“Fantastic Voyage” (1966)
Has anything given science fiction a worse reputation than the movies? Beyond the obvious necessity of conceiving original ideas to stimulate a movie audience (speaking in general non-genre specific terms), American science fiction cinema seems to be in a constant state of panic as to what might find favor with the audience, who, as evidenced by the resultant film offerings, are clearly regarded as a gaggle of semi-literates (though their disposable money nonetheless endears them to the more certifiably primitive studio thinkers), so instead of a basis in profound philosophical inquiries, the steady diet of big screen SF is invested in prosthetic aliens, gleaming model saucers and rockets, styrofoam planetary landscapes and an overly generous number of buxom screaming women. The lurid covers of vintage SF pulp magazines seem to be the level of satisfaction at which the major studios are willing to regard the genre; a gaudy gallery of marauding aliens, death rays and conical bosoms significantly pointing at the heavens. For the most part (the British, for some reason- perhaps due, in no small part, to the influence of the BBC teleplays of Nigel Neale -generally take a more cerebrally mature approach to the genre) the science fiction film has emerged as a novelty genre in which complex human experience is entirely secondary to intellectually unwholesome spectacle.
Richard Fleischer’s 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage” immediately dispenses with any temptation to exploit such mundane celestial tomfoolery by cleverly turning the subject of the film inward, inside the human body. However, to accomplish this task, the film concedes to an alternate genre- the hugely prolific espionage thrillers of the 1960’s -for the equally mundane motivations for its narrative explorations: the secretive arrival in America of Iron Curtain scientist Jan Benes (Jean Del Val) resulting in an assassination attempt which leaves the defector in a comatose state, suffering a blot clot to the brain which is inoperable by normal means, but fortunately, in one of those astonishing examples of unlikely coincidence which exist only in the movies, American scientists have invented a process of miniaturization (and just happen to have a nuclear powered submarine- the Proteus -and crew waiting for such an emergency situation). The situation is given an additional coincidental immediacy as Benes has been spirited from the East specifically because he is the only scientist who understands how to maintain the miniaturization effect beyond a problematic sixty minute mark; a bit of screenwriter hokum which, at least, masquerades the fact that the fate of an anonymous Eastern bloc scientist is unlikely to create ripples of suspense, instead substituting the element of time in which the main characters must complete their task. (This time element not being intrinsic to any direct danger to the miniaturized crew- that will be afforded by the hoariest of espionage concepts: the saboteur -but the film rather ingeniously always makes it feel that way.)
The initial espionage elements are rather pedestrian, both in conception and execution, and inevitably lead to one of those vastly improbable subterrenean installations built to house a massive covert government project, in this case the CMDF (Combined Military Deterrent Forces), which- like most similarly secretive installations in movies or television -seems composed of vast parking areas and corridors filled with busily rushing personnel whose only function seems to be to pass by the camera with a sense of urgency. The complex appears to be headed by Genereral Carter (Edmond O’Brien) and Colonel Donald Reid (Arthur O’Connell) who spend most of the actual mission consulting on such important issues as properly sweetened preparation of their coffee; none of which grants a sense of critical importance to the mission nor of even how remarkably out of the ordinary is the very idea of such a mission. Fortunately, aboard the Proteus, the crew consists of a more professional if not dynamic caste, including CIA agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd), who initially accompanied the now-wounded Benes to the States (which doesn’t say much for his or his agency’s security capabilities, but Boyd is the star of the show- beyond the floating bits of protoplasm -so his continued participation in the story is predictably assured) and an assortment of usual suspects: the submarine’s pilot Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield), Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance), neurousrgeon (which somehow translates into proficiency with a laser rifle) Dr. Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his curvaceous (and inevitable) female assistant Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch); one of whom will prove to be a saboteur. The film is tasteful enough to restrain itself from unseeming exploitation of Welch’s physical attributes (a genuine rarity in her prime starlet period) in deference to the more scientific gravitas of her role, though there is no equitable success in disguising the identity of the undercover baddie fairly early by the simple process of observing which actor sweats most profusely even when nothing critical is occurring in the plot.
So, in “Fantastic Voyage” there is a merging of the popular Cold War espionage thriller disguised in the form of a science fiction adventure, reducing what should be (even according to its own title) a fantastic “what if?” scenario into a quaintly tepid mole hunt, with the scientific concepts rather shabbily considered (especially in the finale which abandons all of the rules of physical law) and actually only an excuse for the extravagant production design which is supposed to distract from the very unextraordinary nature of the plot.
The suspense element driving the narrative is time, which brings prominence to an unexplained plot hole which renders much of the scenario ridiculous on a fundamental level (assuming the screenplay is meant to any relationship to logic): with the brevity of the miniaturization period, why not inject the Proteus directly into the carotid artery rather than the jugular vein, circumventing the lengthy and laborious journey through the entire thorax with picturesque tourist ventures into the heart and lungs? In fact, the film is filled with needless perils such as a scene in which the Proteus is stalled in the inner ear, necessitating the entire surdical team to hover above Benes in total silence, though why is their presence in the operating theater necessary at all since the only function they serve is to act as careless endangerments to the germ sized crew? One can only wonder at the intelligence behind a film whose only jeopardy seems dedicatedly self-inflicted.
“The Fly” (1958)
Kurt Neumann’s “The Fly” is a film that may unreasonably fall victim to the over familiarity of its finale which is the stuff of Hollywood legend: so outrageously over-the-top in concept that it may lead to an amplified sense of the mundane if not an outright sense of disappointment over the surface conventionality of the film’s approach to the remainder of the material.
The film attempts, with a few glaring omissions, a quite reasonable fidelity to George Langelaan’s 1957 story which is entirely built upon the framework of a murder mystery; recalling, through vivid remembrance, the events which led to the “murder” in the opening sequence of scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison, credited as Al Hedison) by his devoted wife Helene (Patricia Owens) as told to both Andre’s brother Francois (Vincent Price) and Police Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall). Using this simple flashback structure, the bulk of the film relates the story of Andre and his creation of a disintegrator-integrator, which instantly transports matter from one chamber to another and his body’s accidental transmutation with the atoms of a housefly -though the film soft pedals the mental deterioration of Helene (in this version, her madness is feigned to protect her child) which eventually causes the young widow/”murderer” to commit suicide in the Langelaan original, nor does it include the truly horrific results of a failed attempt to reintegrate Andre’s proper form thus removing all hope that a further reintegration with the original fly (if caught) would yield final restorative effects. The excision of this event- bringing to full circle the results of an earlier failed experiment with a pet cat (one of the most effective sequences in the film as the cat’s incorporeal despairing howls are quite unnerving) -undercuts the immediacy of Andre’s resignation toward self-destruction that in the story seemed inevitable whereas in the film is reduced to a much less effective tantrum of impatience.
