Sunday, June 26, 2011

Beatty and Benning, Rest of Cast Excellent in 'Bugsy'

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was one of the most notorious and ruthless killers of the 1940s. He killed and womanized. He was also a Las Vegas pioneer. He built what is now the multi-billion dollar Flamingo Hotel and Casino, one of the first of many that became the gambling mecca. Siegel, in essence, took a desert sand trap and turned it into what we know today as Las Vegas. Enter Warren Beatty. Beatty was, himself, a notorious Hollywood playboy. That is, until he met future wife Annette Bening (his co-star in this film, who played Virginia Hill, the love interest of Siegel). So in that sense, these two men, subject and actor, are similar. They couldn't have picked a better person to play Bugsy in Barry Levinson's violent 1991 bio-pic.

Beatty plays the titular role. He makes a splash upon arriving in Los Angeles from New York on "business". Along with his crisp suits and volitile temper, he soon purchases a home, and meets his match in Virginia Hill, a very glamorous (in her own mind) and perhaps, lascivious actress, played by Annette Bening. While his other life (a wife and two daughters) awaits him back in New York, Siegel becomes wrapped up in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. He kills or hurts everyone who dares to cross him. When a trip to the Nevada desert and a run down casino with Hill gives him an idea, a worldwide phenomenon is soon born. With the help of fellow mobster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) he acquires funds from the so called mob "kingpin" Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), and the other crime family bosses. Costs begin to spiral out of control. Siegel sells his share, plus most of his possessions, in order to pay for these costs. Then, it's discovered that somebody has embezzled millions of dollars. What happens next, as it's said, is history.

The entire cast in this film is what makes it great. This is, as they say, a "star-studded" film, in more ways than one. Along with Beatty and Bening, Harvey Kietel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna and Elliot Gould, among others, round out the supporting cast of the Hollywood elite and mobsters. Films about the film industry are always intriguing because they may shed light on the inner workings of the industry, or the actors in it. For example, George Raft (Mantegna's character) was an A-List Hollywood actor in the 1930s and 40s. He later became famous for his association with Siegel. Virgina Hill also became famous for her infatuation with the mobster.

Beatty captured the eccentricities of Siegel eeriely well. Whether or not this was a trait of Bugsy's, I don't know, but Beatty makes him very eloquent and well spoken. Over and over in the film, he repeats a chant, perhaps a mantra, that keeps his tongue quick and relaxed. It goes, "Twenty dwarfs took turns doing hand stands on the carpet." It may sound benign, but said over and over, with Beatty steely eyed intensity, it becomes spine tingling.

It's a dark, eerie and intense film. But it's very captivating. Both the subjects and actors are excellent.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"The Killers" An Excellent Example of Murder Mystery Noir Style

To those who read this blog (and I hope somebody does) you know by now that I'm a fan of the dark, Noir-style film, especially those made in the 1940s and 1950s. What I love about them is the writing. The dialogue, plots and characters are complex. But that's only half of what makes a good film. The other half of that equation is the actor chosen to play their respective role. This film from 1946 has both. The writing and the actors delivering those lines are both excellent in this story of mystery and murder.

At the onset of the film, two professional killers come to a small town, and kill the local gas station attendant, Ole "Swede" Anderson, played by the excellent Burt Lancaster. Enter insurance agent Jim Reardon, played by Edmond O'Brien. He takes the case in order to find the beneficiary of Anderson's insurance policy, against the advice of his boss, who believes the case is irrelevant. Reardon takes the case, and he begins to delve into Anderson's past, which becomes apparent through Reardon's interviews, aided by flashbacks. With the help of Anderson's childhood friend, Sam Lubinsky, now a police lieutenant, Reardon begins to collect all of the loose ends of Anderson's past. Reardon suspects that all of Anderson's past dealings, and perhaps, the reason he was killed, can be traced back to a beautiful, suspected femme-fatale, Kitty Collins, played by Ava Gardner. Several stories, told by the various people interviewed by Reardon and Lubinsky, are intertwined and linked back to Anderson's story. Telling a multilayer-ed story such as this can be dangerous, because when it's done poorly, when there's a loose end that's not addressed, the viewer knows it, and that's all they can focus on. Therefore, the film has failed. But this film succeeds in that respect. There are no loose ends left.

