As I was last night preparing to edit this I was flipping from TCM--THE LAST DETAIL (1973) with dimwit sailor Randy Quaid embarrassed by his premature ejaculation at the brothel--to EPIX. with a paunchy cowboy hatted Quaid in THE WRAITH (1986) noting, "let's clean up this mess and get the hell out of here!" Coincidence? Not on your life. That kind of random allusive irony is one of the reasons I flip indiscriminately in the first place. I always have to land eventually; fuel is limited, and in the summer (my most reviled season), I stick to easy watching classics I've seen a zillion times. The monster movies of the 50s especially, the kind where the highest levels of government are represented by two old character actors dressed like generals standing behind a barren conference table, a big chart--or, if budget allows, a photo of the Washington Monument. For this alcoholic, they are relaxation and air conditioning personified.
My beloved THE GIANT CLAW which folds this roundelay of Ankrum-Morrow father-son problem-solving in with the stock footage of planes and radar stations, and deep officious voiced narration concerning all levels of government and military procedure. Director Sam Katzman can shovel all the stock footage he wants, in the end it all boils down to Morrow, Mara Corday, and the two old generals piloting the "B-22" which is so obviously a model you can see some kid's glue thumbprint on the fuselage, the signification decals peeling on the side or turning yellow, as if Katzman borrowed it from his son; the monster a turkey marionette given a comically menacing head with googly eyes; and hearty Pierre as a random Canuck woodsman. You can't make this shit up. This is Katzman country --you're either a citizen or you're quickly facilitating voluntary self-deportation.
And how are you a citizen? You're born into it. You've grown up with Giant Claw on TV and laughed even as a child at it's absurdity, as if Big Bird or some obscene muppet show cast-off had somehow infiltrated adult military 'serious' programming. Now you come back from the doctor after waiting for the results of your first chest X-ray after 33 years of smoking, needing see a monster you can sneer at and safely destroy with some atomic spitballs, something to bring icicle familiarity like a snowman pining puddleward, missing every departed drop, as he meshes into the hot asphalt of your hellish reality. Not that I'd ever drink water (except constantly) but water never runs out.
HAWKS' WIDENING GYRE
To enjoy a film endlessly over and over, decade after decade, it must have--as Hawks famously said--a few good scenes and no bad ones. And every year I find new bad ones in some old favorites and new good ones in others. The Big Sleep for example never falters, The plot just becomes clearer until you know who killed whom better even than Herr Chandler himself. And then the preview version with scenes missing from the version we've seen dozens of times like some cherished noir bible --like a gift from some cool hipster god.
But then there's the previous Hawks-Bogie-Bacall joint, To Have and Have Not (1944), which has all sorts of inconsistencies that become apparent around the 20th viewing: First off there's the money issues, which bother me more and more every time: For a guy supposedly as sharp as old Bogart's Harry Morgan, to let a shifty American tourist run up an $825 tab on his boat, no deposit, no fishing ability or coolness from the client, seems pretty stupid. It's enough where I'm stressed out so that I need to lower my raging blood pressure --how can such a cool customer like Harry be so naive? If I can't trust Bogie to take good financial care of himself (and others) via advance deposits and pay-as-you-go arrangements, how can I sink into Hawksian male bonding contentment, that 'finally found a worthy alpha male' trust and adoration that relieves the stress of maybe having COPD or some other smoking related breathing ailment? Not even mentioning how Bogie himself died--the terrible price of looking so damned cool.
