Saturday, June 15, 2019

Each Dawn I Die

Each Dawn I Die (William Keighley, 1939) Edgy newspaper reporter Frank Ross (James Cagney) has a hot news lead, but it gets buried when the crooked assistant D.A. he's trying to get the goods on, knocks him cold, douses him in whiskey, and puts him behind the wheel of a car and sends it caroming down a city street, ultimately killing three innocents. Ross is convicted of vehicular manslaughter and thrown in jail, his campaign against the crooked DA (who is trying to run for governor) quashed.  

On the outside the folks in the newsroom his reporting partner (Jane Bryan) and his editor are trying to dig deep to find out how to get around the lawyers, and inside Frank tries to stay alive, getting information from fellow prisoners in the sweat-shops, and even saving the life of "Hood" Stacey (George Raft), who, to repay the debt, cooks up a hair-brain scheme to find  who framed Ross. When another inmate is killed, Ross names Stacey, in order for the gangster to be tried, and make it easier for him to escape.

Not very likely. Stacey does escape, however, but reneges on his plan, making one more set-back for Ross, who is slowly going crazy with his prison-term, and the impossibility of finding out who's responsible while stuck behind bars.
No, it's not very credible, but the points of interest in the story are Cagney, who pushes the boundaries of what "good guy" behavior can entail and Raft, who's smooth, wry, likable, and utterly corrupt. This makes him completely different from the crooked DA who isn't witty, isn't smooth, and is dully cruel, but is also utterly corrupt. So, the difference between good and evil (in its shades of gray) in the audience's affection is that "bad" must also be personally bad, and incapable of entertaining us. If you can entertain us, obviously you can't be that bad a guy, even capable of reforming. But, what separates this from other Warner Bros. efforts of the period is that the authorities, although personifications of fear and threat, are also completely fallible and downright evil. The "good guys" are the "bad guys" and that's something a little different in a post-"Code" gangster movie.




Thursday, June 13, 2019

13 Rue Madeleine

13 Rue Madeleine (Henry Hathaway, 1947) There are several good movies to be made based on the exploits of the American and British Secret Service during World War II. The OSS wasn't all encrypters and code-breakers listening over wirelesses in sterile little offices. There were field agents, double agents, and mis-information spreaders and they had at their disposal all sorts of spy legerdemain that has been cobbled for many of the traditional thrillers that came out after the war. No one that I know has ever made a movie about Camp X, where training was done, papers forged and weaponry created.

But 13 Rue Madeleine is, at least, a good start. Directed by Henry Hathaway in a slightly more flashy style than his true-life crime dramas earlier in the war, it still employed a lot of photography "
in the field" as the movie explains, "often in the actual locations."

The story follows the training of Group 077 (the writers had to change the name over official script objections, particularly by the head of the O.S.S. William Donovan), each one in non-specific training until they're called upon for "a job" in whichever corner of the world they're dropped. Heading the training is Robert Sharkey (James Cagney), who has one complication—one of his agents-in-training is a Nazi agent, and during the course of training he has to find out who it is to exploit him for the purposes of sending out false information. 
The film is surprisingly cold-blooded, with many agents dying in the process of carrying out their missions, and there's one case of "burning the village in order to save it." There's also a lot of appearance by well-known actors in small roles at the beginning of their careers including Karl Malden, E.G. Marshall, and Red Buttons. But, towering over all of them is Cagney, who still manages to show off a lot of grace in a role that's pretty rough. But he's also the perfect actor who you believe could kill with impunity and laugh at the enemy in the face of torture.


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Smart Money (1931)

Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931) Done-on-the-cheap Warner Bros. programmer made the year after Edward G. Robinson's star-turn in Little Ceasar and the same year as Cagney's in The Public Enemy and is an version of the studios' series of spare, street-tough films that would dominate their output in the 30's and 40's, glamorizing the life of a gangster, but making sure that they came to a bad end.

Robinson plays Nick the barber, a lucky Greek son of a gun, who runs a gambling joint in the back-room of his tonsorial parlor (thus making both ends of his establishment a "clip-joint.") Nick is king of his own gambling castle, and while its good to be the king,there's the tendency to want to expand the fiefdom by conquering new territory.

