28 May 2009

Have You Seen...? #2 (The Big Steal)

I’m an inveterate Robert Mitchum fan, sharing David Thomson’s opinion that he is “untouchable” in the history of the cinema. So when I discovered that he re-teamed with his Out of the Past co-star Jane Greer in The Big Steal, I jumped all over it. I was not disappointed.

Mitchum (playing Army Lt. Duke Halliday) and Greer (playing tougher-than-she-looks Joan, quickly nicknamed Chiquita by Halliday) get their rapid-fire banter started early when Halliday tries to shake her down in the bathroom:

Joan:“You might be accustomed to taking group showers, but I’m not.”
Halliday: “Where’s Fiske?”
Joan: “Taking the parrot for a walk.”

The humor is strong throughout—I enjoyed this classic Mitchum line, out of the side of his mouth as he regards a priceless stone artifact: “Looks like something you get for knocking down a milk bottle.”

The early action takes place in a little town quite reminiscent of Tampico in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There's a heady mix of possible good guys and grifters in the hot sun as Chiquita and Halliday are joined by the pencil-moustached hustler Fiske and Army Captain Blake in pursuit of a suitcase full of money. Mitchum is in cantinas again, looking over his shoulder against that long nose. Even though there's nothing quite as memorable as Greer's arrival out of the light in Out of the Past, the first act bustles right along.

The Big Steal comes into focus as the shadow of a ceiling fan stirs the hot air of a police station. Halliday is trying to convince the authorities that the money has been stolen from him. The Mexican police speak excellent English of course, one even an “alumnus” of the University of California system (the Lieutenant and the Inspector debate singular versus plural in Latinate words amongst other grammatical pickles). Their banter is a wily way of obscuring the Inspector's sharp intuition--he knows what the gringos will do before they know themselves. In a later scene, Fiske, Halliday and Chiquita are all nervously drinking coconuts with the Inspector and all changing their minds at the same time. He plays the role of the cat playing with the mice who thinks they are cats. The Inspector, and by extension Mexico, is always there, abiding.

The central motif of The Big Steal is a contrast between the impatience of the gringos and the serenity of the natives. One running gag, established early in the film, has Halliday repeatedly dashing out of the barbershop before getting his shave (though he takes the time to toss a coin over his shoulder for the service almost rendered—he’s a good American after all). Donkeys and cows in the street are always moving exactly as fast as they want to, slowing down frustrated Americans behind the wheel. Part of the reason Halliday wins out in the end is his acclimation to the Mexican pace of life (which dovetails nicely with Mitchum’s famous lassitude). At the end of a long car chase, Halliday and Chiquita elude their pursuer not by outracing him, but by setting a stream of goats loose across the road. This gives us what I imagine to be our only filmic image of Mitchum the Goatherd.

I also want to call out a particular cut. There’s a lovely fade from a group moving through a hotel archway to a woman rowing a boat filled with flowers. Just as the characters presumably scatter to different rooms once inside the hotel, the flower lady throws white blooms in every direction. It’s stunning high art in an otherwise no-frills 77 minute sprint.

Of course, after the climax (which is brilliantly foreshadowed, by the way), one wants to know if Halliday and Chiquita will stay together. They have a discussion in the park and, suffice to say, they come to an accord. If you can imagine an ending less subtle than the train entering the tunnel in North by Northwest, this is it.

21 May 2009


I watched On the Waterfront because it was a classic I'd never seen, an eruption of Marlon Brando, a famous monologue. When the film ended, I immediately wondered how such a well-regarded film could be so thin.

Terry Malloy's romance with Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is fairly preposterous. Who really buys her affection for the man who precipitated her brother's death? She has no qualms about Terry subsequently taking over her brother's pigeons--she seems more attracted to him because of it.

Supporting actors Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden are strenuous as the opposing forces of mob boss and priest. They would be better off if they went fully in to caricature, though Cobb’s over the top monologues are subtle next to Malden’s repeated preaching about Jesus on the Cross on the Docks on the Waterfront. From the cargo hold of a ship carrying Irish whiskey, we even the see the ascension on an empty pallet.

The cinematography is widely praised; I see lots of fences and chicken wire but not much sense of a city or busy shipyard. I mean, I'd like to see what Hoboken, New Jersey looked like 55 years ago but the film might as well have been shot on a backlot.

Furthermore, the climax of On the Waterfront is unmotivated. There’s no reason for Charley Malloy’s murder. Not only is he "the brains" of the operation, you need him alive to ensure Terry's cooperation. Killing a guy's brother can only push him into the arms of the police. I think it was more important to the filmmakers to obviate the symbolism of the hook and make Brando wail (something at which he does excel).

I'm more interested in off screen realities when it comes to On the Waterfront. Director Elia Kazan made a movie about the virtue of informing on friends for the greater good after he gave the HUAC names of communists in the film industry. That leaves a sour taste in one's mouth. But! It is one of the Vatican's top 45 films of all time. And I can't take that away.

I saw Tyson as soon as I got the chance--it's nothing but the man himself and more powerful for it. In the style of The Kid Stays in the Picture, James Toback lets Tyson pump himself up and then try to explain his excruciating fall. I'm a big believer in the documentary with minimal narration. A film like Tarnation is a great example of how over-explanation can poison narrative momentum. Jonathan Caouette had tremendous, gripping footage but his need to make sure everyone "got it" bogged down what could have been a classic.

Tyson spits out many great lines and I can only remember a fraction--one that I liked particularly was (approximately), “I am an extremist. People hate me because they can’t understand me.” This is insightful commentary on why people hate all sorts of people, not just Mike Tyson.

My favorite sequences centered around Evander Holyfield and Robin Givens, two very different nemeses. Tyson's take on the two more-or-less career-ending Holyfield fights focus on the alleged headbutting by the guy who has even more children and brain damage than Mike. The replays are selective, but it sure looks like the "Real Deal" tries to open those cuts by any means necessary. Some of my earliest SportsCenter memories are from that Sunday morning where we heard nothing but anchors shrieking about Tyson biting off Holyfield's ear. It's revealing to learn how Tyson felt he was really trying to save his life in those moments. Somehow, I had never seen Robin Givens complete psychological dismantling of Tyson on Barbara Walters (Bawbwa's fearful glances at Tyson throughout are priceless). It turns out that you could subdue the baddest man alive by calling him an abusive manic depressive on national television.

And the film is worth seeing just for the big screen archival footage of young Tyson. His electric speed and power is one thing, but it is the look of fear—however brief—in his opponents’ eyes that I can’t get over. These are men who have fought all their lives and Tyson still had them beat before the bout even started.

(Down goes Berbick, in a sheer panic, months after beating Muhammad Ali.)

A little more detail on exactly how the money went away (though a line about Tyson's settlement with Don King was telling, something like, “I got nothing, twenty or thirty million”) would have been useful. I remember reading once about six figure monthly expenditures for upkeep of his lions, tigers and parrots.

So I’m left asking why it turned out the way it did even after watching 90 minutes of Tyson. But now I know he is asking the same thing.

And here's one thing I can say about On the Waterfront: Brando's eyes look right.

20 May 2009


Maybe Japan is a country for old men. At least for old, American men who happen to be film actors. The most obvious example is Bill Murray finding (and whispering to Scarlett Johansson) some secret of life in Lost in Translation. But my two favorite actors, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum also had late career successes in Tokyo. I’ve heard many bad things about Walk, Don’t Run but there are many funny moments and nothing disrupts the understanding that Grant is still infinitely charming at any age. And the Tokyo Olympic bustle behind him adds buoyancy to a part that might otherwise be mundane.

The Yakuza is the most transparently covetous of “East meets West” moments but I think Paul Schrader and Robert Towne provide a worthwhile screenplay. Mitchum is Harry Kilmer (did they give his name the r’s and the l to make its frequent pronunciation by the Japanese more humorous?), a rheumy-eyed who looks even more like a whiskey advertisement than Bill Murray.

Kilmer’s noir cowboy would be much more drab if not backgrounded by the primary color yakuza territory (rooms are painted deep blue, men have red spiders tattooed on their heads, etc.). Out of the three films mentioned, The Yakuza was shot in the middle period for Tokyo’s neon extravaganza, and I have to say I like it the most. It has variety and movement in color without the frighteningly lifelike dinosaurs.

Sure Kilmer “learns” things from his Japanese friends, but mainly confirms for himself that he is still a badass, blowing away gangsters with a shotgun (you know how casually he swings it from El Dorado, Rio Bravo, et al) while his partner Tanaka-Ken slices up enemies with a samurai sword.

The Yakuza has one perfect scene. Harry and his long-haired American apprentice recline in some kind of hip hot spring pool, distracted by scantily-clad women behind frosted glass. The architectural highlight is an aquarium full of koi fish built into a pillar just behind them. As the heroes enjoy themselves, an assassin slips underwater and swims towards them. His slither and full-back yakuza tattoo make him very koi-like. Of course, Kilmer sniffs out the ruse and stabs the man with his own knife. The resulting red-orange blood clouds a circular pool light, conjuring a murky approximation of the rising sun flag, a clunky bit of symbolism I couldn’t help loving.

The film ends with an unnecessary frenzy of sharp knives and pinky fingers in handkerchiefs but I can’t really fault it. Kilmer is honoring the yakuza, thanking them for giving him a way to feel alive again. The Yakuza and Lost in Translation come back to an essential question: which is more invigorating, killing dozens of Japanese heavies or spending a few days with Scarlett Johansson?