Saturday, May 10, 2008

Classics Watch Update

Brief notes on a few films I saw recently... (All three five out of five stars, two thumbs up and all that stuff)

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953): James Stewart's reel life persona is associated with healthy, do-gooder all-American characters but he was also extremely good at playing characters with a darker side, characters with fragile psyche on the verge of a complete breakdown and all of this hidden beneath a phlegmatic exterior. Alfred Hitchcock exploited this dual-nature of his personality very well, most notably in Vertigo. It is also evident in this excellent western directed by Anthony Mann. Stewart plays an embittered man haunted by loss and betrayal who is eager to start a new life by collecting the reward money by capturing an escaped convict and murderer played by an uncharacteristically cheerful Robert Ryan. He is joined by two more characters on the way, who agree to help him in return of the reward money. In the course of their passage through the rockies an unstated attraction develops between Stewart and Janet Leigh who plays an ingenue orphan whose father was an associate of the convict. There are just these five characters in the whole film and the rest is only the rocky landscape. The film is wonderful in the way it captures the psychological warfare between the characters. In fact despite the open landscapes the film feels unbearably claustrophobic, less a western and more a Bergman-esque chamber drama! The end, despite bloodlettings and deaths, is optimistic as we learn beneath the the surface bitterness and nihilism lies a noble heart capable of love and generosity. It is really a wonderful film. In fact it has already become one of my personal favourites of the western genre, up there with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo, The Searchers and The Ox-bow Incident.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959): Robert Ryan has already become one of my favourite actors from the classic age. He is back in Robert Wise's heist-cum-docu noir Odds Against Tomorrow, doing what he does best - playing tough and thoroughly embittered man on the brink of complete despair, only this time, venting all his fury in the form of a racist prejudice. The plot is of typical heist genre - a trio of desperate characters decide to come together and pull off a bank job which ultimately goes wrong (as it always does). Major part of the film is devoted to building up the characters and sketching the sheer desperateness of their situation. The actual heist scene takes up just about ten minutes towards the end, even though it all ends in a very climactic way. The film is really wonderfully shot with lots of outdoor and real-location shootings, something which never fails to please me in a black and white film. Robert Ryan is spectacular as he also was in the utterly bleak and brutal boxing drama The Set-up also directed by Wise. Harry Belafonte is okay as his foil, though he does sing a very nice song in the beginning of the film. Also unusual for a hollywood film of that time, the film has a very unusual avant-garde(-ish) jazz as the background score. I think some of Otto Preminger's later films of the same period (like Anatomy of a Murder) had similar scores too.

The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951): More bitterness and emotional brutality in this classic of British cinema which was based on a play of the same name by Terrence Rattigan who also wrote the screenplay. Michael Redgrave gives a heart-rending performance as a classics teacher who is forced into an early retirement by his illness. As his career comes to an end, he tries to come to terms with his sense of failure, not only as a teacher but also as a human being. Although this simple description makes it sound like a sentimental teacher-farewell picture, nothing could be farther from the truth. An emotional turning point in the drama comes when one of his pupils gifts him a translation of Agamemnon by Robert Browning with an inscription in greek calling him a "gentle teacher." The scene in which he breaks down is extremely moving and also very discomforting, because it is handled in such an unsentimental manner (without any operatic surge of music or other melodramatic cliches). If there was any doubt as to whether the director was pulling emotional strings, he is soon told by his callous wife that the boy was acting from a self-interested motive. (The wife is also pitiable character and not really a villain. Her life with him has also been a waste.) He soon gathers himself up but by then he has come to a new self-realization, as a result the end feels a bit reassuring and hopeful. A wonderful classic!

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