Thursday, May 30, 2013


If you want to scoop deep into the real murky moral ambiguity of war, the heart of the heart of darkness, take to the air and hunt the pre-code 1930s WWI flying ace movies written by John Monk Saunders. Dogfights and aerial maneuvers are performed in the era's rickety biplanes by day and mortifying guilt, terror, and despair is drunk away with rousing camaraderie by night. Using recycled aerial footage from the silent film Wings (1927), the dogfights are conveyed via quasi-kabuki anonymity as pilots are shot at through rear projection, adding to a sense of depersonalized, out-of-time aloneness 'up there' in the deadly skies. Since all the pilots wear the same evil-looking goggles it becomes important to cast actors with differing jaw lines, leading to some pretty strange specimens while accentuating the anonymity of death. The same burly Red Baron-type hun shoots, dies and salutes, in the same footage, in almost every one of these films, at least I think it's the same guy. Taken as whole, the films I am about to dive bomb into convey a strange moment in time: the years after the advent of sound and before the arrival of Hitler and Tojo. Up until then it was fashionable to be gobsmacked by the massive horror of "The Great War" and--like a guilty, shivering drunk--vowed never again.  Pearl Harbor crushed-out Hollywood's antiwar at the end of 1941, of course; were like Shane, forced to break our vow because, goddamn it, they made it personal.  

Before then though, the conscience-stricken flying ace films of John Monk Saunders' took advantage of the pre-code "amorality" to provide more than just up-to-the-minute reflections of the forgotten man's deep disillusionment over coming home to the Depression. They also eyeballed the sketchy border between war as a boyhood bonding experience and the post-war (or even post-battle) existential distress. Looking back from our 21st century hindsight, imagining America's attitude was Saunders' 1930-33 films haunt the landscape like a dark shadow. No wonder they were seldom re-released and are now available only on Warner's Archive or Amazon downloads. They're almost unAmerican!

Saunders and wife, Fay Wray

A professional aviator and trainer of WWI fighter pilots,  Saunders was a good-looking, intelligent, heavy-drinking depressive genius, thus his published stories of WWI aerial combat and heavy drinking provided perfect pre-code script material. Part Hemingway and part Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he became a hot commodity in hard-drinking Hollywood and married Fay Wray! Was he flying the bi-plane that got Kong? Was it Saunders killed the beast? No, but Saunders' powerful, alcoholic thousand yard stare can't be dismissed from the horror metaphor, as we shall see...

As you know, I take a strong stance on the importance of drugs / alcohol abuse in being able to face the existential horror of the void. Would there even be a void without it? More importantly, it helps a writer stay lucid while delving into that void, deeply and lucidly enough to make it all flow like wine to the eye drums. The proximity of death opens the door to the screaming Lovecraftian horror of life, the terrifying tentacled devourer in the blackness waiting right outside your bubble of delusion, and the booze allows you to stare right into its gleaming, rotten yellow eye, and wink like a half-digested Jon Voight. Without booze, this grim confrontation which all sensitive poet hunters and fisherman must make every time they look into the terrified, dying eye of their prey (or blank page)--would be unendurable. Where would Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Huston, Tennessee Williams, or John Monk Saunders be without the booze OR the horror, the 'blue devil', the 'spook' that comes with war or delirium tremens? Like W.C. Fields' keeping serpents handy to warrant his use of 'snake bite remedy,' without these visionaries would not our generation, too, be lost, falling in a downward spiral? You may argue that it is in such a spiral, and you'd be right, but man have we learned how to plummet in style! We whoop it up like Major Kong. And that's because of our dead drunk writers.

Saunders' first filmed story was WINGS (above) in 1927. A turning point in aerial combat war realism, Saunders provided a probably accurate recording of the bloody birth of the modern mechanical man and the nerves of steel that allowed him to soar into the maw of machine gun fire at 3,000 feet, on nothing but some wires and canvas (and no parachute) and the way the alcohol and mademoiselles of gay Paris provided a welcoming bubble in which to crash land one way or another. Audiences loved the aerial stunt photography and, thanks to Saunders, they also caught a whiff of the full-on madness of cartoon champagne bubbles and Clara Bow's imitation of an uptight nurse's imitation of a vampiric courtesan.

But it is later, in the sound era, in a disturbing, brilliant WWI quadrilogy of pre-code sound films, where Saunders finds his true 'how to keep your cool even when the walls are trying to eat you' calling.

The early 30s pre-code years were themselves naturally existential: Remember my Forgotten Man?  He hurled his lunch across the land? Remember how an ineffectual censorship board made it easy to tell the truth about the pre-Social Security and unemployment insurance-era's widespread poverty, horror, disillusionment, sexual double standards in this country, and the war-related post-traumatic stress, the lure of Bolshevism, and the seething resentment over Prohibition?

Nervous isolationists looked anxiously towards Hitler's rise and Japan's aggression against China and saying "uh uh, not tonight, Josephine! This time we're staying home." And Saunders was the right man for the job of deflating our war balloon, giving us a little aerial action in the process via booze-drenched scripts for: THE DAWN PATROL (1930), THE LAST FLIGHT (1931), and THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933) and ACE OF ACES (1933). Let's examine!

Directed by Howard Hawks (Warner Bros.)
*** 1/2
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Neil Hamilton

In the first scene of this early Howard Hawks film, the flight commander (Neil Hamilton) at a French tavern-style headquarters rants on and on about the cold idiocy up the chain of command while his assistant counts the sound of incoming engines. There's two planes missing... planes they lost on the dawn patrol. It's all very modern and surreal and you can imagine seeing it as a play during the big Disillusionment of the post-WW1 Great Depression (along with Idiot's Delight, etc.), The film was a hit though, and even remade by Edmund Goulding in 1938 as a vehicle for Errol Flynn and David Niven. Basil Rathbone took Hamilton's role in that version and the casting and other touches make it a better film, Considering Goulding was a 'woman's director' and Hawks' a man's man, the remake is far more lucid and macho. Flynn is a far less mushy Captain Courtney than Richard Barthelmess, whose silent film sensitivity aged not so fine. 

As with Hawks' best films, there's a querencia, an enclosed shelter within which our brave group waits, drinks, smokes, sings, and passes out, between bouts with dead-defying.  And like all the best Hawks, we're made aware of every drink poured and cigarette rolled and match lit, and no one leaves a drink behind half-full. We come to know the layout of the place very well, like a second home. The bunks are upstairs, the bar is downstairs, and the CO's office opens out onto the bar, making it easy to hear tomorow's orders, get drunk, and then carry the lightweights up to bed all without going outside in the rain or having to deal with women.

That said, that shit was just getting started with Hawks. He's too willing still to abandon his improv masculine codexing once the stagy script demands we boil things down to the usual anti-war rants against kid killing and the pain Courtney suffers when his best friend (Fairbanks) starts fighting with him once Courntey himself takes over the flight commander role and starts sending kids to their deaths himself, including William Janney, crushingly great as Scotty's super naive brother, who assures them both he's great at flying and not afraid to die.

I was a big fan of the remake (here) and its super grim gallows' wit, and longed to see this one, and it's available at last via WB Archives. It turns out Goulding's film borrowed most of the dogfights but 1938 was too close to the start of the second war to get too weepy about killing kids, it was more about not being weepy at the thought of dying yourself, and of being a stout fellow who salutes and drinks with his enemy (shots between drinks or drinks between shots, as Marlowe says of Sean Regan in The Big Sleep). This time around, Richard Barthelmess as Capt. Courtney makes up for in method tics what he lacks in Flynn grace. When he gets out of his plane after a mission his legs wobble, like mine after mowing the grass, and we see a whole range of silent film pain, resignation in those big puppy Lorre eyes. He's far less boisterous than Errol Flynn, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is less jolly (but more authentically inside a war) than David Niven. Sometimes it may be hard to understand why Barthelmess was considered such a star, he's so stocky and short and thin-lipped, but there's a lot of acting going on in his silence, even while the rest of him stays posed like a wax statue, the flickering warm light in those eyes when he sees Scotty come back alive (with bottles) makes one choke up, whereas in the remake the same scene is merely jubilant and exhilarating.

