Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - May 2001
Four Days in September
The Story of G.I. Joe
Laurel and Hardy's
Laughing 20s
J'Accuse (1919)

Dark Days
plus One Day in September

Flicks - April 2001
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Skyscraper Souls
Sherman's March (1986)
Man Ray films
Passenger (1960)

 


CHRISTOPHER STRONG
(Dorothy Arzner, 1933).

An odd romance about an affair between two opposites - the title character, an upper crust English lord known for his devotion to his wife, and a free-spirited aviatrix, a type of liberated woman of that time, who has never had a lover before, being wholly devoted to her career as a flier. The latter is played by Katharine Hepburn, with her usual energy and conviction. It's the kind of role I couldn't imagine any other actress from that era even attempting, but she doesn't soar as high as one would wish, mainly because the film is confined by some of the same oppressive beliefs about women and love which it attempts to criticize.

The screenplay, by Zoe Akins, does venture into feminist territory at times. The flier, Lady Cynthia Darrington (uh-huh), is shown gradually losing her independent spirit the more involved she becomes in her affair with Christopher Strong. Eventually he asks her to give up flying because of his fear of losing her. She does so, but the freedom she experiences in the air keeps calling to her. This was a rather potent theme for a film in the 1930s. The impact of the "career woman" on social norms, the conflict between marriage and career, had been a controversial topic for some time, but it was rarely broached in the movies.

Arzner, the only female director in Hollywood during the "classic" studio era, has a relaxed, breeezy style and a good sense of pace. The dialogue, however, is quite stagey and unconvincing. And it would have helped to have a strong male lead - I kept wishing for Fredric March or Melvyn Douglas, but instead we get the supremely unattractive Colin Clive, who mugs terribly throughout with his godawful accent and phony elocution. (The man looks like he's in need of a high colonic.) He is an obvious mismatch with the luminous Hepburn, who even manages to look beautiful while wearing an outrageously silly moth outfit for a costume party. (Moth to a flame? The script's symbolism is never subtle.)

The fact that the movie's title refers to the man is already a sign of trouble. This is the woman's story. Arzner and Akins are unable to resolve this tale in a satisfying way. The movie can be taken as a radical statement (and some critics have done so) or as a reaffirmation of the conventional values of marriage and family. I think that's the trouble - the picture wants to have it both ways, admiring the Hepburn character while affirming the typical ethos of self-sacrifice embodied by Strong's wife (played by Bille Burke, at her most fluttery). The movie's end is punishing in a way that seems extreme even for that era. I wanted to enjoy Christopher Strong, but - like lukewarm decaf - it is neither tasty nor stimulating.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
(David Lean, 1962).

The epic film is inevitably associated with the cult of the hero. This masterpiece, recounting the amazing feats of T.E. Lawrence during the First World War, and showered with Academy Awards, seems at first glance to fit the mold. In fact, Lean quite deliberately breaks it, and this has caused a good deal of misunderstanding.

The picture's impeccable craft - superb photography (Freddie Young), sound, editing, music, and production design - practically needs no comment. It boasts an hypnotic lead performance by Peter O'Toole, with fine supporting work from Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness. It is arguably the finest achievement in the widescreen format (Panavision, in this case). Lean's camera placement and composition, his patient dramatic sense, the intelligence and subtlety of the performances he elicits, inspire admiration if not outright awe.

Ironically, though, the film's magnificent scope and beauty has tended to obscure its unusual purpose. For the figure at the movie's center is not the unconflicted hero of popular fiction, but a deeply ambivalent and eccentric loner who becomes permanently scarred by his adventures.

Lean's subversion of the hero myth is spelled out clearly by the contrast between the movie's two parts, separated by an intermission. (Oh, those were the days, when you could have an intermission!) The first part depicts the ascent of Lawrence the hero - gaining the trust of the Arab fighters through understanding of their ways, the daring trek across the wastes to take Aqaba, his incredible rescue of the comrade who has been left behind in the desert, his death-defying journey to Cairo. In the midst of this, we see hints of what is to come - Lawrence hates the imperialism of his own country; he identifies with the Arabs to the point of donning their garb; he is intensely revolted by his own attraction to violence and killing.

In the second part, Lawrence has become unbalanced by his success. He falls prey to messianic delusions. A traumatic experience in Deraa, where he is briefly captured incognito by the Turks, closes him off even to his friend Ali (Sharif). The love of battle overrides his strategic sense. Lean supports the shift in mood with stylistic changes. The rhythm is choppier, with an almost impulsive quality. His camera movement becomes restless. A sardonic note sounds, especially in the character of the newspaper man played by Arthur Kennedy. Even Maurice Jarre's gorgeous musical theme becomes muted in tone, sometimes sounding tentative or sinister. The picture ends in a most unusual way for an epic - with anticlimactic irony and understatement.

