October 17, 2011 by jamesessj
Been quite a while since I’ve posted film reviews, and as I’ve recently started re-viewing films, I thought this an opportune…opportunity. As before, these are simply the first titles to have caught my wandering eye at the library.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) — Sad to say I waited until I was…however old I am…before watching this, the seminal noir, the seminal John Huston, the seminal Bogart. Of course its reputation preceded it and couldn’t help but color my impressions…but what interested, and startled, me most about the film was, until its last ten minutes or so, its breezy tone. Bogart as Sam Spade has such a nonchalant way about him, such a playful, devil-may-care bonhomie that it’s hard to believe he ever felt anything sincere for the femme fatale, Bridgid O’Shaughnessy (played by Mary Astor). The ending, in which Spade gives Ms. O’Shaughnessy the severest of dressing-downs and then hands her over to the police, thereby rings unfortunately false. There’s a moment, during the long climactic scene in Spade’s apartment, when all the principals have gathered and are waiting for the Falcon to be delivered, when Spade sits down and Brigid’s hand automatically reaches for his — he takes it and clasps it in what seems an authentically intimate gesture. But it’s entirely out of place in this film — or, at least, entirely out of character for the Sam Spade we’ve seen so far, who’s been as skilled a manipulator of events as the Fat Man or, for that matter, Brigid herself. The Sam Spade we’re presented with is a man with certain scruples, yes, but also a man who’s not above, for instance, cheating with his partner’s wife…or throwing her over (in the wake of her husband’s murder, no less) as soon as a pretty (and younger) girl enters the picture. Spade is clearly no Rick Blaine. Yet the movie, at the end, wants us to feel that he is…that he has been all along. That Brigid’s betrayal has devastated him. But hasn’t he known about her betrayal for quite some time? The film never makes it clear when Spade figures out that it was Brigid who killed Miles Archer, but it had to have been before that climactic scene…before that intimate clasp of hands. So the film plays a trick on the viewer — for surely, if Spade knew what was coming, he’d not have allowed such intimacies. Unless, that is, he was playing Brigid along…but then how does one explain his (apparently) genuine distress in the film’s final few minutes? We can either have a Sam Spade who knew Brigid was a murderer and steered her toward her own undoing, or we can have a Sam Spade who didn’t know she killed his partner and who truly loved her. But we can’t have both. I’m picking apart the logic of the conclusion, which to some extent diminishes the film for me, but there’s no denying that Huston directed masterfully — that famous scene of Sydney Greenstreet from floor-level is breathtaking — and that Bogart used the film to solidify the persona that would last him right up through In A Lonely Place nine years later. The performances are all top-notch, with Greenstreet standing out as the Fat Man and Peter Lorre skulking (and fake-fellating) his way through another slippery role. My one other criticism of the film, along the same lines as the ending, would be not in Greenstreet’s performance, but in the character of the Fat Man — on the commentary track of the DVD I watched, Eric Lax called him “an Everest of menace,” but again, as presented, the Fat Man is something of a bumbler and a stumbler…I mean, the very fact that he’s been pursuing the Falcon for seventeen years tells us something about his ineptitude; and the fact that he hires (if that’s the word for it) a “gunsel” like Wilmer (played by Elisha Cook, Jr., or “Icepick,” to those of my generation) and associates with a foppish creep like Joel Cairo (Lorre) tells us even more. The Fat Man isn’t so much an Everest of menace as a molehill of incompetence…exemplified by the scene in which he lamely, and desperately, scratches at the Falcon, discovering it’s a fake. And then his fey, almost girlish, wave goodbye as he exits Spade’s apartment…this is not menace. This is a guy having a great time with his obsession, not-so-secretly happy that he’ll need to devote yet more time to his endless search. Which, to repeat, is fine, if that’s who the Fat Man is. But the film wants it both ways. Mountain of menace; misguided teddy bear. We can have — the Fat Man can be — one or the other. But not both.
