The Silent Duel [The Quiet Duel/Shizukanaru kettô] (1949)

Anyway, How Is Your Sex Life?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For unknown reasons, The Silent Duel (with other sources calling it The Quiet Duel) is the one Akira Kurosawa movie which has been neglected. This unsung medical melodrama has no high-quality re-master, no Criterion Collection release whilst my own hard-to-find UK DVD itself comes with some very unattractive packaging and although perfectly watchable, the frame rate is overly smooth in places (unless you’re reading this at a future date in which in a 4K release packed with bonus features exists).

The opening wartime sequence of The Silent Duel is a superb showcase of atmospheric filmmaking from a real master of cinema. Kurosawa employs his trademark use of the elements within a makeshift medical centre as the sight and sound of rain beats down alongside an irritating drip of water and the flickering of lights distracts a surgeon and his aides while their faces are dripping with sweat (not-to-mention doctors who are smoking on the job). Right off the bat, The Silent Duel is a film with many a shot of superb composition with the moment which impressed me the most in this opening prologue is the dramatic tension created by a truck driving past in the background just at the moment when Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) discovers he has contracted syphilis. Dr. Fujisaki’s transaction of syphilis is through no fault of his own, rather he received it through the blood of a patient he was operating on, although due to the stigma he chooses to tell no one he has sexually transmitted disease and secretly begins injecting himself with salvarsan as a treatment.

Following the opening wartime prologue, the majority of The Silent Duel takes place in a run-down hospital in an unnamed, bombed-out city circa 1946. Like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel from the previous year, the story and the setting may be interpreted in a metaphoric sense that reflects the state of Japan following the war. The main driver of conflict in The Silent Duel is that of Dr. Fujisaki refusing to tell his fiancée Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjo) about his condition and calling of their marriage with his justification being that he knows she will spend the best years of her young life waiting for him to recover. However, is this act as noble as it first appears or is it one of pure selfishness to make him feel better about himself in this thought-provoking conundrum? His absence of trust in Misao causes her extraordinary pain and robs her of the ability to make her own decision about the matter. The scene in which Misao comes to visit Fujisaki one more time before going to marry another man is utterly heartbreaking. The two can barely look at each other in the face and it’s clearly evident she still so desperately loves him and wants to play the role of his housewife as they take one last cup of tea in the hospital kitchen in which she used to assist in. I feel like I want to shout at the screen, “just tell her the truth, you absolute cretin!”.

Notwithstanding, the big show-stealer of The Silent Duel is Noriko Sengoku as the probationary nurse Rui Minegishi. The downtrodden, scruffy, snarky, cynical character was rescued by Dr. Fujisaki and given a job after she tried to take her own life upon becoming pregnant. The character goes through a remarkable arc of maturity as she gives birth to her baby, studies to become a nurse, metamorphoses a more presentable appearance and acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the long-suffering doctor. There is even a hint at a relationship blossoming between the two after she outright tells him that she loves him although this is never drawn upon again. The Silent Duel is based on the play The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta. I’ve been informed an abortion does actually occur in the play whereas none takes place in the film. Dr. Fujisaki criticizes Miss Minegishi for wanting an abortion and even goes as far as calling her a monster. Whether or not The Silent Duel could be classified as a pro-life film, it does take a celebratory tone when it comes to childbirth.

If I were to complain about one aspect of The Silent Duel, it would be the film’s score. The majority of the film features no music and thus alongside its subject matter, it has that same feeling present in American pre-code films (which feature little-to-no music scores) of which I particularly enjoy. When music is used it is over-the-top and interferes with the drama rather than contributing to it. In one extremely odd use of music during the scene in which Fujisaki’s father (the only instance Takashi Shimura played Mifune’s father in their many film pairings) reacts to finding out his son has syphilis, I am not joking, I thought there was an ice cream van driving through my street. The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film scored by Akira Ifukube (who would go on to compose for the Godzilla franchise), and I can only speculate if Kurosawa wasn’t pleased with the music.

