Sunday, 28 September 2014

Prophecy (1979)

This much-maligned but hugely enjoyable eco tract-cum-monster movie by John Frankenheimer is one of the most sublime junky pleasures I’ve stumbled upon in a while. Frankenheimer’s unmoored, gun-for-hire phase in the late ‘70s, though reputedly bedevilled by a drinking problem, had already produced his rock-solid thrillers French Connection II (1975) and Black Sunday (1977), and Prophecy quickly declares pretensions above and beyond the glut of Jaws (1975) rip-offs it surely belonged to. An opening credit sequence presents an oddly abstracted series of shots of lights drifting in the dark, accompanied by the slowly composing sounds of boots thundering across the earth and dogs howling: hallucinatory ambience turns into frenetic motion and urgency, as the lights are revealed to be torches in the hands of rangers on the hunt for a missing lumberjacks and Native American eco-terrorists, only to find themselves at the mercy of a malevolent and inimical force in the dark. Frankenheimer shifts to a daylight shot of mangled, half-eaten corpses lying near pellucid Arcadian waters, the first of many refrains to an almost David Cronenberg-esque obsession with physical destruction and perversion of natural forms, but contextualised in a seemingly Edenic locale, where the industrial travesties are invisibly leeching into the earth and the body, and the by-product is now lurking in the bush ready to eat you.

The hero is Robert Foxworth’s glumly dedicated, lefty do-gooder public health inspector Dr. Robert Verne (after the previous year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, health inspectors were having an Indian summer as Hollywood heroes) who’s burnt out his conscientious spirit ministering to inner city tenements. He and his orchestra cellist wife Maggie (Talia Shire) head to a forested area in Maine (although obviously actually filmed in British Columbia), as an EPA pal asks Robert to help arbitrate in a dispute between a paper mill and the forest’s owners, who call themselves Original Peoples, or “Opies.” Robert and Maggie are quickly treated to a glimpse of how heated the conflict has become as mill boss Bethel Isley (Richard Dysart, warming up for more monster business in The Thing, 1982) tries to barge through a cordon thrown up by Opie leaders John (Armand Assante) and Ramona Hawks (Victoria Racimo), resulting in a chainsaw-vs-axe duel between John and Isley’s goon Kelso (Everett Creach) that almost gets John killed. Isley gives Robert and Maggie a tour of the parent company’s logging activities and the mill, where all seems above board. But Robert soon sees unnaturally huge salmon and tadpoles, before killing a maddened, mutated racoon that invades his and Maggie’s cabin. He connects with John and Ramona, and they show him multiplying evidence that something grotesque is happening to both their fellow tribal members and to the local wildlife, leading to the discovery of a bear cub that’s been born as hideously mangled and tortured as the mutant baby of Eraserhead (1977). 

What’s all this got to do with the local legend of the baleful, protective demon Katahdin, which Ramona’s elder grandfather, Hector M’Rai (George Clutesi), claims to have seen, and describes as having “part of everything in God’s creation” in its obscene physiognomy? Plenty, it turns out, because the mill’s actually been dumping mercury into the lake, which sinks to the bottom and won’t show up in water testing but has seeped into everything and has, with its mutagenic properties, created dragons. The notion that Native American myth could coincide with a very real threats standing in for natural payback for man’s ravaging  of the Way of Things was pretty common in post-Jaws monster movies, including in Claws, Orca (both 1977), and The White Buffalo (1978), and even, in a different fashion, the magnificently whacko The Manitou (1978), and Prophecy might have felt a bit old-hat in that regard by the time it came out. Prophecy also treads similar territory to Grizzly (1976) and Claws in turning the woodlands into a claustrophobic place where any stray bush might hide a terror. More interestingly, the script by David Seltzer has telling similarities to his prior big hit as a screenwriter, The Omen (1976), in playing on paranoid fears about modernity’s tense relationship with ethical codes inherited from pre-technological societies – the wormwood star of The Omen’s obsessive source text Revelation has surely fallen in this film – and parental anxiety over unborn children. 

For most of the first hour, Prophecy feels like a melodrama about marital tensions and environmental and land rights issues, Red Desert (1965) reset in the woods. Robert’s ambivalent intensity smoulders and Maggie is increasingly tormented by her secret pregnancy, knowing that Robert doesn’t want to bring children into a troubled world but unable to face an abortion. The film’s efforts to seem important and timely, drawing on the terrible Minamata poisonings in Japan as inspiration for mutant monster shenanigans, are more than a touch heavy-handed. And yet the theme of natural perversion, with an edge of body-horror grotesquery apparent in gruesome visual fragments and pervading the dramatic landcsape, gives the film a disquieting punch rare to the usually clean-cut monster genre. This aspect dovetails with the theme of parental unease and intensifies it with sadistic glee, once it becomes clear that in drinking the local water supply Maggie has placed their unborn child in danger of the mutagenic toxin. In the film’s final phases she’s stuck playing clinging mother to the misshapen bear cub, tied to the wailing thing that’s an actualisation of every parental nightmare imaginable. This touch adds to the film’s ghoulish intensity, which builds and combusts suddenly in a third act that ranks high in the pantheon in fight-and flight thrill-rides, and the scarcity of monster action before this, whilst a touch puzzling as it plays out, helps the film in this regard. 

After the opening, only one sequence showing the Katahdin’s deadly work intrudes before the relentless last act, as the beast is heard as a dread rumbling in the woods overheard by the hiking Nelson family on a bucolic afternoon, before father (Burke Byrnes) and his two kids (Mia Bendixsen and Johnny Timko) are attacked in their night camp. Young Timko in his sleeping bag is grabbed up by the monster and then hurled against a rock, which explodes in a shower of stuffing feathers. This moment is the film’s most well-known image, generally regarded as a goofy moment of strangeness by genre fans, but what’s interesting about it is that Frankenheimer here works a variation on the more famous moment from The Manchurian Candidate (1962), when Senator Iselin is shot in the heart through the milk carton he holds, the milk pouring out in a startlingly odd simulacrum of flowing blood. Here the feathers again stand in for blood and guts Frankenheimer doesn’t want to show and replaces it with something rather surreal and redolent of symbolism for slain innocence. That’s not to say it works, exactly, as a visual flourish, but it’s not just random weirdness. There is a kitschy quality to some aspects of the film, with the dated make-up and animatronic effects, particularly in the Katahdin’s look, which suggests a rough sketch for Chris Walas’ Brundlefly crossed with a melted Barney the Dinosaur. And yet the hefty budget and all the scope for staging that allows for once wasn’t squandered, because Frankenheimer and his editor Tom Rolf give the film a pulp vivacity as well as a veneer of committed artistry. 