In fact, all of the obsessive psychopathy has been virtually eliminated from the film, especially in the role of Andre’s wife Helene; replaced with a more oddly complacent form of urgency which ensures the comely Patricia Owens’ hair will not be mussed. (Her demeanor and appearance throughout the film is so crisp, one expects her to don a string of pearls and assume the mantle of June Cleaver.) If the premise seems to have been homogenized a bit too much for the sake of public consumption (whole portions have a closer resemblance to a Ross Hunter production than a science fiction thriller), it is in the service of reversing the emphasis of people over the gee whiz scientific gimmickry which acts as the catalyst to upend what is presented as a love story (Paul Sawtell’s effective scoring emphasizes this dichotomy, transitioning between ominous horns and lushy romantic strings) in which a normally insignificant situation creates a chaotic unraveling in even in the most paradisical domesticity. However, in the film’s misapplied emphasis on almost total psychological normalcy in the characters during these most extreme circumstances, the film’s tone becomes emotionally muted to a point that is incongruous with the events being depicted, resulting in these same characters becoming colorless and less interesting. Not unlike the pretty wife who manages not to even soil her party dress as she pulverizes her husband’s skull with a hydraulic press in the opening scene, the film too often feels sanitized considering the opportunity for bits of latent grotesquerie which are pruned from the source material by first-time scenarist James Clavell.
However, the film does display a dedicated attention to something in short supply during a decade in which cinematic scientific curiosity began with Robert Heinlein-scripted speculations on a lunar mission and rapidly devolved into the absurd juvenilia of a mammoth skyscraper perching prehistoric bird marionette (with a truly inappropriate Wishnik hairstyle!), and that is a maturely grounded foundation in the human cost- on a very personal level -of the advancement of science; a less than promising source for cheap visceral thrills as might be experienced with invasions of giant ants or gelatinous sludge gobbling hot rodding teens, but considering that one of science fiction’s fundamental purposes is to present the complex partnership that is science’s imprint on humanity, it’s a welcome temporary reversion of thematic priorities. “The Fly” is also virtually unique in American science fiction cinema in that a woman is central to the plot more than merely the provider of coffee trays and finger sandwiches, but as character whose deliberation of action actually shapes the course of the story and contributes to the advancement of the film’s themes in meaningful ways, though curiously the role of Helene is defined almost entirely by these actions alone without a corresponding enrichment by way of the script’s rather nonexistent character development; a problem systemic in science fiction films regardless of gender. How many fully developed characters have appeared in science fiction movies, commensurate with those in the most artistically distinguished films, can one recall?
David Hedison enjoys his most famous motion picture role with the unfortunate circumstance of having his entire head covered with a black cloth through much of the film, especially during those peak moments when a mental disintegration is supposed to be taking place, while Patricia Owens is pretty but a bit too bland in the role of Helene. Vincent Price adds a welcome note of class, as does the imperturbable Herbert Marshall, though the film may suffer from being a bit too classy; it could use a bit of the shameless excess of some Hammer films to juice up the proceedings. Kurt Neumann directs efficiently but without great imagination (a spectacular multiple image of Owens seen through the eyes of the “fly” is the best use of the rather indulgently unnecessary filming in Cinemascope), though there is an amusing (though overused) redressing of genre elements marking the evolution of the scientist playing God scenario with the familiar labs of uselessly bubbling beakers and sparking Tesla coils replaced with the modern electronics age equivalent of clattering computers and equally meaningless but decorative flashing neon tubing, signalling in the minds of Hollywood that while science may advance, the corresponding cinematic view merely demands a cosmetic facelift.
“Blood Alley” (1955)
There is no mistaking on which side of the political coin the 1955 William Wellman film “Blood Alley” was stamped, as it is a right-wing, anti-Communist diatribe of the most unabashedly jingoistic variety, highlighting Asian characters in one-dimensional major roles that are usually criticized as being typically stereotypical portraits of native Chinese (many, but not all portrayed by non-Asians including the particularly ridiculous examples of Mike Mazursky and Anita Ekberg!), though the fact that most of these characters are intelligent, prone to self-sacrifice and resourceful seems to count for little in the relentless sniffing out for perceived politically incorrect ethnic insensitivity. The fact that the script by Albert Sidney Fleischman is as dumb as a leaky bag of doorknobs generates less offense as stupidity in the service of popular Art is of a far lesser order of offense (and far more expected) than any breach in the abstract standards directing any culture monitor’s self-righteous egoism. None of this would matter much and could be casually regarded as so much movie hokum if the plot itself weren’t so openly proud of being so irredeemably stupid, but such are the characteristics of the blacklist-safe dumbing down of global politics and foreign cultures by way of Hollywood under the Production Code.
Taken on its own terms, “Blood Alley” plays more like a comic strip version of an action-adventure film- an amalgam of Terry and the Pirates and Scorchy Smith -than as a serious statement concerning the oppressive fist of the Red Menace bearing down on hapless innocents, as the Communist antagonists simply seem too easily fooled and blind to obvious anti-authoritarian stratagems to be seriously regarded as much of a serious threat. In fact, without the constant reminder of Roy Webb’s often bombastic scoring, it would be easy to forget that there any oppressive forces within throwing distance. (The commies represented by approaching and dispatching landing boats filled with well groomed soldiers and troops marching up the picturesque staircase of the Chiku Shan setting in precise unison; no doubt meant to set up a visual dichotomy between the inhumane order of Communism as opposed to the more ramshackle, disordered climate of the villagers who are represented in terms of genuine Salt of the Earth peasant-class Hollywood humanism in that they always have a convenient number of chickens they cart along with them.)
John Wayne plays Merchant Marine captain Tom Wilder who has been imprisoned by the Red Chinese for several years, isolated from his countrymen except for his imaginary gal pal “Baby” with whom he engages in running asides throughout the entire film, one of the few imaginative strokes in the screenplay as it affords us much needed opportunities to probe Wilder’s character in a script which is more heavily reliant on plot than character; this device acting as an interesting variation of the internal dialogue of a novel. (The more whimisical nature of these asides seems to loosen the actor up considerably; it’s one of Wayne’s wittier, most relaxed performances.) Wilder is spirited away from the prison through means mostly conveniently unexplained (the film has a habit of simply ignoring the major gaffes in narrative logic, so predictably there’s a whole lotta ignoring going on) and brought to the village of Chiku Shan, where he finds he has been recruited to pilot the local ferryboat loaded with the entire population of the village, down hundreds of miles of coastline- an area designated as Blood Alley -and into the free territory of Hong Kong.
Being that this is the most charming relationship in the film is between Wilder and the imaginary ‘Baby’ (the fact that Wilder is a rational and fairly cynical fellow, not in the least the usual material for such eccentrically idiosyncratic behavior, adds a genuine charm to his character) is not a compliment to the intended central romance of the story, that between Wilder and the exotic Cathy Grainger, the token beauty who naturally must prefigure into the action formula Hollywood had been grinding out for decades. Rather distantly played by Lauren Bacall, Grainger is stunningly coiffed as if she were equipped with a Parisian couturier in the midst of the backwoods of China, her costuming accentuating the sharp angles of her features to the point where Wilder steps around her cautiously as if she could cut glass and there’s little chemistry between the two except for an antagonism similar to the dynamics in other films between Wayne and favored co-star Maureen O’Hara, though in “Blood Alley”, the undercurrent of hostility never thaws through a meeting of minds and hearts, but out convenience for the scripted formula; the character of Grainger being a constant irritant, who despite her speechifying and humbling Wilder with sanctimonious tirades about caring for something greater than one’s self, at one point places the entire village in jeopardy over a stubborn, selfish and needless whim. Cathy makes grand pronouncements about the noble humility and dedication to sacrifice of the people of Chiku Shan, words that stir an admiration in Wilder to help the villagers, yet she herself possesses none of the qualities of a missionary despite her haughtier-than-thou attitudes: while surrounded by poverty she lives in capitalistic opulence (she even has a maid) and her preoccupation with stylishness finally drags on the film (in the midst of a tumultuous escape the attention turns to tired jokes about her luggage) turning this fishing village fashion plate into a world class bore. Once the action starts there’s no real reason for her to be in the film.