Making things worse is his insistence on "carrying" rum-damaged Eddie (Walter Brennan), the requisite Faulkner idiot man-child (or shaky old rummy) whose dead bee rants and sickly sweat glaze bespeak a terrible smell of alcohol seeping through unwashed pores, a smell that must hang fetid over the boat, drawing massive flies when the ocean wind isn't blowing, which it never seems to (take it from me, for I've felt like Eddie looks, while being massively hung-over out on boats every summer from 1987-92 - and everyone on the boat could smell me, even after swimming in the salty ocean). Eddie is pretty useless both as a dead weight in the story and as a hammy character who chews up a lot of screen time with his precious little bits of business ("was you ever bit by a dead bee?") that would be better spent with romantic banter with Bacall, for never was a girl more stunning and radiant and otherworldly cool than Bacall is here. Considering this first meeting of Bacall and Bogie-- perhaps the greatest instant onscreen chemistry in all of cinema--how nice it would be if... well, they could have had a lot fun if... yeah, if they weren't in a waterlogged once-more-to-the-misinformed waters of Casablanca early 40s Warners opus strait. We can mark the moronic behavior of the Free French--the way a bushel of shifty-eyed resistance fighters "inconspicuously" trundle upstairs in a busy, watched hotel to beseech Bogart to help them; or the way the Victor Lazlo-stand-in is so eager to surrender at the first sign of trouble (getting shot as a result) and this is the guy they want to use to "get a guy off of Devil's Island" --as a satire on the foolishness of the Maginot Line and the French army's infamously inept high command (carried over from WWI, as seen Paths of Glory) mixed with a salute to their dauntless courage when the chips are down and out but there's still some mighty inconsistent things going on here.
|"I ain't got no stinger!"|
Lucky for me then that the first time I saw To Have and Have Not was back before the internet could chew it up for me. As far as I was concerned it was just another of my then-hero Hawks' films, and so I got to soak up Bacall and her match 'fresh.' Man, I was knocked out, kicking the air and howling like that wolf in "Bacall to Arms."
Also, I might add, I was closer in age to Bacall than Bogie, and now... veering up to my big 50th birthday, I find myself envying the acumen and wit of Bogie, no matter his age, and realizing in a blind flash my brain is giving out on me, making me so much less indulgent of Brennan's manchild drunk thing than I was when drunk or a child, or even a man. Is that dotage? I dislike Brennan now like Hoke would dislike someone stealing his rocking chair at the end of The Searchers.
CLAW For the Morrow
One can't always remember the first time they saw a beloved film, but sometimes they can help us remember farther back than we're even supposed to. For example, there was never a time when I hadn't seen The Giant Claw. I was laughing at that bird since before I could crawl. I was born into it, my love of bad movies forming around it's 5 AM showings while I waited for Saturday morning cartoons to start, quiet to not wake the parents. The bird materializing into being as if magically lifted out of the dumpster behind some deranged, evicted puppeteer's workshop. As a kid regularly lost trying to follow adult conversation, a kid who would pretend to read, would hold up a book of Mark Twain or something and flip the pages as if being able to read, to impress some foxy babysitter, here was a chance to laugh at the adults for a change.
To enjoy the film without that inherited lack of good judgment you would need to have a special yen to see Mara Corday in a red-eye passenger (propellor-driven) plane delivering an uncalled-for and condescending rant against Jeff Morrow. Under a shared blanket of comfy twin engine roar and everyone else on the plane dead asleep--she starts shouting at him for showing her his giant space bird orbiting patten spiral drawing. If you ask why Corday is shouting and picking a fight with our Morrow when her own non-intergalactic bird theories don't add up at all, then you're probably not ready for this level of high concept science. Sherlock Holmes said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, is the truth. Corday would shout into your ear that Holmes is a fictional character and therefore his theories are worthless.