The odd, stylised tone of the opening for instance is justified later as Frankenheimer inverts the early structuring, when the real monster business gets going, as the Katahdin, which is actually a grossly deformed and mutated bear, attacks a gathering at Hector’s tribal encampment. The beast forces the humans to flee into underground storage tunnels for a scene where Frankenheimer uses sound memorably, attuning the audience to the desperate panting of the terrified people who listen to hideous ends for those trapped above and then crane their ears trying to detect whether the monster’s still waiting above, whilst surveying the actors’ faces in clever multi-plane shots and then zeroing in to read their individual, sweating terror, before a gleefully nasty punch-line when the first to stick their head up gets it ripped off. Frankenheimer might have been trying to prove desperately that he wasn’t slumming in loading the film with such showy effects mixed with self-serious themes, and yet he leapt happily into pure horror territory when the time came. 

The last half-hour is therefore compulsively gripping as Robert, Maggie, John, Ramona, and sundry other players have to try to escape the remote woods and elude the Katahdin, which proves devilish in both its invulnerability and predatory cunning as it tracks the protagonists, driven to destroy in its wounded rage. Isley makes a mad dash for a remote antenna array to try and call in aid, whilst the others, in a marvellously tense and relishable sequence that seems to draw on The Wage of Fear (1953) for inspiration, crawl their way to town on a painfully slow-moving truck, scanning the forest with searchlights in vigilance for the beast that lurks in the dark. The very climax throws in silhouetted maulings, beheaded men, a fog-shrouded pier, underwater monster breathing, and a brief besiegement in a cabin as the remaining heroes make a stand, with breathless verve. There’s even one of those black-out shocks right before the end credits, capping off the film with a gloriously cheesy switchback that underlines its final absurdity in just the right way. The casting of Shire and Foxworth is a nice reminder of a time when actual adults were allowed to star in this sort of thing, and indeed the film as a whole, in its belief that this sort of fare could sustain audience interest through such character drama, seems a bit of a relic now. Young Assante all but oozes charisma and has dash to spare, and yet he’s just as enjoyably overripe as ever, somehow managing to overact even with his eyes as they stare through the substance of material things and invite martyrdom by chainsaw. Prophecy isn’t exactly what you’d call reputable pleasure, and yet it is, in its way, a quintessential monster movie experience.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Two Faces of January (2014)

Hossein Amini has had a variable but mostly strong career as an accomplished, professional film writer, penning excellent scripts for Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1995) and Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove (1997) back when, and recently scoring big hits working on Drive (2011) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), as well as the not-so-big 47 Ronin (2013). Undoubtedly the hits helped him make his feature directing debut, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. The Two Faces of January delves into territory inevitably reminiscent of her Tom Ripley novels, although the theme of two men locked in a criminal folie-a-deux is more reminiscent of her Strangers on a Train. The setting is Athens, 1962: Oscar Isaac is Rydal, an American in self-imposed exile in Greece subsisting as a tour guide, petty scam artist and lover boy for good-looking Yankee girls. Rydal strikes up a relationship with the rich and pretty Lauren (Daisy Bevan), but has his eye drawn by a couple, Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst), at first because Chester reminds him of his father. Rydal resisted returning home after his father’s recent death because he was still sitting on lodes of intense resentment for his demanding intellectual regimens and emotional detachment. 

Drawn into casual friendship with the couple, Rydal soon finds himself sucked into Chester’s multi-continental criminal escapades: having fled the US with the profits of a stock scam, Chester is confronted by a private detective, Paul Vittorio (David Warshofsky), who’s been sent by extremely unhappy investors to collect the proceeds at gunpoint. Chester manages to attack Vittorio, who dies in the melee, but he manage to fool Rydal, who catches sight of him dragging the body down a hotel corridor, into thinking that he’s dragging a drunk back to his room. Chester however soon makes most of his situation plain to Rydal and appeals for his help so he and Colette can flee Greece. Rydal arranges for false passports for them, skimming some of the profit for himself, and then volunteers to escort the couple to Crete for the several days it will take for the passports to be ready. Rydal’s motivation in this is clearly beyond money, and his designs on winning Colette away from Chester seem pretty blatant, even as the two men maintain another, loaded, uneasily Oedipal relationship, false father and untrue son tussling for control of woman and fortune.

Amini’s direction displays gifts for economy in the first twenty minutes that call to mind a good classic Hollywood director tackling the same sort of material: mid-career Anatole Litvak, say, or Fred Zinneman before he got prestigious, quickly sketching character outlines, situational underpinnings, basic relationships and the stakes of the oncoming drama, before getting busy with a sudden swerve into plot. Amini pieces together some decent suspense sequences, avoiding the kind of prestigious bloat that afflicts a lot of this brand of “old-fashioned” thriller film. Whereas Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mister Ripley (1999) lumbered on for two and a half hours, Amini maintains nimbleness whilst remaining open to the landscape the setting provides, capturing a sense of bleary dislocation and washed-out romanticism when his bedevilled trio awaken by the sea after a night of anxious drinking, and using a stony plain they walk along to communicate the jagged desolation that fills their psychic horizons. An eerie sequence that pays off in violence and tragedy is staged in an ancient Minoan ruin, with frescoes depicting ancient, dangerous bull dancing rituals reflecting the gnawing psychological battle entangling the protagonists. A fine chase through an Istanbul bazaar late in the film sees Mortensen dashing through gullet of shadowed mazes, where metalworkers pounding away in infernal abodes. 

The crisp, muted yet definite colours of Alberto Iglesias’ photography suspend the characters in a world existing in some Venn diagram mid-point between period tourist postcard and that small genre of midday noir, of which Rene Clement’s take on Highsmith, Plein Soleil (1960) was a major example. That film was surely a strong influence here, whilst the suspense sequences, from Chester trying to hide the dead private eye’s body to the final chase, clearly have more Hitchcockian pretences, although here perhaps the aesthetic seems more in line with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) than Strangers on a Train (1951). And yet there’s something oddly laborious about Amini’s direction and the film as a whole, and the qualities which I praised above ultimately conspire to dampen the film. Amini’s approach to building scenes is a literal as his screenwriting, spelling out whilst never developing a convincing mood of neuroticism or contorted reality. The material does feel partly at fault too, which treads territory too well-worn in Highsmith’s oeuvre, whilst her redeeming on-page psychological subtlety and control of viewpoint slips out of Amini’s fingers. There’s a difference between generating a sense of tragic inevitability and just plain predictability, and Two Faces doesn’t quite know it. The intrinsic theme of the two men competing over the woman is as old as the hills and even the skill of the three actors can’t make it feel anything more than obvious. 