With a stake firmly established from his cronies back home, he takes off for New York to take on the big city gamblers, wished well by all the lovable mooks he's already taken for a ride at the train station.  But, what he learns is its a whole new game in the tony high rises, where only part of the bluffing and double-dealing occurs at the table. Why, even the hat-check girl is looking to separate you from your cash. Nick learns to trust no one, and to bluff his way out of any situation with a cock-sure patter of platitudes.  But, that's a slippery slope, and he soon finds that success costs.  
Its a treat to see Robinson and Cagney play off each other, the only time they did so—Robinson all-voice and punchy delivery, and Cagney sly and bantamy, physically, in one of his rare supporting roles. They're chummy at the beginning, but when success shows up, they start to have territory issues, its murder. This one is all performance, in varying styles, between character actors fresh out of the silent era, and the leads who were blazing new trails, and the director's hand is almost invisible.
Green is known, but mostly unknown, as the director of The Jolson Story, The Jackie Robinson Story, The Eddie Cantor Story...making that a "storied" career. He was a fine director of women and coaxed terrific performances from Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck early in their careers—and they were already formidable. He was fast, versatile and would direct up to five pictures a year. He didn't shy away from racy material in the pre-Code era and would tackle it directly with shameless brio. And he's remarkably free of the sort of Hollywood white-wash that was prevalent at the time. Minorities were cast, and not caricatured or minstrelled in his films, but treated like any other character actor, which is quite remarkable to see in that day and age. His output was undistinguished when you look at the titles (and there are 111 of them), but individually, it would be interesting to see a few more of them (I've seen this one, The Jackie Robinson Story and Baby Face) to see if that liberal sensibility is maintained throughout.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Bridge of Spies

The Story: What was the line from Casablanca? "There are vultures—vultures everywhere."

Count spies among the vultures. Not the fictional spies like last week's "Don't Make a Scene," bur real spies, the ones who don't call attention to themselves, and the ones who blend in, the ones you'd least expect. Quiet, but inquisitive, looking for the "useful idiots" who'll talk too much, brag, be needy, for something that can be exploited and used.

"Useful idiots." We've got a lot of them in the U.S. And we've got stuff people want. So...spies—governmental, industrial, whatever. I'm sure there are spies who look for secrets about making yogurt, infuser technologies, apps. Important stuff like that.

Right now, there are a number of spies who are incarcerated for their activities in and against the United States. Less than you'd think—probably more than Wikipedia thinks. The latest—Maria Butina—was sentenced to 18 months in prison on April 26th of this year. Count the months. Butina's work was...odd. One of those things that are eye-rollingly dumb on the face of it, but useful as an agenda for another purpose. Butina was—is—a "Russian gun-rights activist". Now, bear in mind that Russia discourages its subjects from having guns—the place has been known for revolutions from time-to-time. So, Russia will not be supporting gun rights for its civilians at any time in the future—the bear isn't renowned for its civil rights work—and will keep the guns in the hand of the military, thank you very much. But, that stance DID allow Butina to ingratiate herself with the National Rifle Association, and many prominent Republicans.

"Useful."

Remember Anna Chapman? She didn't serve time; she was deported. As with Mutina and the man portrayed in this scene, she did not register as a foreign agent. I doubt anyone does. It would seem that that would defeat the purpose. Or, as the spy-genre series "The Prisoner" put it in 1968: "That would be telling..."

Now, Rudolf Abel—whose arrest and trial made up a large chunk of Bridge of Spies—wasn't as prominent as those two agent-provocateurs, nor did he become a part of the public gossip mill (there was no social media in those days, as media was run by professionals). But, he was a big deal in a time when this country's paranoia over Russia's acquisitiveness in matters both geographical and nuclear really did create a "witch hunt" and a blacklist and made you wonder what other little compromises to liberty and free thought we'd embrace in our post-war time of affluence (where the top tax rate was 91%—it peaked at 94% during the second world war).

Here, the film-Abel meets his defending lawyer, Jim Donovan, for the first time and accepts his services, probably because he seems practical and doesn't appear to have any hidden agendas—which must have seemed a nice change of pace at the time.

One line from this scene I've been using in my every-day life since I first saw this in theaters. The line "Would it help?" has the same deft comic resonance of "Couldn't hurt."

