Thursday, August 31, 2017

Watership Down (1978)

Directed and produced by Martin Rosen

Lest you think that all the movies shown in the Cosy Apartment are in black and white and from the 1940s, I would like to tell you about Watership Down, the animated film based on the 1972 best-selling novel of the same name. The book is one of my favourite works of fiction, and the subsequent movie is true both to the story and the spirit of the book.

The movie is about a small group of rabbits who, inspired by the premonition of one of their number that their warren (colony) is doomed, set out to find a new home. They encounter danger and hardship almost every step of the way but eventually reach a lonely ridge called Watership Down (a real place in England, as are most of the other locations). There, the rabbits begin to build their new lives, thinking tribulation is behind them. They are wrong.

It sounds innocuous. The fact that the characters are almost all bunnies, and that the movie is animated, makes it seem perfect family fare, fit for children of all ages. But this is not a movie for children. The tag-line of the film was “The whole world will be your enemy…and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.” This is uttered by Lord Frith (the sun), treated as a god in the rabbits’ mythology. He knew of what he spoke.

Though elements of the film are violent, the bit of a reputation Watership Down garnered because of them has obscured its full nature. The truth is that the movie, like the book, is about real rabbits. They don’t wear waistcoats and have tea, as delightful as that is. These rabbits are concerned almost exclusively with survival. They worry about food, producing offspring and, when they must, fighting. This is an adventure film, with involved dialogue, stories within stories and hair-breadth (hare-breadth?) “ ‘scapes in the imminent deadly breach”. The violence when it comes may be shocking but serves a purpose, reminding us that nature is not all lush meadows and soft summer nights. There is a surreal scene depicting the destruction of a rabbit warren by poison gas. When I saw this scene in the cinema, a child, not much younger than I was, literally ran screaming up the aisle. But it wasn’t until I was older that the impact of the scene struck me, and I realised the terror felt by animals dying in such a fashion. 

Though it uses animals, being animals, the story becomes almost epic in scope; despite originating as a tale to keep two young children occupied on a road-trip, it could hold its own against the exploits of Greek legend. The result is a movie in which rabbits act like rabbits, yet could represent human interaction. The author of the book, Richard Adams, even devised a mythology for the rabbits which includes a god, spiritual beings and folk-heroes. (The movie conflates, no doubt deliberately, in the interests of time, the lapine hero, El-hrairah, with the Black Rabbit of Inlé (death)).

The characters are well-drawn and three dimensional, and each of the main ones have distinct personalities, enlivened by excellent actors, including John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Hannah Gordon and Zero Mostel. The animation is simple, but skillful, in a way that is not seen anymore. The backgrounds are beautiful water-colours.

While I recommend the novel above the movie, this is a review of films and not books, so instead, I give the movie Watership Down a high rating. But don’t let little kids see it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Keeper of the Flame (1943)

Directed by George Cukor; produced by Victor Saville.

This is a lesser known Tracy/Hepburn film, and though it has excellent performances, and not just by the stars, I did not consider it one of their successes.

The plot involves Spencer Tracy, newly returned from reporting on the Second World War in Europe, confronted with the news that Robert Forrest has died in a car wreck. Forrest was an American hero of almost divine dimensions, beloved by everyone, including Tracy, who decides to write a book about the man. To do this, he finagles his way into the fortress-like mansion in which Forrest’s young widow (Katherine Hepburn) now lives. As he speaks to her, and to others, Tracy begins to suspect that there was something amiss with the legendary Forrest, or at least with his demise.

Though writer David Ogden Stewart was proud of his script, I think it may have been from an ideological aspect, rather than literary. I found it rather obvious. From the start, the viewer is aware that something is going to be wrong with the fallen hero; too many people worship him blindly for him not to be flawed. Tracy is diverted, stone-walled and delayed so often that there is little doubt that a terrible secret will emerge. Yet Tracy, the veteran journalist, intelligent and dogged, pushes unseeingly toward a conclusion which, though it should have been shocking, turns out to be anti-climactic.

One of the problems is that, while the film wants to portray the dangers to democracy that lurk at its heart, it also tries to be a murder mystery. The mystery, however, is, firstly, not much of a mystery, and, secondly, is almost an annoying distraction from what should have been the main plot-line. By the time Tracy discovers the truth - discovers by simply being told, rather than by any investigative unveiling - the viewer has already arrived at the solution, and is impatient for the plodding reporter to catch up. The two strands - the secret behind Forrest’s death and the secret behind the man - should have been complementary, but, instead, get in each other’s way.

