Friday, August 27, 2021

August Archaeology: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

With the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark this year, the release of the 4K box set (finally!), and the franchise’s omnipresence on Showtime the past few weeks, The Cinema King has come down with a bad case of Indy Fever. Having already reviewed the films some time ago, let’s try something a little different this month. In the tradition of the “Grand Marvel Rewatch,” let’s dig around the Indiana Jones franchise and see what comes up.


Finally, from 2008, it’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. After an unfortunate encounter with Communists at Area 51, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) meets up with Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who asks for help following the mystery of a crystal skull in South America. An old mentor (John Hurt) and Mutt’s mother (spoilers!) have gone missing, and Indy’s Soviet foe Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) may be responsible. 

  1. Color me interested. If you’ve had a conversation with me in the last few months, you’ve probably heard me say that the 4K transfer of Crystal Skull fixes the film’s color palette and in so doing remedies a lot of the problems with the theatrical release. In 2008, everything in the film had a green/yellow tint, which made all the digital effects look a bit fake. For a franchise founded on practical effects, that’s no good, so fortunately the 4K version color-corrects so that the film takes on a warmer, more natural visual tone. The digital effects aren’t as noticeable, and it finally looks like a proper Indiana Jones film, not a tint-rinsed nostalgia trip.
  2. Nothing wrong with nostalgia. Steven Spielberg was born in 1946, and it’s pretty clear that he looks back on 1957 with fondness. The earlier films were all set before Spielberg was born, and so they inhabit a kind of timeless past without many particular historical markers. The first act of Crystal Skull, though, is all about the late 50s, with greasers battling straightedges while Bill Haley blares from a jukebox; meanwhile, Indy declares, “I like Ike” before implying he was present at the Roswell crash. Spielberg is closer to this material than he was to the preceding trilogy, and it shows; Crystal Skull is very much of its time.
  3. Passing the torch. Flash back to 2008, and you’ll recall that there seemed to be an anxiety that Indiana Jones would retire and cede the franchise to Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams, who (spoilers) everyone rightly predicted was actually Indy’s son. (Like his father, Mutt too named himself after the dog.) The film does seem to be walking away from the earlier ones, with allusions to the deaths of Marcus Brody and Henry Jones, Sr., in the interim, but all the same it keeps an eye on the past when it revisits Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the only possible and eminently welcome choice for Mutt’s mother. The film’s closing gag, in which a gust of wind tempts Mutt with donning his father’s fedora, becomes a beautifully self-aware moment when Indy snatches the hat at the last possible second. We don’t want that, either.
  4. Up in the sky! Fans are so torn on the extraterrestrial McGuffin, with many (rightly) pointing to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an influence. I’ve always liked the idea that Indy’s adventures are themed around the pulp stories of that day, and having him chase aliens during the sci-fi Fifties feels almost inevitable. An alien is a far cry from the deep and preexisting mythologies of the Ark and the Sankara Stones, but the fact that Indy never makes contact with the aliens (“interdimensional beings, in point of fact”) keeps the film from verging too far beyond the realm of the plausible. Put another way, if Indiana Jones never meets an alien, does it really exist?
  5. Some Indy is better than no Indy (or: Toxic Fandom, I hate these guys). It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon – Star Wars had been through it a decade earlier (and a decade later) – but Crystal Skull was marked by scads of online discourse about how terrible this movie is, what a betrayal it was for the fans, and how “real” fans can’t love it. And while I don’t love Crystal Skull, I don’t think it’s as bad as people claim. It’s certainly not an appropriate reason to start gatekeeping fandom, either; it’s not Raiders, but so what? Few films are. This one is plenty fun, with enough exciting action to justify its own existence. It’s always amusing to see armchair critics insist they know Indiana Jones better than Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford.

Sound off in the comments, and tell me your favorite part of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If there’s a moviegoer more excited for the fifth Indiana Jones film (set for July 2022), I’d like to meet that person. But I promise you won’t need to wait that long for the next review on this site. The Cinema King will return!

Friday, August 20, 2021

August Archaeology: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

With the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark this year, the release of the 4K box set (finally!), and the franchise’s omnipresence on Showtime the past few weeks, The Cinema King has come down with a bad case of Indy Fever. Having already reviewed the films some time ago, let’s try something a little different this month. In the tradition of the “Grand Marvel Rewatch,” let’s dig around the Indiana Jones franchise and see what comes up.


This week, from 1989, it’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is hired to find the Holy Grail and his father (Sean Connery), who has disappeared while in search of the lost artifact. At the urging of hobbyist financier Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), Indy connects with his father’s expedition partner Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) before discovering that the Nazis too are on his father’s trail. 

