Movie Review – Rear Window (1954)

With most of us confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, I got to thinking – what are some films that are set in the one place?

There’s Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, which sees, well, 12 angry men confined to a courthouse. There’s John Hughes’ seminal high school classic The Breakfast Club, and Ben Wheatley’s warehouse-set shoot ‘em up Free Fire.

But all of these films follow characters that grapple with fleeting moments of confinement. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) that elongates this notion of isolation and an inability to move to several days and weeks.

Hitchcock is no stranger to films that are rooted in one place, with 1948’s Rope and 1954’s Dial M for Murder both exploring this concept. But Rear Window is where Hitchcock perfected the technique. So, in keeping with the times, I took another look at Rear Window and came away with a newfound appreciation of this classic.

Rear Window sees magazine photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart) confined to his sweltering New York apartment with a broken leg during a heatwave. Bored and frustrated after several long and sticky weeks confined to a wheelchair, there is little for Jefferies to do but gaze out his rear window at the apartments and people who exist just out of his reach.

Narratively, Rear Window is remarkably simple. Jefferies overhears something grisly in the middle of the night but can’t piece it together in the days that follow. He can only sit there in his pyjamas with his camera, peering down the lens and watching everyone in his neighbourhood like ‘bugs under a glass’. Jefferies is positively bristling at the chance to catch his neighbours in the act, specifically the shifty-looking salesman Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who lives just across the courtyard.

Of course, Hitchcock being Hitchcock, Rear Window doesn’t rebuke this idea or reprimand Jefferies and his accomplices (Grace Kelly’s socialite Lisa and Thelma Ritter’s nurse Stella) for their voyeuristic tendencies. Quite the opposite, in fact. In this perverse reality, the voyeur – and by extension, the audience – is vindicated, as all our suspicions prove well founded. Keep tabs on those across the street, Hitchcock suggests, and you might just sniff out a murderer.

Every open widow tells a different story, but not in full. A lot of the plot is communicated visually and without dialogue. Like Jefferies, the audience is made to join the dots with one arm tied behind our back. A jumped conclusion here, a leap of faith there – and suddenly, the next-door neighbour is a wife killer.

It might not be as scary as Psycho, as thrilling as North by Northwest or as dizzying as Vertigo, but Rear Window is Hitchcock at the top of his game. It might even be my favourite of the lot. It features two terrific performances from an increasingly unhinged Stewart and an otherworldly Kelly respectively, as well as some gorgeous production and costume design. What it has to say about loneliness and isolation is as apt today in our terrifying world of social distancing as it was back in the 50’s.

Stay safe (and sane) while staying home, or you might just start suspecting someone in your street of something strange…

By Rhys Pascoe

Rear Window is available on Amazon Prime and Blu-Ray in Australia.

Image courtesy of Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Australia.

Classic Review – Planet of the Apes 1968

Tom Munday 

Picture this – you are in 1968, and a new sci-fi action movie seeks to break the rules, raise questions and earn your bucks simultaneously. The flick explores the darkest recesses of humanity through an absurd premise. Its only relation is a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle. Before you know it, the Planet of the Apes’ unique vision, stunning costumes and its gasp-inducing plot twist in the final scene, has wowed you and every cinema-goer on Earth.

The Planet of the Apes became an instant classic for being weird in the best possible way. Its plot starts off with shocking intensity, with three astronauts – most notably Charlton Heston’s Taylor – crash landing in a lake on a desolate, dystopian planet. After the female crew member is found dead, the three men band together to figure out what happened and, most importantly, where they are. Taylor discovers they are in the year 3978, centuries after their departure from Earth in 1972.

Director Franklin Schaffner’s masterpiece re-established the social and artistic value of science fiction on film. The genre is defined by obvious symbols (spaceships, space, aliens) and the more subtle (socio-political commentary about the world today). Planet of the Apes blends the two with expert precision. Since its release, the movie has etched its share of talking points and quotable moments (Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!) into film history.

The movie kicks into gear when the titular apes enter the frame. Our three protagonists, along with a group of scruffy human beings, are hunted down, picked up by ape warriors and taken back to the apes’ base of operations. It follows Taylor’s point of view, giving the audience answers whenever Heston’s character learns them. This surprising, break-neck sequence sets an eerie tone for the remainder of its narrative. As horns blare and nets are thrown, we fear for the human prisoners and resent the threatening ape underlings immediately.

