Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Trifecta: Sergio Leone, Raymond Chandler, Audrey Hepburn (Part 2)

"What are you doing back here?"
"I'm a homing pigeon. I come back to this stinking coop, no matter how late it is."

"Murder, My Sweet"

It's usually unsaid, but the specter of Humphrey Bogart looms large over our public perceptions of Philip Marlowe, private investigator, hard-bitten cynic, hopeless romantic. Thanks to Howard Hawks' "Big Sleep" and Bogart's persona, we have a monolithic vision of Raymond Chandler's detective hero: calm and cocky in any situation, tough enough to disarm the bad guys with a quip and a nasty left hook, amorous enough to trade sexual double entendres or Proust references with Lauren Bacall, adroit enough to dodge a femme fatale's double-cross with a witty rejoinder. "Is he cuter than you?" a would-be seductress purrs at Bogart. His response, delivered deader than deadpan: "Nobody is." Indeed.

But we would do well to remind ourselves -- as this low-key gem from director Edward Dmytryk does -- that Chandler's Marlowe is far from the confident, strutting dream of a private eye that Bogart essayed. In truth, Chandler's Marlowe was a bit of a sad sack, existing from one low-paying job to the next, getting threatened, shaken down by the cops, and beat up on a regular basis. Yet through some cockeyed devotion to truth, justice, and an honest day's living, he would insist on continuing to "hit between end and tackle." Reading Chandler's Marlowe novels today, it's remarkable to see the contrast between Marlowe's dogged search for the truth and the futility of the enterprise -- often the perpetrators are caught, but crime is never prevented, and Marlowe is left a few bucks richer, and a whole lot more pessimistic about the human condition.

Only three films have captured that essential spirit of Marlowe's world. Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" grafts the Marlowe character onto Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes, and in a cruel twist makes him complicit in the crime he is determined to solve. Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" also perpetrates violence on Marlowe by placing him smack dab in the middle of vacuous 1970 LA, where any notion of justice or truth is laughed at in a sunny, drugged-out haze. "Murder, My Sweet" takes a softer approach, fully playing into the genre conventions that dominated crime dramas of the 40s, but not shying away from the essential darkness and unresolvability that embody Chandler.

Based loosely on Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely" (the title was changed for American audiences, presumably to gain the hard-boiled edge common to films of that era, but when one considers that the "lovely" woman of the title is anything but, the film also loses some ironic bite in the title change), the plot is standard labyrinthine Chandler: conniving young wives, snarling cops who may or may not be on the take, comspiracies involving stolen jewelry and drug pushers and blackmail. Trundling through the center of it all is Marlowe, sniffing in all the wrong places, a pain in the neck to everyone, including himself. With memories of Bogart fresh in our heads, Dick Powell's interpretation of Marlowe can be a bit startling. He snaps the requisite one-liners with flair, but there is a softness about him, a faint aura of ridiculousness, that neatly dovetails with Chandler's Marlowe. The guy is no pushover, but he's no superman. Whether getting suckered into a job for a few extra bucks, getting shot up with enough drugs to fly a kite (the "smoke like a web woven by a thousand spiders" sequence where Marlowe fights against his own narcotic haze is a gripping, surreal highlight), playing Mr. Uncooperative with the local coppers, tsk-tsking and arching his eyebrows at the venality of evildoers, or even nearly getting blinded by a close-range gunshot, Powell's Marlowe exists on the small scale, a portrait of the average smart guy thrown into un-average situations, undeniably human.

Likewise, the supporting actors are not so much archetypes as they are twists on standard genre types. Instead of incorporating Marlowe's love interest from the novel, Anne Riordon, the filmmakers have opted to have Marlowe fall for Anne Grayle (played perky and anxious by Anne Shirley), the stepdaughter of the murderous Helen Grayle. With her unusual looks (Marlowe even comments on her crooked nose at one point) and reluctant smiles, Shirley makes for a change from the typical milquetoast "good girl." Claire Trevor dominates her screen time as wicked stepmother Helen, her alarming fleshiness and indolent sexuality putting a fresh spin on the usual slinky femme fatale, although like Shirley, her character tends to be shortchanged in the proceedings. Faring better are the other minor characters: Mike Mazurski is fittingly hulking and befuddled as the tragically lovelorn Moose Malloy, and Otto Kruger plays the unctuous Jules Anthor, drug pusher to millionaires, with maximum disdain.

