Monday, 26 November 2012

Wise Blood (1979)

In the late 70's John Huston was approached by Michael Fitzgerald to find out if Huston was willing to direct an adaptation of Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood. Huston agreed if Fitzgerald could get the money together. He did, and they shot it quickly, using no big name stars on a minimal budget. To play the lead role of disillusioned would be preacher Hazel Motes, Huston cast Brad Dourif, who had come off a major success playing Billy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in 1975.

The rest of the cast was rounded out by multiple low-profile relatively unknown actors, with Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty playing two of such parts.

Young poor, ambitious and uneducated Hazel Motes returns to his southern town to look for his family. They have gone, and the house of his youth stands unoccupied and rotting. He then buys himself a suit, and heads for the city. There he meats Enoch, a clinger who takes a strange liking to the stoic and anti-social Motes. Motes also encounters Asa Hawkes, a "blind" preacher who goes around on the streets and begs for money with his promiscuous daughter Sabbath.

Hawkes's preaching of Jesus and god sets Motes off on an anti Jesus tirade, and it is then that Motes decides to create a church, but one without Jesus. He buys a banged up car and goes around preaching on the streets.

 This may be one of the strangest films I've ever seen. Each scene adds a layer of disbelief upon the last, and Dourif's performance just gets more and more strange and interesting. Hazel Motes is a man so confused by life that he can only see one thing, God. But God is the thing that blocks him from doing anything. Due to childhood trauma at the hands of his preacher grandfather, Hazel Motes doesn't know anything about life, except that he is afraid of God.

When he hears someone preaching Jesus, this childhood trauma manifests itself in the form of anger, and he decides to preach, but not Jesus, but rather a form of anti-Jesus. In this form Brad Dourif manages to suspend your disbelief as you wonder exactly what this man is all about, his motives and ambitions. As Huston said himself, Hazel is a one note guy, and that one note is god. Weather it be the fear of God, or the fear of the possibility of God, religion is Hazel's life.

The film has been called many things, but cult film pretty much wraps it up. On release, there was little to no impact made, but over the years the film has garnered a sort of reputation. It is an odd little curio, and a strange film stylistically. It feels like the work of a young beginner, than the work of an old master. The film feels uniquely fresh, and is quite entertaining as a result. However I cannot give it a great mark because it is not a great film.

It is certainly entertaining, but there are too many flaws with the film for me to call it a masterpiece it is an incredible piece of off-kilter entertainment. The performances are quite good, and the direction is stupendous. However I have a major quibble. The ending. I am still trying to process it (SPOILERS follow).

Hazel's car is stopped by a policeman who pushes it into a river. Hazel blinds himself, and then keeps inflicting various forms of physical punishment to himself (barbed wire on the torso, rocks in the shoes). Huston explains the ending by saying that the whole film is Hazel's fight with Jesus, and in the end Jesus wins. The ending is certainly very effective in this message, but it was intensely hard to predict. But then again, Hazel Motes is a very unpredictable young man.

I will spend my last paragraph speaking of an odd side story that occurs. Enoch becomes obsessed with a man in a monkey costume, and with shaking his hand. He then takes the suit (it is unclear what he does with the man), and walks around shaking people's hands. He is pathetic, but he comes off as scary. The same  way Hazel comes off. Like a boy who doesn't know what do do when he grows up, drifting aimlessly from place to place just looking for something to latch on to. Enoch latches onto Hazel, and Hazel latches onto religion.

Wise Blood,
Starring: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty,
Directed by Jhon Huston,
7.5/10 (B+)

1. The Dead
2. The Asphalt Jungle
3. The Misfits
4. Wise Blood
5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
6. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Dead (1987)

The Dead was John Huston's last film. He was very sick at the time, and probably knew that his next film would be his last. So when choosing his project, he had to choose wisely. He chose The Dead, an adaptation of the James Joyce short story. It was very much a family affair, with his son Tony writing the screenplay and daughter Angelica playing the female lead. It was during the making of the film that his health deteriorated.

He died four months before it was released, and during the film making he suffered innumerable challenges. He relied on an oxygen tank to breath, and he couldn't go 20 minutes without it. Sometimes Huston would get stuck in his car, and be unable to get to the stage, and he would have to relay direction through his assistants. Despite these challenges, Huston made the film, based off a supposedly  "un-filmable" story. It was only after multiple revisions that Huston found the right approach, and with it, one of his finest films.

Greta and Gabriel Conroy are married, and they like each other, in turn of the century Ireland. They go to a party being held by three spinsters on January the 6th. After the party, they return to their hotel. That is the plot, seriously, that's it. To go into more detail would be frivolous without critical commentary, so that brings me to it.

The Dead is without a doubt the finest last film of any director with a sizable body of work, that I have seen. What Huston accomplishes in 72 minutes is what most filmmakers try their whole careers to accomplish. The film is so simple, yet its simplicity is its finest asset. Huston here manages to try something new, and for a man in his 80s, who is dying, that is quite a risk. And he pulls it off, of course. Some directors, like Hitchcock and Wilder have tried this approach, and the results aren't generally amazing.

If you read the plot, you'll see that the film's plot is quite thin, I could sum it up in five seconds, so Huston relies on characters and mood to set it up. In order to do that you need two things: good actors and a good script. And he has both. Some might say that The Dead was an act of nepotism, and yes, Huston draws on his family. John cast Anjelica in three of his films, and under his direction she won an Oscar. Here she gives a performance that doesn't seem to amount to much, for the first hour.

Then, near the end, she is walking down the stairs when a tenor from the second floor begins to belt out a tune. I can't name it, but she stops and closes her eyes, swaying gently to the sound of his singing, almost in a trance. Then she goes home and tells her husband of a past lover, who came to her one night, having suffered a terrible sickness. He died, and she believes that she caused him to die, wandering in the rain. But I'm, getting ahead of myself.

The performances, Huston (Anjelica, that is) is absolutely terrific. She puts up a facade for the first hour, but then she slowly lets it slip, and you glimpse her. Donal McCann is absolutely terrific in the role of Gabriel, her husband. I hadn't heard of him before this film, and its a shame, his ending monologue is close to perfection. The supporting cast is flawless, consisting mainly of people that I hadn't heard of before, which helps you to believe that they are their respective characters.

The screenplay does the wonder of turning what has been called the greatest short story of all time into a motion picture. Tony Huston is more than up to the challenge. It has been said that John Huston had been trying to get the film made for some time, but he couldn't find the right approach, and one day it came to him. The story doesn't need to be jazzed up with flashbacks and unnecessary additions. The best way to adapt the short story is to just tell the story.

No embellishes, nothing. Tell it straight. It works. I haven't read the source material, but I want to now, based on the final scene alone. The score perfectly complements the film, striking a melancholy but optimistic chord. Indeed some of the lengthy dialogue scenes can be frustrating, especially when they harp on singing and turn of the century Irish-British relations, but for some reason you are still compelled. I feel that what really makes the film work are the characters.

They feel real. They feel like people you know, from Freddie the pathetic drunk, to Greta, the "perfect" woman. They don't beg any stretch of the imagination. The whole party reminds you of past experiences and perhaps with a hint of nostalgia. Then I bring you to the direction. In his last film, John Huston managed to create a truly awesome film experience. It doesn't have any explosions, or detectives, greedy prospectors or riverboat captains. It has real people.

Huston manages to weave his camera through a scene so well, that it makes you feel that you are almost eavesdropping on someone else's party. By the end, you almost feel as if you know these people, and in a way you do. As the crisp snow falls on a forgotten Irish graveyard, we are reminded that we are all alive, but then we die, and time will pass us by. That brings me to my final comment: the title. It is perfect. It sounds as if the film is a horror film, but it is truly about the passage of time, how the dead can haunt the living from beyond the grave, but not in a scary way.

The dead hold a power over the living no matter how old and wise you are. They still cast a shadow over our lives, and we remember them until, perhaps, we join them. I debated giving this film a 9.5, but my sentimental side won over my few small problems. I'll end this review by quoting from the last narration, a fitting end to a terrific film.

"Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead."

The Dead,
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann and Donal Donelly
Directed by John Huston,
10/10 (A+)

1. The Dead
2. The Asphalt Jungle
3. The Misfits
4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
5. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

In 1957, Robert Mitchum is in Tobago, filming Fire Down Below. He arrives back in the United States, and he finds out that he has another gig. A marine and a nun stuck on an island. The island: Tobago.The film is called, Heaven Knows, Mister Allison. The plot alone draws comparisons to The African Queen. And there is Deborah Kerr, playing a nun. Again.

Corporal Allison was boarding a raft on a scouting mission, off of a submarine in 1944's Pacific. The Japanese bombed him, and he was left alone in the raft. When he came to, he was alone in the raft, in the middle of the Pacific. After a while, he drifted to an island. After checking out some abandoned shacks, he found Sister Angela, a nun, in the church. He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Sister Angela is praying.

After initially meeting awkwardly, the two soon become comfortable together, and come close to being friends. It is when the Japanese land on the island, that the strange relationship is put to the test. 

Just to make myself clear, I thought that this film was a pale imitation of The African Queen.  It's not a bad film, just not as good as that film. That said, it does have it's entertaining moments. I feel that it lacks that magic that was captured with The African Queen. Kerr and Mitchum have absolutely terrific chemistry, so the blame rests rather on the screen play. The film has a terrific setup, and then after a while, there is only so much you can do with a Marine and a Nun, without delving into some nasty business.

Unfortunately, because of the production code, you can only go so far. So then we are fed multiple moments of Mitchum acting macho while Deborah Kerr gets to sit on the sidelines and pray. There are only two characters for the whole film, and if they begin to get tiresome, you have a serious problem. Don't get me wrong, Deborah Kerr can act the part, and Mitchum is certainly very macho, but again, only to a point until it becomes tedious. Then the Japanese decide to make the island a base, and Mitchum falls for the nun. She of course, is engaged to Jesus.

The film is beautifully shot, in Colour and Cinemascope (widescreen). The lush island of Tobago never looked better. I spoke of the performances above, but to recap, Mitchum and Kerr were good, not great. The screenplay was awkward, and it felt forced at points, but the problem was the limitations of the production code.

Huston's direction was good (notice good, not great). I couldn't help but imagined how he felt whilst directing it. It feels rushed, the shots get the story told, but he doesn't add much visually. Overall I feel that it felt kind of like he was doing it for the money, and he was frustrated about it. You can tell that he was limited, and it made him frustrated.

It was not bad, but not great. Overall, the word I would use to describe the film is limited. Limited in plot options, performances, direction and screenplay.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,
Starring: Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr
Directed by John Huston
6.5/10 (B-)

1. The Asphalt Jungle
2. The Misfits
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
4. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison


Monday, 5 November 2012

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

1950. John Huston isn't exactly "hot stuff". His new project has no big name actors, and a plot that could have depressed anyone. It is about a bank robbery, and it's after effects. Not exactly box-office gold. Another problem. Star Sterling Hayden was a communist, and both him and Huston are on The Committee for the First Amendment. It seemed as if the studio just wanted to see what would happen. Good think Huston pulled it off.

"Doc" Riedenschnieder has just been released from prison. He is considered one of the foremost criminal masterminds of the time.Immediately after his release he is itching to pull of another heist, his last. Then he plans to retire to Mexico, he recruits heavy Dix. It's a Jewellery store robbery, and he knows he can do it, he just needs someone who will be able to sell the Jewels after the Robbery. He turns to Emmerich, a rich family man, who runs little things on the side, like having an affair with a beautiful blonde.

Unfortunately for Doc, Emmerich plans to double-cross him after the heist, and Doc knows it, but he goes on anyways. He recruits some other men, and at the same time Dix finds himself in a relationship with a woman whom he doesn't love, but who is devoted to him. SPOILERS. The heist doesn't come off the way Doc planned and he is faced with multiple double crosses and the cops on his trail. In other words, it's a typical Noir.

 John Huston was born for Noir. He defined the genre with The Maltese Falcon, and his sharp wit and attention to detail was a perfect match to that film's sharp and direct dialogue. Here he works in the genre, but not in the tradition of films like The Big Sleep or Falcon, where there is some happiness. No, here no one is happy. They are greedy and selfish, and perhaps only Jean Hagen is the only non-cynical character, yet even she has an unhealthy selfish desire to nurture, to love Dix.

There is no hope in The Asphalt Jungle, it is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. It is also one of the most realistic films ever to come out of Hollywood. The gritty, hopeless city presented here could be any major city in the US. New York, Los Angeles, Miami, it could be set in any of those. These characters have been rotting from the inside out, and their insatiable greed and lust can only lead to their destruction.

Yet you feel sorrow, you want them to have some kind of happy ending, and that is one thing that these people will never have. That brings me to the performances, uniformly excellent. Huston had a great knack for getting great performances out of actors, and this is no exception. Hayden has always been a unique actor. On his face is etched the pain and suffering of thirty odd years in the crime racket. You get the sense that he is running on fumes.

Hagen is, as I mentioned above terrific, she is one-minded in her obsession with Dix. Louis Calhern is slimy and, despite his good-guy act, he is rotting from the inside. His affair with Marilyn Monroe is just a way for him to embrace his true slimy nature. When he is questioned by the police, you can see him desperately trying to get himself out of the situation, lying until he can lie no more.

Also good is Sam Jaffe as Doc and James Whitmore. The film barely has a score, which may be due to artistic intent or laziness, but the lack of score reinforces the gritty reality of the film. The cinematography is amazing, delving in the shadows and murky depths that define Noir.

And finally the direction. As I mentioned above, Huston keeps it realistic, with little to no artistic flourishes, and it works completely. Huston was the perfect match for the material, and it certainly pays off.

The Asphalt Jungle,
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen and Louis Calhern
Directed by John Huston
9/10 (A)

1. The Asphalt Jungle
2. The Misfits
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre