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The Crooked Circle (1932)
Meddler, You Die At Midnight!
An early, inexpensive programmer involving death threats against the leader of a club that devotes itself to solving crimes. That's all it does. It solves crimes. The death threats come from a hooded gang of ritualists who commit evil acts. That's all they do. Commit evil acts.
I imagine that in 1932 this was an entertaining hour spent at the local Biograph but more than eighty years later it seems pointless. It's presented as a comic mystery -- secret identities, hidden passages, a haunted mansion on Long Island -- but the mystery isn't really gripping and the comedy seems stale.
James Gleason, playing James Gleason, is a police officer who sees something suspicious and blows his police whistle. Another officer runs up and asks if there's something going on. "Naw -- I was just tunin' up the cement," replies Gleason with incandescent sarcasm.
Really, if you miss it, you won't be missing much.
Water, Water, Everywhere.
Concise description of the life course of the cruiser USS Indianpolis in World War II.
In the spring of 1945, shortly before the war ended, she was damaged by a kamikaze in the Pacific, repaired in San Francisco, and given the mission of transporting the prime elements of the first atomic bomb to the Pacific island of Tinian by way of Hawaii. After her refurbishment, the Indianapolis was a good clean ship. Her average speed between San Francisco and Pearl Harbor was an incredible 30 knots.
After unloading the secret cargo at Tinian, she was ordered to fleet exercises in the Phillipines. She never got there. She was torpedoes by a Japanese submarine in the middle of the Phillipine Sea and sank in ten minutes.
Of her 1200 men, about half was able to abandon ship, mostly without any supplies. Some men were injured or burned. Some had no life preservers. They were strung out over ten miles of ocean. By one of many strokes of ill fortune, the Naval command in the Phillipines was not aware of her non-arrival and the Indianapolis was more or less forgotten about for three or four days.
Half of the survivors died waiting for rescue, some from wounds, some from dehydration, and many from shark bites. Finally, on a routine submarine patrol, the several knots of survivors were finally spotted by an American airplane and rescue ships were sent at top speed. There had been about 1200 men aboard. There were about 300 survivors.
It was a horrifying incident. A character describes it in the feature film, "Jaws." But rescue wasn't the end of the ordeal. The Navy, and the military in general, has a way of finding a target after a loss like this. The target doesn't necessarily have to be guilty but it has to be punished. Captain McVeigh, a responsible commander, well liked by his men, was court marshaled and found guilty of needlessly hazarding his ship.
The Navy took the unprecedented step of flying in the captain of the attacking Japanese submarine to testify against him. The submarine skipper's testimony more or less exonerated McVeigh, but the verdict was sustained. McVeigh remained in the Navy but was never given command of a ship again. After the war he received all sorts of hate mail from families and friends of those who had died, and he committed suicide in 1968 on the front steps of his Connecticut home.
Sometimes, as Rabbi Harold Kushner, among many others, has pointed out, bad things happen to good people. One of the reasons is our need to punish someone openly and resolve ourselves of blame. But sometimes there's little blame to go around because the tragedy is the result of a juxtaposition of unfortunate circumstances. When you sit down behind the wheel of a car and find the seat is too far back, it isn't your fault, and neither is it the car's fault. It's what's called a dysfunction in sociology. A series of such dysfunctions resulted in the loss of the Indianapolis and most of its crew.
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Miss Austen, Hollywood.
A viewer-friendly black-and-white rendition of Jane Austen's best-known novel, it's given the Hollywood treatment. It's all California sunshine and studio settings. Neither muck nor mire here. Even the poverty is colorful. The ladies wear gorgeous gowns as befits the period (ca. 1810). The fluffy and beribboned skirts are the shape of umbrellas and the hats resemble radar scanners decorated with flowers.
But, chipper as things may look at the beginning, all is not entirely well. Mrs. Bennet's daughters are all girlishly pretty, some more so than others. It's a little hard to accept Greer Garson as a young girl. Not that she looks old but that her strong features have always lent her a womanly air.
