Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Breaking Point (1950)

Directed by Michael Curtis; produced by Jerry Wald

A navy veteran (John Garfield), running a boat-charter company, finds himself in ever-deepening financial waters. Business is slow, too slow to allow him to keep up the payments on his boat, and even household expenses are proving a strain on his bank balance. Tempted by the promise of a swift return on his investment, he agrees - against his morals and reasoning - to co-operate in a human-trafficking scheme, which of course is just the beginning of his troubles.

This is the second of three cinematic adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, this one and the first (a Humphrey Bogart movie released under the story’s title) being so different in plot and characters as to be unrecognizable as coming from the same source. (I experienced the this phenomenon again watching different versions of films purportedly coming from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, each film being very distinct in plot.) The Bogart film is more actionful and, simply put, more fun. Garfield’s version is more dramatic and realistic.

Interestingly, I could see Bogart filling this role, too, though Garfield is a bit more domesticated than Bogart’s characters usually are. Garfield’s home life is a normal one, with a wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and two daughters. His relationship with his employee is a friendly one.

His actions and motivations are likewise reasonable: becoming involved in crime may not be something all of us would do, but, under the right circumstances, many of us would at least consider it. The protagonist's unease through the entire operation - and afterward - is convincing. The viewer understands that this is a decent man who just wants to do his job, something he normally enjoys, and live a comfortable life with his family.

A second complication in Garfield’s life is a femme fatale (Patricia Neal). This character was the least satisfactory element in the story, and really need not have been in it at all. Neal gave a very good performance, but seemed almost an artificial problem, thrown in to cause marital strife. Though we suspect the movie will not end well for Garfield, we are nonetheless in suspense over how badly he will fare and how he will minimise the damage of his decisions. There is no such tension with regard to his relationship with Neal.

The Breaking Point is a good movie about an ordinary man driven to desperate measures and trying to deal with them in a manner with which many of us could sympathise. Garfield, who may have been seen early on by studio bosses as a mere handsome face, became more than that during his relatively short career. His countenance here is a bit weathered, and his build has the extra pounds one naturally gains as one ages (though he does look rather older than his 37 years; his heart was never robust, and probably aged him somewhat.) He carries the film, and is its centre. Good drama, decent suspense and an ending that is not quite free of uncertainty (and with a heart-breaking final image), make The Breaking Point a worthy viewing experience.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Safe House (1998)

Directed by Eric Steven Stahl; produced by Sean McLain and Eric Steven Stahl

Mace Sowell (Patrick Stewart) lives in fear of assassins. He takes elaborate precautions, such as sleeping in a closet, while his bed is occupied by a look-a-like dummy. His house is protected by video cameras, lasers and locks, and his garden is screened by tall trees. He is also suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome, and is feeling the beginnings of dementia. He shoots live ammunition at moles in his lawn, he can’t remember people’s names, and has an elaborate computer system that may or may not cause severe destruction if not constantly updated. His only friends are the handyman (Craig Shoemaker) who stages ‘drills’ (war-game like scenarios) and a new care-taker/companion (Kimberly Williams). As his disorientation becomes worse, Sowell’s fantasy world begins to affect his real world more and more - but is it fantasy, and if not, how much isn’t?

About two fifths of the way through Safe House, I thought it a failure. There is too much humour - or attempts at humour - which doesn’t work. It was, perhaps, an attempt to divert attention from what may be the central plot-point. In fact, it merely gets in the way. Half-way through, the film hits its stride, discards most of the humour and concentrates on two aspects: Stewart’s increasing illness (and, through it, his relationship with Williams) and his fixation on a presidential candidate, which is connected with his delusions. After this point, the movie improves.

The story seeks to cloud the truth, as much as Stewart’s mind is clouded, and it does a good job of it, though the mystery did not keep me bewildered right to the end. There is frequently a point at which a plot gives away too much - it is usually the point at which more of the plot must be revealed in order to keep the story going, and writers must be very good, or very clever, not to give away too much. In this case, it is not information that provided the clue, but Stewart’s attitude toward another character. However, by then, the film has improved enough to keep the viewer interested to the end.

There are elements which may or may not have been deliberately included but which add to the puzzle. Stewart’s computer safeguards look amateurish. For instance, a list of alleged clandestine operators he has compiled is headed ‘Black Ops’; I chuckled at that, thinking that no government would actually list its agents under such a title. But then, it might be what a delusional man would believe a government would do. His computer system itself looks rather dated, but then, that might be the age of the movie.

Stewart and Williams carry the story, and both are very good. I am not one who thinks that Stewart is a versatile actor. But he can play certain roles very well, and he is successful here. Williams, too, shows that she’s more than a supporting player. Shoemaker provides comic relief; he is apparently an immensely successful stand-up comic and self-help author, the founder of a charity and a Broadway star. Safe House may have been early in his career…

While certainly not without its problems, Safe House does what it is supposed to do, providing interest and entertainment. After an unsuccessful first third or so, it will keep the viewer watching, and gives a satisfying, if not all together unexpected, climax.

