Annie [1982)

Woof!

Yesterday was a rough day for me.

Yeah, nicotine withdrawal.

Ugh…

Maybe the roughest 24 hours of my life.

They say nicotine is more addictive than heroin.

I can neither confirm nor deny that.

But after a day like yesterday, I was ready for tomorrow.

And, to quote Stereolab, “tomorrow is already here”.

So when I saw this little gem on Netflix, I thought, “This is the perfect kinda movie I need tonight.  Something light.  Not too spicy.”

But as the classics of naïveté always do, this one reduced me to a sobbing snot factory.

[sorry for the vividness]

Back in the day (you know, the day), it didn’t matter to me who directed a movie.

[Auteur?

Is that like a really smart person?

Oh, no…that’s savant.]

But then I got into all this movie business.

And it started to matter.

Because certain directors consistently turned out magic…even when they were all-but-thwarted by external sources.

[and sometimes internal sources]

So it bears repeating that Annie was directed by THE John Huston.

[kinda like THE Ohio State University]

Apparently, Sony Pictures’ subsidiary Colombia Pictures thought in 2014 that Annie would be a good film to remake.

You know?

Because it’s just a musical, right?

And there had only been one other adaption of it (the one under review)…and that had been directed by some guy…Houston, or something…

So, yeah…let’s get Will Gluck (WHO?!?) and it’ll all be groovy, baby…yeah.

Well, I’m not here to pass judgment on a film I’ve never seen (Annie from 2014).

I’m just here to say, when you start fooling with perfection (like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory [1971]), then you’re probably in trouble.

Tim Burton got a pass (just barely) with his Charlie…

But I pity the Will Gluck,

ok…let’s discuss–

Why Remaking Annie Would Be A Wholly Unenviable Task.

Because John Huston started his directing career in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon (!)…

Key Largo…The African Queen…

Yeah, those were his.

You know, Huston is not high in my list of favorite directors.

[maybe because I’m a moron]

But this film, Annie, which he made five years before he died, is really remarkable.

But who the hell am I, right?

I’m just a no-name in San Antonio, Texas.

AH!

San Antone…

Never felt so good!

Yes, the villain of our film, Carol Burnett, hails from my hometown.

It’s not often we can say that.

Lucille LeSueur (sorry, erm…Joan Crawford).

Pola Negri later in life (Apolonia Chalupec).

Yeah, that’s about it.

And Wings.

That’s San Antonio.

[as far as cinema goes]

But I’m here to tell you, John Huston’s Annie is really special!

Even Jay-Z digs these tunes (apparently).

[couldn’t care less]

Which is to say, sampling?  Cool.

Covering?  An entire film???

Again, I pity the fool…

Because Annie is an ass-kicker.

Yeah.

You’re gonna abuse animals?

Watch out.

Annie’s got some punches–some moves!

[and that’s before her karate lesson with Roger Minami]

{not to be confused with Mini Me}

Yeah…The Asp!

And Punjab!

[who was also in Live and Let Die (1973)]

Yeah, nothing Punjabi about Geoffrey Holder.

But that’s alright 🙂

These were the Reagan years.

And Annie is a not-so-gentle nudge for Republicans to embrace their warmer sides.

[Albert Finney rolling his eyes at the George Washington painting is priceless!]

So yeah…Annie is basically a good kid.

The best!

An animal lover.

A big heart.

Courage.

An encourager.

[As Punjab says, “Buddha (?!?) says, ‘A child without courage is like a night without stars.'”]

Yeah, and Ann Reinking sees that joy in Annie.

I mean, this film has it all!

Bolsheviks!  Rockettes!  Greta Garbo!

Yes, there’s a film within a film.

And I think Edgar Poe would approve…with his glass half-full of brandy (and the other half absinthe).

Judging by Garbo, the year is 1936.

Tough year to be out of work.

And a good year to have some juniper berry syrup.

And a bathtub.

Yeah, Albert Finney knew the art of the deal.

Hardball.

[not the tripe on MSNBC]

The concept.

Aileen Quinn is really fantastic in this film.

Following Daddy Warbucks around.

Like on a Monopoly board.

Hands behind the back.

And Daddy’s gotta sell some fighter-bombers…and BUY, BUY copper!

Albert Finney is driving the economy.

Pushing the leading indicators.

And Annie is honest.

And a little honesty goes a long way.

And in sets fakery.

Looking for some dupes.

