Felt like a good time to watch this since I’d recently seen Purple Noon, and The American Friend is more or less a sequel. I don’t know how things worked in the book series, but besides some art forgery at the beginning, I’d easily believe that they’re unrelated and Dennis Hopper’s character just happens to be named Tom Ripley.

Movie connection #2: Joe vs. the Volcano. Bruno Ganz, who’s the real star of the film over Ripley/Hopper, is sick and short on money, but it turns out his doctor is exaggerating Bruno’s health problems so he’ll be desperate enough to accept a mission as assassin. This despite the fact that Bruno works in a frame shop and is not normally a killer (naturally, the working title was Framed).

Bruno, making it literal:

Movie connection #3: Barton Fink. Bruno takes an instant dislike to Hopper at a (fraudulent) art auction at the beginning, refuses to shake his hand. At the end, Hopper confesses this is why Hopper put Bruno through it all, the doomed medical prognosis and three murders.

Movie connection #4: Rushmore, via the Kinks song “Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ’bout That Girl”.

Cool movie, with real suspense to the spy/murder proceedings, and a visual theme of magic lanterns and other illusions. Terrific lighting, color and cinematography (by Robby Müller, natch), as far as I could tell on my DVD copy. And of course it features both Nicholas Ray (as Hopper’s painter of fakes) and Samuel Fuller (as head target “The American”, eventually thrown down stone stairs).

Ray:

Fuller:

Hopper:

Can’t say I fully understood Ripley’s involvement in the whole plot, nor why Bruno has to die at the end (Wenders loves when everyone dies at the end). Ebert says it’s not important. Dave Kehr says that’s the whole idea: “The plot, laid out baldly, gives only a thin impression of the film itself. For one thing, Wenders has systematically eliminated most of the purely expository scenes (purposefully, after shooting them). … We already know the story, having seen its variations in a hundred films.”

Film Quarterly says it cost more than Wenders’s previous five films combined. Won best editing and direction in Germany and played at Cannes along with 3 Women, The Duellists and Padre Padrone.

Hopper’s follow-up to Apocalypse Now, which wouldn’t be released for two more years. Bruno was between The Marquise of O and Nosferatu. As his wife: Lisa Kreuzer of Radio On and Alice in the Cities. Gerard Blain (star of Chabrol’s Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge) is the guy who gives Bruno his assignment, and Lou Castel (star of Fists in the Pocket and Beware of a Holy Whore) is his driver/overseer. Semi-remade a couple times, once with Malkovich as Ripley and once with Barry Pepper.

“The rules have grown stronger than those who made them.”

Bob Dylan’s fabled hero Anthony Quinn is a mexican eskimo (MEXIMO). Eskimo culture in the far north is apparently a whole racial melting pot, with eskimos from Japan and China and Singapore and Guyana, and even white eskimos with skin makeup.

Peter O’Toole, in his first year in the movies, already knew how to behave like a star, insisting his name be stricken from the credits upon learning that he’d been dubbed.

Opens unpleasantly with a swimming polar bear getting speared. Later we’ll see more hurt or killed animals, not always sure which are real. A narrator condescendingly fills us in on eskimo culture: “in the age of the atom bomb they still hunt with bow and arrow … they are so crude they don’t know how to lie.” Then Quinn shows up, a giggling simpleton with a short temper, a strong hunter without a wife. At first he’s too cartoonish, overplaying the cultural differences, but it’s a charismatic film and you get used to the movie version of the eskimo way of life, so that halfway through when guns and white men first appear, it’s startling. And then the movie gets to its point, or at least what I assume Ray felt was its point since he loves to hide bunches of social commentary in his action-packed dramas, which is best represented by Quinn’s great line: “When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws.”

Narrator plays it like a Nanook educational film at times. Quinn has a friendly fight with a buddy, smashing his head through an igloo wall, but while returning home after an uncomfortable encounter with modern civilization (guns and swing music) he busts the skull of a white missionary because he refuses to eat their old wormy marrow. “One did not intend to kill … his head was too soft.” Peter O’Toole and some guy who freezes to death after falling into water chase Quinn, arresting him for the murder, but finally O’Toole lets Quinn go, using exactly the same method as John Lithgow did in Harry and the Hendersons.

