East of Eden

Reading end-of-year tributes to the Hollywood stars and other cultural icons we lost in 2014—particularly those whose deaths were untimely—got me thinking about James Dean (1931-1955). I’d just read East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s epic reworking of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, set in California’s Salinas Valley. Elia Kazan’s film version of the last third of the novel introduced movie audiences to the troubled young actor, who would go on to make two more films before dying in a car accident at the age of twenty-four.

Dean Train

It’s obvious why Kazan chose Dean. He was made for the role of Cal Trask, the screwed-up son of an evil woman who deserted him and his twin brother Aron at birth and went on to run a whorehouse that specialized in S&M (this in a novel that came out in 1952!). Cal and Aron’s father, Adam, was never the same after she left and Raymond Massey plays him as a cold fish. In a key confrontation early in the film, Adam forces Cal to read the Bible at the dinner table, a crude dramatization of the book’s far more poignant rendering of their miscommunication.

In the book, the boys were lovingly tended by the family’s Chinese cook, Lee, and there is deep affection between them. Cal is fiercely protective of Aron, seeing him as a better person, a pure soul, whereas he knows himself to be innately flawed and struggles to be as good as his brother. Steinbeck made him a complicated character who demonstrates a great deal of self-awareness in conversations with Lee, whereas in the film he comes across as something of an adolescent psychopath, albeit a very attractive one.

Aron, however, grows less admirable as the novel progresses, becoming self-righteous and revealing moral weakness. By the time Cal forces him to face up to the truth about their mother, we have lost interest in him. Of course he’s going to die in World War I. It’s not just the Cain and Abel scenario playing out (and really, Kazan didn’t have to make Cal shout, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to get the point across). Nobody could live with a prig like him. No wonder his girlfriend falls for Cal.

Cal is far more compelling, and by the end of the picture, Dean succeeds in showing us the character that Steinbeck created. We see him grow up and find within himself the basic goodness that (we sense) will never come easily to him. He will always struggle to be his better self. Alas, James Dean did not live to master his own demons and show us what he could do.

Mambo

Robert Rossen named names to the House Un-AmericanMambo Poster Activities Committee — fifty-seven of them. Then he went to Italy and made this ponderous film. Mambo (1954) is a mishmash of neorealist solemnity and “women’s picture” melodrama. The actors all seem to be holding back, as if they too found the story implausible. The dancing scenes lack joy. Rossen himself considered the movie a failure, and yet he poured his heart and soul into the project. “I got involved, took it seriously, but it just didn’t come off,” Alan Casty quotes him as saying in Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist.

No, it didn’t work as a movie, but as a cri de coeur, Mambo is strangely compelling. Here is Rossen’s attempt to justify his betrayal of his former comrades, an anguished plea for understanding, if not forgiveness. He can’t forgive himself, you see, but as we watch his confused heroine Giovanna (Silvana Mangano) abandon her dreams and her integrity under the sway of her ne’er-do-well lover Mario (Vittorio Gassman) and her dissolute aristocratic admirer, count Enrico Marisoni (Michael Rennie), we can’t help but notice Rossen’s remorse.

Like many Jews who made their way to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, Rossen was drawn to Communism. The Party was “dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in,” he told his son, and his early scripts featured working-class characters and explored big themes like bigotry and injustice. But after the war, he grew disillusioned with Communism’s monolithic structure and left the party, as did many others. His Academy Award-winning adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1949) gives a more jaded perspective on working-class heroism, showing how easily even noble ideals can be corrupted.

But Mambo demonstrates that Rossen had not abandoned his idealism. He used Katherine Dunham’s interracial dance troupe for the mambo scenes — this in the segregated pre-Civil Rights era — and he has Ms. Dunham herself instructing Giovanna on the virtues of hard work and rigorous training, belying the general perception that such “primitive” dance forms came naturally to African peoples. At the end of the film, after she has caused the deaths of two people, Giovanna seeks salvation through rejoining Dunham’s troupe and losing herself in her work.

Rossen was initially called to testify before HUAC in 1951, and had taken the Fifth. Blacklisted, he had two years of unemployment to reconsider his principles and when he was called again in 1953, he caved in and gave the committee what it wanted. “It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn’t know what to do,” his son explained.