Moreover, although generational conflict is wound into the story, the film is set in the past without feeling convincingly of its past nor of its generations as players in their time. Amini offers a brief exchange between Chester and Vittorio, where the private eye ruefully notes that he’s been sent back to Europe after never giving a damn about it when he was here as a young soldier: this moment is loaded with a sense of middle-aged regret, the shared understanding between the two men of what time has done to their expectations in life and sense of the world, and is more convincing and telling in the thirty seconds or so it takes to play out than anything we get between Chester and Rydal. That pair stand in for the disaffected sons of the WW2 generation, a beatnik escapee feeding off the loose change of the post-war plutocracy – except that Amini doesn’t engage with these men on any such level, preferring to invoke different class backgrounds to supply the asymmetry to their yearnings and resentments. Where the immediacy of sexual and fiscal jealousy can believably propel a story like this, the underlying sense of both rivalry and connection between Chester and Rydal required to make both the more complex psychodrama work, not to mention the finale, is communicated too bluntly and scantly to convince. Two deaths occur in the course of the story, both essentially accidents that nonetheless clearly stem form a landslide of bad decisions, and a sense of quiescent dread of when eventually the situation will combust is built, only to defuse awkwardly, with one character’s final redemptive act seeming more than a little wimpy in narrative terms. The Two Faces of January might have become a mercilessly Sartrean thriller about hell being the people we’re stuck with, even an Antonioni-esque story where thriller stakes mask contemplations of the godforsaken things people do to one-another, but it finally remains too much in thrall to its own classiness and literate poise. Still, the film’s pleasures are worth noticing, most particularly Mortensen’s reliably good performance as a professional charmer with a desperate streak who finishes up destroying almost everything he loves. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)

James Franco’s journey from Spider-Man co-star to multifarious would-be Renaissance man has culminated in a small bombardment of film projects in the past eighteen months. These labours have included two Faulkner adaptations, last year’s As I Lay Dying and the upcoming The Sound and the Fury, and a gruelling, unfiltered, but somehow compelling version of Cormac McCarthy’s hillbilly grunge epic Child of God. Franco officially co-directed this oddity, although Interior. Leather Bar. seems to be more the brainchild of collaborator Travis Mathews, chiefly a documentary filmmaker whose subject is the more confronting zones of gay life. Blending meta-narrative and art-happening stunt, Interior. Leather Bar. meditates on the nature of acting as a way of grazing the edges of personal reality, in the context of confronting cultural depictions of unfamiliar sexuality. The film supposedly depicts, documentary fashion, Mathews’ attempt to recreate a legendary 40 minutes’ worth of hard-core footage cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). That film, shot on location in New York’s leather bar scene, had a troubled production and reception owing to the controversy of its depiction of that milieu, which was viewed through Friedkin’s delirious, infernal conception of modern urban life. Censorship only seemed to confirm institutionalised homophobia, turning what was authentically recorded of the era’s real niche gay life by the film into shadowy, culturally redacted netherworld. Cruising’s problematic achievement as both document of the period, exploration of the dark side of human sexuality, and polarizing product of a time when such reassuringly squeaky-clean, mainstream-friendly queer fare as Beginners or The Kids Are All Right (both 2011) were unheard of, has made it, whether one approves of it or not, a totemistic moment and a battleground to this day.

So Mathews and Franco set out to recreate the texture of the era’s hedonism, like art historians rebuilding some shattered monument to plug the hole left in a cultural landscape. Franco explains at length that he’s taking on the implicit rendering of gay sexual activity, or indeed any non-normative behaviour, as a realm of taboo otherness, a construction of unfamiliarity which creates prejudice as well as being a product of it. Much of Interior. Leather Bar. purports to be a making-of record of the recreation project, of which only relatively brief snatches are seen. Whilst depiction of gay sex is crucial in the film, on another level this is fundamentally about acting, in terms of personal identity, and the creation of false realities that serve the needs of an audience. Actor Val Lauren, who starred in his biopic of Sal Mineo, Sal (2011), is cast here as stand-in for Al Pacino. Like Pacino the man and actor who worked on the original, perhaps, and certainly like his character in the original film, Lauren is called on to perform in contexts where the acting must at some point confront a personal limit, where the straight actor’s reflexive disinterest or even distaste in the gay sexual activity might snap in – or, prove non-existent, per macho anxiety. Thus Lauren's internalising of the gay panic of thirty years ago seems at first a little old-hat, but one question here is how much have we really evolved, culturally speaking, since 1980, in terms of what we allow representation on screen.

Tackling that question, Mathews and Franco set out to normalise the verboten heart of Cruising’s expressive lode in portraying raw homosexual behaviour. But they also explore how an audience relies on actors to transmute our fantasies into performance, a creation of observable experience. To achieve the full recreation of the Cruising sex scenes, the filmmakers need performers who can actually do them - that is, gay actors or men willing to perform sex acts on camera. For the actor, playing a movie role entails actually doing a thing, or a simulacrum of a thing, that allows vicarious pleasures and pains for others. Though the capacity to slip in and out of such identities is precisely the one thing we pay and prize actors for, there is always going to be a limit of distance on what an actor will and can do to suppress their own identity. Val and another actor who says he’s straight stumble clumsily through preparations for the extended stunt whilst feeling each-other out - cruising, in a way - about their feelings in this situation. Interpolated throughout are shots of various actors and actuals who say their little piece about their motivations for getting into the project, whilst Lauren chats on the phone with his agent and his wife to release his discomfort and confusion. 

The very final shots suggest that in the same way that Lauren is expected to become Pacino, who is in turn expected to play a character who is trying to fit in in an environment where his alienness must sooner or later be revealed, Mathews and Franco are interested in chasing Cruising’s fascination with psychological dissolution, a common theme of Friedkin’s. Interior. Leather Bar. remains mostly a theory for an interesting exploration of this theme, aping Cruising’s driving notion of identities becoming blurred in close contact with new languages of flesh, without going anywhere with it. Mathews and Franco's filmmaking mimics Friedkin’s in an act of appropriation that rhymes with what the performers are asked to do, multiplying realms of media reality, a reflection within a reflection. And yes, Mathews and Franco do a good job recreating the specific, grimy, almost neo-expressionist look and sound of Cruising, seen in short sequences composed of staccato edits punctuated by vivid, hardcore shots. Such shots bluntly earn the film’s spurs as transgressive fare. But the film threatens to devolve into a rather trite moral, that watching gay sex up close will make you chill out generally on the subject. Franco’s participation borders on self-congratulatory as the inherent riskiness on making such a film is reiterated several times, but his method of playing confrontational provocateur is here more sophisticated than in Child of God’s gauchely contemplated necrophilia. The perpetual, invisible quotation marks that hovered around Franco’s participation in a mainstream variation on the same ideas, This Is The End (2013), always feel present here too, however, and the film as a whole distanced me from the very idea that I could see the "real" Franco or Lauren in this context; they play dramatically convenient projections of themselves, and want us to know that. The hour-long run time means that the film ultimately feels more essayistic than dramatic, in spite of the genre-blurring, and ultimately it feels caught between two different modes of expression without satisfying either.