The Silent Duel could be viewed as a public information film on how syphilis ruins lives. Towards the film’s end, Dr. Fujisaki has a powerful, emotional breakdown in front of Miss Minegishi, as he lets it all bare regarding his restrained sexual desires brought about by his syphilis (“But one day because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure”). The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film to deal to really deals with themes of a sexual nature, from a filmography which is otherwise very much asexual. Man gets an STD without getting laid, perhaps that’s the greatest tragedy of all present in The Silent Duel.

Late Spring [Banshun] (1949)

Sometimes It Snows In April

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For some directors, it can take time before they hit their full stride. Alfred Hitchcock had been directing movies for 25 years prior to directing his most iconic works in the 1950s and ’60s. Correspondingly, Japanese filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu had been directing for 22 years before he made Late Spring, in my opinion, his magnum opus (although I know others will argue in favour of Tokyo Story) and the beginning of his golden age in which he created a profound series of films about Japanese middle-class domesticity (whereas his work pre-1949 tended to focus more towards poverty-stricken families).

Late Spring is also the first entry of The Noriko Trilogy (alongside Early Summer and Tokyo Story), with all three films starring Setsuko Hara, often named The Eternal Virgin in her country of origin, and it’s not hard to see why. I would defy anyone to watch Late Spring and not fall in love with this capital G Goddess of feminine virtue – with her angelic, shy demeanour emanating a slightly bent over posture alongside a smile that could kill. Late Spring showcases her as an actress of amazing depth and able to convey such deep emotional range in the role of Noriko Somiya. There is somewhat of a contradictory nature to the character of Noriko when it comes to her conservative views. Noriko finds her uncle’s remarrying to be “distasteful” and “impure” and not afraid to say it to his face (albeit in a kindly manner) and can’t bear the idea of her widowed father doing the same thing. Hara is able to portray a character of such saintly purity (it’s even mentioned she does not drink) without it ever becoming sickenly so. Yet contradicting this is the reluctance she holds to get married herself. 

The relationship Noriko shares with her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishū Ryū) is both odd and endearing. She is unemployed and takes joy in looking after her old father, acting as a housewife minus any incestuous implications. Details presented in Late Spring are scant about the character’s histories, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. I can assume the young woman would be inclined to share this kind of a relationship with her father due to their time during the war. It is mentioned during the course of the film that Noriko endured forced labour during this period and “had to run around to get food on her day off”, and is required to receive regular blood tests as a result. Chishū Ryū on-the-other-hand feels like he was born an old man, made to look older than he was in all three films of The Noriko Trilogy, and convincingly so.

At the age of 27 and still single, Noriko is approaching the “late spring” of her shelf life, reaching the age she would no longer be considered marriageable, but is unwilling to part from the status-quo arrangement she has with her father. Like a number of Ozu films, the story of Late Spring centers around arranged marriage, although anathema to viewers in the west, it does not detract from the universality of his work. A scene that really hits home for me is that in which Noriko’s aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) has a talk with Noriko about marrying. We’ve all been there, when an elder tells us to stop what we are doing and sit down to have a serious chat in which we feel uncomfortable but deep down we know they are correct even if one, like Noriko, signifies their objections but later comes to an eventual acceptance. Noriko’s arranged partner, Mr Kumataro Satake (aka Bear Boy), remains an off screen character, with the only detail passed onto the viewer about his physical appearance is that he looks like Gary Cooper, especially around the mouth but not the top half – allowing the viewer to once again fill in the blanks. 

On a further personal note, I first watched Late Spring at the age of 28, only 1 year older than the character of Noriko, and despite this being a film about a young Japanese women’s pressure to get married in the years following the war, it still spoke to me on the basis that life is passing you by, that change is an inevitable part of life with the pain and heartache which comes with that must be endured. When Noriko speaks to her father at the end of a trip to Kyoto just before the wedding, she speaks of how “I just want to be with you, like this. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m happy being with you like this.” – Just ensure you have a box of Kleenex handy.