Dmytryk seems either incapable or unwilling to build up to the same rollicking pace that Hawks employed for the "The Big Sleep." Here, the story moves in fits and starts, heading down seeming dead ends, jumping back and connecting plot points, loping along with the same unhurried yet unstoppable rhythm of its protagonist. Along with the aforementioned drug haze sequence, there are expressionistic shadows, ominous overhead shots, jarring close-ups, and even point-of-view depictions of unconsciousness ("A black pool opened up before me. I dived right in"). True to Chandler, the film embraces a fatalistic world view in which bad things happen, even in spite of our hero's machinations. Witness the conclusion, in which Marlowe thinks he has everything wrapped up in a tight little package, only to watch it unravel into two murders within seconds of each other. As a sop to the happy ending crowd, we get a touching, comedic denouement with Marlowe and Ann Grayle literally thrown into each others' arms for a closing clinch, but what lingers is the acrid smell of gunsmoke, that comforting but deadly black pool. It doesn't qualify as "fun" in the same sense that the confident "Big Sleep" does, but "Murder, My Sweet" is a potent reminder of the darkness at the heart of Chandler, a sucker punch with a sweet, sad face.

[Next installment: "How to Steal a Million."]

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Trifecta: Sergio Leone, Raymond Chandler, Audrey Hepburn (Part 1)

My President's Day weekend was dominated by two events: the San Francisco Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt and the usual bout of movie watching. The former is an indispensible experience if you're a Bay Area resident (check out the site for more details), although this year's version was particularly tough, given the elements (rain and a raucous Chinese New Year parade downtown). I also did my four teammates Jack, Sean, Carrie and Erik no favors by signing us up for the Regular level hunt (we usually opt for Beginner's level). Still, given the weather and our battle with the parade crowds down Stockton and Powell streets, I thought we did rather well. I'm still waiting to see the final answers on the hunt website, but if we did our jobs, I think we got 12 or 13 out of 18. Maybe one day when we're old, gray, eccentric San Franciscans we'll get them all correct.

But today I come here not to bury the hunt, but to praise three flawed but fascinating "classics" I watched over the weekend. One I've seen in the past ("For a Few Dollars More"), one I saw the first half of previously ("Murder My Sweet"), and one I had seen in bits and pieces at various times ("How to Steal a Million"). All of them are idosyncratic, unique creations.

"Is the question indiscreet?"
"No, your question isn't indiscreet ... but the answer could be."
-- Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef

"For a Few Dollars More," the second film in Sergio Leone's justly-celebrated "dollars" trilogy, is the very definition of a "transitional" film. Throughout, you get the sense that Leone is chafing against the very paradigms he minted in his first "dollars" film, "A Fistful of Dollars." The setup is remarkably similar -- once again, Clint Eastwood rides into town, the gunman without a past, the grizzled anti-hero, pretending loyalty to a vicious gang led by a psychopath played by Gian Maria Volonte, exposed as a traitor and sadistically beaten, reemerging and blowing away the baddies in a suitably theatrical final showdown, riding off into the sunset a much richer man. And as in the previous film, Leone masterfully mixes tension, gallows humor, and exquisitely framed face-offs.

Yet this film is not the neat, compact parable that "Fistful" is -- not surprising, given that the first film's scenario was based on Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (which was based on Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest"), and the last thing you can say about Kurosawa is that he is unwieldy. This time out, longeurs and digressions abound. The opening three-minute shot follows a lone horseman who is ambushed by a long-range sniper -- significantly, we are never told who the sniper or victim are. For the first time, Leone is stretching out within the cinematic form; in subsequent films he expands on this strategy, culminating in the epic 17-minute opening of "Once Upon a Time in the West." Later, a long, withering monologue by a crazed old man about the coming of the railroads and the end of the Old West appears out of nowhere, but prefigures the Civil War railways of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," and the metaphor of railway-as-civilization that gives "Once Upon a Time" the most powerful thematic kick of any of Leone's westerns.

Even more intriguing is how Leone knocks down some of the ultra-tough male conventions he set up in the first film. In "Fistful," Eastwood's nameless protagonist was a force of nature, playing rival families off each other like pawns, remaining above the action even when embroiled in it, seemingly invincible. In "For a Few Dollars More," not only does he have a name (Manco, the only time he is named in the entire trilogy), but far from being all-powerful, he looks downright foolish at times as he fails to match wits with Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee van Cleef), the experienced Civil War vet who eventually aids him. Yet Mortimer himself cannot be considered the equivalent of the Eastwood character from the first movie, for beneath his collected exterior lurk regret and hidden reasons for vengeance, another trope that will find full expression in Charles Bronson's character in "Once Upon a Time." In a role that is a far cry from the Bad in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," Van Cleef grabs the spotlight, his narrowed gaze suggesting irreconcilable sadness even as his Van Gogh nose and lean body paint a striking picture of coolness under fire. Eastwood, of course, is too charismatic an actor to fade into the background, and as expected, he walks away with the film's best one liners. I won't soon forget his concluding assassination, and punch line: "No problem, old man ... just thought I had a problem with my adding."