After Mambo, he went on to make six more films, including the epic Alexander the Great (1956) starring Richard Burton, Island in the Sun (1960), a controversial story about interracial love in the Caribbean which featured Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Bellefonte in serious roles, and The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, now considered a classic. Akin to the flawed Giovanna, work figured in Rossen’s salvation, I would say.

The Pride and the Passion

Poster - Pride and the Passion, The_05Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren in Napoleonic era Spain. The two men are vying for the woman, butting heads for most of the picture. Wait, there’s more. A big cannon. Okay, that’s it.

I rarely pass up an opportunity to watch Cary Grant, and this epic’s notorious because of the romance that developed between Grant and Loren in the course of filming it. Grant’s marriage to Betsy Drake was dissolving; Loren was waiting for Carlo Ponti to divorce his wife. “Both of us soon realized that the feelings between us were beginning to be laced with love — and we were scared.” In her forthcoming memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Loren admits that she was torn:

I knew that my place was next to Carlo — he was my safe harbor, even though I was still waiting for him to make a decision about our lives; our furtive relationship couldn’t go on much longer. At the same time, it was hard to resist the magnetism of a man like Cary, who said he was willing to give up everything for me. On our last night, he invited me out, looking more solemn than usual. Inside, I was afraid.

There was a gorgeous sunset outside as he turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said simply: “Will you marry me?” My words got caught in my throat. I was like an actress in a movie who’s forgotten her lines.

I felt so small in the face of this impossible decision. “Cary, dear, I need time,” I whispered breathlessly.

He understood. And he deflected my reply with a light touch of humor: “Why don’t we get married first, and then think about it?”

Grant seems to have behaved like a gentleman, and although Loren chose Ponti in the end, the two remained close. “In a treasure trove of memories that I keep in a box, there are letters and notes in Cary’s elegant, joyful handwriting that still fill me with tenderness,” she writes, “they speak to me of a fondness that, although it changed over time, never waned.”

You can get a sense of the heat on the set of The Pride and the Passion from this flamenco scene:

Night of the Living Dead

I don’t know what’s scarier, being attacked by flesh-eating zombies or being trapped all night with the Coopers, the 1960s nuclear family who have barricaded themselves into the basement of the house where Ben and Barbra have taken refuge, along with a nice young couple named Tom and Judy. Ben is smart, calm, and resourceful—a good thing, because Barbra’s no help at all. Granted, she’s just seen her brother Johnny die while trying to rescue her from a zombie and barely escaped the creature, but the poor girl’s a basket case throughout the film.

Mr. Cooper likes being addressed as “Mr. Cooper,” the way dads did in those days. Nuclear Family2He’s used to calling the shots, bossing around his wife Helen. She’s understandably upset about their little girl, who has fallen into a coma after being bitten by a zombie, but the scenes where she lashes out at her husband in Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Wolfe fashion are truly terrifying.

Village Voice critic Elliot Stein called Night of the Living Dead the “first-ever subversive horror movie.” George Romero’s low-budget chiller established most of the conventions for the genre, but the director himself admits that he was only picking up on what was “in the air” at the time. He chose a black actor to play Ben because he was “the best actor from among our friends,” Romero said, but Martin Luther King’s assassination not long before the picture’s release “gave the film much more weight.”

Indeed, Ben has more in common with the nonviolent King than the fiery leader Malcolm X or Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver. He strikes me as the quiet, thinking type of African-American character played by Sidney Poitier: dignified, non-threatening, slow to anger. Nobody but Mr. Cooper seems kick-ass about killing zombies. He launches molotov cocktails out the upstairs bedroom window at the undead with gusto while Ben and Tom are attempting to fill up Ben’s pick-up truck with gas so Tom can go for help.

Killing zombies is just a job to Ben, approached in the same workmanlike fashion as he displays in nailing up the doors and windows of the house. The only time we see him get hot under the collar is when he’s butting heads with Mr. Cooper. Sure, he punches the guy and is eventually forced to shoot him, but it’s totally justifiable, a “they call me Mr. Tibbs” kind of moment.

Really, I was more disturbed by the ending, where Ben gets shot by the cops, who mistake him for one of the undead. Cahiers du Cinema hailed Night of the Living Dead as “a powerful statement on racism.” In the light of last summer’s shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the film’s ending takes on new and chilling relevance. You can download it for free. For a taste of what’s in store, watch the trailer. Bon Appétit!