After all of the grand build-up, the escape itself runs so smoothly there is no suspense in the film so the film invents its own set of crises which hardly stand up under the withering light of casual scrutiny. For instance, the Fengs,a family of pro-Communist villager are brought under protest (Cathy insists the children might be slaughtered by the Red Chinese for collaboration) and one poisons the boat’s entire food supply, an action which doesn’t make a great deal of sense since the supplies are scattered all about on a very crowded boat. Yet we are supposed to believe that a member of a family who is watched with extreme scrutiny would be able to prance about the boat scattering toxins at will. (Just what method of spoiling the food is another is the series of ignored details.) This leads to the disposing of the food (which would leave a floating trail of garbage for any pursuers to follow- another in the series of ignored details) and a great deal of subsequent moaning about starvation and rationing despite the fact the entire trip only takes a few days. Despite the occasional inserted wire service teletype announcing the village’s escape in progress, no one in the Red Chinese Navy seems to be in pursuit (though much of the trip takes place in a fog which is about as candid an assessment a film can make about itself), until the arrival in Honghai Bay at the Graveyard of Ships where Cathy selfishly disobeys orders and goes scampering off on a personal errand and delays the ferry’s departure while shells from a destroyer are crashing all around. (During the frantic escape, she actually has the clueless temerity to enter the wheelhouse and blabber on about how Wilder was right and she was mistaken for leaving, all the while the captain is frantically attempting to avoid obliteration from flying explosives.)
Yet there is no a single moment in the film where one of the oppressed villagers is given an opportunity to speak on the subject of freedom. In fact, there are no scenes in which a featured villager has any interaction at all in the plot! For a film in which the excuse for an action is the desire to escape tyranny and touch freedom, a complete absence of any vocal (or even symbolic) expression of such a desire is a major mistake; the most critical error in a film rife with inconsistencies and ommisions. Outside of the intimate few involved in the plot, there is no meeting with any individual, except for the typical panning shots of hopeful refugees, and this condescension to the politically oppressed becomes almost offensive. The villagers are portrayed, not as human beings, but mere props in a much larger game (in this way, they are as dehumanized by the filmmakers and by extension their rescuers as by the Red Chinese authority) of life and death where their only genuine function is to look needy and duck every time there is a ceiling collapsing on their heads. In the end, it is far more important that the leads consummate their relationship (with a kiss anyway, this being under watchful eyes of Hollywood’s own version of the Red Chinese: the Hays Office) than if the villagers reach their destination for any reason as for the red-blooded hero and his woman to succeed in their mission.
Wellman’s direction is uncluttered and rather adventure film by-the-numbers efficient, not emphasizing any artistic risks, yet using the widescreen effectively with intelligent, often interesting compositions, aided enormously by the crisp and atmospheric photography of William H. Clothier, especially with a palette that varies from vividly colorful nocturnal skies to almost monochromatic schemes in which meaningful accents of color are inserted. (The subtle use of reds are especially interesting.) Also skillful and enjoyable are a pair of supporting performances by Joy Kim as Cathy’s maid Susu (who disappears into the background later in the film, to the film’s misfortune) and the splendid Henry Nakamura who plays the ship’s engineer, the cigar puffing Tack, with all of the gung ho comic strip bravura for which one might wish.
“The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955)
One of the characteristics of the movies of the “Golden Age” studio era of filmmaking was the anesthetizing comfort they were intended to provide the audience, explaining the essential homogenized blandness in which innovation and true artistry- always enemies of the bottom-line purveyors of West Coast entertainment -deliberately emerged only through the rare instances of career suicidal, rancorous headbutting combativeness (which resulted in the exclusion of some of the most creative artists of the day, summarily dismissed as being “unworkable”, or later, conveniently,“unfriendly”) or often blind luck. Throughout the Great Depression and the onset of the Second World War, Hollywood benefited from serendipitous circumstances in which the public sought the solace of the American cinema for its inherent escapist characteristics, allowing the art form to assume the role of a national cultural psychic band-aid; a situation which would be fully exploited by the enforcers of The Hays Office in the employment of their manifesto- the establishment of an independent authority which would oversee the intellectual properties in development in the motion picture industry and disavow the inclusion of any element which did not meet with strict adherence to the stated guidelines within The Production Code. This unchecked authority, became de facto judge, jury and executioner in any matter relevant to the creative process within the Hollywood community.
The resulting films conceived under this self-inflicted moral simplification- a studio approved emolliating shield for an entire industry (a self-defining word which speaks more of the movies often being resisted as a true Art form than any succinct caveat conjured by external critical forces) -are characterized by a conventionality that worked against breaking through the archaic moral boundaries of the censorial foe/safety net (depending on which side of the artistic looking glass you were standing) under which the complacency of the reassuring redundancy of calculated formula thinking (one can hardly label it creativity with a sober voice) might find a procreative auger. It is not that the specific content of the films are the same but that (and this is an critical distinction) the moral tone is, and one that is forcibly imposed by dishonestly motivated watchdogs, unnatural to the actual creative process, which inevitably leads to a stunting of a complete and honest depiction of human behavior. Surely with everyday life beset by both a protracted economic strife and a savage, globally endangering armed conflict, with one situation magnifying the national anxiety of the other, the circumstances was ripe for explorations of the darker corners of human behavior (How could anything in film be as shocking as the horrors of the still fresh-in-the-mind atrocities committed in both European and Pacific Theaters of battle?), yet the Hollywood industry, instead of directly addressing the realities of the new post-war transformations occurring in America, continued to present idealized, sanitized films which failed to address the simmering social issues which would explode seemingly overnight in the mid-1960’s when a neutered art form was suddenly given the freedom of expression it had never enjoyed: from separate-bed Doris Day to “Deep Throat” in as many years as a hand has fingers.
However, in Hollywood, during the years 1945 – 1967, the continued censorial repressive frustration during the post-war years becomes especially apparent in adaptations of works from differing cultural arenas- specifically literature and legitimate theater, both enjoying a greater range of frankness -which had always found their materials transmuted to fit the narrowest of moral guidelines, and were now doubly debased by enthusiastic producers who would claim admiration for a work’s integrity and then reshape that same work (now considered, in Hollywood parlance, a “property”), not only to fit the needs of their perception of what was acceptable by their rapidly narrowing commercial marketplace (ignoring the fact that these same “profane” works were highly successful with the public in the first, undercutting Hollywood’s argument of fear of popular indignation against presenting “immoral” material), but also to reconfigure the elements of the story so that it might still feature a merest morsel of the work’s Code challenging content which engaged their interest in the first place. Such are the initial steps in which a highly regarded work might become a pathetic shadow of its former incarnation, although less harmful to the reputation of the original, which remains unmolested on the printed page, as opposed to the increased tarnishing of Hollywood’s already dubious reputation as the manufacturer of dreams.
