Family drama, Italian-American style: House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)

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The enduring greatness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and the flaws in his larger subsequent films Cleopatra and The Barefoot Contessa have left him with a reputation for making staid, dialogue-heavy pictures. I think it would be more fair to say Eve was the peak of his career (as it was for many of the people involved), but many of his films are well worth watching. Between the noir 5 Fingers, gothic melodrama Dragonwyck, and seaside romance The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it’s also wrong to say he couldn’t make a visually interesting film.

Funnily enough, though, House of Strangers is indeed a film that’ll make you feel like someone needs to open a window. In its talkiness and textured set design it bears a resemblance to Eve, despite its dissimilar story. Made just a year earlier, it’s a strong entry from Mankiewicz that makes excellent use of its actors.

Gino Moretti (Edward G. Robinson) is an Italian immigrant who started out as a barber and now owns a bank, but has alienated his family along the way. Of his four sons, lawyer Max (Richard Conte) is the only one he treats with respect. The other three, who all work in the Moretti bank, are displeased with the salaries that their father metes out to them.

The film opens with Max released from prison after serving a seven year sentence. His father has been dead for five years; will Max seek revenge against his double-crossing brothers, as his father would have wanted, or will he leave New York with Irene (Susan Hayward), who has been waiting for him?

Robinson was hardly new to playing Italians, but this one isn’t a gangster. A criminal and a bully, but not a schemer on a grand scale. Gino is simultaneously human and larger-than life, blind to his own flaws. A scene where he insists on playing opera music full blast during dinner is enough to drive the viewer insane, let alone his family, but it’s the kind of tyranny that might seem innocuous to outsiders. It turns out, though, that he’s a traitor to his own community – and sees this as his American right.

Robinson makes full use of his role, and Hayward and the supporting players are quite good, but the film would not work without Conte. Max is a complicated character who has a dark streak, but Conte manages to make him sympathetic. It’s easy to get caught up in the outcome of his decision – and even then, the film just may take his choice away from him.

House of Strangers feels a little long, especially in the scenes involving Max and Irene’s romance. Impressive location filming involving a boxing match and New York streets broadens the film’s scope and helps keep things lively. Nonetheless, a bit of editing at the script level could have kept the story moving along better.

Mankiewicz did not write this film (Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Jerome Weidman), but it involves plenty of dialogue that the viewer needs to follow closely. As with All About Eve, clever lines are scattered throughout, treated as though they’re of no particular importance. Conte and Hayward also give performances somewhat like Gary Merrill and Bette Davis in Eve. Perhaps Mankiewicz, who did write Eve‘s screenplay and based the main couple on his own parents, directed Conte and Hayward in a similar way.

House of Strangers was remade in 1954 as a western. This film, Broken Lance, did not lack for action or panoramic landscapes, and certainly didn’t feel stuffy. It also made interesting changes, such as increasing the mother role in the story: here played by Katy Jurado, she’s an Indian woman who the local townspeople pretend is Mexican, to give her marriage to Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) a semblance of respectability. Devereaux’s older sons are from an earlier marriage, which puts a twist on the relationship between them and youngest son Joe. The film has fine performances from Jurado, Tracy, and Richard Widmark as one of the older sons. It’s also fun to see how well the story has been adapted into a different genre.

House of Strangers, however, remains a stronger film than Broken Lance. It’s a quality drama with vivid characters, intricate dialogue, and committed performances. It seems to have a throughline to The Godfather, in which Conte also appeared. It’s definitely a must-see if you like Robinson – and I doubt the character of anyone who doesn’t. Another winner from Mankiewicz.

Around history’s edges: Parkland (Peter Landesman, 2013)

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All kinds of things get left out of history’s narrative, whether for ideological reasons or because a simple story is just easier to remember. Parkland takes a look at some of the people who were deeply effected by the JFK assassination, but who are mostly forgotten in the many retellings of this event. Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) is an exception, but the film also focuses on Robert and Marguerite Oswald (James Badge Dale and Jackie Weaver), various CIA and Secret Service men, and the staff of the Parkland Hospital, upon whose operating tables both JFK and LHO died.

Many of the details in Parkland are the kind that you’d ordinarily only come across in a well-researched book, and not a film. As such, they don’t fit together to make a substantial work onscreen. However, many of its most interesting moments feel like Easter eggs, inessential but still a treat. Glenn Morshower, who played the ever-reliable Agent Pierce in 24, plays a similar character here. Gary Grubbs, who played one of Jim Garrison’s coworkers in Oliver Stone’s JFK, here plays the doctor who calls the president’s time of death. Another doctor makes an effort to keep the Secret Service men from removing the body, insisting on an autopsy; that he’s unsuccessful is fuel for conspiracy theorists, even though their views are given no credence in this film. In a moment not neat enough to be film-worthy, but characteristic of real life, the agents have to frantically tear up a plane so that they can fit the coffin on board.