It's worth noting that this was Lancaster's first screen role. In total, he's not in the film more than twenty minutes or so, but the entire film revolves around Anderson's death. We see him briefly at the beginning of the film, which begins with his death, and through back tracking and flashback, as Anderson's story unfolds, the viewer sees Lancaster, and the great acting ability he had, for the first time. He hardly had to act. It seems like he merely spoke his lines as if he were speaking to a close friend or family member, and they put him on film and called him an actor. Edmond O'Brien, perhaps most famous for his pairing with James Cagney in several films, was an equally important part of the film, but you could tell he was an actor. The way his lines were delivered seemed very natural within the context of the film, but at the same time, you know that this isn't the way he would have spoken to a friend when the camera was off. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the writing of this film was excellent as well. Very rarely does this film seem like it's too complicated, with too many plots at play at one time. It is guilty of being a little complex at times, but ultimately, the film culminates with the mystery of Anderson's death no longer a mystery, and each of the different plots are brought together in a clean and succinct resolution by films' end.

This film was a pleasure to watch. There was enough mystery and suspense to keep the viewer interested, the acting was excellent, and not at all over the top (as some film's of the era were guilty of) and the writing was well thought out and executed. I'd highly recommend this one.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Grant and Rodgers are Good In An Otherwise Labored Film

Ginger Rodgers was perhaps best known for her partnership over a span of almost twenty years, and ten films with Fred Astaire. But she also had a very successful, Oscar-winning solo career. Cary Grant was a very suave, English actor known for his roles in "North by Northwest" and "Arsenic and Old Lace". Together, they have a very natural chemistry, but this film, an R.K.O. film from 1942, is not the best vehicle to showcase that chemistry. For me, it was lost somewhere in the very busy film.

Rodgers stars as Kathie O'Hara, a.k.a Katherine Butt-Smith (pronounced like 'Butte'...this becomes a somewhat monotonous running joke in the film), a.k.a. Baroness Katherine Von Luber, an American burlesque performer who marries an Austrian Baron, Baron Franz Von Luber, in hopes of climbing the social ladder. Enter reporter Patrick O'Toole (Grant) who begins to suspect the Baron of having ties to Adolf Hitler in a pre-World War Two Europe. He begins his investigation by traveling to Europe, in a quest to follow the Baron to break the biggest story of his career. Gradually, his intentions are swayed. He begins to fall in love with the Baroness. Eventually, when she learns of her husband's involvement with the Nazis, now under the name of Kathie O'Hara, she fakes her own death in order to flee Europe and return to the United States with O'Toole. With their inside knowledge (the Baron is fifth in line behind Hitler), once in Paris, O'Hara and O'Toole are used as spies for the allied party, and go to the airwaves to discredit Von Luber and the Nazis. This story has a heart. It has potential. But ultimately, it falls flat.

The film on the whole didn't work for me, but through no fault of the actors. Rodgers and Grant compliment each other quite well. They both have a sarcastic sense of humor, and can easily take barbs from one another. Rodgers was a beautiful woman, a very in demand actress at the time this film was made, and Grant was a very good looking actor. So in those senses, the film was excellent. The idea of the film was excellent as well, but where it failed for me was in the execution. Once it was written on the page, it became the sort of muddled mess that made it to the screen. We have the one main story, which is an American woman marrying an Austrian Baron to climb the social ladder. Then we have a love story, between the two leads. There's an act of betrayal, of sacrifice, name it. While some films can execute such a multilayer-ed story, this one wasn't so lucky. The film tried in earnest to meld all of its components. But it became very uneven and choppy as a result.

