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
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
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