Romancing the Stone [1984)

This movie was very dear to me as a kid.

It’s one of those which came on TV all the time.

And it always pulled me in.

For me, nothing in this film beats the scene in which Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas huddle ’round a marijuana campfire in the fuselage of a crashed plane.

Taking strong belts of Jose Cuervo tequila.

Basically sitting in a giant bong ūüôā

But the best part–the cutest part…is KT eating olives.

An old jar.  To be sure.

But they last awhile.

And liquor kills all germs, right?

Who cares if the dead pilot took a few swigs long ago ūüôā

It’s such a cozy scene.

Perhaps it’s what the Danish mean by¬†hygge.

And it’s an ambiance I’ve only seen approached in¬†Vertigo¬†(Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart by the fireplace in his apartment…after he rescues her from the waters of San Francisco Bay) and, surprisingly,¬†The Pink Panther¬†(David Niven and Claudia Cardinale by the fireplace…Claudia on the tiger-skin rug).

But Romancing the Stone, unlike those two films, is a full-on romcom.

Sure, there’s¬†action…to entice the leery men ūüôā

But there’s no denying that this is a romantic comedy.

And so I’m glad to join the ranks of romcom lovers.

Glad to christen a new category on my site with this fine film.

Some of it hasn’t aged so well (like Alan Silvestri’s sequenced electro-samba soundtrack), but most of it has…so kudos to director Robert Zemeckis.

Zach Norman plays a gay villain in such a way that one cannot help thinking of John Podesta.

Danny DeVito, who plays Norman’s cousin, is definitely the funniest thing in this film.

Neither Turner nor Douglas are particularly funny, but they are graceful and charming (respectively).

I would even add that Michael Douglas encapsulates a sort of masculinity which has been on the wane since the 1980s in America…UNTIL DONALD TRUMP WON THE FUCKING PRESIDENCY!

Yeah ūüôā

It is trippy.

To watch this movie late at night.

To relive childhood memories.

And then to rouse oneself to one’s feet and think, “Is Donald Trump really the President? Is this not some kind of dream???” ūüôā

I know for many it is a nightmare.

So I will just leave that train of thought there.  For now.

Actually, there is a more serious villain in this film:  Manuel Ojeda.

He is certainly a BAD HOMBRE ūüôā

[sorry, can’t help it]

So yeah…

The bulk of the action takes place in Colombia.

It’s like William S. Burroughs, in search of yage, writing back to Allen Ginsberg.

Though the narrative becomes evermore-farfetched as it unfurls, it’s so much fun that we don’t much care ūüôā

Buried treasure?  Check.

Wrestling crocodiles?  Check.

Mr. Dundee and¬†The Goonies¬†were from this same era ūüôā

Alfonso Arau is here too…with his little “mule” ūüôā

[I guess, on second thought, that is a drug-smuggling joke]

This was the performance which preceded Mr. Arau’s all-world turn as El Guapo in¬†Three Amigos.

Yeah…the plot really gets ridiculous right after the waterfall ūüôā

But this is a feel-good movie!

And we need this kind of stuff.

Sitting down to ENJOY a movie ūüôā

What a concept!

 

-PD

The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956)

Netflix seems to be down tonight.

I tried several times.  Several movies.  Several fixes.

And so it is only fitting that history should trump the ephemeral stages of technological development.

Yes, time for a good old VHS tape.

And not a film about which I’ve previously written.

While I have surveyed many of the early Hitchcock films, I never wrote about the original version of this film.

1934.

To my knowledge, this is the only film of Alfred Hitchcock’s early career which he chose to remake.

Just on this fact alone, it would seem that the story was either very dear to the¬†auteur or that he couldn’t resist something about the plot.

Granted, the two films are considerably different.

Even on a surface level, the 1934 version was (of course) in black and white.

But this was a VistaVision, Technicolor production.

1956.

22 years later.

For better or worse, I was familiar first with the earlier version.

It is a film I should revisit.

But it was not what I would call a “home run”.

The one aspect of the original which one might miss in the remake is the presence of Peter Lorre.

But we must move on to the future.  The present.