All in all and remake aside, Hawks' 1930 version is one of the more rousing WWI ace pics, and balances the anti-war sentiment with a more stoic existential acceptance of duty, and love of action and destruction (those miniatures of German airfields and railroad crossings blow up real satisfyingly, the ground buckles and caves). That's why, maybe it's a quintessential John Monk Saunders adaptation but it's filmed by a vet of the Signal Corp. himself (Hawks), so if the blubbering and arguing of the Big Anti-War message seems heavy-handed today, remember the time it came out -- 1930 -- and that Hawks was only one of three writers. You can tell which parts he wrote, too - the earlier ones, the drinking and carousing and singing and befriending the German flier. And someone else wrote the glum ranting of act two. It's still a great acid film, just like it's 1938 remake, for it taps into the way part of tripping involves keeping your cool and shrugging it off with a drink and a verse or two of "hurrah for the next man who dies," even when the walls are melting and the handrails down the stairs are like two pincers and the steps the tongue of some throbbing scarab beetle devouring you, and everyone you see seems to be bleeding -- you can see the blood pulsing through their translucent skin -- oh my god, so much blood almost always about to spill! You want to yell and pull at people's lapels and shriek why aren't they freaking out! In such a state, just keeping cool is a true test of manly courage. Maybe it's not the same as 'really' being in a war, but then again, maybe only schizophrenics, war vets, and survivors of 12 hour-long nightmare STP trips truly understand one another. BANG! BANG!

After the credits, sometime, the war ends and the surviving pilots go in various directions, usually after some opening scenes borrowed from WINGS and DAWN PATROL. Some pilots go home to usher in the early days of commercial flight, ala AIR HOSTESS (1933) and CEILING ZERO (1936). Some go into barnstorming. If they're too shot-up or broken and can't even fly a safe boring passenger route (which according to one ex-barnstormer is "like being a trolley conductor") they can try air mail routes in South America, over the Andes ala NIGHT FLIGHT (1933, my appreciation here) or ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). If they're too damaged even for that, there's always staying in prohibition-free Paris and drinking themselves into sweet oblivion, as with: 

Director: Williem Dieterle (for Warners)
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Helen Chandler, David Manners - ***

After opening on a wordless montage of war footage that stretches from random explosions and WWI shots of tanks, exploding boats, the overhead railroad depot bombing money shot from DAWN PATROL, there is--spliced in--anonymous goggled close-ups showing the fiery crash that has allowed Signal Corp. pilot Cary (Barthlemess) and his rear gunner Shep (David Manners) to be too fucked up to fly again. After discharging them, the doctor notes they're "heading out to face life, when their whole training was in preparation for death."

It was the preparation for death that had been, of course, Saunder's job during the war as a flight trainer. "I'm afraid they're like projectiles, shaped for war. Hurled at the enemy. They described a beautiful high-arching trajectory, and now they've fallen back to earth... spent... cooled off... useless." The doctor keeps going, noting that they fell 600 feet, "like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement - it shattered both of them." Okay Okay, we get it.

On the plus side it legitimizes their desire to live and die awash in a sea of boozy screwball gibber-gabber. Their goal is to get tight and "stay tight" - a beautiful high arching trajectory to be sure! And Paris is the closest place to get that tight, as Prohibition made going to the US less than thrilling.

Saunders had clearly been reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald before writing this and Last Flight could have become a Lost Generation cult classic if directed by a rapidfire overlapping dialogue and smoking and drinking wiz like Hawks or W.S. Van Dyke, George Cukor or someone with a dark-streaked screwball comedic humanism like Leo McCarey, Capra, or even Norman Z. McLeod. But, in the hands of once-impoverished German immigrant Willam Dieterle, the champagne bubble "hurrah for the next who dies" dialogue sinks down like smoke from an unfiltered Gauloises, revealing only a perfunctory understanding of boozy tuxedo modernism and the natural flow of spoken English. In this land of early sound and Germanic directorial strategy, everyone over-enunciates, waiting for the other to finish talking, allowing a long pause between each speaker, like a tableful of drunks never would in real life. The result plays like a 1929 Paramount Marx Brothers movie directed by a drunken Todd Browning, with (most of)  the cast of DRACULA (1931) all playing Groucho and Geoffrey from UNDER THE VOLCANO at the same time, though without a slur. Which sounds great, by the way, and almost is. When we find the boys after their discharge swilling away down at the local cafe, along with some other ex-pats, we are instnatly dubious of just how drunk they  are - but it makes sense that they would run into and all fall for, an ethereal vampire-like alcoholic played by Mina Harker (aka Helen Chandler). A fast-formed friendship forms - with Chandler as their kind of de facto mascot / Snow White (to their dwarfs) / Den Mother. They all fall into a moveable feast that heads off to Lisbon to party, and from there, a date-rapey creep in their midst ruins everything. Don't they always? 

To me, it's the date-rapey creep that ruins it - so part of protecting Snow White involves getting rid of Rapey the eighth dwarf as soon as possible - misleading him, sending him off to get cigarettes and running away and pulling down the shades when he comes by. And even so, aside from Barthelmess and Manners, the crew of fellow drunk expat aviators aren't very hip. It's really only Barthelmess and Manners that Nikki likes, and we like. Frink (Walter Byron) is the Rapey, an icky journalist who keeps hanging around their fringe; his creepy omnipresence stops most of the zaniness from being really fun (then again, "who cares?" is their motto). There's also a suspiciously loud Texan (Johnny Mack Brown) who tackles horses in the street outside the bar on a dare and rocks the flattest of twangs. There's also Elliot Nugent (who'd go on to direct the awesome 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY) as Francis, the shot-up, dour marksman who ends up spending most of the time eyeballing Frink (as I would be doing), though he waits until almost the end to finally do us all a favor and shoot him, calling an immediate end to the party.

Luckily for us despite the dates and uncouth trimmings, there's a weird poetry in the chemistry between Chandler and Manners, who seem even more ESP-whisp-thereal than they did in the same year's DRACULA --no easy feat. As Shep, Barthelmess's drinking buddy, bosom pal and ex-gunner, Manners' otherworldly feyness finds a great natural outlet--we believe he's forgotten what month it is--and when he dies shot in a cab and proclaims "in a way this is may be the best thing that ever happened to me," we actually believe him.

And it's understandable that both he and Nikki would be so drawn to the quiet strength of Barthelmess' densely rooted pilot. By contrast, they seem to float when standing still, their eyes following wisps around the room only the two of them can see, making them like a taller, drunker version of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but with their invisible strings fastened to Barthelmess's anchor, they don't need to worry about floating away

And the similarities of DRACULA and FLIGHT don't end there: Chandler's character Nikki is much more like the Mina in Stoker's novel of DRACULA than her actual Mina was in Todd Browning's adaptation. She might be reading crazy gonzo lines but she's delivering them like she's about to cry or relate her strange dream of a dark figure coming out of the mist. In the novel she becomes a kind of revered virgin icon-mascot for Van Helsing, Harker, Dr. Seward and Lucy's other grief-stricken suitor (a Texan!). If Frink was Dracula it might even be a remake, but in a way, the war already had the Dracula role, making it really like Dracula part 2, wherein Manners, Chandler, Barthelmess and co. all try to drink away the awful memories of, and wounds from, their big climactic staking.

In real life, Chandler would later experience kinship with monsters horrified by their lack of recognizable mirror reflection. Wiki notes that "she ironically fell victim to alcoholism later in life and was badly disfigured in a fire caused by falling asleep while smoking." And of course vampirism is a great metaphor for dependence on alcohol, morphine, or the horrors of war. Each is a key that can easily replace the other, soothe the worries of the other, and in the process open the lock of great literature and art (Barthelmess's character has a nervous tic but "the tic doesn't work when he's tight, so he stays tight").

If only I was there, I could have helped them ditch Frink sooner, for I was expert and driving off wallies, and man we'd have a time -for  the rest of them drink like I used to, and I loved my moveable feast crew, and we had the same infallible sense of surrealist absurdity, collective platonic love of our collective drunk beaytiful blonde resident wit and a hatred of date rapists we had to drink desperately to escape.

