Saturday, November 29, 2008

(Welcome To) Hard Times (1975)

He arrives in darkness and he departs in darkness. And in between he leads a stoic existence as a bare-knuckle brawler. That description can only fit one man—Charles Bronson, who became one of the biggest stars of the seventies in movies such as Michael Winner’s egregious Death Wish (1974). Bronson was never the world’s greatest actor. But he could be devastatingly effective in certain roles. And in Chaney, a Depression-era drifter, in Walter Hill’s directorial debut, Hard Times, he had the role of his career. His physical acting style fit in perfectly with Hill’s ethos that character can be defined by how many times the hero blinks when a gun is stuck in his face. This philosophy was to go on to serve Hill well in movies featuring such strong physical presences as Powers Boothe (Southern Comfort), David Carradine (The Long Riders) Nick Nolte (48 Hours) and Mickey Rourke (Johnny Handsome).

Hard Times was part of a trend of the 1970s in which American directors seemed obsessed with exploring the past. There were movies that took place during World War I (Roger Corman’s Von Richtofen and Brown) the Roaring Twenties (Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby) the home front during World War II (Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42, John Hancock’s Baby Blue Marine), the McCarthy Era (Martin Ritt’s The Front) the fifties (Terrence Malick’s Badlands) and the early sixties (George Lucas’ American Graffiti). One movie, Sydney Pollock’s The Way We Were, probably the best romantic drama of the decade, straddles three different time periods and locations (a small college campus in the thirties, New York in the forties, Hollywood in the fifties). It was almost as if the present, what was to become dubiously known as the “Me Decade,” held no great fascination for these directors.

Many directors chose to set their movies during the Great Depression. This trend was most probably ignited by the success of Bonnie and Clyde, which, from the smug remove of 1967, made the Depression look tragically fashionable. Other films taking place during this period include Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973), Hal Ashby’s movie biography of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (1976), Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), Andrew V. McLaglen’s Fool’s Parade (1971), John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), Howard Zieff’s love letter to the Gower Gulch cowboys, Hearts of the West (1975), Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North (1973) and Martin Ritt’s Sounder (1972). The Great Depression isn’t the theme of these movies, but works as an effective backdrop for stories about people driven to desperate acts because of the “hard times” in which they are living.

In Hard Times, Charles Bronson drifts into the city of New Orleans, where he comes to the attention of James Coburn, playing a fast-talking gambler who manages fighters involved in illegal bare-knuckle brawls. He goes on to manage Bronson, and it is a joy to watch the voluble Coburn and the monosyllabic Bronson trade verbal jabs with one another. Coburn is assisted by Strother Martin, playing a hopheaded ex-doctor who acts as Bronson’s cut man. Hill makes the most of his location shoot by having Bronson meet Martin for the first time in one of the above ground cemeteries that can be found throughout the city. New Orleans has been used many times as a movie location, beginning with Elia Kazin’s Panic in the Streets (1950), among the first American movies to be shot outside the confines of the studio back lot, and moving on most notably to Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Jim McBride’s The Big Easy (1987) and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), in which, oddly enough, New Orleans doubles for an unnamed Midwestern city. But seldom has the Crescent City seemed as intensely gritty looking and feeling as the Hopperesque way it is presented in Hard Times.

For a time, Bronson and Coburn make a good team as fighter and manager. Eventually, though, they part company after Bronson decides that he has made enough money to quit being banged around. But Bronson, in true heroic fashion, reluctantly returns for one last fight to save Coburn, who has gotten himself in over his head with a couple of enforcers working for a loan shark. In the most eloquent moment of his career, Strother Martin shows his contempt for the bout by picking up a wrench, testing its weight in his hand, then announcing Bronson’s arrival by throwing the wrench through a warehouse office window where Coburn and the other fighter’s manager are waiting. This is also the most persuasive proof of Hill’s belief that a single telling gesture can have far more impact than ten lines of movie dialogue.

The movie ends where it begins, with Bronson disappearing into the darkness. In many ways, he is a throwback to a previous American type—the western hero who appears when he is needed only to silently disappear once the moment of danger or jeopardy has passed. Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) is probably the best example of this kind of hero, who is echoed by the character Clint Eastwood played in Pale Rider (1985). (The ending even echoes the earlier movie, with a teenaged Sydney Penny imploring Eastwood’s gunfighter character to stay, enacting a more sexualized version of Brandon de Wilde’s famous entreaties in the last scene of Shane).

