Archive for Lee J Cobb

In the frame

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Gradually overcoming my foolish Elia Kazan aversion — based on his politics/ethics, not his movies, so I’ve just been robbing myself, really — and ran BOOMERANG! (1947), a wackily titled courtroom/political drama from Fox, recklessly elaborated from a true story. Ambitious D.A. Dana Andrews (but the D.A. stands for District Attorney, you see) builds up a perfect case against a drifter (Arthur Kennedy, young but already rodent-like) accused of murdering a priest — ballistics, eye-witnesses, a destroyed alibi and a confession, but then, since he’s a painfully honest man, he risks his whole career by trying to dismantle the evidence, which proves shakier than first assumed.

These corruption dramas are always double-edged things. The old Hollywood model has to show the system working, both to confirm our faith in society and to deliver the required happy ending. But one can be left with doubts. If not for the impeccable Jimmy Stewart in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the forces of corruption would surely win, and the movie makes it very clear that Stewart/Smith is an unusual individual, therefore can we not assume that corruption wins most of the time? So with Andrews here. Kazan can be assumed to have meant more criticism of the status quo than Capra ever would. Here, the newly elected reform politicians are shown to be as capable of shady dealings as the villain they ousted — some are prone to “noble cause corruption,” believing that basically any course they take is justified if it gets them re-elected so they can carry out more reform. One, played by the turtle Ed Begley, blatantly has his fingers in the till.

(I think SERPICO marks a significant point — corruption is seen as so entrenched that a single honest man CANNOT reform the system.)

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The usual suspects: Arthur Kennedy, number 5, but in a surprise cameo, Arthur Miller is rumoured to appear in one of the film’s lineups.

Another guest star: Gadge’s dad uncle, as an incompetent witness. Runs in the family?

There’s some corny stuff in here, corny but fun. Sam Levene plays a hardboiled newspaperman with as dopey sidekick. Andrews indulges in ludicrous courtroom theatrics that make you applaud, like having a loaded gun aimed at his own head, the trigger pulled (yeah, probably more lawyers should do this); when a stooge tells the baddie “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” the baddie replies, “I know.” A jilted dame testifies against the hapless patsy out of sluttish pique. Lots of cornball stuff, and filming on location doesn’t diffuse that, though the occasional reverberant sound in the background testifies to the existence of a world outside the frame.

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More valuable is the strong cast, with Kazan regulars Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden in evidence. Cobb as the police chief, more muted than usual, is rather wonderful. He uses sleep deprivation to torture a confession out of his man, but refuses to use violence. He has a conscience, up to a point. There’s no evidence that he lets politics influence his performance of his duties. But like a lot of flawed cops, once he sells himself on a man’s guilt, he can justify almost any action to get a conviction. At that point, an innocent man’s denials become lack of contrition, and the further he goes the more committed he is to proving a supposition rather than investigating a case.

So the social critique is quite smart — only the script’s need to roll everything into a neat ball, and to amp up the dramatics, compromises its credibility, so that you pretty much KNOW watching it, “Well this wasn’t part of the original true story… nor this…” Still, it’s a strong piece of Hollywood product — like is Kazan and Zanuck got into a telepod together and what came out was… Kazanuck!

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“You’ve Outlived Your Time”: Man of the West

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Guest Shadowplayer Imogen Smith (a regular contributor to The Chiseler) on a late Gary Cooper movie which is also Anthony Mann’s last western ~

Elegy was always at the heart of the western, a genre born to celebrate a world already vanishing. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, this nostalgic mood was heightened both by the aging of Hollywood’s great western stars and by the radical, out-with-the-old changes that were reshaping architecture, technology, and pop culture. Movies like El Dorado (1966) and Ride the High Country (1962) draw attention to their heroes’ age, their gray hair, failing eyesight and creaking joints, but show them effortlessly outclassing callow, cocky youngsters—a put-down aimed at America’s exploding youth culture.