But both Eastwood and Van Cleef play second fiddle to Volonte, whose villainous Indio also breaks the mold. In "Fistful," Volonte was a contained yet flamboyant psychopath, unrivalled in cruelty; here, he has a field day playing a full range of emotions, from self-mockery to calculation to anguish to regret for a woman whose murder he was responsible for. And like Eastwood and Van Cleef, he is also eminently fallible: he spends half the film skulking around in prison rags (he begins the movie incarcerated and disgraced), and later is even taken hostage by one of his own henchman. He is also possessor of the film's most striking element, a musical pocket watch that he plays during his showdowns. Ever the showman, Leone uses the watch no less than three times in the film, and the great Ennio Morricone seamlessly merges the chimes with his score, even as he creates unique sound signatures for his major players (the familiar sliding whistle for Eastwood, a mouth harp for Van Cleef). Yet even with this iconography being bandied about, when we get to the final duel between Indio and Mortimer, you feel the vulnerability of the participants, and even the humanity behind their blood lust.

"For a Few Dollars More" may conceptually be the weakest of Leone's "Dollars" trilogy -- the central bank robbery plot is well executed, but lacking in true ingenuity, and the deliberate echoes of the earlier film come off as a lack of fresh ideas rather than homage -- but it is a keystone to understanding his later films, and in its characters' understated vulnerability, it stands apart from the iconic figures that populate his other westerns. The answer to Colonel Mortimer's past may be indiscreet, but the shadings of its characters are anything but.

Coming in the next installment: "Murder, My Sweet."

Monday, February 14, 2005

On "Alias"

For the past month, as is sometimes my wont, I have been catching up on a TV show. This in itself is not unusual -- in the Pre-Tivo Era, I was a committed X-Files watcher, even when the show was scheduled for the dreaded Friday night slot (yes, I was a grad student; no, I had no life). Back then there was something cracked yet profound about scheduling your life around events like a regularly broadcasted series. And thus I made it through the first season of X-Files, and then I was out of the country, living in China and Taiwan for four years, and during that time, my only access to X-Files myth was through reruns on the Star TV network (good blokes those Star TV programmers were -- if it weren't for them, I wouldn't have renewed my love for the original Star Trek series, or seen Sean Connery in a rare baddie role in Woman of Straw, or caught Super Bowl XXX).

By the time I returned to the U.S., my X-Files fervor had waned (what was up with the Bermuda Triangle episode?), and all was quiet and sane for four years. Then came the DVD revolution, and the Twin Peaks first-season DVD box set (despite all the hubbub about Sherilyn Fenn and the cherry stem, the scene that haunts my memory is when she awaits Kyle MacLachlan in his hotel bed, comely as a seductress, tremulous as a girl). And from there it was over to 24 -- loved the first 13 episodes, the rest was "meh" sprinkled with "yeah" -- and then over to Cracker -- hard and depressing as a whiskey shot, and similarly best handled in small doses -- then to The Shield -- like a solid steak and potato dinner, every time -- then to MI:5 -- squeaky-clean fun, until it became po-faced not-so-fun ... you get the picture.

And so now the merry-go-round has spun to rest on Alias, which benefits from the DVD treatment. During its initial first-season run, due to scheduling difficulties among other things, it wasn't uncommon to go three weeks between episodes, which would have been unbearable given the cliffhangers that bookend each show. Given the luxury of knocking the season down in one shot, I could immerse myself in the show's mythology, its snarky wit, its mind-boggling soap opera turns, its pop conglomeration goodness.

Oh, it's derivative all right, and J.J. Abrams, the series' creator and overseer, knows it. One week we get a nod to Silence of the Lambs -- psychopath in a prison cell staredown -- and the next we may get a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark -- watch out for that airplane propeller! Overlaying it all is a mod-spy template that sometimes fizzles over into parody, but most of the time remains in check to a very earnest -- and American -- preoccupation with family, trust, doing the right thing.

I'll refrain here from a plot synopsis and analysis -- Charles Taylor's excellent Salon article contains all you need to know. Suffice to say, like the best James Bond movies, Alias perfectly
straddles the line between ridiculous and ruthless. Sure we get a chuckle out of Agent Sydney Bristow's myriad wigs and costume changes -- Jennifer Garner's major asset is her willingness to be in on her own joke, with that athletic body and angular face frozen in place no matter how you dress her up. And the plot isn't so much convoluted as it is twisted all out of proportion; a character dies and his absence isn't noticed for another dozen episodes, or a villainous organization that has withstood over a season and a half of double agents and security leaks suddenly goes down at the drop of a Nielsen rater's hat -- and did we mention the 15th century inventor who prophesized the future?