Considering that this historical event has been so analysed in broader terms (you can extend its significance about as far as you’d like, especially if you’re being played by Donald Sutherland), it’s also nice to see it approached in a more personal way. The government employees don’t make much of an impact, aside from the focused Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton). The Oswalds, however, are people caught in uniquely terrible circumstances. The differing attitudes the Parkland staff take towards treating the president and LHO, combined with the surviving Oswalds’ experiences, raise intriguing questions about the value of human life.

Parkland is scattered with famous faces. Some, such as Jackie Earle Hayley as a priest and Marcia Gay Harden as a nurse, don’t do much more than show up. Zac Efron gets little emphasis as Dr. Carrico; Colin Hanks makes more of an impression in the same type of role and almost as much screentime. Adam Strong gets the unenviable task of playing LHO; I hope he had fun patterning himself after Gary Oldman. Weaver gets to be shockingly nuts, and is good at it. Dale, whose career has somehow not been as successful as Morshower’s since his own stint on 24, is a standout.

It was quite right to give the role of Zapruder to Giamatti. Of all the characters, he’s the one who most directly influenced history, by recording it. (I’m assuming that the doctors couldn’t have saved JFK or LHO.) He’s also the one the film most vividly humanises. During the assassination, the camera stays on his face, and on his own camera. The gunshots seem like inconsequential pops. The footage Zapruder recorded in those few seconds is mostly viewed, within the film, through his eyes, emphasising how horrific it is. Zapruder’s insistence that the bullet hits never be shown challenges the numbing effect caused by Stone’s “back and to the left” repetitions.

There’s probably nothing in Parkland that couldn’t be learned by reading a book. Perhaps it’s not even based wholly on facts. But considering that there has been so much written about this single event (even the book on Stone’s film is a hefty read), it’s convenient for a film to collect together the small moments we may not otherwise know, and throw in some food for thought while doing so.

On Rotation: Jens Lekman, Hot Chip, Moloko

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Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007)

The problem with listening to this album in one sitting is that it brings out the songs’ sameness: they are all, for the most part, insanely beautiful, with a retro influence plus some quirk in tempo, structure, or production. The genre mashups shouldn’t be predictable, but all feels a little calculated and shallow. Or maybe the album is just so good that I’m taking Lekman’s talent for granted. Anyway, I prefer to listen to the songs individually to get lost in them.

Least favourite track: “It Was a Strange Time in My Life.” I don’t usually pick one of these out, but special mention must be made to this song. The child vocals are far too gimmicky, not to mention irritating. There’s some surprisingly mean lines about shy people that I take offense to. And given that other songs on this album easily manage to make things such as getting a haircut or accidentally slicing off the tip of your finger sound romantic, does Lekman really feel the need to convince us he can be strange?

Favourite track: “Kanske Är Jag Kär I Dig.” This one has my favourite retro influence, a doo wop backing, and my favourite quirk, the music “stuttering” along with the lyrics. Best of all is the way the stuttering gets incorporated into the triumphant, wordless closing sequence, suggesting that the narrator’s inability to say something impressive isn’t going to hold him back.

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Hot Chip – One Life Stand (2010)

Hot Chip are definitely a singles band; their albums tend to be full of tracks that are so mushy, not to mention borderline atonal, that they barely qualify as songs. One Life Stand is, on the whole, stronger than 2008’s Made in the Dark, but it doesn’t have anything as brilliant as “One Pure Thought” or “Ready for the Floor,” either. The band is over-reliant on major/minor key changes and Joe Goddard’s mumbled vocals continue to ruin any song where he gets the lead, but the band’s better moments are good enough that I won’t give up on them.

Favourite track: “Hand Me Down Your Love.” This one keeps things simple, rhythmic, and sweet without being cloying.

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Moloko – Statues (2002)

I’ve always hated Statues’ album art, not just because the goofy portraits are mostly unflattering, but because they give you no clue about the songs contained within. Statues is Róisín Murphy and Mark Brydon’s breakup album, personally and professionally. It’s not a fun listen. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty bland, without the edge and eccentricity that characterise Moloko’s earlier albums, as well as Murphy’s solo career.