Brushing aside Frink's dour lechery, Mick La Salle notes in his essential, beautifully-written 2002 book, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man (where I first learned about Saunders' films, so this post owes La Salle a heavy debt):
"These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over [Nikki's] legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking a dim memory when such things were to live and die for...." 
"Nikki isn't a woman of the world, but an airy figure with a child's honesty and an adult's sadness, a female version of the men. (Chandler, whose own hopeless alcoholism would lead to tragedy, couldn't help but bring a special truth to the role.)" (p. 100)
The presence of Barthelmess makes it also a sequel to THE DAWN PATROL (if his lived and got discharged with buddy Fairbanks), and a perfect distillation of trying to drink away one's broken watch status via the icy abstraction of martinis and a beautiful, hard-drinking girl (a Zelda). 

Throughout the film the idea of being 'a big success' is played with, and the competition to be the last one in the room with Nikki is part of that, and also what drives Francis to finally off Frink, requiring Francis's subsequent disappearance into the Lisbon shadows. "This is the first time he's looked truly happy," notes Nikki as she watches Frances disappear. Manners has also been (accidentally) shot in the fracas, and a sense of VERTIGO / Purloined letter circular death drive / Appointment in Samara ensues: As he slowly dies in the back of a cab, Shep reports feeling like he's falling, and falling... like he and Cary did in the opening scene over the skies and screens of France. "He was ready to die once," Cary notes, "and he was ready to die again." 

Here it is, the real love affair of the story, that between Barthelmess and Manners, the way men bond eternally in the field of combat, like orphans forever clinging to paddle-less rafts during battles with shadowy Robert Mitchums (imagine if Stewart in VERTIGO had a buddy to fall into the infinite with, someone other than motherin' prude Midge). "Comradeship," says Barthelmess, "was all we had left."  
And maybe that's what the real lure of war is for men at home: an escapist grim fantasia of true brotherhood and comradeship and no prohibition or small town morals. In wartime it's just buds against the world, firearms instead of nagging wives, the chance to prove one's mettle when it's all stripped down to just you and the guys experiencing the same hell the next seat over. And Barthelmess--his usually impassive face contorting into a slow burn wide-eyed terror at being finally unable to save his gunner's life in the cab-cradles Manners' head as he dies, like a lover. But when it comes to pitching confessional woo to Nikki in their private train car back to Paris in the next scene, he seems to doing some lipless burlesque of what having lips is like. Still, the pair's lonesome auras collide finally and the sense of two lost souls clinging to each other continues-- each grateful that something and someone at least lets them pretend they're not already crashed.

And more importantly, they won't ever take the bottle away and say "you've had enough, honey."

Then, in 1933, Hitler consolidated power and Prohibition was repealed: two very good reasons for moving back to the States, where the voting majority were determined to keep out of the next world war. Sensing the new threat on the horizon, Saunders wrote two more anti-war movies that promoted a new isolationist propaganda stance.

This was when the need to start mobilizing the national military industrial complex was vastly more important than most people in their sloshed disillusionment could have realized, not only because arms build-up would lift us out of the Depression but because, as La Salle notes, "Had the United States found the will that year to throw a net over Hitler, tens of millions of lives might have been spared."

Well, anyway, these two 1933 Saunders flying ace films are great stuff now that they can't do any real damage to our collective freedom, so here we go:

Directed by Stuart Walker (for Paramount)
Starring: Frederic March, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Jackie Oakie

The descriptions of this film tend to describe it as a love triangle between Frederic March, rising Paramount star Cary Grant (in the same year he played opposite Mae West in her two best pictures), and a vamped-to-the-point-she's-ceased-to-look-human Carole Lombard (billed only as 'the beautiful lady' she seems ethereally daemonic enough to be the "bloofer lady" in DRACULA). But contrary to the picture at left, Cary Grant and Lombard never actually share a single scene in the film, and at left Lombard more resembles a wife or WAC in a WWII home front propaganda piece rather than a mysterious sympathetic ear wrapped in ermine who March trysts with in the dead of night in Hyde park.

And Cary Grant is no hero, but a sociopathic if ultimately loyal gunner to March. Grant's hawkish vibe allows March to play the guilt-stricken noble. He becomes a top ace, but he has to get progressively drunker to keep it together once his body count rises, to the point a grinning French general pinning a medal on him can smell the alcohol on his breath even in the pouring rain!  Hey, c'est la guerre! And when one of his gunners later simply falls out during a loop-de-loop maneuver, March's decent into alcoholism and existential guilt goes from spiral to straight downward dive-bomb.

The thing that tears the game up more than anything for Jerry (March) is that he can't admit how much he loves to kill. When he comes back from his first foray over the lines he's exhilarated and giddy, only to find his first-assigned gunner is dead behind him. From then on, he's horrified, not by fear of being killed, but of being responsible somehow for the deaths of his gunners (he loses five in a matter of months) while he gets his kicks. It's guilt for loving killing and collateral damage. What I dig most about EAGLE AND THE HAWK is just how flimsy the WWI bi-planes here seem. They look ready to fall to pieces at a moment's notice, little more than kites with guns attached. 

What's less exciting is the way, just like Kirk Douglas in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), Jerry's self-righteous anti-war stance includes blissful freedom from the big picture, i.e. the responsibility endured by Neil Hamilton in DAWN PATROL. It's very convenient to bad cop it to a higher-up and play the wounded dove without worry of the long-ranging sociopolitical consequences. That said, March's performance is brilliantly modulated and it's quite intense watching his polite veneer slowly crumble under strain of conscience, until, during the big drunken binge thrown in his 'top ace' honor (after he shoots down Voss, a Richtofen-like ace who's barely out of his teens), March finally snaps, interrupting his fellow flier's drunken singing with a crazy rant: "I earn my medals for killing kids!" He then staggers off to his room and commits suicide, a tour de force statement! Yeah right. What a waste...

La Salle notes that Jerry's suicide had a real-life parallel to Saunders' real life booze-enhanced turmoil:  "Seven years after the film was made, Saunders, age 42, hanged himself." (105) That would be 1940. You do the math; he died along with any socratic ideal of a future negotiated peace with Hitler. He also probably realized, as so many drunks do, that sobriety was his only other option.


But all that was still a ways off in 1934. Saunders could, at least for awhile, channel his booze-fueled depressive drunken combat envy to pictures and literature. We alcoholic poets come alive when our paranoia and sense of immanent calamity finally have a proper setting. Saunders' anti-war sentiment at its most effective always includes pro-war relish, a mix of emotions including a paradoxical sense of brotherhood with the enemy fliers. As long as he could seethe with isolationist fury he could indulge this Hyde-like dark twin as well.

One can imagine the outlet for such isolationism being choked off after 1938, never to return (until Vietnam). But American pacifism was all the rage in 1933, the year of such polemics like MEN MUST FIGHT and political satires like DUCK SOUP and DIPLOMANIACS, all of which adds up with Saunders' relative homicidal glee to compare favorably as a predecessor to PATTON if he pretended to be ashamed of his yen for slaughter, or Dr. Strangelove's amok hand making peace signs instead of Nazi salutes.

I'd hazard a guess too that, for one of WWI's more peerless Air Corps. fiction authors, Saunders' lack of actual combat experience reflects his guilt more than his characters' over killing kids. This is perhaps the one weak aspect of his work but as far as weak aspects go, you won't find these kinds of sentiments voiced so clearly anywhere else in pre-code film. Other writers were either anti-war pacifists screaming the dogmatic socialist credos while fascist soldiers hauled them away (ala IDIOT'S DEIGHT), or "over there / over there" lemmings. Saunders was too smart for either out, he explored the actuality of the grisly homicidal fish that bites the propaganda lure with a boozer's realization that they were two sides of a same lousy nickel-plated excuse to get away with murder.

ACE OF ACES (1933)
Director: J. Walter Rubin (for RKO)
Starring: Richard Dix, Elizabeth Allan, Ralph Bellamy, Theodore Newton, Joe Sauers - ***1/2

Sculptor Rocky (Richard Dix) and his wealthy fiancee, Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) begin the film in an idyllic upper class garden guarded by a strangely disagreeable ceramic gnome. Someone runs over with alarming news. It's war! He just saw the paper! Rocky immediately declares that signing up to go fight is for chumps, and in a subsequent scene up in Rocky's second floor sculpture studio, he and Nancy have an argument of principles while parade footage unfurls outside the window below his work in progress, a winged angel. She dumps him for his 'cowardice.' Which leads to the next scene, Dix entering his new barracks to meet his fellow fliers, while a guitarist sings "Ten thousand dollars for the folks back home / ten thousand dollars / for the family," while they roll up the possessions of the latest killed flier whose bunk Rocky's taking. We get the message, your family gets ten grand if you die in the air.

