1940s, Famous Firsts, Mystery

The Verdict (1946)

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Director: Don Siegel

By Roderick Heath

A tale of a vigilante policeman that begins with the peal of a church bell—this could describe Dirty Harry (1971), the biggest hit of Don Siegel’s career. And yet it also describes The Verdict, Siegel’s directorial gambit of 25 years earlier. Siegel had been for many years the top editor at Warner Bros, contributing his superb montages to films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Across the Pacific (1942). As Siegel put it: “I actually shot more footage for Warner Brothers than any of their highly touted directors, but when I went to Jack Warner and said I wanted to be a director…He said ‘Look, I can get directors a dime a dozen. But who am I going to get to do the action sequences, the inserts, and the montages?’ So I said, ‘Fine, pay me what you pay the directors, and I’ll carry on doing that stuff for you.’”

After a couple of shorts and a lot of patience, he finally got to helm a vehicle for one of Hollywood’s strangest, and yet most entertaining, double acts: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who had proven their star worth without Humphrey Bogart in two terrific films, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Three Strangers (1946). The Verdict is Victorian era, and right from the brilliant opening shot where Siegel’s camera swoops in on the tower where the bell tolls in Newgate Prison’s chapel tower for a condemned man on a fog-wreathed night, it’s easy to spot his talent. As well as establishing Siegel’s visual fondness for vertiginous heights and angles, the shot also anticipates one in Dirty Harry in which Siegel’s camera swoops upwards dizzyingly from Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) torture of Scorpio in the centre of a football field; both shots entwine the sometimes cruel and salutary nature of a thirst for justice with godlike perspective.

The condemned man here is Harris, convicted for the murder of social scion Hannah Kendall. The man who convicted him, Supt. George Grodman (Greenstreet), meditates on the ironies of a profession where success means taking a man’s life: “I have no personal feelings. We are only instruments of justice, like the court that condemns.” But Grodman is in for a nasty shock. Called in by his superior (Holmes Herbert) at Scotland Yard, Grodman learns from his chief rival—the ambitious, supercilious Supt. Buckley (George Coulouris)—that he has proven Harris’ innocence. Scandal erupts and tars the Yard’s competence, and Grodman is forced to retire. The case haunts him, not just because of Harris’ fate, but also because the murder victim’s nephew, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry), is his next-door neighbor and friend. Grodman sets out to write an account of his career.

Grodman’s best friend, artist and bon vivant Victor Emmric (Lorre), attempts to cheer him up by throwing him a birthday party, inviting Kendall and another next-door neighbor, liberal MP Clive Russell (Paul Cavanaugh). The pairing of Kendall and Russell is disastrous. Russell detests Kendall who, as a mine owner, exploits and degrades the men who are Russell’s constituents. Russell threatens to silence him once and for all when Kendall promises to pressure him with the identity of his secret mistress. Kendall, not a popular man this night, also argues with his girlfriend, singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring), before settling down to bed. The next day, Kendall doesn’t answer the knock at his door by his batty, smitten landlady, Mrs. Benson (Rosalind Ivan), and she runs next door to fetch Grodman. He busts through Kendall’s door, and warns Mrs. Benson not to look…

It is assumed that whoever killed the aunt returned for the nephew. Buckley leads the investigation, and casts his unctuous suspicion on everyone. The case is baffling, as there’s no explanation for how the killer got out of the locked room—even a burglar (Clyde Cook) can’t work out a method. Grodman is hugely amused by Buckley’s floundering, and he and Victor begin a little sleuthing, chiefly an excuse for Victor to romance Lottie. Lottie is suspect when she attempts to retrieve a valuable watch fob she gave to Kendall, and is caught by Buckley. Attempts to locate the fob prove fruitless until it’s suggested it was buried with Kendall, prompting his exhumation. Lottie is released when the fob is found, but is now stalked by a shadowy presence assailing her with warnings not to talk about Russell and his mistress. But Lottie has already blabbed about that to Buckley.

Russell becomes the chief suspect, and his refusal to divulge the name of his lady friend entraps him. Meanwhile, Victor’s suspicions are closer to home, and he searches Grodman’s apartment. When the stalking presence tries to enter Victor’s bedroom, he takes a shot at it. Russell is tried, and sentenced to death. Grodman convinces Russell to let him track down his mistress, the estranged wife of a Lord, and convince her to confirm his alibi. Grodman pursues her all over France, only to catch up with her at her funeral. With all avenues of saving Russell from the gallows exhausted, Grodman triumphantly confesses to the murder. Having realized that Kendall killed his own aunt for her money, and then used Grodman in setting up Harris for the fall, and with no way of proving it, Grodman took justice into his own hands. He used many contrivances designed to muddy the waters and fool Buckley as much as possible, but won’t let Russell pay the price for his acts.