Lawrence of Arabia is the portrait of a man's collapse, and through that an indictment of the collapse of sanity which is war itself. (Side note - try to spot a woman in this film, and good luck to you.) The tragedy of this conception, and the intelligence with which it is executed on screen, makes it unique among film epics. David Lean employed the art of the spectacle in a new way - to reveal the suffering and the waste behind the facade of glory. He used the mythic mode to explode the myth. That's what ultimately makes the film a masterpiece that will endure, long after other epics have become outdated.

GET CARTER (Mike Hodges, 1971).

A London gangland killer (Michael Caine) learns of his brother's death in Newcastle, and travels north to find out who did it and take revenge.

This film has gained something of a reputation over the years, as a sign of a new toughness in British film style. Hodges had a more artful touch than was usually seen in crime pictures - he employs many editing innovations of the 1960s without overdoing it, and the story proceeds by a kind of deadpan indirection which trusts the audience to figure things out as they go along. In the title role, Caine brings a quality of cool amorality, punctuated with startling outbursts of murderous rage.

It's a tough movie, all right. I regret to say that I found it more unpleasant than invigorating. The mood of sullen resentment, the casual yet brutal misogyny, the soullessness which leads to nothing but more soullessness - it all seems like little more than an exercise in nihilism. Get Carter might have been redeemed by some ingenuity in its plot, but the narrative develops in a way that is as predictable as Carter's relentless pursuit of vengeance. While it's true that in terms of craft the film is a cut above the majority of gangster movies, it's also true that that's not saying very much. Even genre pieces need meaning, or some sort of catharsis, if they want to do something more than just pander to blood lust.

CABIRIA (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914).

In the period before the Great War, Italy had a thriving film industry. The lavish Italian costume spectacles were bigger and longer than any movies before, and they helped usher in the era of the feature film. Cabiria was the greatest of these - an inspiration to Griffith, DeMille, and the Hollywood industry in general, as well as an important achievement in its own right.

The plot is the film's main weakness. The overheated and overwrought storyline supposedly takes place during the Punic Wars, but any relationship to actual history is coincidental. It concerns the girl Cabiria, daughter of a noble family, who is abducted by Carthaginians during the chaos that follows the eruption of Mount Etna. She is taken to Carthage and singled out for sacrifice to the god Moloch. Most of the story doesn't concern her, actually, but focuses on the loves and betrayals of the Carthaginian queen Sophonisba, played by Italia Almirante-Manzini, every inch the diva, whose overacting is in contrast to the general restraint (relative to the time) of most of the cast.

The remarkable aspects of Cabiria are the scope and quality of the production, and the new film techniques pioneered by Pastrone. The set pieces - the eruption of Etna and the destruction of the city, the sacrifice of the children at the temple of Moloch, the battle at the end - are pulled off with great skill and with special effects that had barely been dreamed of in Hollywood. The photography is crisp and beautiful (a great print, as usual, from Kino Video). The costumes and huge elaborate sets are amazing even today. Artificial lighting is employed to good purpose. But the most impressive thing is the use of the tracking shot. The director and his cameraman (Segundo de Chomon) devised special dollies and cranes that allowed the camera to slowly pan across and inside the sets, moving in and out for close-ups and long shots without having to cut. These tracking shots lend a mysterious, sometimes spooky quality to the film. (Griffith learned a lot from watching this, and of course later took the technique to greater heights in Intolerance.)

The intertitles were written by the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. They really are more poetic than your usual silent film titles (at least they seem that way in translation). D'Annunzio got into the solemn pagan ritual aspects of the story, which resulted in some genuinely incantatory language. Despite this, the picture can't avoid giving the impression of kitsch, and the story does drag quite a bit in the movie's last third. Cabiria is still worth seeing, though, both for its spectacle and its spirit of daring innovation.

BEND OF THE RIVER
(Anthony Mann, 1952).

A reformed outlaw (James Stewart) helps guide a group of settlers to the Oregon Territory. Along the way he joins forces with another ex-troublemaker (Arthur Kennedy) and a card playing sharpshooter (Rock Hudson).

The western is not my favorite genre. But if I must watch one, I would prefer them to be as packed with action and incident as Bend of the River. There's lots of shooting, suspense, chases on horseback, gambling, good/bad guys, vengeance, and moral redemption - all of it done in the vigorous, muscular style of one of the greatest directors in the genre, Anthony Mann.

Mann's collaborations with James Stewart helped that star create a new, tougher image than that of his earlier aw-shucks screen persona. Stewart has a brooding, even taciturn, presence here, and he has one really great scene where he gets so angry it's scary. Kennedy has never been so engaging than as the ambiguous antihero he plays here. Hudson, on the other hand, is only in the movie because he's Hudson, i.e. a rising star that Universal was trying to promote.

While I can't say that Bend of the River avoids occasional predictability - well, what western does? - I can find no fault with the visuals, the style, or the pace. It is never boring. One of the most entertaining horse operas I've seen, perfect for a rainy afternoon.


©2001 Chris Dashiell
CineScene