Yeah, you can only fool a Warbucks so long.

Nose upturned.

From Liverpool, mind you!

Bootstraps!  Horatio Alger crap!!!

And it ain’t crap.

Positive thinking.

Tomorrow.

I guess you gotta be willing to give it up.

The ultimate test of faith.

Where is your heart?

In steps FDR.

Infamy.

Who can know?

Why we fight?

So it’s up to us orphans to run down 5th Avenue.

If we have something to say.

Jailbreak!

These little G-Men (G-Women, in this case) are citizen journalists.

Town criers!

Extra!  Extra!  Read about the fakery!!!

Because time is of the essence.

And you gotta keep climbing even though you can see the steps run out.

God bless the parents of this world.

Those who want to give their kids a warm bed.

And sweet dreams.

Penny on the dollar for your fireworks!

You can even ride the elephant 🙂

-PD

The African Queen [1951)

For people who try to do the right thing, the world is a cruel place.  Ebola virus disease was named after the Ebola River in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Near the start of this film we see a hurried burial of the Methodist minister Samuel Sayer (played by Robert Morley).  That scene was filmed near the village of Biondo (DRC):  about 450 miles from the Ebola River.

In 1951 (and ostensibly 1914) it was the Germans who came to burn huts and round up the villagers of Rev. Sayer (most likely forcing the natives to become soldiers). In 1976 it was a strange virus which came to the region near the Ebola River to inflict terrible and mysterious suffering.

This tangent serves the purpose of relating our subject (an amazing piece of cinema) to the present times.  Our principal players (Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) gradually made their way about 300 miles northeast to Lake Albert (actually further…to the Ugandan side), but not before many real and fictional travails.

Reality and fiction…  The Ebola River is the headstream of the Mongala River.  Fact.  The Mongala River is a tributary of the Congo River.  Fact.  Scenes of the African Queen (the boat) going over the falls were filmed at Ubundu (formerly Ponthierville) on the Lualaba River in the DRC using a model with tiny Bogart and Hepburn figurines.  Fact.  The Lualaba River is the greatest headstream (by water volume) of the Congo River.  Fact.  Ebola virus disease is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Definitely maybe.

Everyone needs a little help from their friends.  Hollywood makes no pretense to being anything but a pretense–except when the projector is rolling.  The suspension of disbelief which is at the essence of fictional films requires audience participation.  Rarely have directors taken a different approach to the process, but one notable exception was Roberto Rossellini.  His version of Neorealism created a tributary in reverse (flooded by directors like Godard) which traced cinema’s roots back to the source:  truth.  Twenty-four times per second (historically) a frame was given its moment to shine.  The shift was imperceptible.  Through the phi phenomenon we perceive motion on the screen.

We see Charlie Allnut scratch his steamer beard.  We see Rosie Sayer transform from a teetotaling harmonium pumper into a war strategist for improvised explosives.  We laugh when Bogie monkeys around.  We swoon with the romance and gravity of it all.  We relate to Sisyphus as skipper–mired in mud and pulling his own ship with a rope.  After the Spar torpedoes eventually serve their purpose, we believe that our heroes swim to safety in Kenya.

But what we really learn is to not drink the water.  For director John Huston and Bogie it was whiskey all the way (while filming on location in Africa).  They were the only two not to succumb to dysentery.  Hepburn had to play the pump organ with a bucket nearby (in case she got sick).

Through immense struggle we learn not to drink the Kool-Aid.  I bet Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t have dismissed Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz without giving Emerging Viruses (1996) a fair shake.

-PD

Across the Pacific [1942)

Spies, spies; every where, Nor any secret to glean.  Je t’aime… moi non plus

“Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither.”  Ah, Dalí.  Only a man who enjoyed roasted grapefruits as an appetizer would have the twisted wit to turn Western logic upon its head.

Coleridge.  Gainsbourg.  Bogart.  Indeed, the albatross was heavy round the necks of all at this time…not least for John Huston.  We begin with détournement and continue with dérive.

Dear Mr. Huston didn’t even get the chance to complete this film before having his work taken over by Vincent Sherman.  This was truly an age of war.  Hot war.

The original film premise was to depict a Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor…until the Japanese actually did just that.  Oops!  And so it was rewritten to focus on the Panama Canal Zone.  A sabotage incident (which would have likewise sparked off American mass involvement) is the linchpin of our drama.