Siegel handles the stringent production expertly, slathering the action in fog and shadow. With some terrific actors, Siegel conjures the kind of ripping yarn that’s a pure pleasure to watch. Even the awful Cockney accents of the bit players add cheesy fun. Siegel replies to the evidently low budget with an economic, but technically accomplished style, with expressionistic camera angles, careful lighting (witness the ghoulish delight that is the exhumation scene), and inventive model work (as in the opening shot) to conjure an elegantly bogus Victorian London that looks like the one you imagine when reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, The Verdict was based on a novel, The Big Bow Mystery, by Victorian writer Israel Zangwill. Zangwill’s novel was a social satire and riff on the detective genre that was already cliché-ridden. Siegel and screenwriter Peter Milne toy with the novel’s elements to give it a more individual moral imperative. The murder victim is changed from an orator of leftist values into a filthy example of capitalist evil, and the progressive, Russell, is the pillar of conflicted conscience whose life must be saved. Grodman’s actions and motivations have been altered to make his crime utterly sympathetic.

But it’s the detail of Grodman’s ironic status as both avenger and murderer that proves Siegel was fascinated by the idea of breaking the law in a heinous fashion to achieve justice, which casts Dirty Harry, still often regarded merely as a sop to reactionaries, in a different light. Harsh reversals of moral expectation and identification are a Siegel trademark—witness the people who have to fear and kill their own neighbors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the schoolgirls who are far more dangerous to the soldier than he is to them in The Beguiled (1969), or the criminals who gain our empathy in Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Many Siegel heroes are criminals, bastards, or not what they appear to be. He took that last device to an extreme in Body Snatchers, but also including heroic figures like Robert Mitchum’s army officer pretending to be a gangster in The Big Steal (1949) and Shirley MacLaine’s whore-dressed-as-a-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1971).

The Verdict is a transitional film. It straddles genres that were running out of puff in post-war Hollywood—the crisp, quaint mystery yarn with an Anglophile bent, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, The Falcon, The Saint, and all the other detective franchises and one-offs and the Universal-style gothic chiller. The Verdict pays homage to these, whilst, simultaneously, the harder, dark-drenched, morally ambivalent noir genre was taking grip. Siegel toys with the structure, sympathies, and style of The Verdict to make it count as a noir work; though the first two-thirds of the film are fun in the Holmesian tradition, the last third in which Grodman’s efforts to save Russell gain in grim urgency, take it to another level.

Siegel observed of Greenstreet and Lorre, who work together so well on screen they seemed to have been doing it for decades, that they actually had very different work habits: “If you changed so much as a comma, Sydney was upset…He wanted to get his cues down to the word, and studied his part very carefully. On the other hand, not only didn’t Peter study, but he would come on the set as if he didn’t even know what studio he was in.” The Verdict riffs on their screen personas. It’s fun seeing Lorre play a party animal and ladies’ man, but Victor is also incurably morbid, crowing, when Kendall’s body is exhumed that “I’ve always had an unconscious desire to see a grave opened, especially at night!”and complaining, in illustrating Grodman’s book, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row! How about a nice juicy strangling?” The film uses Lorre’s real-life hobby of sketch art creatively. And there’s a recurring gag where Grodman remarks on Buckley’s attempts to fill Grodman’s britches, emphasizing the capacious girth of Greenstreet’s posterior. Backing them up is Coulouris, always a joy at playing slimy arrogance. One weak link is Lorring’s lousy accent.

It’s far from being a great or perfect film. It’s weighed down by standard touches, like clumsy comic relief and the ever-tiresome staple of the shoehorned song-and-dance number, here a “racy” song performed by Lottie, in a “Royal Music Hall,” which looks more like a bad theater restaurant. Although it portends many of the themes and interests of Siegel’s career, in other ways, its retro, studio-bound class is at odds with the style the director would develop. With The Big Steal, Siegel dragged the noir film out on location and kept it there, leading to the stark, utterly modern stylishness Siegel had mastered by the time of Coogan’s Bluff (1969) and Dirty Harry. But The Verdict is a delightful melodrama and the sort of film that stands for what Old Hollywood at its best was all about.

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1980s, Famous Firsts, Horror/Eerie

Friday the 13th (1980)

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Director/Producer: Sean S. Cunningham

By Roderick Heath

There’s a large dose of irony underlying the attention Friday the 13th and its endless sequels receive these days, not dissimilar to the sarcastic ebullience that greets my friends when they perform Vanilla Ice at karaoke. It’s so lame, it’s classic. Yet it demands attention as a foundation of ’80s film culture and the modern horror genre. Make no mistake — Friday the 13th is a weak film in many respects. Perfunctorily written, boringly directed, dimly plotted, and awkwardly acted, it’s hard to see what made it so damn special, which is, perhaps, the point. Friday the 13th has no ambitions to being special. Its aim is to be efficient. Friday represents the apotheosis of cinema as mass production. Taking elements provided by better films, Friday puts them together cheaply with infinite capacity for repetition.