Mrs. Bennet herself, plump Mary Boland, is a gossipy and artless woman whose energy has long ago exhausted her husband, Edmund Gwenn, whom she addresses as "Mr. Bennet." She's thirsty for her daughters' marriage. Among her main targets is the newly arrived Mr. Bingley, who has more horses and servants than any other male in the immediate vicinity, and the snooty but aristocratic Mr. Darcy, Lawrence Olivier. Oh, how Mrs. Bennet would love to see her daughters married to rich men. Sounds like "greed" to modern viewers but two things need to be kept in mind. In 1810, the only way for women to keep out of the gutter was through her family, especially her husband. To have professional ambitions themselves was unseemly. Austen kept her writing private.
And the second thing to be kept in mind is evolutionary psychology. A woman is born with all the eggs she's ever going to have, a bit more than three hundred, and each ovulation is a dangerous experiment. If she hooks up with the wrong guy -- unfaithful, broke, uncaring -- then she must carry through the pregnancy and nurturing period by herself, and these are periods when she's at her weakest. It made sense, both culturally and biologically, in 1810, for a woman to look for a strong and wealthy mate. Additional pressure in this case is added by the fact that the Bennet family loses its wealth by law when Edmund Gwenn dies. Not much of a future in being a "penniless old maid."
There are lots of twists and turns in the narrative before things more or less straighten out. It's directed by Robert Z. Leonard in a light-hearted manner. Every performance is frolicsome, a little over the top, the gestures and body language too extravagant, as in a stage play. It doesn't detract from the story and, in fact, some of the more hammy parts of the more amusing for their excess.
A Case of Rape (1974)
Assumption of Innocence Prevails.
Forcible rape is such a traumatic violation of personal space that it's hard to imagine what feelings it brings in its wake. Men who find it even more difficult to imagine need to watch the movie "Deliverance." In her husband's absence, Montgomery is raped by an innocent-looking young man she meets at night school. Afterward, she scrubs herself and disposes of the clothing, and she's too embarrassed to tell anyone about it, not even her friend and neighbor (Patricia Smith) or her own husband (Ronny Cox). She tries to call the police but the officer at the other end of the line is busy and distracted, calling out to someone, "Make it with cream cheese!" Cox returns from his trip happy with the results and is too animated for her to talk to.
Then the innocent-looking young man assaults her again in an underground parking lot. This time he punches her and leaves her bruised, more or less forced now to report these incidents to the police.
It has to be said that the movie dates poorly and that the moral lesson is cheapened by the way it's structured. When I say "dated", I mean that the message was pertinent in 1974 when the movie was shown. We're more sophisticated about these things now. People take rape seriously and don't get it mixed up with rough but consensual intercourse. The person at the other end of 911 is going to tak you seriously. When we were in Newark, New Jersey, my son tried to call his mother in North Carolina. The area code is 901, but he dialed 911 by mistake and hung up at once when he realized the error. Five minutes later, two police officers knocked on the door with the snaps on their holsters unfastened. The responders are more considerate, the victims are more knowledgeable, and the community more understanding. It isn't 1974 anymore, and thank God for that.
When I say the story is structured in a way that cheapens the theme, I mean, for instance, that except for Elizabeth Montgomery and her children, everyone else is semi-moronic. After she reports the second rape, she's forced to undergo the complete rape kit, have photos of her bruises taken, and those who are doing the exam are brusque beyond belief. Montgomery sits huddled in the waiting room on a bench filled with pimps, cross-dressers, junkies, and other devalued people. Then some orderly with a clipboard enters the room and begins shouting, "We got a RAPE here? Who's the RAPE case. You have to sit in the wheelchair because RAPES aren't allowed to walk." And of course everyone is staring at the RAPE case. Certain medical venues aside, I have trouble swallowing a scene like that, even for 1974.
When she's in the stirrups, Montgomery asks about a uniformed police officer, "Does he have to be here?" "I'm afraid so," replies the doc, while permitting the officer to stand in a location that allows him to see her in her obstetric aspect. Pointless humiliation piled upon pointless humiliation. That's ridiculous.