Hits from the DVD commentary by Krohn and Ehrenstein:
Technically an Italian movie (hence the dubbing). Opens with plain white nothingness, a little bit of Antonioni creeping into Ray’s work already. “Swingin’ and swappin’ in the great white north.” Ray was in the arctic for a long time getting all these shots. Released in 70mm. Marie Yang plays the mother of Quinn’s bride, is not Anna May Wong as frequently miscredited, but another actress calling herself Anna May Wong (not the famous one) also appears. Refusing to sleep with someone’s wife can get you killed, just as [sleeping with someone’s wife] can here. All of ray’s movies are about “the impossibility of communication.” Quinn is a rare Ray hero who is not neurotic. Ray’s trademark anguish is missing. The Four Saints song “Don’t Be an Iceberg” plus second song “Sexy Rock” heard in the distance then over closing credits, because movies had to have theme songs back then. And Krohn recommends the John Landis movie The Stupids.

This post has been released under the Movie Journal Amnesty Act of March 2011, which states that blog entries may be posted in an unfinished state, since I am too busy to write them up properly.

I enjoyed the crazily over-the-top performances of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar but didn’t get much of a sense for his filmmaking – unless his thing was casting unhinged actors and letting them loose within overly melodramatic stories. I suppose he also made extreme/sly comments on society with Johnny’s crusading zealot McCarthy figure and Rebel’s mixed messages on masculinity and family units. Well, this one brings it all together, with an extreme (but less “method”) performance by James Mason and a brutal attack on society and family and everything else. I don’t know if it’s that tying-together of the Ray threads or the movie itself, but I’m currently loving it more than the other two.

Good mirror:

Bad mirror:

Scary mirror:

Mason is a schoolteacher who starts experiencing massive pain. Doctor says the pain will get worse and he’ll be dead in months unless he takes miracle-drug cortisone (wikipedia: “a steroid hormone … suppresses the immune system, thus reducing inflammation and attendant pain”). So Mason pops some pills and all is well – he and loving wife Lou (!) and son Richie carry on with their movie-perfect 50’s lifestyle. But it’s not as perfect as all that… schoolteacher salaries were low even back then, so Mason holds a secret after-school job as a taxi dispatcher in order to keep up those perfect middle-class appearances. The cortisone is expensive, and worse, Mason is forgetful – misses some doses and doubles some others, until he’s taking twice the proper dosage and starting to go completely manic from the side-effects. He quits his cab job, tries to get fired from the school, berates everyone he comes across and finally, in a state of biblical delusion, conspires to kill his son. Last-minute rescue (in the form of a stairway fistfight with buddy Walter Matthau, which alone is worth the price of admission) returns Mason to the hospital, where the doctor straightens out his dosage and brings him back to his senses. Hoorah for modern medicine!

Pain chart:

Walter Matthau!

I guess this was the American Beauty of its time, allowing a white suburban dad to rebel against his status and say things that nice people should not say, attracting the attention of the neighbors, to the horror of his wife. Only this was so much better. The wife (as already contrasted with the wife in Close Encounters) is understanding and recognizably human, there’s a reason given for Mason’s outbursts (drug effects, vs. Spacey’s midlife crisis) and a more reasonable ending (it’s too easy to end your movie by having a sexually-frustrated neighbor shoot your lead character to death).

Good praying:

Bad praying:

One writer worked on three decades’ worth of James Bond movies and the other scripted Forbidden Planet which also came out in ’56 – sounds more like the kind of team that would’ve come up with Star Wars than this. Suppose I’ve seen James Mason in Lolita but he made more of an impression here, with his unexplained foreign accent in the California suburbs, his mad energy shaped (if not subdued) by his British schoolteacher’s intelligence. Barbara Rush (who had appropriately just appeared in a Douglas Sirk movie, as Jane Wyman’s meddling daughter in Magnificent Obsession) was just as good, and it’s always nice to see Walter Matthau, here in one of his first roles.

Cover shot:

Barbara Rush, one more time:

Westerns Month continues. This is one of those contrary-auteurist favorites. It’s not even popular enough to be out on DVD in the states, and it’ll never make an AFI list, but, just for example, it’s on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s top 100 list (that’s hundred, not thousand). Not of westerns – of movies. So I had high expectations. And hell, I loved it, but I wouldn’t say I loved it more than Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine (or Red Garters), so maybe I wasn’t paying the right kind of attention, as usual.