The story is almost Euripidean in its simplicity and compression. A period prologue—a common feature of ’70s horror films, plus pinching the first-person camerawork of Halloween’s opening—introduces the rural Camp Crystal Lake, which, though the setting is kept obscure, is revealed by both the shooting locations and stray details as being in rural New Jersey. Two camp counselors sneak off for a bit of crumpet, and are promptly slaughtered by an intruder. The present-day bulk of the film takes place in a period of about 12 hours. Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), who seems to be a bit of a counterculture wash-up, is reopening the camp as a refuge for “inner city kids,” and has hired a crew of flaky break-year teens as counselors. One, Annie (Robbi Morgan), hired as a cook, has difficulty making it to the camp. Dropped off in the nearest town, she encounters a local drunk, Ralph (Walt Gorney, playing a part that ought to be Dwight Frye’s), who warns of the evil that haunts the camp, beginning with a boy who drowned in the ’50s and followed by the still-unsolved murders seen near the film’s opening. Then she gets a lift with a truck driver (Rex Everhart), who cagily repeats the warning and leaves her at a crossroads. She then gets a ride in a jeep, whose unseen driver slices her throat.

Meanwhile, the general idiocy of the counselors is revealed by their attempts to kill a snake in the room of Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), who, it’s hinted in the film’s barren dashes of character development, is an art student with some unexplained baggage preoccupying her who is romantically interesting to Steve. Jack Burrell (Kevin Bacon, defining the power mullet as we know it) and Marcie Cunningham (Jeannine Taylor) are the appointed pair of pretty lovers, Ned (Mark Nelson) is a manic nerd jealous of Jack, and Brenda (Laurie Bertram) and Bill (Harry Crosby) make up the numbers. Steve departs for the evening, night falls, and a buffeting rainstorm descends. The night is—well, Snoopy would know how to describe it.

Godard famously remarked that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun; Friday adapted these slightly as a girl in underwear and a big knife. The anxieties that Friday exploits are so basic that the film nearly works as a pure Jungian experience: night, shadows, isolation, the vulnerability of being unclothed whether having sex or taking a shower. Films that can be easily identified as influencing Friday include Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1971), Argento’s L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (1970), Richard Fleischer’s See No Evil (1971), and Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). But the elegant games of cinematic space, construction, and identification that Bava, Argento, Fleischer, and Carpenter learnt from Hitchcock and employed are totally absent from this film’s mercenary, witless proficiency. From Carpenter especially, it steals mercilessly, hamfistedly reproducing his style down to the title; in this first episode, at least, it is supposed to be Friday the 13th, but I don’t think this ever came up again.

In quick succession, Ned, Jack, Marcie, Brenda, Steve, and Bill are either dispatched or disappear to turn up riddled with holes later. Tom Savini has long been rightfully acclaimed for his gore effects, and his work here is cunning, but not exactly chilling. Effects like the arrow that sprouts from Bacon’s neck and the axe that lodges in Taylor’s face are lividly entertaining, but never actually look like real violence happening to real people, and the weak editing doesn’t help. Back when I first saw these films, late night on TV, they’d been cut senseless, but I’m not really sure why, because the gore, whilst striking, never seems to invoke any reality of corporeal pain and suffering.

About half an hour from the end, Friday remembers to throw in a perpetrator and motivation — Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who makes an unexpected visit, claiming to be a friend of Jack’s, but who soon starts rambling about her disfigured son Jason, the boy who drowned back when and whose birthday this is. To nobody’s surprise but Alice’s, she is pursuing a psychotic revenge for her son’s death that she blames on horny incompetent counselors and is given to taking on Jason’s voice (which pleads for her to “Kill, mommy!”). Her appearance was only a ruse to draw King out of her besieged readiness. This incredibly somnolent piece of oh-yeah plotting reminds us why screenwriter Victor Miller is still neglected by the Nobel committee. Rather than hide in the vast dark forest or take a boat out onto the lake—you know, places where you’d be hard to find and attack—Alice locks herself in a cupboard with a frying pan.