It doesn't improve when she's interviewed by two detectives. They seem barely interested and treat her with disdain and sometimes sarcasm. They challenge her on simple points. Is she sure it was the same man both times? "Getting hit with a rape charge is a terrible thing to do to a man." The prosecutor explains that her sex life will be on trial in open court, while the perp's previous arrests for rape can't be mentioned. Does she really want to put herself through it? As the weak husband, Cox is no help at all. He can't give her any advice. Moreover he can't get the rape behind him and is impotent. It gets worse. He begins to doubt her story. The trial is unable to avoid some of the usual clichés. Montgomery leaps to her feet on the witness stand and screams, "Lies! All LIES!" The script is unsparing.
None of these criticisms of the film mitigates the horror associated with rape.
Quick! The Ostwald Viscometer Is Melting!
Richard Egan is a civilian scientist and security expert called in to investigate queer goings on at a military experimental station in the desert. The CO of the station is Herbert Marshall. The requisite scientific assistant is Constance Dowling.
It's all very confusing at first. Two scientists freeze and unfreeze a monkey then are themselves frozen by a mysterious force that locks them in the chamber and manipulates the controls. The monkey had been already removed, so not to worry. He's okay.
The first thing that comes to mind while watching this inexpensive SF flick, aside from "What the hell is going on?", is that the design of the station is very precisely laid out for us, so much so that it makes us wonder if Michael Crighton might have ripped it off for "The Andromeda Strain." There are two multi-armed robots (pronounced "ROW-butts") that grind around the room and do dated tricks like twisting knobs while the observers stand around and gawk at them. Their names are Gog and Magog, nebulous figures from the Old Testament. Each is more animated than one or two of the supporting cast.
About half the movie is exposition that isn't blended too well into the narrative. "This is the monitoring chamber, where the molecules are broken down. Over here, for instance, isotopes." I suppose with all the borrowed electronic junk around -- the clicks, beeps, and blinking lights -- it might as well be shown on screen, though it may have nothing to do with the story.
Man, do things go wrong. One device after another goes berserk. Death follows death. And long past the point at which the whole establishment should have been shut down and fumigated, Herbert Marshall is saying things like, "We'd better tighten security," and, "We'll work in pairs from now on." The villains of the piece are Gog and Magog, who are being ordered to do naughty things by a rocket ship overhead.
I've always found Richard Egan to be a likable actor but not a magnetic one. Herbert Marshall does well enough by the role of leader, especially considering the booze he was pounding at the time. And nobody could deny that Constance Dowling is attractive in an idiosyncratic way and that, in her tight jump suit, she cuts a splendid figure for a scientist.
I missed much of this so these observations have to be qualified.
I'd avoided it for some years because I figured, well, another ill-conceived movie about a celebrity that nobody cares about anymore. Draw in the aging baby boomers who still remember George Reeves playing Superman on television, and the always gossip hungry who want the dish on what really happened -- surely not the suicide everyone said.
It's better than that, by quite a bit.
In fact, if you forget about George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and Superman and just substitute some improvised name, you can view it as a decent example of what's come to be called neo-noir. It's in color and the story reflect modern sensibilities -- Diane Lane, as one of Affleck's amours, uses a word rarely heard even in movies pustular with the F bomb -- but at bottom we have the intrepid but very human private investigator (Adrian Brody) trying to figure out what caused the death of George Reeves. Yes, everyone in Hollywood is convinced he killed himself, but how did the shell casing get UNDER the body? Just as important is the script's peek into the corrupt and materialistic culture of Hollywood. These Suits are really sinister, especially Bob Hoskins with those gravelly faux-New-York intonations. And you can't trust anybody, as Jack Nicholson found out in "Chinatown." Your own client, the victim's MOTHER, will sell you out for a statue in front of the Chinese Theater.
Adrian Brody, as the PI, does an exceptional job. No one on the planet has features like his -- those slitted eyes, that monumental incandescent nose, that knowing smile. They beat hell out of him but he keeps on trucking.
He gets competent support from the rest of the cast.
Somebody ought to send a bouquet to whoever was in charge of period details, the clothing, the make up, the artifacts, the hair styles. It's at least as well done as it is in any other film set in the same period, the early fifties.
The director is Allen Coulter and he's been meticulous in his staging. He even handles the extras adroitly, or rather the "atmosphere people," as they like to be called.
