Act of Violence Revisited

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Mary Astor’s career was a long one going back to the early 1920’s. Over the years her career continued to grow until an infamous marital scandal broke in 1936 while she was making William Wyler’s “Dodsworth.”  During the court battle her husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe threatened to submit Astor’s spicy, fully detailed, diary as evidence of her infidelities with George S. Kaufmann and other celebrities. Ultimately, the diary was never offered to the court. Astor’s career could have been in jeopardy, since as with most actors at the time, a morality clause was included as part of the contract. Fortunately, Sam Goldwyn refused to fire her and she continued in her role as Edith Cortwright, Huston’s lover in the film.  “Dodsworth” was a hit and Astor amazingly entered what could be considered her peak period with films like “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “The Hurricane,” “Midnight,” “Brigham Young” leading her into arguably her best year, 1941, with “The Maltese Falcon” and an Academy Award winning role as Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Great Lie.”

After the successful year of 1941, along with its follow up with films like “Across the Pacific” and Preston Sturges, “The Palm Beach Story,” both in 1942, Mary Astor’s career hit another serious bump in the road. She made the mistake of signing a contract with MGM where they pretty much regulated her to playing “mother” roles in films like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Little Women.” In the 1944 musical, Astor, only 38 at the time, played the mother of Judy Garland who was 22. Suffice it to say, Astor was not happy. One of the few meatier roles MGM tossed Mary’s way came in 1948. Continue reading

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Act of Violence (1948) Fred Zinnemann

In the late 1940’s, director Fred Zinnemann made a loose trilogy of films depicting the effects of the post war aftermath. First up was “The Search” (1948) with Montgomery Clift as an American soldier helping a young boy search for his mother. The last film was “The Men” (1950) with Marlon Brando, in his film debut, as a paralyzed G.I. attempting to adjust to his new post war life.  In between these two works came the noirish thriller,” Act of Violence.”

“Act of Violence” explores the choices one makes creating the sometimes thin line between being a hero and an informer. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war hero, maybe. He has a beautiful wife, (a young fresh faced, Janet Leigh), a young boy, a thriving business, a house in the California suburbs and is well respected in the business community. He goes on weekend fishing trips with his neighbor while the wives are happily at home. Into this tranquil and serene world comes Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a limping, gun carrying, revenge seeking former army buddy who is dead set on killing Frank. Parkson is sinister looking, seething with hate. Joe cannot forget or forgive what happened back when they were prisoners of war in a Nazi stalag camp. Continue reading

High Noon (1952) Fred Zinnemann

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“This is just a dirty little town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.”– The Judge

First a confession!  Dave over at the excellent Goodfella’s Movie Blog is in the middle of a year-by-year countdown of the best movie of each year. If you have yet to visit his site please do, you won’t be sorry. Now that’s not the confession, so what is, you ask? Well, in my comments at Dave’s blog for the 1952 best film selection, I stated that I was not a big fan of Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon”; subsequently I did not include it in my own list of favorite films for that year. Recently, TCM ran the film again, and unlike the many times it has been aired before, I did not ignore,  but decided to revisit it for the first time in many years. So here is my big confession, truth be told, I was wrong, “High Noon” is one of the great films of 1952 and one of the great westerns of all time! Now this won’t come as a shock to many of you who even without my proclamation already knew “High Noon” was a great movie. Frankly, I am just catching up.

Now that I got that weight off my chest, I can move on…

John Wayne proclaimed his dislike for this movie, seeing it as a parable for the blacklisting and anti-communist furor that was taking hold in the early 1950’s.  He found it disgraceful that Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tosses his badge into the dirt at the end of the film. Seven years later, Wayne and Howard Hawks would made “Rio Bravo” as a response to the radical “High Noon.” As late as 1971, Wayne, in a Playboy magazine interview, called “High Noon”, “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” If Wayne disliked what the film stood for, Hawks abhorred it, insulting his sense of professionalism. He therefore made a film where the sheriff refuses help from the town’s citizens, instead accepting help from only other “outsiders” like the young gunslinger and the town drunk. Whereas, Will Kane, in “High Noon”, was an accepted member of the town’s social circle with friends. John T. Chance, in “Rio Bravo” separates himself from the town, he is a professional lawman, an outsider and not part of the town’s citizenship.

