Friday, 12 February 2016

From Russia With Love (1963)

"The Cold War in Istanbul will not remain cold very much longer."

Last year at least two major films about the Cold War were released, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie 2015) and Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg 2015). Since the Cold War ended some 25 years ago they were of course set in the past, whereas once cold war stories were very much part of the present. One fine example is the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love (Terence Young 1963).

It is often said, regarding the new-found strength of the four recent Bond films with Daniel Craig, that they are a symptom of England's wish to imagine herself as a global power and proof that she still misses the days of the empire. I do not think it is a particularly convincing argument. For one thing, that empire was lost even before the first Bond film, Dr. No (Terence Young 1962), so it would be more plausible to argue that the Bond series began is a reflection on that loss, rather than it being a factor today, especially since Dr. No takes place in Jamaica the year it gained its independence from Britain. Also, Bond has never been a defender of the Empire, his business has been to protect the homeland and its allies against contemporary foes. There is still a Britain and a MI6 so there is no reason why there should not be an agent working for them, even if the Empire is gone and the Cold War over. And neither have the makers of the Bond films pretended that things have not changed, quite the opposite. The films usually rather aptly follow with the times and deals with what the British consider their biggest threat of the day. (In the last films the threat has been a combination of global terrorism and enemies within MI6 and the government, but it is interesting to note that Islamic jihadists have not yet appeared.)

Films about the Cold War often invoke the game of chess, and From Russia With Love is no exception. The master plan to outwit the British and the Russians is concocted by the world's greatest chess master, Kronsteen, working for SPECTRE. His idea is to trick Bond into stealing a Lektor decoding machine at the Russian consulate in Istanbul, and then steal it from him in turn whilst killing him under humiliating circumstances as a revenge for Bond having killed Dr No in the previous film. A hitman, Grant, is assigned by SPECTRE to watch over Bond, keep him out of harm's way until he has stolen the Lektor, and then strike against him. Two other participants in the game are Tatiana Romanova, called Tania, a Russian woman who works at the consulate with the Lektor, and Rosa Klebb, another operative for SPECTRE.

Klebb and Grant

It is a game on several levels. First there is Kronsteen's game, who handles everyone as just a pawn, and all moves and counter-moves have been anticipated by him. Another layer is the game between the British and the Russians. "The game with the Russians is played differently here." Kerim Bey, MI6's man in Turkey, says to Bond at one point. "For day-to-day routine matters, we make it easy to keep a tab on each other." But when Bond arrives in Istanbul that relaxed atmosphere is soon gone and people begin to die. One game, where the participants knew that they were playing, have been replaced by another in which the participants are unaware of them being played, and played out against each other. There is also another allegory for the Cold War; an aquarium with Siamese fighting fish who are always at each other's throats, fighting with each other for no apparent reason, ("Brave, but on the whole stupid. Yes, they're stupid." as Blofeld says.) Touches like these add to the richness of the film.

Ian Fleming's novel on which the film is based is at times rather racist in its depiction of Turks and Turkey but that is not the case with the film. Turkey is not exoticised, nor is it treated in a racist way, and neither are the Turks that appear in the film, Kerim Bey is clearly Bond's equal, unlike, say, Quarrel in Dr. No. It is different with a sequence in which Bond and Kerim Bey pay a visit to a camp where a group of Roma are living. The Roma are friends and allies but their life in the camp is treated as an exotic fantasy, albeit not mean-spirited and they are neither criticised nor made fun of. Compared to the depiction of Africa, or "Africa", in plenty of contemporary films it is surprisingly benign.

