Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - November 2002
The Unholy Three (1925)
Next Stop, Greenwich Village
The Murderers Are
Among Us (1946)
Mother (1926)
Sullivan's Travels

Bloody Sunday

Spirited Away
plus Mostly Martha

 

 

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK
(Josef von Sternberg, 1928).

I'm a devotee of silent films, yet even I have to admit that, in many cases, one must make certain allowances in terms of the styles and conventions of the times in order to enjoy them. But that's not at all true here. In The Docks of New York, Sternberg achieves a mastery of cinematic form that is rare for any era - silent or sound. Indeed, to watch it is to recognize the unique potential for artistic expression represented by the silent film at its peak.

A steamship stoker (George Bancroft) on a day's leave on the New York waterfront, rescues a prostitute named Sadie (Betty Compson) who has tried to drown herself. He takes her to the local saloon/brothel where, as it turns out, they know her. One of the women (Olga Baclonova) who helps revive her, is married to the ship's captain, a surly oaf who has his eye on the prostitute. The stoker, resentful of the captain, falls for Sadie, and then decides to go through a raucous wedding ceremony with her that night in the saloon, all the while planning to leave her the next morning, because he can't see himself giving up the sailor's life.

From this rather meager story, Sternberg creates the feeling of a grimy little world, with an atmosphere of squalor and brutality, lit up by flashes of tenderness. Impeccably shot by Harold Rosson, with the director's style of "shadows and light" much in evidence, the picture sports a fluid moving camera and a pace that is consistently absorbing. Jules Furthman's script (based on a John Monk Saunders story) is devoid of melodrama or sentimentality. The acting is restrained. Bancroft conveys a kind of impassive strength and self-regard - assuming that nothing can get in his way rather than having to prove it. The gorgeous Compson underplays the sadness of her role, thereby making her character more memorable. Some credit for the quality of the performances must of course go to the director, who had already distinguished himself in Hollywood by inspiring natural performances from his actors.

There is a complete absence of the kind of pompous moralizing that would have been required in films a decade later when depicting such lower class types. This is the life these people lead, the film says - see it for what it is, the good and the bad - it's not the movie's job to tell you what to feel. It doesn't need to. It just shows you what it's like for these characters on "the bottom" of the social heap, which includes moments of joy, contentment and humor, as well as being frightened or simply appalled. And the miracle in all this is that The Docks of New York, even within the cramped, smoky confines of its world, leaves us with a memory of real beauty. It didn't do well at the box office, and it could use some more appreciation even today, because there's no doubt in my mind that it's one of the masterpieces of American film.

THE RISE OF LOUIS XIV
(Roberto Rossellini, 1966).

Made originally for French television, Rossellini's portrait of the "Sun King" uses an approach directly opposed to the conventions of historical drama. The story covers the early period of his reign starting with the death of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin, when rebellious nobles were set to manipulate the inexperienced young king, through Louis' gradual concentration of power into his own hands, to the triumph of his system of centralized monarchy in Versailles.

Rather than imagining the goings-on in the 17th century French court in terms of the pomp and gigantism of cinematic spectacle, the director films everything in a realistic style (as befitting the founder of neorealism), with the mostly nonprofessional actors speaking their lines in an utterly matter-of-fact way, and the wonderful costumes, interiors, and scenery presented as if by a news photographer who happened to be on the scene. Rossellini went to great lengths to achieve historical accuracy in every detail, and the effect, strangely, is to make history seem smaller and more human than it is in our imagination.

Louis is played by the unprepossessing Jean-Marie Patte. We don't even see him for some time in the film's beginning section, when the story is occupied with the impending death of the First Minister, and the threatening power struggles. As the movie proceeds, the king takes more and more of a central role, just as his vision of his own role as king takes on central strategic importance in the story.

This parallel of cinematic style and historical content reaches its climax after Louis gets the idea of wearing elaborate costumes and instituting complex court rituals and conventions, so that the nobles must be fully occupied both mentally and financially with these matters in order to advance. By the end of the picture, our attention is focused almost exclusively on these rituals, such as in the long sequence where the king feasts on a fourteen-course meal with the court in attendance, every movement in the room dictated by precise rules. By imposing a hierarchy of appearance on his court, Louis has gained total control over them. In a similar fashion, the film has gone from a depiction of power politics in all its grubby reality, to a presentation of symbolic power in the person of one man.

This is possibly the most acutely perceptive (and drily humorous) political film ever made. Rossellini imposes no judgment, and the audience's judgment cuts both ways. We are allowed to admire the way Louis foils his greedy enemies for the sake of what was truly a greater good, and at the same time we are surely aware of the evil consequences of this "greater good" - the modern cult of the nation-state, with all the suffering and injustice that has resulted. The Rise of Louis XIV is a film of great intelligence, accessible even as it defies expectations - ripping the mask from the official fiction to reveal the actor (or director) who was hidden by what we've come to know as history.

LE TROU (Jacques Becker, 1960).

Four men sharing a cell in a Paris prison are planning a daring escape, when a fifth man (Marc Michel), in jail for attempted murder, is introduced into the cell. After learning to trust him, they draw him into their plan, which involves digging a hole and escaping through the sewer system below the prison.