Director Cunningham had produced Craven’s seminal Last House on the Left (1972), and he brought with him from that film assistant producer Steve Miner. Friday shares with Last House on the Left a visual emphasis on the contrast between leafy, pacific surrounds and grim violence, plus a dash of barely coherent social-conservative critique. What it lacks that Last House on the Left has is a level of actual thought to what it’s portraying, as well as dramatic structure and depth. It could be argued that the intense moral and intellectual indolence of the series’ hapless teens leads them to become easy knife fodder, and so they’re a general condemnation of the audience that laps them up. But the idea of slasher-film-as-reactionary-statement has in being so oft-reiterated perhaps been over-emphasised. The sexual element of the slasher film feels less intellectual, in the sense of being about a moral caution, than the sheer visceral exploitation of young people’s sexual anxieties. The vulnerability of coitus is especially loaded for people under 20, who worry about being caught by their parents, spied on by friends, catching diseases, getting knocked up, etc. Ironically, the Friday series probably did more for the cause of back row nookie than any other films.

Technically, the film hangs together. It’s well-shot by Barry Abrams, and aided especially by Harry Manfredi’s score, with its pseudo-Psycho strings and those indelibly creepy sounds that accompany the stalking (ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma, which is actually Palmer’s mantra of “kill, mommy!” edited and remixed, to suggest the underlying motivation). Cunningham builds a modicum of atmosphere as the camp is swallowed by the storm. But it would be Miner, a fairly talented director who made the series an iconic one, through Friday the 13th Part II (1981) and Friday the 13th Part III (1982), by introducing the lethal, supernaturally spurred Jason Voorhees, who, in his hockey mask, was an anonymous embodiment of thuggish violence, a genuine monster whose utter malevolence can only be temporarily contained.

But the plot of all the films is the same, and the tensions that made them mildly, repetitively entertaining in Miner’s more talented hands, are laboriously set up here. The swift, casual brutality of the murders committed on the unsuspecting and exposed, most of whom are too involved in their sex lives or lack of one to notice the danger, makes the final pursuit of the last survivor, always a girl, especially fraught. The mechanical stunt where Alice keeps knocking Pamela down and leaving her for dead, only to be attacked again, is repeated no less than four times. This contrast of the lack of killer instinct in ordinary people compared with the remorseless nature of the villains is, of course, vital to the genre, and also a great device for a lazy director. Alice finally gets bloodthirsty enough to cleave off Pamela’s head with a machete, in a palpable climax insufficient to make up for the lousiness of the preceding 90 minutes.

Cunningham here throws in another stunt that would become a tiresome hallmark—the exasperatingly fuzzy conclusion that leaves us wondering whether what we saw is a traumatic dream or real event. Specifically, King, who gets the idea to take a canoe out into the lake after killing Mrs. Voorhees, awakens in the morning when the local deputy arrives, but then seems to be attacked by the drowned, part-rotted remains of young Jason, only to awaken in hospital, raving about the boy in the lake. The very last shot is of Crystal Lake, its surface pocked by small ripples, and the audience sensing its placidity is charged with menace. Well, mild nausea, at any rate. By pure coincidence, when I watched this, it was followed on cable TV by House of Wax—the one with Vincent Price, not Paris Hilton—which, with its perfervid colours, energetic acting, strong script, classical references, and overall sense of gothic fun, was like stumbling into the daylight after slogging around in the dark.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Famous Firsts

The Sugarland Express (1974)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The 26-year-old wunderkind who had wowed with Duel (1971), a TV movie that received limited theatrical release in Europe, received his first shot at feature directing under the aegis of Richard F. Zanuck and David Brown. The Sugarland Express underperformed badly at the box office (the bad news came in on the first day of shooting Jaws, 1975), and Sugarland is still treated as a footnote in the director’s expansive oeuvre. But The Sugarland Express, loosely based on a real incident from 1969 and written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins from a story they wrote with Spielberg, demands more than a casual glance. From any other director it would be a notable film, which might explain why Zanuck and Brown let him helm their next tricky production, Jaws, the film that gave birth to Spielberg the phenomenon.

Whilst Jaws represents the new model Hollywood, Sugarland is a film from an era that was ending—an era of open-road movies with a cynical, anti-establishment bent, rooted in folksy Americana, as disparate and yet of a common generation as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Bad Company (1972), Badlands (1973), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). It’s this aspect that makes Sugarland most interesting in terms of the Famous Firsts program. What tendencies does it reveal that marks it, and the director’s later career, as so divergent, from, say, Terence Malick’s, despite the similar subject matter of their early works?