Sydney Greenstreet once again plays a slippery character (and what is more, referred to again as “the fat man”).  It wouldn’t be too long before Greenstreet’s soubriquet was transposed onto the plutonium bomb which destroyed Nagasaki.  This was no coincidence.

After arriving in Panama Bogart continues his work for Army intelligence by meeting with A.V. Smith (Charles Halton).  On Smith’s desk, conspicuously in plain view, is a calendar and the date:  Dec. 6, 1941.  Time is of the essence.

Bogart’s character is named Rick.  His pal Lee Tung Foo is called Sam.  Sound familiar?

Yes, just two months after Across the Pacific, Casablanca would be released with Bogart as another Rick and Dooley Wilson as Sam the piano player.  Greenstreet had been “the Fat Man” the previous year in The Maltese Falcon (also directed by Huston).  That film had likewise starred Mary Astor who appears in Across the Pacific as Alberta Marlow.  Bogart would go on to play Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ masterful version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).  It all gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it?  Let’s just call it the fog of noir, shall we?

To keep accounts straight…we should remember that Casablanca was directed not by Huston, but by Michael Curtiz.

Reentering the atmosphere of film criticism proper…this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but not the juggernaut that some Bogart outings came to be.  It is perhaps most of interest as the precipice which our star occupied just before Casablanca.  Though it is less known than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (among many other Bogie films), it is well-worth watching.

 

-PD

Key Largo [1948)

By 1948, John Huston had honed his craft.  This may not be as highly-esteemed a movie as The Maltese Falcon, but it has several dimensions more depth.  The whole thing is a situation (meant in the philosophical sense). It reminds me most of Hitchcock’s minor masterpiece Lifeboat.  There is also a bit of Rope in this film which never leaves the Hotel Largo once all the major players are inside (save for the end which, like Lifeboat, takes us into the wine-dark sea).

There is something of Frank Capra in the touching scene where Bogie relates the death of the hotel patron’s son in the recently-ended war (a bit like Meet John Doe in the whole tone of it).  Perhaps, however, a more accurate comparison is to the heart-wrenching tenor of Anatole Litvak’s Out of the Fog.  It is interesting how Huston sets up Bogart’s character to be a hero, but surprises await.

Edward G. Robinson’s emergence from the bathtub is such an iconic film moment…smoking that cigar, a glass of brandy (perhaps) on the tub’s edge…a man worried about nothing…slipping into his silk bathrobe.  Robinson is fantastic as the cruel Johnny Rocco…most of all because Robinson’s depiction has such depth.  This is, after all, a man who we will shortly see is afraid of storms (to his credit, it is a proper hurricane).

This whole film is (for most of the movie) a very strange role for Bogart.  It is as if he were being thrust back into the days when he had to play second fiddle to actors like Robinson.  The beautiful Lauren Bacall loses faith in Bogart’s character as he not only seems to cower, but also contradicts the idealism of her father-in-law (the father of her dead husband…a genuine war hero).

It is no wonder Claire Trevor won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her work in this film.  When her alcoholic character is baited into singing a song from her long-gone heyday we are again gifted a one-of-a-kind film moment:  a pathetic has-been warbling out of pitch and just wanting a couple fingers of scotch.  It is, strangely enough, this point at which Bogart regains his cajones and pours the drink which Robinson would withhold on account of her shabby performance.  Bacall regains her faith and apologizes to Bogie.

I don’t want to spoil the ending.  [Now ain’t I nice?]  This is a must-see film and it only further adds to the Bogart legend which has been built upon his performances in more well-known films.  Sail on Bogie!

 

-PD

 

 

 

 

The Maltese Falcon [1941)

Bogart is our “three day stubble” hero–our five-o’clock shadow warrior.  “Tough without a gun,” said Raymond Chandler.  Indeed, Bogart as Sam Spade herein disarms a couple of gun-wielding punks through his ingenuity alone.  Quick movements.  Think fast.

In a tough profession one must roll with the punches.  Bogie’s partner is murdered?  Life must go on.  Extra space on the signage?  Put my full name:  Samuel Spade.

Yes, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is indispensable.  John Huston turns in an astounding film for a first-time director.  But the whole enterprise is carried by Humphrey.

There is a reason why Huston was slighted by the French New Wave and Bogart was not.  Huston was not at all a bad director.  It was just that the discrepancy became clear when the brilliant Bogart was placed at the disposal of Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray.  One needs only watch another juggernaut debut (Breathless by Godard) to see the esteem which Bogie accrued with the French film culture which would give intellectual validity to American films previously considered mere pulp entertainment.