Eastwood himself directed his own Depression drama, Honkytonk Man (1982), starring with his own son, Kyle, as an itinerant blues musician dying of tuberculosis. He then starred opposite Burt Reynolds in Richard Benjamin’s damp fizzle of a Depression era action comedy, City Heat (1984). Both Eastwood and Bronson were actors who worked best when their dialogue was pared to the bare minimum, allowing their imposing physicality to speak for them. And at no time during his career, whether caring for an orphaned cat or being chivalrous to a hard luck prostitute (played by his own wife, Jill Ireland) did Charles Bronson speak as gracefully as in Hard Times.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Clive Donner - Hello, Young Lovers

The English cinema of the 1960s was dedicated to the youth of the country. And this is not a reference to the pandering movies made to show off popular musical groups of the period, such as the Dave Clark Five (Having A Wild Weekend) or Herman’s Hermits (Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter), in vehicles that tried to capitalize on the success that Richard Lester, a Yank expatriate, had putting the Beatles on film (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!). No, I am actually talking about the American Lester’s English counterpart, Clive Donner, whose sixties movies really tapped into the country’s emerging youth movement and reflected it back in ways both complimentary and strange.

After an established career as a film editor, Donner went on to direct such early sixties fare as Nothing but the Best (1964), and what an amazing pedigree this movie has. It is based on a short story by American thriller writer Stanley Ellin (House of Cards). The story is adapted by young British novelist Frderic Raphael, two years before he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for John Schlesinger’s Darling (the origins of which comprise episode three of Raphael’s groundbreaking 1976 mini-series, The Glittering Prizes). And the movie stars the young Alan Bates as a working class climber who befriends a remittance man (Denholm Elliot) in order to achieve some class and rise through the ranks at his job. (A remittance man is, of course, a black sheep who receives money to stay far away from his family.) When Elliot turns his back on him, Bates’ character commits murder, and the complications that ensue are both comedic and chilling as we watch the lengths this amoral character will go to in order to achieve his life’s ambition of having the best of everything. (In an interesting aside, that’s the name of Ellin’s short story, which had to be changed to Nothing but the Best because The Best of Everything was also the title of a famous best-selling American novel and movie, by Rona Jaffe, about the New York publishing business.) (Musical group featured on soundtrack: the Eagles—no, not the Eagles.)

One year later, Donner directed What’s New Pussycat (1965), based on a screenplay by a young New York stand-up comedian named Woody Allen. Allen appears in the movie, but is not the star. That role is reserved for an ultra-relaxed Peter O’Toole, flexing his comic muscle after the heavy dramatic lifting of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket. The movie also stars Peter Sellers (in velvet suits and an hysterical page boy wig), Romy Schneider, Ursula Andress and Capucine. Allen aside, this is hardly a cast of ingénues, but the comic story, set in Paris, is filled with youthful energy (provided perhaps by its director’s deliberately sophomoric take on the material and a zingy score by budding popmeister Burt Bacharach). O’Toole plays a ladies man who tries to settle down with the help of his girl friend (Ms. Schneider), best friend (Allen) and shrink (Sellers), but finds that doing so is not as easy as it sounds when surrounded by pussycats such as the sexy (and suicidal) one played by Paula Prentiss. With an American producer (Charles K. Feldman), a British director, a polyglot cast and a Paris setting, this movie is an example of mid-sixties international filmmaking at its most riotously felicitous. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: Manfred Mann.)

Two years later, Donner took on the English youth culture full on in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), based on a novel by Hunter Davies, who would go on to become the first official biographer of the Beatles. (His book, The Beatles, was published in 1968, well before the saga of the Fab Four really hit its stride.) In this movie filled with psychedelic imagery (all of it now rendered laughably quaint), Barry Evans plays a young man who wants to lose his virginity. He has several “birds” to choose from, played by, among others, intimidating Angela Scoular and approachable Sheila White, but he only has eyes for the cool blonde beauty embodied so perfectly by Judy Geeson (equally memorable as the apple of her teacher, Sidney Poitier’s, eye in that same year’s To Sir, With Love). Evans’ character wants to take advantage of the decade’s loosening morality and sexual confusion in order to get laid. But when he finally lands the girl of his dreams, she turns out to want the same thing he does. This sends him scrambling right back to monogamy. Judy Geeson’s character calls him a “romantic,” and it’s not meant as a compliment. The movie ends with Evans’ character about to matriculate at the University of Manchester, where he sets his sights on Ms. Geeson’s slightly more attainable best friend. Evans’ character is charming enough that we wish him well in his subsequent search for love. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: The Spencer Davis Group.)