There is much greater success in the atmosphere of the movie. The air of hidden menace, of something kept clandestine, is ably depicted by the immense walls surrounding Forrest’s estate, and his half-mad mother, well-played by Margaret Wycherly, by turns sympathetic and frightening. There is also foreshadowing in the subtly-written minor characters, the local doctor (Frank Craven) and the village taxi-driver (Percy Kilbride); the former, almost open in his distrust of Forrest, the latter expressing suspicion by stating that he didn’t follow Forrest because ‘some people just ain’t “joiners”.’ And Richard Whorf is a stand-out as Forrest’s secretary, a man whose public subservience and timidity contrasts sharply with his private personality.

But Keeper of The Flame, despite what must have been its timeliness in 1943, cannot rise above a script that called for smarter main characters, and didn’t provide them.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Iron Curtain (1948)

Directed by Willliam A Wellman; produced by Sol C Siegel

The first movie to be reviewed from the cinema at the Cosy Apartment is The Iron Curtain, a 1948 true-life thriller about the defection of Igor Gouzenko.

This movie was the second pairing of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, after 1944’s Laura. This film is definitely the lesser known of the two, and tells the story of a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa who, in September, 1945, defected with his wife and infant son to Canada, bringing with him documents detailing wide-ranging Soviet espionage against his host country, the United States and the United Kingdom. Little known today, the incident was, in effect, the start of the Cold War. The Allied Powers had just won the Second World War; indeed, the surrender of Japan took place just days prior to Gouzenko’s defection. Few in Canada, the U.S. or Britain believed the Soviet Union to be a danger; fewer still believed that it was actively campaigning, secretly, against its friends. Gouzenko’s actions opened many eyes.

Andrews credibly portrays the main character, someone who, though perhaps not exuberant in the cause of his country, believes in it. His views change, especially under the influence of a cynical comrade (Eduard Franz) in military intelligence. His decision to defect seems a little rushed in the movie, but it was aided by his impending replacement, and orders to return to Russia. Likewise, Tierney, as Anna Gouzenko, seems too swiftly to decide that all she had been taught in Russia about the West was a lie. Showing more interaction with everyday Canadians would have helped the story in this aspect.

However, the film is well done. The supporting players are excellent. Franz’s drunken speech in which he recounts killing his own soldiers to induce fear great enough to volunteer for a suicide mission is heart-felt, and Andrews’s reaction, having to remain silent to avoid showing incriminating sympathy, is perfect. Berry Kroeger portrays a high-powered Comintern official, self-assured and confident, even when facing defeat. June Havoc has an intriguing role as a professional temptress.

The writing is also very good. Speeches given by the hard-line members of the embassy may seem like anti-communist propaganda, but are very much the cookie-cutter slogans that are familiar to anyone reading the memoirs of Russian politicians or intelligence officers of the time. There is also a good sense of how some in the Soviet intelligence establishment viewed their work as routine and just a job. The movie is narrated (by Reed Hadley) which gives it a semi-documentary feel, similar to the large number of high-grade British movies coming out at the same time.

Something that leant authenticity to The Iron Curtain was the use of Canadian locations, specifically, the actual locations at which events in the film occurred. The exterior shot of the Gouzenkos’ home in Ottawa is of the real building in which the real Gouzenkos lived. All the outdoor scenes were filmed in Canada and, clearly, during cold months, as the genuine snow (not the soap-flakes often used by Hollywood), proves. The newspaper office shown looks convincingly real, and quite different from every other such office I’ve seen depicted in movies of the era. That the film’s writer, Milton Krims, was American is attested by the rare mistake, such as the repeated reference to a character as a ‘captain’ in the Royal Canadian Air Force, even though there was no such rank, and the character’s uniform shows that he was, in fact, a group captain, equivalent to an army colonel. And I did learn things, such as Gouzenko’s given name being pronounced, not as the familiar ‘ee-gore’ but like the word ‘eager’, and his surname having an invisible ‘Y’: ‘Gouzyenko’.

The Iron Curtain is an entertaining and very interesting handling of an important, forgotten event in international relations.