Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The cubicle civilization depicted in Drones is comprised of more or less comfortable workers. Unchallenged though they may be in most aspects of their lives, in and out of the office, the employees of Omnilink are not merely enduring their work-day. They work reasonably-hard doing reasonable tasks and at the end of the day, they go home. Even the artificial crises that pop up—the decreased lead time, the looming deadline—do little to jolt them from their routines. A key element in their daily existence is gossip, and that fills the space between forms and databases. Who is sleeping with who—the essential and possibly only ingredient. If Ian is such a creep, why does Miryam keep taking him back? When will Brian ever ask out Amy? These are the distractions from the database that corporate switched unwisely from its chronological to alphabetical structure. Discussions take place right out in the open because, well, the water cooler doesn’t work.
Encouraging the romantic pairing of Brian (Johnathan M. Woodward of Buffy and Firefly fame) and Amy (cult goddess Angela Bettis) is the centerpiece of Drones, setting the movie’s low-key catastrophes into motion. Office romances, you see, are discouraged by management for a reason. Breakups can lead to hostile working conditions or worse: galactic destruction. At best, it’s a distraction, so everyone would be better off keeping things professional. Unless you want a hostile race of aliens marking the human race for extinction and blowing up the whole planet? You don’t want that, would you? Bad for business.
Directed by Buffy co-stars Amber Benson and Adam Busch, Drones is a dry, droll comedy that has managed to fly under the radar for most of the film-going public. Well-received at Slamdance in 2010, theatrical exposure eluded it because of its very underemphasized nature. Critics dove into their thesaurus of clichés and hauled out that old indie standby, “quirky”, and slapped that appellation over every review. The problem is that Drones is not “quirky”. “Quirky” was coined for movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and 500 Days of Summer and anything starring Zooey Deschanel or Parker Posey (the ‘90s version of Zooey). Drones on the other hand is quite the opposite of “quirky” as it’s the most perfectly-deadpan movie to come along in such a long while.
The strong script by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (yes, I know; shut up) posits the time-tested hypothesis that aliens walk among us and in Men in Black fashion, they’re prepping reports, Xeroxing documents and shuffling data along with the rest of us. Opening with a Powerpoint presentation that will evoke dread in anyone who has ever endured the real thing, Drones’ company Omnilink is compared to a hive, with each member playing its part for the betterment of the colony. “A bee uses its tongue to extract pollan from a flower. We at Omnilink do the same thing. We use our tongues daily, but over the phone.”
The company’s interpersonal strategy: “The buzz of a job well-done is 1) keeping your cool; 2) reaching out; 3) and interacting with others.” Co-operation is vital and everyone should do their part by visiting neighbor’s cubicles, chatting—“Say, Bob, wasn’t that a great Powerpoint presentation Peter gave this morning?” Human relationships invigorate the hive.
Which is why everyone from supply-closet king Clark (Samm Levine) to spreadsheet crusader Cooperman are pestering Brian to ask out Amy. Not that he sees any problem with that. They’ve flirted in the past, but there are doubts. “She uses capital letters in her I.M.’s,” explains Brian. “I’m more of a lowercase kind of guy.”
“Tut,” tuts Cooperman. “Relish your differences; they're as important as your sames.”
Despite the shock of catching Clark “communicating” in the supply closet and revealing that he’s an alien, Brian retrieves a box of staples and delivers them to Amy. Then pops the question. Which envokes an extremely logical response. “You’ve asked me out in return for bringing me staples. It seems…disproportionate.” But they give it a shot, meet for drinks after work and over the weekend agree that they’re “dating”. Brian hardly gives Clark’s revelation a second thought.
By Monday, Amy is so excited about their new status as a couple that she drops her own bomb on Brian: She, too, is an alien, a race called Soyka, and the copier isn’t her “pet alien robot” but a communication device through which she talks to a co-worker (Jafe) on her own planet (Elg). But this, on top of Clark’s news and the sudden pressure of dating, makes Brian freak out. Unlike Clark’s people, who merely want to enslave the human race—
Clark: Nothing will really change except that I’ll be your boss.
Brian: Can I get a raise?
Brian: Then I’m good.
—Amy’s people want to destroy the planet for fuel. But that plan is on hold “for now”. Brian’s reaction, though, drives a wedge between him and Amy and by lunch they’re no longer dating. The next day, he preps a Powerpoint presentation in which he uses a bar graph to declare that “Amy Is A Jerk”. Still getting used to her new human emotions, Amy doesn’t take well to this sort of thing, particularly as it had nothing to do with the new Planicka account and just serves to extend the meeting. So she contacts her people and tells them that it’s time to move up the deadline. The armada, she is told, will be there sometime after lunch.
Drones pulls this oddball story together with the conceit that, like any other office, this imminent disaster is met with the same urgency as any other client demand. Not only does everyone accept Clark’s and Amy’s extraterrestrial identities in stride but they pull together to help figure out the problem before the planet is destroyed or they have to work overtime. And with this approach, Benson, Busch, Acker and Blacker manage the ultimate triumph of zero cynicism.
Unlike so much of our entertainment, particularly in the realm of “indie” or “quirky”, the Omnilink drones are not the oppressed creatures from Office Space, comprised only of tension and teeth. Drones isn’t about revenge on corporate America but instead tackles the old fashioned notion of doing your job and going home. As ironic a term that “post-ironic” has become, that’s precisely what Drones is about. There’s no winking at the audience, no elbow-nudging or cooler-than-thou posturing. It asks, quite literally, what would you do if you found out a co-worker you liked and thought you knew was going to destroy the planet where you keep all your stuff? Would you go hysterical and attack her with a paper cutter? Or would you just try to talk her out? Because neither is going to make 5pm come any sooner and one seems like it would take more effort than the other. What is the corporate cubicle-jockey’s path of least resistence? And could it be done through interoffice email?
So many things could have scuttled Drones. In the hands of showier directors with something to prove, this alien-invasion-cum-coffee-break could have gone over-the-top, bug-eyes, hysterical mugging, punchlines with the extra punch. But Benson and Busch handle the material with knowing restraint. Even when Brian is at his most hysterical, Woodward’s performance barely raises beyond pitched incredulity. The movie they made is not about madcap artificiality and because of their mature approach Drones is delivered with likable characters and funny material. Nothing is ruined in the name of appeasing the Hollywood over-the-top machine. Which, of course, is why it was deemed an impossible sell.