highnoon-Coop-Kelly_1_     Ironically, over the years, people and even countries, from both sides of the political spectrum have come to find their own personal values in this film. The former Soviet Union accused the film of being “a glorification of the individual.”  Pro-McCarthyites saw the film as communist propaganda and anti-American. Yet President Ronald Reagan loved the film for it lead character’s “strong sense of and dedication to duty and law.” Both Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton loved the movie. Clinton ran the film no less than 17 times while in office! He even recommended it to then incoming President Bush.  So how can one film be interpreted and satisfying on both sides of the political fence? Possibly, because, no matter where you stand politically, the film has come to symbolize the courage and perseverance an individual needs during hard and difficult times. Here was one man who stood up for what he believed in, despite the abandonment, the lack of conviction and courage from the community he helped build and protect. Perhaps the Soviet Union was right, “High Noon” is the glorification of the individual, how American!

Even before the film was completed, staunch conservatives were attacking it. The film was made during the height of the anti-communist witch-hunts. The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was finding communist everywhere including in your toaster! Hollywood was under siege, forced by Congress to rid itself of any writer, actor, director who even smelled of leftist leanings. Socially conscience filmmakers were driven out of the country, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey to name two, while others were put in jail (the Hollywood 10).  Still, more lost their livelihood and had to retreat to theater or get out of the business all together. Screenwriter Carl Forman, a known left-winger, was eventually fired by producer Stanley Kramer who was under pressure to do so. There is plenty of irony when you consider that star Gary Cooper was conservative, as was composer Dimitri Tiomkin, both card-carrying members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist group that worked with the HUAC in “cleaning up” Hollywood. Additionally, Tex Ritter who sang the title song shared similar sentiments. Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of rock singer David Crosby) were “gray listed” for working in the film. producer Stanley Kramer and director Fred Zinnemann had liberal views and while not blacklisted were considered sympathizers.   high_noon_clock

The plot is simple, three men ride into the town of Hadleyville, one is Ben Miller, brother of recently released ex-convict Frank Miller, who is arriving on the noon train. Five years ago, Marshal Will Kane sent Miller to prison. Originally, Miller was sentenced to death until the courts changed his sentence to life in prison. Eventually he was released after serving only five years. At the time of his sentencing Miller swore vengeance and now he has come back to collect. This same day, Will Kane is retiring as Marshal and marrying his young sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly). Right after the ceremony, word arrives that Miller is out of prison and coming to town, to kill Kane. His neighbors tell him it is best if he and his wife leave and disappear. They hustle the couple quickly out of town; however, once on the trail Kane has second thoughts. His wife tells him it is crazy to return, Kane says he has never run from anyone before; he has to go back. When he seeks help from the town people, they refuse. Some resented Kane’s tactics while he was Marshal. Others say since Will is no longer Marshal, why should they risk their lives.  Some thought life was better years ago when Frank Miller was here and the town was wide open. Kane’s Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) quits, blaming Will for not speaking up for him so he could inherit the Marshal’s job upon his retirement. Even the judge who sentenced Miller is packing and leaving town, urging Kane to reconsider and leave too. “The man is crazy”, he says.

High_Noon_poster  Approximately 1 hour and 11 minutes into the film, director Zinnemann and his editors, create a mosaic of tension, and a class in film editing. It starts with Kane sitting at his desk writing out his last will and testament, Dimitri Tiomkin’s music begins a tense pounding. Kane looks up at the clock, in extreme close up we see the swinging of the pendulum, the camera moves upward toward the hands of the clock, which reads 11:58. We cut to the outlaws waiting at the train station, then to a low angle shot of the tracks. Next, we see the interior of the church, close-ups of the solemn parishioners. Zinnemann cuts to the saloon, its customers. Back to the pendulum swinging, Will Kane at his desk, a long shot of the exterior of the town, cut to another angle of the town. Back to the railroad tracks, the killers waiting. By this point, the pace of the cuts have accelerated. Zinnemann cuts to a close up of the previous Marshal sitting in his chair, a friend cowering in his home, a close-up of Helen (Katy Jurado) the saloon owner,  and then a close up of Amy. Back to the swinging pendulum, and then the clock, as it is about to strike noon. Quick cuts to the killers, Amy and then, the sudden sound of the train’s whistle. It’s high noon. The camera is back on the tracks and far off we see the smoke puffing from the train engine, the music stops, the quietness is startling; we are back looking at Kane.

