Turner Classic Film Fest: A history of violence

I know, pretty dark headline for  a post about a really fun, glamor heavy film fest. All the more so because, at least for me, TCM  Fest is the kind of event that  can put you in a kind of steel bubble which the daily news can barely pierce. If another Cuban Missile Crisis happened during Comic-Con, what would happen? Maybe if it ended differently this time.

Indeed, even a momentous event  like the death of Osama Bin Laden could just barely penetrate TCM’s  mix of Hollywood fantasy and scholarship. For me, the news first came as I overheard another filmgoer during an intermission of “West Side Story,” which I had popped in on just to see how good the 70mm print was, say to another. “No, he’s really dead.” I figured it was another classic film star gone forever. George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had introduced the screening, but how were Jets Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn doing?

Walking away from the theater and heading toward the closing night party, I saw a lone car driving quickly down Hollywood Boulevard with its occupants yelling and waving American flags. Had the U.S.A. won an important soccer game or something? I eventually figured out what had happened, but it took hours for the news to sink in and, while people were mentioning it, most of the conversations I heard at the closing night party were about movies, understandably enough. The weird part was how several of the films I had seen dealt with the bloodier aspects of 20th century world history, which doesn’t seem to be letting up all that much here in the 21st.

Though you could see both “The Godfather” and “Taxi Driver” this year at the festival, in a funny way no film was more shockingly honest about violence than a film I’d managed to catch a second screening of just a few hours prior. “Went the Day Well,” a shockingly blunt and hugely effective piece of British wartime propaganda from 1942. Well regarded in England, the film, from the famed Ealing studios, was to some degree overtaken on its initial release by good news in the allied war effort and has become obscure even among the cinephile set. That may change as it is about to be re-released by Rialto Films. Directed by Brazilian expatriate Alberto Calvacanti and drawn from a short story by Graham Greene, “Went the Day Well” opens with a resident of a British town proudly telling us how several German names ended up in the town cemetery after it was the focal point of an abortive invasion.

From that opening, you’d have every right to expect to a tale of plucky Brits keeping a stiff upper lip as they bravely outwit the cruel Nazis. That’s what you get, more or less, but the surprise here is howviolent the film is by standards of the time and place it was released — enough to draw audible gasps from a modern day audience. The English have historically been much harsher on film violence than most other countries and it’s easy to imagine that the film might well have been effectively banned or severely cut if it wasn’t government sanctioned propaganda. It’s far from graphic, of course, but it’s bluntness is a real surprise to anyone familiar with films of the era.

More conventionally for a British propaganda film, it’s one with a collective protagonist, in this case an assortment of ordinary British people of various classes. The cast features numerous actors that looked vaguely familiar to this classic film fan, but few I could pick out of line-up. That doesn’t matter because most of them are doing very good work creating well-rounded charactes. I did recognize David Farrar from “Black Narcissus,” an actor with slightly odd rhythms,  and was wowed by a young Harry Fowler, a real treat as a borderline juvenile delinquent with heroic tendencies that I would have loved to see an entire film about. (Today, Fowler is probably best known for his uncredited bit in “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which Peter O’Toole teaches a disbelieving William Potter the not-so easy “trick” to putting out a match with your fingers.)

Perhaps surprisingly for a classic film festival, it’s possible that this year tales pitting the West against Soviet-style communism seemed to outnumber movies about World War II’s fight against fascism. 1934’s “British Agent,” made by a l0w-budget division of Warner Brothers, is the sort of curiosity only a real film geek can love and a real relic of pre-war confusion about where the Soviets fit it into a quickly realigning Europe.  Despite two very good leads in Leslie Howard and Kay Francis, who is assigned a next to impossible role, and first class production values overseen by director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood”) the movie only works as a historical curiosity, though on that level it’s pretty darn interesting.

British AgentTechnically an espionage tale, “British Agent” is really more of a romantic melodrama about a British diplomat (Howard) whose careless habit of decoding foreign cables in a loud voice leads to his new girlfriend (Francis) hearing some sensitive news. Since she’s not just his ladyfriend but Nikolai Lenin’s secretary, and he’s willing to foment a counter-revolution if it’ll keep Russia in World War I, it becomes a sticky wicket. The film is often criticized as jingoistic because of Howard’s ruthlessly Angl0centric behavior.