From here, the movie’s discussion of war and race become prevalent. Taylor, the white leading man archetype of the time, is depicted as the victim and prisoner throughout. Meanwhile, the majority resemble a different colour and behavioural traits to him. Shaffner and co. turn the white hero into a scared minority beaten down and controlled by the larger group of opposing beings. The apes stand above the humans, talking articulately about their civilisation with a perplexed Taylor. Meanwhile, the other white human characters have become mute and primitive.

Of course, turning human extras into a legion of hyper-intelligent apes is no easy task. Until humanity’s dying day, Planet of the Apes has to be commended for remarkable and detailed practical effects and costumes. The movie sees gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans occupy the screen for minutes at a time. Shaffner’s experiment gave the production design, costuming and make-up teams enough leeway to fully realise the world without too much CGI.

The ending solidifies Planet of the Apes as darker, smarter and more contemplative than your average blockbuster. Taylor and mute human woman Nova, escaping the evil Dr Zaius and his army, come across the Statue of Liberty, proving the ape world was a nuclear wasteland version of Earth the entire time. The bleak finale and Taylor’s final line condemn the human race’s penchant and thirst for violence. The movie makes a powerful statement – ignorant and arrogant decisions would lead to the fall of mankind. This dismal, anti-human theme was also passed to the prequel trilogy, depicting virus’ dominance and mythical ape being Caesar’s rise to prominence.

Revered film critic Roger Ebert discussed the public’s scepticism before Planet of the Apes was released. Referring to the initial bad word of mouth prior to the opening-day screenings, Ebert said: “What they were really implying was that any movie named “Planet of the Apes” had to be awful. This kind of snobbery may be good for a chuckle or two, but those who practice it miss a lot of entertaining movies”.  This blockbuster proves expectations and reality are entirely different. Too often, we let scepticism get in the way of enjoyment. The original utilised a silly premise and developed a though-provoking look at science fiction and science fact.

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Alfred Hitchcock Film Festival – Vertigo

Doused in lust and obsession, Vertigo remains one of cinema’s defining mystery films by revealing Hitchcock’s darkest fantasies.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

Vertigo is possibly the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock’s films because it succeeds at being an effective psychological thriller as well as a careful study of his filmmaking approach. In the movie, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with the woman of his dreams and shapes her into an object of his desires. Hitchcock was notorious for choosing blondes as his leading ladies; fetishizing them in objectifying costumes and ultimately humiliating them at the hands of controlling men. You could almost use Scottie as a reflection of Hitchcock’s fixation.

This dichotomy is perhaps the reason Vertigo remains so disturbing. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it as the best mystery movie, and in 2012, Sight & Sound magazine named it the best film of all time, just ahead of Citizen Kane. Why not Notorious? Or Rear Window? Or Psycho? Those were great films about horror and paranoia, but Vertigo is more in harmony with its director.

I won’t go over the plot. You either know it or you don’t, in which case its surprises are best left for you to discover. Vertigo, however, is less about plot and more about the imprisonment of its characters. Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine (Kim Novak) is an entrapment, and Madeleine’s subsequent love for Scottie binds her to a man who only thinks he shares the same feelings. Both characters tumble ever downward into loneliness and despair, and Scottie, who spends the entire film trying to overcome his irrational fear of heights, succeeds at the cost of his twisted fantasy.

If it sounds like a dour, unforgiving tragedy, it is, but Hitchcock is a master of his tools, and in Vertigo he manages to strike intrigue, while Stewart’s subversive, edgy performance makes Scottie a thoroughly captivating individual. Stewart was known for playing the implausible hero – like L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window – but in Vertigo he is transformed. He still retains much of his natural charisma, but it’s sullener, tuned down, toned up. He creeps into the picture as a man torn apart by himself, and he is absolutely fascinating to watch.