Next time it's on television I expect to watch it in its entirety.
The Battlefield As A Test Of Excellence.
Miami in the 80s. This better-than-average television movie first introduces us to the half dozen members of the FBI team that will figure prominently in the shoot out. They are all happy and adjusted. Their modern houses are as neat and clean as an operating theater. One of them, Bruce Greenwood, sings a happy song while getting dressed at six in the morning after a run on the beach. His comely wife smooches him but there's no time because he must be off to work, snapping a round into the chamber and holstering his Glock. They're all that way -- kidding one another about their weight, playing grabass. They go to church bake sales. I haven't been that happy at six in the morning since I discovered puberty. Maybe it's time to join the FBI.
Gradually we meet the bad guys, who may give the most credible performances in the film. They have sloppy back yards, lie to their wives, and play dirty pool when they conduct business. Michael Gross is the more relaxed of the two -- his expression a cross between a smile and a leer. David Soul is less stable. Gee, the guy has a terrible temper, kicking around some defective goods he's just bought, throwing bottles against the wall. The most memorable feature of this duo is that they are absolutely fearless and ruthless. Apparently they ride around armed and wearing camos LOOKING for armored cars or anything else to rob. When balked, Soul deliberately kills an innocent bystander. "Well, we didn't get anything," remarks Gross. "I did," says Soul.
They're hypocrites too. Gross gives a phony spiel in church about having buried his daughter so he can hustle young ladies. He tells his pregnant girl friend, "You disgust me," then kicks her out. The victim, Becky Ann Baker, has a small role but she delivers. The surprising element of the script is that it shows us David Soul in an apparently happy marriage, teaching his son some basketball moves with obvious proprietary affection. It must have been tempting to edit the brief scene out -- draw a clear dividing line between good and evil -- but it would have cheapened the movie.
The miscreant duo become more bold and reckless until a confrontation in a residential area. The battle is persuasively presented and it winds up rather like a slaughterhouse with two agents and both armed robbers dead.
Of the two adversaries, the robbers are the more interesting. Law enforcement was doing it's job but for Gross and Soul it had turned into a witting way of life. Neither had ever been charged with a crime before and there was no evidence that they'd ever been violent. Yet here they are, carrying deadly automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, two men courageously shooting it out with a dozen FBI agents on a quiet palm-lined street. Both men struggled on despite multiple bullet holes. Mortally wounded, Soul drags himself from car to car, shooting the agents who have already been downed.
What he and Gross did would have earned them decorations had they done it on a battlefield in service of their country. Instead they chose to display their bravery and their willingness to fight to the last breath somewhere in Dade County, Florida. We treasure values like that but only when they are subject to the control of the state. No individual entrepreneurs.
It's exceptional for a TV movie, in the script, in the direction, and in the performances.
Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)
Burt Lancaster, a former officer, and three buddies break out of jail and commandeer a missile complex, threatening to use the weapons unless their demands are met.
I'd hate to count the number of time that Richard Widmark has played the frustrated and perplexed Air Force general in charge -- I'll just mention "The Swarm" in passing -- because all of the roles were fungible. He always paces around, hands behind his back, wearing a blue uniform festooned with ribbons and medal, snarling about the SNAFU. They could have spliced clips of one role into any of the other stories. He was frustrated and perplexed as an officer in "Panic In The Streets" too, but at least there he was in the Public Health Service and only a captain.
Of course, the authorities are alerted and assault teams sent on their way. Meanwhile Lancaster and his buddies have a couple of captives. That means a delicate balanced must be observed because we don't want a star like Lancaster to be too much of a heavy. Yet, the team needs the combination to the safe or some other MacGuffin. Lancaster is a humanitarian but his men have no scruples. One of them murders a few airmen and Lancaster has to put him down. And then Burt Young, completely miscast and unable to act, pokes out the eye of one captive with a screwdriver in order to get the combination. The half-blind captive is Richard Jaekel who has been in every war movie made since the beginning of time.