As of this writing Drones is only available through Amazon’s on demand streaming service or through extended cable (I happened to catch it during a free weekend of Showtime). Reviews for the film thus far either stuff it into the aforementioned “quirky” category or dismiss it outright as a “nothing new indie thing”, citing the amusing score by Jonathan Dinerstein and Dan Bern (and Busch’s band Common Rotation)—especially the appropriate opening song “Strongly-Worded Memo”—as pretentious “prog-rock. (But again, that’s the too-cool-for-you crowd for you, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t being a hipster no longer cool? Or being knowingly uncool make you cool?) If you can watch it without falling prey to your own misconceptions of what a “festival movie” is or is not, you might find yourself charmed by Drones’ quiet story about humanity, aliens and spreadsheets.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
“Dude,” as I was addressed by a handful of people, “did you see that new Russian superhero movie, yet?”
I hadn’t. “What’s it called?”
“Mechano-something. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s awesome! The camera is all over the place and the effects are great.”
This was relayed to me a number of times over a period of about ten days. The description always vague and usually leaving me with less information than I had going in. Finally, one of these good Samaritan dudes (and one dudette) included an IMDb link to a movie called The Sword Bearer, aka, in Russia, Mechenosets. Based on writer Yevgeni Danilenko's book, directed in 2006 by Filipp Yankovsky, The Sword Bearer turned out to be something different from what was described. I suspect that these well-intentioned friends were trying to steer me towards the flying-car movie Black Lightning, produced by Timur Bekmambetov, or maybe even Bekmambetov’s Daywatch, because what I got with The Sword Bearer was not a slam-bang actioner, but a very quiet and occassionally disturbing story about a young man who has been ostracized by society for a unique flaw in his genetic make-up.
Unfolding slowly and deliberately, we are gradually introduced to Sasha (a remarkable Artyom Tkachenko), a withdrawn little boy who grows up to be an isolated teenager, shunned by many who know him because of his temper and the violence that results from it. When Sasha feels threatened, a gleaming, indestructable metal blade extends from his wrist. With it, he can cleave stone and wood as easily as flesh and bone, and he doesn’t seem to have the ability to control it, or even set it on “mild injury” much less “stun”. However, he doesn’t pop the blade like Wolverine; the sword bursts painfully through his skin, sometimes skewering the palm of his hand, leaving behind a bloody appendage he does his best to hide with bandages.
Returning to his childhood neighborhood after an unexplained absence, the adult Sasha happens across a girl he knew from school. Her mobster’s son boyfriend and his droogs arrive and beat the young man down in the street, then drive off in their flashy Yay-Capitialism sports car. Tracking them back to her home, Sasha uses a rusty pipe to destroy the car with the bullies inside, killing or severely injuring each one. Shocked by his violence, the girl withdraws and Sasha runs. The next morning, the boyfriend’s connected mother puts a price on Sasha’s head.
In a new city, he meets a woman about his age, Katya (Chulpan Khamatova). They bicker in a stairway then fall into each others’ arms, anger fueling passion. Then her lover arrives home. Instead of offering any explanation, Katya orders the man out of the house. When he attempts to shoot her, Sasha breaks a chair over his head and they leave him tied up. Once freed and out for revenge, he attempts to rape her in the back seat of her car. Sasha’s rescue of her is brutal and horrifying, even to himself. Slamming the would-be rapist overhand into the car’s windshield, Sasha straddles him. Without his bidding, the blade extends and leaves the man bloody and dead, half in and out of the car. Shocked and shamed, Sasha runs and the girl comes up behind him, watching him press the blade tip into the pavement to force it back into his body.
The brutality and revelation is too much for her and she collapses. Sasha takes her home and she wakes up terrified of him. He hands her the phone, tells her to call the police, but she can’t.
It’s at this very point that you realize that this will not, cannot end well for either of them. This is a movie borne of a tragedy with all the classic tropes—misunderstood hero, doomed lovers, society mistaking iconoclasts for the mentally ill, the disease of revenge—all distilled into an odd little metaphor that is rarely even visual. The blade represents Sasha’s isolation, his barely-controlable rage; the bloody path left behind him are predominantly accidents—just as the first time, as a child, when he defended his mother by murdering his stepfather; when he protected a schoolmate from an escaped prisoner. First we see the wooden sword in young Sasha’s hand, then the bloody corpse on the floor.
Restrained and disciplined, Yankovsky never allows The Sword Bearer to dab even a toe into X-Men territory. Preferring to show the aftermath of Sasha’s emotions, at no point does the director attempt to ape western testosterone set pieces. We never see, for example, Sasha racing down a hall, blade extended, mowing down assailants. (The best we gorehounds get is a shot at the rear of a police van, a cascade of blood spilling through open doors and around Sasha’s boots, once belonging inside the half-dozen men escorting him to prison.) He’s not a superhero; the blade isn’t a curse. It’s just a part of him he doesn’t understand. He can’t even extend it at will, to prove his story to a policeman who is eager to hear any rational explanation. When it does emerge, he can cross-cut forests, cleave tractor trailers in half. Even then, Yankovsky keeps the blade obscured by action, more a force than a weapon. When we watch Sasha slice off the tail of a helicopter, we realize that the blade’s length is as infinite as his rage and grief, and many more times powerful.
Going into the film blind, The Sword Bearer became for me a very pleasant surprise, but one that demanded my attention (and not just because all the subtitles were about a full-second off, making following the subdued story even more difficult). Not everything is explained but then not every detail is necessary. All we have to no that a very special man is in love with a very special woman, that they’re both damaged in their own way, and that the world is a cold, hard place that has no interest in understanding them. It’s a very simple story wrapped up in an atypical narrative.
Depending on your own tolerance for deliberately-paced movies (what some may call “boring” and not unjustified), you’ll either find The Sword Bearer remarkable or intolerable. And for this reason, in addition to the subtitles and the presence of actors who may be acclaimed in Russia but are virtually unknown here (until they’re hired to play thuggish villains for the next Jason Statham movie), Mechenosets did not receive a wide release in the U.S. It played festivals in the big cities but was not released on domestic DVD. But even abroad, the pacing and open-ended questions, primarily concerning Sasha’s origins and any explanation of the blade, have left many viewers frustrated.
