Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Limits of the Word

I re-read Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man last week for the first time in ages. I have one of those old omnibus editions that has Hammett's five novels on really thin paper. It had been a while. The Thin Man has always struck me as Hammett's least accomplished novel--certainly not in the same ballpark, to say the least of the same league or sport--as, say, Red Harvest. But it's entertaining. It's Hammett's most conventional mystery. Omit the hard-boiled banter between Nick and Nora Charles, and you have a fairly standard drawing room mystery. I doubt very seriously that this book would be well-remembered if the movies hadn't gotten involved. I also took a look at the 1934 movie version, and, in a rare case of transmogrification, the movie adaptation is superior in just about every respect. This doesn't happen very often.

The main problem with the novel is that Nick Charles, our nominal detective, doesn't actually DO anything. He and Nora just talk a lot. They talk to suspects, they talk to cops, they talk to doormen and taxi-drivers. Charles, who claims to be retired, doesn't actually do any actual detecting. The movie changes this. It also takes advantage of Asta, the dog, in a way that never occurs to Hammett. I'll come back to this in a second.

The advantage of the movie is that it has a pair of actors for Nick and Nora that forever steal the characters from the reader's imagination. I challenge ANYONE who has seen one of the Thin Man movies to read the book without casting William Powell and Myrna Loy in the roles. Although there are many and varied reasons that Hammett stopped writing after The Thin Man, I can't help wonder if having his characters--two characters ostensibly based on himself and his longtime partner, Lillian Hellman--completely stolen from him by the movies wasn't a contributing factor. I know that John Le Carre` stopped writing about spymaster George Smiley after Alec Guinness played the role for this very reason.

Film, of course, is a director's medium, and all good directors literalized the dictum of "show don't tell" far more adroitly than the written word. I'm not going to call W. S. Van Dyke a great director, but he knew where to put the camera. The scene that convinced me that Hammett was talking too damned much while the film struck a balance of word and image comes near the end. In the movie, Nick decides to go for a look-see in the murdered man's basement, where Asta starts clawing at a bit of floor. Sure enough, there's a body buried under the floor which proves key to the case. The poking around in the dark provides the film with a small element of danger, too. The book doesn't even bother with it. In the book, Nick suggests to the police that they check the workshop and all of it happens off stage.

The movie is as witty as the book. In some cases, it's wittier, because it has to work around the newly enforced production code while making its double entendres hit home. "Ain't you heard of the Sullivan Act," a cop asks Nick and Nora in their bedroom. "That's alright," Nora says, "We're married." The book does have a bit more freedom to be salacious, but the absence isn't even felt in the movie.

I suppose I should mention, as all literature about The Thin Man movies must, that Nick Charles ISN'T the title character. But just as Frankenstein's monster appropriated his creator's name, William Powell became "The Thin Man," and the character became forever his.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Church and State

So, as a stark example of how movies change as people age, I offer up Becket (1964, directed by Peter Glenville). When I first saw the film as a teen, I enjoyed it a lot. You had powerhouse performances from two legitimately great actors. You had "very serious themes." You had historical pageantry. You even had a bit of naughtiness in the early part of the film, the part that details Thomas Becket's life before becoming a saint. This is to say nothing of the homoerotic overtones, which the young, queer me immediately glommed onto. I originally watched this film with my mother, who loved this kind of history porn, so I have fond memories of it that have nothing to do with the film's actual qualities.

This was NOT the same film I saw last week, though. What I saw last week was a tendentious bore. I realized what the problem was when we got to the excommunication scene. At that point, I realized that neither side of the film's political dilemma had any kind of moral authority. The movie sides with The Church, though it gives The State its due. The hero of the film is clearly Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Cantebury and a martyr for the Holy Catholic Church. The film is adulatory of Becket's transformation from a womanizing rake into a pious champion of Christianity. Frankly, as he becomes more pious, he becomes less interesting. But that's not my issue. The fulcrum of Becket's clash with King Henry II is that Henry won't turn over a priest that has allegedly committed a crime for The Church's justice. In siding with The Church, the film is saying that there should be two standards of justice, one for The Church, and one for everyone else. Even if I wasn't an atheist, this idea would be anathema to me for many many reasons. We've seen how the Catholic Church cleans its own house in the years since the film was made, after all. So basically, Thomas Becket, and the film for that matter, are arguing in favor of the benefit of clergy. In this regard, it is completely regressive.

The alternative is an authoritarian State, though. Henry II has about the same moral authority as Thomas Becket. Vested with the divine right of kings, he rules absolutely. The early parts of the film demonstrate this in vivid detail. While Henry isn't Caligula, say, he plays in the same ballpark. For the most part, Henry doesn't even care about the idea of equal justice under the law. He plays politics for advantage. He wants to expand his own powers. For what? Vanity? It's certainly not an altruistic drive. I would suggest that the authority of Henry's state is also completely illegitimate. So the film offers a choice between two overweening powers, neither of which is vested with a justified authority. On the whole, it's a very confused, very vile tangle.