Terence Young once said that he made the first Bond film (Dr. No), the best (From Russia With Love), and the most successful (Thunderball 1965), and this is still true. He was unusually inspired during the making of this one, taking inspiration from both Alain Resnais and Alfred Hitchcock. Young is generally seen as the one who created the cinematic James Bond (as opposed to Fleming's literary version). When making Dr. No he taught Sean Connery how to talk, move and dress, and insisted on putting the style and the look, and a slightly mischievous touch, at the centre of things. The clothes that Bond was wearing had to be just right, even the sleeves had to be approved by Young. (The first two films were written by Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaum, but Harwood quit after From Russia With Love because of Young's interferences and the changes he made to their scripts.) But although style and fashion were important to him, Young also wanted to keep the films grounded in real life, and one reason From Russia With Love is so good is because it is rather serious, an actual spy thriller which can stand alone as such, and not just as another instalment in the Bond series. The Cold War was not just a backdrop here but is at the core of the film. The location footage also helps. A sequence when three different agents are spying on each other and Tania Romanova, and which is set in Hagia Sophia, is a particular highlight, partly for the location and partly for the confusion as to what exactly is going on. Another highlight is the long sequence on board the Orient Express from Istanbul to Trieste, where so many people, agents and double agents appear as to be enough for two more films. This is also where Grant and Bond have their fight in a compartment while the train is moving, a scene which is a rather spectacular accomplishment, both for the editing and framing and for the tension. (Here, besides Young, the editor Peter Hunt must be praised.)

"The first one won't kill you. Not the second, not even the third. Not until you crawl over here and you kiss my foot." Grant says, and Robert Shaw's steely delivery of his lines is superb, with the right combination of madness, ruthlessness and contempt.

The film is not all serious, there are plenty of jokes, some obvious and some subtle, in keeping with the Bond tradition. One particular favourite is when Tania asks about Western girls and Bond says "Well, once when I was with M in Tokyo..." As it is being recorded, M and Miss Moneypenny is listening in and M, highly embarrassed, turns of the recording. (The relationship between Bond and M has usually been interesting. Perhaps not when Robert Brown played the part, in four films, but when played by Bernard Lee in the first 11 films and later by Judi Dench in 8 films. These two have been like Bond's parents, fiercely protective when speaking about him with others and partly amused, partly exasperated when having to deal with him in person, and they are among the very few that Bond have always respected, and never mocked.)

The chemistry between Connery and Pedro Armendariz who plays Kerim Bey is another strength of the film. He and Bond become friends; a genuine bond is formed between them, which is also unusual in Bond films. Tania Romanova is also unusually humane; shy, hesitant and sweet, and these are strengths, not weaknesses. She is unusually real for a woman in a Bond film, a believable human being. There is real affection between her and Bond, and the chemistry between Daniela Bianchi and Connery works well too. (Despite the fact that Bianchi's English was not good enough so she was dubbed by Barbara Jefford.) And in the end, it is not Bond who saves her but she who saves Bond. She has to make a choice, to step out of the game and choose between her duty to her country (as she is led to believe) and her duty to her love. She chooses love, and Rosa Klebb dies instead of Bond.


For an interesting analysis of the differences between the original version of the novel From Russia, With Love and two different Turkish translations, see "Lost in Translation: James Bond's Istanbul"
by Sean R. Singer in The American Interest 8.3 (Jan/Feb 2013): 90-96.

Pedro Armendariz had previously worked with Luis Buñuel and John Ford, among others, and it was apparently Ford's suggestion that Armendariz play the part of Kerim Bey. He was dying of cancer during the making of the film and he killed himself shortly after.

Thunderball has made more money than any other Bond film, with Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton 1964) in second place. Skyfall (Sam Mendes 2012) comes third, bringing in only half as much as Thunderball. (Adjusted for inflation of course.)

Friday, 29 January 2016

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

What do you care about Black Rock?
I don't care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren't many towns like this in America. But one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can't seem to find a handle to.
You don't know what you're talking about.
Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here and the guerrillas have taken over.
The Americans and the Japanese have had an awkward relationship ever since 1853 when Commodore Perry's gunboats opened up Japan to the outside world and brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to an end. They are now close allies but in the 1980s USA was convinced that Japan would take over as the number one power and buy up America (a fear which can be seen in films as diverse as Gung Ho (Ron Howard 1986) and Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988)), and during the 1930s they were enemies and fought each other during World War 2, after which the US occupied Japan until 1952. Many films have been made about the war in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, including John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945). Considerably fewer films have been made about what happened with the Japanese who were in the US during the war, and the Japanese-Americans. One of those rare films is Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges 1955).