That being said, it is doubtful, even with the movies of this era which have been fervently branded, by those afflicted with incurable romanticized nostalgia, with the idiomatic moniker of “film classic”, that the end result would have been even remotely representative of the existing work had those films been nurtured, developed and produced in a freely open atmosphere of artistic expression instead of the unfortunate morally hysterical fanaticism welded with a retarded sense of false puritanism which defined the Production Code. Behavior became a forced formula of repetitive actions as the progression of normal human reactions found itself impeded by feet encased in a paralyzing cement, limiting free expression with the excuse of protecting the innocent against the “deviant” core of the heart of Man and applying a broad stroked glaze of a zealous though misguided authoritarian piety. If there is truth to the axiom that action defines character, then it must be admitted that Hollywood imposed a predisposition to a lack of full character between the years of Production Code enforcement, an inevitable consequence when constructing a barrier against any action which may lead to behavior deemed indecent, not by societal, moral or philosophic standards, but by an authority blind to all but the most archaic and socially regressive puritanism. In essence, virtually every film made by Hollywood in the “Golden Age” is a bone fide fairy tale, a narrative skirting the true complexity of the full human experience for the sake of deliberate social artificiality, intended to mollify the darker impulses of the audience; actually one of the original excuses for the conception of an overseeing cultural entity known as the Hays Office. If the unnaturally stunted behavior molded under the withering restrictions of The Code had any effect at all, it wasn’t the intended mollification of the audience’s Mr. Hyde, but a suppression of that audience’s yearning for intellectual stimulation based upon its own unfiltered experiences, unmolested by the agenda of an outside agency. The horrors of both World War Two and the Great Depression, not to mention the later paranoiac tensions of the burgeoning Cold War immersed the citizenry in decades of psychic assault; seeds of moral frustrations that were simplified and thus rendered meaningless by a bland absence of complexity as advanced by the century’s most popular and influential Art Form.
Therefore, for all of the distinction in of dramatic materials, the outcome will generally be the same. The route to the allowable, predetermined fates of film characters often called for some remarkable feats of narrative contortion to reach their final destinations, for unlike the dramatist or literary author whose exploration of behavioral complexity is limited only to their individual artistic capabilities, the filmmaker of the Golden Age studio era was bound by moral canons which were not only infuriatingly restrictive, but often illogically self-contradictory and indecent, including the assertion that miscegenation was tantamount to bestiality (see sidebar, right). The limitations of “acceptable” behavior unnaturally reshaping the content in every film to ultimately become the intended lesson in sanctioned morality; all films made under the Hays Office engaged in, by the very nature of the controlled restrictive process, a methodology of conditioning the audience away from perceived antisocial behavior by way of a redundant pattern of conditioning stimulus. This stimulus finds its foundation in a multitude of technological as well as scriptural aspects of the production’s grand design, the manipulative stimulus arises from a cultural form uniquely collaborative and therefore accessible to a far more complexly sophisticated form of respondent conditioning.
Nelson Algren’s novel “The Man With the Golden Arm” occupies a special place in the annals of modern American literature. The recipient of the 1950 National Book Award for Fiction, it is a searing read; an unrelenting descent into the lives, minds and souls of a community of fallen people. The population of Algren’s Division Street are characters without hope and beyond the conception of hope, who shuffle through the dead-end paths where their lives have converged and simply exist from one moment to the next; desolately enduring the hopelessness of every waking moment in an endless purgatorial shuffle. It is not a tale in which the doom of Death looms over the characters, as life itself is too hard, too unbearable a day by day process to endure that something as abstract as death would hold sufficient terror; life has taken that unenviable position. It is about the end of the line for people who have never been graced with a vision of the beginning. It is, in many ways, a cruel- almost nihilistic -novel, with punishment and hopeless destiny seemingly predetermined by an unforgiving God (or more accurately, novelist as Supreme Creator), the very circumstance of each character so depressed, that their individual willingness to brave a further step through life might seem to imbue the characters with a type of sickly heroic nobility, though more accurately, they might be better described as victims of their own poor instincts and weaknesses, with judgment meted out in disproportionately sadistic quantities. On the other hand, the novel’s accomplishments are legion, beginning with an artistic courage to carry a concept to a logical conclusion, completely eschewing, almost Gorky-like, the comfort of sentimentality or forced optimistic plot developments. It’s a stunning though highly discomforting read, unrelievedly grim, with the conviction that a despairing societal angst is a universal human condition worthy (but seldom given full measure) of serious, committed examination in American literature-certainly without the intrusion of the myth “American dream” as a comparative condition, and an easy out with its suggestion of possible happy outcomes. In Alger’s Division Street universe, the happy ending is courageously unconsidered, the denizens of the novel’s universe finding their fates varied only in the different levels of Hell in which they find permanent residence.
In bringing the novel to the screen, that most underrated of visual film stylists, Otto Preminger, fails to penetrate the characters in any meaningful way; substituting a glossy Hollywood bowdlerization of dreams only delayed and happy endings accompanied with disgracefully convenient bows that tie up life’s loose ends, the very antithesis of Algren’s novelistic view. Before examining Preminger’s directorial approach, it is essential to dissect the differences between Algren’s source novel and the screen adaptation by Walter Bernstein and Lewis Meltzer who seem to have procured a dull knife to slash away the substance of the novel. The film is a complete betrayal of the Algren’s work, both stylistically and substantively, yet has sustained an unwarranted reputation as being a barrier breaking film- an illusion of creative integrity only possible within a cultural form in which the bar is set exceedingly low, weighed with the most stringent congress of anti-creative regulations -when in fact it soft peddles its own exploration of unsavory territories with the gloss of Hollywood artifice which, in the end, merely retreads the same tired melodramatic formulas of salvation and redemption the film capitol had been peddling for over two decades under the straight-jacket influence of the Production Code.
Preminger’s impressively intelligent fluidity as a director- his open disdain for the crutch of editing for its own sake makes him one of the true anti-Eisensteinians in commercial cinema -was always at a counterpoint with Preminger the producer, the showman, and this film is an example of hubris over purported courage under the guise of artistic frankness while abusing the very materials from which those claims spring. There is nothing in Algren’s novel to suggest a tidy summing up of the multifarious complications defining each of his characters, most already eliminated or simplified to the point of meaningless cliché. By simply tackling the subject of drug abuse itself, regardless of the falsification and melodramatic refinishing of the novel’s relentlessly grim edge, the director has been afforded a latitude of escaping criticism for adaptive abuse of a genuine artistic work of modern American literature as if he were merely pruning a trivial subplot for the sake of concision. When one emasculates the very pulse of a work, its heart, its soul, then no amount of glossy Hollywood whitewash can sustain the illusion of artistic credibility. However, artistic reputation often finds itself counterfeited through the announcement of cultural provocation and Preminger the Producer was skilled at promoting the efforts of Preminger the Director toward commercial viability, ironically, often at the expense of the director’s aesthetic capabilities. Convinced that the controversy of defying the Production Code’s explicit ban of depiction of narcotics use is sufficient to pique commercial curiosity, Preminger clearly feels victorious in producing a film defined with substance by the simple act of anti-authoritarian nose-thumbing., though Frankie’s addiction- a result of morphine addiction while recovering from a shrapnel wound in the war -is randomly altered into a convenient heroin habit (heroin evidently being a far more scandalous vice when promoting Preminger’s favored forbidden “truths”), effectively eliminating Frankie’s backstory and ignoring the important origins of his condition that might merit earned sympathy and, more importantly, introduce an important note of social criticism. None of this, however, takes into consideration the greater deviations made against this work of high literary merit, by the reduction of the novel- outside of the supposedly “provocative” drug content -into the most basic of melodramatic urban formulas done to death in any number of faceless 1930’s Warner Bros. assembly line vehicles: artistic integrity be damned.