After a disastrous attempt at making a movie in America, the critically lambasted Luv, Donner returned to English soil to direct Alfred the Great (1969). It stars David Hemmings, the shaggy-haired protagonist of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (probably the definitive English movie of the sixties, even though it was directed by an Italian) as the equally shaggy-haired ninth century king of England. When we first see young Alfred, he is about to be ordained as a priest. Then comes word that Danish invaders have attacked the coast of Wessex, killing men, raping women and stealing cattle. With his brother, the king, rendered temporarily hors de combat, Prince Alfred successfully leads the army into battle against the Danes. After his brother dies, Alfred reluctantly allows himself to be made king. He takes a bride, Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), but, in order to parlay a peace treaty, is forced to give her up as hostage to the Viking leader, Guthrum (Michael York). Physically unprepossessing, Hemmings is an unusual choice to play Alfred, but his undisguised sixties sensibility underscores the warrior king’s ambivalence in becoming the leader of the ninth century “Establishment.” One would have to reach forward in time to Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), St. Francis of Assisi portrayed as the first hippie, to find a more youth-oriented, revisionist treatment of an historical figure. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: Unsourced Gregorian Chants.)

In Alfred the Great, one is delighted to find a young Sir Ian McKellen, the once and future Gandalf, his mellifluous voice instantly recognizable, in the small but pivotal role of a swamp bandit chief. And an actor named Julian Chagrin contributes some nice acrobatic business as Ivar, a fearsome, red-haired Viking berserker. Unfortunately, Donner was completely out of his depth with this epic period drama. The failure of Alfred the Great more or less put paid to his movie career and forced him into television, where he found success directing TV movies and mini-series. He was brought back to the movies as the second unit director of Superman II, directed by his sixties contemporary, Richard Lester, after Richard Donner (no relation) was fired off the film. Lester himself had a great triumph in 1968 with his movie adaptation of Petulia, starring Julie Christie as a young woman who develops a mad crush on the San Francisco doctor (George C. Scott) who saved the life of a Mexican boy in her care. The movie is alive to what was going on in the culture of the moment and accurately captures in the background the heyday of the flower power movement in San Francisco. Judy Geeson can now be found on reruns of the sit-com Mad about You as the snobbish English neighbor across the hall. David Hemmings got more rumpled as he got older, an image that perfectly suited him in a TV series about the rumpled English spy, Charlie Muffin. Unfortunately, Nothing but the Best is not available on DVD. Like a phantom, it crops up every now and then on late night TV. Catch it if you can.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Michelle Meyrink, Meet Diana Lynn

The decade of the 1980s was not a golden age in American cinema, but it was a golden period for movies about high school and about teenagers getting laid. These movies ran the gamut from the good (Sixteen Candles and everything else written and directed by John Hughes, except for Weird Science) to the great (Say Anything and anything else written and directed by Cameron Crowe, except for The Wild Life) to the just plain awful (Porky’s and anything with the word “virgin” in the title). And in between stood such oddities as Losin’ It (1983), about three friends driving across the border to lose their virginity in Tijuana. The mind-boggling cast included Tom Cruise, Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long (in other words, Top Gun’s Maverick meets Little Children’s sex pervert and Diane from Cheers).

Another anomalous movie from this same period is Real Genius. The anomaly comes from the fact that the teenagers in this story are smart and have more on their minds than just getting laid. Like normal teenagers, they enjoy playing pranks. But here, the pranks involve turning their dorm into an ice skating rink, installing a micro-receiver in an obnoxious student’s mouth so he thinks he is hearing the voice of God when they broadcast instructions to him, and, in the movie’s climax, turning a professor’s house into an enormous popcorn popper (with the aid of a weaponized space-based laser projector).

The difference is these teenagers are students at Pacific Tech, a West Coast university obviously modeled after Cal Tech (although the movie was actually shot at Pomona College and Occidental College). One of the characters is a reclusive genius who lives in the steam tunnels under the campus. He is played by Jon Gries, the son of the late movie director Tom Gries (Will Penny), who later achieved movie immortality as the repulsive Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. The main character is a super-smart senior played in ever so insouciant fashion by Val Kilmer in one of his earliest screen performances (after Z-A-Z’s Top Secret). The wisecracking character he plays, Chris Knight, is studly and smart in equal measure. And yet, he is not the romantic center of the story.