It is set in 1945 and takes places during 24 hours, from when the Southern Pacific makes a brief and unexpected stop at Black Rock (stopping for the first time in four years) until the train comes along the same time the next day, again making a brief and unexpected stop. In between a stranger, Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, has been forced to take on almost the whole town as the people in it first want him to leave and then want to kill him. Once something bad happened in Black Rock and ever since the town has been walking dead, consumed by fear and guilt. For some Macreedy is seen as a threat but to others as a chance for redemption.

The town's unofficial leader as a man called Smith, played by Robert Ryan, and he is clearly responsible for the bad thing that happened, whatever it was. Macreedy has come to Black Rock to visit the father of a friend, a Japanese man called Komoko. But he is not there anymore and his place has been burned to the ground. In one particularly powerful sequence Macreedy is trying to coax Smith into admitting that he killed Komoko, and that he killed him only because he was Japanese. Macreedy is gentle, soft-spoken and sitting down, Smith is tense, aggravated and standing up, menacing.

The film was shot on location in the dry, hot inland of California, close to where during the war there had been a relocation camp in which thousands of Japanese-Americans had been locked up. This is also something that comes up in the dialogue. The different men in the town all have their different reasons for why they acted like they did, and now act like they do. For Smith it is a combination of disappointment (for not being accepted by the army when he tried to enlist) and pure racism; hatred of the Japanese. But it is also because he knows that his way of life and his breed is doomed, they have no place in a modern, post-war America. In some ways he is related to Ethan Edwards in Ford's The Searchers (1956), another embittered man for whom there is no place in a post-war era. (It is also possible to draw a connection to the Bundy gang who are currently occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon.) But he is not unique, and maybe he is called Smith to emphasise how ordinary he is. He could be anybody.

Perhaps unexpectedly this is a MGM production, produced by Dore Schary, who was keen on having his liberal inclinations seen in the films he produced. Bad Day at Black Rock had a pointed progressive political message, and the heads at the studio were not keen on it, but Schary prevailed. It was also MGM's first film in CinemaScope, and likewise its director John Sturges' first film in that format. Sturges said he would do it on condition that he was left alone on set, and he did get to make it his way. One thing he did was to get rid of all the extras. The only people seen in the film are the main characters, except for the first and last scene. Sturges did not want any distractions in his compositions, and they are powerful. He is one of the great Scope directors, a natural for compositions, and this was obvious already here in his first try. It looks spectacular, and Sturges seems to be thrilled by what he can do with the wide frame and frequently, by his staging and blocking, draws attention to the images so that they become like still lifes. In some scenes it is as if Sturges suddenly freezes the action for a few seconds, like in this impromptu meeting between several men in a series of elaborately composed shots. The point is not so much what they are talking about as for Sturges to show what he can do, and what the format can do.

The script by Millard Kaufman, is very good, and the dialogue as well, but it is Sturges's handling of the material that makes the film the great work of art that it is.

There is one absence in the film: they all speak of the Japanese but no one is seen, which is part of the force of the film. They are not there anymore because bad things happen in places like Black Rock.

For those who wish to explore more of Sturges at his best there is The Law and Jake Wade (1958) and The Hour of the Gun (1967).

Here are two earlier related articles:
On the two Sturges, Preston and John.
On The Great Escape (1963).

Another recommended film is House of Bamboo (Sam Fuller 1955), see accompanying post here.

The Law and Jake Wade

House of Bamboo (1955)

Here is a bonus post. The main feature today is about Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges 1955) but that same year Sam Fuller made House of Bamboo on location in Japan, and like Bad Day at Black Rock it was in CinemaScope and also with Robert Ryan as the main villain, so they have things in common. It is a very Fullerian film: violent, extravagantly shot (all over Tokyo) with a very mobile camera and alternating between the absurd and the profound, and, as always, there is a character named Griff. It is a thriller, a docudrama, while also a sweet love story between an American army man (played by Robert Stack) and a Japanese woman (played by Yoshiko Yamaguchi, credited as Shirley Yamaguchi). Sessue Hayakawa plays a Japanese police inspector. As a study in racial relations it is a companion piece to Fuller's later, and more aggressive, China Gate (1957), Run of the Arrow (1957) and White Dog (1982).

