Friday, April 30, 2021

Anytime Movies #9: To Kill a Mockingbird

While I catch up on the reviews still in "Draft" phase here, I'll re-run a feature I ran when I first started this blog seven years ago,* when it was suggested I do a "Top Ten" List.

I don't like those: they're rather arbitrary; they pit films against each other, and there's always one or two that should be on the list that aren't because something better shoved it down the trash-bin.

So, I came up with this: "Anytime" Movies.

Anytime Movies are the movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the direction, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again (and again!) and never tire of them. There are ten (kinda). They're not in any particular order, but the #1 movie IS the #1 movie. And we begin in as contrary a way as possible (so as to avoid any comparison to a "Top Ten" list). This one is unusual in that it's a bonus (like the joke in This is Spinal Tap, "Anytime Movies" go all the way up to eleven). 

What is it about this film that puts it on so many favorites lists.
Horton Foote’s masterful telescoping of Harper Lee’s frail, powerful novel? The fact that, as movie adaptations go, this is certainly one of the best? That it has an impeccably picked cast, directed to feel absolutely real, including three of the best child-performances in all of movies, by one of the best directors of actors, Robert Mulligan? The beautiful, fragile score by Elmer Bernstein, certainly contributes.

I remember seeing
To Kill A Mockingbird when I was seven years old, and not “getting it” much. I remember being annoyed with my Mom for trying to cover my eyes during the “scary” parts—although Robert Duvall as “Boo” Radley did genuinely creep me out back then (in fact, he still does, a bit). I didn’t “get” the dog-shooting (“He won’t kill a mockingbird, but he’ll sure-as-shootin' kill a dog!”) But I remember that it was a scary movie for a kid. In the film, the night was so dark, and any light cast spooky elongated shadows and trees moved and leaves rustled. The World seemed restless and alive, full of mysteries and secret terrors just out of sight, when it should have been still and asleep. It was a world that, under the pretense of peace and calm, seethed with menace and dread just under the surface.
And that’s the key, I think. There seemed to be, in the movie, at least, a sense that the tremulous world was lurching and struggling to change—that the very earth was metamorphosing and demanding it, while the people entwined in that world, moved along, oblivious to the change, holding onto a complacent life that would inevitably end. At the same time, Mockingbird has the feel of nostalgia—the palpable sense that life flows through our fingers like sand, and that we’re always in danger of losing that life we hold precious. 
But you don’t think of these things when you’re a child. Summers are endless. Life is eternal. If born into a nurturing, protecting household (and that is key) there is the illusion that the world is benign and all things are possible…under heaven.
Heaven is a concept easily grasped by a child. If you’ve been “good” in your life, as a reward after death, you go to a “good” place to spend Eternity. In the years of growth, a child struggles to understand its world and to assert itself in an environment it has no control over. In a world too complex to understand, the concept of Heaven is a comfort to a child. It’s simple. It’s uncomplicated. It’s black and white. Like Good and Bad.

Like integrity.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) awaits a lynch-mob, that first—to his initial dismay 
and then wonder—is shamed and turned away by his own children. He shouldn't have wondered.

The children in To Kill a Mockingbird learn the world isn’t nearly as simple as they thought. That the Radley “kid” may not be the evil thing they whisper about in the dark before they go to sleep. That other peoples’ lives may not resemble their own. That their father is many things—but he is also fallible. Jem breaks down when Tom Robinson is convicted of raping a white woman, but I would doubt that he’s crying for Robinson. He’s crying for his father’s failure—a disappointment as palpable as his father being not willing to play football for the Methodists. Jem and Scout are too young to understand the idea of integrity. No, that's not quite accurate. They’re too young to understand the pressures of a world where integrity might be compromised. And they’re too young to understand that their father’s belief in right and good could actually cause them harm. 