It’s time.

Kane comes outside on to the street, he sees Amy and Helen on a buckboard riding toward the train station. Zinnemann now gives us a shot the Marshal in close up. As he looks around Zinnemann’s camera begins to pull back. A crane shot, the camera moves back and up high over the entire town. The streets are empty except for the Marshal.high still

In the final sequence, we see Kane marching toward his confrontation with the band of four who are walking toward him from the other end of town. The gun battle ends as we expect with Kane the victor but only after he gets some unexpected help from his Quaker wife, who came back from the train when she heard the first gunshots, and shoots one of the outlaws in the back just as he was about to kill Will.

The town’s citizens come out of hiding surrounding Kane and his wife. He looks at them in disgust, takes off his badge and tosses it into the dirt. The Marshal and his wife climb up on the buckboard and ride off.

“High Noon” is less than 90 minutes long and takes place in almost real time starting with the three men riding into town and the wedding of Kane and his young bride. Time is a recurring motif in the film. We constantly have shot of clocks, men looking at watches as the minutes tick away toward the arrival of the noon train and Frank Miller.  The film is unconventional in many ways. Unlike most westerns, there is little action here, except for a fight between Kane and his former deputy Harvey and the climatic ending. At one point, the Marshal openly admits to Harvey that he is afraid. There is also no talk of the west being the opening of a new frontier or the beginning of a new community, themes common at the time to western film mythology. “High Noon” is nothing a typical western is suppose to be, it is the antithesis of John Ford’s more romanticized version of west. No wonder The Duke hated it.

Additionally, much was made at the time of the age difference between Cooper, who was fifty-one, and looked a lot older (he was ill), and the young and beautiful Grace Kelly who was about twenty-three.

high-noon-Kelly-Juarado11    Cooper gives an impressive performance as Kane. Looking visually worried, sweat on his face, bound by a sense of honor, he finds himself standing alone amongst the town people he swore to protect.  Like John Wayne, Gary Cooper is one of cinema’s iconic western heroes,  having appeared in “The Virginia”, “The Plainsman”, “The Westerner”, “Vera Cruz” and “Man of the West” among others.

“High Noon” is one of the most beautifully framed and photographed films, brilliantly shot with deep rich blacks. I was truly impressed by the framing of many of the images that could have easily been plucked from the film and work elegantly as black and white still photographs. The man responsible was Floyd Crosby, who surprisingly did not even receive a nomination for Best B&W Cinematography that year. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin has become as iconic as Cooper’s image walking down the empty streets of the town. The haunting title song with the word’s “do not forsake me oh my darling”, a constant reminder that Kane has been abandoned by everyone. Tiomkin by the way would score Hawks “Rio Bravo.” The film also has some great character actors including Lee Van Cleef as one of the killer’s, Lon Chaney Jr. as the former sheriff, Harry Morgan as a so called friend of Kane’s, Katy Jurado as the saloon owner and former lover to both Will Kane and Frank Miller. Most recently, she had hooked up with the young immature deputy played by Lloyd Bridges. Other well known charcter actors include Thomas Mitchell, Jack Elam Otto Kruger and Harry Morgan.

The film’s political overtones are still there, a reminder of uglier times. Though they have faded from memory of some, younger viewers may even be unaware of any political overtones; just read the comments on IMDB.  Still the film resonates with many in the audience today. The politics of prisoners receiving early releases, their sentences being reduced is as timely today with audiences as it is portrayed in the film. Note the discussion about this topic in the church when Will seeks help from the churchgoers. One of the town people speak out saying Miller’s release from prison is not their fight, it is the responsibility of those northern politicians, who released him from prison. In the final analysis, “High Noon” does not fit snugly into any one philosophy. It does not take a straight liberal or a conservative stance. Viewers looking for a particular ideology that fits neatly into their vision will be disappointed. Politically, there is no comfort food here such as conservatives find when they watch FOX news or liberals find watching MSNBC.