  1. The ultimate McGuffin. They don’t call it the Holy Grail for nothing. Perhaps more so than the Ark, the Grail is immediately recognizable as an item of unspeakable value, even without the mysticism of eternal life. What’s more, Steven Spielberg and a passel of writers (including George Lucas) reframe the quest for the Grail as a quest for knowledge, not just for power. When Henry Jones, Sr., remarks at the end of the film that he has found “illumination,” he ties together the entire story in one word; amid deception and missed opportunities, the search for the Holy Grail is the search for truth. It can be tasted, but it can never be possessed. 
  2. Sean Connery is a gem. Indiana Jones was born after Spielberg was unable to direct a James Bond movie, so it only makes sense that Indy’s father would be played by the best 007 there was. Once Connery comes into the film about halfway through, the movie practically bends around his gravity, and it becomes a centerpiece for his magnetic personality. He’s charming, funny, and so delightfully out of his element in the action scenes. I said two weeks ago that we deserved more movies with Marion Ravenwood; we certainly missed out on more father/son adventures like this one.
  3. Friends in every town. We met Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) in Raiders, but they become full-fledged members of the adventure in Last Crusade. What a delight it is to see these two bring their special brands of levity to the film’s heady action sequences! While some have bemoaned the way these characters become comic relief, I think it makes them more likeable, not less. While Sallah counts camels, Brody gets to star in what might be the best joke of the film, in which Indy talks up Brody’s skills before cutting to Brody, hopelessly lost in Iskenderun and far from competent. The implication that Brody and Henry go way back leaves me surprised that we never got a prequel novel or comic book, if only to explain what “Genius of the Restoration” truly means.
  4. The nature of choosing wisely. If Brody’s in the best joke of the film, the Grail Knight is surely given the second-best when he remarks, “He chose… poorly.” The climactic trials through which Indy must pass before finding the Grail, leading up to an unexpected encounter with the Grail Knight, are an excellent remedy to the old complaint that Indy doesn’t actually drive the plot of Raiders. Here, Indy has to think on his feet while solving a chamber of ancient puzzles, with one whopper of a payoff. I’d venture to say that J.K. Rowling cribbed a bit for the climax of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in which her protagonists follow in Indy’s footsteps by braving a gauntlet of magical challenges.
  5. But is it the best? As many times as I’ve seen the Indiana Jones movies, I truly cannot say which I prefer – Raiders or Last Crusade. They’re both exceptional, expertly crafted and infectiously fun. Raiders might be closer to the Platonic ideal of an adventure film, but Last Crusade is almost more compelling because the stakes are that much higher. (Plus, see #2 above.) But if you came to these reviews thinking I’d finally take a stand, I’m afraid I must defer. These are two perfect movies, and how do you choose between cookie dough and butter pecan? (Insert your two favorite flavors here.) I suppose the only correct answer is, “Whichever’s closest.” If Raiders is on, it’s Raiders, but if Last Crusade is nearer to hand, that’s the one.

As we ride off into the sunset, sound off in the comments, and tell me your favorite part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We’ll be back next week to close out the month with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

 

Friday, August 13, 2021

August Archaeology: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

With the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark this year, the release of the 4K box set (finally!), and the franchise’s omnipresence on Showtime the past few weeks, The Cinema King has come down with a bad case of Indy Fever. Having already reviewed the films some time ago, let’s try something a little different this month. In the tradition of the “Grand Marvel Rewatch,” let’s dig around the Indiana Jones franchise and see what comes up.


This week, from 1984, it’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. After dodging gangsters in Shanghai, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) drops into northern India with his pint-sized sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and chanteuse Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). The theft of a sacred stone leads Indy to Pankot Palace, where an ancient evil has taken root, and our favorite archaeologist may find much worse than fortune and glory in the caverns beneath the palace. 

  1. PG or not PG? The old urban legend draws a straight line between Temple of Doom and the creation of the PG-13 rating later that year, and there’s a grain of truth to that. It’s easy to forget how downright scary Temple of Doom can be, especially in its back half; even to an adult, there’s something terrifying about the human sacrifices and death cults that pervade the caves beneath Pankot. It’s all shot in fiery reds, and John Williams takes the music in an unearthly direction, with the result sounding more like a horror film than an adventure flick. Raiders felt tame by comparison, thrilling but never quite as perilous.
  2. Hats off to Mola Ram. While the Nazis are still the perfect foil for Indy’s gee-whiz brand of adventuring, let’s not forget what an excellent villain Mola Ram makes for Temple of Doom. He’s scary, with nothing redeeming about him, and his subterranean search for the lost Sankara Stones makes him a surprisingly apt antagonist for our archaeologist hero. Amrish Puri is expertly cast, with an intimidating presence even before he bulges his eyes and gives a mad leering smile. And speaking of “hats,” my compliments to the person who gave Mola Ram the sacrilegious cow skull for a headdress, melding Indian beliefs with Satanic imagery by way of Georgia O’Keeffe.
  3. The biggest trouble with her is the noise. Fairly or not, so much of the film’s critical reputation falls on Kate Capshaw’s shoulders. On this latest rewatch, Capshaw is doing exactly what the script wants, playing this big-spirited nightclub singer dragged against her will into a series of nightmares. She screams more than 70 times in the film, which is profoundly irritating, but the problem belongs more properly to the script, which puts this fish so far out of water that everyone protests. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change, but neither does her environment change around her. Instead, we get a character who never wants to be here; it is, incidentally, the same complaint I have with most movies about The Hulk. If you don’t want to be a superhero, don’t be in a superhero movie.
  4. A reactive protagonist. While some lament that Indy doesn’t govern the action in Raiders, I’m surprised the same complaint isn’t often leveled at Temple of Doom. Unlike the other films, where Indy is off looking for an artifact, Temple of Doom gives him minimal agency in his quest. The Shanghai opener is out of his control, he quite literally stumbles into the main plot, and once he gets to Pankot he’s only reacting to things that happen. Now I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps it’s even clever given that this prequel is Indy’s “first” adventure, but it’s somewhat less than engaging to watch a protagonist who’s never quite in command of his narrative destiny.
  5. Do I like this movie? Raiders and Last Crusade are Personal Canon material for me, no doubt about it, and I’m sure I don’t love Temple of Doom as much as those two. In fact, I’m usually sure that Temple of Doom is my least favorite Indy movie. But does that mean I don’t like it? I’ve never raced to see it – and indeed wondered if I could get away with August Archaeology without rewatching – but each time I watch it, I’m glad I did. The opener is a real banger, and the finale is terrific (both the mine car chase and the bridge sequence), though I’ll concede that the middle is a bit dull, stuck on gross-out sequences like the exotic banquet and the creepy-crawlie chamber. We’ll revisit the question in two weeks, but isn’t some Indy better than no Indy at all? 