Frank Sinatra plays Frank Majcinek, known by the denizens of he neighborhood as “Frankie Machine”, a gifted card dealer (hence the reference to the “golden arm”) who returns to Division Street after a prison sentence, accompanied by a brand new set of drums courtesy of the penal system who in this film’s version of punishment has been converted into an ersatz Make-A Wish Foundation. Frankie stops off at Antak’s, a bar and communal meeting ground for many of the players in the drama to unfold, including his sidekick Sparrow (Arnold Stang), the dope dealer Louis (who as played by the normally capable Darren McGavin, puts enough oily affectation into his performance, you expect him to break into a chorus of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” at any moment) and Scweika (Robert Strauss, who apparently never met a piece of scenery that didn’t resemble a buffet table) who runs the card games at which Frankie is employed as a dealer. The consistently broad nature of the supporting performances suggests there is a deliberation in how Preminger approaches the material: presenting artificial, exaggerated performance as a substitution of the novel’s uniquely stylized voice; by replacing prose with cartoons. (Significantly, the strong thread of Polish culture running through the novel is obliterated by both Hollywood’s penchant for social homogenization- this has to play in Peoria after all -and the fixation with box-office over appropriate casting. What a difference in the film, even under the same sanitized conditions, if the producer had bravely cast unknowns even remotely approximating the appropriate ethnic heritage of the characters.) This is either a complete misreading of the source material, or more likely, a pragmatic shortcut which enabled the producer/director to maintain the provocative element of drug addiction- producer Preminger’s censorial battleground du jour -while discarding the actual form of the novel: a communal kaleidoscope in which Frankie may be the binding narrative core, though not a central catalyst to the destinies of many of the characters. Bernstein and Metzler’s linear redressing of the novel makes many understandable excisions, including lengthy passages of internal monologue expressed in poetically metaphysical pseudo-stream of consciousness, but damagingly reconceiving the lives and fates of the surrounding neighborhood, omitting the morally apocalyptic retributions visited upon each of the characters for their transgressional behavior; a grand design of misery almost Biblical in it’s unerring vengeance on punishing those who have trod into the realm of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The divergence from novel to film is immediate, the tone of the book is forever crushed in the opening scene when Sinatra departs the bus flashing his signature smile (the film is far too eager to have the audience like him) in that Frankie’s desire to become a drummer, a pipe dream mentioned sporadically in the novel, is, in the film version, the dramatic hook in which the entire film is based, altering the focus of the novel from a community kaleidoscope of despair to only Frankie’s story with the supporting players whirling about him like satellites vying for crumbs of screen time, while the suspense of the film equally divides itself between Frankie’s addiction and whether or not he’ll ever succeed as a musician: an unthinkably altered simplification of the novel with which Preminger undercuts with further lackadaisical spurning of the novel’s content, with not-so-incidental changes that damagingly change the dynamic of the novel in several specific ways. Frankie’s incidental desire to become a big name drummer is magnified so far out of proportion as to render the narrative almost unrecognizable, softening the hopelessness of the characters by Frankie’s story in the film becoming the only character perspective explored- a devastating mistake -and with those motivational alterations in place, the film becomes a bland story of shooting for show biz stardom, a favorite theme of a Hollywood industry which clearly considers ambitions in the performing arts to be the self-inflating height of honorable aspiration.
The three major female characters- Sophie, Molly and Violet -also undergo severely damaging and sanitized alterations, the latter’s role so severely butchered as to become a virtual cameo. Molly, Frankie’s bruised angel of mercy- who may be the most sympathetic character in the book, more victim of her own belief in innocence than in actual harmful behavior -is reduced to a stock loyal good girl role (the situation isn’t helped by Kim Novak’s customary colorless performance) molded straight out of Nancy Olson’s Betty Schaefer in “Sunset Blvd.”, though less than useless in this context, bereft of that character’s positioning- specific to the film -as a tempting example of normalcy unwittingly engaged in another character’s conflict with moral integrity. Most ruinous of all is the reconception of Frankie’s crippled wife Sophie (nicknamed Zosh, and well played by a nevertheless miscast Eleanor Parker) whose deception of her condition is now spitefully calculated (whereas in the book it is pathologically psychosomatic, Sophie’s delusion eventually leading to insanity), leading her to deliberately kill Louie when he discovers her secret. This last, reconstitutes the plot dramatically (in the novel Frankie’s fate is sealed by his accidental killing of the pusher), leading to gymnastic contortions of plotting to arrive at a completely unconvincing and unwarranted traditional Hollywood happy ending: the asserted victory over the forced positivity of the Production Code becomes increasinly less visible with each projected frame.
There is also the ruinous shift in making Frankie’s addiction open and sympathetically accepted knowledge in the community, an attitude directly contradictory to the novel in which the central characters (and by extension, the mindset of the novel’s community) are repelled by those who indulge in narcotics- an interesting moral boundary in a society where gambling, petty theft, alcoholism, adultery and confidence games run rampant -but a telling communal line in the sand which fortifies the innate core of integrity within the community: despite their desperation, they do have standards of socially acceptable behavior. However, in nullifying Frankie’s breach of the community’s code of conduct, the filmmakers endeavor to treat the character with kid gloves, to make him more sympathetic (there is not a trace of irony in Sinatra’s performance, nothing to make you feel there is any reason for his addiction except for the necessities of the script) and thus automatically deserving of the unnaturally forced, teeth-grating happy ending. This is a betrayal of both the novel and the audience; where Preminger abandons Algren for Andy Hardy, allowing the forced intrusion of hackneyed plot twists instead of having the courage to follow the characters to their almost predestined ends; a stunning lack of courage from a filmmaker whose perpetual breast beating was intended to signal the presence of a personage of unshakable artistic conviction.
By reducing the whole of the novel’s communal conception to a singular focal point, not even to that of a single character, but to a singular aspect of that character’s story and to advance that aspect as the fulcrum of your adaptation- drug abuse as a marketable claim to artistic courage -the filmmaker deliberately abandons what makes the source material vital and simultaneously concedes the exploration of the character of Frankie to the timid, limited boundaries of Hollywood flummery. When a character has been created, bound to a certain aesthetic principle, and that conceptual context is discarded, what is left is a mere phantom of that character. In blindly allowing the carving out the viscera of the novel in service to a falsely prideful stance against censorial repression, Preminger has conceded to the very tenets of the Production Code, by homogenizing the very substance of a difficult story into a delusional fable in which all anxieties will are naturally absolved by the cooling ministrations of milquetoast melodrama. To have translated an unexpurgated version of the novel to the screen and reached the fatalistic conclusion of Algren’s work would have been an effort- in the repressive atmosphere of 1955 Hollywood -meriting consideration as an act of cultural courage, but the existent film version of “The Man With the Golden Arm” is merely- despite claims to the contrary -Hollywood business as usual.