From Here to Eternity (1953) Fred Zinnemann

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“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’” – Robert E. Lee Prewitt

 

  

Based on James Jones massive bestseller, Fred Zinnemann’s film version of “From Here to Eternity” won eight Academy Awards out of 13 nominations including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. Daniel Taradash, who wrote the screenplay, and won an Oscar, does a magnificent job of reducing Jones more than 800 page novel into a two-hour film. The film had to be toned down for both sex and its anti-military sentiment. The latter, so Columbia would receive cooperation from the military and the former due to the restrictions of the then in force production code.   from-here-to-eternity

    The story begins with the transfer of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) to a rifle company headed up by Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). When Holmes learns of Prewitt’s ability as a boxer, he wants him to join the company’s boxing team. Prewitt, who previously blinded another boxer in the ring, does not want to box. Holmes First Sergeant, Milton Walden (Burt Lancaster), he actually runs the unit for the ineffective Captain, suggest that they make “life” difficult for Prewitt forcing him into submission by getting other non-commission officers under his command to help “persuade” him to box. Prewitt is a man who goes his own way and can take whatever is dished out by the Sergeants, still refusing to box. Walden in the meantime has his eyes on the Captain’s beautiful neglected and unhappy wife, Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) and they soon begin an affair. Prewitt meets an old friend, the streetwise loser Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Together they go out to the New Congress Club, a dance club where they can meet girls. It’s here Prewitt meets Lorene (Donna Reed). While at the New Congress Club, Maggio, having too much to drink, gets into his first altercation with Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine), the sadistic Sergeant in charge of the Stockade. The fight is quickly broken up by Prewitt. Walden and Karen meet at a secluded beach for a romantic interlude. Here Karen tells Walden how early in her marriage she discovered her husband’s philandering and that during one of his more violent drunken episodes she miscarried their child and now is unable to bear any more children.

 from-here-to-eteneityposter2   At Choy’s bar, a drunken Maggio gets into another mix with Fatso, who pulls out a switchblade. Walden, who is watching, breaks a beer bottle in half and steps in between the two. He tells Fatso, if he wants a fight, fight with him. Fatso backs down, promising Maggio that someday he will get him, saying his type always end up in the stockade eventually. Prewitt and Lorene continue to see each other. She tells Prewitt her real name is Alma and gives him a key to the apartment she shares with another girl. Prewitt’s harsh “treatment” by the non-commissioned officers continues however, he continues to take it never complaining. On another night’s leave, Prewitt and Maggio get ready to go out on the town, only Maggio is slow in getting ready and is the last man in the barracks when the Officer of the Day grabs him for guard duty. Upset Maggio goes AWOL while on guard duty and is quickly arrested and court-martialed. He is sentenced to six months in the stockade where he comes face to face with Fatso and his billy club. Karen wants Walden to sign up for officer training school so he can be transferred back to the states. She will then divorce Holmes and they can marry. Walden who hates officers reluctantly agrees. 

  from-here-to-still  Prewitt is forced into a fight with one of the Sergeants from the boxing team. A group of soldiers gathers to watch, including Captain Holmes, who does nothing to stop the fight until the Sergeant starts losing. Senior officers have been watching from afar wondering why Holmes is not stopping the fight. A few nights later, Walden and Prewitt are sitting on the side of a road drunk when Maggio, badly beaten up, appears. He escaped from the stockade not being able to take Fatso’s brutal beatings anymore. Maggio dies in Prews arms. The following night, Prewitt looks for Fatso and finds him coming of out the New Congress Club. Switchblades are drawn and Prewitt knifes Fatso to death however, Prewitt has been stabbed badly too. Wounded he makes his way to Lorene’s apartment where he remains as he recuperates.  Walden covers up for Prewitt’s AWOL for the next few days. Meanwhile, Karen asks Walden if he submitted his application for officer training and he tells her he did not. On the eve of December 7th, they split up realizing their dreams of a life together could only be a fantasy.