Films made about the Nazis that were actually filmed during Hitler's reign have always been strange to me. This film was made in 1942, at the height of the Third Reich, and Hitler's onslaught of Europe. In this day and age, a film that would take a so called "industry" and make fun, or in any way try to discredit it, would undoubtedly be subject to an attempt at being shelved and never seeing the light of day by those looking to uphold their reputation. I can only guess, but with the power and influence that Hitler had during this period, a film such as this, that was defamatory in any way, probably wasn't even allowed to be shown.

While I didn't enjoy this film very much, I did enjoy the aforementioned chemistry between Grant and Rodgers. They seemed very comfortable with each other on screen. Beyond that, this film failed on multiple levels for me. If I were to put a rating on it, I would give it two out of four stars. It's not unbearable to watch, but after I finished it, I couldn't help but say "I'm glad it's over." It's certainly not my favorite film that I've seen recently, but it's worth watching for the acting and the two leads.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"The Ratpack" Are Entertaining In 'Robin'

I wasn't expecting what I saw in this film. A description of "Robin and the 7 Hoods" called it "A cross between 'mobster drama' and 'Guys and Dolls'. I've seen several mobster dramas. I've never seen "Guys and Dolls", but, having watched this film, I can say that the description is probably very apropos. It takes a hard edged story of two mobsters looking for total control, and combines it with musical numbers and elaborate sets.

The film is a story of the 1920's, in prohibition-era Chicago. At the beginning of the film, the man who controls the mob activity in South Chicago, a man named Guy Gisborne (played by a very young Peter Falk), and a corrupt police chief, to use the vernacular,whack the city's big mob boss, known as "Big Jim", played by Edward G. Robinson. From the first scene, we see two genres come together. In the scene, Big Jim commands a long table of corrupt cops, city officials, and mobsters. After a seemingly random musical number, the scene culminates in simultaneous gunfire, and the death of their leader. With hopes of total control, the south-side boss tries to take over the north side of Chicago, and gain total control. The problem (and herein lies the conflict of the film), is that the north side is controlled by a man only known as Robbo, played by Frank Sinatra (who also acted as producer of the film), and his friend and accomplice, Will, played by Sammy Davis Jr. Knowing that they're outnumbered by Gisborne, Robbo and Will enlist the help of an Indiana pool shark, John, played by Dean Martin, and the director of a city orphanage, Allen Dale, played by Bing Crosby. Together, Robbo, Dale, Will and John, begin donating money to the orphanage to make them appear as generous philanthropists, much like Robin Hood and his merry men. With this cover, they can continue running the illegal dealings of peddling alcohol for profit. If this weren't enough, and third party is looking for total control. She happens to be the daughter of slain mob boss Big Jim, Marian, played by Barbara Rush. She plays both bosses of Chicago, in her quest to replace her father as the omnipotent mob boss.

This film is intriguing for many reasons, but namely, the joining of two very different film styles. A story of the mob starring these very famous faces would have been enough, albeit very strange. While adding musical numbers, elaborate sets and choreography seems strange, it actually works well. Some films have tried, unsuccessfully, to pair one genre with a musical. When it's done poorly, the story line isn't enhanced by the music. When a film has to completely stop for a musical number, it doesn't work. While the musical numbers in this film may seem random (and some of them the number in which Davis performs a number about the joy he gets from the sound of a pistol makes when it's fired after he and the rest of his cronies smash up Gisborne's bar), you don't get the feeling that it is just a random occurrence. A mobster probably WOULD get immense joy from firing a gun, or destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property (although perhaps not enough to break into a musical interlude). But I digress. The film switches relatively seamlessly from a dark, almost noir-style film to lighthearted musical and vice-versa. Also present is the very easy going rapport between the members of the rat-pack. Each of them, Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and, in this film, Bing Crosby, have a very easy going nature with each other, trading the jibes and sarcasm that became ubiquitous in their other movies, as well as in their famous stage act. Being a lover of biting sarcastic humor (I know...hard to believe, but it's true), this chemistry alone made the film enjoyable for me to watch. If this had been the same film, but with a different cast, it would have been unwatchable.

