Monday, September 21, 2015

Angels With Dirty Faces

(Michael Curtiz, USA, 1938)

An oddly mixed bag.  Curtiz's achievement is the orchestration of interplay between Cagney's character and the streetwise orphans who revere him.  There's a raw vitality to these scenes, and beyond that, Cagney's character itself - overflowing with volcanic intensity and charm, which balances, threateningly and thrillingly, always on the edge of evil - is enough to recommend the film.  It's suggested that quite by chance, Cagney's swagger acts as a civilizing function for the boys, channeling their anarchic power towards order, while forcing himself to behave as the mature adult.  These strangely amusing scenes, bursting with colorful slang and punctuated with slaps, kicks, and punches that serve as a secondary language, point towards a complex and humane vision that Curtiz never realizes.  The film eventually morphs into a hollowly pious moral tale, spoiling its promise.  The final scenes are meant to be a dramatic reversal, but it comes off as feeble moralizing, an ostentatious pitch for Christian street cred.  Today, the film would depict Cagney's rehabilitation as a good citizen; in 1938, he had to get sent to the chair, with his electrocution as an occasion for moral uplift. 


(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

A contender for Hitch's greatest work, it is easily his most elegant and precise.  This is the Master of Suspense in top form, the tension tightening like a vice until the breathless final scene. For all that, it is a surprisingly breezy film, but that's what made Hitchcock a master.  He is cinema's greatest seducer, always pairing danger with pleasure, transgression with giddy fun.  Hitchcock was allergic to moralizing (which got him into trouble with everybody, even the occasional audience) but to the extent that you could draw a lesson from his films, it might be "watch out." In his cinematic world, there is trouble around every corner; it's a dream life that's forever on the verge of becoming a nightmare.  This stolid, meticulous Brit understood with astonishing clarity the appeal of simulated catastrophe.  The escapist thrills he was selling seem perverse as soon as you consider them: wouldn't it be a gas to have your whole life turned upside down?

All of Hitchcock's movies contain the basic ingredients of fables, more familiar to modern audiences as kids' stories: secrets, keys, bottles, mirrors, disappearances, disguises, guns, knives, big houses (castles), codes, chases, transformations.  But he didn't make movies for kids, he made them for adults, so he added the element that makes the difference: sex.  To watch a Hitchcock film is to regress, joyfully, while not also abandoning our libido.  The chase becomes a kind of game, even if the stakes are the highest imaginable: life and death, love, world peace.  And what is sex, anyway, but a game for grown-ups? 

The key to Hitchcock's genius, and his singular visionary gift, lies in his appreciation of the totemic power of images.  Looking, he intuited, is a kind of possession. (Notice the hold in beholding.) We look at what we want to possess, and, conversely, we take a kind of ownership of what we see.  Ownership changes the outside world, and begins to shape it.  Sight is the greediest of our senses, the most restless, the least free.  This theme reached its apotheosis in Vertigo, that fever dream of possession as passion (and vice versa).  Scotty is initially bewitched by the sight of Madeline, than haunted by her sudden absence, and then begins to reconstruct his vision of her - not her, of course, but the apparition that he held with his eyes, until she resumes her place in his dream.  We do this all the time, in small ways, shaping the world to suit our own needs; in Vertigo, it's taken to the point of madness.

We don't see a world, we see things.  History hasn't recorded whether Hitchcock read any Wittgenstein, but his movies can sometimes play like an impish gloss on the philosopher's work.  On its own, what importance does a bottle of wine have?  But it's not just any bottle; Hitchcock has framed it in such a way, lit it in such a way, even tracked suddenly in, gliding forward until the shot has become a close-up; now we know that something is up with this bottle.  And what else has just happened?  That character, the nervous, sweaty-looking guy with the glasses, he was pointing at the bottle, clearly agitated.  What can it mean?  We are, suddenly, dying to know.  Meaning has become incipient; the world is taking a new shape.  All of this is to say that an object placed in a certain context begins to create meaning; we want to know more, which is another way of saying we want to see more

Notorious is also the clearest template for what would become his signature formula: an intimate drama dressed up as a thriller.  After 1946, his films became increasingly elaborate (with some notable exceptions) and hallucinatory, his symbols more vivid and strange.  But they remained, at their core, stories about troubled love.  The love triangle at the center of Notorious is exemplary in its unity: Grant is both lover and pimp, betrayer and savoir.  Raines is gallant and dastardly, detestable and ultimately pitiable. Bergman, caught in the middle, shows herself to be both more courageous than her lovers and also more self-destructive; her need for love, and her need to conceal that need, is not just a matter of pride but a matter of survival.  Around this core of opposing passions Hitchcock wrapped his most perfect plot, and studded it with some of his most elegant images: the stolen key, the mysterious bottle, the pained, frightened, infatuated faces of his stars.  The party sequence, beginning with Bergman's theft of the key and climaxing in Grant's reckless decision to kiss her in plain view of her husband, is pure virtuosity, rarely matched before or since.