1956.

Jimmy Stewart plays the leading male role.  A doctor from Indianapolis.

Doris Day plays his wife.

The action is set for a good bit in Morocco.

Specifically, Marrakesh.

Indeed, the beginning of the film is a sort of travelogue.

In other words, its a good excuse to show off the exotic locale in North Africa.

Camels. ¬†Veils. ¬†[that one’s important] ¬†The social tradition of eating with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. ¬†While leaving the left hand in the lap.

All very edifying and exciting.

But Doris Day is suspicious from the start.

If we knew nothing of Hitchcock, we’d say her paranoia was unfounded.

But, in fact, it’s Jimmy Stewart’s ease which is the fateful misstep early on.

And so this movie is about suspicion.

Who can we trust?

In this age of anxiety (thank you W.H. Auden), everyone and everything is suspect.

The only true bliss is ignorance.

[and perhaps my only wisdom is that of paraphrase]

One thing which escaped me the first time I saw this version of¬†The Man Who Knew Too Much¬†(in the theater…lucky me) was a funny detail about Brenda de Banzie.

Yes, dear readers (and fans of Peter Sellers), Ms. de Banzie would later appear as the annoying, flamboyant Angela Dunning in The Pink Panther (1963).

Indeed, her role as the terror of Cortina (d’Ampezzo) was her second-to-last film.

But here she is a much more mysterious character.

I will leave it at that.

We get some interesting things in this film.

“Arabs” in disguise.

Which is to say, certain personages of the spook variety in brown makeup (and native garb).

One need not look very far back in history to find a poignant parallel.

Consider, for instance, the “Basra prison incident” of 2005.

I’m guessing that T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) would provide another example, though I am no expert on this matter.

As are almost all Hitchcock films, this one is a tense affair.

Doris Day, in particular, does a surprising job of portraying the personal terror of her character.

Perhaps most notable about this film is the musical component.

As an accomplished percussionist in my own right, I heartily appreciate Hitchcock’s attention to the intricacies of an orchestral percussion section.

Indeed, the film begins with a close-up of this little-featured “choir” (in addition to the three trumpets and three trombones at the bottom of the frame).

What is most remarkable is Hitchcock’s use of the musical score (in various permutations) to tell this unique story.

Funniest is the shot of the cymbalist’s sheet music.

It is nearly a complete¬†tacit…save for one fateful crash.

I fondly remember (with some measure of anxiety) a time when I manned the cymbals for the overture of Verdi’s¬†La forza del¬†destino.

It was a similar affair.

Interminable waiting.

And if you miss your one crash?  Even in rehearsal?

Well, you are screwed!

The judging stares of oboists are enough to melt a man…

But the musical score appears elsewhere.

In the private box.

Perhaps a page-turner for an assassin.

Most vividly, Hitchcock makes the score come alive in a fascinating series of extreme close-ups.

It is like a very erudite version of “follow the bouncing ball”.

So yes…some of our action happens at the Royal Albert Hall.

In an interesting twist of fate, usual Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann garners copious screen time as the conductor…OF ANOTHER COMPOSER’S WORK!

Were it Beethoven, I’d understand.

But the piece is Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin (who?) and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (not to be confused with [Percy] Wyndham Lewis).

And yet it is a moving piece.

The London Symphony Orchestra sounds lovely (really magical!) in their on-screen segments.

But the real¬†Leitmotiv¬†of our film is “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”.

Speaking of magic…it is always a gossamer thing to hear Doris Day sing this song in¬†The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I remember a time when I didn’t know this song at all.

Being in a studio with Corinne Bailey Rae and hearing a playback of her wonderful band own this song.

And my discovery of Sly and the Family Stone’s inimitable version (sung by Rose Stone).

But few movie music moments equal Doris Day in her Marrakesh hotel room singing “Que Sera, Sera…” with little¬†desafinado Christopher Olson.

The only ones which come close are Rita Hayworth (actually Jo Ann Greer?) singing the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” the next year (1957) in¬†Pal Joey¬†and Ms. Hayworth “singing” (actually Anita Kert Ellis) “Put the Blame on Mame” in¬†Gilda¬†(1946).