The project succeeds at least in its gazing, presenting as a climax (in both senses of the term) an extended lovemaking session between a couple of leather daddies with a masturbating voyeur in the scene and a crew of filmmakers beyond the scene, a real sex act performed for aesthetic recreation transmitted through layers of watching. This casts a weird spell through the purposeful attempt to remove precisely the aesthetic that was key to Friedkin’s film: the thudding dance music, stroboscopic lighting and editing, and grinding hysteria give way instead to a kind of zoological documentary, with the act of detached third-person viewing, represented by Val-as-Pacino-as-cop/outsider, taken by Mathews as more important than the sex acts themselves. How the viewer responds is the phenomenon under study; the dividing line not just between gay and straight, actor and audience comes under question, but divisions of intimate and public behaviour, art and pornography, capturing not merely the surface reality of something usually kept under wraps but privileged with a glimpse of a strange zone of nullity where no such demarcations apply. Interior. Leather Bar. doesn’t forge any grand, new territory for the perverted arts, but it does have a surprising breadth of ambition, and it tackles those ambitions with enough balls to achieve a minatory grace.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Conquest of Space (1955)

Conquest of Space is perhaps the most of obscure of major 1950s science-fiction films. Clearly intended as an apotheosis, both cinematically and thematically, of the series of films in the genre producer George Pal had been making since his production Destination Moon (1950) essentially kick-started the genre craze, Conquest of Space was however roundly rejected by critics and audiences of the time, and has remained poorly regarded ever since. Pal retreated into straight fantasy with tom thumb (1958) before returning to sci-fi with 1960’s The Time Machine, whilst he wouldn’t work again with his fittest directorial collaborator, Byron Haskin, until The Power (1968), when their moment had most definitely passed. What went wrong with the brand, and the film? Unlike the Technicolor sturm-und-drang of When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and The Naked Jungle (1954), with their feverish vistas of destruction and epic-scaled action, Conquest of Space followed Destination Moon in emphasising a realist approach to sci-fi spectacle. Pal and Haskin annexed two popular speculative non-fiction books by Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun as a basis for an attempt to create a believable portrait of what future space exploration might look like, and utilised the artist who had illustrated Ley’s book, Chesley Bonestell, to help create that portrait. One problem with Conquest of Space is that, in spite of its futuristic (to 1955) setting and more expansive ideas, it’s essentially the same film as Destination Moon, ending a gruelling journey across space with a big spaceship mock-up sitting around on a sound stage edition of an alien landscape, with astronauts milling around without anything much to do. SEE! the amazing trek of the heroes to collect rock samples! THRILL! as these pioneers of the stars collect…more rock samples!

Conquest of Space has more ambitions than only offering mere theoretical authenticity, and it anticipates a lot of subsequent spacefaring adventures, including, unavoidably, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with which it shares the desire to express awed fascination with the idea of life in the final frontier, rotating space stations, and deep space explorers, as well as Nebo Zovyot (1959), through to Sunshine (2007) and Gravity (2013). Considering that even the most basic manned space flight was still six years away when this movie was released, many of the images, particularly of the astronauts working in zero gravity and the paraphernalia of their work, culled from the pages of the source books and illustrations from a plethora of ‘50s magazine articles, reveal how most subsequent space technology was already blueprinted by this time. The special effects do show their age now, as the models are over-lit and bland-looking, and the matte work shows at the seams by comparison to the far more convincing but also more time-consuming front projection work Kubrick used on 2001. And yet there’s still an attractive, pictorial beauty and vividness to the visuals, particularly in the spaceship’s close encounter with an asteroid and landing on Mars. The fact that Pal and Haskin were able to get Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston to fight off bugs in The Naked Jungle but could only get third-string, competent but unexciting B-movie actors for their sci-fi endeavours says a lot about how ghettoised the genre was at the time, or at least how much of their relatively limited budgets was soaked up by the effects team. But the real problem with Conquest of Space lies in its inability to find a way to glean real excitement or dramatic capital from its storyline. 

The film’s most interesting angle is its portrait of humankind struggling to deal with the fear of the infinite and the physical and psychological extremes of a new environment, anticipating the major theme of Alex Garland’s script for Sunshine, as a crewman goes mad and becomes determined to prevent a blasphemous encroachment on the universe. The setting is sometime in mid-1970s, on a space station manned by an international service with a quasi-military hierarchy. The station has been built partly to facilitate the construction of a large, recently-completed interplanetary spaceship. The space mission is led by Colonel Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke), an experienced leader whose John Ford-esque adjutant Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy) has been serving under him in “Korea, Africa, and China” (raising some intriguing, and disturbing, alternate-history possibilities), before directing the construction of the station. Also aboard is Merritt’s son Barney (Eric Fleming), who’s chafing at having been separated from his wife for a year in following his old man on this boondoggle venture, and, more subtly, from living in the shadow of a legendary father whose dedication came at the cost of his family’s happiness. Mahoney hero worships Merritt unabashedly with near-religious fervour whilst disdaining Barney. Whilst the station is manned by functionaries dressed in light brown overalls, the specialist team of space engineers intended for the spaceship’s moon mission dresses in blue. They’re mocked roundly by the others for their special diet of protein pills and strict regime. One of the team, Cooper (William Redfield), freezes up during an extravehicular mission and knows, to his chagrin, that he’s washed out when he’s given a proper meal at dinner time. 

The others in their select unit include blue-collar Brooklynite electronics expert Jackie Seigel (Phil Foster), wry Japanese Imoto (Benson Fong), and Eastern European Andre Fodor (Ross Martin), who are asked by Merritt to accompany him when he is ordered to launch the spaceship not for the Moon but for Mars. Barney, on the verge of going home, tears up his transfer order and joins the team, but Merritt rejects Mahoney as too old. Mahoney nonetheless stows away aboard the spaceship, which has to dodge flaming meteors in its voyage to the red planet. The notion of international cooperation in an interstellar future has the clear ring of Star Trek’s idealism, and Conquest doesn’t belabour the point, except with an odd but interesting moment when Imoto makes a speech taking his own national history as cautionary example, suggesting that shortages of resources partly drove Japan to aggressive acts. He wants the mission to Mars to succeed as Earth’s resources are depleted and the possibility of exploiting other worlds will prevent future conflicts. The real problem with Conquest lies in its script, which is, apart from Imoto’s key scene, flatly and dully written, even passing silly at times, as when Seigel is outraged by his girlfriend Rosie (Joan Shawlee) appearing on a news report dolled up and bathing in his heroic spotlight whilst obviously seeing another beau. Apart from the study of Merritt as a crumbling paternal-authority figure reminiscent of John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in Red River (1948) and echoing back to Captain Ahab, the characterisations are stereotyped, and the acting styles and interpersonal relations are mostly pitched on the level of a low-budget war movie.