You tell me: is Temple of Doom the worst Indiana Jones film, or is it quietly the best? Sound off in the comments, and tell me your favorite part of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. We’ll be back next week to ponder whether the franchise’s best is actually Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Monday, August 9, 2021

The Suicide Squad (2021)

Superhero movies are like ice cream. I like ice cream. I like most kinds of ice cream. I have favorite flavors, but there are also certain flavors or toppings of ice cream on which I’m not terribly keen. I don’t like chocolate in my ice cream, for example, and too much of it ruins dessert. 

I think James Gunn is chocolate ice cream. I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy well enough but found Vol. 2 to be overly laden with Gunn’s trademark gross-out schoolboy humor, a fascination with bodily functions and jeering insults. Vol. 2still had the Marvel heart, but The Suicide Squad has boasted that it is Gunn’s unvarnished foray into the DC (Extended) Universe. If this is Gunn undisguised, it is crude, and it is cruel, and it is certainly not my favorite flavor of ice cream.

 

In The Suicide Squad (not to be mistaken with its predecessor, Suicide Squad), Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another crew of miscreants to undertake a top-secret mission with clandestine ill intent. She sends the assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba), the fanatical Peacemaker (John Cena), the depressive Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), young Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) into the island nation of Corto Maltese to find mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) before his Project Starfish is exposed. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Squad leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) are stranded on Corto Maltese, with Harley doing her Harley thing while Flag tries to get control of the increasingly manic situation.

 

From its opening scenes, The Suicide Squad is aiming for a fun and zany tone, but instead it lands somewhere just south of virulently misanthropic. If audiences complained that Zack Snyder’s comic book movies boasted too high a body count, wait until they get a load of The Suicide Squad, in which human life does not matter while the film regards each death as a punchline, an opportunity to convince the audience that Gunn’s sick, bloody nihilism is something to be cheered. As a comic book fan, I was over the moon at the cast list, scraping the bottom of the barrel for characters like Mongal and Savant, The Thinker and King Shark (never mind that the latter two had already been on the CW show The Flash). After all, Gunn had successfully introduced audiences to Z-list Marvel characters like Groot and Yondu, and we fell in love with them.

 

Not so here. At every turn, each time a character debuts, someone else on screen verbally assaults them, calling them names and mocking them. Only Idris Elba’s Bloodsport is spared this unpleasant introduction, likely because it would beggar believability to think that anyone might get the drop on Idris Elba. There is nothing redemptive like the “We are Groot” moment and nothing heartfelt like Yondu’s remark, “He wasn’t your daddy”; the only thing that comes close is the clear and predictable relationship that forms between Bloodsport and his proxy daughter Ratcatcher 2, who is herself carrying her father’s complicated and tragic mantle.

 

When the film is not actively ridiculing its protagonists or treating them like mere cannon fodder, The Suicide Squadcontinues that Gunn tradition of kneecapping its emotional moments with lowest-common-denominator humor; worse yet, just when the characters get a moment in the sun, they’re often exterminated in brutal, abrupt fashion – and these moments are, again, so predictable, lacking only the subtlety of a bright neon sign to announce a character’s imminent mortality. It is hard to imagine any of these faces becoming breakout characters because the film doesn’t often seem to care if they live or die. In a sense, Gunn might seem to have the most in common with Amanda Waller, who sees her Squad draftees as expendable grist for her own manipulative mill, yet Gunn appears to have some degree of loathing for Waller too, especially given how the film treats her in its third act.

 

But I didn’t hate The Suicide Squad. There is so much in the movie that works. Elba is a gem, and Daniela Melchior is the closest thing the film has to a real protagonist, even wading her way with aplomb through a film school student monologue about her origin story. King Shark is the closest to the film’s Groot, though Gunn makes the curious decision to write the character, the comic book son of a sea god, like a brain-damaged toddler deserving of his colleagues’ derision. Capaldi is perfectly cast as The Thinker, even though the film never gives him an opportunity to flex his augmented brain. And of course, Margot Robbie continues to be a light in the darkness as Harley Quinn, a spot-on interpretation of an unapologetic if errant feminist. It’s only too bad that the film never quite knows whether it wants to be a true Suicide Squad movie or another Harley Quinn movie (in the vein of the delightful and underappreciated Birds of Prey).

 

But as much as I wanted to like the film, and as much good material as there is somewhere in The Suicide Squad, there is a core ugliness at the center of the film, an underlying contempt for its source material and its characters. There should be zaniness and joy, especially with a cast of misfits like this. The Suicide Squad was an opportunity to tell the schoolyard bullies that they were wrong, that Polka-Dot Man isn’t proof positive that comics are inherently stupid. “This is dumb,” the film says, “and you’re an idiot for liking this.” There is nothing redemptive about The Suicide Squad, nothing but condescending spite and scorn until an emotional climax that is never really earned.