It’s at this point in the review when I suppose I should ask, pretentiously, if subtlety and allegory have been completely bred out of our DNA, regardless of location. Because I found meaning and satisfaction instead of explanation doesn’t raise me above or place me below another viewer. The Sword Bearer is a story about a scream told in a whisper. Whether you dig it or not will depend on how loudly you want to hear a story like this and when you’re willing to hear it.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Once upon a time, the phrase “Directed by Joel Schumacher” was not met with the revulsion and disgust that it is today. Rather, the director was considered with thoughtful indifference. It wasn’t too long ago that filmgoers left a Schumacher film thinking “gee, that could have been a lot worse”, instead of cursing the god that created him. Flamboyant in life but not in his art, Schumacher can be best-thought of as a competent director, serviceable perhaps, before he started putting nipples on everything. In the mid-‘80s, the young writer and director had perhaps already risen to the height of his adequacy with back-to-back successes appealing to the shallow youth in us all, St. Elmo’s Fire (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987). Today, like most of his pre-Batman efforts, these are great soundtracks in search of better movies, but they still managed to rake in enough money at the box office to garner him subsequent work. After writing two flops—Car Wash and The Wiz—Schumacher made his directorial debut with the Lily Tomlin hit, The Incredible Shrinking Woman. And that led him to perhaps his most infamous achievement, D.C. Cab.
Like Car Wash and The Wiz (I guess), D.C. Cab is another street-wise, working class adventure set against a flashy backdrop of poverty. The set up is fresh from dozens of previously made movies: a group of multiculture misfits working in the same environment learn to unite thanks to the intervention of a brand new white boy. In this case, obviously, the titular company is a bottom-feeding hack outfit headed by Barney Miller’s own Max Gail, the fleet driven by the likes of Mr. T, Paul Rodriguez, Bill Maher, Marsha Warfield, Gary Busey, Charlie Barnett and the Barbarian Brothers. The new white boy with the big ideas is Adam “No Relation” Baldwin as Gail’s nephew. The movie has less of a plot than it does a board game goal: get the misfits from start to finish, band together and keep the company from folding into bankruptcy. Accomplish this by first focusing on the disparity of personalities, loudening the profanity and sex jokes (and racist and homophobic jokes, bless their hearts), and then manufacturing some larger-than-life crisis that will point out how these aforementioned differences can be cast aside when push comes to shove and lives are at stake.
You’ve seen this movie. Maybe not this movie, but surely Porky’s, Animal House, Quicksilver, Police Academy. There’s nothing wrong with this formula. It works. It always works. It always will work, no matter how much Paul Rodriguez you throw in there. It even works in spite of the movie’s structure, which seems to operate under the philosophy, “It doesn’t matter if one scene has anything to do with the next so long as we have a cool song playing, somebody swears, and, oh, what the hell, put a lap-dissolve at the end.”
Take, for example, the pre-credits sequence in which the shrill and soon-to-be-hated-at-least-by-me Barnett is chased in his cab by a platoon of other cabs, their drivers wearing comically-sinister rubber masks. After blocking in his ride, they corner him in a dark and locked parking garage. Just as you’re sure that the African-American man wearing a ‘fro of curlers is about to meet his doom, laughter ensues, masks are removed revealing vaguely-recognizable actors playing future characters. Cue credits and then never reference this situation again (except in a vague way towards new white boy Baldwin, who is told that all new drivers have to make “the run”). As a hook, it doesn’t work. As a character-building sequence, it doesn’t work. But as an ease-in for the target demographic, the pot-heads, it works like a dream. So do the multiple brawls, the dirty jokes and every scene where Gary Busey seems to be taunting an off-camera orderly armed with a tranquilizer gun.
In Sweet Liberty (1986), Alan Alda’s character posits that a movie has to contain three elements to be successful with modern audiences: 1.) Disrespect of authority; 2.) Destruction of property; 3.) People taking their clothes off. Check, check, and check. So while D.C. Cab wasn’t the box office smash the studio had hoped for—even with focusing all advertising on Mr. T, who’d become an overnight sensation following the previous year’s smash hit Rocky III—it led a long productive life in video stores and on cable television. This cemented the careers of Schumacher and T, at least and allowed Rodriguez to escape unscathed for another decade. Baldwin would move forward into much more psychopathic roles, culminating in the most beloved character of all time, Firefly’s Jayne Cobb. Eventually, Maher would hang up whatever persona he’d been trying to cultivate as an actor and would evolve into a political satirist. Marsha Warfield found a home on Night Court. And the “special guest star” Irene Cara would survive her inconsequential cameo appearance to become the singing sensation she had been three years prior.
What makes D.C. Cab so fascinating is the sheer number of famous faces present in the film. While working on the index for a collection of reviews, I discovered that 1-out-of-every-6 people I cited either had the movie on their resume or a six-degrees tie to it somehow. Bring the movie up to fellow ‘80s children and you’ll get fond memories from many provided they hadn’t actually seen it since grade school. It’s slipshod editing and seemingly-random direction definitely qualifies it for “guilty pleasure” status. There are plenty of good lines, though Busey gets most of them.
Dell: Heck nobody goes in the army any more, except blacks. Someday one nigger's gonna wakeup and say, "We got the guns and the mustard gas and the tanks, hey were runnin the army!" And they're gonna take over the whole damn country and we'll be in with them already - we'll be Token Whites. Think about it.
Dell: Bruce Lee ain't dead you know. They got him frozen in carbonite down under Chatsworth. They're gonna melt him down as soon as the economy gets better.
However, it’s Barnett, the most grating character, who gets the best tag of any movie of the era, because of a deadpan delivery that had to have been jettisoned early in favor of his shrill “jive-turkey” schtick. It begins when none other than Timothy Agoglia Carey sits down in the back of Barnett’s cab:
Tyrone: Where to?
Angel of Death: I am the Angel of Death. Take me to hell.
Tyrone: Got any luggage?
Angel of Death: I am the Angel of Death. Take me to hell.
Tyrone: Got any luggage?
In short, it’s a movie that doesn’t ask anything of its audience. By the early ‘80s, this sort of controlled chaos was so familiar, the paint-by-numbers plot was unnecessary. The Underdogs become the Good Guys in the end. That’s the slug line that undoubtedly sold the script, that’s sold thousands upon thousands of scripts since the beginning of Hollywood. Nothing else matters except for the number of cars involved in the crash, the big set piece and how insane the various characters are allowed to be. Schumacher could have delivered a movie cobbled out of left-over frames from the countless comedies that came before it and it still would have made money. It’s the mantra of Meatballs: “It Just Doesn’t Matter”. A paycheck for the fantasy football cast; something to flash across the eyes in an air conditioned theater during a hot summer day. Subversive only to those who still believe that “they shouldn’t be allowed to say stuff like that!”
