Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (Henry Hathaway, 1951) "In the somber wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry." Words of Winston Churchill, during the Second World War and his censure debate before Parliament concerning Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, nicknamed "The Desert Fox," considered Germany's greatest strategist of WWII. 

Churchill may have been referring only to the consequences of his words, but that he made them is extraordinary. No less extraordinary is that an American film studio would make a movie about a Nazi soldier six years after the termination of that war. Even more extraordinary that the head of that studio, Darryl Zanuck, had spent a goodly amount of time as a chronicler of the North Africa campaign, and was as patriotic and conservative as they come.

But, he loved a good story.
And he found it in Desmond Young's post-war biography of Rommel; Young was also in that campaign, but in the trenches and had a brief encounter with him, inspiring him to research the man and write the book. Young appears as himself in the film, but the narration sounds more like Michael Rennie. The script, spare as it is, is by Nunnally Johnson (who wrote for Ford, Hawks, Wilder, Aldrich in a long career), who does very well at "writing to silence"—the practice of creating dialogue for conversations that no one surviving heard. There's a lot of padding going on. A pre-credits sequence of sorts that has a British commando raid on Rommel's HQ, some Allied talk about him—the letter telling soldiers not to attribute supernatural powers to the man is word for word true—and a lot of stock-war-footage sequences that bridge incidents that round out the story and provide the big picture (some of the scenes show Eisenhower and Patton).

But Rommel, played by James Mason, is the focus, specifically his years in the Second World War, his victories despite supply problems, and an increasingly erratic strategizing by the Fuehrer-in-Chief, which ultimately led the Field-Marshall to side with the conspirators who plotted to kill Hitler in a French bunker during a battle briefing (which was detailed in Valkyrie) and led, ultimately, to his death by Nazi-assisted suicide.
That turning of purpose, showing the conscience of a soldier fighting for his country, for its advancement and survival, whether by conquest or by treason, makes a very interesting story of principals. And, along with the war footage, it is the through-line for the story, as Rommel comes to realize that in order to win the war and gain the peace, he must cut a little red tape, right at the jugular of the High Command.
Hathaway's approach is, as ever, artfully utilitarian. He doesn't try to sentimentalize Rommel (too much), and spends a lot of time in desert locations trying to simulate the North African situations. Stock-footage allows  Rommel to visit installations long since obliterated. But mostly the filming is in California and Hathaway makes it work. Johnson's script is first-rate, and nicely incremental in detailing Rommel's change of heart...and target. Particularly nice is a prolonged dialogue with Field Marshall von Runstedt (Leo G. Carroll) full of irony and dripping sarcasm, but not so much that you'd mistake them for being other than loyal Germans...and chivalrous warriors of the Old School.  

Great cast, too, with Mason's cool intelligence drawing in all the veteran character actors like George Macready, Cedric Hardwicke, and Everett Sloane, and up-and-comers to the screen like Jessica Tandy (as Mrs. Field Marshall) and Richard Boone as his adjutant. Luther Adler (brother of Stella) plays Adolf Hitler, and the Jewish actor had all the erratic moves and vocal cadences down. Nice bit of irony there, in a film that was
chivalrously kind to the enemy.

Mason would return to the role of Rommel two years later in the Robert Wise film of The Desert Rats, starring Richard Burton.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The History of John Ford: They Were Expendable