But it is that integrity that makes their father dependable, despite the tragedies of the summer. It is that integrity in a fragile, changing world that will sustain and endure and remain a constant as sure as the north star in the void. And that echoes long in our minds at the end of the film with its last line of narration: “He would be in Jem’s room all night. An he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
When the American Film Institute held a vote for the cinema’s best hero, the honor did not go to the Sergent Yorks or the Skywalkers or the Bonds or any of the roles played by Eastwood, Willis or Schwarzenegger. It went to a character of gentle heroics who in the course of the movie only fires one shot, who does not raise a hand in anger, and with jaw set and quiet voice does what he knows to be right. It was a shock that Atticus Finch would be voted the greatest movie hero, but it was the best choice possible, and legitimized the idea of holding such a silly poll in the first place.

Stephen Frankfurt's evocative title sequence.
Music by Elmer Bernstein

Horton Foote died March 4th, 2009. Director Robert Mulligan died right before Christmas, 2008. William Windom, in 2012. Brock Peters died in 2005. Rosemary Murphy died in 2014. Peck, in 2003. My favorite actor in this and many things, Frank Overton, died in 1967. Survivors are Robert Duvall (Arthur "Boo" Radley), and the Finch kids.

And Harper...Harper "Nelle" Lee died February 19, 2016, just shy of her 90th birthday.

Except for her one gentle novel that stood like a golden spike in the Civil Rights Era, Nelle Harper Lee published no other major works, only a scattering of essays. Not a recluse, she merely avoided the public spotlight. She, in her shy ways, did no public speaking. She said what she is going to say. And that should be enough.**

Harper endures.

Anytime Movies:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Bonus:  Edge of Darkness

* And, on Sunday, we'll put up a "Don't Make a Scene" feature from each week's film.

* * Just before her death, her agent published her first submitted work, "Go Set a Watchman," the rejected first novel that inspired her editor to tell her to try again and "write about the kids" which became "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

My Favorite Year

I felt so bad about trashing the Peter O'Toole movie Lord Jim—I think O'Toole is "the finest man who ever breathed"—that I went scouring for an old review of another of his movies, and I found the one where he played a fictional version of Errol Flynn (featured Tuesday). Ya know, you watch a lot of movies and coincidences just happen...

My Favorite Year
 (Richard Benjamin, 1982) Surely one of the best jobs during the early 1950's was being a writer for "Your Show of Shows,"* broadcast live Saturday nights on NBC. Starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, the writing staff contained such wits as Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, his odd couple brother Neil Simon, Lucille Kallen, and Mel Brooks.** The work environment was so fondly remembered it has consistently been used as comedic inspiration. First, Reiner used it as the work environment for "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Neil Simon wrote the stage-play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."*** And Brooks took the kernel of a script by Dennis Palumbo about a going-to-seed celebrity and his "minder" and morphed it into his remembrance of "Your Show of Shows," My Favorite Year.**** Brooks served as neither writer, nor director, but as Executive Producer, he completely re-imagined the film as this sunny, hilarious remembrance, dripping with nostalgia, of being a cocky kid in New York in the '50's working for a hit comedy show. 
"King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) is the high-strung, neurotic star of a network variety show, and one week it falls to writer's assistant Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) to "manage" movie star Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole) through the rehearsals and broadcast. Two problems: Swann's a perennial lush, and he's never acted before a "live" audience. Fortunately, Benjy is Swann's biggest fan and forgives a lot of bad behavior, but Swann's "bad boy" behavior, insecurities and inebriation keep throwing up barriers.
O'Toole was initially hesitant to take on the role of the Errol Flynn-like Swann (he was convinced by an odd coincidence--the date of Swann's death inscribed on a tombstone--in a scene cut from the film--was also O'Toole's birthday. He was, again, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Richard Benjamin solidified his transition from actor to director with this film, which also featured Jessica Harper as the apple of Benjy's eye, Bill Macy, Anne De Salvo and Basil Hoffman as the show's writers, legendary composer Adolph Green as a producer, Lainie Kazan as Benjy's mother, Cameron Mitchell as a mobster unhappy with his portrayal on the show, and even former "Show of Shows" performer Selma Diamond in a small role. 
But the highlight is O'Toole's swashbuckling star. Looking gaunt and rheumy-eyed even when he's not plowed, Swann benefits from O'Toole's charm, crack timing and physical comedy—O'Toole can do a prat-fall and make it look deadly—but the actor makes the drama work as well. Swann's freak-out at being told he's performing "live" ("I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!!") is both comic and tragic. And he plays off well with a sharp cluster of East Coast character actors. 
The all-pervasive air of nostalgia begins immediately with the opening of Nat King Cole's "Stardust" over animated credits, and continues to the last frame with a joyous semi-sadness. My Favorite Year works on so many levels--as a drama as well as a comedy, as a fond remembrance as well as a fond farewell. And any movie that has a decent role for O'Toole to show how good he is, dramatically or comedically deserves a place on any list of 'favorites." 