It's a startlingly modern scene, these pilots seem like they stepped out of a 50s Corman film. They're far too beat for1933. They jive like they should be swindling Tony Curtis out of his sax or chasing James Dean around an abandoned swimming pool. Each of the pilots has a mascot and a nickname: "This is Tombstone Terry, the Tennessee Terror, otherwise known as Dracula!" The man leans forward to eye Rocky's neck, "Welcome to the ranks of the undead!" (WWI ended 13 years before the premiere of the 1931 Lugosi film, mind you). They each have an emblem of their power animal/mascot emblazoned on their ships: Rocky just happened to think to bring a lion cub and there's a chimp who drinks to ease the pain when his master's in the air. There's also a dog, a parrot, and a pig with an iron cross tattoo. Each flier's bunk has a flag with the amount of killed enemy planes represented on it by big 'X' stickers on the headboard (usually a chunk of a shot down plane wing). The plane of each man is taken care of like a teenager takes care of his Pontiac Firebird.

Then there's the ingenious way Rocky's artistic understanding of natural light benefits him in dogfights. He chokes on the trigger at first and has to get winged in the shoulder by an enemy bullet before he mans up and squeezes. The boys celebrate his kill and Dix realizes that he may never make the grade as a sculptor, but this new bloody brand of performance has a nice adrenalin kicker.

But what is the 'meaning' behind this art? When Dix smacks a kid in the face with an ammo belt because he loaded it wrong, we know we're not supposed to be buying war bonds in the lobby. This shit is personal. And the very hip disaffection of the fliers bears out my theory that war and acid are just two different sides of the same empty, terrifying void.

The Lemming and the Lion
When, upon his initial coward-branding by nurse Nancy, Rocky decries war as a chance to duck out on your wife, and work, and responsibility, you know he's right, and he gets to say I told you so after she's become a nurse and personally dealt with being shelled and overrun. When they meet in Paris on a furlough she says she regrets goading him into enlisting, but he'll have none of it: "This is a great war and I'm having a grand time; every minute is grand!"  He's high on the cleanness of the war up where he is, the feeling of life and death so close and all that separates them the movements of his plane and firing of his guns: "Yes, it's a great war. I hope the next one is half as good!" He's giddy with insane sardonicism but his eyes look empty, reflecting a kind of DEATH DREAM somnambulism that some critics dismiss as merely Dix's wooden acting style. But behind that wooden mask lurks an agonized sculptor who has given up trying to hold onto his humanity, since he knows it will only get him killed. Like all sensitive artists, he starts out with far too much compassion, so he just jettisons it all. When he makes a brusque pass at her, Nancy balks. He exclaims war is is no time for scruples: "How can you refuse whatever you have to give?!" He all but twists her earlier words back into her face, and the moral hypocrisy of placing import on a woman's virginity dissolves in WWI almost as if that was the whole point of the war in the first place.

All in all, Rocky ends up being the more complex and interesting figure than March's Jerry in EAGLE. March endures his tenure as ace, but any joy in the sport of it falls instead to Cary Grant's sociopathic gunner. We know from DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE that March could have chilled us to the core if Rocky was allowed a duality, but Dix is almost better for being less versatile, more stiff (in both senses). Just as Cary shoots an unarmed parachutist in EAGLE, Rocky shoots down an unarmed German cadet and winds up in a hospital next to him. This finally snaps Rocky out of his psychotic stupor.

Luckily there's a happy ending, albeit with a strange 'is this just a dream and I'm really dead?' quality, like the end of TAXI DRIVER or VERTIGO or LAST FLIGHT. Rocky winds up the film back in the garden and in Nancy's arms, harmony restored: "We'll live only for ourselves, and by ourselves," she says, an eloquent if impossible advocations of the romantic ideal behind isolationist pacifism and the fantasy that America could take all the time it wanted to lick its wounds and Europe would just sort itself out on its own.

After all, America was still a teenager in 1933, a mere 157 years-old, yet it knew deep down it would never get a chance to even get comfortable with itself before being shipped off to die in yet another country's war. Rocky's last line, though meant as a joke, leaves a chilling after-effect. As he and Nancy embrace in the garden, his eyes rest on the garden gnome that bugged him in the film's first scene, noting cryptically, "I still don't like the looks of that guy."

Who else could that gnome be, but Adolph Hitler?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pharmageddon! JOHN DIES AT THE END

As John Carpenter ages into obscurity, a horror genius named Don Coscarelli has quietly stolen the title of the new Hawksian Drive-in fuzzy sci-fi/horror guru. What is the fuzzy? It's a loosey goosey digging and goofing around - simultaneously mind-expanding and brain-addling; too laid back and badass to care about sticking to any genre, it never has to rely on misogyny, torture, yelling, or religion; it understands normal healthy adult sex is the creepiest most uncanny thing ever once stripped of all its alluring-in-the-heat-of-the-moment buzz. It displays a droll shared language--the gallow's wit of RIO BRAVO, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE THING, SCARFACE, THE BIG SLEEP, and HIS GIRL FRIDAY--and because there's so much less pointless plot twisting and random acts of shock designed solely for trailers and in-theater jolts bad (better than no) publicity, it can explore the two bros being cool language of deadpan calm and running jokes. Why fuzzy? Because it can get pretty sloppy, so is best to watch late at night, with a nice buzz and low expectations. As such the films only get better with each new fuzzy view, cuz the earlier fuzzy has made you forget most of it anyway.

Clancy Brown with the Mehalis sisters, Helena and Maria
I won't go too much into JOHN DIES plot - you can just mosey somewhere and watch it, and then come back to this scintillating post. But let's just say this - Clancy Brown (left, flanked by Helena and Maria Mehalis as his identical twin assistants) played the drill sgt. in STARSHIP TROOPERS, another fuzzy horror/sci-fi masterpiece and he's the guy you want for a part like this, whatever that tells you.

I will say also that time looping is involved in this film, but I liked this film way way better than the recent, over-praised LOOPER. And I believe in time travel, if only via one's third eye, and when a movie makes the third eye hallucinations real instead of dreams it works because a hep person knows movies already exist at the hallucinatory level. Unfuzzy directors feel compelled to separate the two - what is just a dream and what is real - like we'll upend the apple cart if not brought safely back to rut, as in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, wherein the wolf must come out of David through grand physical agony or it won't be 'believable' --and the welcome eruption of Nazi werewolves with machine guns is revealed to be all a dream. If John Landis made the dream the real and focused on those Nazi werewolves for the whole film, than hot damn, that would be fuzzy, and also a bit like the Peter Grant fantasy sequence of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME.

What mainstream science still can't quite admit, but which leading edge scientists are realizing, to their amazement, is that the universe is totally subjective. If we can move past notions of size, perspective, and spatial relativity then space/time travel is possible regardless of the distances between solar systems. As humans with limited ESP ability (and lack of astral projection experience), we can't imagine space travel any other way except by carting our bodies from point A to point B, in a vessel relative to own size, but that doesn't mean we all won't one day be long past that limited conception of ourselves. If space itself is a vacuum, the idea of needing to travel a certain amount of miles to get there is foolishly short-sighted. Why not just collapse the vacuum? Why not merely shrink the space? Why not merely beam one's consciousness like a cell phone signal on ahead into some deep freeze robot ready to inhabit like an electro-neurologically linked collection of artificial limbs?

The closest we have to ESP as a legitimate science today is the cell phone, relay tower and wireless router, but we take those things for granted the way we took ESP for granted in the 70s, back when we would have considered cell phones an unrealistic fantasy (even Deckard in BLADE RUNNER had to find a phone booth; and of course Heywood Floyd calling his daughter from the Moon - in 2001). Now we take for granted the sound waves that beam all over the globe constantly, billions of voices, TV signals, radio and military and Google Map drone images, soaring up and down like ping pong balls between humans and satellite paddles, remote controlling martian probes millions of miles out in space, and yet we scoff at alien abductions due to light year distances.