Favourite track: This album has a few 5-minute-plus semi-epics, but fewer danceable numbers. “Forever More” is both. A lively bass line keeps the whole thing moving along as the song builds and shifts, going through distorted vocals, trumpets, synth stabs, and piano and organ freakouts. It’s also one of the few songs on Statues that lyrically addresses something that nonetheless underpins the whole album: deep feelings of loss and longing that seem all the stronger because the songs have been written around them. Watching the video also reminds me that this song is why I became interested in Moloko in the first place.

Woman with a gun: Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1989)

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Though Blue Steel‘s coolly elegant style and thematic focus on androgyny and obsession place it firmly within Kathryn Bigelow’s oeuvre, it’s such a weak film that I would swear it only got made in the aftermath of The Silence of the Lambs – if it hadn’t been released two years earlier. Though it’s also about an inexperienced female law enforcement officer (in this case, a member of the NYPD) and her relationship with a psychopath, it’s in no way comparable in quality. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Megan Turner, a cop whose first night on patrol goes terribly wrong. After interrupting an armed robbery, without backup, she shoots the perpetrator in self-defense, only for Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) to steal the dead man’s weapon from the crime scene. He’s developed an obsession with guns, and with Megan, that sends him on a killing spree.

Megan starts the movie looking incompetent (why not wait for backup or immediately retrieve the weapon?), but her oversights are partly attributable to the patchiness of Bigelow and Eric Red’s script. The plot is so disconnected that it manages to become abstract, scenes and images strung together without making any logical sense. Few of the character motivations in this movie make sense either – if Megan behaved in an intelligent fashion, she would be an oddity.

The film plays around with ideas of gender in ways that are, again, not coherent, but are interesting. An early shot establishes that Megan wears a white, lacy bra beneath her uniform, but it’s the outer layer that counts. On her first walk home from graduation, a couple of women react to her as though she’s an attractive man, and she jokingly responds as though she is. There’s a tension between her off-duty attire and the uniform (and how people treat her depending on what she’s wearing) throughout the film. By the final scenes, she’s even dressed in a (stolen) male police officer’s uniform. Part of the reason Hunt is drawn to her is the power her gun signifies, but if she weren’t a woman, he would not have fixated on her. Other men, whether her father or potential dates, feel threatened by or resentful about her job. At least fellow officer Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) likes Megan on-duty and off, but he will pay a high price for Megan’s heroics. Worse, Megan can’t help her mother (Louise Fletcher) or her best friend (Elizabeth Peña); Mann is her only partial consolation. (Could the naming choices in this film be any more obvious?)

Blue Steel’s cast do their best with the material. Jamie Lee Curtis, one of Hollywood’s most simultaneously masculine and feminine actors, is the perfect choice for Megan. Ron Silver chews the scenery as Hunt, while Kevin Dunn shows why he’s still getting cast as the senior cop who yells at his subordinates, 25 years later. Brown is awesome as always. Fletcher and Peña’s roles are disappointingly undeveloped. Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore gets low billing as the would be-thief, but would earn a larger role in Point Break. (And is there another connection in James Cameron’s casting of Curtis in True Lies?)

With a stronger plot, Blue Steel could have better explored its themes. However, by its end, it doesn’t want to be anything more than an action flick. The final shootout looks good (Megan reloading her gun one-handed is a striking moment), but the film misses a chance to get some characterisation in amongst the slo-mo. Hunt’s ruminations on death and killing are the most notable features of his mania, but the final scenes neither prove nor refute his beliefs. He and Megan just shoot at each other. The film is not only a fairly negative take on a woman who tries to function in a man’s world, but it’s not a good film, either.

Never mind Clint: The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

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The Unforgiven is darker than most psychological westerns of the 50s, yet less explicit than the Revisionist westerns of the coming decades. This makes it a distinctive film in the genre. It’s the story of the Zacharys, a family that has grown prosperous even though the patriarch was killed by Kiowa Indians some years previously. When mysterious old Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) reappears and claims that the Zacharys’ adoptive daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) is herself a Kiowa, the Zacharys find themselves friendless and under threat from the Indians.

The Unforgiven does not actually show much violence, but it feels like a violent film. Peckinpah could have done much with the last half hour, in which the Zacharys are besieged within their home, but the extreme emotional turbulence the characters experience is more important than showing blood and gore. The story is full of dark themes, from racism to mental trauma to borderline incest.

