Clash by Night, Fritz Lang (1952)

Airless Odets working class melodrama originally set on Staten Island, transposed by Lang to a cannery town in California. Barbara Stanwyck is vicious and terrific as the local girl who can’t be satisfied; Marilyn Monroe seems rightly amazed to be here at all as the local girl who can; Paul Douglas is the golden retriever husband who keeps fetching for Stanwyk no matter how often he’s kicked; and Robert Ryan is the needy gorgeous drunk all the housewives swoon for.

Not even in Lang’s top fifteen, but it has some moments. How about these lines from Stanwyk: “Aren’t there any more comfortable men in this world? Now they’re all little and nervous like sparrows or big and worried like sick bears. . . . If I ever loved a man again I’d bear anything. He could have my teeth for watch fobs.”

Lang is 62 years old when he makes this. He’ll make just ten more, most of them awful, but two of them The Big Heat and The Blue Gardenia, which are among his very best.

I wonder if I’ll ever get to see Rancho Notorious. Long out of print, something of a legend in my mind, a kind of cinematic Atlantis.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella (1999)

“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” — Tom Ripley

A melodramatic movie, for sure, but it captures American anxieties of identity and ambition so well that I’m willing to claim Tom Ripley belongs in the same dim chamber of purgatory as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Miller. I like to think of the three of them sizing each other up over cocktails.

The International, Tom Tykwer (2009)

Tykwer is such an odd duck. Nothing he does has any formal, generic, or thematic consistency, yet there is always just enough of interest to keep you watching. This movie sometimes wants to be a postmodern you-can’t-fight-the-system-because-you-are-the-system technothriller like Syriana, but the premises in which that branch of the story is rooted are utterly flimsy. Other times it looks like we’re headed for an anguished love-during-wartime thing between Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, but that goes no further than a fond caress on the cheek. Confusingly, a corrupt arms dealer and his corrupt sons seem to turn from bad guys to good guys at one point. Very late in the game, there’s even a half-hearted attempt to address the issue of German reunification! And throughout we’re treated to dialogue like “Sometimes the hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn”; “We cannot control the things life does to us. They are done before you know it, and once they are done, they make you do other things”; and “A man may meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” That last twice, because it’s important.

It’s possible that Tykwer didn’t have the time or energy to worry about any kind of thematic coherence due to the fact that he’s here almost completely consumed with his location lust (Instanbul, Berlin, Milan, Lyon, New York), architecture fetish, and set piece setups. Given the movie’s ostensible thesis–organizations are corrupt–it’s weird that Tykwer so clearly loves lingering in the soaring atria and mouthwateringly furnished boardrooms of banks and arms manufacturers. Provided I could dress like the Calvini brothers and work in their corporate headquarters on Lake Garza, I’d seriously consider getting into the landmine business myself. Tykwer’s movie may actually wind up recruiting viewers to become evil corporate geniuses! Looks like way more fun than being Clive Owen, who spends most of the movie doing dumb things, saying dumb things, getting clocked, and failing to make out with Naomi Watts.

Knight Without Armour, Jacques Feyder (1937)

Sat down with this only because I’m always willing to spend a couple hours with Marlene Dietrich; little did I know it would harmonize so well with Camus’ Les Justes, which I’ve just read with my summer school students. Indeed, the film’s second act begins with a revolutionary throwing a bomb into an aristocrat’s carriage.

This is a wonderful movie, a brilliant illustration of the literal meaning of the word “revolution.” Callous aristocrats are driven from their estate by the Red army, which then lines up Tsarist sympathizers and guns them down. The next day the estate is retaken by the White army, which then lines up Socialist sympathizers and guns them down. The male lead is an upper class Brit send into the revolutionary organization as a spy who then become himself politicized, but then later rescues an aristocratic woman imperiled by the revolution. As always, the poor are forced to pledge ideological allegiance to whomever is holding a gun to their heads; sometimes they have to change their politics three times a day.

As a side note, it’s interesting to see a historical drama which was made at a time closer to the events it depicts than it is to the time at which you’re watching it. Does that make sense? In 1937, the revolution was just twenty years old, and there’s a strange sense, watching these scenes, of how palpable and immediate those events were at the time the film was made, which serves to reinforce how vague and distant those events are to us today. I can’t quite put my finger on this sensation. It’s the double remove, perhaps, of watching a historical historical drama. Somehow it lends the representation an uncanny sense of the real.

Blah blah blah. See it not for the sake of my metahistoriographical maunderings but for Marlene Dietrich in soft focus, hiding from her pursuers under a bower of fallen leaves in a birch grove. And for the shellshocked station master announcing the arrivals and departures of invisible trains.

House by the River, Fritz Lang (1950)

Deliciously poisonous little melodrama featuring eros/thanatos mixups, dark shadows, fratricide, billowing curtains, animal carcasses that wash out to sea with the low tide and back in from the sea with the high (“Back and forth, back and forth!” as one wild-eyed character puts it), physical deformities, contempt for procreation, and — best of all — the villain justifies his evil deeds as necessary to his work, because he’s a . . . writer! Yum. Brings to mind The Spiral Staircase, Rebecca, and, sure, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This is the kind of movie Lang made when a studio gave him a free hand but not much money: Elegant and sick.

The Caine Mutiny, Edward Dmytryk (1954)

That’s more like it. Dmytryk here rassles Herman Wouk’s enormous novel into a taut two hours, and, in the character of Lt. Steve Maryk, offers for our consideration a specimen of that most piteous creature: The honorable person who comes to believe he must do wrong in order to do right. Van Johnson is not a great actor, and Bogart is, so the audience’s attention very naturally gravitates toward Captain Queeg. We’re further distracted by Lt. Maryk’s callow sidekick Ensign Keith, the cynical novelist Lt. Keefer, and the bitter attorney Greenwald who enable, provoke, and resent Maryk, respectively. In fact, when you think about it, it’s passing strange that Maryk, upon whose act of insurrection the plot pivots, barely takes up any space in the movie at all. That may, though, be just right. These events comprise the most important in Maryk’s life, but for everyone else — the exhausted veteran, the irresponsible intellectual, the fastidious judges, the ambitious kid, the self-loathing lawyer — he’s merely an example, a screen upon which to project their versions of how things are and how they should be. No one cares about the Maryks of the world; we care only about how to represent their actions in such a way as to advance our own agendas. I’m on the very brink of saying something about Megan Ambuhl right here, but I’m not going to do it, I can see the logic but I can’t feel it to be true. Or should I say, I can’t find a way to fit it into my agenda.