An interesting note about this version of¬†The Man¬†Who Knew Too Much…

It seems to be a sort of forgotten classic, wedged as it is between the first of my Hitchcock “holy trinity” (Rear Window,¬†1954) and the other two perfect films (Vertigo,¬†1958, and¬†North by Northwest,¬†1959).

Actually, this was a period of experimentation for Hitchcock.

Our film most precisely follows the odd comedy (!) The Trouble with Harry (1955) and precedes the black and white hand-wringer The Wrong Man (released later in 1956).

But The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) should not be forgotten!

It is such a beautifully-shot film!

Robert Burks’ cinematography is divine.

And George Tomasini’s editing is artfully deft.

Like To Catch a Thief (which is actually on Netflix in the U.S. [last time I checked]), The Man Who Knew Too Much is a film which perhaps needs multiple viewings to be truly appreciated.

-PD

Sudden Impact [1983)

This is not a popular time to have sympathy for cops.¬† That’s too bad.

This is not a popular time to have sympathy for the FBI.¬† That’s unfortunate.

Not a popular time to champion the CIA.  Pity that.

No love for the NSA.¬† Shame…

We get one version of events.  So much so that we chase after an alternative version.  Which is credible?

Police have a very sacred trust.¬† Once upon a time it was phrased as “to protect and serve.”

Abuse of power disgusts us.  The pendulum swings to the other end.

Jingoism breeds contempt.

détournement

There are several wars on in the world.  The U.S. is involved widely.

It’s not a popular time to say something kind about the military.¬† Bummer.

What is at issue in all of these parallel phrases?  Justice and compassion.

Efficacy.  Human rights.

Right and left.  Conservative and liberal.  Even the widely disparaged neoconservative movement.

I have been quick to find fault with the so-called neocons.  But there is an interesting fundamental point about them that perhaps few know:  they used to be liberals.

I am reminded of Realpolitik.  Kissinger.

The tendency creeps in to apologize for the shameless.

An apologist, after all, works in myriad ways.

It is good that all of these thoughts come to the surface upon viewing what many “serious” film critics would consider to be sub-par pulp.

Let me start (continue) by saying that Sudden Impact is a brilliant film.

There are moments when the balance between directing and starring (acting) seem to be too much for Eastwood, but those few moments are mostly on the front end of this picture.

Though it be, perhaps, sacrilege to suggest such, this is probably the best Dirty Harry movie.

The reason is directly attributable to Eastwood’s auteurish guidance.

Though the setting of San Paulo somewhat mirrors Bodega Bay from Hitchcock’s The Birds, it is mostly the same director’s Vertigo which provides a wellspring from which Eastwood draws liberally for the symbol-laden mood of this affair.

Sondra Locke is formidable as the Kim Novak character.¬† Though Callahan himself never succumbs to catatonia, Locke’s sister in the film does.¬† It reminds us of Jimmy Stewart’s incapacitation after seeing Madeleine “die” the first time (again with the Vertigo references).¬† Of particular note is the camera work which follows Locke’s first killing in Sudden Impact.¬† The circular, woozy pattern makes us think of Novak’s plunge into San Francisco Bay.

And that’s just it:¬† Eastwood had the balls and brains to drag Hitchcock into the Dirty Harry series (itself set in San Francisco).

What this film achieves is imparting humility to armchair DCIs (like myself) who think we have it all figured out.¬† Sometimes distance is good…for planning.¬† Sometimes you need to hear a few bullets buzz past your ears to realize that a hot war is on.¬† It’s not always easy to know who’s shooting…and from where.

There are multiple fronts.¬† I often ponder my own mental weakness.¬† Ultimately, no one has died in vain.¬† The challenge is for us as a nation and a world to get better…quickly.¬† It ends up sounding meaningless, but it’s about all one can say about this spinning globe of chaos on which we live.