If The Unforgiven were made in the 70s, it would push all of its material further, but it certainly doesn’t feel like the 50s either. The film does not operate through Hays Code-conscious inferences. Even a moment of innuendo is something so blatant that it probably wouldn’t have flown a few years previously: an Indian man tells a horse he’s breaking in that it won’t hurt much after the first time, before telling Rachel (who’s often dressed in white, symbolic in more ways than one) that she has a burr in her hair.

The film is more impactful because it feels grounded in reality. In addition to its landscapes, which are not Ford-ian in their grandeur but are shot with an eye for natural beauty, the people’s lives are depicted in ways that show how they are shaped by the circumstances of time and place. The Zacharys’ house is set into a hill, something that becomes first a strength and later a weakness as the film progresses. When the family has visitors, once of them, a young woman, asks her parents to stop their carriage so that she can run into the bushes and change into a dress that she hopes will impress Cash Zachary. The convivial gathering involves songs and entertainment that are certainly not modern. The film creates its world through small details, unfamiliar to us but not to its happy characters, so that it can tear it down by the story’s end.

The Unforgiven has a curious mix of onscreen talent. Lillian Gish is a fine choice for the mother of the family, Mattilda, who makes every effort to hide her secret for her daughter’s sake. Burt Lancaster brings an appropriate anguish to Ben Zachary, who has long been in love with his adopted sister, and Wiseman is genuinely unnerving as mad Kelsey. Most surprisingly, Audie Murphy, unrecognisable beneath a moustache, gives one of his best dramatic turns as racist, increasingly unhinged Cash.

The film’s biggest flaw was probably inevitable in 1960, but remains a glaring one nonetheless. The Unforgiven delves into Rachel’s sense of self and of her place in the world, and the ways in which she is accepted or rejected. Much of the power of these issues is undercut by the fact that Rachel is being played by Audrey Hepburn, and not an Indian actor. Hepburn is fine in the role, exhibiting an effortless radiance that makes it easy to believe that Rachel is dearly loved by some, and that makes the injustice of her persecution by others more obvious. It’s doubtless, however, than an Indian actor could have connected better with the character and added weight to her troubles, and done more to challenge the audience.

Though The Unforgiven is not so resonant as it would like to be, it is a western not easily categorised, and one that’s full of tension and powerful emotions. Most of all, it’s a film undeserving of its relative obscurity.

“It’s a bum’s world for a bum”: Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)

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Watching Emperor of the North, it’s hard to believe that Robert Aldrich was also capable of directing such high camp as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George. Women only speak a couple of lines in this film, and are treated entirely as sex objects or background figures. Emperor of the North is all about men – and one of its strengths is that it depicts the unique word of certain men in such convincing detail.

The film is set in the Great Depression, a time when hobos rode the rails. Unemployed and forced to live outside of society, the hobos had their own culture with traditions and norms. As a rare man with a job, it’s a point of pride for train conductor Stack (Ernest Borgnine) that he takes his work seriously. Not only is he determined to prevent any hobos from riding his train, he’s willing to kill any who try. For No. 1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo famous amongst his kind, pride is something worth risking his life for. The stakes of this film are nothing more than a man hitching a ride on a train – but this may well mean a fight to the death.

No. 1’s plans are complicated by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young man new to being a hobo, who’s determined to make a name for himself. It’s through the interactions between the two –sometimes willingly given lessons on No. 1’s part, sometimes clumsy attempts at imitation on Cigaret’s– that we get many insights into the peculiarities of hobo life. How do you stop a train? Why wear a belt rather than suspenders? How hard should you fight to hang onto a turkey? The slang flows thick and fast; pay attention, and you might work out just what an Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title) is to a hobo. It probably means something different to you and me.

Aside from an action sequence set in early morning fog, which doesn’t quite look convincing, Emperor of the North is a well-made film. The trains could not have been easy to handle, but the scenes taking place on them feel believable. Some moments don’t even look especially safe. You may never have expected to be watching a film set in this world, but you’ll easily get drawn into it. Of course, if the time period has a particular appeal for you, definitely seek the film out.

And then there’s the actors. Carradine is appropriately annoying as the big-toothed, thick-skulled Cigaret, while Marvin is made for roles such as the taciturn yet charismatic No. 1. Borgnine is the standout, however; he makes Stack one of cinema’s ultimate sadists, petty and ferocious even in a goofy conductor’s hat.

The film culminates in a faceoff between Stack and No. 1 that has to be seen to be believed, one that’s a whole different kind of nasty to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford conflict in Baby Jane. It’s to Aldrich’s credit that he could make such different kinds of films, and to this level of quality.