They Were Expendable (John Ford, Robert Montgomery, 1945) First things first: John Ford set up and shot the vast majority of They Were Expendable. He was adjusting a light on an elevated platform when he fell off of it, breaking his right leg. When a concerned M-G-M exec called Ford at the Florida hospital—they shot in Key Biscayne Florida—where he was in traction and asked when he was coming back to work, Ford barked back that he wasn't, that Montgomery was going to finish the picture. "First I've heard of it," Montgomery remembers thinking when he heard Ford say it (top-liners Montgomery and John Wayne drove him to the hospital at his insistence). Montgomery who had jitters about acting in the picture after serving in the Navy for 4 years, knew it wasn't going to be tough—all Ford had left were some close-up's of things already shot and he proceeded to "just think like Ford" and finished it up, except for the last scene which Ford directed after leaving his hospital bed against doctor's orders. So, that's why the co-directing notice at the top.
The movie didn't do well at the box-office; in 1945, when it was released right after V-J Day, movie-goers had become bored with the saturation of war movies in the theaters. And They Were Expendable told about the dark days of the Pacific War—after Pearl Harbor but before Midway and just after the evacuation of the Philipines—when things didn't look so positive. It might have been a case of battle-footage fatigue; the book on which it's based—"They Were Expendable" by William L. White—was a bestseller, and those who didn't buy the book might have read portions of it in Reader's Digest and Life Magazine. Plus, at the time of the book's events, the Japanese Navy was handing the Allied effort a severe whipping. Except for scenes where the crews' PT Boats achieve some sinkings in their few skirmishes with the Japanese Navy and the successful evacuation of MacArthur and his family, the command of Lt. John Brickley (Montgomery, based on Lt. John Bulkeley who received the Medal of Honor for his service) takes it from all sides: the Japanese Navy, which picks off the individual ships one by one, whittling their numbers and crews, and his own Navy that considers the small vessels capable of messenger duty and nothing more. 
The situation is frustrating enough that Lt. J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (Wayne) wants to transfer to destroyer duty and away from skippering "high-powered canoes", but keeps getting turned down. There's no doubting his devotion, though; during one run, he's injured but refuses medical care until he's finally hospitalized with blood poisoning, but only after he's been ordered to by "Brick." This does not sit well with "Rusty" in creasing his obstinacy, which doesn't ingratiate him with the hospital staff. Only one Army nurse, Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed)—after getting the brusque end of Ryan's frustrations—starts to break through his crust and the two begin an awkward often-interrupted romance.
Cribbing any munitions they can and keeping the PT boats together with spit and bailing wire, the boats manage to do some damage, but, at best, it's a stalling game, trying to keep Japanese forces from advancing, while the Navy rebuilds its fleet and repairs their carriers in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. But, it's merely staving off the inevitable as more men die and more island terrain gets occupied, getting ever closer to their positions.
But, it becomes clear that the inevitable cannot be forestalled. Evacuation of all the Navy men is impossible, and those that can fight are turned over to the infantry, to face death or capture. Brickley and Ryan are two of the few who are shipped off for reassignment of training and building more PT boats, guiltily leaving their commands to their fates.
It's an unconventional war movie—certainly serving its propaganda purposes showing the spirit of the Naval forces despite the merciless conditions (Ford was right in the middle of his duties overseeing films for the Navy as part of the war effort and his experiences on Midway Island during that battle informed a lot of the work on this film), but it's completely atypical for its time in that it is not a story with the confidence of a victorious ending. They Were Expendable—despite being released after the war's end with an Allied victory—shows the U.S. Navy still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attack and trying to "make-do" in any way it can, the top brass, used to its aircraft carriers and destroyers at the ready, having to regroup and re-think its strategy (and being none too quick about it) with further attacks and certain capture right over the horizon for the forces stationed there. Any victories are piece-meal and certainly not decisive in the overall scheme of things. And we see the men go from "spit-and-polish" regimentation to looking like bedraggled castaways, uniformity going by the wayside in its efforts just to survive.
Soon, it is difficult to tell Navy from Army or Marines, their PT boats taken away or having to be abandoned, the sailors transformed to infantry and ground troops, because that is what it takes to survive, if survive is what they hope to do in a war-zone. Ultimately, Brickley has to even abandon his men to their fates because...orders. It doesn't sit well with him, eats at him even if he does all he can to have them prepared on that small little island, but it ties in with the whole theme of the film of service...and sacrifice. With more sacrifices to come.
But, it's strange to put this in the "History" of John Ford, although it's essential that it be there. The events were only a couple years old when the film was made, but given Ford's time working for the OSS—especially in his time on Midway just before the attack—he had a feel for how Navy-men worked, spent their time waiting, and how they dealt with stress...or didn't deal with it, it is a document of the American history that Ford was starting to specialize in, even as it was being made. Ford's picture is sentimentalized a bit (it IS Ford, after all), but with its interrupted romance, the military conflict with no resolution, and lives left in the balance, it is also one of his most melancholy films, far from a Hollywood standard crowd-pleaser, let alone a gung-ho war-film, so it was far more unconventional and rougher than most American movie-goers were used to.* 
It is also one of his best films, done on a tight schedule, but still with the sensitivity and artistry that Ford—at his best—could command. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in John Ford and the History of John Ford.