-PD

The Manxman [1929)

The Isle of Man has two movie theaters as of 2014.¬† Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film was set on this little island between Great Britain and Ireland (though it was actually filmed in Cornwall).¬† It’s amazing how much a director can improve in one year.¬† The previous year had seen the release of Hitchcock’s dull “rom-com” The Farmer’s Wife.¬† Truth be told:¬† The Manxman is just a much better story.

In simplest terms, it is the drama of two men (best friends) in love with the same girl.¬† She’s in love with one of them, but unfortunately not the one she ends up marrying.¬† The whole thing bears a striking resemblance in tone to Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953).¬† In fact, the more general mood of the film might be successfully compared to Bergman and Dreyer (a Swede and Dane respectively).¬† This is not going against the history of The Isle of Man.¬† The Norse began settling on the isle in the 9th century.¬† The island’s history is tied not only to Norway, but also the Hebrides civilization.

More importantly, the dramatic material is simply much more suited to what would become Hitchcock’s signature style.¬† The girl (played by Anny Ondra) throws herself off the quayside in a suicide attempt.¬† She is not successful.¬† The viewer familiar with Vertigo might rightly snap to Kim Novak plunging into San Francisco Bay (and warming herself in Jimmy Stewart’s apartment after failing to drown herself).

The d√©nouement comes when Ondra stands before a deemster (name for judge on Isle of Man) for the crime of attempted suicide.¬† The judge just so happens to be the man she loves (and it’s his first day on the job!).¬† The courtroom drama nicely anticipates an underappreciated Hitchcock gem starring Alida Valli called The Paradine Case (1947).¬† Our film ends up in a bizarre admission by the deemster that he is not fit for the bench owing to his surreptitious dealings with Ondra.

The Manxman in question (played by Carl Brisson) is left to deal with the heartbreak of having been tricked from marriage to fatherhood and beyond.¬† We end up feeling pity for him, but for most of the film we sympathize with the star-crossed lovers (Ondra and Malcolm Keen).¬† Keen’s surname in the film is Christian (Philip Christian) and we see him struggle with his situation in a way that today might be termed quaint.¬† Max Weber might call it the Protestant love ethic.

In closing, this film is definitely worth watching.¬† There is particular anguish and tension (artfully conveyed) in the child custody scene.¬† Hitchcock’s ingenuity starts coming to the fore in¬†his final¬†experiment with silence.

-PD

Rear Window [1954)

Before there was Facebook, there was Rear Window.¬† It was (and remains) Alfred Hitchcock’s most perfect film.¬† In it we find “the gaze”…that phenomenon of lovers transposed to the art of memory, which is to say, cinema.

The telephoto lens of our protagonist is fitted to a camera, but he snaps no pictures during the entirety of our film.¬† Nor does he film what he sees onto reels to later exploit the phi phenomenon. His gaze leads directly to his mind…and the events he witnesses are recorded into his memory.

Rear Window is really a film about film–self-referential cinema.¬† It is no wonder that Jean-Luc Godard chose to feature images of Jimmy Stewart with the long lens in his magnum opus¬†Histoire(s) du cin√©ma.¬† Rear Window is pure cinema.

The further significance is that Stewart’s character L.B. Jeffries embodies the conscience of Hollywood.¬† Indeed, in this case we are the ones watching the watcher (to paraphrase Juvenal).¬† But the essential detail is that Jeffries is making a movie in his head…and we are watching him make it.¬† It is documentary.¬† He is a news photographer who is laid up in a wheelchair during a summer heat wave because he had gotten a little too cavalier on assignment from his magazine.¬† But the true artist never stops working.

We enter the realm of Flaherty and the murky waters of fiction vs. reality–staged spectacle vs. actualit√©s.¬† This is a film about the pure process of motion pictures.¬† The saving grace (other than the breathtaking Grace Kelly) is that the story is as airtight as an alibi.¬† Rear Window is endlessly watchable because of this marriage between the abstract (which may, in many cases, be “felt” only intuitively) and the spectacular.¬†

Before Facebook, there were rear windows.  After Facebook, there will remain Rear Window.