The scenario was written by a battery of writers who had impressive experience in writing fantastic tales, including Them! author George Worthing Yates, and former Val Lewton collaborator Barré Lyndon, but the screenplay, actually written by James O’Hanlon, is so heavy-footed it would make Godzilla on a bender seem twinkle-toed. Conquest anticipates much later special effects-based cinema with frightening alacrity in that regard, the time and effort spent on those effects unmatched by the dramatic level and engagement with the human level. And yet Conquest isn’t hollow, as it offers a study in the potentially overwhelming nature of space travel and confrontation with the infinite, and with more care might easily have been another Pal and Haskin classic, indeed perhaps even their best work. By touching on an early version of generation gap angst that the era’s teenagers would have understood intuitively and soon would become a basic cultural given, the film sets in play a father-son conflict that binds with the theme of exploration as a process of divestment as well as achievement, threat of loss as well as discovery. Old, patriarchal religious sensibilities and certainties clash with modernity’s revisionist urges and arrogant, all-conquering spirit, raising the spectre of minds and philosophies that haven’t moved fast enough to cope with such extremes. Pal’s sci-fi productions tended to emphasise a brand of safe, pious sentiment agreeable to his mid-’50s audience, particular in The War of Worlds where that element contradicted H.G. Wells’ pitiless logic and yet also helped power the film’s feverishly poetic apocalypse. Merritt, who’s hiding the effects of “space fatigue,” a malady that has already washed out Cooper, begins to unravel when confronted by deep space and new, strange horizons. The death of Fodor in a shower of fiery meteor fragments lays the seeds for Merritt’s complete disintegration.

Merritt devolves into a religious mania, convinced they’re committing an act of sacrilege by invading a domain not prescribed for human use as per Biblical instruction, and eventually becomes determined to prevent the mission landing. He almost foils the touchdown, and then attempts to sabotage the ship once on the Martian surface, even firing bullets at Barney to stop him, leading to a tussle which results in the older man’s death. Mahoney, who arrives during the fight, is appalled and, with his blind loyalty to Merritt, swears to make sure Barney will be court-marshalled and hung for the killing. The flavour of this moral drama is appropriately bald and Oedipal, fit for the founding of new worlds and myths, but the film lacks the authorial snap to make it truly momentous. Conquest does to a certain extent see the atavistic import behind a seemingly super-modern act and interrogates how we might respond to such widened vistas: indeed Conquest works as a parable of relevance to the modern world as so many, faced with new ways of understanding the universe and our place in it, retreat into older ways and a kind of wilful blindness that reaffirms we humans as the centre of things. But Conquest also counterbalances the theme of future shock by offering up visions of transcendental grace in unexpected environs – a funeral in space that sends a body floating off into the blazing light of the galaxy, a cross assembled from junk on the blasted Martian surface, a tiny sprout from a plant on the Martian surface appearing out of a grave, and a seemingly miraculous Yuletide snow falling from the red planet’s sky.

Such fragments of marvel arrive thanks to Haskin’s direction, with his quietly baroque visual sensibility and gift for wrangling cramped budgets to conjure films that seemed somehow vast and visionary, offering frames cut into geometric forms by the curlicues of his set design and adroit camera placement, and expressive use of colour in creating a vivid pictorial sense of otherworldly extremes. Nicholas Meyer acknowledged the debt owed to the funeral sequence for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Paul Verhoeven, fan of The War of the Worlds, may well have remembered this for another similar scene in Starship Troopers (1997). The film’s moments of corporeal suffering still have a surprising punch, like Fodor’s wide-open mouth as a red-hot rock shoots through his suit and body, flash cuts to the faces of the crew during the emergency take-off from Mars, each man with blood flowing from his face as they’re pummelled by G-force, and the sight of Fodor’s dead body, tethered to the spaceship whilst drifting, has a haunting sense of vulnerability and pathos in the face of an inimical universe that anticipates where Kubrick, Cuaron, and others would aim for. Where Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were cleverer in their take was in finding a way to dramatize the deistic fantasies and fears of engaging with the cosmos whilst maintaining a rigorous approach to the microcosmic detail. By contrast Conquest quells its dramatic conflicts too early and leads to the same anticlimax that has dogged real space exploration for the past forty years: after you’ve landed on some big ball of rock in the void, what then? Haskin returned to Mars for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), a semi-sequel that leapt from Melville to Defoe for inspiration and expanded on this film's hints of desolate beauty.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Need for Speed (2014)

Based on a popular video game, Need for Speed is, for all its flashy modern trappings, essentially a B-movie, of the kind that used to skid across drive-in screens regularly back in the ‘70s. Slickly produced, swathed in shiny digital textures and looking as colourful and enticing as a candy bar wrapper, it’s clearly way more expensive than its forebears, and can’t match the honourably trashy, down-to-earth ethics of something like White Lightning (1973) or Death Race 2000 (1976), but it’s such a beguiling mix of the breezy and the speedy it earns its spurs. The impetus to make this probably came as much from the Fast and Furious series as from the game’s popularity, but Need For Speed bears more than a passing resemblance to Vanishing Point (1971), as it follows a sympathetic but heedlessly focused driver defying law and nature trying to race across the American landscape in two days, aided by a friendly voice in a broadcasting booth somewhere. The story beats, however, reject the fashionable individual-against-the-system tilt of the model and go back to the primal elements of melodrama, dredging up good old-fashioned railroaded justice and revenge to motivate our hero Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) to take on the bad guy and drive his way to victory, man. Hell, never mind Steve McQueen or Burt Reynolds: it’s easy enough to imagine Richard Barthelmess and Ricardo Cortez starring in this, in some imagined black-and-white Howard Hawks quickie of the ‘30s. 

At the outset, upstate New Yorker Tobey has inherited his father’s custom car-building garage and employs a team of stalwart pals, but his victories in illegal street races don’t reap enough cash to keep the business going. An old rival from the local scene, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who’s become a car dealer and well-regarded race driver, gives Tobey a lifeline, by asking him to finish building a refurbished, seriously souped-up Ford Mustang started by deceased engineering legend Carrol Shelby. Tobey’s team produce a brilliant racer. Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a buying agent and expert car appraiser who works for English collector, Bill Ingram (Stevie Ray Dallimore), agrees to purchase the car for millions after Tobey proves it can make superlative speeds. Dino, offended that Tobey ignored his command to not drive the car, dares Tobey and his young pal Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) to race him on the street in a pair of imported Ageras. When it becomes clear both are going to beat him, Dino rams the rear of Pete’s car and accidentally sends his car flying off a bridge. Tobey distraughtly returns to the crash site but Dino shoots through. Tobey is blamed for the accident and imprisoned for manslaughter. Four years later, when he’s released on parole, Tobey naturally has payback on his mind and glory to seek. He convinces Ingram to loan him the Mustang, as he plans to enter it into a highly illegal and dangerous “De Leon” street race organised annually by the mysterious millionaire dubbed Monarch (Michael Keaton), who webcasts enthusiastically on his favourite racers, and acts quite like one of the old “benshis” who narrated and spelt out morals in Japanese noh theatre and silent cinema. Tobey knows he has to impress Monarch enough to earn an invitation to the race, which he only knows will be held in California, so he begins a high-speed, cross-country dash eluding police and Dino’s bounty hunters all the way, showing off with some free-form fancy driving to attract Monarch’s attention. And Julia invites herself along for the ride with Tobey to protect her investment. 