This low-expectation continues to attract the audiences today. There’s no difference between D. C. Cab and Hot Tub Time Machine or The Hangover or Hall Pass save the faces occupying the blank spaces where characters should be. We’re living in a green society; what better recyclable material than Hollywood comedy?
Friday, September 2, 2011
The Front Page is as true in its cynicism as it is today, performed on stage almost constantly since its pre-Crash premiere and, without taking into consideration the numerous television versions, has been directly adapted for the big screen no less than four times.
The gist: The Front Page takes place on the day before poor Earl Williams, commie sympathizer or dupe and the alleged murderer of a black policeman, will be led to the gallows. Crammed inside the Press Room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, reporters from most of the city big sheets play poker and make horrifically inappropriate jokes about the various horrors of the world as well as Earl’s big kick-off. Enter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson, crack reporter from the Chicago Examiner, there to say goodbye to the gang. He’s off to get married and get a respectable job. More importantly, he’s looking to get out from under the Examiner’s tyrannical editor, Walter Burns, who’d commit murder to get that scoop-worthy headline. Suddenly, shots rip through the windows—Earl Williams has escaped! When the other hacks race out to the scene, Hildy stays behind to bask in the quiet. Through the window crashes Earl Williams—a meek little guy who’s been railroaded by the Chief of Police and the Mayor (a corrupt Chicago mayor? Such fancy!) for an election-week stunt. Hildy is faced with a dilemma. He can either leave with his fiancée, Peggy, as planned, and escape Burns and the soul-killing news biz forever, or he can stay behind, shelter Williams and write a piece that will exonerate him once and for all. But to do that, he’d need the help of the hideous con man, Burns.
Keppler: “This is my first hanging.”
Hildy: “Don’t worry kid, this is Williams’ first hanging too.”
The play’s first trip to the movies came about in 1931, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien. (Don’t “who?” me! Menjou was the original “Billy Flynn” in Roxie Hart, basis for Chicago. O’Brien was friggin’ Father Connolly in Angels with Dirty Faces. “Who” indeed.) It played pretty close to the original script with very little action occurring beyond the press room.
Murphy: “Update on the Williams hanging: Sheriff Hartman's just put 200 more relatives on the payroll to protect the city against the Red Army, which is leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes. Bet a dime.”
Arguably the most famous and beloved of the adaptations is Howard Hawks’ near-perfect His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. (Spin the dial, so to speak, to one of the cable movie sections, guaranteed it’s playing on one of them this very minute.) Working from Charles Lederer’s script, Hawks flips Hildy’s gender and makes her the ex-wife of Walter Burns, which bringsWalter into the story earlier and adds not only the much-needed team-up but a bit of Hayes-approved sexual tension. It also stars the fastest-spoken dialogue in movie history.
Thus far, the last remake of The Front Page is an untidy and unpleasant little mess from 1988, starring Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner called Switching Channels, the setting a television news stage, rather than the press room. Mean-spirited and misanthropic rather than cynical, this movie reportedly suffered from the two leads’ mutual abject hatred of each other, which is reflected in the film’s energy. If it weren’t for Joan Cusak as a loony assistant, the movie would be a complete wash.
adaptation #3 which premiered in 1974. Starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Directed by Billy Wilder. With a script by Wilder and his astute partner I.A.L. Diamond. Gold, right? Sheer gold. Run with it, Duffy and let it hit the streets!
Well, gold plated, at least. Still a good value with today’s market.
Hildy: [to Sherriff Hartman] “You what I think, Hartman? I think you let Earl Williams out yourself so he could vote for you next Tuesday.”
By the ‘70s, Wilder’s career was faltering under the weight of his own greatness. Bitter at the Hollywood industry that he more or less owned in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Billy made some odd choices. For one thing, the snappy Hechtian/MacArthurian dialogue was “sweetened” by Wilder and Diamond, mostly to great effect, but so married were they to their own words that they forbade the rapid-fire overlapping delivery that made His Girl Friday such a hit. Even Lemmon and Matthau wanted to keep the furious pace, but Billy the writer wouldn’t hear of it, likely in direct opposition of Billy the Director.
Walter Burns: “Jeez, Hildy. why didn't you tell me? Kid, I woulda thrown you a little farewell party... “
Hildy: “Oh, no, no, no! I know your farewell parties! When Ben Hecht was leaving for Hollywood, you slipped a micky in his gin fizz. It took four of us to get on the California Limited.”
Walter Burns: “Ben Hecht! Used to be one of the greatest newspaper men I ever knew. Look at him now, sitting under palm trees writing dialogue for Rin Tin Tin.”
Secondly, given the freedom to not only use the spicy language of pre-code Front Page but also the saltier speech of the ‘70s, the use of profanity is almost constant. Not a big deal today, when Baby’s Day Out sounds like Scarface (hyperbole intended), but for a movie set in 1929, the language sounds incongruous, even if it is actually more accurate. All the “goddamns” and “bullshits” muck up the rhythm of the patter moreso than the line-then-next-line delivery.
Hildy: “I wouldn’t cover the Last Supper for you if you had it in the Pump Room of the Palmer House!”
Thirdly, when you go to see a Lemmon/Matthau movie, you expect the two of them to be in the room together for more than just the third act. By hewing to the original Hecht and MacArthur structure, Walter Burns (Matthau) is kept at the Examiner for far too long. Not that Lemmon (as Hildy) isn’t entertaining by himself (or surrounded by Charles Durning, Herb Edleman, a glib Harold Gould, a giddy Austin Pendelton), but the give-and-take that made The Odd Couple and The Fortune Cookie so wonderful and electric is held off to the point where the movie seems to slog along until the last forty minutes. Once Walter Burns finally shows up, things pick up steam again, but by then the meanness and the hysteria and the overacting (Carol Burnett and Vincent Gardenia) has worn a path through the audience.
Like Switching Channels later, Wilder’s The Front Page adds too many barbs to the wire. The cynicism doesn’t seem borne out of world-weariness on the parts of the newspapermen and the corrupt governing system, but out of some sort of utter hatred for the world. Some may find nihilism and fatalism funny, but here it crams the other elements against the wall. Wilder made his career revealing the skuzzy side of the world to the audience with black-humor. Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard spring immediately to mind when you think of cultural skewering and reversal of expectation. But towards the end of his career, Billy had started to see the world through smoked glass. That antagonism spilled into his work and literally weighed it down (just as it would in Fedora and Buddy Buddy).