* To give you a glimpse of "Your Show of Shows" here's Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Howie Morris and Louis Nye performing a sketch called "This Is Your Story." 

And here's Errol Flynn guesting on TV's "The Colgate Comedy Hour" with Abbott and Costello

** And Woody Allen became a writer for the 60 minute version of the show, "Caesar's Hour." 

*** Coincidentally, when "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" was video-taped for PBS, it was directed by "My Favorite Year" director Richard Benjamin, and featured its star, Mark-Linn Baker. 

**** The original screenplay took place in the early 1900's, and Wyatt Earp was the personage to be "minded."

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim (Richard Brooks, 1965) Orson Welles wanted to make this Joseph Conrad story about a disgraced seaman out to prove his worth to himself and the world, and he wanted to do it with Charlton Heston—they'd talked about it while making Touch of Evil together and Welles was particularly taken with Heston's vouching for him during the turbulent making of that picture. That sort of loyalty is unusual in Hollywood and Welles must have thought Heston a good match...and good box-office. 

Conrad's novel had been adapted once before—by Victor Fleming in 1925—and Brooks optioned it in 1957. His clout with such classics as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, and Sweet Bird of Youth allowed him to make this one, which required extensive location shooting. Acquiring Peter O'Toole, hot after Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, allowed Brooks to acquire a $9 million budget, which ballooned the scope, and Lord Jim was designed as a "roadshow attraction," complete with Overture, Intermission, and Exit Music.
The story is narrated by Marlow (Jack Hawkins)—the same Marlow of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"—as he relates the tale of young James Burke (Peter O'Toole) merchant seaman, young, enthusiastic, obedient, resourceful, who becomes Marlow's first officer before becoming injured and left to be treated in Java. 
His next assignment is less fortuitous: he's hired as first mate on board the rickety S.S. Patna, transporting—as the novel puts it—800 "pilgrims of an exacting belief," Muslims, to Mecca, when the ship hits a storm and has a collision on the Red Sea. Checking for damage, Jim sees that they're taking on water, and, telling the captain that they should get the passengers to the lifeboats, is surprised when the captain and other crewmen are more intent on saving themselves. The film makes it debatable whether Jim jumps in with them, or is washed onto the lifeboat is a squall, but the result is Jim is on the lifeboat, the Patna and its passengers, abandoned to their fate.
Making port, they find that the Patna, having survived the journey with the help of a French ship, has arrived before them. The Captain and the other crew disappear to escape the infamy for their actions, which, by now, has gotten around throughout the port, but Jim insists on a trial to atone for his abandoning ship, and he is roundly condemned, stripped of his sailing papers, the chief judge telling him that, instead of an inquiry, he should have just buried "himself 20 feet deep."
Jim does the next best thing, becoming a drifter from port to port, losing himself and running away from his shame in anonymity. An incident where he saves a skiff loaded with beer and gunpowder from exploding in the harbor attracts the attention of a Mr. Stein (Paul Lukas), who just happened to be receiving that gun-powder. It's destined to be shipped to Patusan where the people, led by Stein's friend Du-Ramin (Tatsuo Saitō) are trying to defend themselves from a warlord, "The General" (Eli Wallach), and Stein hires Jim to accompany the shipment to make sure it reaches its destination, there having been some sabotage in the past.

