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Oldies But Goodies – Film Reviews: Zinnemann, Fuller, Imamura

February 21, 2010

Oldies But Goodies…

Lately I’ve been watching some old movies of the 40s, 50s and 1960s. Good movies – and there are many – make one think about `life’ `morals’ and the world beyond our narrow petty existence. In reflecting upon them I have no interest – none at all – to try to be a great film critic or give a sense of `one-upmanship’ about it all, just to reflect upon movies that have drawn me to their subject matter and given me, now and then, some insights on the human condition. Except for Lester Cole and Pele de Lappe – who used to write film reviews for the long defunct Berkeley, California based Peoples World I don’t read or listen to film reviews nor do I have interest in posing as `an expert on film’ – which I am not. I just love to watch films and hear good folk songs, to see them, to think about them and when possible to try to place them in `a bigger picture’ of `the world’.

The Human Condition

I’m watching a fine film now in one hour segments – a nine and half hour Japanese epic about World War 2 called `The Human Condition’ made over a three year period between 1959 -1961, a gem found in the university library collection. Towards the beginning, there is rarely seen footage of Japanese forced labor camps in Manchuria

The Human Condition

where a `Candide-like figure’ – Kaji, a mine superintendent at the outset is trying, seemingly without success, to improve the working conditions of Chinese forced labor. Kaji represents what little was left of the Japanese conscience during the war, some one who tries to live a moral life as a part of an occupying army inculcated with racism (towards Chinese) and war. The sense comes through he’s going to have a hard time of it. The last time any movie – well it was a tv series – grabbed me emotionally so powerfully was a few years back, watching the tv series `The Wire’ which just might be the best television series ever made (or something like that).

Zinnemann , Fuller, Imamura,But what triggered these scribblings on film is another film I saw a few nights ago, Fred Zinneman’s `An Act of Violence’.  I couldn’t get it out of my mind; it triggered bad dreams, a bout of insomnia which lasted until I finally wrote an email to some friends and some notes – about three directors whose work I stumbled across later in life: Samuel Fuller, Shohei Imamura, and Fred Zinnermann. Concerning Zimmermann, although some of my friends are critical of the film, I’ve always thought of it as one of the best, a kind of morality play – standing up for justice although it might cost a person their life…and struggling between cowardice and courage.

Fred Zinnemann

I’ve heard criticisms about the way that Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper’s young wife is portrayed – and that she abandons her pacifism to help save his life. Zinnemann does seem to be making a point. Still, the film always moves me and I would guess I see it in its entirety now once every few years and never tire of  it. Perhaps that is because I first saw `High Noon’ just after it came out in 1954 or 5, alone with my father in a movie theater in Coney Island, a childhood memory that has stayed with me all these years. I did not realize at the time that `High Noon’ was meant to be a metaphor on the McCarthy Period, when so many people refused to get involved, as so many lives were destroyed by a modern day witch hunt or that it was one of Dwight Eisenhower’s favorites and played at the White House several times during his presidency.

`The Men’

Fred Zinnemann made many wonderful and well known movies, among them, `A Man For All Seasons,’ `Julia,’ `From Here To Eternity,’ and `Day of the Jackal’. There are others that I haven’t seen and hope to over the next few months. But I’m more interested in his earlier works like `The Seventh Cross’ and `The Search’ from the 1940s that I’m still trying to track down. Lately I was able to find two from the late 1940s `The Men’ and `Act of Violence’ both of which did not disappoint.

`The Men’ and `Act of Violence’ are both wonderful Zinnemann movies – puncturing the post World War Two myth that those early post war years were `the best of our lives’. In `real life,’ Zinnemann, of Austrian Jewish background was able to escape from Nazi persecution with his brother west to France and UK and eventually the United States, leaving his mother and father to die at the hands of the fascists. While he survived, his life was haunted with `survivor guilt’. Why had his brother and he survived, his parents not? This experience shapes his interest in the psychological aftermath of war, a theme he comes back to in many of his films in many ways among them`The Men’ and `An Act of Violence’

`The Men’ is about a paraplegic vet played by Marlon Brando – trying to adjust to his condition in a post war situation in which no one understands his situation and feelings. It was considered Brando’s `breakthrough’ film and gives a sense of that unarticulated inner tension, moral and physical struggle that Brando embodies which made him one of the great ones of recent time. One follows Brando’s struggle to `find himself’ and `his place’ in society in the aftermath of war where he has been wounded and returns without legs. The idea comes through that `war never ends’, that it doesn’t stop when the fighting is over and goes on in the minds, bodies and lives of the survivors forever, who have trouble making sense of it and life in general.`The Men’ suggests that `the good years’ – the early post war period – were not so good after all for many people.

`Act of Violence’

In a way `Act of Violence’ probes similar themes and in some ways even better. True there is a physical element to it – Robert Ryan’s character comes home limping from his war wounds, but it is more of a psychological drama for the most part. Nearly turned it off ten minutes into the film. It looked to be something of a `B’ or `C’ rated crime or mystery story, the kind I am rarely drawn to. Gladly I had the patience to stay with it and was duly rewarded. Like other good films, the story was disturbing. It stars Van Helfen (for whom previously I had not particularly appreciated as an actor), Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh.

Van Heflin and Janet Leigh in `An Act of Violence'

It is considered `a film noire’ of 1948. Got it through Netflix. I had forgotten why it was I ordered `Act of Violence’  or what it was about. I thought that perhaps it came out of one of my book club discussions because of the subject matter – but realized instead it was on a list of old films by Zinnemann that I wanted to see.

Once again Zinnemann probes the aftermath of war in a psychological struggle between two former POWs and ex-close friends, one of whom, Van Heflen, in exchange for food, ratted on his buddy, Robert Ryan, when the latter was trying to escape with others from a POW camp. None of this is shown – there are no POW flashbacks – it is simply described piece meal over the course of the film until a fuller picture of the drama is explained. Although Ryan somehow comes out of it alive but with a limp, all of his fellow escapees are tortured and killed by the Nazis as they try to flee.

Back in the US of A, Ryan is haunted, obsessed by the death of his buddies and Heflen’s betrayal. Driven to seek revenge for his dead war buddies, by an uncontrollable anger and a sense of injustice, pistol in hand, he takes the long bus ride cross country from New York to California intent on stalking and killing Van Heflen. Caring nothing about the consequences, it is the only way he thinks that a modicum of justice can be pried from this thankless situation. There isn’t much character development in Ryan – he is fixated on his end which he relentlessly pursues.

Ryan’s hunt triggers a moral crisis of Van Heflen’s life. Chased like a hunted animal he is forced to look at himself in the mirror,  to examine his past cowardice for what it was. He had convinced himself that he ratted on his fellow inmates in hopes that after capture, the camp authorities would be easier on him. In fact, he did it for food; he was starving to death and knew he’d get the reward of an extra helping for his cooperation with the camp commandant. As Ryan closes in on him in S. California, Van Heflen, who had never told his wife the truth, comes clean and then experiences something akin to a nervous breakdown that takes him a strange journey.

But now in terror and confusion Van Heflen struggles with his soul and tries to find the strength to face up to his past. In the POW camp, he was a coward and a snitch – mostly simply not to starve to death he betrays his friends. Now he has to face another moral crisis. He is terribly afraid, … mostly the struggle is with himself – that is the great moral dilemma of the film. How will he handle the threat this time. Reminds me of Gary Cooper in `High Noon’ – trying to be brave in face of danger, but really scared shitless, still he finds a way, alone, to stand up to his fears and face them. I am not sure, I think that is really courage – not so much NOT being afraid, but being afraid and still trying to do `what’s right’ anyhow (and not particularly wanting to), and sometimes we can muster up the courage to face our fears, and sometimes we can’t. It’s not an all or nothing proposition.

Interesting, as I watched the film, riveted really by whether or not Van Heflen would once again give in to his cowardice as he did in the Nazi concentration camp, my wife, sitting next to me, was bored stiff! She felt `Act of Violence’ is a classic `boys’ film – with macho themes, the male characters far more interesting than the females who are kind of the helpless, supportive `good wife’, `good girl friend’ cheerleader types, trying to support their `men’, one, Ryan, a would be murderer, the other, Van Heflen, a coward running from his past. At first (once again), I protested, …I think this is one of Janet Leigh’s better acting roles even if it is stereotypical…but it is true that the leading players are all `gender frozen’. One could say that very few films from this period were any different – Thelma and Louise wouldn’t be made for another 40 years – and that is a shortcoming, still, the film has many other redeeming features and was, in its way, unusual and frank for its day.

I am struck by the loneliness of the protagonists in both films – (Act of Violence, High Noon) – how, as the crisis intensifies, ultimately  we’re out there by ourselves alone – no one, not even those close to us can help – trying to muster up a bit of courage, a bit of principle if you like in the face of ugliness, of a complex world of unspeakable horror, of war, of an impossible situation which is scary and ugly underneath the surface and not that far underneath the surface.

Sometimes we find the courage to stand up to it – to evil, to our own cowardice and sometimes we don’t. And even if we do `stand up’, so what, if we lose your humanity as Ryan seems to have. How do we/can we retain our humanity – a sense of simple decency – in face of such a shitty world, with mostly shitty choices? Sometimes we can and often we can’t. I thought it a masterful film, and when I see SUCH a good film it gives me bad dreams, insomnia and it touches `something deep’. Zinnemann finds an interesting way to raise these moral struggles that we all face, at least in some of his movies.

Samuel Fuller

About fifteen years ago, in large measure through the influence

Samuel Fuller

of my now-deceased friend, Scott Keating who recommended `The Big Red One’, I went through a Samuel Fuller phase. Found most of them. `Pick Up On South Street’ with Richard Widmark, `Baron of Arizona’ with Vincent Price, `Steel Helmut’ with Gene Evans, `China Gate’ with Nat King Cole, `Shock Corridor’ with Peter Breck and `The Naked Kiss’ with Constance Towers. All are worth seeing. The war pictures (Big Red One, Steel Helmut, China Gate) are predictably, mostly about men. In all the films some sort of real life psychological drama unfolds, with protagonists having to make `moral decisions’ with the definition of morality shifting rather dramatically with each situation. Samuel Fuller has had something of a revival in recent years; except for film addicts he was poorly known in the USA during the seventies and eighties but better known in Europe where his work was generally appreciated. A Finnish friend, when asked, described him succinctly as `of course – the little man with the big cigar’.

Fuller’s subject matter is always hard hitting and (to my tastes) weird, but thoughtful. He takes us to the underbelly of life – in America or abroad. It comes perhaps from  his early training as a crime reporter in New York. He strips the mask of innocuousness off of everything, starting with war (Big Red One, Steel Helmut, China Gate), small town Middle America (Naked Kiss), social work (Shock Corridor). The last one, Shock Corridor is about an overzealous reporter hoping to get a Pulitzer Prize who gets himself placed in a mental hospital to solve a murder. Instead he goes crazy. But the people in the mental hospital aren’t that different from people on the outside and most of the social problems America was facing in the 1950s are vividly illustrated in the lives of the inmates. I can’t say I `liked’ `The Naked Kiss’ – my wife thought it awful – but again, beneath the surface and not that far, there are a lot of perverts in American towns, and the most perverted are often those who seem the most upstanding. `The Big Red One’ is considered – and I agree – one of the best war films ever made by an American director. It de-romanticized war and killing people and is really the model for such recent productions as `Band of Brothers’ and `Saving Private Ryan’. I think it is easily Lee Marvin’s best acting role.

Which brings me to some other points about Fuller. He was respected in his trade and could attract big stars to work in his low budget films – Lee Marvin, Nat King Cole, Robert Ryan, Thelma Ritter among them and that at the height of their fame. They respected Fuller and he them. There is very little `harmony’, `happy endings’ in Fuller’s movies. It seems he can’t stand happy endings – they depress him and rarely – I can’t  think of one – do his films end on a high note. He offers instead the somber alternative of a vivid realism and an all too human world.