The differences are not hard to discern. Whilst it begins with a similar mood of a blasted, lonely, inhospitable land, Sugarland doesn’t develop the veneer of alienation and poeticism of Rafelson and Malick, or geared-up pulp fury. Sugarland is shot with clear, unaffected rigor, the artless artfulness of great American directors like Hawks, Ford, and Preston Sturges. The film tells a warmhearted tale that counteracts the mood of Easy Rider without actually contradicting its message. Spielberg is friendly towards his protagonists whilst admitting that it’s their own refusal to look facts in the face that leads to their downfall. Whilst the heroes of the other films are cursed by a desire, or by fate, to stand out and alone, Spielberg’s dopey heroes, Clovis (William Atherton) and Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), are asserting their right to be normal, to be a family. As is so often the case with Spielberg, a family spontaneously forms in response to adversity and includes their hapless hostage, state trooper Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and even a stern patriarch, Police Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Tanner’s efforts to prevent the situation from ending bloodily resemble a wise grandfather attempting to corral the high spirits of silly grandchildren.

The story kicks off with Lou Jean’s visit to Clovis, waiting out the last few months of his one-year sentence for shoplifting at a pre-release center in Texas. Lou Jean was sent down for the same offence, released earlier, and is now faced with the permanent loss of their son to the Loobys (Merrill Connally and Louise Latham), adoptive parents who live in Sugarland County, on the far side of the state. Lou Jean threatens to leave Clovis unless she agrees to bust out with her—it only requires her to change clothes and walk out the gate—and go to take back their baby. That’s the limit of her thinking. Lou Jean is entirely a creature of instinct. Her primeval desire to regain her son outweighs everything else. Clovis is her adoring, good-natured patsy. They catch a ride away from the center with the elderly, ornery parents of another inmate. A series of mishaps results in them taking Slide captive and fleeing in his patrol car, the object of a crisis that has every cop, patrolman, trooper, marshal, ranger, reservist, and dog catcher in Texas on their tail.

An aspect of Spielberg’s early work that comes into sharper focus—taking into account Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and 1941 (1979)—is their vision of America not as a capricious, clapped-out country wearied by Vietnam and Watergate, but as a sassy, energetic, ebullient place, dogged by corruption and iniquity, but still full of raucous, everyday life. The American-life-as-carnival vision underlies the comedic moments of all those films, and it’s quite often more than a little dangerously anarchic, for example, the beach crowds and the gun-happy bumpkins of Jaws who treat a killer shark hunt as the world’s greatest kegger, or the civil defense volunteers in 1941 who shoot up downtown L.A. when they think the city is under attack.

Clovis and Lou Jean’s odyssey draws out crowds of gawkers and supporters who cheer them on with democratic aplomb. Twits who want to get in on the action make it a bigger sideshow, like the Louisiana cops who attempt to ram the hostage car and instead collect half the vehicles in the trailing fleet, thereby allowing Clovis, Lou Jean, and Slide to escape. They’re found hiding in a used car lot by a pair of retired reservists who proceed to shoot up the place, less a proper gunfight than a thigh-slapping good time for the good ole boys.

Spielberg employs an attuned eye and ear in The Sugarland Express to provide a texture that would give Jaws and Close Encounters much of their effectiveness—the rich sense of a languidly fecund, everyday world, full of ice-cream-cramming kids, cussing old folks, tinny transistor radios perpetually ringing out bubblegum pop, and people who’d drive a hundred miles for a cheap thrill. Spielberg’s early style is sleek and naturalistic. If, in the late ’80s, his style became excessively glossy and arthritic by leaving behind his essentially new wave roots, it was still a vital component of his style in the ’70s. Spielberg’s heroes, male and female, young and old, are usually in search of a grail of some variety, arming themselves with varying levels of self-delusion to protect against the cruelest facts of life. They take journeys that have no guaranteed end quite simply because they can’t afford to stay still.

The quest is vital, even if the ultimate goal often is a delirious enigma. The prototypical Spielberg everyman, Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel, is driving theoretically to reach a business meeting, but he’s really in search of his lost masculine sense of propulsion that will enable him to return to the family that has no use for him. Lou Jean and Clovis certainly fit this mould. Neither thinks much further than the next move, and whilst both prove canny—Clovis especially, as he dismantles every move the cops throw at him—they’re clueless when it comes to the world at large. Adult and child behavior rarely have a neat dividing line in Spielberg’s films, especially in the infantile nature of American pop culture.

The grind of gears when clashing perspectives meet is realized in the film’s strongest scene: as Clovis and Lou Jean watch a Road Runner cartoon on a drive-in movie screen, Clovis registers the ridiculous violence that befalls Wile E. Coyote as prescient of their own approaching disaster. Another consistent Spielberg theme taking root is his version of the ghost in the machine, the process that, once begun, cannot be stopped, even by those who propagate it. Even the Indiana Jones films are, in their absurd way, illustrations of snowballing cause and effect. Be it a monstrous shark, dinosaur, Nazi tank, or alien killing machine, force always consumes itself through its own momentum. Usually this process aids his heroes, but in Sugarland (and this is probably why the film flopped), the Poplins set fate in motion themselves and leave it for others to try to stop. Tanner gives them every opportunity to escape this fate, but they continue to drive toward it, held together by their aim as much as society is held together by the laws that must stop them.