Considering the talent involved, it’s depressing when the best part of the movie is the opening title sequence, comprised of Saul Bass’ stark, fractured graphics which when underscored by the increasingly hysterical jazz composition of Elmer Bernstein manages to convey an inescapable vortex of disquiet which, disappointingly, never materializes further. (The film certainly, never again, rises to this level of raw energy.) Both Bass and Bernstein elevate their chosen fields with their contributions, and the synthesis of their efforts which open the film, impresses with a startling leap forward in the evolution of the title form, investing the opening credit sequence with an entirely new cinematic vocabulary, an example which Preminger, (Walter) Bernstein and Meltzer all failed to emulate.
“Von Ryan’s Express” (1965)
Despite the sterling example of Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion”, the prisoner of war escape film did not find a wide popularity until well after the Second World War, presumably as the propagandistic value of the war film during actual periods of military conflict would generate a greater jingoistic fervor with the exciting depiction of victorious military forces advancing triumphantly against the enemy (not surprisingly, one of the very best of the genre, John Ford’s “They Were Expendable” was a popular failure on its release, no doubt in part, due to the more realistic, ultimately fatalistic tone of the film), inevitably rendered in splashy, panoramic action scenes filled with emotionally charged heroism and sacrifice; conflict on a grand scale, where the division between life and death is understood to be as much of a roll of the fateful dice as much as being fortified with expert training and ability. By comparison, the set-up the P.O.W. escape film finds the threat of death less immediate as long as one, presumably, functions within the regulatory rules set up by the camp’s authoritarian force, though this invites the inevitable force of wills, enabled by nationalistic pride and the soldier’s duty to harass the enemy; thus engaging a different kind of battle, less reliant on the visceral charge of physical conflict, more often with the substitution of a battle of wills and wits. That these films satisfy the need to vicariously experience victory against the formidable odds engineered by the enemy, while demonstrating the superior weapons of guile and intellect over more savagely violent means. Success over the enemy in these films celebrated not only a military victory, but a moral one, demonstrative of the assured confidence of the justly self-aggrandizing Allied view of an elevated conception of civilized human conduct. (The alternate view of German troops engaged in a cat-and-mouse strategy of escape from a British camp, in Lamont Johnson’s outstanding and undervalued 1970 film “The McKenzie Break”, interestingly depicts the prisoners as violent thugs and their leader as a murderous pragmatist who willingly kills his own men en masse to achieve his ends.)
In 1943 wartime Italy, U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra in a winning performance that minimizes the only occasional dull line readings but makes a maximum use of his star power to credibly assert his authority, even when the plot gets a bit farfetched) is shot down over and rescued by Italian soldiers from possible Nazi capture, and transfer him to an local P.O.W. camp where he become senior officer, a situation filled with tension and animosity since the majority of the soldiers are British, led by Major Fincham (Trevor Howard) with whom Ryan will have as contentious a relationship as he does with the enemy Nazi’s and fascist-friendly Italians. With the surrender of Italy, the hundreds of prisoners are faced with an almost complete abandonment by their captors and are now in the midst of a German occupied nation.
“Von Ryan’s Express”, in every way an impressive adaptation of David Westheimer’s tense novel of extended wartime escape, is a welcome addition to the impressive post-war collective of films concerning prisoners of war including “Stalag 17”, “The Elusive Corporal”, “The Colditz Story”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Great Escape”, though the plot (both in the novel and film) wavers precariously on the side of the preposterous, it is handled with an admirable steadiness of directorial control by Mark Robson, who accentuates a good amount of concise, revealing and even humorous character exposition between the rapid advance of action sequences, in no small way assisted by a crackerjack screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon which in the course of transition to the screen makes some major changes from the source novel, though rather than the expected alterations of dilution in service to commercial considerations, there are logical and intelligent additions that enrich the characters: a deadly massacre signalling a fallibility in Col. Ryan’s decision making that will weigh on the importance of his success in leading a mass escape, an incident not found in the book, substitutes for an understandable incident of mistaken identity that gives rationale to Fincher’s mistrust of the American Colonel’s capacity for leadership, rather than the contentious-for-the-sake-of-dramatic-conflict relationship expressed in the book. (This critical incident is later mirrored in an arresting scene which faces Ryan squarely with a pivotal moment of aching moral crisis.)
In both literary and cinematic incarnations, “Von Ryan’s Express” is a story about authoritarianism, though in significantly varying degrees. In the novel, Ryan is a strict disciplinarian to the point of mania (his past hot shot mentality traumatically altered by a horrifying event concerning his mentor), whereas the film Ryan is characterized by a more humane pragmatism welcoming to the contributory assistance of others while never relinquishing his controlling authority. The schism between Fincher and Ryan (referred to as “Von Ryan” in the film due to the misconception of the prisoners that the Colonel was collaborating with the Germans when, in fact, he was securing the return of suspended privileges for his men), a fractious relationship often as heated as that between the prisoners and the Germans, is given the luxury of extended expository scenes in the prison camp which exposes the raw endings between the two officers, based as much on egotism and the clashing of cultural priorities as proprietary military responsibilities. This friction creates an added level of narrative suspense as, with every step taken, Ryan is faced with discovery/capture by the enemy and the danger of being perceived as an officer unworthy of his post of leadership by a hostile command, a point portrayed in significantly less demonstrative terms (as opposed to the novel) en masse throughout the film as by the time the prisoners are placed on the transport train- the “Express” of the title -they then become more of an abstract representation of the sterile statistical numbers men are reduced to in times of major conflict; this mass anonymity elevating Fincher’s status as the agent expressing the men’s collective suspicion and discontent.
Impressively, through an intelligent reconfiguring of the story’s concluding portions- readers of the book will find their suspected lessening of surprise and suspense, due to presumed foreknowledge of narrative spoilers, happily upended -the screenwriters have managed to extend the strengths of their source material while embroidering their own imaginative and extensive contributions. The ending of the film is a case in point, with the novel’s original path to its climax jettisoned in favor of a relentless, though believable, string of incidents, most of which find their basis in elements casually introduced much earlier in the film and emerging with unexpected importance as the situation intensifies. Both narrative strings reach an unexpected collision in the final moments of the film, with the swaggering original ending replaced by a far more somber, meditative moment of reflection; a battlefield apotheosis ruefully accented by an earlier quote of condescension now turned ironic epitaph, reminding the audience that despite any apparent victory, war is still an instrument of Hell.
“Von Ryan’s Express” may be commercial escapism, but it’s the best kind: continuously interesting even when when not immersed in set-piece thrills, intelligently written with dialogue that doesn’t starve the brain, and performed with genuine gusto by an engaging and talented cast.