But smart women scientists know they too are fictional characters because animus-dominated women 'scientists' lack self-awareness, and Katzman should know. He's cribbing from the best, and the worst, of the sci-fi monster movies that came before, and so Corday seems to be shouting at him mainly because Katzman thinks that's what happens in these kinds of films, not to impugn the character of women in more impressive entries like Them! wherein the woman in the same role is an astute and open-minded arthropodologist. One can no sooner lump the Claw in with Them! as compare a frosty Bergman to a Long Beach train station. And in this case Corday is right, because the truth is ridiculous, for not only is the thing that's been attacking so many aircraft and buildings a space bird but its invisibility to radar is to due its an anti-matter shield, and YET we can see the strings! This plus an early scene of Jeff buzzing the American Air Force Arctic Radar Station in one of his jets maybe explains her and the military's preliminary incredulity. Test pilot Morrow's an example of the wolf crier endangering the whole tribe because his valuable wolf intel is, thanks to his previous pranks, ignored. Corday is the opposite: because she can see the wires, the bird's not real, even as it eats her. Women.
|Make him a sergeant and give him the booze (THEM)|
There's a reason why writers say they do their best work at five AM. And watching films at four or five in the morning offers the same dreamy poetic freedom from 9-5 adult reality. Whether you're the kid getting up to it or the rager coming down to it, catching The Giant Claw by chance on local TV changes your life. Joy abides in that space between dark and dawn, kids and stoners unite. The child laughs at the adults for fobbing this ridiculous puppet as the monster. And the hipster adult feels he's never been so happy, and the writer is... born?
|Stock footage to cool the blood in sweltering pre-dawn summer (DEADLY MANTIS)|
|Alive in the frosted cornflakes|
The Deadly Mantis, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the six-armed giant octopus in It from Beneath the Sea, and our friend the Giant Space bird all start off way up there--the sky map--from the North Pole on down. The Thing, the first, best and smartest/smallest, stayed up there; the rest maraud their way downwards, killing eskimos, pilots, trawler crews, and Canadian lumberjacks, as they lumber south to a major port city. At first no one believes the lone witness and once some narrow-minded doctor thinks he needs to lock him up in a padded cell, the witness changes his story, blames the heat or stress, and so the hot assistant seduces the truth out of him. The best of the lady scientists work on perfecting the weapon or strategy that stops the creature/s, while the worst roll their eyes and make sandwiches. Deadly Mantis has (its girl) Alix Tilton doing more than her part to help but being belittled as she goes by dopey feints towards Fordian sentiment, like the stuttering radar men asking her to d-d-dance before the inevitable shot of the monster leering through the window trying to get at her. (Claw's Mara Corday is spared this indignity, having already endured it in 1955's Tarantula).
Perhaps it's worth looking again at The Deadly Mantis (1957) but unlike The Giant Claw--which is unforgettable and seems to last five hours--Mantis is the most anonymous film in all of science fiction and over much too quickly. Siphoning the gas tanks of everything that came before, suturing together such a framework of stock footage and stock tropes it could be about any of the radioactively-awoken giant monsters and star anyone (its cast criminally void of any notable charisma or even notable lack thereof) make it ideal to fall asleep to or have on while you come down from a panic attack. You could watching 100 times in a row and remember nothing about it whatsoever, yet never be quite all the way bored. Mantis is also the most obliquely para-sexist stealth-feminist of the lot ("we're taking you home young lady," notes the military guy after she's singlehandedly coordinated the requisite 'map of weird 'accidents' which chronicles the bug's trajectory). In its disregarding of all that (Morrow would be the last person to stop Corday from doing anything), Claw earns its wings, no matter how goofy the effects.
Naturally a few years back when Sarah Palin mentioned she could see Russia from her house I understood at last why all these films were set up there, and at the same time I had to add her to the list of Northern threats ever-ready to rain down montages of panicked citizenry, radio speakers, mobilizing infantry, maps with dotted lines running across various parallels between the US and the North Pole, cornflake snow hurled in through open portals as people exit and enter the impoverished radar offices; "Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) able to contact any part of the globe in three minutes;" Eskimos pointing at the sky when the mantis' forelegs get caught up in the fisherman's kayak drying racks; the monster attacking the Washington monument (a favorite Katzman target, reflecting --as I'm sure most feminist horror readers will note--the overlap of red-baiting, tour guide patriotism and castration anxiety).