The veteran Becker was mortally ill when he directed this, his last film, and died just two weeks after it was completed. Based on actual events, the movie is rigorous in style and full of suspense. Becker focuses on the methods of escape - the digging of the hole in the cell, for instance, is shot in something close to real time, so that the viewer experiences the minute-by- minute process. And that's just the beginning. Once the inmates get below, they still have to explore the huge underground cellar, find a way into the sewers, and then must dig a tunnel around a concrete barrier. It takes many days to accomplish all this, and in the meantime they rig up a way to fool the guards into thinking everyone is still in the cell.

The other aspect that emerges from Becker's approach is the sense of cooperation and camaraderie, mostly non-verbal, that develops between the men. He used non- professional actors to play the escapees, and got strong, expressive performances from all of them. (The leader of the group is played by Jean Keraudy, one of the participants in the actual incident the film is based on - and his performance is excellent.)

Le Trou ("The Hole") has no music, nothing to distract us from the concentrated, persistent effort of the men to complete their plan. It's a very physical film, ingenious in its use of long takes that increase the tension, and it's also very disciplined in the way it lets the actors' faces and body movements communicate feelings. Considered strictly as a suspense film, it's totally gripping. But it also explores deeper issues of loyalty, integrity, and doubt, issues that come together in the film's unforgettable ending. A superb little film that deserves to be better known, Le Trou was recently released in a crisp new print on Criterion DVD.

THE MISSION (Roland Joffé, 1986).

In 18th century South America, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a Spanish Jesuit priest, builds a mission for the the natives deep in the jungle. A mercenary and slave trader (Robert De Niro), who opposes the priest, is later converted by him after suffering remorse because of a killing. But their work is imperiled by a treaty turning Spanish land over to Portugal - the mission is on that land, and the Portuguese prefer to enslave Indians rather than convert them.

Screenwriter Robert Bolt was adept at exploring historical subjects and making them accessible to audiences. The best moments in the film involve the contrast between the austerity and single-minded dedication of Irons' priest and the passionate and impulsive convert played by De Niro - the old theme of the spiritual man versus the man of action, but with an interesting twist. The man of action, who is a truly hateful man in the beginning, becomes someone we can identify with more readily than the priest, who doesn't change.

The Mission attains spectacular beauty at times - Chris Menges' photography is first rate, as usual, Joffé has a way with crowd scenes and period detail, and the score is by Ennio Morricone. But Bolt's tendency to simplify everything into a simple conflict between good and evil makes the film less interesting than it could be. Yes, the Jesuits were far more humane than the slave traders, but in the middle of all this we are given a benign and paternalistic view of easily converted and perfectly faithful Indians: lamb-to-the-slaughter victims whose own ways of life and perspectives are not explored. The film also spends a lot of time teasing us with the deliberations of the visiting Cardinal (Ray McAnally) who is to decide the fate of the mission, but since the center of interest is Irons and DeNiro, this third character doesn't succeed in engaging our attention.

The Mission opts for sanctimony over complexity, spectacle over tragedy, falling victim to the Hollywood penchant for flat, middlebrow drama. There are some wonderful moments - a sequence in which De Niro's character drags a heavy sack of armor up a huge cliff as penance for his crimes approaches grandeur - and it's certainly an intelligent film of values that has something to say. I just think a better movie was crying to be made from this material. History is more powerfully conveyed by respecting its messiness, the ambiguity of its conflicting forces, than by trying to simplify it into a clarity that only confirms our beliefs rather than deepening our insight.

WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?
(Frank Tashlin, 1957).

In the strange world of 1950s American comedy, Frank Tashlin cranked things up to another level. Most comedies went for the easy laugh and the easy target. Tashlin satirized the American idea of success. The outlandish Rock Hunter is arguably his best film. It's wild, and sometimes vulgar in that special, loud way that only movies in the 50s could be. It's also hilarious.

Rockland Hunter (Tony Randall) is an advertising copy-writer who is in danger of losing his job unless he finds a way to keep the Stay-Put Lipstick account from leaving the firm. Through a lucky break, he gets access to Hollywood sex goddess Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) when she is visiting New York. In the middle of a public spat with her boyfriend, she agrees to endorse the lipstick if Rock will pretend to be her new flame, thereby making the boyfriend jealous. This leads to Rock becoming an overnight celebrity, causing havoc in his personal life while moving him quickly up the corporate ladder.

The story is not meant to be even slightly realistic - the former cartoonist Tashlin uses skit-like effects to emphasize the film's nature as satiric fantasy. The script, substantially rewritten by the director from a George Axelrod play, is full of zingers making fun not only of advertising but of celebrity, TV, movies, and especially the empty ideal of corporate success, in which a man's highest aspiration is to get a key to the executive washroom.

Before he became a rather tired presence on TV, Randall was a sprightly comic performer, and he was never better than here. Mansfield, however, with her extremely limited range and high-pitched squeak, is hard to take, even as a character to be made fun of. The idea of Mansfield is funnier than her actual presence onscreen - the picture works best when Randall is interacting with his bizarre, cynical colleague (Henry Jones) or with Betsy Drake as his jealous girlfriend, who exhausts herself trying to expand her bust with chest exercises.

Looking back at the 1950s through the bright color and widescreen of its movies, sometimes feels like peering into an alien world. Even the biting wit of this film has something of lost innocence about it. But as always, the real test of a comedy is whether you laughed loud and often. Rock Hunter passed that test with no problems. Whether it's Joan Blondell blubbering over half & half (it reminds her of a milkman who was the love of her life), or Randall performing a ballet on the office couch when he finally achieves the status of "executive," Tashlin's unerring instinct for the ridiculous produces riotous pleasure.


©2002 Chris Dashiell
CineScene