There are attempts made on the journey, as the weaselly Cornelius (Curt Jurgens)—who used to work for Stein as his representative before he was caught skimming supplies—now is aiding "The General" in his attempts to overthrow the natives. Jim hides the cargo, but is captured, and although tortured for the information, does not reveal where it's hidden.
Jim is rescued by "The Girl" (Daliah Lavi)—in the book, her name is Jewell, but the movie doesn't even give her character a name!—and Jim leads the Patusans to the supplies and launch an attack on The General, killing everyone but Cornelius. Jim is welcomed by his fellow combatants and given the title "tuan" by the Chief, which means "Lord."

If you want a happy ending that would be where you ended it. If you wanted a happy audience you might have ended it there, as well. Reportedly (and this may be apocryphal) it was at this point at the London premier that James Mason's parents were so bored by the picture, they left, completely missing their son's performance in Part II. Maybe a bit impatient, but one does get the impression that Lord Jim will never end, so elongated and detailed is the film, with sequences running a trifle indulgently, and every line of dialogue treated as if it were precious. This becomes readily apparent after the Intermission.
Jim stays in Patusan, beloved by the people and The Girl. Unbeknownst to him, Cornelius and Schomberg have brought in the cut-throat pirate "Gentleman" Duncan Brown (James Mason)—"he's given more business to Death than the Bubonic Plague"—to raid the village of its treasures, and although their attempts fail, Jim negotiates with the blackguards that they may leave if they never return again. The villagers and Du-Ramin argue for attacking the pirates, but Jim wants no conflict and vows to the chief that if anyone dies because of his mercy, that he will sacrifice his own life in forfeit.
So, Jim trusts the pirates to just go away, huh? He also sets up contingency plans that, should the pirates attack, the natives can fight them back. Meanwhile, Jim looks moony and talks about the position he is in, given his second chance: "I've been a so-called coward and a so-called hero and there's not the thickness of a sheet of paper between them. Maybe cowards and heroes are just ordinary men who, for a split second, do something out of the ordinary. That's all." But, there is a great deal of difference between a romantic idealist and a conscienceless pragmatist, and Jim frustratingly never finds a middle ground. If you wanted a happy ending, you should have taken a cue from James Mason's parents and left at intermission.
It is a long tedious slog to come to that conclusion and although some of the dialog in the second part crackles with cynical brio and Mason's performance is worth watching, one has to spend so much time with O'Toole's doubting Jim—trying ever-so-hard to bring some internal depth to this character that you get stymied by the dependence on the fragile blue eyes shining out of the screen without any of the nuance or creativity the actor brought to his previous performances—that, ultimately, you lose faith in Jim, O'Toole, and the movie.

Brooks is no help here. His staging is perfunctory, whether in Cambodia or Shepperton Studios in Surrey and the one interesting shot is in the beginning with a weirdly evocative shot of a "lost soul"—which Jim could have become—walking like a zombie along a Malaysian pier. One wishes that same sort of frisson could have shown up a bit more...or ever...but it's just a tantalizing moment in a film so confident in its ambitions that it never tries to achieve them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Gentleman Jim

Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942) It's all background in this Errol Flynn vehicle, as the audience focuses on Flynn portraying boxer "Gentleman" Jim Corbett as he serves as point-man (chin variety) for the gentrification of the pugilistic sport. As we fade in the first rule  of the fight game is "nobody talks about the fight game." Not in polite society anyway. As it is, floating boxing matches are staged hectically before the police can find out and they regularly end, not with the sound of a bell, but the sound of a gavel in a courtroom. Once "Johnny Law" gets wind of the fight (or hears the sound of one, they're fairly rambunctious affairs), they descend, the crowd scattering as they round up fighters and fans alike. It's all strictly word-of-mouth, grudge matches, really, the only civility being those of the Marquis of Queensbury—and anybody who's seen Wilde knows what a toad he was.