And I hate to say this because I've admired the work of the director, Richard Aldrich, elsewhere, but here he yields to the obsession afflicting so many directors of the period and uses split screens, sometimes not just double but triple. It's very distracting. Look up Liddel's work on the induction of experimental neuroses in sheep. I hold Andy Warhol and "Chelsea Girls" responsible.
There's another prominent irritation. In these kinds of movies, whenever anyone speaks into a microphone or telephone they lapse into a telegraphic style of speech, the pattern than linguists call a "register." The police register is most familiar to us. "The subject abandoned the vehicle and was seen entering the residence." But, I swear, I was a radioman for years in the US Coast Guard and nobody talks that way unless they're sending a formal message by voice. Operational exchanges sound exactly like those you and I make when we call up to complain about our TV service. Nobody eliminates pronouns. And the sight of someone speaking into a telephone and saying things like, "Execute Plan B. Do not -- repeat, do not -- enter the fortress", only prompts an urge to itch a scratch that can't be reached.
The script is unoriginal in other respects. The president, Charles Durning, informed of the situation, shouts into the telephone, "Do YOU mean to tell ME that some loony GENERAL has got his finger on the BUTTON?" Does that ring true? The object of Lancaster's treasonous move was to get the president and the other suits in Washington to tell the American people "the truth." Granted, that's often hard to define but not in this context. Lancaster wants the president to admit that the American enterprise in Vietnam was a fraud from beginning to end.
There's a lot of argument among the president's advisers but it's all pointless because by the release of this film, 1977, everybody who cared to know the truth already knew it. Thousands of lives and now you can buy Vietnamese companies on the stock market. They sent a plane full of relief supplies to the victims of Katrina in 2011. The expenditure of lives and money came to nothing.
Like the Vietnam war, the movie doesn't turn out well for anyone.
The Nun's Story (1959)
Belgium, 1930. Audrey Hepburn, daughter of a famous surgeon (Jagger), joins a convent, undergoes a rigorous training in humiliation, becomes a star pupil at the school for tropical medicine, is sent to what was then called the Belgian Congo where she becomes an indispensable surgical assistant, has an emotional but strictly Platonic brush with the demanding and non-believing doctor (Finch), is sent back to Belgium against her wishes, and resigns from the order.
Several scenes seemed especially instructive. First, the whole business of going through boot camp at the nunnery was an excellent example of initiation rituals as they're found around the world. I won't go into details but being given a new name is a common feature of these rites of passage. Gabrielle van der Mal becomes Sister Luke. In our society we have confirmation names, Hebrew names, and nicknames given during service in the Marine Corps.
Second, Hepburn is doing first rate work at the school for tropical medicine. She's intelligent, a nurse, and the daughter of a surgeon. But she's breaking some of the rules as well. She doesn't show enough HUMILIATION, so her superior asks her to fail the final exam as evidence that she's rid herself of the sin of false pride. Let's put it this way -- she's supposed to deprive the community of a skilled nurse with a specialty in tropical medicine to prove her subordination to the church.
As capitalism developed, is it any wonder that Reformed Churches arose? The sociologist Max Weber made a convincing argument that it was the overthrow of Catholicism, with its vows of poverty and its denunciation of usury, that made capitalism possible. Not that one cause the other, but that they were concordant in their values. If Catholicism taught that being poor was a virtue, Protestantism taught that industry, thrift, and community work was in the service of God.
That's a short and incomplete description of my point but please don't argue with me about it. I know what I'm talking about. I've been poor all my life.
This is an exceptional movie in many ways. Audrey Hepburn is quite good as Sister Luke. She was always beautiful in a fey way, never sexy, and it fits the role perfectly because you hardly see anything except her facial features, and they're very expressive. She does a fine job.
Peter Finch is good too but it's a common role -- the roguish male who challenges the suppressed female to come out of her shell. Viz., Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in "Suspicion." Franz Waxman's score is carefully done. In a scene in which an almost unrecognizably young Coleen Dewhurst, as a madwoman, attacks Hepburn, the score is anything but bombastic, only plucked strings. Elsewhere the score is modest and appropriate to the occasion. We hear "ora pro nobis" which, when I was a kid at mass, I always heard as "O, Ropra, No Bis," because, not having had Latin, I couldn't identify junctures.