You may read this and say to yourself "It sounds too strange to actually work", and, at first, I did too. But something about it was too fascinating to simply delete it off my list. Perhaps it was the A-List cast, or the fact that I am a sucker for a good musical. While this isn't a musical the caliber of a "Singin' in the Rain", just watching the chemistry between the four big stars in the film makes it a worthwhile, and entertaining film. I recommend it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Benny is Excellent in an Otherwise Strange Film

Jack Benny was one of the finest comedic performers in his, or any other, generation before him or since. In my opinion, he was just as clever as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin before him. And like Keaton and Chaplin, Benny didn't need elaborate story lines and props to make us laugh. This film, from 1945, actually contradicts what I just wrote, but I believe it's still relevant. The story is complex, and there is a prop involved. First and foremost, it's a film centered around the talents of Jack Benny.

The film opens with Jack Benny as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Paradise Coffee Program. The program's slogan is "Paradise Coffee...the coffee that makes you sleep." And that's just what happens. Benny falls asleep, and therin lies the film, an elaborate dream sequence. In the dream, Benny plays Athaniel, an angel in heaven who is given a mission. He's sent to earth to blow his trumpet promptly at midnight, in order to destroy earth. When they find out of this plan, two gentleman, Osidro and Doremus, two fallen angels who have stayed on earth to enjoy an extravagent life, enlist the help of debonair jewel thief Archie Dexter to steal the trumpet, therefore making it impossible for Athaniel to return to heaven. His first attempt, however, is foiled by Archie's beautiful accomplice, Fran, played by Delores Moran. Fran is desondent over a botched jewel heist, and she ends up on the same roof where Athaniel is about to carry out his plan, intending to commit suicide. Little does she know that the man who saves her is a so-called "angel of death". Athaniel decides to enjoy earth for one day, until midnight of the following night. The first thing he does is to do what mortals call "eating". Unknowing of our ways, when asked to pay his bill with something called "dollas" (the waiter is equipped with a thick New York accent), his trumpet is held in lieu of payment. Hilarity ensues. Athaniel gets his trumpet back, and then, with the help of fellow angel Elizabeth (who is also the harp player in his reality) he continues to carry out his mission. The climax of the film has the film's entire cast hanging from a high rise building, as midnight approaches. At the bottom of the chain of mortals and angels hanging from the building is Athaniel, desperately hanging to the legs of those above him with one arm, and clutching his beloved trumpet in the other.

I can only speculate, as this film was made nearly fourty years before I was born, but it seems to me that this film inspired the stories of films about angels sent to earth. The one that immediately comes to mind is John Travolta's "Michael", or even the Disney film "Angels in the Outfield". But neither of those films have the dark undertones of this film. While it's certainly a comedy, as one would expect from a film starring Jack Benny, it's really more of a dark comedy, a film that begins as a film centering around the idea of destruction and death. The look and aura of the film is also worth noting. It has a very noir-ish style to it. This is thanks to director Raoul Walsh, who was also the man behind one of my absolute favorite films "White Heat". This film, as well as "White Heat" use very strong female characters. Both female roles, Fran and Elizabeth are very strong and outspoken. This was one of Walsh's signatures. He always wrote female roles so they wouldn't just fade away behind their male counterparts, but instead, they would lend support and be able to stand their own ground next to the male leads. They were both ultimately able to lend comedic support to Jack Benny, one of the most excellent comedic talents of the twentieth century.

The film is a bit conviluted, and, without Jack Benny, it would have just been that, and I wouldn't be writing about it right now. But Jack Benny made a strange film about an elaborate dream, and made it worth watching. It's worth watching just to see Jack Benny crack a joke, but not cracking a smile. His deadpan delivery makes the joke all the more hilarious. This film is strange, but very intriguing.