The Quiet American (Mankiewicz, 1958)

While I still favor the Philip Noyce version released a few years ago, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American breathes a classic and feverish quality into the material. Starring Audie Murphy as the nameless American, Michael Redgrave as the English journalist Fowler and shot almost entirely on location in Vietnam, this original filmed version of Graham Greene’s novel envisions a more patriotic and heroic portrayal of the western colonial influence. This doesn’t make for the same nasty bite of the Michael Caine film, but it does dissect the notion of American iconography as a saving grace. In Mankiewicz’s film, it almost becomes a moot point that the American truly loves the Vietnamese local Phuong and Fowler sees her as property. What becomes more enlightening is the behind the scenes manipulation of Fowler, and since the film is shot entirely in his POV, the audience as well. As Fowler walks down the crowded streets cutting through the humid air, he’s a man obsessed with belonging to the “other”, no matter what the consequences of this association. When he sees the American snuggle up to Phuong for the first time, Redgrave’s sturdy voice-over fills the space, a jealous but cavalier tone revealing much more character than intended. But the simplicity surrounding Murphy’s American, everything from his dog named Duke (John Wayne anyone?) and his heroic stature, make for a less interesting political thriller and a more romantic vision of young western ideology. Murphy has no menace, nor is he meant to have any. But Brendan Fraiser’s American in the 2002 version is a striking, dangerous, more modern maybe, politicized vision of American foreign policy. Mankiewicz’s film is neither dangerous, nor striking and doesn’t pack the punch of Noyce’s film, but it does contain some great classical Hollywood film traits – a wonderful script, impressive acting, and some inventive blocking.

Sleuth (Mankiewicz, 1972)

A lot of smoke and mirrors,¬†Sleuth concerns itself completely with a cat and mouse game played by two Englishmen regarding the affection of an unseen woman. Andrew Wyke, the snooty rich husband (played with debonaire ease by Lawrence Olivier) psychologically combats his wife’s young lover Milo Tindle (the shrmarmy charm of Michael Caine fits nicely) resulting in a humiliating and life-altering set of circumstances. After Andrew initiates a meeting of peace at his large estate in the countryside, Milo soon realizes he’s in for more than just a quick chat. Quite obviously based on the theatrical source material (written by Anthony Shaffer), Sleuth is basically all dialogue, not that the constant witty and mysterious banter isn’t entertaining. Mankiewicz tries hard to show the cinematic side of the story, mainly in the form of some brilliant zooms both in and out of rooms and hallways. But the film gets tiring as one twist leads into another, each character turning the tables on the other quite consistently and in surprisingly predictable ways. The under-riding themes of racism and class eventually become overwhelmed by the presence of the two great actors, killing any subtlety along the way. Sleuth isn’t a great film, but it’s a good example of what used to pass for adult entertainment in Hollywood, a far cry from the visual effects bonanza seen in the last two decades. For that, it’s a must see.

The Big Combo (Lewis, 1955)

I don’t get the critical admiration for director Joseph H. Lewis. Both of his so-called great films, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, are overtly instinctual and lack any complexity when it comes to character psychology. Gun Crazy‘s protagonist pair drift along aimlessly through a cliched “couple on the lamb” story. The Big Combo is even less impressive. More a made for TV movie than hard-core Noir, Lewis’ film was released the same year as Robert Aldrich’s masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, but has none of that film’s formidable ideas about Noir psychosis or brutality. It contains scene after scene of simply motivated and repetitive action, specifically concerning cop Cornel Wilde’s Det. Diamond investigating bad guy gangster Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown for a number of crimes. Caught in the middle are the usual subjects – the Dame, the Police Captain, the Gun Mole, and the Innocent Female Bystander. The main problem is Lewis’ handling of pacing which stems from the utter banality in character motivation. The first time we meet Diamond, his Captain accuses him of falling in love with Brown’s girlfriend, but Diamond hasn’t ever had contact with the girl, so this assertion has no impact. This plot contrivance is created just to create tension, not out of any adherence to story. As Diamond’s investigation gets more and more loose, Brown becomes less and less believable as a villain. He acts Machiavellian, but his greatest success is surrounding himself with morons. Who really cares when he starts killing them off, nor when he finally breaks down like the child he is during the final real. The Big Combo wants to be a stylish (John Alton’s dependable b/w photography is great) genre piece, but because of it’s lack of earned friction, never transcends it’s simplistic vision of Noir sensibility. A lame duck in a pond of so much beautiful darkness (see Lang, Preminger, Tournier, or Aldrich for the best Noir).

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Ritt, 1965)

Calm, crisp, and efficient, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold exhibits a disturbing professional cynicism toward Cold War deception and espionage. The opening shot, that of tangled barbed wire a top the border fence between East and West Germany, implies the harsh and dangerous web of lies to come. Ritt’s credit sequence (done in a beautiful one take craning back, revealing more of the border infrastructure) immediately indicates the complicated and tense relationship between the dueling ideologies. The title of the film could refer to any number of characters, but Ritt’s protagonist Alec Leamus (Richard Burton) is the obvious center of this group of spies. As he waits for a secret agent to cross the border in this opening sequence, his experience can be seen on the wrinkles his face wears like a mask. When death arrives, it’s not a surprise to him, just a part of the game. While back in England, he’s asked to undertake another mission. Leamus is sent into East Germany as a double agent with the desire to implicate the head of the Communist counterespionage department named Mundt (Peter van Eyck). Playing on the power trip of Mundt’s second in command, a Jew named Fiedler, Leamus begins a game of cat and mouse meant to disrupt the inner core of the Iron Curtain. Ritt’s mise-en-scene consistently illicit the many psychological layers being displayed by the narrative – Noir shadows, low angle camera set-ups, long tracking shots, and a hypnotic score by Sol Kaplan. As the complex story unfolds, governments and ideologies become more transparent, both Capitalist and Communist vying for leverage in an doomed game. No matter who pays for it with their life, and many end up doing just that, the heads of state will never get their hands dirty. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold carries on a little too long, but proves itself as a hard-nosed expose into a world of double-crosses and sacrifice. Burton’s performance is brilliantly one-note, sufficient as a human being but even more so as a spy. The last shot, once again based at a border crossing, symbolizes a struggle for freedom from the oppression of both sides, one that cannot be won without the greatest loss. According to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, there’s little warmth available to the sacrificial lambs on Earth, just the anticipation for the inevitable fires of hell or light of heaven.

Camille (Cukor, 1936)

The heroine of George Cukor’s Camille can’t ever seem to make up her mind. As played by the great Greta Garbo, Marguerite is torn back and forth between the love of Robert Taylor’s Armand Duval and the wealth of Henry Daniell’s Baron de Varville so many times it becomes unimportant where she ends up. A “classic” love story, but one that relies too simply on this push pull love triangle, Camille has lush and lavish set design but none of the drama one would expect of such material. Even with all the period piece settings, Cukor’s drama can’t overcome the repetition of plot, especially when the performances are this wooden (Taylor is the consummate nutcracker). The doomed life of Marguerite has little charm and a bunch of melodrama, her exploits meandering through tough life changing decisions played off as casual musings of the rich. Garbo’s performance is the only sign of life in Camille, making her demise extremely ironic – it’s as if the film has put so much stock in her character it suffers more and more as she becomes increasingly love-sick. In the end, Marguerite’s life is wasted, much like Camille wastes much of it’s talent. It’s becoming apparent to me Cuckor’s comedy’s outclass his works of drama any day.

Air Force (Hawks, 1943)

Howard Hawks’ Air Force¬†works beautifully as a piece of Hollywood wartime propaganda released in the middle of World War II. This is important because of how singularly focused the film feels, spending all of it’s time with a bomber squadron crew made up of a diverse set of personalities reflecting a sameness of American patriotism, even though there are characters who expectedly change throughout the film – the once selfish become gung ho flag wavers too. Air Force is an obvious propaganda film, painting the invisible enemy as cowardly and deceptive. But Hawks does give his group of characters plenty of clout as real, three-dimensional soldiers thrust into complex and life threatening situations. While death is seen as a passing fact of life, the characterizations are so strong we still feel the loss. Air Force sports some spectacular special effects (for which is was nominated for an Academy Award) and James Wong Howe’s camera moves swiftly through the air along with these valiant servicemen. While obviously biased, Hawks’ film must be viewed within the context of it’s release. Air Force is impressive and effective as a war film, but more interestingly it’s a slice of anger aimed between the eyes of America’s once enemy Japan, an overt simplification of war time history and the consequences of battle. It’s purpose however rings loudly with thoughtfully drawn out character parallels and feisty banter, vintage Howard Hawks.

Pather Panchali (Ray, 1955)

The beginning installment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy only gets better the second time around. Pather Panchali focuses on it’s young hero’s childhood heartaches and joys with a sublime and lyrical eye. Ray does not begin with Apu, but brilliantly sets up the family before he’s born. We see older sister Durga stealing fruit from a neighbor, pregnant mother Sarbojaya dealing with poverty, hunger, and social pressures, and husband Hari often absent working to make ends meet. Then Apu is born, a glorious family occasion shared with Auntie Indir and the rest of the community. Ray then shifts years ahead, Durga a young woman and Apu a young boy. Brother and sister play, discover, and fight with each other, go to school, all without much care to the turning tides of adult worries shared by mother and father. In one particularly stunning sequence, Apu and Durga fight over tinsel, then run through the tall grass of the Indian countryside chasing each other, finally ending up witnessing a tower locomotive passing by with life-changing force. The whimsey of childhood is confronted by the seriousness of adulthood, the prime theme circling through Ray’s vision. Apu, while aware of the changing nature of his family structure, has little to do with it’s direct development because of his age. His family exists as a sum of it’s parts, and Apu’s role is small but crucially important. His parents, while conflicted over a number of difficult situations, never lose sight of the most important element of family, which remains survival. Ray’s camera roams through the thick underbrush and over the stone temples, immediately cementing his focus as Apu’s POV. This simplicity in scope does not mean simple in nature or theme, and Pather Panchali devotes itself to establishing Apu’s complex realization of self and family. It’s one of the greatest films on loyalty, both to your roots and to memories of childhood. Pather Panchali also marks a masterful beginning to what many think is the most important trilogy of all time.