When watching any film of Ozu’s later period, the viewer will immediately be put into a great sense of ease with his trademark use of pillow shots (two or three quiet compositions usually showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky) alongside the ever tranquil music scores. Unique however to the opening pillow shots of a railway station in Late Spring is the quaint, English feel to it, aided by the images of a gentle breeze in the leaves and the sound of birds chirping. If I was shown this opening out of context, I could swear it was neo-realist footage of a quiet, remote part of the English countryside. Likewise, the geometric nature of the interior of Japanese homes along with Ozu’s unique style of composition with use of the so called tatami shot is very pleasing to the eyes. This look into another culture extends to the film’s documentary-like aspects as we are treated to slices of everyday post-war Japanese life from kids playing baseball to the inclusion of a Noh play. The westernization present in Japanese films from this period can come off as a shock for first-time viewers of Japanese cinema such as the sight of Tokyo’s classical European architecture as seen in Late Spring.

The scene in which Noriko and Hattori (Jun Usami) go for a recreational cycle by the seaside is the cinematic encapsulation for the joy of living. A scene bustling with freedom and a lust for life with the sight of a smiling Setsuko Hara with her hair blowing in the wind alongside the quirky, upbeat music which accompanies the scene should be in the pantheon of cinema’s most iconic moments. It also contains the unexpected but memorable inclusion of a Coca-Cola sign featured prominently in the foreground – one of the most memorable pieces of product placement I’ve seen in a film. This sign along with another road sign in English warning that the weight capacity of the bridge the duo are riding over is 30 tons (irrelevant information for the two cyclists but necessary for any military vehicles to pass over) could be interpreted as signs to the otherwise unseen US occupation. Concurrently, I believe it’s not unreasonable to assume that Aya’s (Yumeji Tsukioka) ex-husband of whom she speaks of throughout the course of the film is a US serviceman. Aya refers to him by the name “Ken”, which Shukichi assumes is short for “Kenkichi” however Aya never corrects him. The other significant clue is Aya’s difficulty in sitting in a traditional Japanese manner without her legs getting numb, suggesting she has become more used to the western manner of sitting.

The Wikipedia page for Late Spring is bizarrely long and extremely detailed, more famous films have less in-depth articles – the work of an eager fan perhaps? In my research, I have found Late Spring only received its first home video release in the United States in 1994 and the mass availability of the films from this master of cinema has only become reality within the last decade. Perhaps the discovery of Yasujirō Ozu‘s work in the west outside of film circles has only begun?

Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi] (1948)

Drain The Swamp

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Drunken Angel marks the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s golden age in the first of the 16 film collaboration with Toshiro Mifune (6th out of a whopping 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Drunken Angel is a movie thick with atmosphere, set in a slum with worn out buildings in which a lone guitar player comes out at night overlooking a toxic bog (possibly created from a bomb crater) laden with prostitutes next to a medical practice – a metaphor for all that was rotten about life in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat. You can almost feel the heat and humidity come off the screen while during the film’s daytime scenes the city comes alive with the diegetic music echoing in the background. No city is mentioned by name but a sign in the background of one scene reads in English “Social Center Of Tokyo”.

The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – watching the two interact in the film’s opening scene they could easily carry the entire picture by themselves. A very youthful, handsome and suave Mifune is Matsunaga, a big shot member of the Yakuza (although the word is never mentioned in the film). With athletic agility, cat-like moves and his fashion choices of striped shirts and zoot suits, I do get some George Raft vibes from his performance. He shares a fascinating relationship with the brash, ill-tempered but dedicated Dr Sanada (Shimura) as he attempts to cure him of tuberculosis. The two hesitantly develop mutual respect for each other (Matsunaga reminds Sanada of himself during his youth as he states at one point) despite their highly tumultuous, sometimes violent interactions. In Drunken Angel Kurosawa doesn’t want to glamorize the Yakuza, but rather expose them as a blight on Japanese society. 