As in Catch Me If You Can (2003) and The Terminal (2004), where Spielberg returned to this sort of material, the clash between individualism and authoritarianism is essentially a friction of temperaments. It’s not, ultimately, an innocent joyride. Clovis and Lou Jean put lives in danger, and Clovis, despite knowing better, is more frightened of crushing Lou Jean’s hopes than of police bullets. They find something harsh beneath the surface of their nation. A group of FBI marksmen offer their services to Captain Tanner, which at first he spurns, but eventually accepts, placing them in the Loobys’ house. Mr. Looby hands over his own rifle, requesting that they “shoot the sonofabitch” with it. When Clovis and Lou Jean finally arrive at the house, Slide spots the trap and urgently pleads with Clovis to hand over the gun and end it now.

The last 20 minutes are a model of slow-burn tension sustained under a frosting of frivolity, until the frantic explosion of the characters—Slide’s appeals to Clovis; Lou Jean wailing first in betrayed rage at Clovis who hesitates, and then, realizing the danger at last, calling for his return. Clovis gets a bullet in the gut for his pains, but he manages to drive the car through the border checkpoint and crash in the mud of the Rio Grande before expiring. Lou Jean is left a shell-shocked wreck, and Slide and Tanner stand on the riverbank shaking their heads in sorry bewilderment.

Sugarland is a fine film, succeeding in balancing whimsy, drama, and sentiment, beguiling before reaching its forlorn ending. It certainly deserves a much larger reputation than it still has, often only vaguely recalled as a warm-up act for Spielberg’s blockbuster emergence, when it is in fact an artful sketch introducing his most obsessive themes. The final title card tells us that after her imprisonment, Lou Jean does recover her son, a sign that the desperate display that has underpinned these whimsical and tragic events has proven something. As he often would later in his films, Spielberg emphasizes a singular human ability to survive.

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1940s, Famous Firsts, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

aka Judo Story

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Director/Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

Before he made Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa worked for years as an assistant director and screenwriter. He worked on several projects where, he later reported, he had been left to his own devices in getting them completed. We could consider that he essentially directed these films—including Uma (1941)—himself. Nevertheless, Sanshiro Sugata was the first completed feature film to carry the credit “Directed by Akira Kurosawa.” Sanshiro Sugata has a compact energy and sense of form that establishes a cinematic intelligence far above the ordinary. It portrays, in an immature and limited fashion, the images, ideas, and emotions that will recur in complex and nuanced ways throughout Kurosawa’s career. Released when WWII was still raging, it was edited by nearly 20 minutes after the occupation, and the excised sequences only exist in very ragged form. Based on a popular novel by Tsuneo Tomita that would have a half-dozen other adaptations in the next 50 years, Sanshiro Sugata feels like a foundation text not just for Kurosawa’s career, but also for the whole genre of Asian martial arts movies. You know the drill—impulsive student learns from stern master how to master himself, as the means by which he transcends from try-hard to great warrior. A vast swathe of genre filmmaking, from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, owes a big something to this film.

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The film is set in the 1890s. Sanshiro, embodied by the appealingly average-looking Susumu Fujita, wants to become a martial arts master. He comes to the seedy Jujutsu school run by Monma, who lounges about with his indolent, aggressive students, incensed by the rumored superiority of the new fighting style of Shudokan Judo practised by Sensei Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). Monma leads his students to attack Yano on the street. Cornering him on the bank of the canal, the students all end up pitched into the water, and Monma finishes up pinioned and ashamed. Worshipful of a new hero, Sanshiro volunteers to wheel Yano to his school in a deserted rickshaw.

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Time passes, and we rediscover Sanshiro showing off his new Judo skills, beating up street toughs and Sumo wrestlers. Yano is angry at this thuggish display, Sanshiro, now shamed, throws himself into the muddy pond next to Yano’s house, angrily declaring his intention to die. “Go ahead and die, then!” Yano shouts. Sanshiro spends the rest of the night clinging to a rotten stake in the centre of the pond, where, in studying a flower, he realises the fragile nature of human existence and essence of a transcendental world-view, which gives him the self-insight to abase himself before Yano.