But Corbett brings some civility to the hammering blows, even to the point of impressing heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond), who goes so far as to meet up with Corbett at a post-match soiree to congratulate him for being the man who took him down. 
Walsh contrasts the match fighting (which takes up relatively little screen-time) with Corbett's efforts to rise in the ranks of Society, as well as in the ring standings, learning to exploit his victories to promote himself to the hoi polloi as well as fight promoters.  It's the burgeoning of the age of sports figures as superstars, and not thugs, rising above gutter tactics and championing their skills as valuable commodities to the elite, giving the rich a taste of the hard-scrabble competition they've left behind.
It's a natural extension of Flynn's persona as a cavalier, being the winking bad boy who's naughty to all the right people, but especially to the really bad ones—the jaunty trickster with a gleam in his eye, who'll find a way to get left hook or by crook, the competent high-wire artist in marked contrast to buddy Walter Lowrie (
Jack Carson, one of my favorite character actors), the lovable schlub who plays pilot-fish to Corbett's shark, never able to achieve success, but omnipresent to enjoy it for him.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): Goldfinger

The Story:
 It was a circular saw in Ian Fleming's novel. In it, Bond and Tilly Masterson are prisoners of gold smuggler Auric Goldfinger's and to dispose of their bodies, he has arranged to have them cut apart and destroyed using the same process that he uses to manipulate gold metal. It's a grisly chapter ("The Pressure Room"), as Bond tries to talk himself out of his fate as the massive spinning saw-blade advances on his body, then gives up and attempts to stop his breathing so he can be unconscious when he is eviscerated. The chapter ends with the line: "A scream tried to force its way through the clamped teeth. Die damn you die die damn you die damn you die damn you die damn you die..."

Not the most elegant writing on Fleming's part, and he was very capable of it. For example, that line in the movie about the "divine heaviness" of gold is Fleming's, also from the novel, a unique perspective on the devotion of the modern Midas.

But, it was originally a saw-blade, and although the Bond movies had already borrowed and updated some of their ideas from other movies, the saw thing cut a little too close to "The Perils of Pauline," where the dastardly villain would tie the heroine to the railroad tracks, or, as here, place them on a tree trunk due for bisection. Yes, it was luridly humorous, but not the kind of humor we'd come to expect from Bond.  

Someone in the production staff had read about the recently developed laser light beam and decided the "saw-thing" just wasn't enough, and with that decision James Bond stepped out of the World War II era of radar and cyphers, atom power and missiles and into a new world of sci-fi gee-wizardry that could be weaponized in all sorts of nasty ways for our side or theirs. And, thus, James Bond became the first candidate for lasik neutering.

It's one way that the early Bonds—and especially Goldfinger—found a way to "out-Fleming" Fleming, by ratcheting up the elements of outrageousness with a whiz-kid enthusiasm. Even as it raised the bar for ingenuity, it also lowered the (one hesitates to say) maturity level of the films, so the next ones—Thunderball and You Only Live Twice—exploded with jet-packs for air and sea, crazy 'copters, volcano HQ's and rocket-dart cigarettes. The gadgetry would overwhelm the series at points, causing the producers to do a sobering course-shift every few films (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, Casino Royale) to put Bond back on dramatis firma. By the 21st Century, the hi-tech lifestyle of Bond would become commonplace and available at the local Sharper Image store, and would be virtually eliminated—the customary visit to "Q" branch would be skipped (although Skyfall brought it—and the "Q" character—back into a world of hacking and cell-phones).