We once laughed at the horseless carriage, in the words of Criswell. Radio, vitmins! Yes, even television.

Perhaps this is why what was absurd fiction a mere century ago is taken for granted as science fact today and yet no one dares broach the subject of  pandimensional travel's validity! And it's because the subjective experience of hardcore psychedelic drug trippers would then be valuable and science fears this, understandably since objectivity is the foundation of their known world, whereas subjectivity the foundation of the trippers. But we know the horrifying truth: Fiction is truer than reality! 

All of which serves as a warped introduction to my praise of Don Coscarelli, a man who I've written of in the past as being suspiciously like myself in extrasensory speculation, to the point that one of my pet AA intervention metaphors, self-performed eye surgery, crops up in JOHN DIES AT THE END. Check out this exchange in the film after Dave calls a priest because John seems possessed.

Dave: What do you think it's like, Father?
Father Shellnut: What's what like?
Dave: Being crazy, mentally ill.
Father Shellnut: Well, they never know they're ill, do they? I mean, you can't diagnose yourself with the same organ that has the disease, just like you can't see your own eyeball. I suppose you just feel regular, and the rest of the world seems to go crazy around you.

Now check this from an old post of mine in the C-Influence:
Eyewitness testimony can be considered “fact” in a court of law but means nothing to science, which cripples itself through its dismissal of everything “subjective” as if there was something that wasn’t (...) Our collective disbelief about things beyond our comprehension is itself beyond comprehension, revealing the fundamental impossibility of trying to think about nature objectively from inside an organic brain (sort of like trying to perform eye surgery on yourself without a mirror) (5/27/11)
I have no choice, therefore--considering the film's avalanche of uncanny coincidence-- to believe JOHN DIES AT THE END was written by me... in the future!

I mean this as no disrespect to JOHN DIES' creators, Coscarelli and author James Wong (a pseudonym, so they say), and of course all three of us are clearly inspired by Lovecraft, William S. and Edgar R. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Cronenberg, and Hunter S. Thompson, so who knows who I really am? I always hoped Lovecraft might read my work one day in a time travel loop and be inspired to write the Chthulu mythos based on my own August Derleth-based fan fiction. 

That's probably not in our immediate 'future' as I haven't written any, and HP is long-dead (so they say) but I once meant to, having read a great Derleth-edited paperback of Chthulu mythos stories called Lurker at the Threshold, and if time is elastic and we are all one, then we are all one right now, connected through an elastic time tentacle, boinging back and forth through the tubes of time and space in order for our quantum conscious to play, not just many parts ala Shakespeare, but every part, ala the Brahmavaivarta Purana. In other words, if you weren't me before reading this, you will e soon. This weird word tentacle I've reached you with has boinged into your future cognition! 

This is how we become our own great-grandmothers, and mighty pissed we are to still be stuck in the space time trap of this baleful prison planet.. Luckily,  Ramboona never fails.

Such weird collapse-of-time distortions in JOHN DIES AT THE END are only one of the great side effects of a black ooze-style drug dubbed 'soy sauce' that makes all of history seem to occur in the Now, and illuminates the full of the brain to the parts where this is own. The film's main drug of choice (though it chooses you, its black drops growing fuzzy limbs, morphing into flies and boring right into your cheek unless frozen). A mix of the black ooze from the X-FILES, the black centipede meat of the NAKED LUNCH, and the Black Sheep Dip from my own under-published novel. Still, though its origin turns out to be extradimensional, it resembles organic psychedelic 'alien intelligence' entry points like psilocybe cubensis mushrooms (the block spore stuff inside the caps and stem veins) and Salvia Divinorum (the black of the gorgon's eyes, if you've seen it you know what I mean). 

Aside from time dilation (which any good psychedelic doth provide) 'soy sauce' provides the ability to read minds and to astral travel, to for example distract the guy in charge of quality control at the factory that made the bullet fired at you by a wise cop or visit an interzone-style alternate reality (accessible via "the Mall of the Dead") to invest in biotech that's a literal fusion of bio and tech wherein a computers and a Lovecraftian multi-tentacled horror fuses into one entity that sucks the intellect and experience of the entire world through its crab-claw-tentacles, ala Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (or David Cross in FUTURAMA: BEAST WITH A MILLION BACKS - see my 08 post, and More Tentacles from the 5th dimensional Rift) or "if" SKYNET was a giant octopus (and recall the name sky-"net" existed long before the creation of the internet; the film came out in 1984, the same year William Gibson's term 'cyberspace' entered pop culture via his eerily prescient novel Neuromancer). That's not even forgetting the tiny microbe spores that take over bodies in THE THING (1982), GHOSTS OF MARS (2001), and the THE FLESH EATERS (1968), all highly wreck-o-mended, bro.

And of course we can't not mention the almighty Don's own previous films, including the definitive fuzzy horroropus PHANTASM , which depicts post-death Archon soul harvesting procedures, and the melancholy of BUBBA HO TEP, wherein the real Elvis and Ossie Davis as a wheelchair bound JFK battle a mummy from the old west. 

The in-joke humor that indicates a classic horor fan (!) at work never comes at the cost of deadpan narrative suspense in Coscarelli's canon; and JOHN DIES is particularly clever in both these areas:]one-handed Fabianne Therese is the only one who can open the phantom door, because phantom limb made visible through 3D glasses.. That her magic 3D glasses would work in a 2-D film is just one of the stunning filmic choices that puts Don Coscarelli's film way out in front of the fuzzy pack, alongside rarefied company as 1982's REPO MAN, the 1975's DEATH RACE 2000, Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA; 1985's RE-ANIMATOR, and of course Coscarelli's own PHANTASM,

Alllow me to lay down more of the massive flood of similarities to my own work that will bear out the theory I shall become John Wong in the distant future, looping back in time to watch the movie based on my work, and getting mired too deeply in space-time to fully remember where I left the Moebius strip tape splice section of the loop where I can jump back into 'now' (like trying to find the start of a roll of Saran wrap after its fallen off its teeth). If you doubt, note that the phone Dave uses in the scene depicted on the far left banner is a hot dog, similar to the banana and Marlboro phones in my QUEEN OF DISKS! (2007)

What's that you say? Everyone does the old banana phone gag? Well not when addressing psychedelic transdimensional tape splice time slippage! So there! 

Another similarity is that the 'Mall of the Dead' is similar to my 'Mall of Time' from an old unpublished short story about a guy walking back in time in a special mall to find another of the special cigarettes that once enabled him to move briefly into the head of a Chinese baker (a true incident that happened to me during one of my out of body salvia journeys in the early 00s). Here's an excerpt:
 I wanted to buy some of these new cigarettes - "new" being an operative word. I heard they have a special chemical in them that makes you become someone else. A friend of mine got some and wound up a Chinese baker in Secaucus, New Jersey. It didn’t last long but it was totally like that movie Being John Malkovitch, he said, except that there was no visual component, just the feel of the oven heat, Chinese shouting which he could suddenly understand and the smell of cinnamon. (...)
The mall of time had been designed to appeal to the tactile senses to lure the net-dazed shopper back in. The theme was an evolution of history with spacey gadgets on one end and gradually decades receding as you walked down the aisles until you past the dawn of man and into some weird cannibalistic pagan wordlessness. Eighties clothes and jewelry down to seventies retro, flapper prom tuxedo shops, Cowboy Dan's, and then farther back still… through pre-Columbian dining room sets, a series of moving sidewalk exhibitions with tinsel rain and roaring plastic volcanoes and the voice of Christian Bale narrating your trip through time. The roar of a dinosaur as we reach the kid's robot dinosaur displays, and, if you are a tripper, looking for the special cigarettes, back farther still...
... and as we took the escalators down and down and ran giddy but full of dread along the black tiles, the lights growing dimmer, the plastic lanterns becoming faint torches reflecting the shine on the wet cave walls, our shoes echoing amid the cacophony of drips and winds and jungle howls, and the crowd thinning down to only us, and Bale’s voice on the loudspeaker as it discussed the mating habits of the pterodactyl, that flying dinosaur that was the missing link between birds and reptiles. Down where we were heading the sound faded away altogether, the animatronic dinosaurs became lower to the ground, hiding in the shadows and in the coin fountain now bubbling with fake moss and plastic sludge. The tangy acrid smell of blood and mud filled the air, like a rural abbatoir. 
Right? See the similarity? Coscarelli's film is a little different, but the idea of a "mall of the dead" and a special drug being associated with interdimensional time travel is the same, and James Wong writes really bizarre, perceptive stuff for Cracked. Am I totally comfortable in saying that Wong is me in the distant future or distant past or in an alternate reality (was Wong the name of that baker I briefly became?) where we come from the same persona stalk in the blazing black tree of souls? Yes. 