L-R: Ben Cooper, Crawford, Carradine, Hayden:

Made the year before Rebel Without a Cause, and the acting style seems like a warm-up for that picture. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge play town rivals. These actresses were so mad that one had a movie made about how she abused her children, and the other voiced the devil in The Exorcist. They play everything so huge that when they finally meet for a shootout at the end, you can see sparks flying off the film. The women are the men in this picture. Town leader (Ward Bond: Rio Bravo and Wyatt’s older brother in My Darling Clementine) takes his cues from Mercedes, and the other two men are named Johnny Guitar and The Dancin’ Kid – not so tough.

The Kid offends McCambridge; Ward Bond looks on:

Johnny, a former gunfighter trying his luck as a musician, is Sterling Hayden (still a couple years before The Killing) and the Kid is Scott Brady (who starred in a not-so-well-loved Billy the Kid movie for William Castle this same year) with reasonable henchman Royal Dano and mean, irritable henchman Ernest Borgnine. Those fellows are kind of assholes but they’re not criminals – that is, not until a Mercedes-led mob tosses them out of town. Then they figure they might as well knock over the bank on the way out. Crawford is an entrepreneur like McCabe, opening a bar and gambling hall right where the train is gonna come through town. All she ever did wrong was to steal the Kid away from Mercedes. The mob shuts her down and almost hangs her after the bank heist. Her loyal employee (Stagecoach vet John Carradine) is killed and her place burned to the ground, so she hides out with the Kid’s gang until the mob tracks them town. Awesome final scene – the men all stand aside as the two women face off. Mercedes shoots the Kid in the head then gets blasted by Joan, who walks off with Johnny.

McCambridge stares down Crawford…

…while Hayden hides behind some wood:

Empire calls it “a truly demented Western, with vividly colourful settings and and an almost operatic intensity of emotional and physical violence … Best of all, the film acts as a vigorous indictment of the McCarthy witch-hunts; as a lynch mob rides after Crawford while McCambridge bullies witnesses into false confessions.” I suppose so – unlike the mobs in The Sun Shines Bright the previous year or Lang’s Fury, this one has a ringleader who eggs them on. In fact, as soon as Mercedes is shot, they’ve lost their voice – nobody moves or says a word as Johnny escorts Crawford past them all. There’s little doubt that writer Ben Maddow (blacklisted for being a lefty shortly after winning an oscar for The Asphalt Jungle) would’ve held a grudge with McCarthy.

My favorite shot: the (sharply dressed) mob looks past the body of The Kid:

The Guardian: “It is difficult to describe what makes Johnny Guitar so fascinating, except to say that Ray’s orchestration of Philip Yordan’s almost literary screenplay gives a small budget film, made for Republic Studios, a kind of heady but clipped dignity.”

Katy not too impressed with Natalie Wood for some reason. I’m always happy to watch Sal Mineo splash about and Dean defy his tough-guy reputation with this oddball super-sensitive role. Was telling Katy I think history has gotten Dean’s rebel confused with Brando’s wild one. But watching this so soon after the death of Dennis Hopper, I couldn’t look away from him when he was on screen. Not that he’s completely electrifying in the part of “goon,” it’s just the fascination of seeing a teenage Hopper taking it all in.

I still don’t get Nick Ray, but this has always been a helluva interesting movie. Senses of Cinema on the director:

Among [Ray’s guiding concerns] are the relations between individuals and cruel, unforgiving environments or authority – in particular, the marginal status of adolescents; the nature of masculinity; and violence as a defining attribute of social relations. To express and reinforce this thematic coherence, and corresponding to the emotional turbulence of characters and actions on the screen, his films also display a visual flair and recognisable style marked by restless camera movement and quick editing generally uncharacteristic of the widescreen formats favoured by the director.

The Times review says the kids hide out in the same mansion used as Norma Desmond’s home in Sunset Blvd. – must look for that next time. Dean, forever a 24-year-old teenager, died a month before the movie’s release, having already shot his role in Giant.

JD Slocum:

In the 50 years since it first appeared, the film has continued to serve as a touchstone for imagining anxieties over coming-of-age rituals, traditional values of family and community, the provocations of mass or consumer society, and even threats from abroad. The specific sources of individual and social insecurity have changed, the specific motivations for rebellion have shifted, and the role of cinema and its heroes in the United States and other societies have been forever altered. What has persisted is Rebel Without a Cause’s power to represent individual rebellion and the possibilities of social reconciliation, an affirmation of the cinema’s capacity to illuminate such realities and, through bold performance and bravura filmmaking, to serve as a bellwether of cultural change.