Drunken Angel is a classic story of addiction, in which “just one more drink” turns into a night of binging as Matsunaga drinks himself to death. The fantasy dream sequence involving Matsunaga opening a coffin on the beach only to find himself inside feels like something from a silent horror movie and is even quite Bergman-esque. It also feels reminiscent of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke Skywalker finds his own face within Darth Vader’s helmet. The climax of Drunken Angel on the other hand features the type of cinematic images that you never forget as a weak and ill Matsunaga tries to fight his boss Okada as the two are covered in paint and scrambling on the ground before Mutsunga is stabbed and collapses by a balcony – it feels reminiscent of the iconic endings in various Warner Bros gangster films. Had this been a Hollywood production I can easily see it being a vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, with perhaps Bogart as Okada?

It’s fascinating to see how much western trends are embraced in Japan, something which is often surprise to newcomers of Japanese film (I do love the interior of the dance hall with the giant playing cards on the walls as well as the Bolero Club with its Iberian ascetics and music). Yet at its heart Drunken Angel remains a story of post-war Japan with its characters and setting being an allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. Matsunaga can be seen as a symbol of the Japan of yesteryear, struggling to find relevance in this new world while Sanada is a broken Japan trying to forge ahead. Sanda’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) refuses to let go of her gangster, ex-boyfriend who ruined her life – a Japan which is pinning for what has been lost. However it is the young schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) of whom Dr Sanda cures of tuberculosis provides the film with an optimistic, wholesome ending -a sign of Japan yet to come.

Contraband [Blackout] (1940)

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word “Nazi” is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch – one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.

Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn’t have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain’s orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.

The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One NightContraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson’s early foreshadowing asking Sorensen “Have you ever been put in irons?” to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film’s final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot – as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.

Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds “Why don’t you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone”. With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can’t help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals – appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.

I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson’s ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned.  It’s never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they’re probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film’s ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.

Adjoining the Nazi’s London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as “Patriotic Plaster Products”. Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can’t tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds “They always said he was tough”. Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister –Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

box-office-jocks

It Happens Every Spring

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is one of the most enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing of MGM musicals, a film which isn’t as intense or faced paced as others but as a result is very relaxing and pleasurable to watch. A love letter to America’s favourite (or “favorite” for you yanks) pastime and a nostalgic look at the early turn of the century in which the worlds of Vaudeville and baseball come together.

Sources state Take Me Out to the Ball Game was entirely filmed on the MGM backlot at Culver City although there is a real sense of authenticity to the baseball grounds featured in the film. We even get the Once Upon a Time In the West shot overlooking the baseball grounds of the fictional Wolves team early in the film. Take Me Out to the Ball Game was directed by Busby Berkley oddly enough even though the movie is a product of the MGM musical making machine and is not reminiscent of his iconic works with Warner Bros back in the 1930s.

Like the other two films in the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra trilogy, Sinatra trying to act like a tough guy to contrast Kelly’s ladies man attitude is always a good laugh. I once again have to ask myself why this duo isn’t more celebrated not to mention Gene Kelly surprisingly gets a shocking third billing this time around. Betty Garret meanwhile plays a similar role she would go on to play in On The Town, making stalking funny rather than creepy or psychologically scarring in her pursuit of a gawky Frank Sinatra, just less of a nymphomaniac this time around. The cast also includes Edward Arnold playing once again, an unscrupulous rich guy as the film’s antagonist.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game fails to utilise Esther Williams iconic talents as a swimmer by not giving he an underwater number (regardless she is still seen swimming at one point in the film as she sings the movie’s title tune and shows what an elegant swimmer she is). Despite this, I feel Williams steals the show from Kelly and Sinatra and gives by far the best performance in the film as K.C. Higgins, the new owner the Wolves baseball club.