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ordinarily I steer clear of films that were intended as allegories. They go down like medicine and, let’s face it, most directors take themselves way too seriously when they embark on a mission. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an allegory in the form of a Western, too, a genre freighted with moral purpose. I confess, I was a little nervous going in, but I saddled up anyhow, put on my spurs, and set off for Sweetwater.

Henry Fonda disarmed me, right off the bat. Those baby blue eyes on the face of a cold-blooded killer. It took awhile to regain my bearings, after he blew away the McBain family, but when the dust settled, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There’s a message here, to be sure, but Sergio Leone has a light touch, an approach to lesson-giving that I can only describe as fatherly.

Affectionately, he drapes an arm around our shoulders. Us, the Americans: he loves us, we must understand that he is speaking as a friend. More than a friend, an admirer. As a boy growing up under fascism, watching Westerns (this was before World War II, when they would be banned), he believed all the clichés. Epic heroes, taming the frontier, armed not only with rifles but with integrity. Such a contrast, those virtuous cowboys and their G.I. brothers, the ones who liberated Italians from the Nazis, versus his defeated countrymen, who had embraced Mussolini’s nationalism and stood by while their leader formed a shameful alliance with Hitler.

Ah, but in the decades since the war ended, we lost our way. It pains him to say this, but he must be honest. First came the witch hunts of the McCarthy era (Mickey Knox, a blacklisted actor living in Italy, worked with Leone on the English dialogue for the picture), followed by the violence of the civil rights battle and capped off by the Vietnam war. No longer proud, our values tarnished, we turned away from our own epic myths. Sure, Bonanza was still running on TV, but the motion picture Western was languishing in America.

Once Upon the Time in the West revived the industry, which was already flourishing in Italy. Like Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this picture features charactersOUTITW_Jill1 of dubious integrity and marvelous Western vistas (mostly shot in Spain), a score by Ennio Morricone. In addition to Fonda, there are fine performances by Charles Bronson and Jason Robards.

But here’s the big difference: Once Upon a Time in the West has a woman at its center, a prostitute, Jill (played by the lovely Claudia Cardinale). She brings hope at the end of the picture. Redemption, even. John Boorman saw this film as “Leone’s gift to America of its lost fairy stories.”  I think he’s right.

Yojimbo

I’ve heard Yojimbo described as Japanese nihilism and that’s true up to a point. Morally speaking, there are no uplifting lessons here; it’s dog-eat-dog in Akira Kurosawa’s pioneering noir Western.dog eat dog The story revolves around an impoverished samurai, Sanjuro, who stumbles into a village terrorized by warring criminal gangs. Once admired for their warrior skills and aristocratic code of honor, the samurai had become swords-for-hire following the Western penetration of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sanjuro sells himself to the highest bidder, and has no qualms about double-crossing his employers. He appears unscrupulous, a casual killer who sponges off his hosts, lies and cheats, loyal to nobody. And yet he grows on us. Well before Sanjuro reveals his compassionate side, I found myself rooting for him.

For one thing, the bad guys were so much worse than he was, and let’s face it, the village was a mess. Who could blame him for wanting to get the heck out of there? Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda: I don’t care who you pick, nobody could have cleaned up that town.

Kurosawa was a fan of Russian literature. Ten years before he made Yojimbo, he adapted a Dostoevsky novel for the screen. The Idiot was his least successful project, but it was important to him, and very personal, a bleak commentary on postwar Japanese society.

Yojimbo covers the same yojimbo_aboveterritory, but it turns out to be less bleak in the end. The hero of The Idiot is too pure, too fragile, for the corrupt world in which he finds himself. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is well-suited for the modern era. In the Darwinian struggle for survival that characterized the evolution of the Western genre, his type would be selected for.

A Summer Place

With apologies to Beverly

Frigid women. Manipulative wives. Bad mothers. Summer PlaceDumb blondes. Alcoholism. Failing marriages. Furtive sex. Before Mad Men revived these retro conventions and somehow made them hip, they were just tawdry. “Prepare to be shocked,” the trailer promised, “because this bold, outspoken drama is the kind of motion picture excitement demanded by audiences today.”

Really? I can’t imagine what audiences in 1959 found shocking about A Summer Place. As an exposé of sexual hypocrisy, it’s pretty tame. Yes, there’s an extramarital affair, but the betrayed spouses are so unsympathetic you’re cheering the adulterous couple on. There’s a pair of teenaged lovers having sex too, but they’re so wholesome, and so terribly in love, that you just know they were meant for each other.