The Set-Up: Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is under federal guard in prison, accused of being a spy for Russia, a charge that, if found guilty, could mean the death penalty. It is 1957, both the U.S. and Russia have hydrogen bombs, and both countries are at the height of suspicion, juggling strategic positions and allies, building up infrastructures for civil defense, and spy capabilities and paranoia, creating a "Red Scare" during the 1950's. So, attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a little leery of accepting the Abel case that has been offered to him by his partners. As he says "even if he wins, he loses." Time to meet his client...

Actions!
BROOKLYN COURTHOUSE
Abel is led by a guard into a detention room where Donovan awaits.
DETENTION ROOM
DONOVAN Good morning, sir. My name is Jim Donovan.
DONOVAN These are my credentials --

Both men stand looking at each other, Abel still at the threshold. After a beat he moves in further, his gaze holding on Donovan who glances at papers on table
DONOVAN (CONT’D) I’m a partner at Watters, Cowan and Donovan. I was admitted to the New York Bar in 1941.
As the guard slams the door shut, Abel picks up the papers and inspects them. Donovan watches him, trying to read him.
DONOVAN (CONT’D) ...You’ve been charged with three counts and nineteen overt acts;
DONOVAN ...conspiracy to transmit United States defense and atomic secrets to the Soviet Union;
DONOVAN ...conspiracy to gather secrets; and failing to register as a foreign agent.
ABEL Do many foreign agents register?

Only now does Abel look up from the credentials up to Donovan. Donovan takes a moment, not sure if he’s being kidded. He takes a seat at the table.
DONOVAN If you don’t mind my asking, sir,
DONOVAN ...since your arrest: where have you been?
ABEL I couldn’t say for certain.
DONOVAN You don’t know.

Abel takes a seat.
ABEL They drove me to an airport, put me on a plane. They took me off the plane. Somewhere hot.
DONOVAN It’s hot here.
ABEL Hotter. Very humid.
ABEL They put me in a room.

Abel attends to his runny nose with a handkerchief.
DONOVAN Were you beaten?
ABEL No. I was...talked to. Offers were made.
DONOVAN What do you mean?
ABEL Offers of employment. To work for your government.
ABEL I was told if I cooperated no further charges would be made against me, and I would be given money.
DONOVAN And you declined.
ABEL As you see.
DONOVAN Well of course, I can’t endorse that. I feel duty bound to urge you to... 
DONOVAN ...cooperate with the U.S. Government.
ABEL Well, I said no. Perhaps you could relay to your friends at the CIA that I meant it.
DONOVAN No no, I don’t work for the agency. I don’t work for the government. I’m here to offer my services as your legal counsel. If you accept them as such, I work for you.
ABEL If I accept you?
ABEL Are you good at what you do?
DONOVAN Yeah, yeah, I’m pretty good.
ABEL Have you represented many accused spies?
DONOVAN No. Not yet. This will be a first for the both of us.
Abel chuckles, looks again at Donovan’s credentials.
ABEL All right.
DONOVAN All right you accept?
ABEL Yes, all right.
DONOVAN Good, okay, let’s start here.
DONOVAN If you are firm in your resolve not to cooperate with the U.S. government --
ABEL I am.
DONOVAN Yeah, then do not talk to...
DONOVAN ...anyone else about your case. Inside of government or out. Except to me -- to the extent that you trust me. I have a mandate to serve you. Nobody else does.
DONOVAN Quite frankly, everybody else has an interest in sending you to the electric chair.
ABEL All right.
DONOVAN You don’t seem alarmed.
Abel shrugs.
ABEL Would it help?
Abel watches Donovan for another moment. Amused. 
Pulls out a pad of paper and starts writing.
ABEL (CONT’D) I’d like materials. To draw with.
DONOVAN That’s not possible.
ABEL A pencil. A piece of paper. And cigarettes.
ABEL Please. (?)
The show of manners surprises Donovan. Abel watches him.
ABEL Mr. Donovan,
ABEL ...you have men like me doing the same for your country. 
ABEL If they were caught, I’m sure you’d wish them to be treated well.

Bridge of Spies

Words by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen

Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg

Bridge of Spies is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment.