August 25, 2017

Van Johnson Blogathon: The Caine Mutiny

Van Johnson stars with Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny.

It’s easy to look at The Caine Mutiny as an actors’ showcase. Humphrey Bogart chews up the scenery and gives an iconic courtroom speech that stands alongside Nicholson’s work in A Few Good Men. Fred MacMurray excels at playing a morally flexible soldier, and a quiet Van Johnson struggles with the burden of removing his superior. Even the bland Robert Francis gets a lot of time on screen as the idealistic young newbie. We recall these guys playing off each other, but that focus pushes aside the other predominant theme on the destructive power of war.

Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk, this film doesn’t glamorize life at sea during World War II. The Caine is a beaten-down vessel that needs an extended stay at dry dock. Instead, it’s given a new captain and pushed to the front once again. We spend limited time in battle with this crew, but the impact of war stands out on the face of guys like Bogart’s Captain Queeg. His obsessive ticks help cope with the horrors that play constantly in his mind. He desires control over every detail yet has little ability to secure his own impulses.

A cynicism about institutions and authority permeates the story, even when it’s patriotic on the surface. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, a member of the Hollywood 10 that eventually testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk did not write the adaptation, but it’s fairly easy to connect his experiences to this tale. When the government prosecutors grill Francis’ Willie Keith and Johnson’s Steve Maryk about their involvement in the mutiny, it easily connects to the anti-communist investigations.

Maryk spends the final act with a pained look that reveals the turmoil beneath his choice to mutiny against Queeg. It’s like he’s carrying a giant weight on his shoulders, and even ultimate vindication won’t remove that burden. The real scar on Johnson’s face seems fitting given the emotional scars he’s carrying for this choice. The stoic Johnson is the right choice to play a well-meaning guy thrust into an unenviable position. He gets no joy out of removing the unfit leader from his position. Johnson remains in the background while we stick with Keith for the first half, but he’s a lot more interesting once the plot kicks into gear.

The mystifying part of The Caine Mutiny is how much time we spend with Keith and his story away from the ship. The conflict between his devotion to his mom (Katherine Warren) and love for singer May Wynn comes from a lesser story. Francis’ flat vocal delivery stands out next to pros like MacMurray and Bogart. He’s a young guy with the right look but is in over his head. That sense actually works for his time on the ship because Keith is new to war. The problems appear when he’s separated from the army. Wynn (who took the character’s name as her stage name) has charm but can’t do much with Keith and the predictable domestic material.

Disregarding the lesser parts, this story clicks as a tight drama. Queeg’s presence keeps everyone on edge, even a smooth guy like MacMurray’s Tom Keefer. Queeg disrupts the ecosystem of The Caine with more than just careless orders. The courtroom scenes are gripping, particularly due to a knowing performance from Jose Ferrer as defense attorney Barney Greenwald. The way he rips apart Queeg’s façade is frighteningly precise. He takes no joy in it and knows it will destroy a man’s career. It’s eerily similar to the way Chuck disintegrated in Better Call Saul this year. Once the house of cards breaks, the fall is swift and destructive.

There’s a gripping 90-minute courtroom drama trying to break out of the two-hour film. On the other hand, it could work as a three-hour epic with more back stories for the other characters. Instead, The Caine Mutiny straddles the middle and provides great scenes and lost moments. Led by Bogart’s stunning performance, the actors keep us invested through all the ups and downs. Regardless of screen time, the cagey veterans rarely miss a beat.

This article is a contribution to the Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Check out all the great articles from this blogathon here.

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July 15, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford stars as Vienna in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray.

It’s rare to have a Western with a female lead, particularly in the 1950s. Joan Crawford’s Vienna is hardly just eye candy either. She owns the screen with a look and refuses to tread in the confines of her civilization. For that reason, Vienna is a threat to everyone in the local town. Accepting her claim to valuable real estate near the railroad makes Vienna an equal to the guys, and perhaps even superior to them. It’s a clever shift in gender dynamics, though Johnny Guitar doesn’t completely bypass those norms. The title reminds us that men still try to remain front and center. The love story must drive the plot, even if it’s the least interesting part of the story.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, who exists mostly to protect Vienna from the blood-thirsty townspeople. In a similar fashion to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in this year’s Wonder Woman, Guitar (whose real name is Johnny Logan) clearly plays second fiddle to the main character. He’s a past love that once lived a life of crime, but now his attention is all on Vienna. There’s an odd conflict between romance and self-determination in Vienna’s heart, and that fight exists within the film’s themes. Crawford’s Vienna is so focused that she hardly blinks, but then she falls into Logan’s arms multiple times. The script from Ben Maddow indicts McCarthyism yet can’t help but give the characters something beyond the ideological fight.

