San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing, the ending of San Francisco felt far-fetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing, it still worked on an emotional level. However, after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non-believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock, the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDonald, what a voice! The reaction of the churchgoers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is, after all, a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise, Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non-religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.

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Dark Passage (1947)

The Man With Bogart’s Face

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Dark Passage is one of the more experimental movies of Hollywood’s golden age with the majority of the film’s first third being filmed from the first person point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. I never thought a black & white movie from the 1940’s would remind me of a modern video game. I would like to see more films which experiment with this point of view style. MGM’s Lady In the Lake (also released in 1947) was filmed in POV for the entire film which the studio promoted by claiming the POV style was the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies. Nope, it didn’t catch on. The use of POV took me off guard at first as I wanted to watch some Bogart but I did not get to see him on screen. Bogart’s distinctive voice alone though helps carry the picture, thanks in part to his many witty remarks. We’re then given a section of the movie in which Bogart doesn’t talk and is wrapped in bandages looking like a horror movie character (these scenes also make me squeamish). Considering we have to wait a whole hour until we finally see and hear Bogart in his entirely makes Dark Passage nothing short of a daring role.

For the plot, you do need to suspend your disbelief at the number of highly improbable coincidences. Irene (Bacall) just happens to be out painting near San Quentin on the day Vincent Parry (Bogart), the man she has an obsession with escapes and she knows where to find him. Oh, and she also happens to be friends with Madge (Agnes Moorehead) who gave false testimony in court against Parry that he murdered his wife.  I find it is easy however to just roll along with the ridiculous plot as the movie plays out like a dream, culminating in the satisfaction of seeing Bogart get his revenge on Agnes Moorehead (a useless old bag and a real love to hate character) and seeing these two characters getting their happily ever after together in South America. One minor complaint I have is the reveal of Frank Parry’s face on the newspaper, prior to getting plastic surgery; because the character doesn’t actually have Bogart’s face, I would have preferred the mystery of not knowing what he looks like. Also, a plastic surgeon who can give you the face of Humphrey Bogart? Someone should have told Woody Allen that in Play It Again Sam. Dark Passage in part sees the return of gangster Bogart but still has the romantic elements of his on-screen persona which he developed after achieving stardom. Right from the very beginning, we’re in classic gangster territory, a prisoner escaping from San Quentin, the type of setting not seen in a Bogart film since High Sierra. The on-location filming in San Francisco also really adds to the film, giving you a sense of the world the movie inhabits and Irene’s apartment with the two floors and the art deco designs – I want it!

I once said ‘All Through the Night’ was the most Hitchcockian film Bogart starred in but Dark Passage wouldn’t be far behind it. We get the innocent man falsely accused on the run while trying to prove his innocence. The focusing on landmarks (the Golden Gate Bridge), while the San Francisco setting has some Vertigo vibes. The trippy plastic surgery sequence feels reminiscent of the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound; while Madge’s death rings a bell of the character death shots in Vertigo in which someone falls from a great distance.

When attempting to review a movie, I can’t always predict how much I will have to say about it. Occasionally though you get movies like Dark Passage, which have layers and layers of fascinating details worth talking about. Dark Passage is my favourite Bogart & Bacall film, although to be honest, I was never a huge fan of their partnership. To Have and Have Not bored me and The Big Sleep was, well, a big sleep. Plus I never fully got the appeal of Lauren Bacall; she never struck me as a massively interesting screen presence.  I find Bacall plays a much more interesting character than in the previous two Bogie & Bacall pairings. Not a vamp but a lonely single woman who purses painting as a hobby.  During the first kiss between Bogart and Bacall, I had the reaction of “Ok, now I’m getting it”.