Sloan Wilson, who wrote the novel, was also the author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a chronicle of anomie in the business world. Both were best-sellers that became hit movies, and clearly spoke to the anxieties of the postwar era. Wilson comes across as earnest on the page, and it’s likely the stories read better than they played out on the screen.

Take this little speech, delivered by the father of Sandra Dee’s character, Molly, after he realizes his little girl is sleeping with Johnny (Troy Donahue):

I can’t tell her to be half good because I’d feel like a hypocrite. Is there no completely honest answer I can give her? Is the only answer that youth must be a time of suspended animation? Or is the solution for parents to maintain a frightened, worried silence?

I know it was supposed to be heartfelt, but it sounds like something a social worker would say in one of those fifties movies about troubled youth. You can see why Molly and Johnny are troubled, what with the messed-up adults in their lives. But knowing the mess that both young actors made of their own lives, it’s tempting to read more into this picture. Like when Johnny’s alcoholic father calls Molly “a succulent little wench.” We’re obviously meant to feel, with Johnny, that this accusation is unjust (although he only disputes the “wench” part). Dee is indeed succulent, her surface innocence barely concealing her sexual readiness. Toward the end of her life, the actress revealed that she had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather as a child. The way she was presented in A Summer Place, it’s all there.

The Rules of the Game

We had a French exchange student staying with us for a couple of weeks, Sophie. Turns out she’s applying to film schools, wants to learn the ropes, start as a cameraperson and work her way up to directing. She’s well-versed in American film, a great admirer of Wes Anderson (and took advantage of the opportunity to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is still playing at the local art house), but arrived knowing next to nothing about the classics of her own country’s cinematic tradition.

I had my work cut out for me. She’d heard of the New Wave, of course, but had never seen Breathless or The 400 Blows. We remedied that—and Jean-Paul Belmondo gained another admirer. She’d never heard of Chris Marker, but I’ll bet she’s going to knock the socks off the interview committee with her insights into La jetée and Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, which we happened to catch at the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival before she left.

And the crowning touch, my favorite French film of all time: Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. Yes, I know it’s everybody’s favorite. Long before Downton Abbey, here was an upstairs/downstairs-y story, complete with frocks and motorcars, that didn’t indulge in nostalgia for a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed.

Renoir couldn’t wait to see this world end. It was dead already, as he shows us hererenoir in bear suitThat’s him in the bear suit, by the way. When he asks the amorous couple to help him out of it, the gentleman responds, “On n’a pas de temps.” We have no time. Renoir’s character repeats the line, just to make sure we get it.

War is coming, but you wouldn’t know it from the goings-on at the Château de la Colinière. A weak-willed aristocrat, played by the inimitable Marcel Dalio (in what was really his last great role) has arranged a shooting party. Such a time-honored pastime of the leisure class! Only it’s not so charming, when you see bunny rabbits getting shot. As the late Alexander Sesonske noted in the essay he wrote for the 2004 Criterion edition:

In a film whose shots often run for a minute or more, here fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, in a mounting rhythm of cutting and movement that culminates in an awesome barrage of gunfire as, in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die.

This makes The Rules of the Game sound gruesome, but it’s actually an enchanting film. Renoir’s affection for his characters comes through in every scene. Flawed human beings dancing on the edge of a volcano (as he put it). You feel sorry for each and every one of them.

And Sophie? I came home the next day and found her watching it again, along with all the supplemental materials on the Criterion disc.

Mission accomplished.

La jetée

I’m not going to talk about the plot of La jetée, or the eerie beauty of its composition. If you’ve never seen the film, I don’t want to give it away. I want you to approach it cold, as I did, some thirty seven years ago.

Watching it again, I found my younger self. Selves. The twenty-year-old me was transported to Paris, where the fifteen-year-old me spent a lonely summer in 1972, living with a French family on a language immersion program. Images of Paris—its parks, museums, and grand boulevards—took me back to my own rather random wanderings about the city. la-jetee-1962Visits to the Tuileries Gardens, the Jeu de Paume, the sculpture garden of the Rodin Museum. The Sainte Chapelle, the jeweled light streaming through the stained glass windows of its upper chapel, a truly otherworldly experience. Mastering the Métro. Climbing the steps of the Eiffel Tower. Ordering a citron pressé at a café along the Boulevard St. Germain or grabbing a crêpe at a sidewalk kiosk.