 

And yes, I am aware of the delicious grim dark irony of complaining that a movie like The Suicide Squad is mean-spirited. If you put a crew of supervillains on a helicopter together, they probably wouldn’t get along; they’d cuss and sneer and betray each other. But as much of a mess as David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was, studio interference or no, there was always a sense that Ayer liked these characters and wanted us to like them too. Gunn’s Suicide Squad is like a serving of ice cream at the Abuse Café, and it is not for everyone.

 

The Suicide Squad is rated R for “strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use, and brief graphic nudity.” Written and directed by James Gunn. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Peter Capaldi, and Viola Davis.

Friday, August 6, 2021

August Archaeology: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

With the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark this year, the release of the 4K box set (finally!), and the franchise’s omnipresence on Showtime the past few weeks, The Cinema King has come down with a bad case of Indy Fever. Having already reviewed the films some time ago, let’s try something a little different this month. In the tradition of the “Grand Marvel Rewatch,” let’s dig around the Indiana Jones franchise and see what comes up.

 


First up, from 1981, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is tasked with finding the fabled Ark of the Covenant, a biblical artifact of unspeakable power, before the Nazis unearth it. Indy enlists the help of former flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and the race is on across continents as old rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) dogs Indy’s every move.

  1. The music. You don’t need me to tell you that John Williams is the greatest film composer of all time. Just listen to the iconic and unforgettable “Raiders March,” thrill to the spectral and mystic “Miracle of the Ark,” and swoon to “Marion’s Theme.” Williams famously drafted two separate themes for Indiana Jones, uniting them both at the suggestion of director Steven Spielberg. Yet the two themes gel so well together, melding the triumphant march with a sense of the hard work it takes to get there. Each musical motif swirls into the film as though Williams is speaking a language all his own, commenting on the plot and driving us furiously into the action.
  2. Speaking of the action… I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Raiders, but it’s tremendously exciting every time. From the pulse-pounding opener, which puts one very much in mind of a James Bond pre-credits sequence, through the climactic desert chase, Raiders gets the blood pumping. The best part about the action is how often it’s used to develop and humanize the characters, as when a tired Indy laconically guns down an overeager swordsman. Ditto for the small beats where Indy catches himself enjoying the violence, only to wince and remember that he’s been shot in the arm. Raiders practically reinvented blockbuster movie pacing, and it’s not hard to tell why.
  3. What a world! The world-building in Raiders makes writing look easy; I should only hope to write a story this good. The film effortlessly introduces Indiana Jones as a superheroic archaeologist and a world-renowned scholar, and it gives him such a richly textured background filled with fascinating characters who have their own complicated history with Dr. Jones. When we meet Marion or Belloq or Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), we can tell immediately how they know Indy, what each thinks of the other, and what might happen next time they’re in a room together. Moreover, Spielberg deftly introduces the Ark into the film’s world through sophisticated lighting tricks and audio cues (like soft winds or, yes, Williams’s score). It’s an overall unified narrative where no piece is wasted – smart filmmaking at its smartest.
  4. Is this the best supporting cast of all time? Harrison Ford rightly takes up a lot of oxygen when we talk about great performances in Raiders, but everyone else nails their roles. Karen Allen is superb in all the moments where she refuses to be the damsel in distress, and it’s only too bad that she wasn’t in more Indy films (or, put another way, that there weren’t more Indy films for her to join). Meanwhile, Paul Freeman dials up the smug smarm of the enemy archaeologist Belloq, a walking moral compromise; he sells the competitive rivalry with Indy almost immediately. Then there’s the stalwart John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott, about whom I’ll say more in two weeks. (So to answer my question, I’m sure I’m forgetting another movie, but Raiders has to be in the conversation somewhere.)
  5. The formative years. My dad brought home a copy of Raiders on VHS back during a McDonald’s promo circa 1991, and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Raiders was a seminal moment in my moviegoing career. For my money, it’s everything a movie should be – a brisk adventure that puts well-crafted characters in impossible situations with nothing less than the fate of the universe at stake. It’s also a period piece, which helps explain my obsession with movies like The Rocketeer and The Mummy. It’s unlikely I saw this before Star Wars, but it’s possible; either way, it set a high bar for every subsequent movie to come. You don’t get on the Personal Canon any other way.

What more can one say about one of the greatest movies ever made? Sound off in the comments, and tell me your favorite part of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We’ll be back next week – back in time, that is – with the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: The Verdict (1946)

We’ve come to the end of June, with five films starring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s this – the whole of the Greenstreet/Lorre partnership is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Aside from The Maltese Falcon (and excepting Casablanca, in which they share no scenes), it’s safe to say that Lorre and Greenstreet cement their reputations in spite of, not because of, the films they headlined together. When you think of these two, you’ll sooner think of the net effect of their personae than of any one film of theirs. Case in point: The Verdict, which is neither very engaging nor is it generous toward its stars, who more often than not seem bored with the whole affair.

Sydney Greenstreet stars as George Edward Grodman, late of Scotland Yard but dismissed when an innocent man is hanged after his alibi arrives too late for the courts. Grodman slinks into ignominious retirement across the street from his best friend, the artist Victor Emmric (Peter Lorre). But when a locked-door murder mystery confounds Grodman’s replacement (George Coulouris), Grodman and Emmric find the opportunity to clear the former superintendent’s name while putting the new inspector in his place.