Tokyo Sonata (2008) — Not being an expert (or even a layman) on Japanese culture, there’s probably much of this film that I misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just plain missed…particularly in the distinct sense of shame that must redound to a Japanese man who loses his job and takes up a position as a mall janitor to pay the bills. My one moment of extreme confusion came when Ryūhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is discovered at the mall, in his red janitor’s jumpsuit, by his wife Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi) — she knows he’s lost his job, he knows she knows he’s lost his job…and yet he runs off in excoriated embarrassment. He doesn’t stop running until he’s hit by a van and left for dead by the hit-and-run driver. Is working as a janitor in a mall that much more shaming than what his wife already knows about him, i.e., he lost his job and lied about it for (presumably) months? Maybe it’s a Japanese thing. At any rate, the film overall is quite bleak, redeemed only at the end by a note of grace that, regrettably, is out of step with the rest of the story. The Sasakis’ younger child, Kenji, has turned out to be a musical prodigy, whose piano performance of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” at an audition for a music school is flawless and heartbreaking. The trouble with this is twofold. One, Kenji took up the piano solely — solely — because, while walking home from school one day, he spied a lovely young music teacher at her lessons. In order to spend more time with her, he repurposed his lunch money into payment for piano lessons. Then, miraculously, Kenji turns out to be…a musical prodigy. The chances of a kid who steals his lunch money to buy piano lessons just so he can make time with the piano teacher turning out to be a musical prodigy are, approximately, infinity to one against. But we can perhaps forgive this as what I call “movie logic” — you either go with it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re not going to go along with anything else about the movie, either. But Kenji’s being a prodigy is also deeply at odds with the rest of the film — the Sasakis are a seriously average family, a father who’s a middle manager, a housewife whose greatest ambition is to own (and drive) a convertible, a ne’er-do-well older son who eventually joins the military to escape his life…these are the sorts of people that surround us, that make up the vast bulk of humanity, that we ourselves may even be, though we’d hate to admit it. Then along comes Kenji and he is…a musical genius? I think the film would have done much better to give us a Kenji who’s skilled, who has some aptitude, but is by no means a once-in-a-lifetime talent — his final performance could have been flawed, imperfect, but heartfelt and true. This Kenji would have persevered, despite his father’s disapproval, despite his own musical limitations, to put on a performance that, while inexact, would have been far more believable. And far more in keeping with the film’s theme — one that’s close to my own heart: How do you let the past go? How do you begin again? I’m criticizing, as with Falcon, the very heart of the film, but there is, as with Falcon, much here to appreciate. The director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, has an eye that at times reminded me of the great Ozu, with its stillness, and the even greater original Kurosawa, with its precise framing of shots. The acting is superb, particularly Koizumi as the wife. She has but one instant where the barriers break down; the rest of the film she’s controlled, quiet, almost in the background. Tokyo Sonata is not, but could easily have been, a masterpiece. (One other piece of business that confused me: twice in the film the father is asked what his skills are, how he can help the company first for which he works, later at which he’s interviewing, and in both cases he seems bizarrely unwilling — as opposed to unable — to answer the question. Is this not a question that gets asked in interviews in Japan? If so, why is he asked it twice? If not, why is he so flummoxed by it? Is it not a fairly basic question to ask and answer? In the later scene he winds up singing karaoke — the interviewer humiliating him horribly — rather than respond to this simple query. Maybe it’s another Japanese thing.)
Rope (1948) — Hitchcock’s attempt to film a play, and present it in real-time. Every word ever written about Rope declaims upon its defects, many of which are inherent in the strategy Hitchcock chose, from the awkwardness of the zoom-in-to-a-person’s-back-then-zoom-out-again as cover for the reel changes to the static, stagebound feel of the thing; so I’ll instead consider Rope‘s good points. First, the acting: John Dall is excellent as the sociopathic Brandon, as is Joan Chandler as Janet, the corpse’s fiancée, as is Cedric Hardwicke, in a seriously understated performance, as Mr. Kentley, the corpse’s father. Jimmy Stewart is serviceable, but not great, as Rupert Cadell; I blame this wholly on the script, which demands the character undergo an unconvincing transformation from a charmingly semi-Nietzschean professor to a mentor outraged that two of his students should have taken his words so literally. Second, the set design: the work that must have gone into this film, I can only imagine. Moving walls, chairs, tables out of the way so the camera can move fluidly from one room to another, then sliding those walls, chairs, tables back into place as the camera glides back into its original position…and the set itself is something of a marvel, with that enormous window looking out on a patently false cityscape — clouds on wires in the sky, little puffs of chimney smoke — and an oddly convincing ability to project, variously, a sense of claustrophobia or agoraphobia, depending on the scene. Third, the plot: brilliantly conceived, but poorly executed. The notion of translating Leopold & Loeb into Shaw & Morgan is clever and worthwhile, and there are some fantastic bits that result — dinner on the chest in which the body is hidden, the rope used by Brandon to tie together Mr. Kentley’s books, and, most especially, the scene in which Rupert tries on a hat and finds that it’s too small…brilliantly staged by Hitchcock, and brilliantly simple, and believable, as the device whereby Brandon and Phillip are ultimately undone. It’s a shame these crunchy bits weren’t in service of a more cohesive whole, but I doubt a truly cohesive whole could have been made, in 1948. Or gotten past the censors, at any rate. Rupert would have had to have admired his proteges, rather than decrying them; he would have had to involved himself in the crime somehow. That film could readily be made, in 2011. (In fact it probably has, and I just haven’t seen it yet.) Rope is not among Hitchcock’s best work, but it’s an intriguing “stunt,” as he called it, and doesn’t entirely deserve its low reputation.