“Hour of the Gun” (1967)
Director John Sturges returns to the scene of his earlier “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, with a revisionist western attempting a greater fidelity to historical fact than previous westerns based upon the cultural myths advanced about Wyatt Earp. Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton. Rather than the predictable narrative structure with the O.K. Corral gunfight as the climax of the story, the film begins with the incident and explores the aftermath (including the lesser known but equally important Spicer hearings and the later Earp vendetta ride) of the continued battle of wills between Earp and Clanton, both in violent incident and a creeping moral degeneracy blurring the line between the law and the lawless. Though the familial bonds- which activate Earp’s acts of retribution as justice -are intensely impressed in the lawman, the most significant relationship depicted in the film is the unlikely friendship between Earp and the tubercular gambler/gunfighter Doc Holliday, portrayed by the wistful Jason Robards, who acts as both ally and wandering conscience to the complexly melancholic Wyatt Earp of James Garner. Though Edward Anhalt’s screenplay often concedes to a certain placard carrying obviousness of moralizing- especially in the crudely officious self-interest the righteous Tombstone community and business leaders express -more often than not, within the concessions to traditional western tropes there exists a welcome exploration of how the brutality of both profession and professional landscape may erode the fortitude of righteousness. In this exploration, the dynamic of gunfighter versus lawman, affords the opportunity for a continually escalating argument between the allies as to the legitimacy of the law used for the purposes of justice while genuinely motivated by personal vigilantism. While never conceding to the tired notion of Earp becoming that which he is pursuing, there is a motivational element to Earp’s actions that becomes an understandable circumstance of moral fence walking while it also becomes questionable whether or not that a lawman (in Western terms) being the lone arbiter in a (this question arises continually in Ted Post’s 1968 “Hang ‘Em High” in which the badge is a convenient mechanism to allow personal revenge despite the rather hypocritical assertions of the script, abandoning all philosophical underpinnings for the sake of gratuitous action) desolate territory, distanced from civilized jurisprudence, is allowed to make spontaneous alterations in the lawful boundaries of their duties and if so, what happens when poisonous emotional bias enters into that process?
If the film makes claims to historically factual representation, it is only in comparison to prior depictions of Wyatt Earp as a saintly, incorruptible lawman, with the most common flaw attributed to him being an overdeveloped piety. Much of that remains here, yet the historical threads that are allowed to unspool bring much fresh perspective which grows into a dramatically encouraged nagging self-doubt within the Marshal, in no way relieved by the editorial chorus that shadows him in the form of Doc Holliday, who spends much of the film underlining every step of his friend’s descent from moral grace; verbally italicizing points which should be obvious to the viewer, but in this case, usefully delineated to drive the point home against what may be an audience’s stubborn preconceptions; so fixed is Earp’s iconic stature in the public consciousness. Admittedly, despite the production’s claim to greater historical integrity, there are the expected additions, excisions, alterations and compressions of characters and detail that occur when a broad diorama of incident is molded into such a finite dramatic framework intended to illuminate the essential components of startlingly complex historical events, yet to their credit, the film makers manage to sustain a precision of moral tone (being that to this day there are many questions about the events which may forever go unresolved) that feels genuine to the situation even if the particulars of history are given dramaturgical rearrangement. The film follows the expected course of a traditional action film, though in his revisitation to familiar ground, director Sturges follows a deeper purpose in defining action strictly through character: almost every gunfight is preceded with revealing dialogue between the combatants- not the usual exchange of colorful quips mistaken for clever writing in contemporary action films -but penetrating talk that digs to the core of the scene’s tension.
Interestingly, in every scene there are moments in which there is a palpable hesitancy to engage in the fatal confrontations, as if the characters are resigned to an inescapable grasp of violent mortality made inevitable by the harsh model of society they have formed, distanced from lawful “civilization” and thus more susceptible to the exploitative whims of the corrupt powers necessary as an elemental force in molding that very society. The fatalism of the characters- mortality is an issue, even when not discussed, that looms mindfully over each character -reflects a constant uncertainty inherent in the violent, anarchic lifestyle of the territorial frontier. There is also an accurate delineation drawn between the powers of the cattle interests- whether or not their inventory is based in legitimacy- and the developing township/business/political interests: though both parties seem paralyzed in a power stalemate, no doubt due to the fact that both are defined by identical corruptive self-interests.
If there is a damaging flaw with Anhalt’s script, and there are two, the first is that the film often seems brazenly self-congratulatory, wearing its intentions on its sleeve, with occasional flashes of braggadocio as if saying “Hear that? That is Truth with a captal ‘T’”, which at several points in the film makes the production feel like a civics lesson rather than a drama.The second flaw is one of failure to successfully develop its chief antagonist on par with the level of accomplishment with its “heroes”, creating an inevitable drain of dramatic immediacy and gravitas in the film’s climactic confrontation. However, the seemingly hyperbolic question raised on the film’s marketing material (see one sheet image, above) is actually quite accurate in delineating the central theme of the film, and paves the way for a true revisionism in the western: one that is defined by intelligent illumination rather than mere cosmetic window dressing in which many westerns of similar ambition have found an unconvincing intrusion into the pantheon of films overvalued with accomplished revisionist sensibilities by way of the overuse of period production values such as weatherworn clothing or lack of cosmetic applications, rather than advancing a genuine new vision. John Sturges‘ direction is tight, telling a story that covers a wide thematic canvas with an admirable precision of focus; at time so intimate that it resembles a chamber piece, though the necessary intrusions of intermittent action may, by catering to the genre expectations of the audience, unintentionally lessen the inherent Shakespearean complexity of a man defined (according to the film) by an inflexibly rigid standard of justice (as opposed to law), who is forced by the unbending nature of those same codes, to abort the boundaries of acceptable behavior, creating a contradiction that will serve his less than honorable vigilante instincts while essentially destroying the honorable man created by those codes. With the film’s unavoidable plot turns into territory well-trod by western enthusiasts (the motivated search for revenge is one of the most overused plot conventions of the genre, which, ironically, is historically accurate in the context of this movie), the film ultimately fails to become the tragedy befitting its self-consuming falling hero that the story might have been, but it is an accomplished and compelling piece nonetheless, refreshingly adult in its willingness to sacrifice the easy commercial draw of a film built on the attraction of standard Old West visceral excitement, for a more languid psychological probing of what is going on behind those same explosions of crowd-pleasing action.
Jason Robards finds a role mightily suited to his talent for sardonic irony in Doc Holliday. As conceived by Anhalt’s script, while not the central character, Holliday is certainly the most vital in giving voice to the conscience of the repressed, taciturn Wyatt Earp. Were it not for Holliday’s unyielding commentary, Earp would remain an enigma: another in a series of predictably merciless vendetta killers. Doc’s presence allows Anhalt to stir the mix and explore Earp’s turmoil over his own moral contradictions. James Garner, for his part, wisely plays against his ingratiating everyman persona (as he did in Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix”, only in that film, there were not sufficient compensations worked into the script to distract from his role’s arrogance of character, allowing the actor to emerge as either knowable or even particularly likeable), withdrawing into an obdurate stoicism: a literal manifestation of the “strong silent type”. The film takes Garner’s role as the mythic Wyatt Earp and puts him through a hellacious test when his civilized instincts, based in unshakeable devotion to the law and family, are forced to confront his primal impulses for vigilante retribution when those devotions are violated.