And in the case of le Claw, there's a great catch-all representation of a French lumberjack loner (Louis Merrill), who--with his faithful dog-- finds Corday and Morrow in the wilderness after they alone survive the latest plane crash deep in the Canadian pines. Naturally he has the name of Pierre. Good Pierre. Jaunty Pierre, he gives Morrow and Corday his homemade applejack while recounting the tale of the a giant predatory flying witch many have seen in the parts and how all those who saw this giant witch died. And before they were attacked the shadow of its giant wings passed over the house --an ill omen, monsieur.... an ill omen. Fascinatingly, Morrow--who's encountered this giant bird about 20 times already and still everyone doubts him--shouts in Pierre's face as if there's some unseen and unheard waterfall right off camera, "you saw an eagle, Pierre!" Never could the space bird and the old flying witch of local superstition be the one and the same thing. Never! The mind reels, it's like Dorothy yelling at the Tin Man for thinking scarecrows can talk.
But again Morrow saves the reel, singlehandedly etching some warmth out of the proceedings by guzzling a second glass of the Pierre's homebrewed jack. A beady shine coheres in his eyes, twinkly as the reflection of the bear fat slicking his dark black hair. Ending every sentence with the name Pierre, Morrow says shit like "This is great stuff, Pierre" or "that's a superstition, Pierre!" The constant use of his first name keeps him separate from the college educated Corday and Morrow. Rather than deal with their own issues they fuss over him like he's an infant. Eventually, though they all agree: the thing only chases you if you run. Later on a revisit, Pierre runs, thinking he can perhaps outrace a bird the size of a small apartment building? It's the kind of moronic lack of logic that a kid would not notice. It all fits to make CLAW the classic -- you see... kids in the 70s don't need special effects - our fertile minds filled in all the blanks. Maybe if they didn't clear-cutting, Pierre and company wouldn't have supplied such a perfect space for a massive nest.
But now I wonder what happened to Pierre's poor dog.
|"my gun is gone!"|
But TARANTULA stays off my summer list in general because it's set in the desert --too hot. And I like military stock footage, and hate to see any animal in a cage, even gerbils, man, as are in the acromegaly doctor's house. When I'm in my isolation chamber screening room--my feet in tissue boxes and my nails long and yellowed, gibbering to myself and pressing rewind over and over though tapes are long gone--any film that reminds me too much of the shabby contours of my own querencia is to be avoided. No prisons or cages for Bigfoot. No, dear friend, for the concretization of my frontier's sad closing, I need a hero bigger than any giant arm chair arachnid...
I need Hank Quinlan.
|"Never when you're sober"|
I've seen Touch of Evil a hundred times. Another repeater, Psycho, which came out two years later and seems almost a remake, alike as two sister craft - on some level. What unites the two isn't just the post-modern cool of Janet Leigh but the idea of the motel that's become separated from the main highway, with only one guest.... Doll.
Leigh driving off to a motel... off the main highway, all alone... did Hitchcock see this and feel cheated that the Grandy boys (and girls) didn't cut her up in the shower instead of lugging her back to the Mexican side of the border with evidence of a "mixed party"?
|TOUCH OF EVIL|
The last time Quinlan sees Heston's Vargas he appears like one of the cigar box toreador postcards on the wall below the mounted bull behind him, finally lurching him to his feet, the barbs still hanging in the head and ready for his final dangerous charge. The spectacle of the bland young buck of 'the law' made small, up against its unbearably odious other- a massive wounded animal; bureaucracy (Vargas just one of a bunch of bland 'pretty boy' bureaucrats) vs. the ageless and eternal (but mortal and highly iconoclastic) monster. "Vargas is one of those starry eyed idealists," slurs Quinlan to Pete. "They're the one's making trouble in the world." Hank's famous intuition was right; the kid really did plant that bomb. And Vargas made all his own trouble from the get-go. He could have just walked away...