 

Locked-door mysteries are always a treat, and I will say that the solution in The Verdict is ingenious – inherently unsolvable, yes, but a clever trick. It’s a bit of a cheat on the audience (who may or may not predict the ending simply by random supposition among the suspects), but without spoiling I’ll say that The Verdict did keep me guessing until the mystery was solved, as Aristotle would want it, in a manner that was both surprising and inevitable. But it’s that surprise element that nags at me, leading me to believe that the film’s relative disinterest in follow-along sleuthing might better position The Verdict as Victorian noir rather than as a Victorian detective story. Poirot, this ain’t.

 

Greenstreet’s Grodman is the quintessential down-on-his-luck gumshoe, aiming to clear his name by solving One Last Case. The Verdict is very nearly worth the price of admission for Greenstreet’s sideburns, which are almost as large as he is. But something in Greenstreet’s performance seems lackadaisical, not quite sleepwalking but certainly drowsy and a bit disinterested. There’s something of that attitude intrinsic to the character, who is worn out and loathing retirement; like some aspiring writers, he dreads the prospect of composing and of finishing his book. However, that ennui doesn’t quite connect with the audience in the way of, say, Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. More often than not, Greensteet seems only to need a nap.

 

Lorre, too, plays a bit more droopy-eyed than usual. Compared to his more dynamic writer in The Mask of Dimitrios, this artist seems disaffected, animated only by the prospect of helping his friend get revenge of a sort on the man who edged him out of Scotland Yard. Though he is an artist by trade, he too spends little time on his craft, apparently welcoming the distraction. Lorre’s best scene is one of the last in the film, in which it appears he’s about to confess to the film’s central murder. He doesn’t, alas, one of the film’s many red herrings, but Lorre sells the very intimation of a confession with his guilty behavior and stooped posture. When he tells Grodman how tired he is, you don’t just believe him – you feel it. 

 

What I didn’t feel during the film, however, was captivated. I found myself wishing I were watching The Maltese Falcon instead, reminding myself of just how fully good Lorre and Greenstreet could be. Often the still images of the pair are fodder for my wild imagination, while the films themselves never quite live up to the productions in my own head. I suppose that’s partially my fault, especially since Peter Lorre is my all-time favorite actor; having seen how good he can be, I tend to imagine that his vehicles are always as engaging as, say, Arsenic and Old Lace or Mad Love. Similarly, Greenstreet can make a meal of a monologue, but it seems that the five films this month were content simply to rest on his reputation without giving him much opportunity to spread his ample wings and do something astonishing.

 

Theirs was an archetypal camaraderie, a Laurel & Hardy for the graveyard crowd. It’s sublimely grotesque when Greenstreet supervises the exhumation of a corpse in The Verdict, with Lorre peering over his shoulder to declare, “I have always had a suppressed desire to see a grave opened... especially at night.” It’s a line so creepy that you might expect it to have come from a Lorre impersonator, but to their credit Lorre and Greenstreet always knew their lanes, never afraid to play to their strengths and embrace the risk of caricature. Indeed, their cameo in Hollywood Canteen, a brief sequence in which they play themselves, is unmissable for its laser-focused blend of menace and mischief. Sometimes, just the idea of them is enough.

 

It’s certainly been enough to get me through this month. Even though the films themselves may not be classics, it’s impossible to imagine any fan of either actor not seeking these flicks out at one point or another. At an impressionable age, I pored over The Films of Peter Lorre with obsessive devotion, repeatedly renting it from the library to the point that I’m surprised the librarians didn’t just give me the book. I knew these two actors were capable of greatness, and we’ve proven as much over the past five weeks. But I also imagined what it would be like to see more great films with Lorre and Greenstreet. After this month, I suppose I’m still imagining.

 

The Verdict is not rated. Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Peter Milne. Based on the novel The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill. Starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Joan Lorring, George Coulouris, and Rosalind Ivan.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: Three Strangers (1946)

After a few weeks of Casablanca knockoffs, it’s refreshing to arrive at Three Strangers and find that it is instead an off-brand version of The Maltese Falcon, with three unsavory characters who find their lives changed by their obsession with a bronze statue. Aside from the headlining duo of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, Three Strangers has a number of other tangential connections to The Maltese Falcon, but it’s ultimately a pale imitation of a greater film with good performances nonetheless from the usual suspects.

Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) invites two strangers to her apartment with an unlikely offer: her bronze statue of the goddess Kwan Yin will grant them all one wish at the stroke of midnight. The three strangers pool their resources on a sweepstakes ticket; charismatic drunk Johnny West (Peter Lorre) is charmed by the idea, but solicitor Jerome Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is doubtful that he’ll see any money out of the affair. When the three part, their personal lives begin to crumble, but the looming promise of their joint ticket is never far from their minds.

 

Three Strangers is never quite a Maltese Falcon remake, though the connections are surprisingly myriad. You have the cast, yes, and the fixation with a mysterious statue, but you also have a screenplay co-written by John Huston. Director Jean Negulesco (who also helmed last week’s Mask of Dimitrios) had done some preproduction work on The Maltese Falcon before Huston claimed the project, while Geraldine Fitzgerald was an early contender for the Falcon role that eventually went to Mary Astor. Meanwhile, Three Strangers very nearly starred Humphrey Bogart in the Peter Lorre role, but Bogart was committed to The Big Sleep. Perhaps it’s just a big game of “six degrees on the Warner lot,” but it seems there is an unnatural tether between Three Strangers and its more perfect antecedent.