If Garner is a rock-solid Wyatt Earp, the genuine surprise of the film is the listless portrayal of Ike Clanton by the usually reliable, perennial underrated Robert Ryan. The actor’s failure to find a center to the character is not entirely without cause, as the role seems to be conceived by the screenwriter as a casual concession to traditional oaters, portraying the Cowboy outlaw as the standard power mad cattle baron (albeit, by way of rustling) whose function is basically to poke the good guys with a stick until they fight back. It is a shamefully weak link in character conception that needlessly undermines an otherwise fine addition to the short shelf of accomplished films that successfully revisit the American West with a genuine revisionist eye.
“SOUTH PACIFIC” (1958)
The 1958 Joshua Logan film of “South Pacific” is a perfect demonstration of the value of the movie soundtrack album as a preferable experience over a film. In the former, there is much pleasure to be gained aurally without the distracting aesthetic visual offenses of the latter.
Curiously, the film asserts the technological advances of widescreen Todd-AO and six-track sound, while simultaneously becoming a throwback to the aesthetics of the silent film; certainly a bizarre model for a musical film. In the process of producing the film, the inconceivable decision was made that the songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein were insubstantial in evoking an emotional response from the audience and therefore needed the assistance of color tinting, a common practice in the days of silent pictures with their monochromatic photography, but a supremely absurd when used in coordination with full color photography. The resulting filtering effect not only obscures the spatial clarity that is one of the hallmarks of the Todd-AO process, it creates a murky, muddy visual density that distances the viewer from what the actors are emoting, in both song and dramatic performance, as the suffocating distraction of the thermal hues- making those particular sequences look as if they’d been filmed on the surface of the Sun -exacerbate the artificiality of a film that is contradictorily shot through great logistical effort on actual tropical locations. What God has created as natural South Seas splendor, let the optical engineers at 20th Century Fox transform into the best impression of watching a film through cataracts.
There are further problems, also aesthetic, but outside of the realm of the technological. Director Joshua Logan directs as if an imaginary, oppressive proscenium arch were inhibiting his stagings of both the dramatic scenes (the scenes in Capt. Brackett’s office are especially artificial) and, more disastrously, the musical numbers, which are already burdened with the appalling filtering. Despite the limiting “clothesline” compositions of actors that were necessary for spatial focus in the earliest Cinemascope features, the more refined anamorphic clarity of Todd-AO brings an enhanced sharpness to the cinematography that accomodates a greater opportunity for dynamic widescreen compositioning, an aptitude not readily evident in Logan’s visual vocabulary: his actors are continually placed playing directly to a consciously acknowledged fourth wall, relinquishing all illusion that they are not performing specifically to the audience and inhabiting their own three dimensional universe. However, this artificial staginess is enhanced with another yet distracting optical offense: ersatz iris shots as if the actors are swimming in a fishbowl of vaseline, actually giving the illusion (in concert with the heavy color filtering) of a seriously deteriorated film element. Since these visual gambits are used reserved for those scenes where the romantic intensity is meant to be heightened, it appears as if the film makers lacked the confidence in their own material (an odd situation since Logan not only directed the original Broadway production, but co-authored the theatrical book as well) without bludgeoning the audience into submission. Unfortunately, the digressive techniques are so primitive, the opposite effect occurs: the audience is violently pulled out of the emotional core of the film.
The dilution of what should be the central relationship of the film, between Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and the French-born island plantation owner Emile de Becque, continues with an unfathomable restructuring of the original theatrical plot, with the film now opening with an original extended sequence featuring the aerial arrival of Lt. Joe Cable (John Kerr, accompanied by future “Billy Jack” star Tom Laughlin) and moving the original initial expository scene and songs featuring Cable, Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), Luther Billis (Ray Walston) and the Seabees. This pushes aside the initial of the set-up with the film’s two lead characters until every major character- except for Liat (France Nuyen) -is introduced, making the central romantic plot secondary to Cable’s story which has already been developed both in establishing his mission on the island and the genesis of his haunted attraction to Bali Ha’i, a paradisical island on which he will find the love of his life in the form of Bloody Mary’s beauteous daughter Liat. The spectre of racial bigotry soon makes its presence known in the fracturing of both romantic relationships: Nellie fleeing from Emile when she discovers he had been previously married to a woman of Polynesian descent and fathered two children with her, and Cable backing away from his love affair in anticipation of the frisson such a mixed race marriage might cause within his family and their elevated Philadelphia social circles. Heartbroken, de Becque agrees to assist Cable in a dangerous reconnaissance mission on a Japanese-held island, a mission that he had previously resisted due to his love affair with Nellie.
Based on James Michener’s collection of stories “Tales of the South Pacific”, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Seas wartime musical is a truly schizophrenic piece of theater, containing perhaps the famous duo’s score of most consistent excellence while being weighed down with an unnecessarily clunky book. The Pulitzer Prize winning show certainly grabbed the attention of the awards committees for the worn-on-the-sleeve obviousness of it’s plea for racial tolerance ( that it takes place in a war zone, a model of global intolerance, is an irony that often escapes critical assessment), a structurally wobbly plot line with its painfully forced, intrusive insertions of the “Big Theme” in the midst of sappy romance and service comedy hijinks, as if the notion of an important message dutifully pasted in the middle of the plot at certain intervals elevates all of the material to a prestigious state of profundity. However, the insoluble mixture created by the awkwardly assembled variant story elements form a narrative that stalls and restarts at regular intervals (not helped by the movie’s truly awkward segues into the songs- among the most clumsy in memory -which introduce the numbers by the foolishly incohesive decision to have the performers simply stand inertly and wait for the lengthy orchestral intros to finish cuing their songs), none of which is relieved by the blandness of casting.
Rossano Brazzi provides no heat as Emile de Becque- his Italian accent betraying a lack of Gallic origins -who spends so much screen time absently brooding to the horizon, it is unclear whether he attempting to recall his lines or is merely posing for Easter Island statuary. Ironically, Mitzi Gaynor has the opposite problem: as Nellie Forbush, Gaynor is so full of gee-whiz effervescence she fails to engage on any deeper, mature level of complexity, reducing her role to that of a vacuously immature but smitten post-adolescent, and this leads to an almost palpable vacuum between the two lovers, who huff and puff mightily in their respective songs (given the suffocatingly saturated atmosphere, one wishes they had the aid of oxygen masks), but fail to connect: the powerful expressions of longing in their song lyrics wouldn’t possibly emanate from either of these (as portrayed) characters; Gaynor is far more effective in her energetic rendition of “Honey Bun” (one of the few numbers that actually works, perhaps due to the fact that it is performed on a stage and therefore not subject to integration with more the problematic non-theatrical settings), her lightweight charm finding firmer ground in flirtatious giddiness rather than grand high passion. In the important role of Lt. Cable, John Kerr delivers his best impersonation of a banyan tree: both unmoved and unmoving. Only Ray Walston and Juanita Hall rise to the occasion, enlivening their respective roles with a proper nuanced balance of both humor and drama whatever the needs of the scene; both, perhaps not coincidentally, are veterans of the theatrical productions- Walston in London and Hall on Broadway, though in another of an apparently unceasing string of dubious creative decisions, her vocals are needlessly dubbed.