The fifteen-year-old me was captivated by Paris, which I was encountering without much of a context. I took it in without really knowing what I was seeing. One day I ducked into a movie theater to escape an unwelcome companion, one of the pesky boys who’d trail along after me on the street, inviting me to go dancing. The Gold Rush was showing: my first Charlie Chaplin film, and still my favorite.

That Paris returned to me as I watched La jetée at twenty. I was already nostalgic for my earlier self, the girl who’d plunged fearlessly into her adventures in an unknown city, fumbling along in her inadequate French. But the hero’s nostalgia for the vanished Paris of his own childhood, a more innocent time, brought me back further still. The film is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, a constant preoccupation in 1962, when the five-year-old me started school.

It’s something of a joke now, the Duck and Cover drills. Practicing hiding under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. They used to have us practice sitting in the dark school corridors, too, away from the windows at the far end, or on the floor in the cafeteria. And one day we were sent home early, in some kind of emergency practice run. The school bus dropped us off blocks away from our usual stop, but our mothers were there, waiting to reassure us that we were safe.

My parents were still talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis at Chanukah that year. I remember this because while they were distracted at the dinner table, arguing about Khrushchev and President Kennedy, I experimented with lighting a lollipop wrapper on one of the menorah candles and nearly set the dining room on fire. The wrapper was waxed paper and ignited in a flash. Whoosh! The flames singed my fingertips and I must have dropped the wrapper, because I remember my father’s quick action, stamping it out on the floor.

Cascading memories, and a remarkable film that awakens them all.

The Searchers

For Chris, Peter, Jim, and Max

Watching my dog forge her way through chest-high (to her) snow in our driveway this morning, I was reminded of the scene in The Searchers where John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, forces his horse down a snowy slope in New Mexico (actually Canada, I believe). searchers snowEthan’s adopted nephew, Martin, follows closely behind with the pack horse. He’s narrating this sequence, and we are soon made to share his horror as the pristine snow gives way to trampled ground and a scene of utter devastation.

The two men have come upon the aftermath of a U.S. calvary raid on a Comanche encampment. Dead horses, dead braves, burning teepees. Among the bodies they find is that of “Look,” a Comanche woman who’d taken a liking to Martin and offered herself to him in exchange for a hat. “What did those soldiers have to go and kill her for, Ethan? She never done nobody any harm.”

In fact, we were given the answer to this question just a few scenes earlier. Ethan goes berserk and starts killing buffalo—more meat than he and Martin need for themselves—knocking the younger man to the ground and stealing his rifle when his own ammunition runs out. “Least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!” he says savagely.

We understand Ethan’s rage. His brother’s family was slaughtered by the Comanche, one niece raped and murdered, the other taken captive. He has no hope, really, of saving the girl: “They’ll keep her to raise as one of their own until . . . till she’s of an age to . . .”  And yet he and Martin will devote five years of their lives to finding her, sheerly for revenge. Ethan has nothing else to live for but vengeance.

Dealing with “savages” has reduced the Texas pioneers to their most primitive elements.  In the strong sun that bakes this barren landscape dry, only a strong hate like Ethan’s survives. Time and time again, his style of frontier justice wins out over the more civilized morality upheld by the settlers. Ethan’s brother’s family gathers around the dining room table, eating supper off of blue willow china. There he sits among them, tightly coiled, venting his racist fury on poor Martin, the baby he rescued after his (white) parents had been massacred by Indians.

“Hell, I could mistake you for a half-breed,” he says, and seems displeased when Martin confirms that he is an eighth Cherokee. One drop of Indian blood is all it takes to taint a white man, and any white woman of an age to . . .  is as good as dead.

The trailer for The Searchers plays up Wayne’s character’s courage, passion, tenderness, and love. This seems to be trading on Wayne’s reputation from earlier pictures. The decency of the character he played in Stagecoach, or his gentlemanly conduct in Sands of Iwo Jima toward a women forced by circumstances to sell her body after her baby’s father was killed.

searchers final shotI’d say John Ford was trading on Wayne’s reputation to encourage audiences in 1950s America to examine their own racial attitudes. In an often-imitated shot at the end of  the picture, Ethan is framed in a doorway, excluded from the warm domestic scene inside a settler’s home. His style of frontier justice is no longer needed and his values are revealed for the anachronism they are.