However, “British Agent” been better written, I think it would be read today as more as a realistic depiction of real politik from a frankly British point of view. It certainly makes no clear attempt to demonize the Soviets, who were still a year or two away from launching the infamous “great purges” of the 1930s, which killed millions. In fact, it’s oddly soft on the already not-so-swell human rights record of the early Soviet Union and even portrays a Stalin-like character as a not entirely bad bloke.

A very different kind of outsider’s take on the Russian revolution is offered in “Reds,” but here the movie itself was somewhat eclipsed by a very rare post screening appearance by the film’s director, co-writer and star, Warren Beatty, being interviewed by Alec Baldwin. It was high comedy as fans of Beatty were treated to the actor-producer-director’s apparently inborn inability to answer a simple question with a straight answer. He did, however, promise a return to filmmaking now that his children were old enough to be tired of him.

The movie itself is a romantic melodrama-cum-biopic, starring Beatty as radical American writer John Reed, who wrote the acclaimed history, 10 Days That Shook the World — which I actually managed to wade through after seeing “Reds” the first time — and wound up being the only American buried in the Kremlin. Co-starring Diane Keaton as his sometimes estranged life partner and fellow writer-activist, Louise Bryant, “Reds” is fairly straightforward in its depiction of both the ups and downs of radicalism and relatively blunt about the state-sponsored terror that arose early on in the Soviet Union. It won’t surprise Beatty’s many conservative detractors that it’s also pretty blunt about the lack of real civil liberties in Woodrow Wilson’s America.

As an ambitious Hollywood entertainment, the first half is thoroughly engaging and high on witty dialog. The second half is a bit more of a slog as the story takes us to more chilly emotional and geographic climes, but the entire effort is peppered with strong supporting performances. Chief among them is a restrained Jack Nicholson, before he’d developed some of his more recent bad acting habits, as playwright Eugene O’Neil, Maureen Stapleton as legendary anarachist earth-mother Emma Goldman, and the ever-great Gene Hackman in a two-scene cameo as a not-at-all-radical newspaper editor. Keaton and Beatty don’t make any attempt to veer away from their usual star personas and are not afraid to play up the comedic aspects of the story, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If Warren Beatty was reasonably honest about the inhumanity of Soviet-style communism, Billy Wilder waged a hilarious iced Cold War against it in his semi-forgotten classic, “One, Two, Three.” As the very entertaining Michael Schlesinger pointed out in a funny live intro, it’s the kind of late-career summing up film for Wilder that “North by Northwest” and “Rio Bravo” were for Wilder’s peers, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. True, it’s a lot less well known than those two classics and perhaps just a hair or two lower on the rung of absolute cinematic greatness — except I don’t quite believe that. Like Schlesinger, I love this movie beyond all reason, even it’s too-silly, reality-breaking jokes.

Drawn from a one-act play by Hungarian author Ferenc Molnár, which I’d love to read or see in translation, “One, Two, Three” stars James Cagney as a manic Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who is not about to let his bosses’s teen daughter (Pamela Tiffin) and her sudden marriage to an ardent East German commie (Horst Buchholz) drag down his corporate ambitions. Aside from what it bought from Molnar, it features borrowed and refurbished characters and plot elements from such past Wilder classics as “Ninotchka,” which Wilder co-wrote in 1939, as well as “Some Like It Hot,” which was only a few years old in 1961.

Like “Hot,” it’s one of the very few true film farces — a very specific type of comedy — that actually works. (“A Fish Called Wanda” might have been the last really effective movie farce.”) Central to its genius is an absolutely brilliant performance by Cagney that fuel’s the film’s breakneck pace, which is vastly more caffeinated than a case full of Coke. It’s exhililirating to watch but apparently the filmmaking process — made more difficult by the reported obnoxiousness of co-star Horst Bucholz and the fact that the film was actually made as the Berlin Wall was being constructed, setting the stage for an actual Cold War crisis — was so exhausting that when Cagney heard a friend talk about taking a relaxing boat trip, he was so envious he decided to retire for the next twenty years.

It was one very well-earned retirement. Watch “One, Two, Three” and you’ll see why. True, he already had some competition from a certain James Brown, but every moment Cagney is on screen he’s the hardest working man in show business.

  

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