Monday, November 20, 2006

The Films of Archie Leach: Movies for the week of 11/13-11/19/06

Without quite intending to, I started collecting Cary Grant movies this month. I ordered the Columbia and Warner Boxes and backordered the new Universal one. This goes with the films I already have on hand, and lo and behold, Grant has become the most prominent star in my collection's firmament...

The Columbia box is the better package, though the packaging isn't as good (I hate those damned foldy things (I'm looking at you Looney Tunes)). The Warner box has the better extrees, if you're into that sort of thing. The Universal box looks to be a complete bust for quality, given Universal's holdings, but they are films I haven't seen, so there you go.

First up from my new fiefdom: another look at Bringing Up Baby (1938, directed by Howard Hawks). About halfway through the film, it dawned on me that Cary Grant was doing Harold Lloyd. Sure enough, a check of the IMDB trivia page for the film shows that Grant did, indeed, model his character on Lloyd. The last time I saw the film, I wasn't sufficiently familiar with Lloyd to make the connection. The amazing thing isn't that Grant does a good Lloyd--he doesn't, really--so much that the Lloyd "glasses" persona overlays the Cary Grant persona, and is subsumed by it, so effortlessly. No one else but Grant could be Grant, but the Grant persona itself is surprisingly chameleonic. Grant, it seems, could be anybody. Oddly enough, I can now picture the Lloyd/Grant persona resurfacing in my memory of some of Grant's other movies (notably, Hawks's Monkey Business). The rest of the movie is nonsense, of course, but it's nonsense in the same way that Lewis Carroll is nonsense, and just as pleasurable if you're into that. This kinda sorta prefigures the film noir plot construction Hawks would later borrow from Raymond Chandler, the one commonly called "One Damned Thing After Another." I'm not a fan of Kate Hepburn in this movie--I think she's abrasive here--but she looks somehow "right" next to Grant, moreso than most of his other leading ladies. I think it's the angularity of her features and the rough edges of the version of femininity she constructs in contrast with the smooth polish of Grant's masculinity. Howard Hawks liked to undercut that masculinity, by the way. Here, he puts Grant into a maribou-trimmed dressing gown. A decade later, he would put him into full drag in I Was a Male War Bride. Neither gag works particularly well, though it's more successful in Bringing Up Baby.

Destination Tokyo (1943, directed by Delmer Daves) is a case in point when it comes to the chameleonic nature of the Cary Grant persona. There is a wide gulf between Grant's submarine commander in this film and the Lloyd/Grant comedian of Bringing Up Baby, but not only are they recognizable as aspects of the same persona, they fade completely into the imperatives of their disparate scenarios with startling ease. This kind of movie--the submarine on a mission movie--is hard to screw up, and this one hits all the notes in spite of the propaganda that underlines the film. The propaganda aspect contributes to the film's most glaring flaw: the lack of dark shadows in the characters of our sailors. They're all a loveable bunch of ordinary joes, with nary a personality defect among them. Even the atheist in the crew sees the light at the end of the movie in a scene that can't help but remind me of the end of Frances, with Jessica Lange's Frances Farmer repenting her atheism after a trans-orbital lobotomy. That said, Alan Hale IS particularly likable as the sub's cook, and John Garfield is fine as the lovable, streetwise womanizer cut-off from his natural habitat. The shots of Grant in an open shirt, all sweaty, is enough to set hearts aflutter. The man was simply gorgeous, and even in a state of dishabille, he's unflappable, the modern man perfected.

Hideo Gosha's Goyokin (1969) is the living end of the samurai movie. Filmed in a harsh, de-saturated winter landscape, Gosha's opinions of Japan's samurai (film) tradition is memorably encapsulated in the murder of crows picking over the remains of a village put to the sword by a samurai clan clinging to their power. Placed in historical context--the film is set at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate--the crow motif takes on an even broader meaning. The landscape mirrors the crows. This is not a pleasing pageant of color and action; it's a harsh, brutal deconstruction. Its portrait of samurai as state-sanctioned mass murderers points the way to Japan's entree into the modern world. It's a disturbing implication, though not entirely unprecedented in Gosha's films. It's a logical extension of the disillusion one finds in Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast. Tatsuya Nakadai is superb in the lead as a disillusioned samurai who walks away from the bushido only to be sucked back in. Unusual for a samurai movie of this vintage, the performances by the two female leads, Yoko Tsukasa and Ruriko Asaoka, are richly nuanced.