Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Hole in the Head (1959)
Director: Frank Capra

There is no shortage of stories about reaching for the American dream. Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby are two of the 20th century's most self-deluded climbers toward the promised land. Their creators, Arthur Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, were men of letters and, significantly, both American. Being born inside the dream, both could see its soft underbelly and weep.

Frank Capra is another matter. A Sicilian, he came to the promised land with his parents in 1903 and became the picture-perfect fulfillment of the American dream on which its native sons had gone sour. His films tend to affirm the greatness of America, where you're never out of the game and where a cynical heart will be reborn before the final frame. People feel good when they finish a Capra film because it is their cynical hearts he is working on, the grateful immigrant boy made good telling his troubled neighbors "you don't know what trouble is. This is paradise!"

A Hole in the Head is a later entry in the Capra oeuvre, but it has a familiar sound. This is It's a Wonderful Life transposed to Florida. Tony Manetta (Frank Sinatra) is George Bailey's successor as the man who wants more out of life. His ambitions are greater than Bailey's--this film is from the prosperous post-WWII years, after all. Manetta wants to be a big shot. Instead, he's a widower on the verge of being evicted from the rundown hotel he manages. He's got a cute kid/buddy (Eddie Hodges) and a beatnik girlfriend (Carolyn Jones). When all his options fail, he calls his big brother Mario (Edward G. Robinson), a 5-and-dime mogul from New York, to bail him out.

Sinatra's character is that of a boy stubbornly clinging to his dreams. He lives like the bum his brother calls him, but we know he's really pure of heart because he won't give up his vision for his life. This stubbornness cost Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby their lives, but for Capra, the story turned out differently. His antiheroes always discover the richness that they have--usually in their human relationships. But A Hole in the Head cuts a little darker than other Capra films. The implied happy ending, during which Manetta is shown running down the beach with his son and a lovely widow (Eleanor Parker) he has just met, is smoke and mirrors. Manetta is still in deep trouble, financially and personally. He hasn't grown up; he doesn't seem to really connect on a personal level to anyone, even his son. The only real difference between him and Mr. Potter is that he's broke and Potter isn't. He doesn't deserve a happy ending, even in Capra's world. But this is Hollywood and Capra, where everything comes out right and everyone has infinite chances to make good. Too bad. This could have been the anti-Capra movie he always should have made. l

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Director: Andrew Leman

Fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft has a devoted fan base--one that has not been satisfied so far by the film industry. The Call of Cthulhu, a low-budget film shot as a silent in the 21st century, is the one that should fulfill what always seemed to be the promise of Lovecraft.

Director Leman and his writer Sean Branney are Lovecraft and film enthusiasts. They saw the problems inherent in Lovecraft's story--large casts, multiple locations, filming at sea--and decided on an unusual solution in this highly technological age. By shooting the film in black and white, without sound, they could create a fantastical world on a shoestring while preserving the hypnotic and evocative images Lovecraft fashioned through his words.

Our protagonist, Professor Angell, investigates the cult of Cthulhu after learning of the strange history of this demon in the pages of his dead uncle's case records. His uncle innocently stumbled into the Cthulhu snake pit while trying to help a young man named Henry Wilcox, who was plagued by grotesque dreams. The film is told in flashbacks, as Angell recounts his uncle's investigations into the origins of the cult. Eventually, Angell tracks down the lone survivor of a sailing expedition to a lost island inhabited by the demon Cthulhu. The full horror of this sailor's encounter is revealed in his diary, which the film depicts in nightmarish detail.

This film crossbreeds modern acting and some modern film techniques with conventions and techniques of the silent era. It is jarring to anyone familiar with silent films, but once we are enveloped in the story, reservations vanish. The film creates a real sense of mood and dread t
hrough simple, sleight-of-hand means. A piece of fabric becomes a churning sea. A stop-action doll becomes the monstrous Cthulhu. The ingenuity of this dedicated team of Lovecraft enthusiasts makes us fear for our immortal souls despite ourselves. This film shows that you don't have to throw millions of dollars worth of special effects at an audience to get them to buy into your tale of terror and willingly push themselves over the edge.

