Films of the Week | 31st January 2022
A big hit on release, this was criticised at the time for not being radical enough, as if every film with an element of protest should have recommended immediate revolution, but it has grown as time has passed. A great score, Sidney Poitier at his best, Rod Steiger just about managing not to overact, Warren Oates disappearing into his role so completely that you cannot imagine him as anything other than a second-rate cop, and that moment when a black man slaps a white man across the face in his own Southern home one of the key moments of the nineteen sixties. Black people were not going to go back into the box, ever, however hard Donald Trump’s supporters would like them to.
Worth watching even if you don’t like motor racing, for its exploration of character, and conflict, between two dramatic opposites. I agreed to watch it reluctantly but became absorbed by it, and I was glad I did watch it.
This watchable if somewhat ponderous war film is a demonstration of what Hollywood was up to in the nineteen fifties, and a comment on the decline of a director who began so well, for Mark Robson trained under Orson Welles and Jacques Tourneur, artistic talent weighed down by big budgets and bigger simplifications. It is more interesting for what it doesn’t intend to reveal than for what it does, as such films so often are.
Under gloomy skies, VistaVision and Technicolor fill the screen with looming aeroplanes and aircraft carriers, fetishized symbols of American power, substitutes for the Colts and Winchesters of the Old Frontier. Jet pilots were the new gunfighters, exploited in films like The Hunters and, a generation later, Top Gun. But there is more to this film than Cold-War heroics. Anti-war sentiment is expressed in asides, uttered by the men who are prosecuting the war, though they don’t change their behaviour: Hollywood worked by having it both ways. But as the film progresses, perspectives begin to close down, from the limitless ocean and sky to the cramped corridors of the aircraft carrier, then to muddy ditches, with nowhere to run. William Holden refused to take part in the film unless it kept the downbeat ending. War is, after all the flag-waving, hell, and hell isn’t spectacular and epic, it is narrow and nasty.
Combat scenes are effective in those days before CGI, using large-scale models cut in with documentary footage, and the film won Oscars for Special Effects and Editing.
William Holden acts convincingly, especially when he walks to the front of the aircraft carrier to feel the wind and rain and sea on his face to try to steady his nerves. Fredric March does his job as the less than objective Admiral. Mickey Rooney is a brawling helicopter pilot and girl-hungry psychopath but too small to be convincing as the character who busts up ballrooms. Earl Holliman is in his first film, a disposable sidekick. Dennis Weaver is uncredited in his first film. Grace Kelly has little to do but be gorgeous and suggest nudity without showing a thing.
The wholesome all-American family go naked into a bathing pool only to be joined by a Japanese family, also nude. Gosh. Bare shoulders! Grace Kelly earns her money! But it shows the Japanese as nice Asians, their strangeness a cultural tic, vanishing in a giggle and a splash, their wartime atrocities forgotten because of their re-invention as anti-Communist capitalists, Good Asians as opposed to the new Bad Guys, the Koreans and the Chinese.
But the enemy…. Who are they? Faceless minions crawling out of the bush in the combat scenes, insects gathering around a wounded beast. Otherness is put to work as propaganda for the American Global Dream. All you have to do is to be on the right (American) side, and you’re human! A few years later, this binary attitude would reap the whirlwind in Vietnam.
William Holden, real name Beedle, battled insecurity all his life and coped by drinking. Gorgeous to look at in his youth, he was never happy even though he was loved by many people, and he complained to an actor he admired, Joel McCrea, “What I need is lines on my face.” McCrea’s reply was, “They will come, William, they will come.” They did.
Overdosing on vodka in his Swiss home, he fell and bashed open his head on the corner of a glass-topped table. He tried to repair the damage with tissues stuck into the wound but bled to death in half an hour. He was sixty-three.
One of the finest film noirs. I may manage some notes on this film in the next day or two.
An effective Hitchcock-type thriller, with fine performances from Ann Baxter, Richard Todd and Herbert Lom, that grips in a drama of mistaken identity (is he who he says he is?), even if the denouement can leave us feeling uneasy. Worth watching, for the puzzle seems insoluble – until the end.
Two of the greatest of all Westerns are on Thursday night on BBC4 one after the other, Rio Bravo followed by The Searchers. Rio Bravo is said to be the finest of Howard Hawks’s Westerns (though Red River runs it close) and John Ford’s The Searchers is among the ten best films ever to come out of Hollywood. Ford and Hawks helped to build the Western as a genre. These films both look back on lifetimes of work, and re-examine the genre, Rio Bravo by turning the Western into a film, typical of Hawks, that is as much about conversation and group interaction as it is about gunplay, The Searchers by exploring the very foundations of the Western myth. Both are exciting, an excellent way to spend an evening.
“That’ll be the day,” is the key utterance from John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers, and it captivated one young man who saw the film and who would put it to good use in a song he was soon to write: the young man was Buddy Holly.
Now for television….
Talking Pictures TV
These turn up early evening at the weekends, and are the original BBC productions with Georges Simenon’s own favourite Maigret, Rupert Davies, scratching a match on a wall as the evocative music plays. They were shot ‘live’ in the studio, so there are mistakes and bloopers, but there is a lively improvised air, and the scripts are frank about the seediness of much of Parisian life, the girls, the clubs, the violence. As much of the exterior material was shot in Paris there is much to be enjoyed in the footage of France in the late fifties and early sixties.
The wholly inappropriate casting of Rowan Atkinson as Maigret, skinny, anxious, self-conscious, in the latest versions would have made Georges Simenon turn in his grave. Where is the massive, overcoated figure, analysing cases like a doctor, Father Confessor to witnesses and criminals, whose humane imperturbability is the moral core of the novels?
I found myself watching this almost by accident and was gripped from the beginning. It is a marvellous performance from Kate Winslet, consistent and engaging and challenging, and it is one of the finest series I have seen over the past few years. The economy with which character is established is a delight, and the exploration of character that follows, like all the best crime dramas, is what creates the suspense. I cannot stop thinking about it, and I am about to watch it again.
The show made a point of being authentic, particularly in getting the Delco (Delaware County) accent right, for it is reckoned to be the hardest to master of all American accents. It was so difficult that Kate Winslet was the only member of the cast who dared to drop out of accent during breaks in filming: from Delco to RP English at the drop of one of her woolly hats. She also made a point of taking great care to look after the younger members of the cast, and refused a larger trailer, offered to her because she was one of the producers and the star, because everyone had to be treated the same. (Not having watched Neighbours, I didn’t know who Guy Pearce was until I remembered him from LA Confidential.)
It is really, really good.
Best wishes, Bill.