When the team members first learn the club is under new ownership they aren’t aware that K.C. Higgins ain’t a man (“He’s a girl!”). A lot of funny moments are drawn out of this misunderstanding as well as a humorous clash of the sexes as the boys try to adjust accordingly to the presence of a dame instead of the movie having some annoying, preachy feminist agenda. K.C. Higgins is a character who could have come off as bitchy and tyrannical is instead tough but fair, feisty, hard to get and one of the guys while still retaining her femininity.

The soundtrack selections of Take Me Out to the Ball are yet more great additions to MGM’s incredible repertoire. Yes Indeedy is one catching ditty but those spicy lyrics?! References to suicide and going out with an 11-year-old – I do enjoy when these innocent movies have their unexpected edgy side. Strictly U.S.A., on the other hand, is the 1940’s equivalent of “American, F**k Yeah!” as an ensemble lists of various aspects of Americana. O’ Brien, Ryan and Goldberg and The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day are both a drag for me, although the genuine look of joy on the faces of the extras watching Gene Kelly dance on the St Patrick’s Day number makes it worth it.

The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

Ball of Fire (1941)

sex3

The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

Sergeant York (1941)

Inspirational Heroes Blogathon 5

Render Unto Caesar

It’s refreshing to watch a film like Sergeant York with it’s straight up old-fashioned Boy Scout, trying- to-do-what’s-right hero. There’s no edginess, no irony or need for an anti-hero here and while there’s a place for that I enjoy seeing a protagonist who’s trying to reflect the best of humanity; many will find this boring and corny but I dig it. Who better to play such a role than the boy scout-iest of actors (along with Jimmy Stewart) – Mr. Gary Cooper as Alvin C. York; the story of a contentious objector whom in an ironic twist of fate became a war hero. Although you do have to ask if Cooper was too old for the role of York as at the beginning of the movie he is presented as a pathetic man-child still living with his mother.

Sergeant York is the black sheep in Howard Hawks’ filmography, lacking his trademarks and in many ways the opposite of what you would expect from him. Sergeant York is a film which espouses traditional morality and notions of marriage. Joan Leslie as York’s love interest Gracie Williams is anything but a Hawksian woman; rather is as innocent and wholesome as you can get. The real Alvin C. York himself initially refused to allow Hollywood to make a film about his life over concerns of the morality espoused in their films resulting in Sergeant York being as wholesome and old-fashioned as it is in a film in which religion and the community dominate everyday life. However, it’s not religion which triggers York’s reformation but rather the love of a woman which allows the audience’s identification with the character not be a purely religious one. Likewise, the foreshadowing from Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) to York being struck by lightning avoids making the plot device more contrived.

At its heart, Sergeant York is a movie about pacifism. While its examination of the topic is very much pacifism 101 it is still thought-provoking stuff and lets the audience make up their own mind as the film doesn’t propagate a point of view (including that which York comes to) onto the viewer. The discussions within the film, on York trying to determine the right thing to do, present both religious and secular arguments in relation to pacifism. On the religious side York states that the Bible is against killing as his reason to be exempt from military service but the draft board states the Bible can be interpreted as its followers choose. On the secular side of things, York is handed a book on the history of the United States by one of his superior officers and is told if he wants to worship God in his own way, plow his fields as he sees fit and raise a family according to his own likes then the cost of that heritage is high – In the words of Team America; freedom isn’t free. One of the most striking images in the film is that of York and his dog sitting on a rock on the side of a cliff overlooking the wilderness in a state of deep thought as the words “God” and “Country” are repeated in his head serving as inspiration for the challenge of wrestling with weighty decisions (What Would York Do?).