Beyond the laser gadget, the scene is a fine example of all departments firing on all cylinders:  the writing is clever, with a villain's casual indifference to the hero's plight, turning the "ve haff vays of making you talk" cliché on a deaf ear, culminating in the best line of the series (debatably), the perfectly reasonable response to Bond's question of motive: "No, Mr. Bond I expect you to die." That raises the stakes of the scene; the villain has much bigger fish than "Our Hero" and this is just another elaborate way of his to throw out the garbage. Guy Hamilton's direction and Peter Hunt's editing are solidly in the Hitchcock field of "see/saw/react" (no pun intended) and John Barry's tension-building snake-like music—starting softly and simply, then adding complicating, louder elements every few bars—coalesce to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, with the added element of the males keeping their legs crossed...tightly.

The Set-Up: While investigating suspected gold smuggler Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), a reconnaissance of the millionaire's Swiss factory goes wrong leaving the avenging sister (Tania Mallet) of one of Goldfinger's earlier victims (Shirley Eaton) dead, Agent 007's Swiss Army knife of a vehicle wrecked, and James Bond (Sean Connery) unconscious.  He is about to get another of this adventure's many rude awakenings.

Action! (Lights!)

Bond awakens after the crash, finding himself bound and in darkness.
With an alarming buzz, the lights blaze on and Bond can see his predicament—tied hand and foot, spread-eagled on a table-conveyor. 
AURIC GOLDFINGER: Good evening, 007.  
JAMES BOND: My name is James Bond. 
GOLDFINGER: And members of your curious profession are few in number. 
GOLDFINGER: You have been recognized. 
GOLDFINGER: Let's say by one of your opposite numbers, who is also licensed to kill. 
GOLDFINGER: (chuckles) What an interesting car of yours!
GOLDFINGER: I, too, have a new toy, but considerably more practical. 
GOLDFINGER: You are looking at an industrial laser...
GOLDFINGER: ...which emits an extraordinary light, not to be found in nature. 
GOLDFINGER: It can project a spot on the moon. 
GOLDFINGER: Or at closer range, cut through solid metal. 
GOLDFINGER: I will show you. 
Goldfinger snaps his fingers at his technicians. 
The laser mechanism moves down Bond's body and hovers, glowing and humming dangerously.
A scarlet blade of light shoots from the device as it begins to move inexorably towards the metal platform.
As the laser moves to the metal sheet Bond is lying on, it flashes and melts as it's cleaved in half. 
GOLDFINGER:  This is gold, Mr Bond. 
GOLDFINGER: All my life, I've been in love with its colour... 
GOLDFINGER: ...its brilliance, its divine heaviness. 
GOLDFINGER: I welcome any enterprise that will increase my stock... 
GOLDFINGER: ...which is considerable. 
BOND:  I think you've made your point, Goldfinger. 
BOND: Thank you for the demonstration. 
GOLDFINGER: Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr Bond. It may be your last. 
GOLDFINGER:  The purpose...
GOLDFINGER:  ...of our two previous encounters is now very clear to me. I do not intend to be distracted by another. 
GOLDFINGER: Good night, Mr Bond. 
BOND:  Do you expect me to talk? 
GOLDFINGER: No, Mr Bond! I expect you to die! 
 GOLDFINGER: There is nothing you can talk to me about that I don't already know. 
BOND:  You're forgetting one thing. 
BOND: If I fail to report, 008 replaces me.
GOLDFINGER:  I trust he will be more successful. 
BOND: He knows what I know. 
 GOLDFINGER: You know nothing, Mr Bond. 
BOND: Operation "Grand Slam," for instance.
GOLDFINGER: Two words you may have overheard... 
GOLDFINGER:  ...which cannot have... 
GOLDFINGER:  ...any significance...
GOLDFINGER: you or anyone in your organisation.
BOND:  Can you afford to take that chance? 
The laser shuts off and Kitsch approaches with a pistol.
GOLDFINGER:  You are quite right, Mr Bond. 
GOLDFINGER: You are worth more to me alive.

Words by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (and Ian Fleming)

Pictures by Ted Moore and Guy Hamilton

Goldfinger is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from M-G-M and Fox Home Video.