But Vargas, since he's so mercilessly rounded by Welles' black humor subtext, doesn't bother me. I can watch TOE any old time. Certain things on the other hand can keep a film out of my rotation of summer stock staples. My Hawks' repertoire doesn't include MONKEY BUSINESS, for example, purely because of Cary Grant's grey buzz-cut and my embargo on any movie that shows animal testing even if the apes seem to have a fine time (a cage is a cage). Ginger Rogers' as a born-again teenage virgin grates too--she plays it much too shrilly broad. Mainly though it's the gray hair buzzcut. It hurts the back of my neck just to see it, those stabby little bristles. What kind of guy associates a military grade crew cut with being young and feckless? I'm no fan of I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE neither. Cutting off a horse's tail to make a wig... ridiculous and unfair to the horse. How's he gonna bat flies away from his arse? The horse I mean.
But hey - Tarantino films for the most part always hold up to repeat viewings, the horses are bedded down real cherry... though DJANGO is so harsh it's hard to relax with cuzza slave abuses. On the other hand, I've already seen HATEFUL EIGHT six times. It's perfect for hot summers since it occurs during a blizzard. Sure, there are things that don't work for me, like the high voiced fey narrator (Quentin himself, successfully masking a lot of his vocal tics) who ducks in the second part and the anachronistic White Stripes song (though one anachronistic song is okay in the post-Butch Cassidy tradition, I'd say that job's filled well by David Hesse's "Now You're All Alone" in the second to last chapter) it's usually during a flashback or happier time montage, not so early in a film --it feel unearned.
But shit like the Mexican's "Silent Night" --an off-key but effective rendition (his soft "goddamn it" after flubbing a note, or again) gamely counterpointing Samuel Jackson and Bruce Dern's antithetical veering from 'shared a battlefield' post-war bonding ("most of my ponies"), to bitter ("I did better than my damn good brothers") to Jackson's harsh gloating tale of killing his son meant to goad Dern into drawing first so the killing's legal ("It was cold the day I killed your boy!") Great writing, elaboration, the way things start one way and wind up the complete opposite organically and in the same setting - a gift lost on 90% of screenwriters.
Morricone's score is one of his absolute best, not even in a "of his dotage' kind of icon indulgence, with a theme mixing elements of earlier work (the tick-tock watch chime motif from For a few Dollars More) with the relentless low-register cacophonic crescendos of his signature giallo-style and the loping bassoon notes of one of his more playful westerns (part of the 'post'-Sundance Kid wave, where every movie had a recurring romantic flashback set to an 'cute' 70s pop song) and the thud-thud bass under them all. Like the film's theme of real death and forged patriotism as the building blocks of US democracy, it's a score that evokes his past without leaning on its tropes, not a mere homage but a new classic that uses the old songs like a palette rather than a crutch. Like those references, each actor's speaking style seems intimately cared for, woven into the fabric. There are deft Hawks references and Anthony Mann, and above all the kind of careful diagramming of hostages and killers that makes good movies, like Rio Bravo, as far as logical structure ("If anything happens to us, your brother's liable to be accidentally shot"). In Fistful of Dollars (1966) there's that bit wherein the mean bastard whose been in a familial war with the house across the way decides to just kill everyone in that other family. It's like why the hell didn't the other do that? It's one of those dumb games that show the disinterest Leone has with the logistics underneath the western, or why duels were even invented. In the hands of someone with western savvy the motivation is clear: lots of witnesses so you can't shoot an unarmed man, or someone not trying to shoot you first (so it's self defense), for later courtroom scenes.