But whenever you think this nonsense is going to float off into the stratosphere, something shocking, something unexpected, something downright real happens. I'm currently reeling from Season 2, Episode 13, the famous "series reset" episode, in which all your expections of the show are shattered, and a regular recurring cast member is killed, an assassin who is her genetic double taking her place. Oh sure, a genetic double, that's real, can I have what you're smoking? But what sticks with us is the murdered woman slumped against the kitchen wall, a perfect round bullet hole in her forehead, blood smearing the tiles behind her. And not just a woman, but Sydney Bristow's best friend, the only one unaware of her spy identity, the only member of the cast capable of leading a normal life. Extinguished, just like that. It is in moments like these that we realize that nothing is safe, nothing is sacred, and tragedy befalls deserving and undeserving alike. Real.

In the end, Alias belongs to the real human beings. All the actors do yeoman work -- Garner proves she is as game an actress as she is a fashion object, Michael Vartan brings a guarded decency to his role as her CIA love interest, Bradley Cooper handles the thankless job of "thwarted love interest, regular guy friend" with aplomb, Carl Lumbly radiates integrity and depth as Garner's partner in spy crime, and Kevin Wiseman steals every scene he's in as Marshall, the gadgetmaster with a Star Wars fetish -- imagine "Q" for the Dungeons and Dragons set.

But towering over them all are Victor Garber as Sydney's father Jack Bristow, and Ron Rifkin as her villainous employer Sloane. With his pinched forehead, brusque fatherly instincts, laser stare, and rat-a-tat speech rhythms, Jack Bristow could have degenerated into parody, but Garber is a master of subtlety, and his scenes with Garner, as father and daughter grow closer even as the phantoms of their past threaten to tear them apart, have ache and bite. No weepy moments of confession from Garber, but no blank-faced ice man either -- every purse of his lips or narrowing of his eyes speaks volumes, revealing much without giving away the whole game. With all the huffing and puffing of the outrageous plots, it is Garber's visage, more than anything else, that is the true thrill of Alias. Spies ourselves, we read his every move, searching for the moment of full disclosure, of revealed truth, and we enjoy the suspense.

Likewise, Rifkin brings a Shakespearean dimension to his part, even when the script inflates him to super-baddie status. Immacculately dressed, burning with the hurt of past slights that are never quite revealed, small and shrunken yet focused like a spider, Sloane makes for a worthy adversary. And not without sympathy, as he would sooner dismantle the organization he has spent a lifetime serving than let them assassinate his lymphoma-stricken wife. Of course, this frees him up to do even greater mischief, but such are the aims of evil genius. Just as we love a stylish bad guy, we admire Sloane for his twisty strategems, how he seems to be unknown to all but himself, and it is this mystery that is the mirror to Jack Bristow's enigma. We may strain to read Garber's face, but we regard Rifkin's countenance with alarmed suspicion -- one moment he is congratulating an underling with paternal pride, and the next he is ordering his execution. And somehow, both expressions seem genuine. With Jack Bristow, we glimpse the feeling behind the facade; with Sloane, we peel back layers only to find more layers.

As with all long-running dramas, the rigors of scheduling, tight budgets, and inevitable cast and creative team attrition take their toll. Shows with mythologies tend to wear down in the long run -- too many spinning wheels, too many misdirections and hinted-at conspiracies, in the end just too much damn weight. Despite the wondrous character work and tonal shifts mentioned above, it's too much to hope that Alias will actually resolve into something that can satisfy the threads that have been spun over the past three seasons. With shows we love, shows that have the meat and bone we crave, we imagine proper conclusions and developments, collections of wistful "what ifs" and "if only"s. What if the third season of Alias never existed? (I have not yet seen it, but based on general reactions, I fear the worst). What if Chris Carter grew balls and X-Files ended with the movie? What if Voyager never happened at all?

But for now, in the midst of my viewing odyssey, immersed in the second season, I can enjoy the thrill of possibility, of complications and conflagrations and avenues to explore. After I see the rest, there may be an aftertaste of ashes, but for now, it is glorious, something to be fussed over and contemplated, and now it is preserved.

Friday, February 04, 2005

And so it begins ...

"It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics."
-- James Agee, The Nation

I don't know where we're going, this may never venture beyond something that is done for my own amusement, but here it is, my blog. Commentary on films and books, thoughts on life in San Francisco, and other occasional oddities. Enjoy, whoever you are, whoever you will be.