 

-PD

Rope [1948)

For many years this was my favorite Hitchcock movie.¬† Sure…I secretly thought Psycho was better, but I didn’t want to be ordinary.¬† It was long before I understood the metaphorical reading of Rear Window; long before my mind was mature enough to wrap itself around the slippery plot of Vertigo; long before I realized that North By Northwest was truly sui generis.¬†

What was it about this film?¬† I had first run across the title in a quote attributed (I believe) to Peter Bogdanovich.¬† Rope was a film to be studied.¬† Rope was a feat of trickery.¬† The Rope trick.¬† Long, unedited shots…¬† It was only later that I discovered how they reloaded the film.¬† Once you know, it seems obvious, but upon first viewing it does seem like the master and slave reels had unlimited 1000s of feet to spool out and take in.

But that’s not it.

What was it about this film?¬† It was Jimmy Stewart.¬† Good, old Jimmy Stewart of It’s A Wonderful Life.¬† Jimmy Stewart as Louis-Ferdinand Celine.¬† Jimmy Stewart the misanthrope.¬† The novelty of it!¬† But the “kicker” was bloodlust.¬† Jimmy Stewart redeemed with Emersonian integrity.¬† His words thrown back in his face.¬† Even at an old age.¬† Stewart’s character realizes he has been wrong all these years.¬† Would Nietzsche have had the same reaction to Hitler?¬† Would Wagner?

There is no way to accurately “read” this film without placing it in history:¬† three years after the end of WWII.

Inferior.  Superior.  Intellect.  Beyond good and around again to evil.

It is Hitchcock commenting on himself.  The character of Rupert is the dark, sardonic, macabre humor of Alfred the auteur and joker.  But what of that ending?

There is no more blood-curdling pronouncement of justice in the history of cinema that when Jimmy Stewart proclaims, “You’re both going to die.”

The character names don’t matter.¬† The tricks of filming even less.

This is the inquisitive Stewart of Rear Window already suspecting.¬† This isn’t the Hitchcockean trope of “the wrong man:”¬† this is the right man.

Stewart can’t believe it.¬† We can’t believe it. ¬†And we saw the whole thing.

We don’t trust our instincts when the conclusions go (as Dick Cheney said) “beyond the pale.”¬† Look up that phrase.¬† Look up Arnold Rothstein.¬† The “pale of settlement.”

In King of the Jews the author Nick Tosches touches on this phrase.  My contention is that Tosches knew in 2005.

Rope is the story of two young men who strangle an “inferior” being (who just so happens to be a Harvard man).¬† Hmmm…from where then would that make our killers?¬† Yale, perhaps?¬† Is this an quasi-establishment jab at the Skull & Bones fraternity?

And Rupert…dear old Rupert…the house master from our murderers’ prep school days…¬† Could the reference be Phillips Academy?

I will leave these remarks as a thumbnail sketch to inspire discussion.¬† But it was certainly the novelty of Stewart as a villain…and his redemption as the voice of reason.¬† Yes.¬† The message is clear.¬† All who have killed in this eugenic manner will die.¬† You’re all going to die for what you’ve done.¬† It is what society is going to do to you.¬† The public doesn’t want to hear your advanced theories and your avant-garde morals.

Hollywood failed the Jews.¬† Cinema failed those in the death camps of WWII.¬† This is Godard’s grand theme in Histoire(s) du cin√©ma.¬† Film has the ability to preserve the “honor of the real,” to quote Jean-Luc.¬† No country was more technologically advanced (arguably) in terms of motion pictures during WWII than Germany. ¬†Why were their scientists so sought after by Operation Paperclip (and the Soviet equivalent) following the war?¬† Why were they so successful?¬† Because they were brilliant.¬† It doesn’t make sense then that there is no available footage from the pre-liberated Nazi camps.¬† Cinema failed to prevent the holocaust and this cinematic gap in history likewise has rendered the medium irreparably hollow.¬† That was Spielberg’s failure with Schindler’s List:¬† one cannot portray what has never been seen.¬† The camps no doubt existed.¬† There is no disputing that.¬† But there is a hole in the heart of cinema’s history.

The 21st century has offered cinema another chance.¬† And contrary to Dick Cheney’s quote and its context, there is nothing beyond the pale.

 

-PD