    The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor the next morning. Prewitt, still recuperating at Lorene’s, hears on the radio about the attack and realizing his duty as a solider wants to get back to Schofield Barracks. Lorene pleads with him not to go; after all, what did the Army ever do for him, other that treat him like crap.  As he tries to sneak back to the base, Prewitt is shot by a nervous guard when he does not stop after several cries of halt. When Walden arrives, the guard asks why didn’t he stop? “He was just too stubborn!” Walden replies.

A few days later, Karen and Lorene are evacuated by ship. As they leave the port heading back to the states. Lorene tells Karen her fiancé was a pilot who shot down during the attack. However, Karen recognizes Prewitt’s name realizing Lorene’s fantasy ending.    

    For me, the key role in “From Here to Eternity” is that of Robert E. Lee Prewitt, as portrayed by Montgomery Clift. It is Prewitt who drives what I see as the major theme of the film, that of how does someone maintain his individuality in a system that demands conformity.  Prewitt will not turn his back on his own moral code, not even for the Army that he loves so much.  Walden knows how to play the game; in the military there is no room for individuality; you must conform for the good of the “team.” He sees Prewitt as just being stubborn.  Prewitt’s rebellion is that of a person who knows who he is in life. Unlike Brando’s  50’s rebels  in “A Street Name Desire” and especially in “The Wild One”, Prewitt is not rebelling just for the sake of rebelling, he is standing up for his own principles which are in conflict with the system, in this case, the Army that he loves and wants to be apart of. However, he will not succumb to their demands if it means breaking with his own moral ideas. Additionally, unlike James Dean whose rebellion in both “East of Eden” and “Rebel without a Cause” are both centered on young mixed up teens trying to find themselves by rebelling against ineffective parents. Prewitt is no kid; he knows who he is and what he wants. Prewitt is also representative of director Fred Zinnemann whose main characters often were subject to moral predicaments in films like “High Noon”, “The Nun’s Story” and “A Man for All Seasons.”  fromheretoeternitykerr-on-beahc-pose

    Censorship restrictions at the time forced many changes and toning down, from novel to screen. The New Congress Club where Prew meets Lorene, a whorehouse in the book, became a “Gentlemen’s Club” and the girls went from whores to “hostesses.” The affair between Walden and Kerr was a lot more explicit in the novel than it is in the film. Despite the toning down, the movie still steams sex. Deborah Kerr never looked sexier than she does in this movie. We first see her in a tight fitting sweater as she walks around the base looking for her philandering husband and later on in shorts when Walden make an unexpected visit to her house. There is also the iconic beach scene with the ocean’s waves washing over Lancaster and Kerr bodies that steamed up the screen and still does. It is still surprising how much did get passed the censors. This may have been to some extent due to the casting of Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed in the female leading roles. Both women had “pure” screen reputations, so maybe the censors were more lenient or not paying as much attention. After not seeing this film for a longtime, I was surprised by how short the beach scene is, yet it has resonated strongly in our cinematic erogenous zones.

    Performances are all around excellent and this is confirmed by the acting awards and nominations the film received. Both Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift received Best Actor nominations, Deborah Kerr, Best Actress and Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed both received Academy Awards in their respective Best Supporting categories. Ernest Borgnine deserves much credit for his role as Fatso Judson the sadist stockade Sergeant.

    “From Here to Eternity” is overflowing with actors in small roles who would become better known later on, Jack Warden, Mickey Shaunessey, Bruce Cabot, Claude Akins, Joan Shawlee and George Reeves who was already portraying Superman on TV. The novel (1951) was James Jones first, followed by “Some Came Running”, “The Pistol” and “The Thin Red Line.” In all, Jones published 10 books; his last novel was released posthumously after being completed by Willie Morris.  In 1951, the book was the winner of National Book Award for fiction. Jones based “From Here to Eternity” on his own experiences while stationed in Hawaii though most of the story is said to be fiction. It is ranked 62nd in the Modern Library’s list of Top 100 novels. The book is considered, along with Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” among the best novels depicting the American soldier in the South Pacific during the World War II era.