 

The greatest challenge in Three Strangers is that the three strangers spend most of the film estranged from one another. That is, aside from the opening and closing sequences, Greenstreet and Fitzgerald and Lorre never interact, which is both surprising and disappointing. One might expect, for example, that the strangers might find themselves in actuality tied to one another – particularly since one is a solicitor and another becomes involved in a murder trial. Instead, the plots branch off and never meet until the very ending scene at Crystal’s apartment, and consequently there are large sections of the movie that just aren’t very interesting. As has been the case all month, the few moments between Greenstreet and Lorre are so engaging that you’ll wish the whole movie had been made up of them. Apologies to Bogart, but they are the stuff dreams are made of.

 

Three Strangers is almost like watching three separate films that only tie together at the very end. Geraldine Fitzgerald’s subplot starts off with a bombshell but smolders away until nothing quite happens. Sydney Greenstreet gets the unusual opportunity to play a man driven mad by ambition and shortsighted greed; for a performer usually known as the coolest cat in the room, Greenstreet is clearly reveling in the opportunity to mug for the camera. But it’s Lorre who is the most dynamic actor in the film; he too gets to play against type, here headlining as the ostensible romantic lead of Three Strangers. Lorre is eminently charming as Johnny West, just about the only truly sympathetic character the film has, and Lorre plays him like an empathetic and decidedly less psychotic Raskolnikov, a likeable sort who may or may not have simply fallen in with the wrong crowd.

 

I wonder if Three Strangers would fare better on rewatch, since my principal objection to the film seems to be that it wasn’t the film I was expecting. Negulesco is highly competent, and there are some sequences that are undeniably arresting in their tension. Huston, meanwhile, is a gifted storyteller, and he makes his point quite eloquently that human life is a combination of chance and choice. Huston’s message seems to border on nihilism, but one senses also a strong moral compass in the film; the thieves and the philanderers get what’s coming to them, while the innocent get put through the wringer but emerge with a clearer sense of what truly matters in life.

 

It's only a shame that Three Strangers gets really good right at the end, but then I suspect that most audiences will remember that moment, the moment when the film goes from a slice-of-life to a Twilight Zone episode. It’s the kind of poetic justice that Rod Serling adored, and it’s the first film this month that hasn’t seemed to demand a sequel. Perhaps that’s a remarkable achievement in itself – these characters have run their narrative course. We left even The Maltese Falcon wishing for a sequel (and, in the case of Across the Pacific, very nearly got our wish), but Three Strangers wraps up nicely. Moreover, it cautions us to be careful what you wish for; longing for a sequel may not, the film suggests, be in our best interests.

 

Three Strangers is not rated. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by John Huston and Howard Koch. Starring Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Lorre, Joan Lorring, and Alan Napier.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

The Mask of Dimitrios is proof of one indisputable fact about the Golden Age of Hollywood – there’s never too much of a good thing when it comes to Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. After a few movies this month where the two didn’t have nearly enough screen time together, The Mask of Dimitrios brings us much more of the Greenstreet and Lorre goodness. When they’re on the screen, the film crackles, but its unusual frame narrative structure ends up being more of a tease than a treat.

Mystery writer Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) becomes fascinated with the strange case of master criminal Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott), who appears to have washed up dead in Turkey. Looking for inspiration for his next book, Leyden follows the clues into the past, egged on by the shadowy Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet). Leyden begins to learn more about the crimes that shaped Dimitrios even as he begins his own investigation into Mr. Peters, who is following his every move across Europe. 

 

The structure of The Mask of Dimitrios is best described as “John Le Carré’s Citizen Kane,” with a central protagonist digging ever deeper into the world of espionage through the focal lens of one man’s biography. As this protagonist, Lorre is riveting, wrestling between his curiosity and his own innate timidity. In an early scene, a Turkish police colonel tells Leyden that he is not quite what one imagines when picturing a writer, and that’s because of the graceful ease Lorre brings to humanizing this (and every) character. He stoops and mumbles, but he lights up when the pieces start fitting together in his mind. Leyden’s arc throughout the film becomes a kind of bildungsroman in which the artist becomes a hero, and it’s a triumph to see Lorre enact that character, instead of being relegated to playing heavies, goons, and creeps.

 

Throughout the film, Lorre is matched, finally, with Greenstreet. After each extended flashback into the life of Dimitrios, there is inevitably a sequence in which Leyden returns to his hotel for an impromptu reunion with Mr. Peters. Where Lorre is unnerved and guarded, Greenstreet is his usual boisterous self, glad of confidence and disarmingly open-armed. Greenstreet proves himself among Lorre’s best co-stars (if not the outright best), and one senses that the two are enabling each other to reach greater heights than they would individually. Their chemistry is so unique, best summed up in the moment when Leyden says of Mr. Peters, “He’s my friend! Well, no, he’s not my friend, but he’s a nice man!” 

