Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Two "Outlaws on the Run" films

I love "Outlaws on the Run" films, but then everybody does. Thought I will mention a few things about two of the finest of the genre which I saw recently.

You Live Only Once (Fritz Lang, 1938): Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney star as the doomed and ill-fated couple on the run from the law in this Fritz Lang film. Fonda has just been out of the jail and is trying to get straight but the society won't let him live a normal life. Once a criminal, always a criminal - that's what they believe in. Things soon get from bad to worse and when he finds himself implicated in a bank robbery it looks like he is fated for the electric chair. They both manage to escape but only for a while.

Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney are both astonishing in this film. Fonda would famously play a very similar role in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. As for Sylvia Sydney it looked like she just walked out of the sets of Fritz Lang's earlier film Fury in which she was fantastic as well. Or perhaps it was just her natural state of being, ever so toremented and ever so hopeless and innocent. (As per Wikipedia she was known as "the face of depression"). Just by their look and manners they look so innocent and their relationship so tender that from the first frame itself you know that there is absolutely no hope for them. Still you keep hoping for them even when Lang twists and turns the knife. There is a scene in which the newspaperman has already printed two different versions of the story ahead of what the court decides on. One in which Fonda is declared innocent and one in which he is found guilty, either way his fate is already sealed. There is also a twist because we don't know in the beginning if he really did commit the robbery. The revelation towards the end makes the story even more poignant and brutal. A masterpiece which hasn't aged a bit.

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948): The young teenage couple played by Farley Granger (who will be familiar to Hitchcock fans) and Cathy O'Donnell are even more innocent and naive and their relationship even more romantic and tender (in one scene they decide to learn how to kiss together!). Ray would probably make the same point in his iconic Rebels Without a Cause too but his pessimistic romanticism is evident in this film too, which was actually his debut as a film director. The two characters who are given such names as Bowie and Keechie are both filmed in such a way that you know that they don't really belong in this world of adults (like James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebels). Keechie's idea of "a good woman" however may trouble the feminists. (A good woman is like a good dog, she says, loyal even to the very end.) It does underscore her other-worldliness and naivete and also makes for ironic counterpoint in the light of ending and also the presence of the other femme fatale whose loyalty to her man exacts a terrible price on the innocent victims.

I have been meaning to rewatch Bonnie and Clyde for sometime now. I loved it when I first saw it but probably I will be less enthusiastic now. Also worth pointing out that these two films were loved by the French film critics, particularly Godard whose film Pierrot le Fou is a kind of homage to these films and the genre in general.


puccinio said...

The reason everybody loves these films and EVERYBODY loves these films is that they're the closest to the tragic romances of classical literature.

Actually there's another classic of this kind...''Gun Crazy'' by Joseph H. Lewis made in the 50's which underscores the sexual natures of couples commiting crimes together.

''You Only Live Once'' is bizarre really. Not only because the tenderness and compassion is absent in practically most of Fritz' films(it's more Murnautic than Langian) but the Catholicism and stinging social irony isn't there anywhere else either. And scenes like that at the frog pond about frogs unable to live without their mates are unbelievably metaphysical.

It's also interesting that compared to other films of this type both lovers are really adults in the right sense of the term nearing their thirties and them going on the run is less out of a sense of adventure than a lack of choice.

Nick Ray's film is more of an arbitrary tragedy. Actually I am surprised you called the film ''a pessimistic romance'', Ray was not a pessimist. He didn't think life had a happy ending(and if you see Wenders' ''Lightning Over Water'' you'll know he didn't have one either) but he felt that there are occassions when you have moments of peace or tranquility that alone make everything worth it.

Like Bowie and Keechie's time together with each other however brief. It's the sense that their tragedy kind of affirms whatever they lost. That there was something that was lost.

It's a beautiful film and a huge favourite of directors like Jim Jarmusch who thinks it's the best B+W film in Hollywood. It was also the film that Ray enjoyed making the most(even if he felt that ''Rebel...'' was his best film). Truffaut rates it as Ray's best film.

The great thing is the use of sound like instead of showing the robbery after Bowie leaves Keechie at her hiding place, he shows the car radio telling about the robbery, one of them getting shot and that Bowie was the ring leader and then Chicamaw talks about how newsreporters make heroes out of nobodies and slams the radio. It's a poetic political statement, the rarest kind of political statements.

And of course it's Ray's first film though he like Orson Welles(whose first film was produced by John Houseman the same who produced this film) had an extensive radio and theatre background.

Another thing that few notice was that the film used non-stars. And Cathy O'Donnell is really a plain looking girl but who gets transformed into a vivacious woman through the course of the film. It's the closest classical Hollywood came to making an independent film.

And Granger is fantastic and of course he worked with Hitchcock and Visconti(Senso) so it's a great career that followed him.

Alok said...

I don't know how I forgot to mention that frog pond scene. I agree it is absolutely magical and it takes the film into an entirely different realm altogether, far beyond a conventional adventure-thriller-romance. It is strange because if it is such a sentimental scene if you just talk about it outside the context of the film... there was something in these films which allowed them to get away with such sentimental excess into a deeper and even mystical realm.

I mentioned "pessimistic romanticism" in relation to Ray's sensibility in general. It is more evident and obvious in "Rebels..." It clearly shows his disillusionment with American society and the sensitivity with which he shows those youngsters with their sentimentality, romanticism and naivete. It could have easily become soppy but it works brilliantly. Of course James Dean gets the credit too.

In this film in one of the scenes he does show one of the police officers acknowledging their own mistakes and the deficiencies and the inherent injustices in the system. But still the film is deeply aware of brutality and insesitivity of the world (the scene in which Chicamaw crushes their christmas tree for example). Pessimistic doesn't mean misanthropic. It is clear that even the villains in the film are actually victim of the circumstances and thus tragic figures.

I have seen Gun Crazy. It is a great film as well with a very memorable ending. Some scenes from it were almost copied in Bonnie and Clyde.. also interesting the hero is played by Farley Granger's friend and nemesis in Hitchcock's Rope.

puccinio said...

Well it would be really difficult to get away with that scene today because audiences across the world are more cynical though not as people think more wise.

Somehow scenes that show that true love does last and transcend is a difficult fact for people to accept nowadays. That's why there aren't that many great love stories in cinema any more. The last one was ''The End of an Affair''.

On Nick Ray. Ray was an existentialist and the mentality in ''Rebel...'' is pretty clear about that. ''Will the world end by night time?'' He definitely agreed with Thomas Wolfe, an American novelist of the 30's who said that ''loneliness was man's natural state''.

So you get that throughout his movies. Except for say, ''Johnny Guitar'' and ''Party Girl'' which are more political. That's what won him the admiration of Cahiers, what made Eric Rohmer call him the greatest American director to come to cinema after WWII.

''Rebel Without A Cause'' is resolutely existentialist with the characters realizing that neither their parents, nor their teachers or the government can really help them and each one trying to come to terms with that fact. His other technicolor melodrama ''Bigger Than Life'' was also about that dealing with an adult(played by James Mason).

Another film of his ''On Dangerous Ground'' which is about a cop is also delicate and tender for someone Ray tended to dislike. Of course it's slightly flawed since Howard Hughes messed it up completely.

And of course his empathy for outsiders and vagabonds and alternative lifestyles anticipated the 60's.