The female characters are, of course, victims of Hitchcock’s gaze. Both Madeleine and Midge (Scottie’s college friend, played by Barbara Bel Geddes) subject themselves to humiliation and demise, but by the time they realise it, the plot has twisted so tightly around itself that there is no escape for anybody. This magnificent play on lust, obsession and guilt is what gives Vertigo a backbone. A plot of games to last through the decades.

But the movie is also a technical marvel. It is perhaps most remembered for pioneering the “dolly zoom”, a camera technique in which the lens zooms in while the physical camera tracks back, creating the illusion of compressed space around an unchanging subject. It was a visual phenomenon popularised by Spielberg’s Jaws in 1976, used to highlight acute fear. In Vertigo, its use is more fundamental but no less effective; as Scottie stares down from great heights, the ground rushes up to greet him.

One of the great joys about Hitchcock’s oeuvre is that you’re never short of a masterpiece. Here is a director who made more than fifty films; around half of them observe humanity from behind a door of fear and mistaken identities. They’re always about more than what they’re about. Spellbound was more than just proving a man’s innocence. Notorious was more than just uncovering Nazi secrets. And Vertigo is certainly about more than a fear of heights. By uniting so many strands of his life into 120 minutes of personal agony, Hitchcock has crafted one of the most enduring films of all time.

You can catch Vertigo on the big screen at Windsor Cinema Monday 1 August & Sunday 7 August

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Great Britain Retro Film Festival – Part 2

Josip Knezevic

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

What if the end of the world could be started by the push of a button?

05 May - GBRFF P2 - Dr Strangelove

When it comes to political satires, you can hardly beat Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; a hilarious yet tense drama that pokes fun at its subject matter and isn’t shy to delve into its underlying seriousness.

Peter Sellers puts on a masterclass of acting by dwelling into three characters; Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and Dr Strangelove, with the latter being his finest. The film explores the predicament facing the U.S President who is tasked with stopping a madman from unleashing a thermal nuclear war on Russia. The trick here being that the madman is in turn a general within the Royal Air Force who has gone insane with conspiracy theories against the communist regime. It’s the Cold War that could have been, and one that never ceases to make you smile.

No matter how insane or convoluted the plot becomes, Dr Strangelove remains believable as it has deep seated relevance. Nuclear war was almost a reality, and today, it is still a possibility. What makes the film brilliant, however, is the subtle, yet hilarious undertones throughout. You can’t help but smile at the escalation of each disastrous situation, even as the circumstances of the characters deteriorate each time.

Whilst it might not make everyone burst out laughing in comparison to traditional comedies , Kubrick’s film is in a class of its own. It’s sharp, witty, and rooted in a fully realised fictional world that could still be our future.

Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is screening at Windsor Cinemas on May 25. 

Zachary Cruz-Tan

A Passage to India (1984)

David Lean entertains, and provokes thought with his last film of a career that’s literally spanned the globe.

05 May - GBRFF P2 - Passage to India

Misunderstanding is at the heart of David Lean’s final film, A Passage to India, a parable that’s vast, but deeply intimate in the way it addresses – and sometimes casts aside – the firmly-rooted prejudice that poisoned the uneasy Anglo-Indian relationship of the 1800s and early 1900s in India. It is a movie about looking, listening, sympathising, believing. That’s hard to do when neither side of the relationship is willing to trust the other.

The success of A Passage to India is founded on the tension between the two races, but its scope is small; at least by David Lean standards. Lean’s idea of a movie was not about dialogue, character or plot, but about the imagery. The way the movie looked and felt; its energy. To him, the story lay within the pictures. In the buzzing humidity of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for example. Or in the heat of the sun in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  A Passage to India is minute in comparison, but its themes are no less expansive.

Peter O’Toole was Lean’s first choice to play Richard Fielding, the romantic hero of the English side, but the part shifted to James Fox instead. Alec Guinness makes several Obi-Wan Kenobi appearances as the serenely prescient Professor Godbole. All of the characters are humanistic; none of them are played falsely. They are a powerful testament to Lean’s almost supernatural ability to set his movies in the furthest corners of the globe and still makes us care deeply about the tiny little people that inhabit them. A Passage to India may not be Lawrence of Arabia, but it’s as fine a swansong as any director could wish for.

A Passage to India screens at Windsor Cinemas on May 24

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, MGM Home Entertainment/Chapel Distribution/Greater Union Distribution

1940-1948: The Rise of Hitchcock

Zachary Cruz-Tan

Alfred Hitchcock directed almost seventy films in his fifty-one-year career, which began in the silent era and ended at about the same time disco music was running out of roller skates and bell-bottom corduroys. In the 1940’s he made twelve of those seventy in the span of a decade. That’s an achievement akin to The Beatles’ fourteen albums in seven years.

I’ll be looking at three of those films, how they shaped the 1940’s for Hitchcock and how they established a suspense narrative that influenced not only his later pictures but decades of filmmaking to come.

Rebecca (1940)

04 Apr - Hitchcock Rebecca
Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American feature. Up till then he had worked exclusively in the UK, responsible for classics like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). While Rebecca wasn’t thematically divergent from the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it adopted the gothic atmosphere of its novel and turned domestic paranoia into a theatre of intense dread.

After marrying wealthy Englishman Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the unnamed main character (Joan Fontaine) is tormented by his dead first wife Rebecca, and her devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson). Producer David O. Selznick was adamant the movie remain as faithful to its source material as possible – one major change included alterations to Rebecca’s demise in order to appease Hollywood’s Production Code – but Hitchcock being Hitchcock decided to make a few adjustments himself, reducing Mrs. Danvers’ age from matriarchal ripeness in the novel to middle-aged exuberance as a way to increase the sexual tension in the de Winter household. The result is a film that breathes warily, as if it knows precisely what mischief its characters are up to.

This movie won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, a triumph that no doubt secured Hitchcock’s American film rights for the next thirty-odd years. It also opened up a decade of trials and experiments, of treasures and unknowns, as Hitchcock progressed from claustrophobic domestic thrillers to broad post-World War II espionage dramas. He dominated the cinematic canvas for the two decades prior. Now, he was establishing his nobility.

Notorious (1946)

03 Apr - Hitchcock NotoriousThis is what you get when you combine Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Nazi Germany and espionage: one of Hitchcock’s finest and most technically gifted films.

Notorious is indeed a sexy picture, a movie about crossing and double-crossing and possibly even triple-crossing. It plays hard and fast with its characters, like an eager chess player watching impatiently as his opponent scrambles to organise an attack pattern. If you look hard enough you might even spot the cues that lined up the early James Bond movies.

The movie is known now for two triumphs: 1) the impossible shot of the camera beginning on the balcony of an enormous mansion lobby and ending on the ground, on a close-up of a key in Ingrid Bergman’s palm, and 2) Hitchcock’s ingenious and conniving way of circumventing the restrictions of the Production Code by having his stars Grant and Bergman kiss for two-and-a-half minutes without actually kissing for two-and-a-half minutes. The Production Code demanded that all romantic kisses be curtailed to no longer than three-second sessions. Hitch had his stars kiss and break away repeatedly till he was satisfied.

But Notorious’ reach extended further than that. It remained in the consciousness of the public well into Hitchcock’s twilight years, and inspired the plot of Mission: Impossible II (2000), down to the horse races and binoculars. Unfortunately, it left out the Nazis.

Rope (1948)

04 Apr - Hitchcock Rope
Perhaps just as much as Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) or Psycho (1960), Rope is remembered as being one of Hitchcock’s defining suspense thrillers, a story about pride and arrogance, and of course about murder.

Two young boys kill their friend on a lark and decide it’d be a terrific idea to hide his corpse in a trunk and pose the trunk as a dinner table. They’d then invite as many guests as can be found and wait to see who comes closest to discovering their horrible secret without really discovering it. It’s a tantalising premise, filmed in such a manner as to make the audience believe it’s all unfolding in one continuous take; in real-time. Of course it wasn’t shot in one take, because the physical limitations of film meant that Hitchcock could only record about twenty minutes of footage before having to cut and change reels (he had the camera sweep behind chairs and tables to hide cuts).

While this may have seemed like a nuisance, it no doubt paved the way for modern attempts at the same feat, notably in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2016).

It’s worth remembering that these movies premiered some seventy years ago and we’re still opening dialogues about them, discussing their styles, themes, innovations, longevity. Heck, we’re still discussing Hitchcock himself as if he were alive and making movies. You might question his approach to filmmaking and treatment of actors, but you cannot doubt his cinematic genius. His results dictate their own fate.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros, United International Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, G. L. Film Enterprises, Selznick International Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 

1937 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

More than just the first of its kind, Snow White lives on as a jewel of animation, brimming with innovation and passionate creativity.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

More so than any other genre of film, animation has the distinct ability to transport its viewer to another time and place entirely; to where houses fly and animals talk, and evil witches can have crows and vultures as cronies. In this new millennium, we have a little something called computer-generated imagery, which enables live action filmmakers to create the kinds of spaces that – at one time – were only allowed to exist in the realm of animation. For decades prior, animated movies were painstakingly drawn by hand, and they freed themselves from the realistic, gravitational limitations of our world.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-colour feature-length animation; it slammed open the doorway to fantastical kingdoms and whimsical imagination in a way that has only been affectionately imitated since. Animals creep and whistle. Trees transform into menacing spectres that haunt poor Snow White in the deep dark woods. A mirror speaks. An evil queen plots a dreadful murder by disguising herself as a wrinkly apple peddler. Dwarfs mine for diamonds, sharing a kind of symbiotic relationship with their wondrous fairy tale land. In a period of cinema that was still clinging to black-and-white photography, Snow White appeared as a multicolour visual extravaganza.

Much of the movie’s success must of course be credited to the teams of animators and conceptual artists who transplanted ideas from mind to paper, but Snow White was a labour of love for Walt Disney, who, having thrilled and entertained young audiences for years with mice and ducks, aspired to push the boundaries of his vision by creating idealised versions of existing characters, tweaking their social tics and placing them in technicolour dreamscapes that housed all the joys and terrors of their animators’ wildest imaginations. The result is terrific family entertainment, maybe a bit too scary for children under seven, but sparkling in design and concept.

Every inch of the screen is drawn with detail, so that backgrounds move in tandem with the action in the fore. When Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) runs into the dark forest, her arms flail and her dress billows, but the trees also move with an imperious force, and the backdrop, painted flat, follows the “camera” to create the illusion of visual depth. Considering every frame was pencilled in by the hands of devoted artists, Snow White’s achievement cannot be undermined. The film looks beautiful from every direction, inside and out.

Disney was determined to see it through. Facing an unimpressed Hollywood collective – they referred to his endeavour as “Disney’s folly” – and discouragement from both his wife Lillian and his brother Roy, Disney mortgaged his house and eventually blew open his budget to a sum of almost one-and-a-half million. Quite a pretty penny for 1937.

The film now is certainly remembered for being the first Disney classic, but what truly makes it immortal is the way it juxtaposes its clashing personalities. The plot is ostensibly about Snow White and the Evil Queen (Lucille La Verne), but regard the seven dwarfs, each named according to his dominant trait (Bashful goes red, Sneezy sneezes, Grumpy grumbles, etc). What life they bring to the story! Regard also the numerous animals that inhabit the woods and accompany Snow White as a kind of loyal posse of helpers. They are individual characters, designed to carry the hopes and fears of the audience into the film, to Snow White’s feet.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a remarkable achievement. It is scary, funny, quite thrilling, and its musical numbers have entered Disney lore. Watching it again, I’ve noticed that it hasn’t aged. Why? Perhaps because we all have fond memories of Dopey and the poisoned apple, of the sinister mirror, and the absolutely fantastical world envisioned by a bold visionary. So we will the movie to live on, and live on it does. Heigh-ho!

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Productions 

1931 – City Lights

In this, its 85th year, City Lights reminds us why Chaplin was once the most famous man on Earth, and why his genius, though forgotten by some, will live on in his pictures.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

City Lights is one of the all-time great silent films, and one of the most powerful cinematic experiences. It is a movie about love, but is also about two good-hearted people finding each other across the hustle and bustle of a booming city, and coming to terms not just with who the other person is, but with who they are as emotional companions.

One of them is blind, which presents a very immediate obstacle. The other is The Tramp, at one time the most recognisable character in the world, and the creation that shoved Charles Chaplin into the superstardom stratosphere.

Most moviegoers now remember Chaplin for The Tramp, and incorrectly exchange one for the other, in much the same way that Adam West will forever be tied to Batman. But Chaplin couldn’t have been more different from his creation. One overflowed with meek chivalry and a sweet sense of the world. The other stood atop the world and refused to relinquish control.

It has been routinely documented that Chaplin insisted City Lights remain a silent feature, despite entering production well into the era of cinematic sound. Chaplin was highly dismissive of the talkies, informing a reporter once that he’d “give the talkies three years, that’s all”. But more to the point was his affection for The Tramp, which is a character that was born and bred to die with silent movies. Unlike anyone designed by Griffith, Murnau, or especially Keaton, The Tramp could have functioned normally in a real silent world, because he communicated exclusively with his body. Perhaps this is the reason he connected so well with his audience, and why his persona flowed through the generations and descended upon ours as a mythical comedic figure.

City Lights is The Tramp’s platform, but it’s also a showcase for Chaplin’s unique socio-political sensibility. It is a triumphant meeting of the many facets of everyday life; it is humorous, moving, melodramatic, filled with empathy and pathos, agile, comforting. More so than The Kid (1921), which was mostly sentimental, or The Gold Rush (1925), which was mostly comedic, or Modern Times (1936), which was mostly satirical, City Lights marries all the switches of everyday life into the circuitry of a movie. So it may be in black-and-white, contain no sound, and look old, but its simple, endearing story survives the ages.

It is also, quite plainly, a very well-acted film. Chaplin, of course, was a master of his mannerisms before he even knew how to crawl, but Virginia Cherrill, who plays the blind girl, brings a softness of touch, and Harry Myers, as the drunken millionaire, is bombastic in a way as to be audaciously entertaining. All the right notes are met. And the movie’s famous closing scene, which is a subtle passage of genius on Chaplin’s part, plays not for big, dramatic closure, but for the humanness within. Had Chaplin opted for a more swelling finale, the entire film would’ve seemed cheap and inferior.

City Lights was not easily made. Its screenplay was under construction for well over a year (Chaplin’s mother Hannah died in 1928, prompting an unprecedented hiatus in production) and Chaplin fired (and later re-hired) Cherrill midway through shooting because she complained of being bored, and took regular vacations to the hair dressers.

The result, though, is brilliant and devoid of such scandal. The average moviegoer today will not see a movie like City Lights, mostly because he or she has probably never heard of it. Charlie Chaplin? Yes. But ask them to name one of his movies. You’d be encircled by blank stares. Movies like City Lights have to be sought and discovered, and only a select few are willing to do that today. Chaplin’s movies once spanned the globe and enthralled millions. Now they are reclusive, almost shy, living with other silent films that cannot find a place in this modern jungle. I recommend, of course, that you see it, especially if it be your very first Chaplin picture. You get the immediate feel for The Tramp, his humanity, his comedy, and you get the broader sense of Chaplin’s immaculate writing. You can then branch off to The Kid and The Great Dictator (1940).

Images courtesy of Warner Bros / Roadshow Films 

Hollywood Retro Film Festival – The Searchers

John Ford’s The Searchers is a sprawling western, with heroes, villains and victims, except some of the lines are not so clear.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

In very much the same way as The Godfather, the closing shot of John Ford’s The Searchers poignantly frames its flawed hero in a doorway of loneliness. Ethan Edwards, like Michael Corleone, has a mind narrower than a backyard alley. While Michael rose to new heights of depravity, Ethan (John Wayne) finds redemption. Only by the time it is found, there is no one to share it with.

The Searchers is about four things: Obsession, prejudice, loneliness, and the frayed optimism of the Old West. There are subplots involving marriage, lost love, and feeble attempts at creating uncomfortable comedy, but they serve more as distractions from the central passage of the movie than as supports. Indeed, whenever the focus is drawn away from Ethan and his companion Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), we are compelled to tune out and await their return.

Yet the odyssey Ethan and Marty embark upon is fraught with questionable motives. Ethan seeks vengeance against the native Comanche because they murdered his brother, his sister-in-law, razed their ranch, and abducted his two nieces. This provides the initial drive of the plot, but doesn’t provide an explanation that justifies Ethan’s prolonged obsession with finding and slaughtering the “savages”. Yes, he wants to rescue his nieces, but when he finds one after five years, and discovers that she’s now more Comanche than American, is it natural for him to want her dead instead?