 

-PD

Casino Royale [1967)

Strange that the first James Bond novel didn’t come to the big screen until several 007 films had already been made–and that it came in the form of a slapstick comedy.  This is certainly no Eon production.  In fact, it takes the piss (as the British would say) from the opening credits.  Indeed, this is a very loose adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, but it is a thoroughly entertaining film.

Any film with Peter Sellers is worth checking out, and this flick does not disappoint (with Sellers as the nervous baccarat master Evelyn Tremble).  Ursula Andress, herself the first Bond girl (Dr. No), plays Vesper Lynd:  the woman so rich that she buys the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square and has it moved to her own residence.  This is just one of the many ridiculous details which make this a polarizing tapestry.

Joanna Pettet is quite good as the love child of Sir James Bond (David Niven) and Mata Hari.  Mata Bond (as she is known) takes up the spy trade of her progenitors in the film and, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, is quite a good dancer indeed.

But it is not just the details which make this film thoroughly puzzling.  The film credits list John Huston as director, but that is only part of the story.  Nicolas Roeg was a cinematographer on the film.  In fact, even auteur/actors such as Orson Welles and Woody Allen participate in their thespian capacities.  Surely, there was plenty of talent involved in the making of this mess-of-a-film.  But what a pleasant mess it is.

The film begins in a pissoir (reminiscent of Henry Miller’s oeuvre) and never looks back regarding the “tradition of quality” it leaves behind.  The plot (liberties taken with Fleming’s plot) is absolutely Joycean and akin to The Big Sleep.  If one is not painfully attuned, the entire first quarter of the movie makes no sense whatsoever.  Sir James Bond’s house is blown up by MI6, but somehow the head of the service (M) is killed in the explosion which he himself ordered.

Indeed, the entire episode in Scotland (near the top of the film) is confusing at best.  M’s widow has been replaced by a SMERSH (Russian conjunction meaning roughly “death to spies”) agent named Mimi…who, of course, falls for Sir James Bond (himself reluctantly returning from retirement after his house is blown up by his former employers) and thus fails to do her duty for mother Russia.  This apocryphal film in the Bond saga fails to take the same liberty as Eon Productions in that the name SMERSH (Soviet counterintelligence) is retained in the stead of SPECTRE (an Eon creation which neatly changed the “enemy” focus from being the U.S.S.R. to simply organized crime…on a grand scale).

David Niven’s portrayal of 007 bears no likeness to Connery…especially in that “Sir” James Bond is a man of utmost morals.  This couldn’t be further from the womanizing Connery-Bond we see in From Russia With Love and other Eon production classics.

Mention should be made of Barbara Bouchet’s portrayal as Miss Moneypenny.  Her overtime work (beyond the call of duty) to find a spy capable of controlling his libido is really rather hilarious and she plays this part quite well.  In a nod to Spartacus, Sir James (now the new head of MI6) orders all British agents to henceforth go by the name James Bond.  Terrence Cooper is chosen by Moneypenny (or, perhaps, vice versa) as the most capable candidate as regards warding off the temptation of “feminine charms.”

Orson Welles plays Soviet agent (a gambler trying to save his neck) Le Chiffre.  Having such an auteur on set couldn’t have but helped the knowing “direction” of this movie.  Mata Bond’s foray to East Berlin in fact is a foray back into the Expressionist cinema of Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).  The set designing in this particular section is quite remarkable and, if we are to go by the credits alone, we might credit John Huston with this deft reference.

The spoof hits higher and higher levels of satire as when Evelyn Tremble (himself also now known as James Bond…quite laughable) encounters Miss Goodthighs (a singular name, what?).  But the real pinnacle in this absurd film is Welles’ (Le Chiffre’s) torturing of Sellers (Tremble).  I have seen nothing quite like it in cinema except for the psychedelic boat ride in the original Willy Wonka movie with Gene Wilder.  Certainly, the year was 1967…but still:  this could have been an outtake from Roger Corman’s The Trip!