For example Rio Bravo and Red River are endlessly rewatchable in part because Hawks knows the kind of prodding by which two gunfighters "paw at each other and see what they're up against." And he knows the way you need the guy you want to kill to be reaching for his gun before you can legally shoot him, hence the gunfighter code, Hawks sneers at "killing is wrong" Kramer revisionism (he made Bravo as a response to High Noon). Leone doesn't really seem to understand either philosophy: the law and self defense and witnesses never enter into it and killing is never condemned except by labels like "The Bad" flashing onscreen. His gunmen are doing it that way because that's the way it's done in movies, and Morricone's electric guitar makes any other gesture seem half-assed but the most final and extreme. For Hawks everything is based on hostages, lines of fire, and having guys who are "real good" shots, who don't get all mushy over killing sex or seven guys in a five-second gun battle, and telling the Chinaman he's got more fifty-dollar gold pieces coming his way, and if you have the boss in your gunsights it doesn't matter how many of them there are because he'll be the first person shot. We always know the rules in Hawks, so things always make sense, its the kind of logic that's so enticing it makes us loyal, wins us with ballsy courage, like Arthur getting his enemy to knight him mid-battle in Excalibur, knowing with so many witnesses no other possible recourse is open to his former foe than future loyalty.
But cop violence and stand your ground etc. has been making it real clear why you always need to wait for the owlhoot to draw first, as its self defense, even if he's black. What makes Hateful Eight so wondrous is that it's not just great in itself but the most hopeful film about the future of the country since Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, the joining of east and west, left and right, urban and rural. And in the process it's also the most sharp-eyed about the reality of violence, and the thin blue line of law. Jackson's character is even based on the real life Bas Reeves, a black bounty hunter working in the Colorado mountains. Here he's also made a murdering cavalry officer who joined the war to "kill white folks" and so his partnering with the future sheriff ex-"Ni--er killer of Baton Rogue" - ex-Confederate officer, has a real optimistic glow. We may have our differences, skin, hate and so forth, but these other guys are slime and on that we can agree. Russia and America were both horrified by the Nazi camps they were each liberating as they advanced into Germany in 1945, they're common brotherhood in humanity was reaffirmed by their shared horror.
This is the kind of salvo towards peace through an understanding of the importance of violent men that makes it so tragic the cops boycotted this film because of their union, where to question the behavior of even a few bad apples is to condemn all fruit. What makes EIGHT work for endless revisits is that no one has dominion over nobody and due it's being shot on 70mm film it's probably the most gorgeous looking work to come along on HD in some time. The dark shadows glowing in a whole spectrum of deep yellows and purples of the sort I hadn't seen since the Criterion clean-up of the RED DESERT smog. I could spend eternity looking at those fields of Wyoming snow, the carriage thundering along to Morricone's ominous twang and sing-song metronome, the bright yellow lining of Samuel Jackson's cavalry jacket, the mix of steam and pipe smoke billowing from the mustached and/or grinning mouths of Jackson and Russell, glowing in the ambient light.
And the dialogue and delivery are sublime: there's the offhand way Kurt Russell assures Daisy he'll stop her cold with a bullet if she tries to escape and then paternally wipes some stew from her chin with his napkin, or pours her a slug at the bar. The whole idea of being holed up in this cozy joint during a raging blizzard is a fine inverse mirror to the art of holing up in the AC with your stack of movies during a heat wave. And mostly, I love that Quentin sets up the victims of the Domingray gang massacre in such vivid detail with so few strokes a and makes most of them black without anyone calling attention to it, a kind of color-blind casting that works well because we've already heard much about them, and never pictured them black, only dead--and racist (Minnie hates Mexicans), or the cold dispassionate way the gang are all shown first sweet talking their victims, getting them up on ladders, buying candy, speaking French, etc, then shooting them point blank, and looking down at their still twitching bodies and scared eyes without a word, only clinical killer abstraction.
|Ya mind seein' pictures yet?|
Of course you may find there's not many places to go afterwards in the summer icicle canon... Carpenter, Hawks, the train...
Damn it, you know where, Pierre. We still have... a long way... to go... but hand... in motherfuggin' hand... we'll get 1982 back again.... not that we want to. Just that it's the only place still open.
Your loving conqueror,
1. Sometimes in deep meditation I can feel my aura being pulled toward the north pole, and I have a theory it acts as a kind of soul energy release transmitter, beaming our unused psychic wave energy off-grid to power you know what.