The Searchers is an interesting film because it finds both gallantry and hatred in this hero. A Confederate veteran, Ethan has no professional interest in the eradication of the natives. His prejudice stems from a core of vengeance. Was it right, at the time, to craft such a one-sided hero? Did audiences in 1956 understand the racial and moral issues that lay beneath Wayne’s swagger? Every move Ethan makes in the movie spits in the face of Comanche progress. When he and Marty are caught in a blizzard, he hysterically guns down a grazing bison, saying “At least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!”

“The Western audience didn’t want moral complexity,” writes Roger Ebert, “Like the audience for today’s violent thrillers and urban warfare pictures, it wanted action with clear-cut bad guys”. Were the Comanche still considered clear-cut bad guys in 1956?

Ethan Edwards, therefore, was a vessel in which the fears and misinterpretations of an entire nation were coddled, and he found the right face in John Wayne, who, by the time of The Searchers, had starred in more than eighty films, mostly westerns. His audiences trusted in his weathered smile, his towering stature and his benevolent speech. They followed him into battle, regardless of the enemy.

In The Searchers, Wayne and Ford partner up to deliver a movie that is not perfect, but that perfectly encapsulates the mental state of an old west that has suffered the tragedies of war. Ford was a master of shooting landscapes, framing his deserts here as if they are but a massive board on which insignificant pieces move. He makes sand and stone beautiful, and inspired a generation of admirers, from David Lean to Wong Kar Wai.

This movie could have done without a lot of its smaller stories, like the hackneyed romance between Marty and Laurie (Vera Miles), but what it has is a compelling hero in Ethan Edwards, who strides through the scenery carrying his own beliefs, his own rituals, his own missions, and demands that we follow him all the way to the end, to that lonely open doorway.

The Searchers screens at Windsor Cinema December 9

Images courtesy of Warner Bros

Hollywood Retro Film Festival – Spartacus

Grab your Gladiator helmet and take a trip back to the ancient age of empires; the legend of Spartacus lives on in what remains one of the most tremendous epics in cinema’s history.

Corey Hogan

Don’t pretend that you don’t know his name – Stanley Kubrick, beloved by movie patricians, university lecturers and up and coming directors-to-be; few would argue that he’s the single most influential filmmaker of modern cinema. Interestingly enough, his classic sword-and-sandals behemoth Spartacus does not come across as a typically Kubrick-ian film at first glance. It’s probably better remembered as one of those many historical epics á la Ben Hur that swept 50’s and 60’s Golden Age Hollywood. It does predate most of his signature work, but upon closer inspection, there’s definitely hints that a then fresh-faced, thirty-year-old Kubrick was well on his way to developing his movie-making mojo – despite the fact that he went on to disown the film, since he did not have complete control over the filming process.

Based upon Howard Fast’s classic novel, in turn inspired by the events of the Gladiator War of roughly 70 BC – Spartacus tells the tale of the titular hero, played by the mighty Kirk Douglas, and his rise from simple slave of the Roman Empire to leader of the slave revolt, amassing a mighty army to take down the very republic responsible for his imprisonment. Sentenced to battle fellow slaves to the death, one particular fight of Spartacus’ ends in a riot, allowing the imprisoned to overthrow their oppressors and conquer Italy. Upon appointing Spartacus their chief, he gathers a hefty following and plots to march on Roman Senator Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) and his congress, abolishing slavery once and for all – but things, unfortunately, go awry…

Filmed on a whopping $12 million budget ($90 million adjusted for inflation – an enormity for its time), Spartacus was one giant step up from Kubrick’s previous film, Paths of Glory, which had  less than $1 million to work with. Every dollar was milked to the director’s advantage, and it shows – the dazzling set design of the towering temples and palaces of Rome, Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography and rich use of yellow and blue lighting that truly pops in glorious technicolour, and Alex North’s thundering score, which truly provides the film its grand, epic scale. It’s unafraid to open with a 5-minute overture of nothing but black screen and the theme song, something that still effectively gets you squirming in your seat with excitement.