You probably already know by reading this synopsis if this is just not your cup of Earl Grey. But Need for Speed has garrulous, straight-arrow pizzazz and a pleasing lack of shame in purveying its over-the-top genre buzz that overcame my objections. Objections I had, to the cheesy insta-exposition Monarch spouts, and to the sometimes cringe-worthy disregard for public safety we’re expected to swallow. The film needs a lot more of that quickly sketched marginalia that ‘70s genre cinema was so good at - the goitred redneck sheriffs, the random weirdos from diverse pan-continental cultures, the teeming human comedy of American life. The unlikely escapades of Tobey’s flyer pal Benny (Scott Mescudi), who spots clear patches of road for him from a Cessna, but also somehow manages to talk an Army buddy into lending him a helicopter that proves handy at one juncture, provide excessive silliness. And that’s frustrating because, in its way, Need for Speed does otherwise stay true to the earthbound, high-speed, antisocial vicissitudes of the classic drive-in crash-and-bash fare it recalls. Nor does the film bend as far backward as the Fast and Furious films have to prove street cred: indeed, it could well be offering a little deflating satire on those films' glamorisation of gearhead lifestyle as a ticket to a badass high life, as a bunch of models snort derisively at the pick-up attempts of mere mechanics. This was produced by Dreamworks and there’s a faint flicker, as there was in the first, tolerable Transformers film (2007), of the old Spielbergian ethic here, as the film tosses some likeable actors together playing clichéd but defined characters and bothers to try and gets us on their side. Paul does a good embattled hero, Cooper gives good oily creep, and that’s all we need to give the film that basic pulpy charge required to forgive its trespasses.

Helmsman Scott Waugh is a former stuntman whose debut as director Act of Valor (2011) hardly set the world on fire, but his work here is slick and visually coherent, for the most part avoiding dizzying edits and jerking camerawork, and going for reflex-fast filmmaking that nonetheless has some classical elegance to it in tracing lines of motion of fast-moving objects painted in the same colours as the average preschool's walls. This pays off in some dazzling moments of technical cinema, particularly Pete’s crash, filmed in slow motion, young dreamer launched into zero gravity for a few precious seconds of transcendence before hitting the ground in a fireball, and a terrifically unexpected crash late in the film that throws the story, and our heroes, for a loop. Probably the main draw for anyone who’s not 13 years old or a terminal petrol head here, however, would be the intrigue factor of seeing Paul, everybody’s main man from his work on Breaking Bad (2008-13), try his hand at anchoring a too-cool action film. Paul’s an unusual choice in that regard, as a low-key and realistic actor possessing neither the looks of a Tom Cruise nor the magnetic bearish appeal of Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson. But with his supple expressive register is on display throughout, Paul is more emotionally convincing than those guys, and he even invests a character based on a mass of pixels with expressive alertness: he actually does seem to be in pain in the moments when he lets down his taciturn guard and lets his loss and the wrongs done to him register. Tobey, although he knows how good he is and doesn’t mind showing it, also thankfully isn’t one of the breed of obnoxiously macho, one-upping heroes too many recent films have.

Perhaps the chief pleasure of Need for Speed lies in how Paul and his supporting cast actually seem to be having a good time, particularly Poots and Rami Malek as one of Tobey’s crew, Finn. Julia is introduced posing as an airheaded posh bird to lead Tobey and Pete on whilst assessing their vehicular prowess, but quickly shows her chops as a gearhead and leaps gleefully into the fray with Tobey, hanging out the window to help Finn with on-the-move refuelling and duelling with bounty hunters at high speed. Poots gets to pull the same gag Katia Winter did in The Banshee Chapter (2014) in slipping from home county class into her best good ole gal accent as the moment demands. Malek, who’s been hovering in the background lately (The Master, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, both 2012) has one great scene that gives Need for Speed the right kind of sauntering, adolescent cheek, as Finn’s taken a job working in a cubicle office for some corporation, but when his friends pull up outside with a super car and a host of cops on their tails, he quits his job and makes sure he can’t come back, strips off all his clothes save for a pair of multi-coloured socks, snogs his office crush and swaps brief confirmations of mutual humanity with a middle-aged fellow employee in the elevator (“I’m in accounting.” “Does it feel like you’re dying inside?” “Yes.”). In the wrong hands this moment might have seemed unbearably crass, but here it’s emblematic of the film’s brash and general, if more than slightly reckless good-humour. There’s a nominal love triangle between Tobey, Julia, and Anita (a rather fazed-looking Dakota Johnson), Pete’s sister and Tobey’s former girlfriend who’s since become Dino’s concubine, in a subplot that has a reason for existing narrative-wise but never feels remotely interesting. But on the whole, even if this is pretty dumb, it’s a charming kind of dumb, and it could well stand as the best video game adaptation yet made – a very low bar, admittedly.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

We Are the Best! (Vi Är Bäst!, 2013)

Lukas Moodysson, a former poet, has been a popular filmmaker outside his native Sweden since his feature debut with Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love, 1998), which established him as a fine hand at portraying youthful anomie, and his follow-up Together (2000) about commune life in the mid-‘70s. He then went serious with the admirably grim, if excessively blunt and questionable Lilya 4 Ever (2005), and made an English-language sojourn for Mammoth (2009). We Are the Best! is more in the vein of his early work. An overt crowd-pleaser, We Are the Best! depends on his capacity to capture, with naturalistic good-humour, the vicissitudes of being young in modern society’s zones of flux. The essential concept, adapted from a comic book by his wife Coco, is irresistible: in the early ‘80s, two 13-year old, androgynous-looking wannabe-hellions, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), are obsessed with punk rock and start their own band in spite of having no musical knowledge whatsoever. Their self-declared outsider status sees them bickering with girly-girl classmates about whether “punk is dead,” happily mocking school concerts, and inspires them to improvise a song, “Hate Sport,” decrying obsession with sport in the face of the world’s problems, after their PE teacher sentences them to laps of the gymnasium. They reach out to a prim, religious classmate, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), whose self-composed talent as a guitarist tantalises the girls with elusive promises of actual musical quality, and in spite of their divergent values the girls fuse together into a loyal unit.