Something has to be said about the cast too. What a lot of winners, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft who went from the wife of the suspicious farmer in "The 39 Steps" to the elderly Mrs. Moore in David Lean's "A Passage to India." And the art direction and set dressing. Nothing was every so clean as the nunnery through which Hepburn passes. Every surface is polished, immaculate, so to speak. Every piece of cloth is spotless and freshly pressed. The barracks in MY boot camp were never so clean.
Aside from its rather obvious display of the cultish aspects of belonging to an order, it's a fine film, very tastefully directed by Fred Zinnemann -- so tasteful in fact that it's almost impossible to imagine its being made in today's Hollywood.
The Dark Ages (2007)
It Was A Dark And Stormy Millennium.
The Roman Empire imploded around 470, overrun by bands of barbarians from the north. With the dissolution of Roman law, there WAS no law except that which could be imposed by local warlords. The continent of Europe was fractured -- no Germany, no France, no England, no nothing. The sole unifying force during this period was Christianity. Christians were no longer thrown to the lions. Instead the religion had spread rapidly after its adoption by the Roman emperor Constantine in the midst of a battle. So it became a kind of good-luck ideology among the regional despots. If it was good for Constantine, it might be good for me. And besides, ordinary people were now scratching the earth to make a living. It was a miserable existence, and here was a religion that promised a peaceful afterlife. How nice.
Christianity failed to bring about peace, though. Instead it became a motivating force behind battles, which were now turned into "Holy Wars." If I can say it here, new religions often appear just in time to support the prevailing geopolitical and economic sentiments. The sociologist Max Weber has convincingly shown how the Protestant Ethic provided the ideological foundations for capitalism.
But while the Latinate West fell apart, the Greek East maintained its identity as part of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Justinian led an army to fill the power vacuum in Western Europe. He pretty much did it too. He ruled most of Italy, northern Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East, and turned the Mediterranean back into a "mare nostrum." He was also brutal and thoroughly corrupt and had married a beautiful hooker but Justinian created the Byzantine Empire with its distinctive architectural domes. He was responsible for the construction of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). His ambitions were knee-capped in 540 AD by an epidemic of the black plague, a disease caused by fleas hopping off imported rats, biting people, and infecting them with a rod-shaped bacillus called Yersinia pestis. It killed half the population of Constantinople and reached as far as Britain and Ireland. Justinian failed to restore the original empire. After his death, around 700 AD, the conquered territory was given up and the Dark Ages became even darker.
The Moslems invaded fractured Europe, took all of Spain and most of France until they were defeated by Charles ("The Hammer") Martel, aided by Frank ("The Enforcer") Nitti. Charles the Hammer had a grandson, Charlegmagne, who united much of Europe and proclaimed himself emperor. He spread his sperm around with such profligacy that a recent study estimated that most of Europe and America had some Charlemagne in their blood. He promoted reforms and ruled a kingdom from the North Sea to Italy, but he was brutal too. The sentence was death for anyone who was caught worshiping a pagan God, cremating a body instead of burying it, or had not been baptized. He realized that education was needed to improve the quality of life. Everyone except the monks was illiterate. Charlemagne devoted himself to learning the alphabet which was not typical of warriors, and this may have begun the Western undercurrent of anti-intellectualism or, as John Wayne put it, "Talkin' words is fer WIMMIN." The program goes on to describe the raids of the Vikings, who brought nothing of importance to the rest of Europe except mobilization. Nothing about the Normans. With the end of the Vikings, there were a lot of footloose soldiers with a lot of energy. They turned their attention to the Middle East and began the Crusades. The Crusades captured no territory but brought back with them the knowledge that the Moslems had acquired over the years -- medicine, surgery, astronomy, algebra, Aristotle, architecture, technology, and soap. All of this influx of knowledge brought about an intellectual revolution and paved the way for the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the Rennaissance.
It's mostly about politics and war, with an emphasis on famous leaders like Justinian and Clovis. The daily life of the people is only alluded to once in a while, and there is nothing about the development of philosophy -- partly because there was so little of it -- and even the diverse beliefs of Christians is given short shrift.