A far darker view of age, the burden of the past, and the west’s unbreakable cycle of violence appears in Anthony Mann’s harsh masterpiece Man of the West (1958). This was the third western in which Mann mined his obsession with King Lear (he contemplated but never produced a fourth, to be called The King). While Mann never made an outright adaptation of the Shakespeare play, he drew on its central figure, an all-powerful ruler beset by physical weakness and emotional blindness, and on the theme of greed, jealousy and infighting swirling around the declining monarch. In The Furies (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the Lear figures are cattle barons who have usurped huge territories over which their children fight for control. In Man of the West the decaying monument is instead the leader of a gang of bandits. While the plot elements of Mann’s last western owe less to Lear than those of the two earlier films, Man of the West captures best the overwhelming flavor of waste and ruin, of senseless destruction (Kurosawa rightly titled his Lear film Ran, “chaos”), and of irrevocable loss that suffuse the play. Mann’s vision holds true to some of the play’s most famous and most devastating lines: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire,” and, “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

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This mood would be diminished if a younger actor played the lead role. At 57, Gary Cooper was probably at least twenty years older than his character, Link Jones, is meant to be—for that matter, he was ten years older than Lee J. Cobb, who plays his foster father. Cooper already knew he had the cancer that would kill him three years later, and his gaunt, pain-wracked dignity gives moving depth to his portrayal of a reformed outlaw forced to relive the past he sought to escape. Cooper’s lambent beauty was already strangely expressive of some ingrown hurt in the silent western The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), and here his drawn, haggard face expresses just the right mute suffering. The part might have gone to James Stewart if he hadn’t had a falling out with Mann, but Cooper’s much more reticent presence, with none of Stewart’s effusiveness, suits the film’s austerity.

The opening scene contains the movie’s only light moments, as Link Jones boards a train for the first time in his life, on a mission to hire a schoolteacher for the newborn town of Good Hope. The bashful, taciturn Link is comically disconcerted by the jolting of the rails and the problem of how to fold his long legs into the cramped seats. But this innocent opening is soon shattered when the train is held up by bandits, and Link loses the money that was entrusted to him for the schoolmarm and finds himself stranded in the high plains, far from any town, with a saloon singer named Billie (Julie London) and an amiable, nervous, crooked gambler named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell).

He leads them to the only shelter he can find: a little grey farmhouse set in a valley of lush green grass. Lonely and sinister, it is also a haunting vision of long-lost Home. It’s the hideout of the gang who robbed the train, and Link knows this because he used to be one of them, before his conversion into a peace-loving family man. Inside, it’s dark and grimy like a cave, and there is a kind of primal horror laced with desire as Link re-enters it. In order to protect his companions, he pretends that he has come back to rejoin the gang, and claims that Billie is “his woman.” His dilemma is stark: if he kills the outlaws, he will sink to their level and return to the former self he wants to shed, but the vicious gang-members understand nothing except violence and the authority of their leader, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb).

Dock is crafty, and perhaps crazy; a blustery, infirm but still dangerous force of pure criminal mania. He raised Link, taught him to rob and kill, and still regards him as his favorite son. The past the film evokes for Link is of unspecified and unspeakable depravity. Dock Tobin and his boys revel in animalistic cruelty, yet they share a deep familial intimacy too, the fierce loyalty of outcasts who have no one else. (The screenplay, with its focus on group dynamics, honor, and the effects of violence, was by Reginald Rose, author of Crime in the Streets and Twelve Angry Men.)

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Scenes of torture and bizarre methods of murder are a trademark of Anthony Mann’s movies, but nothing he filmed is more upsetting than the scene in which one of Dock’s gang, a bestial young punk named Coaley (Jack Lord), forces Billie to strip for the men, holding a knife to Link’s throat that draws a smear of blood on his Adam’s apple as he witnesses the violation he’s helpless to prevent. Billie undresses in a numb, out-of-body trance; Coaley and the mute, half-witted Trout (Royal Dano) watch lustfully; and Dock Tobin sits, feigning aloofness but really controlling the whole scene, demonstrating his power both by allowing Link to be humiliated, and by stopping the exhibition before it goes too far.