 

As for Dimitrios, though, I have to say I found this character uninspiring. It’s Zachary Scott’s film debut, but Dimitrios is a classic example of “show, don’t tell.” The other characters consistently tell Leyden what an amazing, devious, magnetic personality Dimitrios was, and they overhype the character to the point where no living actor could match that introduction. Moreover, unlike in Citizen Kane, the flashbacks here are often a bit dry, the performances stiff and unengaging. It’s a shame because the interstitial scenes that introduce the flashbacks, with Lorre and Greenstreet or particularly Lorre and Victor Francen, are effervescent, bubbling over with enough personality to fill a one-act play.

 

I will give The Mask of Dimitrios credit for its third-act turn, which I genuinely did not see coming. I should have, certainly, especially having read a few Le Carré novels in my day. Best of all, the developments of the film’s third act force Leyden and Peters even closer, to the point where they’ve almost become co-conspirators in a plot that seems inevitable only in hindsight. One wonders very much what hijinks Leyden and Peters might have found in a sequel, whether the two men might have been bound by friendship rather than circumstance. But, as Mr. Peters says throughout the film, “How little kindness there is in the world today!” The Mask of Dimitrios leaves you wanting more, but if one were to rewatch the film, it would only be to rewatch Peter Lorre in all his squirrelly greatness, emboldened by the magnificent Sydney Greenstreet.

 

The Mask of Dimitrios is not rated. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Frank Gruber. Based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Starring Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Peter Lorre, and Victor Francen.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: Passage to Marseille (1944)

If last week’s Background to Danger was an attempt to recapture the magic of CasablancaPassage to Marseille is an even more transparent effort to reunite the stars, the director, and the atmosphere of its iconic predecessor. Passage gets nearer to the mark, thanks especially to returning star Humphrey Bogart, though its labyrinthine structure plays a weird and distancing game with its audience.

Passage to Marseille begins with the journalist Manning (John Loder) interviewing Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains) about a Free French outpost in England. Freycinet tells Manning the incredible story of the naval voyage aboard the Ville de Nancy, where he was introduced to the garrison’s infamous gunner, Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart). There Matrac relays the strange way and his band (including Peter Lorre, Helmut Dantine, George Tobias, and Philip Dorn) made their way from the Devil’s Island into the service of the French air force. 

 

Passage to Marseille has become notable for its Inception-like plotting, which features a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. It’s evident that the film is an adaptation of a novel, where such narrative devices are commonplace, but in a film it’s a bit disorienting to be continually reminded that what we are seeing is actually just a story being told to one of the characters. Freycinet tells Manning about his first meeting with Matrac, at which time Matrac told him a story about being imprisoned on Devil’s Island, at which time the prisoners told each other the story of Matrac’s arrest. The film spirals ever backwards into history, with four separate timelines; none of it is too confusing, and as narrators go one could do a lot worse than Claude Rains, but it is peculiar to have to wait for nearly half the film to understand why we should care about most of the characters.

 

Fortunately, Bogart’s star power does much of the heavy lifting. The minute we see him, we too are eager to learn more about Matrac, this haunted and driven gunner. Bogart’s performance is clearly meant to emulate Rick Blaine of Casablanca, with his specific brand of morality driving him away from, then into, the Second World War. But there is something too of Fred C. Dobbs from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Jean Matrac, particularly in the Devil’s Island sequence where we see Matrac wrestle with his captors, false imprisonment and his own budding madness. As ever, Bogart is electrifying, though the film neuters itself by reminding us that we have already seen that Matrac will escape.

 

While sporting an eyepatch, Claude Rains does his usual Claude Rains thing, all elegance and precision. I was a little surprised to see the film not flash back to the loss of Freycinet’s eye, though Rains weaves it into the understated backstory of the character, treating it not as a handicap but as a welcome challenge to how he can continue to serve France. Among the rest of the cast, Lorre is a stand-out, though perhaps I’m biased. His Marius seems to be Matrac’s deputy, helping first to recruit Matrac in the escape attempt and then aiding him as he leads the other men to freedom. In the Ville de Nancy timeline, Marius is eager to speak for himself and his brothers, while simultaneously deferring to Matrac when he deigns to lift his voice. 

 

Relative to our purposes this month, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are once again kept apart for nearly all of the film, though the rampant chemistry between Bogart and Lorre is on full delightful display. Where he stumbled as a Nazi in Background to Danger, Greenstreet is better cast as the martinet Major Duval, who relies solely on his own intuition and who wields respect like a bullwhip. Greenstreet and Lorre only have the one significant scene together, in which Duval’s interrogation precedes Freycinet’s more sympathetic dialogue, and it’s a fine centerpiece for Greenstreet to tell us plenty about Duval. As usual, in this sequence Lorre tells us more about Marius in the moments when he’s not speaking, but one cannot help – especially this month – wanting more, more, more.

 

Director Michael Curtiz, himself of Casablanca, went to great pains to reassemble as much of the magic from that film in Passage to Marseille. So much of the cast returns for this one, right down to a cameo from singer Corinna Mura. (Even Michèle Morgan, in her thankless role as Matrac’s wife, has a Casablanca connection – she screen-tested for the role that inevitably went to Ingrid Bergman after Warner Bros lowballed RKO for a release from her contract.) Between Curtiz’s directorial eye and the musical ear of Max Steiner, who bombards the film with refrains from the French national anthem La Marseillaise, the film’s every impulse seems to invite comparisons with Casablanca – short of thinly remaking the film, as was the wont of the Golden Age of cinema, it seems there was little more that anyone could have done to make this film more like Casablanca

 

You don’t need me to tell you, however, that Casablanca needs no remake. It’s cute to watch them try, and a film starring Bogart in his prime is never a misuse of one’s time, but Passage to Marseille is neither quite what it aims to be nor precisely what its audience expects of it. As the old saying goes, though, here’s looking at you – even a vanilla Golden Age war film is still worth a look.