The standout among the forces of civilization is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who hates Vienna with all of her being. She’s jealous of Vienna’s relationship with “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), who’s hardly a kid and doesn’t dance. Brady was 30 when Johnny Guitar was released and looks even older. McCambridge and Crawford reportedly did not get along on the set, and that hatred emanates from the screen. It’s easy to believe that the characters want to kill each other, particularly Small. The look on McCambridge’s face when she burns down Vienna’s place is chilling. It’s a vision of evil from a villain technically on the side of the law.

Ward Bond’s John McIvers may believe he’s running the show, but it’s Small that’s driving the furor against Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid’s gang. It’s the crowd mentality that drives the push to not only drive them from the town, but to hang them. The dark middle act reveals how far bloodlust can take even normal people. It’s only after the first killing that it subsides, at least for most of them. It’s easy to draw parallels between the falsehoods that drive this mission and the evils of McCarthyism. Maddow had to use Phillip Yordan’s name on the script due to his past issues with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The final showdown is the only place where Johnny Guitar slips a bit. The shootout has power yet seems too conventional given the earlier scenes. It does include a quick stop that reminds me of the brief cease fire during Children of Men. Bond’s haunted face shows how quickly a quest for justice can get out of control. On the other hand, the last shot indicates that the love story is the driving narrative. That feels like an over-simplification given what we’ve witnessed up to that point. Vienna has lost her home and livelihood, but at least she has love. This moment ends the story on a hollow note; we root for Vienna but not in this way.

It’s easy to view Johnny Guitar as a revisionist western, but there are still parts that are genre norms. Its primary conflict is between the forces of civilization and the wilderness, order and freedom. Vienna wants the chance to go her own way, but the crowd wants to stop her because she’s an outsider. Her bright red lipstick and colorful outfits aren’t the typical garb for a woman in the “civilized” world. Crawford’s intensity sells the idea that Vienna is a singular individual that won’t cater to any societal norms. She falls for gunslingers and refuses to indict them for the behavior. It’s an entertaining twist on the conventional structure, though the end result doesn’t completely upend the typical narrative.

Johnny Guitar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. Johnny Guitar
3. They Live by Night
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. On Dangerous Ground

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June 20, 2017

The Fourth Kingdom and the American Myth

The Fourth Kingdom depicts life at the "Sure We Can" redemption center.

Amid today’s onslaught of claims about illegal aliens and dangers to a blurry concept of traditional “America”, it’s easy to bypass the human side. We can hate the fearmongering by power-hungry leaders, but what about the people it impacts? Taking a breath and looking closer is hard to do sometimes. In their short film The Fourth Kingdom, Adán Aliaga and Àlex Lora accomplish that by depicting a small group of people at the Sure We Can recycling and community center in New York. They depict individuals of different races and backgrounds, and each one has a unique story.

It’s easy to tie everything to a discussion of Trump’s policies, but there’s no need to make it blatant. With the exception of a brief shot of the President on TV (before the channel changes), there’s no direct mention of him. Even so, his presence hangs over each scene. When a man speaks about the difference between labeling people as “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants”, it brings us right back to the hate speech. Hearing him speak about walking to the border without any planning is striking. A later shot of the guy going to bed in extremely cramped quarters says plenty. He came looking for the “American Dream”, but what he found instead was something less inspiring.

I shouldn’t focus too much on the political aspects; that’s more of a backdrop than the focus. The residents of this center largely seem content and aspire for a better life. One man spends his time chatting with a friend and wondering about theories like God's involvement in The Big Bang. It’s the type of conversation that you’d expect to hear among friends at a park or coffee shop. Another guy has a personal goal of acquiring 2,000 bottles, and the process makes him happy. He spent 3-4 years at one point living in the streets, so finding a purpose is so important.

Aliaga and Lora find inventive ways to avoid using just a fly-on-the-wall style. One slow-motion shot of a beer bottle opening is beautiful in its simplicity. They also use audio from a vintage promo about plastics throughout the film. That overly positive look at the artificial substance mirrors the way the dream has been diminished for some residents. Plastics took hold of our culture during the post-war era of the ‘50s and connect to the rise of the American myth. The bags of plastic have their own charms, but they also reveal the leftovers of a wasteful society.

While the narrator describes the “dream of the future”, shots of heaping bags of bottles and cans tell a different tale. Stories about alcoholism and homelessness drive home the point that we’re a long way from that idyllic dream. This kingdom of plastics offers respite for people that are barely hanging onto hope. They’re just living day to day and working tirelessly to stay afloat. The Fourth Kingdom finds peace in their efforts, despite the difficulties of each day. It’s a brief glimpse at a world on a separate plane from the grand claims of politicians. Those leaders are stuck in the fantasy described by the deceptive narrator while life continues in the world around them.

The Fourth Kingdom is currently playing the festival circuit, including the Palm Springs Film Festival on June 21. It also recently won the Best Short Documentary award at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Learn more at the official website.