It’s clear Joan Leslie in the role of York’s future wife Gracie can only just manage to act herself out of a paper bag but manages to get away with it on endearment alone. However, the show stealer is Walter Brennan and those amazing eyebrows as the father like figure Pastor Pile; I don’t think anyone can play an endearing old man better than Brennan. The other cast member that sticks out to me is Dickie Moore as Alvin’s younger brother George. I’m not sure if his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his monotone reaction to everything makes me laugh.

Sergeant York is one example in media of Appalachians being presented in a dignified manner rather than being the butt of jokes. In Sergeant York, there are presented as uneducated and sheltered but not as a pack of simpletons. As it turns out the writers and filmmakers had little choice in this matter as the real York and several townsmen in Tennessee refused to sign releases unless the film was an accurate portrayal of history. Likewise, not a single character in the film, both in York’s rural Tennessee home or at the army barracks in which he trains, seem to know what the war is about but then again no one knows what World War I is all about.

The Talk of the Town (1942)

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The Lawgh

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

As a political junkie its fun to watch films like The Talk of the Town and dissect their deeper political and philosophical meaning which in this case is intertwined within a screwball farce that effortlessly transitions between wacky comedy and serious drama. The movie centres on a fantastic triangle of characters played by Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman with the real meat of the film being the relationship between Leopold Dilg (Grant) and Professor Michael Lightcap (Coleman) while Miss Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) tries to keep this unlikely family of three in one piece.

Leopold Dilg is one of the more interesting characters Cary Grant ever played, a radical activist and one role in which we see him dressed just like a commoner. However, he is one handsome activist at that rather than some hair dyed SJW (that man can make any clothes look dapper). If it weren’t for the production code then the character of Dilg would certainly be labeled as a communist. The movie is full of clues pointing to this (educated young working-class intellectual, opposes capitalist corruption, belief that violence is sometimes necessary, his father’s resentment for work, even his fondness for borscht). The production code would not have allowed a possible communist to be a sympathetic character or a hero thus the word “communist” or related term is never mentioned. On the other hand, Dilg is shown to have much respect for the Supreme Court so is he really a communist or just a leftie? With Dilg we even get an insight into why one might be an activist; as he puts it, activism is a form of self-expression – “Some people write books, some music. I make speeches on street corners.” Dilg would have felt right at home in the age of the internet (“When I hear a man talk nonsense I always get an impulse”).

Ronald Coleman, one of Hollywood’s most charming English gents is Professor Lightcap. Dilg and Lightcap are two intellectuals but from different worlds in this clash of the classes yet they find common ground in their interest in the political and philosophical; their conversations and so much fun to listen and make the film worth watching again as they’re a lot to take in. Dilg views Lightcap as “an intelligent man, but cold” with “no blood in his thinking” and thus doesn’t desire to see him take a seat in the Supreme Court with his current mentality. By the end of the film, both Dilg and Lightcap change their philosophies on law. Dilg comes around the see the need for law and order while Lightcap begins to see that the law is not sterile. During the film’s final monologue Lightcap speaks to an angry mob at a courthouse on the importance of law:

“This is your law and your finest possession. It makes you free. Why have you come to destroy it? Think of a world crying for this law. Then they’ll understand why they ought to guard it and why the law should be the concern of every citizen, to uphold it for your neighbour as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake; another mistake is to look upon the law as just asset of principles. Just so much language printed on heavy paper. Something he recites and then takes it for granted that justice is being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong. The law must be practiced every minute, to the letter and the spirit. It can’t exist unless we fight a battle every day to preserve it.”

I’m not sure what message to take from The Talk of the Town. On the one hand, it showcases the importance of upholding a lawful and just society (which would have resonated with the war against fascism in Europe) and the dangers of mob mentality. On the other hand earlier in the film Lightcap spoke of how “If feelings had any influence on the law, half the country would be in jail” and “you conduct your law on random sentimentality and you will have violence and disorder” only to later soften these views as evident by his final monologue. These statements sound just like a description of the PC politics of the 21st century; facts don’t care about your feelings. Just how far will the professor go with this change of heart? Still, at the end of the day, it is thought-provoking stuff.

The character of Tilney (Rex Ingram) is one of the better, more dignified portrayals of an African American as Professor Lightcap’s servant of whom he considers Tilney’s judgment to be superior to his own. In one of the more unusual but emotionally powerful scenes in the movie, Tilney sheds a tear in an extreme and long close up at the sight of his master shaving his beard; a black actor having a long close up with real emotion behind it. The scene plays the emotions up to 11 as Tilney realises his friend and employer is undergoing a profound change as he shaves his beard as a metaphor for casting off old ways.

The beginning of The Talk of the Town is incredibly different from the rest of the film, setting it up as a horror/thriller with its moody, melodramatic music and making Dilg out to be a sinister, threatening character. If you went into the film completely blind you would be shocked as it gradually morphs into a comedy as the lighting and shadows become less dim, the music becomes more cheery and starts to take on a pleasant New England, small-town feel. Likewise, listen out for a piece of music heard throughout the film including at the end which sounds just like Yoda’s theme from The Empire Strikes Back.

Command Decision (1948)

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Catch-22

Command Decision is my favourite film in the wasteland of mediocrity that is Clark Gable’s post-war career; a period which only had a few highlights. The opening stock footage is the only action seen in the film as Command Decision is a movie consisting of wordy drama; quality actors delivering quality performances.

Gable himself was a bombardier during the war and spearheaded the production of Command Decision thus it must have been something he had a real passion for. The role of Brig. Gen. K.C. “Casey” Dennis is not cocky Gable as he often portrayed, nor does he have a leading lady to play off. Dennis is a man under strain which you can clearly see on his face; in order to fight Nazis he must first fight his superiors, politicians as well as dealing with the press and even attending to matters such as farmers complaining about early morning take-offs frightening their cows (“When did I ever get the impression this war was against the axis?”). Above all, he is a man with life and death on his hands and even the outcome of the war. He may not see the battlefield but he still has an unpleasant job to do.

Walter Pidgeon, however, gives my favourite performance in the film as Major General Kane with his monologue in which he speaks of how the US Air Force struggled for years in an effort to get it equipped and running is the highlight of the movie. It is four minutes long, there are no cuts with actors interacting with Pidgeon along the way while he moves around the room with the camera following him; hair-raising acting.

Van Johnson gives the film its comic relief to contrast the serious, downbeat nature of the film. As Sgt. Evans, he rarely takes himself totally seriously from his wisecracks to sitting at Dennis’ desk when he’s not around. Johnson was often cast in military roles and it’s not hard to see why; he was a boy next door with the essence of an eager young patriot. However Evans’ inability to take himself seriously could show a cynical side to his character as someone who doesn’t have much faith in the war machine; in fact the one scene in which he does act in a more serious manner is the moment in which he praises Dennis and shakes his hand after Dennis lambasts Edward Arnold’s congressman who criticises him for recklessly causing heavy loss of life.

Command Decision is a movie which covers a lot making it one worth viewing more than once in order to take it all in. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt in its accuracy, it’s an educational experience. Compared to a film like The Dawn Patrol (original and its remake) there is a world of difference in flight commanding between the world wars; much more high tech, bureaucratic and on a larger, industrial-like scale.

Like the flight commander in The Dawn Patrol, Dennis gets hounded for the decisions he makes which leads to the message I ultimately take from Command Decision. Dennis’ decisions are causing a heavy loss of life of US airmen but the success of these missions to destroy the Nazi’s secret weapon in Schweinhaven (not a real place) could change the outcome of the war and save a greater number of lives in the long term. You can’t afford to appear virtuous and care only for the immediate loss of life in order to get results. However, as Kane knows, without a good publicity and political support there not be much of an air force and how do you do that is your actions appear reckless to the laymen; a real catch-22.