Moodysson’s skill with young actors is evident as he lets his young scamps burst with unruly energy. His familiar thrum of laidback humanism underscores the proceedings as he waggishly offers pint-sized tyros taking on anyone who offends them, starting with hair metal band Iron Fist who hog the practice space in their neighbourhood youth centre. Capitalising on a technicality about booking the space and backed up by the centre’s comically officious hippie youth counsellors, they take over that space and the communal instruments after kicking Iron Fist out, and then bash on the instruments with all the abandon of the Lord of the Flies kids dancing around the campfire. When they reach out to Hedvig, they find her surprisingly receptive to their musical obsessions and ambitions. They also offer her friendship, something she lacks, although their attempts to give her a punk haircut results in her mother (Ann-Sofie Rase) threatening to report them to the police, but then giving them a sweet lecture over milk and cookies about the hypocrisy of trying to impose their own standards of in-crowd chic on others when they’ve been avoiding that themselves. A more serious potential for a rift forms when the three girls reach out to a band of slightly older boys who have a band, Sabotage, often featured in the fanzine they read assiduously. The asymmetric hook-up sees the boys in the band, Elis (Jonathan Salomonsson) and Mackan (Alvin Strollo), having recently shed a member, interested in Klara and Hedvig, leaving Bobo, who suffers from low self-esteem, hurt by the excision. She contacts Elis herself in a naked play for his affection. 

I won’t pretend I’m a big fan of Moodysson. I haven’t seen his ventures into more oblique and experimental cinema with A Hole in My Heart (2004) and Container (2006), but his mainstream films don’t reveal a particularly imaginative filmmaker for all his poetic background – for instance, his attempts to get magic-realist in Lilya 4 Ever were clumsy, even tacky  and there’s something twitchily frustrating about his films, like one of those bugs that can skate across a pond without falling in at the cost of ever noticing the depths,  regardless of whether they're aiming for buoyancy or tragedy. We Are the Best! is a pleasant affair that might well try nerves for all its pleasantness. Moodysson pays only shallow heed to the waning days of punk and essentially reduces that rude and raucous art form into a noisy but entirely acceptable expression for kids whose postures, far from being transgressive, are based for the most part around very safe, nice, bourgeois Swedish concerns. Even a brief argument about religious faith between the girls driven by Klara’s acceptance of the iconoclastic precepts of the music ends with a cute smirk. Compared to the searing engagement of Dennis Hopper’s report from the same year this is set, Out of the Blue (1982), this is all but a Disney film. An unfair comparison, perhaps, as the aims of the two films are so disparate, but We Are the Best! is too squeaky-clean and blithely tempered for its own good. How entertaining you find the film may depend on your tolerance for the characters’ windy mix of brashness and childishness, or obvious comedic switchbacks like would-be firebrand Bobo transformed by a cut into a sobbing wretch afraid she’s going to lose her hand. The anxieties underlying the girls’ ventures into pubescence, with Bobo bemused by her mother’s revolving door relationships and disinterested in a visit by her father, and her quiet feelings of inadequacy, are described but aren’t invested with enough gravity to matter much. The film passes pretty blithely over the minor complications it throws our way, perhaps out of an over-zealous desire to validate its heroines.

Still, the film’s paucity of pretence and surplus of intimate joie-de-vivre mostly makes up for its absence of ambition and real cultural comment. To Moodysson’s credit, most of his humorous flourishes avoid feeling forced, even with insistently whimsical touches like making Klara’s father a jaunty clarinettist joining the girls for a nonsensical hoedown, or the girls trying to beg money from strangers to buy an electric guitar. At its best the film feels breezily authentic, a mirror where just about anyone from anywhere might recognise their own youths, like the girls staging a sneak raid on Klara’s older brother Linus’ student party, stealing booze to get nauseously tipsy. Perhaps the best scene in the film sees Bobo, Klara, and Elis climbing to the top of an apartment block, surveying the Stockholm landscape from their icy vantage, with Klara and Elis embracing, wrapped in steamy breath, to Bobo’s shambling chagrin: the dizzying force of protean teenage attraction and the sharply divisive emotions it can inspired are beautifully visualised. The finale, in which the girls try to perform their ramshackle anthem at a gig arranged by the youth counsellors in the satellite town of Västerås, amusingly avoids any triumphalism as they foul up badly and finish up insulting the already intolerant audience, sparking a tiny, jostling riot. Nonetheless they count it as a success having stirred a crowd, perhaps headed for oblivion as artists but having made damn sure their youth rocked. Ulf Brantås’ cinematography is a plus, utilising inevitable hand-held camerawork but essayed in bold colours, turning the cityscapes it describes into playpens for its heroines’ imaginations, its boxy, drab buildings into places where humans make their own realities.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Blockbuster action, 1943 style. I first saw this film as a kid, and some of the more vividly cruel touches, including a lifeboat loaded with filth-smeared, panting shipwreck survivors being rammed, and a U-boat captain laughing boyishly after torpedoing a cargo ship, welded themselves on my brain. And this is still a superlative example of classic Hollywood’s craft and instinct for turning grim realities and touchy subjects into grand entertainment. Raymond Massey is old school merchant marine skipper Steve Jarvis, and Humphrey Bogart is stalwart first mate Joe Rossi, taking on Nazis on the high seas. Director Lloyd Bacon was a weathered Hollywood pro who had helped define Warner Bros.’ reputation for earthy, realistic, tough-minded and tautly fashioned cinema across a variety of genres. He’s probably best known today for mixing Depression-era realism with a restrained, prototypical version of Hollywood glamorous panache to sneaky effect on 42nd Street and Footlight Parade (both 1933), and here does a similarly compulsive job mixing wartime exploits with a blue-collar bent and the usual exigencies of WW2 propaganda. And Bacon does bring something like the nimble physicality and sense of forward motion demanded by a good musical to the proceedings. Bacon had also made the first sound adaptation of Moby Dick (1930), a fitting anticipation for this study in obsessive combat on the high seas. Bacon was fired before production was finished, however, and so Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh both contributed to the final product.

The heroes are working stiffs at sea, a research sample of American sailors with variable backgrounds and lifestyles. Their ship, the Northern Star, laden with gasoline, gets a torpedo in the side from a cruising U-boat, and erupts into a floating fireball. Much of the crew is forced to abandon ship, and Jarvis and Rossi flee only after failing to save trapped engine room crew. Copious injury becomes grievous insult as the U-boat captain insists on interviewing the survivors from his lofty conning tower whilst one of his officers films them, earning a round show of up-yours thumbs. The Germans retaliate by ramming the lifeboat, costing the lives of more crewmen and the ship’s cat. After drifting for ten days, the survivors are picked up and returned to New York where they disperse to their separate lives, but most of them come back together when Jarvis is assigned a Liberty Ship, the SS Sea Witch, which joins a massive convoy bound for Murmansk in Russia.