For those like myself who believe that bad Billy Wilder is better than no Billy Wilder at all, The Front Page is hardly an appalling waste of time, but far from honorable satire. Maybe if Wilder had updated it to the decade in which it were made, the culture shock may have been lessened, the jokes seeming a little more biting with current issues addressed. But the idea of a “Red”, who’s reputation was made for sticking “Release Sacco and Vanzetti” into fortune cookies would have been too trite for 1929. In 1974, it was almost insulting and doesn’t adequately translate. (Although the idea that Williams got beaten up by a crowd of pimps for trying to get hookers to unionize is definitely funny.)
Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: “Tell me, Mr. Williams, were you unhappy as a child?”
Earl Williams: “Not really. I had a perfectly normal childhood.”
Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with you mother.”
Earl Williams: [to Sheriff Hartman] “If he's gonna talk dirty ...”
Even Billy himself would admit that The Front Page was, despite its moderate box office success, a mild misfire. “I'm against remakes in general,” he said, (Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, Charlotte Chandler, 2002.) “Because if a picture is good, you shouldn't remake it, and if it's lousy, why remake it? . . . It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of.”
It wasn’t the remake status that held The Front Page back. The themes are universal even today in the era of information saturation: political malfeasance and nonfeasance; reporters out for blood to smear across their headlines (or click-through links) and the weariness that comes from a slow loss of soul; equally bloodthirsty readers ready to form a pitchfork-bearing Simpsons mob at the slightest change of wind, seeing injustice in jaywalking and racism in Neopolitan ice cream.
Think what Hecht and MacArthur would make of today’s “journalism”? Live blogging from anywhere, just so you can say “First”. (“First” being the new scoop.) Letters to the editor morphed into virulant posts left on Yahoo! News, revealing the basest of all human traits as misanthropy spews across the screen. Aside from the technology, nothing has changed since 1928, certainly not human behavior when one thinks nobody is looking.
Friday, August 26, 2011
In 1966, Billy Wilder wrote and directed what was considered to be his last inarguably great movie, The Fortune Cookie. Notable for many things, particularly the first on-screen pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a Golden Globe nod and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Matthau, nominations for the screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, as well as for Cinematography and Art Direction. It was a box office hit and solidified that Wilder was an unmitigated Hollywood maestro.
Four years later, after a series of stalled productions, Wilder wrote, produced and directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, meant to be an “event” picture it was butchered by United Artists and opened to critical applause but little financial success. Following that came a series of failures: Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974—surprisingly given the reteaming of Matthau and Lemmon) and Fedora, a movie whose tumultuous production almost forced Wilder into retirement.
After another three years, give or take, Wilder began to complain publically that he was being discriminated against in Hollywood, because of his age, because of his last few “failures”. Movie culture had changed underneath him. What used to be daring—the smoldering infidelity of Double Indemnity, promiscuity of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—was now tame in the time of Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate.
Then MGM acquired a quiet French black comedy from 1973, L'Emmerdeur, starring Lino Ventura and Belgian pop singer Jacques Brel. Screenwriter Francis Veber (Les Fugitifs, Le Chevre) adapted his play Le contrat specifically for Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles). A hitman named Milan who checks into a hotel to take out his next target, a witness for an upcoming trial. In the room next door is François Pignon, who keeps trying to kill himself now that his wife left has him. The resulting story is a comedy of misadventure as Milan is forced to deal with Pignon in one way or another to keep the sad sack from attracting unwanted attention.
In France, L’Emmerdeur was extremely successful (Veber himself would direct a remake in 2008), to the point that the Yiddish word “schlemiel” is translated as “François Pignon”. In the United States, L’Emmerdeur was released as A Pain in the A__, finding a decent-sized audiences in the Art Houses and on the emerging world of cable television (especially a young upstart channel called Home Box Office). MGM figured they had nothing to lose by remaking it for the casual, non-subtitle-reading American viewer, and to that end, they brought it to Billy Wilder.
Wilder, desperate to get back to work after a three-year black-out, leapt perhaps too quickly at the opportunity. He and Diamond hammered out the finished script in a matter of weeks and embarked on a whirlwind production. Later in life, Wilder would say, “If I were to meet all of my movies in a room, Buddy Buddy is the one I wouldn’t want to face.”
Buddy Buddy begins with a pair of murders—a mailman leaves a bomb in the box of one man and a milkman poisons the cowjuice of another. Both are the blank-faced Trabucco, who is working his way through the witnesses of a huge upcoming land fraud trial. Last on his list is mobster Rudy “Disco” Gambola, who has turned state’s evidence for the prosecution. “Hello Mr. Green?” he says, calling his bosses. “Oh, Mr. White... let me speak to Mr. Brown...” (Sound an eentcy bit familiar?)
Trabucco checks into a hotel room, begins to assemble his high-powered rifle when a loud noise comes from the room next door. Through the connecting passage, he finds Victor Clooney lying unconscious in his bathtub, around his neck a noose made from the curtain sash. Since Victor tried to hang himself from the shower pipe, water pours into the room and he’s now in more danger of drowning than strangling.
From there, Clooney continues to inadvertently make Trabucco’s life miserable. Mistaking the hitman’s insistence that Eddie the Bellboy not involve the police—“Can’t you see this man needs compassion? The warmth of human understanding?”—for genuine concern and the extended hand of friendship, Clooney bedevils the poor hitman to no end. Forced to assemble and disassemble his rifle more times than is necessary, Trabucco tries to first get incapacitate Clooney by tying him to a chair (“You’re making it very difficult for me to like you!”), then rid himself of Clooney entirely—thwarted by the sudden appearance of cops escorting a woman in labor to the hospital—then pawn him off at the same sex clinic where Clooney’s wife left him for the head therapist.
Each time, Clooney returns to wreak more havoc on Trabucco’s life and plans. This was his last job, of course; the one he could retire on. The one that could get him killed if he botched it. “This was gonna be it. Enough money to retire on because in this kind of work you don't qualify for social security.” An easy gig if he could just get this schlemiel of a François Pignon off his damned back! Along the way he grows to, well if not like Clooney per ce, at least begrudgingly tolerate him. This change in relationship lead to the movie’s best moments: those involving Matthau, Lemmon and their trademark back-and-forths.
Clooney: Have you ever been married, Mr. Trabucco?
Trabucco: Once but I got rid of her. Now I just lease. I once knew a guy, he had two heart-attacks. So they put in him a pace-maker. So his wife divorced him. She said it was interfering with the tv-reception.