That’s the kind of pseudo-mystic jive we’re so familiar with in the genre and that Kurosawa portrays vividly, even though it’s cornball. Kurosawa would entirely toss out such claptrap from his later films. Kurosawa’s heroes usually have utterly corporeal talents, mixed with large dashes of guile; they generally prevail against enemies because they’re smarter. More typical of Kurosawa is the subsequent development of Sanshiro becoming a great, but reluctant warrior. When he is let back in from the cold of Yano’s displeasure, he is chosen to fight in an exhibition match between his school and Monma’s, with future employment in training police officers at stake. He throws Monma against a wall, killing him and causing Monma’s daughter to attempt to stab him later. Such prowess attracts the dour attention of the Ryoi Shinto School, in the shape of star student Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a dapper, gimlet-eyed gent who, as one student says, resembles a large snake. Higaki is eager to fight Sanshiro. But Sanshiro’s next fight is to be against Higaki’s sensei, the recovering alcoholic Murai, played by an actor who would become one of Kurosawa’s fondest faces, Takashi Shimura. Standing amidst this fraught trio is Murai’s pious daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), scared of the obnoxiously attentive Higaki, protective of her dissolute father, and attracted to Sanshiro. Sanshiro is tortured by the idea that he might kill Murai.

It’s here that the film’s only note of wartime propaganda is struck, when the school’s priest (Kokuten Kodo) admonishes Sanshiro for his reluctance, reminding him that his duty to the school demands he fight Murai and that this will be a truly selfless act. This “duty, right or wrong” moment conflicts with the texture of the film and with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, but then he only made Sanshiro Sugata after having several projects knocked back by the wartime censors. Sanshiro is, however, one of Kurosawa’s familiar, conscientious, all-too-human heroes. In combat with Murai, Sanshiro is nearly brought down by the elder sensei’s skill, but finally he gains the upper hand, the valiant older man rising agonisingly to his feet repeatedly only to suffer another violent toss, before conceding.

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But Murai doesn’t die. As he recovers, he gets Sayo to invite Sanshiro to their house, and Sanshiro becomes a friend. When Higaki finds him at their house, he promptly challenges Sanshiro to a duel to the death. Their confrontation is staged on a reed-clad hillside during a strong windstorm. Higaki nearly topples Sanshiro, but Sanshiro, remembering the flower (flower power!), resurges and defeats Higaki. A brief coda follows, where Yano and the priest discuss the fact that Higaki has reformed and forgiven Sanshiro, and that Sanshiro has decided to travel. On the train leaving town, Sanshiro promises Sayo that he will return.

Although the story of Sanshiro Sugata is generic and familiar, it’s a vivid experience—swift and entertaining. Many debut films suffer from imbalance as budding directorial talents test out their ideas without much thought for the overall texture of the film, but Kurosawa barely puts a foot wrong. As in his later work, his close-ups are carefully thought out and sparingly employed. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is of Munmo’s daughter, having just seen her father die, staring implacably at the camera, her grief and madness registering as the tiniest muscular twitches. Kurosawa’s background as a landscape painter is always apparent in the way he frames his actors in relationship to the environment, interested not just in their faces but in the behaviour of their whole bodies. The core action scenes are developed in a continuum of intensity. The poise of his camera makes Yano’s early victory over Munmo’s jujutsu brats look effortless; to Sanshiro’s eye, there is no indication of the draining physical and spiritual force required. Later, Sanshiro’s fight with Murai is filled with close-ups of their sweating brows as they engage in a deathly dance, each balanced on a knife-edge between defeat and loss. Finally, when Sanshiro and Higaki battle, the whole earth seems to explode into fractious elements.

Kurosawa’s intense, almost pantheistic relationship to nature as a reflector and counterbalance to humanity is strikingly nascent. As he would do so often later, atmospheric touches overtly or subtly set the tone of scenes—from the insects incessantly chirping in the background when Yano castigates Sanshiro, to the breeze that underscores the hollow-hearted, alien Higaki’s entry into Murai’s house, and finally, to the epic winds and racing clouds of the final elemental clash of the two men—not between good and evil, exactly, but between the humbled, humane, and responsible, and the dictatorial, arrogant, and grasping.

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Kurosawa would rarely offer hissable villains like Higaki. His villains tend to be either foolish, or so collectively ill-defined as to be nearly abstract symbols of tribulation, or shaded reflections of the heroes. Higaki is the man in himself Sanshiro has defeated. Higaki’s introduction is so utterly splendid—his umbrella handle enters the film before him, tapping Sanshiro’s shoulder—that his eventual unmasking as a cardboard-thin opponent emphasises the limitations of straight genre for Kurosawa’s strength of style. It’s another possible indicator of when it was made that Higaki dresses like an English gentleman, complete with bowler hat, where Sanshiro wears traditional dress.