Intriguingly, the most powerful scenes are not the ones featuring great war schematics, but rather the more intimate moments of the love story between Spartacus and Varnia (Jean Simmons), a former slave girl who takes a liking to Spartacus after he refuses his captor’s wishes to rape her. It’s the kind of romance that only classic Hollywood could produce; a pair so hopelessly devoted to each other that it can only end in tragedy – it’s heart-warming, and gut-wrenching.

Of course, it all leads to the long-awaited battle sequence between the slave army and the Romans. When we finally do arrive there it’s nothing short of breathtaking; a panorama of 8000 mercenaries – actual trained soldiers from Spain – marching in formation across the countryside towards Spartacus’ clan. It’s far more effective than any CG-clone army seen far too often in cinema today.

Post-battle heralds the film’s most famous scene; surrounded by Crassus’ men, the surviving slaves are told to identify their leader, only to martyr themselves by each shouting “I’m Spartacus!” – temporarily saving their captain from death by crucifixion. It’s a great sequence, parodied countless times (the best in Monty Python’s Life of Brian), and proves – like the film itself – that something so magnificently crafted can withstand the test of time, inspire and entertain audiences for generations to come.

Spartacus screens at Windsor Cinema 6 Dec

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

Hollywood Retro Film Festival – 12 Angry Men

Sidney Lumet’s debut feature remains a benchmark in minimalist, dialogue-driven filmmaking, as Henry Fonda reminds us why we value human life.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

Twelve grown men are confined to a claustrophobic chamber. It’s the hottest day of the year. They’re grumpy and impatient. The boy is surely guilty. His life hangs on every word that spurts from their mouths; on every thought that fills their heads. By the time they leave the room they will have either saved his life or sent him to the electric chair.

This is the story with which 12 Angry Men breathes, but not with which it beats. Yes, it’s a courtroom drama, but like To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), the drama in the courtroom takes a back seat. In 12 Angry Men the courtroom is glimpsed in the opening scene, and never seen again. What we have here is a debate on the fundamentals of justice. Never mind who did what and to whom. As the jury delve deeper and deeper into the facts of the case, they open up their own trial, ostensibly about the boy, additionally about themselves.

This is one of the all-time masterpieces, directed with prodigious confidence by first-timer Sidney Lumet. Lumet – who would later go on to direct Network (1976), Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), and Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) – was 33 years old, yet had the clarity of vision, and assuredness of style to position us directly in front of his subjects, so that we’re unable to turn away from the weight of their predicament.

Much has been documented about Lumet’s and cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s clever use of camera lenses. If you thought lenses only served the frame and the depth of an image, you might want to see 12 Angry Men again. The method of the camera deserves a documentary on its own, with Lumet choosing short focal lengths at the beginning and gradually switching to longer ones as the intensity of his characters grow. This gives the impression that the room itself is closing in around them. Only when a decision in the plot is finally reached does Lumet return to a wide shot, easing the tension, restoring normality. For a director who had previously spent no time in the company of film, these were bold choices that became lessons on how to effectively use camera lenses to influence an audience’s reaction to character and situation.

Henry Fonda, always able to keep his emotions bubbling beneath the surface, is the right choice as Davis, Juror #8. Fonda is always calm and sturdy, and one of the keys to his performance is the way he handles his supporting cast, which evolves from a mob into a well-balanced committee. By the end of the movie, each man has had his share of the screen, dialogue, and story; no one is shoved to the back seat.

12 Angry Men originally began as a television play, written by Reginald Rose, and one can easily see the merits that attracted Rose and Fonda to produce its adaptation. It is minimal in the way it uses space and time; the movie mostly runs in real time in one primary location – just three of its ninety-six minutes are set outside the jury room.

Movies like this still survive today – Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) and Steven Knight’s Locke (2014) readily spring to mind – but they are not so taut in their delivery, not so powerful in their message. 12 Angry Men rests on a different pedestal altogether, because it is clearly about something important, and is utterly gripping in the way it talks about it.

12 Angry Men screens at Windsor Cinema 3 Dec & 10 Dec

Images courtesy of Orion-Nova Productions & 20th Century Fox