The film is aided enormously by the brilliant score by Troy Sterling Nies, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic, and Chad Fifer, which punctuates and illuminates every scene with the mood and drama needed to carry its imagery. I highly recommend this labor of love, available on DVD, that demonstrates that although we don't need to film without sound, silent filmmaking is still a viable option to open-minded filmmakers with certain challenges. Check out the special features, including the "making of" short feature, a real delight. l


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Gun Crazy (1949)
Alternate Title: Deadly Is the Female
Director: Joseph H. Lewis

What goes together like guns and ammunition? For fans of classic noir, the only answer is Annie Laurie Starr and Bart Tare, the sharpshooting outlaw couple in Gun Crazy. Joseph H. Lewis’s mesmerizing film noir is just about as pulpy as they come, with its unironic dialogue and seedy environments. “I’m bad,” says Laurie to Bart, “But I’ll try awfully hard to be good. Awfully hard.” “It makes me feel good inside, like I’m somebody,” says Bart about his gunslinging talents. These are two elemental characters who act mainly on emotion. Even the complicated heist they laboriously plan, which requires Laurie to get a job in the Armour-Albuquerque payroll department, looks like something they executed on the fly that afternoon. Indeed, they throw caution to the wind entirely after the robbery and take off for the California border together instead of driving in separate cars to opposite corners of the United States as they had agreed. Why? They aren’t just crazy about guns. They simply cannot be apart from each other.

It doesn’t look as though Bart is headed for a life as a fugitive from justice at the start of the movie. A 13-year-old Bart (played by “Rusty” [Russ] Tamblyn) is in juvenile court for smashing a store window and stealing a gun, but his sister and closest friends say he isn’t a danger to anyone. An incident in which he killed a newly hatched chick with a b.b. gun has made it impossible for him to kill anything. The judge, though sympathetic, still sends Bart to reform school until he turns 18 to discourage him from stealing. Four years in the Army follow, and Bart (John Dall) returns to his hometown to look for work with the Remington company. Reunited with the boyhood friends who stood up for him in court, he attends a carnival with them where he meets Laurie (Peggy Cummins), a sideshow sharpshooter. Although Bart has a sweet, Jimmy Stewartesque demeanor and Laurie couldn’t look any more tough and deadly, the attraction is immediate. He gets a job as her partner and eventually they leave the show, marry, and seem to be headed for happily ever after.

Scenes of the high life Bart and Laurie are living give way, however, to a boxcar diner where the pair must refuse onions on their hamburgers because it costs 5 cents extra. As they wolf down their food, Laurie is probably already hatching her “I’ll never be hungry again” plan. “I want things. Lots of things,” she says and ropes a helplessly in love Bart into a life as her stick-up partner. Never seeming to able to hold onto money, Bart and Laurie’s jobs get bigger and bolder, moving from liquor stores to banks. The payroll heist is to be their last big job. “Just one more,” Laurie promises a reluctant Bart. It’s not hard for the avid noir fan to figure out why.

This is one of the more ingenious noirs I’ve seen. At the start of their final robbery, Bart moves through a sea of animal carcasses as he makes his way from the Armour loading dock to the payroll office, clearly foreshadowing his own death in a new, more contemporary way. Gun Crazy takes the noir screen vocabulary—confining interiors, moody lighting, tight window frames, odd camera angles—and twists them slightly. In its obligatory broken mirror, for example, neither Bart nor Laurie are reflected, but rather, a rival of Bart’s for Laurie’s loyalty. In a sense, this break from convention signals that this noir has something few other films of its kind can offer—bad guys who earn our sympathy, in this case, by being completely in love. The movie was an obvious influence on Bonnie and Clyde, and both films are as much love stories as crime dramas.

Love, of course, never conquers all in noir, and Bart and Laurie meet their end in a terrific scene in a foggy swamp that represents a place of innocence from Bart’s youth and the final, confining setting for a doomed love. The film earns the complex emotions we feel at the end by giving us so much to chew on along the way. l