To mas prove it, I'm going to turn it over to the detective in the film:
Detective Lawrence 'Morgan Freeman' Appleton: "I'm an old school Catholic. I believe in hell. I believe it's more than just murderers and rapists down there. I believe in demons and worms, and vile shit in the grease trap of the universe. And the more I think about it, the more I think that it's not just some place down there. Oh no, that it's right here with us. We just can't perceive it. It's kinda like the country music radio station. It's out there in the air, even if you don't tune into it."

As he showed with PHANˇASM before this, Coscarelli is amazingly prescient about the realities of post-death alternate dimensional enslavement. Forging a direct link with theories espoused by everything from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the writings of Nigel Kerner, Terence McKenna, Phillip K. Dick, Nick Redfern, and David Icke, his alternate dimensions in both films indicate correctly the collapse of reality that comes fro stretching one's auric tentacles out into the slimy obsidian blackness that breathes beyond time and soace.

The heavens and hells of the bibles are all around us, man, the dimension of hell, that radio station that's there whether we tune into it or not, ala that wise detective. Karma is so instant that retribution precedes the crime, like MINORITY REPORT (another Phillip K. Dick "prediction"); this explains the 'lucky in love unlucky at cards' adage. And if time travel is possible, people from the future have already manipulated our past to suit their own future ends (to quote Terminator/Genysis (a movie not made at the time of this post) "What do we want?" / "Time travel!" / "When do you want it?" / "It's irrelevant!" 

The Hassidic Jewish community has mastered this which is why they continue to dress the same over the decades, so as not draw attention to themselves when they come time traveling back and forth across the 1929 crash line with investment tips. This 'truth' was revealed to me by the alien intelligence I sometimes meet and ask questions of - the alien intelligence illustrated this to me via an image of a Hassidic scholar reverse screwing himself into existence via the unwinding of a secret scroll deep in the secret room of an old Brooklyn synagogue, after which he walked through the wall, still only semi-corporeal, confident he'd be 100% 'there' by the time he hit the street and caught a cab to Midtown.

Did I wonder then whether my spirit guide was a member of the Thule Society and possibly some Nordic anti-semite, the same one appearing to David Icke and, perhaps, Himmler? 

Mmmm could be. Spirit guides are so often sleazy tricksters you can't believe everything they say...and therefore can believe nothing they say. Even though they 'win your heart with honest trifles' as someone puts it in Macbeth. 

On the other hand, just hearing them say it is more illuminating than a year at fair Harvard
or so my spirit guide tells me.

Of the two alien (plant) intelligences I've encountered in my 'ahem' travels, one is legal and the other should be. One is like a strict Catholic gardening teacher named Salvia, who skins me alive in a slow, circular orbit every time I drop by her communal garden, like a clockwork of dragon's teeth. And if I can sufficiently let go (of self, time, duality) and identify with the nature of the universe, I can move my consciousness to the floor beneath my meditation cushion and watch with perfect emptiness as her teeth stripz away my egoic shell. And then 'pop' --I'm suddenly free. I become pure love, with no sense of time or space or time to limit me. I dissolve into the bright yellow light and any question the I can think to ask is answered. That's how I learned the truth about Bigfoot.

The other plant guide I encountered is a little younger and less austere -- the cool hipster party partner instead of the stern egocidal gardener. Psilocybe C. is a space jockey. He moves into your room like that fun kid from college, sweeps the crap off the floor of your life, sneaks you into all the coolest wildest clubs and teaches you how to see the spirits between the cracks of reality. Then, after awhile, he starts to get on your nerves. Unlike Salvia, who never overstays her welcome, Psilocybin hangs around forhours and hours after the last party closes. You yawn and steer him to the doorway but he's still lingering, coming back five minutes later to say he forgot his... uh... pen. Each minute passes like hours and you're like, dude it was great having you around but now you're getting on my nerves. By Tuesday he's finally totally gone (by Tuesday usually) and you miss him, terribly. Should you call him again this Friday? Or be a smart tripper, and hang out with him no more than once every other week? (You never have that issue with Salvia - there's nothing 'fun' or recreational there)

Your mileage and enlightenment may vary, and only holy fools, madmen, and artists would be insane enough to ever even want to meet them. But some of us are called, as in on a heroe's journey.

If this rambling 'review' has been more about me than JOHN DIES AT THE END, I apologize. All you really need to know is where it exists in the family tree of midnight cult goofball fuzzy. It's not perfect (if I had been or will be Wong, I wouldn't make the lead such a buzzkill, trying to drive John to the ER instead of playing along with his trippy madness, nor would I have him call ancient alien theorists "those Roswell losers" - both mark him as very uncool.) But aside from all that, it's a must. It's ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1939 meets 80s John Carpenter at Cronenberg's Interzone. That should be enough for you, me, or an ant waiting to an Indra be.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Much as I love Orson Welles, I've never quite forgiven him for the Cahiers du Cinema interview when he was asked to name the three greatest American directors and answered "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." How dare he exclude our greatest director, Howard Hawks? Ford was brilliant visually and mythologically but easily mired in his misty-eyed Irish sentiment. He wasn't American -- he was "Irish-American."  Hawks is 'all-American' --he is what makes America great: knowing the difference between being brave in the face of death and just being an imperialist swine. It makes sense I guess for Welles to prefer Ford since Welles is first and foremost a visual director - packing his screen with baroque detail and anchoring it all with his one-of-a-kind voice and genius. Camaraderie and face-of-danger bonding mean nothing to a one-man show like Welles, who inevitably makes himself the center of attention at any restaurant communal table.  What Hawksian men do instead is to sing and play music together (rather than just listening to a sudden walk-on by the Sons of the Pioneers or forcing Susan to sing opera). In Hawks, if a Hawksian man meets a woman it's ten times faster and more disorienting than a Maginot line charge. There's no chaperone, no beaming parson; the Hawksian man has to face that woman alone, and no amount of inner death-defying can prepare him for her forward advance. The whole fabric of the John Ford fort, the small town unity that extends in generations for centuries back, is sublimely pared down by Hawks to a gummy old cripple, a drunk, and a limping sheriff, holed up in a jail and visited daily with soap and beers in baskets by attractive women, who seem more inviting than even any legion of ballbusting Maureen O'Haras). There's no mutually consenting premarital sex in a Ford film, and no other kind in a Hawks. There are no stern moral matrons, no kids (unless they're froggy-voiced old men in kid bodies, like in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

Needless to say, John Ford John Ford John Ford has won the history, the legend's been printed; he's got dozens of boxed sets in his name. Hawks has none (aside from R2 where he has one OOP three movie set), and part of that may be that Hawks films are still very modern and unique in and of themselves, spanning all genres and types. There are very few misses in his canon but also nothing of bourgeois importance like GRAPES OF WRATH. The closest Hawks gets is maybe his most unHawkslike film, the Fordian SGT. YORK. Usually, instead of emotion, social issues, and historical accuracy, Hawks' films are fun, archetypal, witty, engaging, resonant in a way that makes rewatching them a delight time and again. It's as if Hawks films take place in the universe that Ford has set up--the same towns and valleys-- but then the Hawks characters are never seen in Ford's films because they hide out from all the boring town functions (they don't go to church or square dances).

In the 30s, though, Hawks was still figuring himself out (comedies aside). He had some great writers, many of whom, like William Faulkner, had served with him in the Flying Escadrille (so, too, knew the existential trauma of "hurrah for the next man who dies" toast) or gone hunting with him, fishing or racing, but Hawks had yet to find his signature action movie style, the male bonding-in-isolation mode, so he did all sorts of studio jobs, from costume dramas to prison films, war pictures (World War I that is) to racing films. He had found success in Hecht-scripted screwball farces like Scarface and Twentieth Century but the real great action films were yet to come.