Monday, October 15, 2018

My Six Convicts (1952)

Directed by Hugo Fregonese; produced by Stanley Kramer

A psychology professor (John Beal) decides to implement some of the theories of prison reform that he has been teaching. To do so, he takes up the appointment of psychologist at a penitentiary; faced with an utter lack of personnel, he learns he must recruit several of the inmates as his staff. These six are the first prisoners he studies, and those whom he grows to know the best. Each is different, each is dangerous, in his own way.

This prison drama - which has a fair share of levity to it - is almost gentle, compared with the hard-hitting prison movies that were popular at the time. There are no George Raft or James Cagney types. Instead, we see Millard Mitchell as a safe-cracker, and Gilbert Roland as a gangster. There is little violence, despite an escape attempt in the last reel.

Yet this, I found, worked in the film’s favour. I have never been in prison, or even jail, but, like war (another situation in which I have never participated), I imagine that, for those who have experienced it for a while, it is largely boredom and routine, punctuated by moments of terror. There is tension in My Six Convicts: a vicious brawl near the beginning comes out of nowhere, and the advent of a prisoner labelled a psychopath (Harry Morgan) beings an unease that is very well conveyed by the other convicts. It underscores something Beal learns early on, and that is that one can never be completely unguarded in such a setting.

Despite the humour in many scenes, the sentimentality of the friendship the convicts come to feel for their ‘bug doctor’ (from the old term for crazy: bugs, bug-house, bugsy) is offset by actions that prove the criminals have their own sense of morality. Their solution to a hostage-taking is not one any police negotiator would sanction.

My Six Convicts has its flaws. There is no sense of uncovering any prisoner’s origins. Roland’s sudden violence is explained to an extent, but why he became a criminal - why most of the inmates did - is not explored. This creates a sense that these men were always the way they are, which flies in the face of what the story is trying to imply. The film, I believe, hopes suggest that crime can be reduced by reducing the misunderstanding behind the criminals. Certainly, it doesn’t let the felons off the hook, but Beal’s character clearly wants to humanise those who have been de-humanised. (In this, the warden (Fay Roope) concurs, though he has seen so many ‘reformers’ come and go that his reaction to this latest is very jaded.)

In the end, though, My Six Convicts makes an argument for trusting everyone - but trusting that they will act true to their personalities. Even Mitchell, the most likeable of the prisoners, is continually lying, seemingly for its own sake; yet it does not, in the end, make him a bad person.

Whatever lesson, if any, the viewer draws from this film, it will be learned in an entertaining and easy-going manner, thanks to My Six Convicts.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Directed and produced by Robert Wise.

A disgraced former police officer (Ed Begley) sees a way out of the dead end he finds himself in: an easy heist from a small-town bank that could net $200,000. For the job, he requires only two other men. He hires a black man (Harry Belafonte) and a white man (Robert Ryan), but the former resents whites and the latter hates blacks. The trio may walk away rich, if they can keep from killing each other.

This is one of those films in which you know things aren’t going to go even close to the plan, though there is no clue as to how it will really turn out. The set-up is good; there is suspense as the three arrange the robbery. A number of incidents occur that could disrupt the scheme. Of course, the biggest potential disaster is the dislike Ryan and Belafonte feel for each other. That is the basis of the plot, and the problem.

Begley’s character spent thirty years on the police force; surely he could have found a less explosive pair to work with than these two. True, he chooses them for their needs: Ryan is going nowhere fast, a former convict with no prospects. Belafonte is a gambler who is deep in debt. But out of all the criminals Begley met in his career, there must have been two who could have worked well together, been reliable, brought much less drama to the heist. Such a team would have deprived the story of its point, but would have seemed less contrived.

Race relations, and the consequences of not co-operating, drives the plot, but in fact nothing really develops between Belafonte and Ryan. The characters don’t learn anything or grow. I am not one who demands such progress in movie characters, but since so much of the film deals with their problems and backgrounds – that these are three dimensional men is to the writing’s credit – I expected more of a pay-out at the end. The climax is suspenseful; the conclusion is disappointing.

The acting is fine. Belafonte is very good as a man who pins all his hopes (which aren’t much) on this one adventure. He orbits his ex-wife and their child, hoping to land in their lives once more. Ryan is a violent, angry man, though we’ve seen him play that sort before (eg. On Dangerous Ground, in which Begley was his co-star), and he’s portrayed a bigot previously, too (eg. Crossfire, in which he acted with Gloria Grahame, also in Odds Against Tomorrow). Ryan is fully convincing in everything he does. Begley is probably the most sympathetic character, embittered by his past; his crime was ‘not talking’, probably referring to refusing to give up corrupt colleagues in the police, and so has a kind of honour. The supporting cast (including an uncredited Wayne Rogers in a small part) are all good.

The bleakness of the race issue as shown in Odds Against Tomorrow is certainly valid. But as drama, it leaves something, literally, to be desired. Compare it to, for instance, The Defiant Ones, from the year previous, or In the Heat of the Night, and it comes across as unfinished, or perhaps unrefined. Maybe it was meant to be as rough as its characters; that should apply to the story, though, and not the movie.

While there is much to recommend it, Odds Against Tomorrow seems to be missing something, and it is that which leaves the viewer unsatisfied at its end.