Ford put everybody's rank in the service in the credits, both out of pride
and to get a dig at John Wayne and Ward Bond, who did not serve.
Ford, Wayne and Wead would work together again, and a scene from that film will be Sunday's Scene.

* Compare it to Howard Hawks' Air Force, released the year before. It's essentially the same time-frame, same area of combat, much more fictionalized, with a clear "boo-yah" victory in its story-line. We'll take a look at THAT one in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Funny Thing Happened...

Not too many people know that the Zucker Brothers spoof Airplane! was "inspired by" another film called Zero Hour! (1957), but not too many people have seen it that earlier film, directed by Hall Bartlett, based on a teleplay by Arthur Hailey (who would eventually write the novel "Airport"). YouTuber Mason Wood has done a meticulous job of cutting in between the two movies to show just how much Airplane! fed off Zero Hour! and it is very fun to watch. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: When Harry Met Sally

Aw nuts, I forgot Valentine's Day...

The Set-up: When Harry Met Sally gets a lot of guff from folks who saw it as warmed-over Woody Allen. Yeah, one can see that argument. It's set in New York, after all. And there's a lot of neurotic behavior going on, so much so that you want to slap somebody now and again.

But the big difference is tone. I don't know anybody who talks like the folks talk in a Woody Allen movie (Allen writes all the parts, after all, and they all have a tendency to sound like him), but I know a lot of people who talk like the folks in this scene. And there's another quality missing from When Harry Met Sally.


Specifically, Woody Allen's cruelty. Let's compare scenes. In When Harry Met Sally, there's a scene (the one immediately preceding the one featured) where Harry runs into his ex-wife and her new lover at a "Sharper Image."

Compare that to the scene in Manhattan where Isaac Davis (Woody) meets Mary Wilkie's (Diane Keaton) ex in a store, and it's Wallace Shawn. Shawn's character has been held up as this towering intellect, and, after seeing him, Woody expresses shock that he's "this little homunculus." I forget which critic said it, but it was pointed out that Allen picked the one guy in New York homelier than Allen to play that role, whereas in Harry, Ira, is fairly normal-looking, if slightly uncomfortable in the situation. Allen stacks the deck in his favor. Reiner doesn't make a point of it--it's the humiliation of meeting the new lover in the store that's the point, not his appearance. But Allen had enough ego to belabor (and take advantage of) the point.

I love Woody Allen movies, but I like the people in When Harry Met Sally better...and I recognize them as human beings, as opposed to merely being entertaining aspects of Woody Allen's psyche.

There's nothing fancy about the presentation of the scene. Reiner starts by focusing on the object of discussion and moves out from there to include the participants, all shot at eye-level, and with an emphasis on expression. There are no fancy moves with the camera (a trademark of the style when cinematographer Barry Sonenfeld directs!); it's all in the presentation and how the scene is played. Allen is the better director than Reiner compositionally, but Reiner's is a classic, unpretentious shooting style that doesn't emphasize close-ups for conversion to television, although it is framed with the participants grouped in the middle of the screen, should that prove necessary. Reiner is shooting a movie, not TV, and it's evident in every frame. And his handling of Ephron's material is miles ahead of her directing her own stuff (Bewitched? Hello?)

The scene feels real. Relatable. And we're not borrowing from Bergman or Chekhov or Tolstoy to get there.*

This is a lot of complaining about a film-maker I like. Even watching Allen's uneasy musical Everyone Say I Love You (which I did a couple of days ago) exhibits a multitude of joys. I guess the issue I have is with the film's critics using the phrase "warmed-over Woody Allen."

To which I reply "This is a bad thing?"

Maybe I have a fondness for this scene because I have so much stuff in storage (Gotta clean that stuff out...).**

The Scene: Friends Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) are on a shopping outing, when Harry runs into his ex-wife Helen and her new lover, Ira, which devastates him. The feelings spill over later while helping their best friends Jess and Marie (Bruno Kirby and *sigh* Carrie Fisher) move in together.