It becomes so that one senses the ghost of Buster Keaton in this ever more Dadaist confection.  A flying saucer lands in London.  Sir Bond’s nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) is revealed to simultaneously be Dr. Noah (a hilariously Hebrew reference to the original Bond villain Dr. No).  Jimmy Bond’s plan for world domination (he has defected from MI6 over to SMERSH) bears a striking resemblance to the film The Tiger Makes Out.  Strange times…

The coup de grâce is when not only the American cavalry arrive at the casino (straight out of a John Ford film for all we know), but when amidst the equestrian chaos Jean-Paul Belmondo finally appears to say merde a few times (after each time he punches someone).  By this time all sense of taste has been trampled underfoot, but it was so fun getting there.  Indeed, Mata Bond at one point takes a taxi from London to Berlin!

So what, if any, relic is left of John Huston’s direction in this anti-masterpiece (besides the hairpiece which succeeds M…a role likewise acted by Huston at the film’s start)?  And should this vestige be given Christian burial?  In Fleming’s original novel, MI6 has no “Christian name” on file for Le Chiffre.  He is a total mystery:  Mediterranean with perhaps a dash of Prussian or Polish.  But that’s it.  He is a cipher–a number.

Vladek Sheybal (who had played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love) appears in a minor role during the East Berlin portion of the film.  In fact, we last see him (having sauntered into West Berlin) firing shots at the fleeing Mata Bond (right under the nose of an American soldier).  What is the meaning of this, one might ask?

With turns like that of John Wells (as Q’s assistant), this might very well be considered the true predecessor of the Airplane movies.  In fact, there were FIVE different directors employed in the making of this film (not including Richard Talmadge, who co-directed the final chaotic episode).  It is believed that not only Allen and Sellers contributed to the script, but also Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern and even Billy Wilder.  Again (in my best British tone):  just what is the meaning of this?

It appears that John Huston only directed the beginning of the film.  Ken Hughes, in fact, pulled off the Calagari-referencing East Berlin scene.  Three other directors shot various scenes among them to bring the total to five.  Ben Hecht was initially the principal screenwriter, but his “straight” adaption eventually became so bastardized as to bear no resemblance to its original self (nor the Fleming novel).  Hecht, of course, died in 1964…well before Casino Royale made it to the big screen.

Rewrites were handled (it appears) principally by Billy Wilder.  The Spartacus idea, though, (all the James Bonds running amok) would be preserved from Hecht’s adaption.  It is interesting to note that Peter Sellers (in his well-reported competitive dealings with actor Orson Welles…as well as Woody Allen) had Terry Southern write his dialogue.  Sellers and Welles were famously at odds (no pun intended) during the shooting of this film–Welles being unimpressed with Sellers, and Sellers feeling insulted and perhaps insecure by the presence of Welles.

Whatever can be conjectured, one thing is certain:  this was the most expensive Bond film made at the time it came out.  It indeed runs like an extremely indulgent film-school joke.  Fortunately, it’s a good joke.  Welles’ magic tricks as Le Chiffre (at the baccarat table, no less) were real life annoyances to Peter Sellers (all of which–the tricks and the irritation–made it into the film).  The film really is a bloody mess (in plain Cockney).  It is interesting to see this burgeoning side of Welles (the magic) which would play such a large role in his last major film F for Fake (1973).  Indeed, there is only one film in the entire cinematic canon which outshines F for Fake and that is Histoire(s) du cinéma by Godard.

Part of the nonsensical nature of this film can be explained by the fact that Sellers was either fired or quit before filming was completed.  This posed an enormous problem for director (1 of 5) Val Guest who was tasked with patching all of this incredibly expensive footage together into a quasi-cohesive whole.  Indeed, one is rightly confused by the James Bond Training School being in the bottom level of Harrods because the scene which was to set this up was never shot.  Many other such aberrations make the narrative at times completely inexplicable and unnavigable.

“Ooch,” as Belmondo translates from his phrase book:  merde.  I can very well see why many would consider this film just that:  complete shit.  But it is not.  It’s not because David Prowse (the physical Darth Vader in Star Wars) appears in his first film role (as Frankenstein giving Niven directions by dumbly walking into a steel double-door).  Perhaps it is because the film has at least a hint of legitimacy from John Huston, Orson Welles, etc.?  All of these intellectualizations aside, it is simply an entertaining template for Austin Powers which dates all the way back to the time Mike Myers would have to recreate three decades later.

Eon would have to wait until 2006 to get its shot at Fleming’s novel Casino Royale.  And there just really is no beating a film in which “The Look of Love” (as sung by Dusty Springfield) plays such a highlighted part.  So we wish Daniel Craig and Adele well on these recent ventures, but Casino Royale of 1967 will always be in our senseless hearts.

 

-PD