Action in the North Atlantic isn’t as marvellously, breathlessly pulpy and narratively dense as Bogart’s subsequent transatlantic wartime escapade, Passage to Marseille (1944). Nor does it seem at first glance to be as ruthless or as daring in its expression of wartime idealism as the similarly gutsy Bogart vehicle Sahara (1943). And yet Action in the North Atlantic is a quintessential exhibit of the positive spirit during the war and the progressive messaging it allowed before the post-war, right-wing reaction. The portrayal of the sailors engaged with a union, complete with black seamen (included at Bogart’s insistence), was direct enough to get this branded as a left-wing, subversive work. The script was credited to John Howard Lawson, with dialogue contributions by future Robert Aldrich collaborator A.I. Bezzerides and crime writer W.R. Burnett, and an uncredited Alvah Bessie. Bessie and Lawson would later be two of the Hollywood Ten, and Bezzerides was also harassed. It all looks innocuous today, political messages mixed with hard-charging action and stereotyped but snappy character humour. Action in the North Atlantic’s communal focus is also familiar from other films of the era, and there's also a certain similarity to the studio's pre-war swashbucklers, where hearty crews under dashing heroes groused and grumbled but did sterling service anyway: the presence of Alan Hale as the much-married ‘Boats’ O’Hara emphasises this similarity. But this also has definite, powerful link to Warner’s pre-war run of socially conscious films about ordinary Joes and Janes, people doing a job of work, only with the pressure of survival now provided by war rather than the Depression. The film is structured around long sequences where the proletarian heroes lounge about playing cards, waiting to get down to business, swapping japes, jibes, and running gags. The film drolly examines maternal instincts in these hard-bitten sailors, revealed in their concern for the ship’s cat(s), but ultimately, passionately validates their roles and patriotism. 

Dane Clark is Johnnie Pulaski, who lets his pals know that he wants a land job because he’s afraid of dying at sea and leaving his family abandoned, sparking a quorum in the sailors’ union on the virtues and problems of patriotism for working class men, pitting personal but still important concerns versus general responsibility: Pulaski is shamed, but his point is still valid. Twenty years later he would be the main hero, the cautious everyman who remains sceptical about official heroism but does right by his pals. Here he is clearly, and interestingly, both the most physically brave of the sailors but also the one most keenly alert to his vulnerability, and signalled in the end as the one most likely to ascend to a leadership role. Sam Levene is ‘Chips’ Abrams, who murmurs Kaddish amidst a general prayer for the dead. Dick Hogan is Ezra Hogan, a young cadet who Jarvis distrusts on principal as a “book-learning” boy who hasn’t learnt his sailing the hard way like he, Rossi, and the others have. 

Hogan, like the Liberty ship itself, is the product of a new age of mass-produced knowledge and machines to cope with the raw exigencies of modern warfare, but the film is dedicated to denying the notion that the human parts are as interchangeable as the mechanisms. The motley crew are governed by sharply divergent characters whose different modes of life are revealed in coupled vignettes. Jarvis lives in a suburban home with a white picket fence, and has a doting, long-weathered wife (Ruth Gordon in a delicately affecting cameo) to welcome him, whilst Rossi is a nightclub sharpie who hits the taverns in his pinstripe suit. He surreptitiously knocks out an overly-talkative patron who doesn’t believe that loose lips sink ships as he blabs about a new convoy, and strikes sparks with chanteuse Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop). 

Jarvis, used to his mate’s womanising ways, mistakes Pearl for one of the chippies he regularly gets entangled with, when he comes to fetch Rossi at his apartment, only to learn they’ve gotten hitched. Jarvis and Rossi nonetheless have a great working relationship, Bacon’s camera picking them out in a dreamy fog, emerging as iconic, timeless figures on oceans of legend, then immediately imbued with reality as Rossi cradles a persistent toothache. Bogart, at least, had actual experience in this sort of thing, having served as an able seaman on the USS Leviathan during the waning months of WW1, where he may (or may not) have received his career-defining facial scar. The most famous anecdote from the film’s production depicts Bogart and Massey getting pie-eyed whilst watching their stunt doubles work, and then doing a dangerous stunt dive themselves; whether true or not, it feels apt in the context of a film where it really looks like the actors were taking chances at times. The emphasis on diverse people whose fate depends on mutual reliance (sans more prominent African-Americans, sadly) as depicted on the microcosmic level of the crew is linked to internationalist war effort, as the Sea Witch sails into Halifax harbour to join its convoy as crews hail each-other in a dozen tongues, including Chinese, with ecumenical vibrancy. 

Bacon wields the technical resources of a top-grade Warner Bros. production to pull off some thunderous set-pieces, sporting excellent black-and-white photography by Ted D. McCord. Bacon’s attempts to combine slick, venturesome hype with authenticity extends to a very uncommon touch at the time, allowing the Germans, when seen, to converse at length untranslated, the subjects of their conversations usually clear enough but left impenetrably alien, thus servicing documentary-like immediacy and propagandistic distancing at the same time. The sinking of the Northern Star is staged in a maelstrom of boiling fire and dashing dolly shots, and the film is replete with model work of a standard that wouldn’t be matched too often in the next forty years. The voyage to Russia sees the convoy having to scatter when it runs into a wolf pack, memorably visualised in an eerie underwater shot of shark-like submarine silhouettes, and all hell breaks loose in a panorama of destruction and frenzied reaction as the ships madly dodge each-other amidst explosions of torpedoes and depth charges. 

Subsequent battles with fighter planes and another, perniciously dogged U-boat are equally tremendous, whilst never devolving into spectacle for its own sake. These are men battling for the lives and pals, like Pulaski and Hogan flinging themselves in harm’s way to save the ship by manning a gun, climaxing with one plane crashing into the Sea Witch’s bow, with Hogan killed because his clothing gets caught on the gun, a great example of the kind of small but attentive, expertly intensifying visual vignette that elevates the film. And of course, the finale offers tables quite neatly turned as Rossi rams their tormenting U-boat, Bacon offering unseemly delight in letting the audience see the German Captain drowning in his flooding vessel, to elicit the same kind of relish in a bad guy’s demise in, say, that slow-motion, vertiginous shot of Hans Gruber falling to his death in Die Hard (1988). The only major drags on Action in the North Atlantic, which feels a tad distended at a fraction over two hours long, are the pauses for the inevitable propaganda moments, although Bacon and Lawson did their best to contour the message beats into the drama, including a pause for contemplation of sacrifice over a row of flag-draped coffins following a battle with airplanes that leaves the ship looking like a wrecking yard littered with corpses and machine parts. This is grand old moviemaking all the same.