Anyway, maybe examining these five early, more obscure, films (in order of release) will help. They're all hard to find, so I mention how to locate each film, be it available only on VHS, DVD-R, or TCM--which is a crime considering nearly every John Ford movie ever made is remastered and available in many editions--and my own ratings.

I'm presuming too, by the way, you're coming to these films having run through all your other Hawksian choices for the -nth time, as one does and are craving more like a junky craves a fix.

 To what extent these will satisfy is of course the issue each of us must answer.

Avail. on VHS and Region 2 DVD

Walter Huston is a tough but fair DA who sends a naive kid (Phillip Holmes) up the river for ten years on a manslaughter charge (the kid whacked a masher with a bottle in a notorious speakeasy, and the masher died). It's a bad break, but as Huston tersely snaps, "an eye for an eye - that's the foundation of the criminal code!" Waving a black book like a blackjack, Huston has to come to terms (once he becomes warden) with a whole different criminal code when he becomes a prison warden at the prison where the kid is sent. You don't rat out your fellow inmates, no matter what, that's the prison code, "an eye for an eye". This code makes it hard to punish in-house murders. Guess who saw one but can't rat out the killer, even if it means he'll walk free? That's right! If once-sweet kid Holmes rats out the killer of a previous criminal code violator (i.e. turns 'squealer' as to who killed the last squealer) he'll walk out a free man. 

But Holmes won't break the code! He won't! He won't he won't! he won't!hewont!hewonthewont! Huston gets in some intense acting, grabbing the boy by the lapels and demanding to know who did it. WHO DID IT!?? He won't!hewont!hewonthewont --that kind of slow build-up to an impassioned tough sustain is the Huston Sr. specialty. But what else does this early sound Hawks offer that's well, Hawksian?

Well, in shades of His Girl Friday to come, there's some nice overlapping dialogue in a press room, and Huston gets some chances to be super tough, like walking unarmed into a throng of hateful prisoners, or getting a shave from a lifer who cut another man's throat.  Karloff gets to loom like a white tunic-sporting Frankenstein in the climax as he stalks a squealer through the warden's offices, but otherwise these characters are all little more than stock types trapped in a polemic contrived to demonstrate Big Moral Issues. There's not much room for Hawksian heroics in such a clamped-down situation (like if the whole of RIO BRAVO was told from the point of view of the imprisoned Joe Burdett). You can see a clip from Criminal Code by the way in TARGETS (discussed here). It's the film my fellow Hawks devotee Peter Bogdanovich and a barely-fictionalized Karloff (playing a horror actor named Orlok) watch on TV while throwing back drinks in Karloff's hotel suite, whatever that's worth to you.

Occasional TCM airings, Warner Archive DVD
Disturbing documentary-style scenes of tuna fishing off the coast of Steinbeckian Northern California: a crew of 20 or more fishermen on a big vessel in the thick of the schools pull them up one at a time on lines and sling them into a narrow trough running the length of the boat, thousands of them piled alive atop each other, flipping and wiggling and cutting each other up, gasping for air, slicing with their razor fins, an angry, terrified, gasping blur of shaking fins and flapping tails. It's an ugly reality the men on the boat are blind to from experience. When one man fishes for himself or his family, it's the natural order; when a crew 'harvests' this many tuna at once, it's death-out-of-balance.

Luckily for my conscience, man's not the ocean's sole apex predator, because where there's panicked fish, there's tiger sharks, and they love the spicy tang of a Portuguese-a commercial fisherman's appendage-a. It's hard to feel sympathy, therefore, when Edward G. Robinson's initially-jovial sea captan loses his hand to a shark. For the rest of the film he sports a shiny hook (he gets it polished for his wedding day). Another guy loses his legs and dies, leaving his only daughter (Zita Johann) behind. Broke and powerless against Eddie G's boastful charms, it's her who has to stand hand-in-hook before the altar. Marred further by Robinson's headache-inducing accent (though I'm not sure I'd recognize a Portuguese accent from a Greek, Spanish or Brazilian, I doubt Eddie would, either), stereotypically trite local color, they even shoehorned the 'young buck-steals-love-of-young-wife-from-older cripple husband' onto the 1930 Barrymore-starring MOBY DICK! What a world.

Them ain't the only problems with TIGER SHARK: Zita Johann's ghostly alien pallor worked in THE MUMMY where she was supposed to be hypnotized most of the time, but here it works against her. She doesn't have the inner fortitude of, say, Greta Garbo's Anna Christie. Here Johann seems like she's perennially seasick, even on land. And so when she falls for Eddie's partner (two-handed hunk Richard Arlen), there's perhaps the forlorn hope that he might have access to some benzos that would make the overacting of Robinson bearable. Wrote Andrew Sarris, "Hawks remorselessly applies the laws of nature to sex. The man who is flawed by age, mutilation, or unpleasing appearance to even the slightest degree invariably loses the woman to his flawless rival." Yeah, but really it's the promise of benzos, and no fear of getting slashed in the face if he comes home a-drunk and in a short guy jealous rage. There's some good scenes all in all, but Robinson seems miscast. His constant chatter and Portuguese accent seem unduly weak for such a great actor. When he shoots at sharks from the safety of the crow's nest it only makes a sensitive viewer sick. When the illicit couple are making out below decks and the gun firing off camera suddenly stops--there's the film's sole moment of actual foreboding, a 'whoa!' here he comes, armed. How often does a cease fire signal the start of real danger? Only in a Hawks. 
A chronicle of the early days of the Newark airport airline dispatch/ traffic control room, wherein stray pilots are nursed through heavy fogs by tense ghost-voiced radio operators onto the 'beam,' and ex-WWI-ace turned chief-of-the-skies Pat O'Brien deals with overlapping crises while old friends and a snoopy aviation bureau rep (Barton MacLane) drop by interfere and/or say hello. We come to admire the way O'Brien can refrain from snapping people's heads off when--while engaged in life-or-death radio contact with some fog-bound lost plane--some oblivious person walks into the office from the terminal with a breezy joke and a pat on the back. Enter (tumbling) James Cagney as Dizzy, the clownish daredevil who's been O'Brien's pal since the Signal Corp but whose hot dog behavior doesn't fit the bureaucratic paradigms of post-war commercial aviation. Maybe you've already guessed the ending? Shhh.

Naval aviation pioneer Spig Weed wrote it and it's clear the usual Hawksian scribes of later years, Jules Furthman or Leigh Brackett, didn't. There's some distinctly un-Hawksian cockblocking, and--from Cagney's daredevil Dizzy, too much smug womanizing and other sleazy gigolo machinations, as he makes a big play for student pilot June Travis, even though she's engaged to a clean cut sap working on a wing de-icer.  If it wasn't Cagney playing him, maybe the ambivalence with which, in today's enlightened clime, we regard this boorish behavior might be easier to contextualize. It's confusing as it is, since he's neither a good nor bad guy, nor even complex. And it works, June goes for him! Why? Cagney's punchy but not nearly as sexy as he thinks he is. Cary Grant he ain't. And the overall result of his showboating is quite tiresome, almost from his first scene on. It undermines the 'men in a group' thing (imagine if Dean Martin was hitting on Feathers and cockblocking Chance anyway he could in Rio Bravo). Most of the time in those WB Cagney-O'Brien team-ups, it's Cagney who comes off best, but here it's O'Brien who turns in the surprisingly nuanced tour de force and Cagney who's stuck on 'type'.