Still, palace intrigue is fun to watch, and so is Peter O'Toole as Henry, though I would argue that his Henry II is a LOT more interesting in The Lion in Winter than he is here. There's a certain amount of twitchiness to his performance that invests it with some life, and he was still gorgeous when the film was made. Burton, on the other hand, starts reserved and then withdraw into a fog of piety. It's not one of his better performances.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Farewell, John Hughes

So John Hughes died last week after removing himself from the movie world for over a decade. I can't say that I blame him. I'm of an age where I should be rhapsodizing about Hughes's movies as formative experiences. I came of age in the 1980s, after all. Frankly, though, I don't like his movies. Never have, really. I kinda liked Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but if pressed to name a favorite, it would be Nate and Hayes, which Hughes wrote, but didn't direct. It's got Tommy Lee Jones as a pirate. 'Nuff said. The rest? They tended to be about snotty rich kids. I didn't have any sympathy.

But I do recognize the cultural impact of Hughes's movies. At the risk of being taken to task for recycling old material ("leftovers agaiinnnn?"), I offer this in tribute: My very favorite movie poster of the 1980s, which uses one of Hughes's productions as a point of reference.

Which bears an uncanny resmblance to this poster:

RIP, Mr. Hughes.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Shooting Star and Dry Summers

The longer I stare into the abyss of cinema, the more convinced I am that it is bottomless. It's intimidating, sometimes. No matter how much I think I know, I don't know anything. This week offers up two examples.

First, there's Frank Borzage's Lucky Star, a silent film from 1929 (for which sound footage was made, but which hasn't survived). This is a movie about which I knew absolutely nothing. I knew only that it starred Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, making the film a kind of third panel of a triptych. I "knew" that Farrell was the weaker half of the team. The previous two films, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel belonged to Gaynor, and it was obviously her talent that invested those two films with life. Well, that notion goes by the wayside. Lucky Star is Farrell's film.

On its surface, Lucky Star is a pretty simple film. It would be easy to mistake it for simplistic. It is certainly unashamed of the raw sentimentality that underlines (but does not overwhelm) the narrative. It's a melodrama, and in fine melodramatic fashion, it comes by its emotional effects. The story follows Mary, a farm girl hardened by poverty and an overbearing mother, and Tim, an electrical lineman who is swept off to The Great War and who comes back a cripple. Also in the mix is Tim's no good supervisor, who follows him to France as a sergeant, and whose shirking of duty is in part responsible for Tim's misfortune.

The character arc in Lucky Star is considerably different from the ones found in the other two Borzage/Gaynor/Farrell pictures. Gaynor is not an innocent waif buffeted by misfortune in this film, but is pretty hard-boiled. Farrell lacks the swagger that carried him through the other pictures. We also have a different archetypal landscape. This film is pointedly set in America rather than Europe, and that entails a certain corn-pone atmosphere, though one that's overlayered with the director's poetics. Borzage also brings a preference for unsubtle metaphors to the film, too. When Farrell scrubs Gaynor clean of the filth in which he finds her, He's scrubbing away corruption, too. And the ending of the film is pure fantasy, but an appealing one. It's not an unearned fantasy. I wouldn't have thought that I would find a film that I prefer to Seventh Heaven at this late date, but here is a film that is irresistable. As pure light and shadow, it's a film of great beauty.

Also a huge surprise is Dry Summer (1964, directed by Metin Erksan), which I discovered over on The Auteurs. This is a film I had never heard of--not surprising since I know zilch about Turkish cinema. I should have heard about it, though, because, like Lucky Star, it's a masterpiece. It reminds me of the moment when Italian Neo-realism cracked wide open into operatic melodramas. It's in that vein. It's worthy of Visconti. It certainly has the political subtexts.

The story here concerns two brothers who own the land where a spring provides water to the neighboring village. One brother wants to dam it and keep the water for their crops. The other is more magnanimous. The younger brother is courting the beautiful Bahar, who the older brother also covets. This is a combustible mix, which explodes in murder, mob violence, and fratricide.

This is a film of often startling cinematic invention. For example: in one scene, Bahar has been told that her husband has been killed in prison and the camera looks to have mounted in a barrel and rolled along to give a version of her perception. In another, the younger brother, Hasan, chases Bahar into some brush, and the camera becomes unhitched and moves of its own accord in a kind of delirium.

The film is dominated by actor Erol Tas, whose central figure is as depraved a character as they come. His rise and fall has something of Shakespeare about it, and the film is ultimately a tragedy. His brother is played Ulvi Dogan, who has leading man good looks, while Bahar is played by Hülya Koçyigit. The film is considerably more sexually charged than I would have thought for a film coming from a Muslim country (though Turkey has always prided itself on its secularism). Two scenes in particular: Hasan and Bahar's wedding night, in which we see Hasan kissing up her legs; and a scene where Osman sucks a snakebite. It's a film of unrestrained passions.

As a final note, this film has real violence towards animals in it. I'm not inclined to fault the filmmakers--I have no idea what their cultural viewpoint is on this point--but it does make the film difficult to watch at times.

I wonder what other cinematic treasures lie undiscovered in the film vaults of the world.

You can see this film online for free until the end of August, when presumably it will revert to modest fee. Hopefully, Criterion or some other DVD label will pick it up. It's worth checking out.