Jess: I like it. It works. It says “home” to me.
Marie: All right, all right, We’ll let Harry and Sally be the judge. What do you think?
Harry: It’s nice.
Jess: Case closed.
Marie: Of course, he likes it, he’s a guy. Sally?
(Sally screws up her face “no”)
Jess: What’s so awful about it?
Marie: It’s so awful there’s no way to even begin to explain what’s so awful about it.
Jess: Honey, I don’t object to any of your things.
Marie: If we had an extra room we could put all of your things there, including your bar-stools.
Jess: Wait, wait. wait, Honey, wait, wait, wait. You don’t like my bar-stools? Harry! Come on! Someone has to be on my side!
Marie: I’m on your side! I’m just trying to help you have good taste.
Jess: I have good taste
Marie: Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste..
Harry: You know, it’s funny. We started out like this, Helen and I. Harry: We had blank walls, we hung things, we picked out tiles together. Harry: Then you know what happens? Six years later you find yourself singing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in front of IRA!!
Sally: Do we have to talk about this right now?Harry: Yes, I think “right now” actually is the perfect time to talk about this because I want my friends to benefit from the wisdom of my experience. Harry: Right now, everything is great. Everyone is happy. Everyone is in love. And that’s wonderful! Harry: But you gotta know…sooner or later, you’re gonna be screaming at each other about who’s going to get this dish. This eight dollar dish is gonna cost you a THOUSAND dollars in phone calls to the legal firm of "This is mine, This is yours”

Sally: Harry…
Harry: Please. Jess. Marie. Do me a favor for your own good. Put your names in your books right now. Before they get mixed up and you don’t know who’s is who’s... Harry: ...'Cause someday, believe it or not, you’ll go fifteen rounds over who’s going to get this coffee table. Harry: This STUPID-WAGON-WHEEL-ROY-ROGERS-GARAGE-SALE-WAGON-WHEEL COFFEE-TABLE!! (He stomps off)
Jess: I thought you liked it!
Sally: He just bumped into Helen. (She leaves after Harry)
Marie: I want you to know...that I will never...want that wagon-wheel coffee-table.
(Sally goes outside and sighs)
Harry: I know, I know, I shouldn't have done it….
Sally: Harry, you’re going to have to try and find a way of not expressing every feeling that you have every moment that you have them.
Harry: Oh, Really?
Sally: Yes! There are times and places for things.
Harry: Well, the next time they’re giving a lecture series on social graces, will you let me know, ‘cause I’ll sign up.
Sally: Hey! You don’t have to take your anger out on me!
Harry: Oh, I think I’m entitled to throw a little anger your way…especially when I’m being told how to run my life from "Miss Hospital Corners."
Sally: What’s that supposed to mean?
Harry: I mean, nothing bothers you! You never get upset about anything!
Sally: Don’t be ridiculous!
Harry: What? You never get upset about Joe! I never see that back up on you! How is that possible? Don’t you experience any feelings of loss?
Sally: I don’t have to take this crap from you!
Harry: If you’re so "over Joe," how come you’re not seeing anyone?
Sally: I SEE PEOPLE!Harry: See people! Have you slept with one person since you broke up with Joe?
Sally: What the hell does THAT have to do with anything? That will prove I’m over Joe because I FUCK somebody? Sally: Harry, you’re going to have to move back to New Jersey because you've slept with everybody in New York and I don’t see that turning Helen into a faint memory for you…Sally: Besides I will make love to somebody when it is “making love” not the way you do it like you’re out for revenge of something.
Harry: Are you finished now?
Sally: Yes.Harry: Can I say something?
Yes. Harry: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. (They hug. They move to go back inside. Jess comes outside carrying the wagon wheel.)
Jess: Don’t say a word!

When Harry Met Sally

Words by Nora Ephron

Pictures by Barry Sonnenfeld and Rob Reiner

When Harry Met Sally is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.

* Also the phrase "warmed-over Woody Allen" should be more correctly "warmed-over Annie Hall" as Allen does a fine job of exploring different territory in his films. Sure, there are familiar aspects from film to film, but he explores other genre's than simply "relationship comedies"

* You're probably asking yourself, "Why didn't he use the "fake orgasm" scene? It's the one everybody remembers!" There are a lot of reasons: It's the one everyone remembers; it's a one-joke premise--that Reiner and Ryan draw out to great lengths with the final whip-snap of the tag-line; It's really funny and true, but not terribly convincing when it's a series of frames; the exquisite timing of the line "I'll have what she's having" (delivered by Rob Reiner's mother) cannot be duplicated in this format, which makes it not worth doing; and the capper--too many exclamation marks!!