings at Kitty's apartment when his wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan), threatens to throw them out. Johnny takes two of them to a street vendor in Washington Square to sell them, and when the unsigned paintings are bought up by an art critic, Kitty plays the role of the artist, repeating the same flowery twaddle that Christopher fed her when he was pretending to be a painter.

Lang seldom uses non-diegetic music, preferring the ambient sound of an organ grinder on the street or a radio program coming from the apartment downstairs. In the latter part of the film, the audio is more subjective with Christopher haunted by the voices of those he wronged.

Although I liked the film on first viewing, seeing it again, I found myself growing impatient with it, and I'm not sure why. Either watching movies like Iron Man (2008) has obliterated my attention span, or the characters are too predictable to sustain interest for 103 minutes. La Chienne is a classic and a good 13 minutes shorter, so unless you're living in Busan right now, that's the one to see.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iron Man

Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) begins in Afghanistan and ends with the resolution of its hero's daddy issues. In between, it spends a lot of time in the basement.

The film is based on an old comic book I've never read, and in all likelihood, I never will. Its hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), is a bazillionaire playboy whose company makes weapons for the U.S. government. In Afghanistan, he's kidnapped by terrorists armed with his own merchandise, who want him to build a missle for them. Instead he builds himself an iron suit to escape in.

As if raised in a South Korean PC room, Stark is both light-sensitive and anti-social. After spending most of the film's first hour in a cave building an Iron Man suit, he spends most of the second hour in the basement of his Malibu mansion building an Iron Man suit. Although he could have his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), if only he'd notice her, Stark has more meaningful conversations with his computer (voiced by Paul Bettany).

The movie is too ahistorical to qualify as a political statement, either liberal or conservative. There's no mention of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which the U.S. backed the Taliban--possibly because the word "Taliban" doesn't appear in the screenplay. The six or so terrorists we see in the film have no connections to al-Qaeda and no discernable motives.

The real meat of the movie is the Oedipal struggle between Stark and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who was Stark's father's business partner. One word that does appear in the screenplay, frequently, is "legacy." Stark wants to protect his father's legacy by only selling weapons to the right people (i.e., America). Stane is more of a free market type.

The movie's super weakness is a lack of creativity. As a director, Favreau can cover a scene but he can't direct. We get too many close-ups and too much camera movement. Even the soundtrack is boring. The first thing we hear is the "quiet" of the desert followed by AC/DC's "Back in Black."

Even the in-jokes are lame. Are comic book fans really that excited to see a cameo by Stan Lee?

Iron Man is not, I suppose, a terrible movie, but I can't think of a single compelling reason to see it. Everything about it--from the use of terrorists as stock villains to the resolution of Oedipal conflicts--is terminally familiar, as if nobody involved could be bothered to do something creative. On every level, it's undistinguished hack work.