Monthly Archives: August 2010

Wartime Bogart Part II: All Through the Night

Maybe it is Hollywood’s stern approach to World War II in recent decades that makes looking at older, less didactic films more enjoyable. I think that’s what made Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful such a critical and commercial smash – it wasn’t just another dour Schindler’s List (great movie, by the way) about one of the 20th century’s most appalling episodes. What is interesting is how films from the 1940s portray the war, the Nazis, and issues of justice and duty. While Across the Pacific (1942) did not deal directly with the Japanese, 1941’s All Through the Night pits small-time Broadway gamblers against shadowy Gestapo agents.


Critically, it was made in the heat of the moment – not with the cooling hindsight of history. It is hard to find a mainstream World War II comedy released in the last ten years, while Warner Bros. produced an action comedy starring Humphrey Bogart – fresh from the success of the Maltese Falcon – that turns the question of American intervention into an improbable cat-and-mouse story. Think of it as Casablanca-lite. When Gloves Donahue (Bogart) finds the owner of his favourite bakery dead he begins to investigate, finding singer Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne) and a network of German spies using antique auctions as a front. I said it was light.

That said, All Through the Night is still deliciously enjoyable, perhaps even more so to a 21st century viewer. The pleasure is similar to what I felt when watching Inglourious Basterds (I guess I was wrong about recent WWII action comedies) or anything that takes an overdone subject and recklessly adapts it to a new genre. Of course, in 1941 the USA avoided Europe and the Holocaust had not been fully exposed to the world. America’s standoffish position was perhaps what gave studios the room to make funny but 100% propaganda movies about the war.

Whatever the circumstances that made All Through the Night possible, a lot of credit must go to writers Leonard Spineglass and Edwin Gilbert. The script overflows with one-liners, wise-cracks, and memorable moments. Armfuls of jokes were handed to William Demarest, who plays Bogey’s gambling pal Sunshine. He wants to catch the Germans “with their panzers down” and chucks an axe at a Hitler portrait (“why don’t you stay in your own backyard?”). Bogart is surrounded by other character actors like Frank McHugh as the virginal Barney, who has to postpone his honeymoon for the entire movie. Now that’s dedication.

There is also a lot of action packed into 107 minutes. Gloves has to fight off agents in a toy warehouse with lighting director Vincent Sherman clearly borrowed from the German expressionists. Now that’s irony. The danger is provided by both Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, actors Bogart would later spar with in Casablanca. Lorre always brings a slithery menace to the screen and chews the scenery with sly ease in every scene; it’s too bad he has only a few moments to himself in All Through the Night. He works for Gestapo officer Ebbing (Veidt), who heads the New York spy ring and plans to blow up an American destroyer. Ebbing is a stock Eurovillain, as are all the Nazis. Their austerity is not so different from later Bond villains or the roles Terrence Stamp gets handed these days.

Gloves would probably not have gotten involved in this racket if it wasn’t for Leda, a German expat conned into working for the Nazis. Here is another link to Casablanca: the stalwart American isolationist is only brought into a cause as global as the war by feelings for a woman. While Warner Bros. were promoting intervention, they cloaked this idea in a romantic bathrobe. Gloves turns a political issue into a personal one as he drives around New York looking for Leda, eventually deciding to thwart Ebbing’s plan. He and Sunshine pose as spies and sneak into Ebbing’s underground rendezvous, one of Bogart’s finest comedic scenes. That’s something you don’t see very much in World War II movies: two Americans bullshitting their way through a Gestapo meeting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarantino had watched it before writing the end of Inglourious Basterds.

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Wartime Bogart Part I: Across the Pacific

If you thought the title Across the Pacific was a misnomer for a film about a group of characters sailing the Atlantic (and never reaching the Pacific) then you might find the rest of the story interesting.

Screenwriters Richard Macaulay and Robert Carson initially had Bogart’s protagonist thwarting a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. When Pearl Harbour broke out before production, the scene was hastily changed to the more exotic and implausible Panama Canal. Since Bogart could not stop a Japanese attack after a Japanese attack actually happened (life imitates art before art is finished?) he was now to stop Hirohito’s agents from gathering intelligence on American defences. Perhaps that is what all propaganda films do. Pearl Harbour would be too realistic, and, considering the outcome of that engagement, counterproductive. Remote Panama, however, was free for use as a narrative end point.

"Psst, Hawaii was hit. Bring out the Central America backdrop."

With Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor supporting Bogart in a John Huston production, Across the Pacific feels like a modest Maltese Falcon reunion. Greenstreet plays a variation of his Kasper Gutman villain. He is educated, charming, fat, and deadly. Astor is mediocre as the unremarkable love interest. In fact, the whole film feels unambitious, but even the worst Huston picture is worth seeing. I’d take Across the Pacific over Transformers III any day.

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Home Sweet Home

(I can’t resist using a metaphor to introduce this film, which is impossible to discuss without a claim about film theory or interpretation in general.  Here, then, is my attempt at an irreverent segue way:)

Like homeowners, many cinema goers seek solid foundations. A house has to be immoveable, self-contained and secure. The majority of people like films that have self-contained worlds and narratives: classical form, to use an academic term. A movie, in this view, should be consistent, in an environment resembling ours (but not quite ours, these are not realist films). It should have a logical plot motivated by characters. All of these “shoulds” should be maintained from opening to closing credits.

And then you have films like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, which would make such cinemagoers (and homeowners, I expect) vomit their expectations right onto the multiplex floor. More of an experiment than a story, House is billed as a horror-comedy, but even that hyphenation does not even begin to describe the many things this film is. The trailer itself is a kaleidoscope of pop art:

The plot follows Oshare (Gorgeous in English) and her school friends on their unfortunate stay at a haunted house. What actually happens is not so important or understandable, but how it happens. Or, perhaps, how the story is told. Style is all over House where substance and logic isn’t. Each of Oshare’s companions are like Spice Girls with a pre-assigned role. Prof has brains, Melody has soul, Mac has a stomach, and so on. Oshare’s father’s girlfriend is more an event than a character, serenaded by a private breeze and slow-motion aesthetic. Conflict and plot, then, seems beside the experimental point. Every scene is full of visual gimmickry, every edit is loudly prominent, and every background tries to outs stage the very stagey acting. Considering Obayashi was both an avant-garde and advertisement director the surrealism and self-consciousness is not very surprising.

What is curious is the film’s status as a masterpiece. And not just a cult masterpiece. House is not famous in quite the same way Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Room are famous. Obayashi’s debut is actually critically recognized as an important oeuvre. The film garnered an impressive 80% at Rotten Tomatoes and Criterion (a good barometer for what is supposed to be ‘essential’ and ‘important’) is releasing it on DVD and Blu-Ray in October. I have to watch it a second or maybe even third time to develop a full impression of what Obayashi has to say, but I have a few ideas:

The aunt’s house, like Poe’s malevolent House of Usher, turns against Oshare and her friends. Its spasms are matched by Obayashi’s choices to make the film even more frenetic. In one scene Kung Fu (the only practical member of Oshare’s posse) is picked up by a lamp as the walls and floors become animated, changing form and colour. New frames leap into existing ones to replace scenes, as if the film’s style is asserting itself over the characters, and even the plot.

At the risk of sounding academic, I think Obayashi is making a joke on how film operates. In conventional cinema editing, pacing, and backgrounds are meant to reinforce the story and support the characters. Perhaps in House the “evil” lurking in the mansion is the film’s vengeance on this subservient role. The film, in the end, confuses and tears apart the hapless characters. Maybe that’s too meta, but, like I said, I need to give this wonder another viewing. And I won’t be watching for the plot.

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

After a slew of promotional films for the American military John Huston adapted this dark novel by reclusive writer B. Traven (no one even knows his real name). Shooting on location in Mexico – rare for the time – Huston crafted a harsh warning against the perils of greed, even turning what should have been an unhappy ending into a hopeful conclusion.

Sierra Madre pivots around Humphrey Bogart, who was never scarier than as Dobbs. Bearded and grimy, Bogart sheds his familiar bar-skulking wiseguy persona for this descent into Heart of Darkness-esque madness. Or perhaps the better analogy is Macbeth, whose paranoia and sleeplessness he shares as he mumbles to himself.

Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin cook up a dream.

Maybe the best of the movie is old-timer Howard’s monologue on gold, delivered in (of all places) a drifter’s dormitory. Check out his exchange with a fellow bum:

HOWARD: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
BUM: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
HOWARD: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
BUM: I never thought of it just like that.
HOWARD: Well, there’s no other explanation, Mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.

Walter Huston – John’s father – hams the role of Howard to the hilt. Here’s the rest of the conversation:

HOWARD: Aah, gold’s a devilish sort of thing, anyway. You start out, you tell yourself you’ll be satisfied with 25,000 handsome smackers worth of it. So help me, Lord, and cross my heart. Fine resolution. After months of sweatin’ yourself dizzy, and growin’ short on provisions, and findin’ nothin’, you finally come down to 15,000, then ten. Finally, you say, “Lord, let me just find $5,000 worth and I’ll never ask for anythin’ more the rest of my life.”
BUM: $5,000 is a lot of money.
HOWARD: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Of course, he’s more than game to join Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) on a treasure hunt. The ensuing distrust between the three pretty much proves his point. Dobbs isn’t satisfied with his share, and, like all tragic heroes, over steps his limits and dies with nothing.

This should be a dismal ending, but Huston lightens the tone when Howard and Curtin laugh away the loss of the gold. Howard has the native village to go back to, while Curtin has orange picking in California. His description of “whole families” picking fruit in the fields and then laying down together singing songs by bonfires  paints the image of an idyllic community. It even sounds communist in contrast to the capitalist connotations of gold. Films always, purposefully or not, reflect their societies – did Traven and Huston serve a cautionary tale of greedy capitalism wrapped in Western rags?

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