Plusses include the compressed two-day time frame, the way Hawks knows how to break up the mostly interior action with dangerous seen-through-the-window effects like a streak of blazing gasoline outside the office window on the tarmac; and tough scenes like when they're all gathered around the radio, trying to help a lost pilot (Stu Erwin) after his honing beam goes out, and he can't get their radio signal at all but they can his progressively more panicked angry shouting, presuming everyone on the ground is off shooting craps or something, and there's nothing the frantic control room can do but keep trying. One girl listening in the room cries "Why don't you do something?" and they all bark at once "SHADDUP!!!!" Awesome. There's also some surprising sexual frankness: Travis offers herself to Cagney for sexual succor after the death of a pilot who took the doomed flight so Cagney could have a date with her -- a shadowy prefiguring of the steak factoring into Joe's death in Hawks's far better ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS two years later. It's a weird move on her part, considering her engagement, et al, and--knowing it's coming from the pen of a career Navy man like Spig--kinda sleazy. Her willingness to two-time a nice respectable boy (the fella who played Maureen O'Sullivan's fiancee Tommy in THE THIN MAN) with this demonic mustachioed leprechaun (Cagney comes off like the sleazy guy who helps Maureen O'Sullivan almost take that first wrong step who Tommy knocks out in that film's climactic dinner) smacks of something Hawks deftly eschewed in better films, sexism. Here it's even the worst kind, the career sailor sort where even respectable women are prostitutes deep down and no really means yes, so the only way to get a navy man to leave you alone is to stop fighting him off. 

Miriam Hopkins plays one of the first white women to enter San Francisco, back in the 19th century gold rush boomtown days. This being pre-Panama Canal, a ship coming west from NY had to travel all the way around South America, and it took the better part of a year. Full of high hopes, anxious to disembark after so much time trapped at sea, newcomers would arrive to find a city of unpaved mud roads so nasty they could suck a whole pedestrian under like quicksand. The air between rickety shacks a dense pickpocket-filled fog, and inside the bigger buildings nothing but crooked roulette wheels, overdressed deft-fingered floozies, murderous bouncers, shanghai tunnel trap doors, and, behind it all, that pint-sized unlucky-in-love big shot Eddie G. Robinson, once more controlling the works. Naturally Miriam ends up working for him, as a roulette operator, the honey in the trap, and--inevitably--as somewhat more. Boy you'd think poor Eddie would learn by now to leave the tall white women be. If you're insecure about your height don't parade your pretty, taller woman around like trophies. Tall handsome idiots are everywhere!

There's a few elements that let you know Hawks isn't fully allowed to be himself here. This being one of the films he made as a hired gun of Sam Goldwyn, he's clearly not particularly enamored with his romantic lead, Joel McCrea, playing a foolish poet-prospector who loses his hard-earned sacks of gold in one turn of Hopkins' fixed roulette wheel, intentionally, as he's disillusioned by her leading him on during their previous meeting. It's a "cheap price for such an education," he notes sardonically. What's made him hate her so? Since it's yet another trite romantic triangle thing with the older wealthy short guy who knows the angles vs. the tall, naive and handsome young idiot, each competing for the hand of the fallen-but-not-too-far-she-can't-be-lifted dame, I don't have to tell you that this all began back when she and Joel fell in love as strangers both seeking shelter from a rainstorm at an old deserted cabin on the road outside of town. Think Eddie's fallin' for that old lame excuse, even if it is true? He's not, see? Myeah. Notes Cinephile:
"There’s little sexual tension, chemistry, or even the vaguest hint of innuendo between the two leads, it would seem a sign attached to one of the gambling tables in Robinson’s casino which reads “No vulgarity allowed at this table” is a rule disappointingly applied to the rest of the film as well. It has little visual identity beyond Ray June’s atmospherically foggy night-time photography (which does some fine work with shadows towards the end) and little of the cynicism or edge which marked out other collaborations with screenwriter Ben Hecht, instead opting for flowery, pretentious dialogue many of the cast clearly struggle with."
I keep forgetting Ben Hecht wrote this, maybe I block it out intentionally, see? Myeah!  It does show that nobody hits it out of the park every time and even great writers can sometimes resemble hacks fresh out of remedial poetry class.

Another thing: gambling is a hard thing to make cinematically engaging and Hawks isn't a great one for making money seem important. Lugging sacks of gold through thickets thieves like McRae does seems foolhardy, unrealistic, i.e. you can't show a guy getting his pocket picked one second then another one lugging overflowing sacks of gold around by himself in the thick of a hungry, eagle-eyed foggy night throng and not getting his corpse picked clean inside of of six seconds. This inconsistent financial environment takes us as far from the usually clear-cut Hawksian sense of group solidarity and danger-pinpointing as you can get. As 'Old Atrocity,' Walter Brennan alone seems to achieve some sort of noble savagery, his prolonged survival intimating a hard-won cool that's very Hawksian. That his disheveled, foul-smelling self is welcome even in the glossy casino (where he lures strangers for a cut of the trimmings) makes him one of those rare figures (like C3PO or John Holmes in WONDERLAND) who can believably wander back and forth between classes, enemy camps, nature, and civilization at will. Add some throw-away eye-roll lines like "it's hard rowing when I'm so emotional" and it still adds up to a tritely formulaic but well-detailed socio-historic romantic triangle thriller that's no SAN FRANCISCO (1936), nor even--when all is said and done--a TIGER SHARK.

(Portugese DVD - Region 1)

William Faulkner co-wrote this name-only remake of one of Hawks' silent films. It's hard to imagine it was made a year after BARBARY COAST (or two after TWENTIETH CENTURY!) as it looks straight from 1930, which this time is actually a compliment. Plotwise, it's FARWELL TO ARMS city again--but with a truly dreamy Hawksian woman (June Lang) as the WWI Parisian combat nurse. With her beautiful black velvet choker-wrapped neck, pale skin, bangs, a sexy Red Cross on her cape, and a low-registered speaking voice, Lang has the air of Lauren Bacall on the cover of the March 1943 Harper's Bazaar --which famously led to her discovery and overnight stardom in To Have and Have Not. You can see the same prematurely world-weary petulance in Lang's face all through this 1936 prelude.

Note the self-reflexion that gives this picture such power,
as if pausing to remember your dead soldier husband was a normal prelude to walking through
selfless sacrifice's vampiric portal. Or if she's just given so much blood she's
about to pass out?

An uneasy mixture of inter-generational jealousy (old needy fathers were apparently allowed to enlist so they could stalk and cramp the style of their soldier sons), and the same old love triangle we've already seen ad nausea in this post alone (Hemingway really fucked that generation up), ROAD agrees with itself that war is hell, but sure spends a lot of time wallowing in the muck. New officer Frederic March meets nurse Lang when they take shelter together from a bombing raid in a blasted-out basement French saloon. He plays some tunes on the dusty piano, and puts his coat over her as the rafters rattle and the dust falls and she lies down in a chair. Unaware she's the mistress of shaky drunk Warner Baxter (his new C.O., of course), March shows up at her hospital the next day, playing cute while she tries to bandage the wounded and dying --how dare she not fawn over him? Once Baxter finds out March is kicking in his stall, of course, it's suicide mission time, a bit like Gary Cooper in Von Sternberg's MOROCCO, or any of six dozen other films from the era (like FRIENDS AND LOVERS, reviewed a few posts ago). Adding to the trouble is Baxter's father (Lionel Barrymore) showing up and--as Lionel loved to do-- hogging screen time before blowing up his fellow Frenchmen with a grenade thrown in the wrong direction. March puts up with it all stoically, and there's never a guess how it ends, DAWN PATROL-style. Oh wait, you guessed? How smart you are, Steve... Do you know "Hong Kong Blues"?

A memorable segment of the film involves Germans digging underneath the Allied lines while the French soldiers trapped above can do nothing but wait it out, rolling cigarettes with their shaky hands as the Germans scrape away below, knowing that as soon as the scraping stops the bombs are likely to go off. That's where the true courage is tested, that painful, prolonged waiting... and smoking and--if you've got some--drinking. Other swell scenes: a rousing charge across no-man's land and a sneaky nighttime flank maneuver, but in the end it's still the same auld triangle and pasty sermons on the ignominy of war. We feel like pawns in the grip of a writer with a theme and message rather than a director with the guts to let that highlighter pen fall to the floor and trust his own shoot-from-the-gut sense of existential comedy, overlapping dialogue, cigarettes, whiskey, coffee, and one damned good looking low-voiced girl, i.e. the sort of director Hawks would become in a few more years. This time, well, at least he finally figured out the last part.

See also, the 1932 Hawks film THE CROWD ROARS, which I capsuled earlier. 
See also, the 1930 Hawks original THE DAWN PATROL which I capsuled later
See also - LATER HAWKS for reviews of RED LINE 7000 and HATARI
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