 

Passage to Marseille is not rated. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt. Based on the novel Sans Patrie by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Michèle Morgan, Claude Rains, Philip Dorn, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, George Tobias, and Helmut Dantine.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: Background to Danger (1943)

For the month of June, we’ll be celebrating the 117th birthday of Peter Lorre – one of my all-time favorite actors – by looking at five of his lesser-known collaborations with fellow character actor Sydney Greenstreet. The two met during Greenstreet’s film debut in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and starred in eight films together (nine, if you count their fun cameo in Hollywood Canteen). Despite being two very different performers, their chemistry was electric, their mannerisms impeccable. When you see their names on a bill together, you know you’re in for a treat.

After The Maltese Falcon, Lorre and Greenstreet were not quite reunited in Casablanca (1942); both give unforgettable performances as the squirrely Ugarte and the voluminous Ferrari, respectively, but the only misstep in an otherwise perfect film is that they never share the screen. (Their presences are so indelible, however, that you’d be forgiven for not noticing until now.) It would not be until Background to Danger in 1943 that the pair inhabited the cinematic frame together, albeit only for one tense sequence. The film is one of a host of Casablanca imitators, unmemorable but not unwatchable.

 

George Raft stars as traveling salesman Joe Barton, secretly a spy for the United States. After meeting the beautiful but doomed Ana Remzi (Osa Massen) on a train to Turkey, Barton comes into possession of secret documents that indicate the Nazis are about to implicate the Soviet Union in a fictitious invasion of Turkey, the better for Germany to take control. Barton is pursued by the plan’s architect, the Nazi Colonel Robinson (Greenstreet), but he’s also caught the attention of two Soviet spies, Nikolai Zaleshoff (Lorre) and his sister Tamara (Brenda Marshall).

 

Background to Danger is surprisingly complex in its plotting, taking its cue perhaps from the similarly suspicious Maltese Falcon, in which no one can be trusted and everyone is lying about something. Here, the MacGuffin is likewise an artifact of deception; there is to be no invasion, but the Germans want Turkey to think there will be. With Greenstreet as provocateur, authoring fiction after fiction to cover his own failings, there is something prescient about the film’s emphasis on “fake news” and its value as a weapon of war. As his Gutman was in The Maltese Falcon, Greenstreet’s Robinson is the only character with all the answers, and his mere presence alone gives you a satisfactory antagonist.

 

One cannot help but feel, however, that Greenstreet is only slightly miscast as the German spymaster. There is nothing German about his performance, neither his accent nor his wardrobe; nor is his very name – Robinson – anything less than stiff upper-lip British. Greenstreet is delightfully villainous, but something in his performance feels held back, as though he’s careful not to have too much fun as a Nazi. Likewise, George Raft seems out of his element as Barton, a role that hinges on the reveal that he’s an American spy. When Barton plays the part of a salesman, there’s never a sense that he’s not in total control of the situation; it’s worth noting that the original novel saw Barton as a forerunner to Cary Grant in North by Northwest, bewildered after an accidental plunge into the world of espionage. (The change was made at Raft’s insistence.) Here, though, it’s hard to see why anyone buys Barton’s “babe in the woods” routine, and when he shifts into spy mode, it’s hard to see Raft as anything but the hardboiled gangsters he played.

 

Perhaps the only casting that really works – at least, of the cast with anything of note to do in the script – is Peter Lorre as the Russian spy Nikolai. There is something stagey about Lorre’s performance here, and I mean that in a good way; Lorre imbues the character with a broad physicality, all stooping hunches and balled fists, such that you can imagine his parts of the film being stage plays. Even when he’s not the focus of attention, Lorre is constantly doing something, clutching his fists to his head or bemoaning his lack of vodka. Of all the times that the film asks you to doubt what you suspect about a character, Lorre is the best at walking that line of uncertainty, and I can’t help but wish Nikolai had been a recurring character in other WWII films.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best scene of the film is the moment when all the spies are in the same room together – Raft, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Marshall. At the top of the film’s third act, all the cards get put on the table, and all the actors get to play off each other like some of the more claustrophobic scenes from The Maltese Falcon. To add to the tension, everyone’s got a gun pointed at each other, but more importantly, it’s one of the most successful moments of shifting alliances and casual deception. Everything clicks in this scene, and the audience ought to be genuinely surprised at where the moment goes. It’s not quite the climax of the film, but everything that follows feels like denouement compared to the energy level of this dynamite sequence.

 

Between the restrictions of the Hays Code and the rah-rah patriotism of the era, there are not many surprises in how the film turns out, and it leads to an ending that is perhaps too overtly cheery to fit with the rest of the film, which tries to be a shadowy tale out of John le Carré’s playbook. Background to Danger is fairly emblematic of the Warner Brothers brand of 1940s war films, with most of its familiar faces flitting in and out. It’s not as good as Casablanca – but, then again, few films are.

 

Background to Danger is not rated. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by W.R. Burnett. Based on the novel Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler. Starring George Raft, Brenda Marshall, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Osa Massen, and Turhan Bey.