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In many regards the later film that best displays Kurosawa’s growth from this point is Sanjuro (1965), one his few straight genre films of later years, a funnier, but also angrier film than Sanshiro Sugata. Toshiro Mifune’s title character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain represent a similar conflict, virtually separate to the rest of the plot—that of men who see too much of themselves in each other. Mifune’s victory releases not joy, but a sickening welter of blood and the ronin’s self-disgust and disavowal of a violent path. Such dark duality is also a consistent motif, particularly in female characters, clearly present here in the mirror of Munmo’s burning-eyed daughter and Sayo, and Sanshiro’s fear that he will turn one into the other if he kills her father, too.

Kurosawa’s distrust of violence—concurrent with his fascination with it—and love of humanity is ultimately confirmed by the sentiment of Sanshiro and Murai’s friendship and Higaki’s late alteration. Sanshiro is defined as much as the Seven Samurai by his learned determination to use his gifts to fight for a value, and for other people, rather than for self-aggrandisement. And it work for Sanshiro, as he apparently converts Higaki. Although naïve, it’s still a fascinating message for a Japanese film of 1943.

All of that said, there isn’t much more of the dramatic and character richness of Kurosawa’s later work. Sayo is a regulation, radiantly submissive female far from the pithy heroines of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, although it might be fair to say she anticipates the cosmically forgiving Lady Sué of Ran. Yano is a stock, wise Yoda figure. Higaki a bad guy for barely any more reason than the fact that he acts creepy.

More superficially, familiar stylistic flourishes are present. When Sanshiro is showing off on the streets, Kurosawa likewise shows off, with a series of mirroring crane shots descending down to the street level, showing crowds back away from the attacking Sanshiro as he races forward and picks out men to beat up. This kind of physical-force camera work would later have a profound effect on directors like Godard and Scorsese; likewise, his small dash of slow motion—when Munmo dies, a panel falls like a gentle petal from the wall onto the dead man’s back. Like the device’s similar use in the early stages of The Seven Samurai, it emphasises a sudden, sad realisation of the nature of death in what has been, up until now, a game. Sanshiro Sugata is a truly enlightening sketch of so much that was to come.

 

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Commentary, Famous Firsts

Famous Firsts

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

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By Roderick Heath

I’ve always enjoyed tracking down embryonic work by future notables. Even more, I like seeing a work that suggests a future great, and watching their growth – the electric sensation of history being made that came when watching, say, Reservoir Dogs or Hard Eight, or even seeing the birth of greatness from a far earlier era.

So I’m going to make as broad a survey as I can of the unofficial genre known as the debut film. I’m not talking here about those stupid clip shows where they dig up footage of a now-famous actor when they were a teenager with a bad hairdo getting being iced by a serial killer in an obscure slasher film. I’ve employed a highly scientific method that involves DVDs, coffee, and a bagful of mixed nuts.

There’s a cliché constantly employed when describing the debut of note, whether it’s of the future great director, star actor, or accomplished writer. It’s the word “promising,” indicating that, amongst the dross of amateurism contained in a debut, there are flashes of real skill and art that might some day flourish into worthiness.

It’s not such a helpful phrase. Quite apart from the fact that it is as belittling as it is congratulatory, it can be misleading. Often, especially in the perverse geometry of modern cinema, the promising debut is, in fact, the best work. How many times have you said to yourself or your friends something like, “I liked the early stuff, but since then he/she’s gone off the rails.” All sorts of reasons for that. Have too much money thrown at you, too much adulation, and that energy, discipline, and circumstance-enforced invention all go out the window. Then there’s another endemic problem, which is the overrated debut for which some tyro wins Oscars and legions of fans with a promising film that just isn’t that great.

Most typically, the eye-catching debut is uneven, perhaps even generally lousy, but contains flashes of imagination, invention, vividness. Key themes and stylistic tendencies are present, but in embryonic, naïf form, that will develop in the more considered later work.

Then there’s the highly unpromising debut, the piece of crap that teaches you more by how you screw up than by what you get right, that lousy slasher film that taught the future star never to take a part that means dying from a power tool to the head in the third reel. Sometimes an ill-fated debut creates survivors. Witness Jessica Lange’s recovery from her worldwide humiliation in King Kong (1976), or good directors recover from work like Piranha 2: The Spawning (James Cameron, 1981).

Then there’s the exact opposite—the earth-shaking arrival, the awe-inspiring declaration of ability that seems to have nowhere to go but down. Welles with Citizen Kane. Huston with The Maltese Falcon. Brando in The Men. Godard with Breathless. Lynch’s Eraserhead. Reservoir Dogs. Nightmare on Mills Street (What, you’ve never seen that? The absolute greatest horror film ever made with a camcorder and featuring my mother as a homicidal maniac).

For these films, then, I’ll be applying a broad and not-at-all rigorously planned grading system:

Unpromising, Promising, and Tectonic.

*Lead image is Strongman Sandow, the first film ever made (1896).

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