Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


A recent rare screening of Max Ophul's Hollywood film CAUGHT (1948) on TCM reveals a Howard Hughes stand-in who's just about the coolest, most terrifying version of them all! Let's look at the way Howard Hughes depictions evolved, or devolved, over the years:

1948 - ***1/2
No doubt that Max Ophuls was "a woman's director" and it's through a woman's eyes--an awkward good-girl fotune hunter mix of uncertainty and antithesis played by Barbara Bel Geddes--that we get a load of  Robert Ryan as a sociopathic captain of industry named Smith Ohlrig. Here's a guy with suits so sharply pressed and perfectly tailored he seems like he could smash through a wall without getting them rumpled.  I dug the film and thought he came across as the real hero, especially compared to his rival, James Mason's befuddled Lower East Side doctor. Bel Geddes takes a job as receptionist in Mason's LES poor folk clinic after she finds the life of a trophy dull. Meanwhile she's rich enough to set up a women's shelter all her own if she wasn't such an insufferable martyr.

Ohlrig's the only one who seems to have an inkling of what is best in life: crush your enemies, see them ruined financially before you, and hear the whiny bored sighs of der wimmen. Whether waiting in the car, or at home, all but whinnying over jigsaw puzzles by the cavernous empty fireplace, Ohlrig's women are meant to freeze in place like plastic dolls when he's not around, then spring to life as perfect hostesses when he pops in with subordinates and movie cannisters in the wee hours of the night. Despite its cliche'd soap opera girl torn between money and love narrative, CAUGHT is cool enough to almost turn me around on Ophuls, whom I've long considered insufferably bourgeois. CAUGHT shows me I better simmer down and go look again.

1961- ***
Great Harold Robbins-bitchy camp dialogue, and the guy from The A-Team, George Peppard, as zillionaire aviator and womanizer Jonas Cord.  As I wrote in an earlier post, Cord and his hot stepmom (Caroll Baker) are like Tony and Cesca in the last reel of SCARFACE ("I can't tell whether I love you or hate you"/ "Both"), while his socialite wife rots at home. Meanwhile, Alan Ladd hangs onto his hat as western hero Nevada Smith, and Leif Erikson is Joanas Sr., who rants at his tomcat progeny: "A man's judged by what's in his head, not in his bed!"

Like Robert Ryan's Hughes in CAUGHT, Peppard's is a taciturn, ruthless businessman workaholic - but unlike CAUGHT he's also highly sexed, and suffused with daddy issues. Such a role might warrant over-playing in less capable hands, but Dmytryk and Peppard are smart enough to never let Jonas smile or betray a hint of emotion other than simmering hatred and  Peppard's voice is marvelously tinged with nasal reverb, like he's always either freshly buzzed or really hungover.

2004 - **1/2
This was the second of the DiCaprio-Scorsese collaborations, and the character is actually supposed to be Hughes, and perhaps for that reason it's a lionization, a mythologizing, rather than a KANE-like expose of a man who owned the world but lost his girl, or something. Instead, we're supposed to swoon as Howard makes model airplanes and boffs chorus girls as his OCD blossoms over the course of a few hand-washing scenes. Also, the script cheats, such as showing Hughes, insane in his screening room, watching WINGS over and over (I guess they couldn't get the rights to ICE STAION ZEBRA!) and suddenly pulling it all together in time to head to D.C. and surmount the odds just by pointing out Alan Alda's investment in United Airlines. Cate Blanchett almost saves it as Hepburn, but the dialogue gives her little room to flourish as anything but a compendium of biography cliches now worn thin from overuse (the golf game, the night flying, the dinner with family, Spence).

For me it's all summed up in the opening scene showing Hughes as a child: his mom is washing him in an ole washtub, a stray light from a high window shining down, illuminating his little arms and chest. The orchestral score swells with import and we're clearly meant to see it as a kind of holy anointing, the boy and his female in pose of supplicated adoration. The scene 'reveals' nothing about the character other than he got spoiled early on with incestuous bathing rituals. Subtextually its an indication of artists like Marty and Leo, who've received way too much press and 'genius' labels, covering their insecurity in layers of money and period costumes and extras and a 'theme' that champions ego even as it seems to critique it (all these movies about the "one man"). Scorsese collides into a brick wall of closed-off persona in DiCaprio, and then tries to make a film around the idea of closed-off persona instead of opening Leo up like an unwilling oyster to the light of day. And so AVIATOR builds the kind of white elephant theme park that RAGING BULL used to kick down. What were the TAXI DRIVER termites for if not to collapse such weary bourgeois edifices?
The myth of Hughes endures because he was a rich weirdo who shunned all aspects of the bourgeois elite. He was the Donald Trump of his day but less charismatic and more genuinely introverted. His later germophobia led to a solitary life spent in a screening room, pissing into jars and watching one special film over and over -- a film that's well-known now because of said repeat viewings by Hughes more than any actual quality:

1968 - ***
Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by one aspect of the Hughes legend, his repeat round-the-clock viewings of ICE STATION ZEBRA. Why that movie? Why not the one I once did the same thing with, a similarly arctic adventure, 1951's THE THING? Maybe now I have the answer. A) he didn't have a copy since he probably had a falling out with Howard Hawks, and B) the THING has no submarine, and it has a girl in it.

In the old days my friends--and their dads-- and I had a thing we called: 'waiting for mom to go to bed.' As soon as we heard that patter of feet stop as she boarded her bed, we could commence the real drinking. This cool captain of industry-type father of my friend developed a habit where--after the Mrs. retired-- he'd quietly drink cognac in a snifter and watch DAS BOOT, which is like ICE STATION ZEBRA (both are submarine war films with nary a woman in the cast) over and over. Hearing about this habit, I instantly thought of ZEBRA and Hughes, and the connection was made - submarines, the ocean. Over a long summer spent at their beach house the three of us watched MOBY DICK over six times!

The peculiar appeal of war movies for intelligent, successful men like Hughes and my friend's dad likely involves the fantasy of having clear cut goals, a uniformly competent workforce, a reliable chain of command, and freedom from the anxiety of being around women, of needing to shave or reign in your bad habits, freedom from the chaos of the public sphere (i.e. women) and the orbit of the earth around the sun (it's neither night nor day below the sea). It's comforting to think that, for all their influence and power, at the end of the day rich white dudes just want to get high and hang out somewhere that's flush with poker games, flasks, bonding,and no women to tell them what to do. DodoodooBumbumbum, oh what joy.

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