That role is reserved for Gabriel Jarret as Mitch Taylor, a naïve fifteen-year-old freshman at Pacific Tech recruited by a scheming professor (William Atherton in a scene-stealing role) for his experimental laser program. Thanks to Chris Knight’s cracked idea of what it means to be a mentor, Mitch doesn’t stay naïve for long. Although an older woman (Patti D’Arbanville) with a thing for geniuses, tries to seduce him (and fails), the true object of his affection is a nineteen-year-old student named Jordan Cochran, played in indelible fashion by Michelle Meyrink in what has to be one of the most original and appealing character turns to appear in any teen film in the eighties.

Previous to this role, Michelle Meyrink had a pretty undistinguished career. She is the co-star, opposite Cameron Dye, of National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex (directed by Martha Coolidge, who also directed Valley Girl as well as Real Genius), had a brief run as one of Michael J. Fox’s girl friends (don’t ask me which one) on Family Ties, and chummed around as Diane Lane’s best friend in The Outsiders. (On The Outsiders’ DVD commentary track, it is embarrassing to hear director Francis Food Coppola gush over Diane Lane’s beauty while barely giving mention to Michelle Meyrink).

But with Jordan, Ms. Meyrink found a role she could really sink her teeth into. When we first meet her, Jordan is wearing overalls and a crash helmet while she sleds down an ice-covered dorm hallway. She removes the crash helmet to reveal an endearing Louise Brooks bob and begins speaking at a rapid clip that sounds like a speeded-up version of shorthand. She is hyperkinetic, hyper-voluble and, owing to the fact that she can’t sleep, tries to impress Mitch by staying up all night knitting him a sweater, and even offers to build him a new bed for his dorm room.

In one throw away scene, it is hilarious to watch Jordan trying to act nonchalant as she stands watch, but she can’t keep herself from squirming in place and darting her eyes around suspiciously, thus creating exactly the opposite effect. Her relationship with Mitch Taylor is charmingly chaste. Jordan herself is both brainy and sexy and adorably idiosyncratic. In many ways, she is the distaff eighties’ complement to Eddie Deezen’s uber-nerdish character in I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

And in other ways, the character Michelle Meyrink plays here is reminiscent of the kid sister teen characters played by Diana Lynn in two of the most well-remembered movies of World War II—Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, and Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (which, along with his Hail the Conquering Hero, also marks the apex of Eddie Bracken‘s movie career). In the former, Diana Lynn plays the younger sister of Ray Milland's fiancee who becomes buddy-buddy with Ginger Rogers, here improbably disguised as a twelve-year-old (for reasons that are too complicated to go into here). Level-headed Diana Lynn is the only one able to penetrate Ginger Rogers' disguise

In the latter, she is the younger sister of Betty Hutton, a single girl who finds herself scandalizingly pregnant after attending a USO dance. When everything is going to hell around her and all the adult characters are acting like children, Diana Lynn can be depended on to keep her head and exert a well-needed dollop of common sense. Tart rather than sweet, she is a bracing tonic to the types of goody-goody teen characters reliably played by Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien (except in The Secret Garden) and Bonita Granville in other movies of the forties.

Unlike those three young actresses, Diana Lynn went on to have a career as an adult actress, although to see her ludicrously miscast as a femme fatale seducing Glenn Ford in John Farrow’s Plunder of the Sun (1953) is to make one selfishly wish that she had stopped making movies when Tojo surrendered to MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri. In the fifties and sixties, Diana Lynn went back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway before choosing semi-retirement. Tragically, she died at age 45 just as she was about to return to the screen to play Anthony Perkins’ wife in Frank Perry’s film adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (wonderful novel, pretentious movie).

As for Michelle Meyrink, she never again had a role as meaty and memorable as Jordan Cochran. Her last screen performance was with Keanu Reeves in Marisa Silver’s earnest but inert Permanent Record (1988). In Real Genius, her performance is the authentic work of genius. She gave teenagers a good name at a time when teenagers, at least in movies, were more apt to think with their genitals instead of their brains. Diana Lynn was a breath of fresh air compared to the saccharine teens who surrounded her. In many ways, Diana Lynn is the spiritual forbear of Michelle Meyrink. Who knows which young actress will, hopefully in the near future, pick up their torch and run with it, run all the way past teenhood to a long and fruitful adult acting career.