Here are some suggestive images.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Equinox Flower (1958)

What is said about directors, regarding their style or themes or message or some such, is frequently wrong, partly because most directors are a lot more eclectic and flexible that the popular view of them can account for. This is also true of course for Yasujiro Ozu, even though he might appear to be the most consistent and rigid filmmaker of them all. But too many seem to base their view of Ozu on just one film, Tokyo Story (1953), and suggesting that he was conservative, that there is no camera movements, that the camera is always placed at the height of somebody sitting down and that they are all about the family. But there is much more to Ozu's style and themes than this. Explicitly so if you consider both his pre-war films and his post-war films, and less obvious but still indubitably if you only consider the post-war films. And the post-war films should be considered, most of them. Those who have only seen Tokyo Story have but a partial view of Ozu. His humour, irony, visual wit, discussions about class and allusions to the war, and his exquisite use of colour; these are things that are not necessarily present in Tokyo Story, which, although a very fine film, should only be considered a starting point.

His first film in colour was Equinox Flower (1958), which is a contender for being his best work. It is about a family in which the father likes to see himself as a liberal, and with the times, but when his daughter wants to marry her boyfriend, and will not accept an arranged marriage, he forgets all about his enlightened talk and becomes implacable. He refuses to give his consent to this marriage, and the family becomes increasingly strained, or rather, he becomes estranged from the women, his wife and daughters.

But that is just the plot summary, and with Ozu plot summaries are usually beside the point. It is the style with which they are told that is the point, and the feelings expressed.

The father is played by Shin Saburi, who acted in many of Ozu's films. In the earlier The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) he plays a man who is married without children but who is supporting his niece against her having to be forced into an arranged marriage. "Don't let her have the kind of marriage we are having." he says to his wife in a moment of heartbreaking honesty. That is really the theme of that film, the unhappy marriage between two people with nothing in common. In Equinox Flower the marriage is happy, the focus is elsewhere; on the gap between two different generations. And Ozu, despite the claim that he was conservative and backward looking, is clearly on the side of the younger ones, they are in the right and their ideas are where the future of Japan lies. Ozu is however also sympathetic to the father; he is not a villain, he is just struggling with the societal changes. Or maybe he just does not want to lose his daughter. Maybe he just cannot accept that she has grown up. In one scene he angrily asks the daughter "Have you slept with him?" which she refuses to answer. It is not clear whether he has problems with her wanting to marry a man of her own choosing, or if it is that he cannot accept that she has grown up and become a person who has sex. It is possibly both.

The alienated salaryman.

And then there is the style. It might be Ozu's most perfectly shot and designed film. Every frame a marvel of precision and clarity, yet simultaneously brimming with beauty and wit. Ozu's images talk to each other, one might counteract another, or a shot might appear which is almost identical to an earlier shot, there is just one slight alternation, or there might be an insignificant object which has a disproportionately strong presence in several shots. Like this red tea pot.

Just two examples.

So the richness of Equinox Flower is incredible. It is perhaps a little bit narrow, compared to its companion piece The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, which also has that class aspect which is rarely mentioned when discussing Ozu (it is for example suggested, in a few sweet and understated scenes, that the husband in the unhappy marriage would be happier if he had been married to their maid, but that was of course not an option), and there is more humour in Green Tea, but visually Equinox Flower is a work of perfection, and that helps balance the more streamlined plot. The warmth and humanity is equal in both. This brief scene below captures all of this. The wife is played by Kinuyo Tanaka and here she and her husband is contemplating life and the passing of time. 

Two earlier posts about Ozu:

For those interested in Ozu and class, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) is good place to start.

Ozu followed Equinox Flower with the equally exquisite Good Morning (1959), which is also required viewing. The cinematographer on them was an Ozu regular, Yuharu Atsuta, who shot all films mentioned in this post.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Happy New Year!

It is only Thursday but it is also the last day of the year and let us end it in style, Vincente Minnelli style. I am grateful for all of you who have visited my blog in 2015, and I hope you will all come back in 2016. The next regular post will be up in two weeks, on a Friday as usual. See you then!