Dock has never gotten over Link’s abandonment, and desperately wants to believe that his son has returned, even as he instinctively distrusts him. Link’s cousin Claude knows the prodigal-son act is a sham, and hates him for cheating the old man to whom he himself has remained blindly devoted. Claude is the man Link might have been. Unlike the crude young gang-members he’s strong, disciplined and quietly deadly; he’s sincere in his love for Dock, but he has the mindless amorality of a good soldier. Link grew up and learned to think for himself, while the others have rotted on the vine, and he fears being pulled back into his former life by his anger and hatred. He gets into a savage brawl with Coaley and avenges Billie’s honor by tearing her tormentor’s clothes off, leaving him so humiliated that he sobs with childish rage in his shabby long-johns.

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The film’s denouement is set appropriately in a ghost town, a dusty little strip of derelict houses in the desert. The gang has come there to rob a bank, not realizing it long ago closed when the mining town went bust, an irony that drives home Link’s final condemnation of Dock: “You’ve outlived your time.” The expedition devolves into a spree of pointless, wasteful violence, which ends with Link wiping out the whole gang, though not before they’ve unleashed cruelty and death on defenseless women. Another film could have presented this as a happy ending, but here there is no sense of purgation or new beginnings. Link has finally erased his past, but reaffirmed his identity as a killer, and lost any peace he achieved in the town of Good Hope. Billie must lose him as he returns to his family, leaving her loneliness and yearning for love unappeased. Mann’s best films all end this way; his heroes seem hollowed-out by their experiences, having been pushed to an extremity from which they can never make their way back.

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Man of the West is a grand, classical western, yet it also feels like the last western: by the end the elements of the genre have been so thoroughly stripped, spoiled and exhausted that it’s hard to imagine how they could be revived. Even the straightforward title becomes a troubling question: who is the “man of the west”? Is he the man who must destroy his past and wipe out his origins in order to move into the future? Or is he the man who has outlived his time, a decrepit remnant of a vanished world? One thing is certain: “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

Imogen Smith

UK DVD: Man Of The West [DVD]
US DVD: Man of the West
Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy
In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City

Big Top Pee-yew

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2010 by dcairns

GORILLA AT LARGE should really have been called GORILLA IN DEPTH, shouldn’t it, to capitalise on the whole 3D thing. Except really it ought to have been called CIRCUS OF ASSHOLES, since everybody in the movie, near enough, is some variety of jerk, blowhard or swine. I’m suspicious of movies that fail to provide any interesting sympathetic characters, because it tends to suggest a filmmaker with an unappealing approach to life. The crowd of gits in front of the camera is standing in for one big git behind it.

Now, casting your eye over the subject and talent here, one would imagine that the real 3D attraction would be Raymond Burr, wouldn’t you? The prospect of his massive form heaving itself towards you in 3D is an irresistible one, isn’t it? Yet, due perhaps to director Harmon Jones’s lack of interest in, well, the film, Burr’s bulk never gets to loom in a Hank Quinlan manner, thereby allowing us to watch the movie as if through the watery eyes of a cowering twink.* A missed opportunity. Perhaps Raymond is more suited to widescreen, anyway.

Passing swiftly over Cameron Mitchell  — Me, watching WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS: “The bad gargantua looks like Cameron Mitchell. Fiona: “What does Cameron Mitchell look like?” Me: [points at gargantua] — we come to Anne Bancroft, and here we stop for a while. Although screenwriters Praskins and Slater, like the director, stopping off briefly at the movies en route to episodic TV purgatory, see fit to write Bancroft as a cheating sexpot, she still commands audience respect with her awesomeness. Rather than play for our sympathy, she just relishes her hotness, and walks off with those parts of the movie not pinned to the floor by Burr. And since her cheating tart character is cheating on Raymond, we can kind of see where she’s coming from.

But the actual element of the movie that justifies the 3D is none of these, and no, it’s not the gorilla, swing as he may into the camera with a permanent neutral expression on his ersatz face, nor even is it Lee Marvin as a skinny cop, making faces through the bars before being ape-chopped to the ground, nor is it Lee J Cobb, proof that one bulky man with a cigar is not enough for a movie as brashly obnoxious as this. The star effect of the film appears when they blast fireworks at the escaped ape. The fireworks themselves are nothing much, but the smoke trails they leave drifting in the extreme foreground are really nice.

*Have absolutely no knowledge of Burr’s bedroom activities and the above is sheer lurid imagining.