Even with the winning team of Matthau and Lemmon, and a bizarre supporting cast of Paula Prentiss, Klaus Kinski, future MacGyver co-star Dana Elcar and an early appearance from Ed Begley, Jr., Buddy Buddy never really gets up a full head of steam. Perhaps hewing a little too closely to the understated pacing of L’Emmerdeur, Wilder’s and Diamond’s manages a lot of chuckles but never the belly-laugh you’d expect from the team. The movie transitions from one scene to the other in fits and starts and only really comes into its own when Clooney is finally tired of the humiliation and becomes his own man, to defend Trabucco.
Trabucco: Do me a favor.
Clooney: Yes ?
Trabucco: Fuck off.
Cue screeching brakes and an entire audience suffering whiplash from severe brain disconnect. In the late ‘70s, such language was far from uncommon. The double-entendre had already been demoted to single and before too long, even Julie Andrews would pop her top (in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B.). But there was an oddness to hearing the word “fuck” come out of Walter Matthau. There’s also something unsettling watching Lemmon discuss orgasms and penis size with Prentiss and Kinski (heck, Kinski playing a man any woman would leave her husband for is unnerving enough). With one word, Wilder crashed into New Hollywood.
It wasn’t a new word for him. In fact, in his private life, he was known to enjoy using it. Probably even enacting it. I don’t like to think about that, though. Matthau was notoriously grumpy, acerbic, misanthropic. But he didn’t work blue—especially not with Lemmon. MGM saw a way to bring a tired workhorse in from the pasture for another go, thinking it would be a cheap way of getting a moderate hit on the screen. In an attempt to “spice things up” for modern audiences, Wilder and Diamond failed to realize that along with new viewers, older Wilder fans still came to the movies to see a Wilder Movie. That had been his point all along. He wasn’t too old and he was still big, Norma Desmond big and you don’t get bigger than that.
Those unfamiliar or dismissive of Wilder may think me prudish right now but the trouble was, Wilder didn’t work blue because he didn’t have to. Wilder was an intellectual and thrived by confounding the censors. He hid the dirty stuff between the lines of dialogue, between fade downs and fade ups. It was akin to Groucho Marx exposing himself to an audience—it wasn’t beneath him; there was no need. Wilder and Diamond’s script worked too hard for the new viewers. They gave them what they wanted and you should never do that. Wilder always gave the audience something new, something they hadn’t known they’d wanted. That was the key to Billy’s brilliance. Desperation for work forced him to sell out in every sense of the word. He didn’t make the movie he wanted to see, but what he wanted to sell.
Buddy Buddy failed at the box office but did reasonably well on cable. The critics jumped up and down on it for many reasons, language not being among them. The disinterested pace, the uncomfortable characters. Matthau was criticized for not being Clint Eastwood, whom many felt would have been a better choice for Trabucco, a sentiment that was shared by both Wilder and Matthau. And like Trabucco, many found Clooney very difficult to like. For years, Klaus Kinski denied he was even in it! (Think about that—you’re in the room with Kinski, the movie is on TV and he’s just shaking his head. “But…but Klaus—that’s you! You’re right there! Look, see you on screen?”) At the time, it seemed like a sour note on which to end. For Wilder, it would be the last feature he’d direct.
With thirty years of hindsight, Buddy Buddy can be viewed as a slight, flawed, but still reasonably solid offering from Billy Wilder. It wasn’t The Fortune Cookie, but the nice thing was Billy never sold you the same thing twice. In fact, it’s fun to watch it back-to-back with L’Emmerdeur for both the similarities and the differences. They’re both low energy comedies with light chuckles, no guffaws. They’re even both sporadically available on DVD (although Buddy Buddy is currently only available on a Spanish import).
While it’s not the case, it could be easy to leave a discussion of Buddy Buddy on one exchange of dialogue. It’s tempting, but it’s only partially true, just like the sentiment behind it:
Clooney: Here I am, almost didn't make it.
Trabucco: Almost doesn't count.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
In 1982, Vipco, the UK distributors of Abel Ferrara’s 1979 sleaze classic Driller Killer, committed the apparently reprehensible act of advertising their new acquisition by buying full page ads in British movie magazines. To further identify their new release as Driller Killer, Vipco had the audacity to include in their ads the movie’s box art. By these very acts of savagery, the company destroyed a large chunk of the British people’s moral fabric. A large number of concerned citizens, despite few of their ranks having actually seen the movie, complained to the Advertising Standards Agency to protest the film’s release and, perhaps, its very existence. All of this was spawned by the promotional artwork: a special-effects shot of the title character and one of his victims, a power drill between the two and splashes of red around. Either a movie called Driller Killer should have fluffier promotional art, or is grossly insensitive to those who may have succumbed to drill killings, in either event, it was wrong in its sheer and utter wrongness.
Add to this a nice little old woman named Mary Whitehouse, head of The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, for whom moral outrage was her tea, biscuits and oxygen. An outspoken crusader against anything not wholesome and good in the British media, she was a watchdog who vigilantly harassed the BBC and, in particular, the BBC's Director General, Sir Hugh Greene. This made her a bit of a punching bag for satire shows, but that mattered not one whit to her. But then, another smartass distributor came along, this time with the brilliant idea of a publicity stunt. In order to promote the United Kingdom’s release of Cannibal Holocaust, Go Video wrote an anonymous letter to Whitehouse expressing their own outrage at this film’s release, nay, the film’s very exposure to light! Whitehouse responded as they’d hoped and decried the film, holding up the letter as proof that we’d all gone to hell and it was up to NVLA to save us all. What neither Go Video nor Vipco realized was that if you get enough busy-bodies riled up, someone will have to pay attention just to get them to shut up. And the morality police are always the fastest to mobilize, to prove that their civilization is good and decent and any outside contradiction is simply the motivations of minority freaks, sleaze-merchants, pimps and drug dealers.
Thus was born the Video Recordings act of 1984 and the rise of The Video Nasty. Under the authority of the British Board of Film Classification, and their enforcer the Director of Public Prosecutions (DDP), dozens of movies were yanks from the shelves of video stores and many were banned outright from classification, meaning that they would not be shown to anyone in the public, under any condition. And one of the movies that fell victim to this nationwide ban was Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (also known as Night Warning), which dealt less with its gory killings and more with its intrinsic themes of sexuality of both the budding male and the repressed female, homophobia, reverse-Oedipalism, incest and the emotional results of a tragic loss early in one’s life. An exploitation film on the surface, it was nonetheless nominated for a Saturn Award for the Best Horror Movie of 1982 by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, but has never been seen in the UK. And thanks in part to that country’s suppression, it’s become a veritable lost film today.
When Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) was three-years-old, his parents were killed in a horrible (and lengthy) car crash, leaving him in the care of his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell). Now seventeen, Billy is about to graduate high school with the hope of going to college on a basketball scholarship. Aunt Cheryl, who displays an uncomfortable amount of barely-appropriate affection towards Billy, does not want to see him go. Playful kidding aside and familial reticence aside, she tells him point blank, “College is for rich kids and people with brains. You wouldn't fit in.”
Chalking it up more to “Oh, that Aunt Cheryl,” he dismisses it as one of her eccentricities, like her insistence on his drinking milk every morning and waking him up for school by pawing at his naked back and purring in his ear. Jimmy is just a wide-eyed dumb kid with a pretty photographer girlfriend, Julie (Julia Duffy soon to be of Newhart fame), and a coach that really believes in him. Things’ll all work out.
On the other hand, Aunt Cheryl is clearly a sexually repressed, regretful spinster and Billy’s imminent departure raises both her desperate libido and homicidal tendencies. In an attempt to seduce their television repairman, she gets dolled up in the best fashion she remembers. But Mr. Repairman Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim) refuses her attention. Enraged, Cheryl stabs the man to death in their kitchen, just as Billy returns home from school. Breaking down into hysteria, she insists that Brody tried to rape her and that the killing was in self-defense.
Police detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) sees things otherwise. The way he has it figured, it was Billy on the handle-end of that knife, enraged at seeing his Aunt in a romantic tryst. Cheryl is only covering for Billy. It’s obvious that Billy, tall, thin, sensitive Billy, is one of those blood-crazed homosexuals. The more he digs, the more convinced he becomes because Coach Landers (Steve Eastin) is also gay, and that he’d been in a relationship with Brody! And if Brody was “one of those”, what interest would he have in raping a woman? That can only mean one thing: a homosexual love triangle. Doing his duty, he pressures Landers to resign to remove that unhealthy influence from the impressionable young men on the team who have to shower together yet keep eyes up.
Carlson, who isn’t above using a gun to intimidate a suspect into a confession, becomes obsessed with Billy and eradicating his vile gay ways. (Which levers more suspicion on Carlson, if you ask me.) Fortunately, his partner, Det. Cook (Britt Leach—you’d know him if you saw him), doesn’t believe the whole triangle, er, angle, and starts doing some digging on his own, against Carlson’s orders. When he discovers that the cause of the crash that killed Billy’s parents was tampered brake lines, Cook is told to forget all about. Go on vacation and keep your nose out of it! Which is darned good detective work, again if you ask me. Why go with facts when hunches are so much more the policeman’s trade?
With the police watching them, Aunt Cheryl is even more insistent that Billy stays with her. The day of the Big Game complete with a scout from Denver University, which could make or break Billy’s educational career, she makes sure that he drinks his milk beforehand. Once it’s been properly prepared with some special medication. Billy not only blows the game but collapses unconscious on the court. So back to Aunt Cheryl he goes. But not to school. “You don't want to go back, you've learned enough. Besides, it's full of perverts!”
Now, in addition to both Carlson and Cook nosing around into their lives, Julie decides that Aunt Cheryl is definitely not on the up-and-up and begins her own investigation. This, of course, leads to deflowering Billy and getting caught by Aunt Cheryl and a brand new psychotic hissy fit from her.
The next morning, Aunt Cheryl has chopped her flowing locks into a shorter hairstyle resembling that of a startled badger. All the better to show off her wild and crazy eyes. Which prompts Billy to join the separate investigations, hoping to uncover the truth about his parents’ death and the real source of Aunt Cheryl’s obsession, now spiked in the red on the Creepy Meter. The real dilemma for Billy is who does he protect himself from first: Aunt Cheryl or Det. Carlson?
While taking occasional dips into exploitation territory, Nightmare Maker / Night Warning is more a character-driven thriller than a horror film. The bulk of the gore is crammed into the final act when Aunt Cheryl is full-blown bananas, and even that is largely restrained, more shocking in its rage and intensity than for its spurting red. On the surface, we have a pair of incredibly unnerving villains, a shocking decapitation, a naked Julia Duffy and an early appearance by Bill Paxton (as the team bully, Eddie), so that should be more than enough to lure even the vaguely interested.
But the screenplay by Stephen F. Breimer and Alan Jay Glueckman and Boon Collins (the unequivocal genius between Abducted and Abducted II: The Reunion), really packs a lot of social and psychological commentary in what could have been a routine slasher flick. Obviously the writers had strong feelings about homophobia and abuse of authority because the character of Carlson is such an toxic force in the film, and Bo Svenson does a good job of keeping the cop a dimension ahead of what could have been characture. While the direction by veteran television William Asher (the inventor of the television sit-com with hits like Our Miss Brooks, I Love Lucy and Bewitched) is serviceable and he excels at keeping up the claustrophobic and near-unsanitary atmosphere, he pays particular care to the scenes between Billy and Aunt Cheryl. This could be because of his tempestuous relationship with his own abusive and alcoholic mother drawing him to the material. Regardless, the scenes between Tyrell and Lynch are squirm-inducing and play not like exploitation but with real incestual overtones.
Tyrell, it should be noted, is the undisputed star of the movie. McNichol is only okay and Duffy is plucky and likable, Tyrell effortlessly transforms Aunt Cheryl from a lonely, sympathetic lady at one moment to a frightening immovable force in another. Her descent into psychosis is gradual, but when she hits bottom, it’s believable due to the surprisingly subtle bits of business she employs at the beginning. The little Psycho moments with her and a mummified corpse in the basement are unnecessary. Aunt Cheryl is frightening because Tyrell brings her to life. She’s a real person who could live next door to just about anybody, caring for a kid who has no idea what a “real” relationship with a devoted relative is like. From his perspective, the constant touch of an aunt, her walking in on him while he showers, dresses, etc., is normal behavior.
So why would this movie get lumped in with the other video nasties? Likely it had nothing to do with the underlying content. The incestual nature is not explicit, nor is it acted upon, and in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the homophobia would have been applauded. Perhaps the sexuality both on screen and smoldering beneath, combined with the schlocky violence and the demented adult themes were too many ingredients for the BBFC. The unpleasant stew was too difficult to shrug off as another splatter fest. That it remains effective even today should give you an idea of how it was received by a very staunch and proper government concerned with moral authority. For an outwardly-trashy horror flick, Nightmare Maker is rife with uncomfortable subtext.
For a country that can be worked up over an advertisement, the entirety of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker might have been just too much for them.
Monday, August 22, 2011
In 1948, Darryl F. Zanuck, president of 20th Century Fox, called Jules Dassin into his office. “Jules,” he may have said, since I wasn’t there. “You’ve been named in Congress as a Communist Sympathizer. You’ll never work in Hollywood again. But that won’t be for a while so you still have time to make another movie for us.”
Dassin finished filming Night and the City but landed on the blacklist after principal photography and was kicked off the studio, barred from editing the final cut, no input on the score, no say on even how the credits would look. He fled to Europe to find work, but American distributors refused to handle movies made by anyone on the blacklist. He didn’t work as a film director again until the French heist film Rififi, 1955.
Flashback to 1947. Dassin was still well-respected as a director and artist in the U.S. and Fox had just released his latest film, a blistering attack on the penal system starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn: Brute Force. Filmed during the adolescence of the Dies Act, also known as the House Un-American Committee. Congress was intent on rooting Communists out from under every bed and was coming down hard on Hollywood. Ten Men, The “Hollywood Ten”, refused to answer their “$64 Dollar Question” (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States”) and wound up with a one-year prison term.
With a script by Richard Brooks, story by Robert Patterson, there’s an argument to be made that Brute Force was Dassin’s judgment of HUAC. Set in the island-built Westgate Prison, Brute Force focuses on a battle of wills between the prisoners and the guards, headed by chief of security, Captain Munsey (Cronyn). Munsey is a small man with a sadistic streak that broadens as his power increases. He derives pleasure from manipulating the prisoners to inform on one another; even greater pleasure from lying to them or threatening them into betrayal. The men are crammed six-to-a-cell and spend their days working in the various shops or in “the drainpipe”, digging a sewer system from one end of the island to the other. Due to overcrowding, not every convict has a job—unemployment even in prison—and with nothing to do with their time, they focus on ugly thoughts.
The men of Cell R17 watch through their window as Joe Collins (Lancaster) is brought out of solitary on yet another rainy night. Munsey watches with satisfaction as Joe sneers at him. “Perhaps now you’ve learned not to carry a shiv, Joe. Or are you still maintaining that it was planted on you?”
In point of fact, it was planted on Joe, under Munsey’s coercion. And his fellow cons know who the culprit is. Their method of justice is to force him, using blowtorches, into a licence plate press.
The prison’s gutless Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) is under pressure to improve discipline, under penalty of losing his position. The murders and fights do not look good to the public eye. Munsey takes advantage of the warden’s predicament and sows further seeds of destruction, particularly amongst Joe Collins and his cellmates in R17.
A close-knit bunch, not quite a gang, have shared their stories of what they’re in for. In nearly every case, it involves a woman. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), for instance, didn’t have the money to buy his wife a fur coat, the only thing she ever wanted. He enables this purchase by embezzling from his employers. “Soldier” (Howard Duff) has been in and out of prison since WWII, when he smuggled food to a resistence faction led by his wife. When she guns down an informant, he takes the rap. His quest to get back to her in Italy has been one stretch after another. Spencer (the terrific John Hoyt) has all sorts of stories, all of them involving dames, schemes and the wild life.
Joe’s wife (Ann Blyth) is an invalid. He turns to crime to finance her recovery. On his last job, he’s thrown in prison and she has no idea that he’s there. Now, according to his friend and attorney, she’s succumbing to cancer and refuses treatment until Joe returns. That ups the ante for Joe and he’s determined to escape.
Turning to a con named Gallagher (Charles Bickford) working for the prison newspaper, Joe tries to get the older man in on the scheme. In response, Gallagher turns to his star reporter, Louie. “Louie? The bust out still on?”
Louie: “Everything works, we go next Tuesday.”
Gallagher: “Next Tuesday. It’s been ‘next Tuesday’ for 12 years. Twelve years from now it’ll still be next Tuesday. They promised me my parole. When I go, I’m walking out of here.”
Lancaster (Collins) “Next Tuesday?”
Munsey ups the pressure on the warden using little tricks like lying to Lister that his wife is filing for divorce, prompting the man to hang himself. This paves the way to accuse one of the cellmates of murder. Which must go on official report, enraging the officials above. Privileges are revoked. The prison’s doctor, Walters, can see the strain on the prisoners, takes on that strain himself and tries to purge it with alcohol. As the only thing close to a conscience Munsey has, Walters is agast at the captain’s treatment of the convicts. “Kindness is a weakness,” Munsey says, smug smile and flared nostrils. “Weakness is an infection that will destroy us all.”
“I know in medicine that you don’t cure a sick man by making him sicker,” says the Doc. “In here, you’re returning a man into the world a worse criminal than he came in.”
Finally, with the prison about to blow, Gallagher’s discovers that all parole has been revoked “indefinitely”. He joins Joe and the men from R17 in a plot to escape. The prisoners begin scrounging for things they need: tools, Molotov cocktails, a revolver. The plan is to hijack one of the mining cars from the drainpipe and storm the guard tower. But there’s a traitor in R17 and Muncie learns about the plan at once. To get the details, he tries to beat info out of one of the prisoners, using a rubber hose and Wagner arias. Sheer brutality. The powderkeg finally blows in a firey and remarkably violent climax and a horrific end for R17’s Judas.
Whether or not Brute Force is an analogy for HUAC and the treatment of the Hollywood Ten is certainly open to debate. The parallels are undeniable. The sadistic Muncie in control and drunk with power (Senator Joe McCarthy), undermining a superior whose hands are tied with indecision (President Truman, arguably) and without the authority to over-ride the power he’s given Muncie’s actions (Congress). The prisoners with their code against betrayal and naming names (Hollywood and the rest of America), and six men crammed into a single cell for things they’ve done or might have done (The Hollywood Ten, some who were genuine communists, some who just attended meetings). The lone difference is that The Hollywood Ten didn’t have a Joe Collins. They definitely had a traitor in their midst (director Edward Dmytryk, again arguably) and Hollywood had plenty as well. As for Dr. Walters, he may well represent anyone in Hollywood or the Heartland who saw what was happening but was too afraid, too helpless, to powerless to speak up too loudly.
When Dassin finally returned to the United States, the blacklist had ended not with a speeding mine car and a wall of flame into which Joe McCarthy was hurled, but, among other acts of bravery, with Otto Preminger’s public announcement of his hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus. There was no violent uprising from the American People, no growl of rage from Burt Lancaster. Hollywood just waited HUAC out, until Commie actors no longer seemed like a problem in the face of yet another looming war. In the end, it wasn’t Dalton Trumbo who brought an end to HUAC, but Dylan Thomas’ prescient words: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”