Shohei Imamura

Generally unknown to the public in the United States, but (I am told) loved in Japan, Shohei Imamura’s films are about as good as it gets. If Samuel Fuller’s films are about a disharmonious world just underneath the surface of Doris Day’s smiling face (she took showers 3 and 4 times a day – very unhealthy),  the deeper themes in Imamura’s films gravitate around the possibility of reconstructred `shattered harmony’. There is a concept in

Mother and son...on the road to Narayama

Japan known as `wa’ – which roughly translates as `harmony’. People strive for harmony both with nature and among themselves. Imamura at his best (Black Rain, Ballad of Narayama, The Eel) looks at the lives of people in which harmony has been destroyed. It seems that he is often posing the question: once destroyed, can the harmony somehow be restored. It is not a new or even that unique notion – very common among traditional peoples – hunter-gatherers and farming peoples and explored and developed in the most profound manner by Joseph Campbell in his writings.

In `Black Rain’  (NOT the picture with Michael Douglass with the same title but Imamura’s) harmony is shattered rather decisively by what today is described as `a nuclear device’ . The film begins with the bombing of Hiroshima. There are some scenes of the devastation – which should be watched even if causes people to squirm as it does me – but in its relation to the story, more important is a family outside of Hiroshima on a boat on whom radio active rain – the black rain falls.

Although the opening is rather dramatic `Black Rain’ is, like life itself, mostly long and slow moving, more than 2 hours. Most of the film is about the aftermath of the bombing with the main theme fast emerging: how do people survive – those who are not vaporized – the impact of a nuclear explosion. The answer of course is not easily. Yet the whole film explores the effort to do just  that. Everything from modern medicine, traditional medicine, psychology, love, the reconstruction of the family come into play. Over the course of the movie a relationship develops between a badly mentally scarred war veteran – the memory of his buddies crushed by tanks – and a young woman, with nuclear sickness emerges. He’s a victim of conventional, she of nuclear war, the old and the new forms of devastation if you like in 1945. They find each other and share, ever so briefly, a moment of love and human connection – that which the war had tried to destroy.

`Ballad of Narayama’ is an exquisite story of traditional Japan just before the period of the country’s rapid industrialization. It takes place in a tiny mountain village with barely enough food for the villagers to eke out a living. Life there is not without its cultural patterns and rewards, but it is mostly harsh, just how harsh comes through at the outset as villagers gossip who it was who threw a baby to die out in the fields. Another mouth to feed. The story gravitates around the relationship between a mother and her eldest son. Plagued with food shortages there is a tradition in the village that when old people reach a certain age that their children, their oldest sons in particular, accompany their parents to the top of a mountain – Narayama – to die. It is all carefully arranged. No one tells a person when their time is up, each one decides on their own. There is a formal  ceremony with the village elders, the person – in this case the mother – tries to tidy up earthly affairs, relations with family and friends – and then that final journey begins.

What gives the film such power is the moral struggle of the eldest son, who despite tradition, and what is obviously great love for his mother, resists what is his cultural responsibility of accompanying his mother to her death. In the end all these people have – that keeps them together is their culture, and while it sometimes has its harsher edges, it is that which guides them through the generations, even if it has its harsh – and from the modern view – cruel traditions. The traditions must be followed if `harmony’ – the `wa’ is to be respected. Modern Japan would find other forms of cruelty it turns out.

In some ways `The Eel’ one of Imamura’s last films is not as powerful as `Black Rain’ or `Ballad of Narayama’ – but the themes are the same in a modern setting. The film begins with a vivid and disturbing scene. A man comes home to find his wife in bed with another. In a fit of rage he kills them both, stabbing them repeatedly with a knife. The `Wa’ has been destroyed in the first few minute of the film. The culprit is sentenced to prison. Like in `Black Rain’ after that shocking opening – the viewer gets all the sex and violence in the film in the first few minutes – the moral issue emerges: in this case the tale revolves not around the victim but the perpetrator of violence. Can a person, after having committed such a heinous act, rebuild  his life again, get in touch with his own humanity.  Rebuilding shattered lives. Can it be done? How? … That’s Imamura. Well, he’s more than that, but that is the Imamura that touches something deep in the human condition…an awful world, harsh, uncaring, and often brutal… but not without a bit of hope. Not much, just enough to keep him from jumping off a cliff.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 4:42 pm

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  1. Film Reviews – Two Jewish Films – Among The Righteous; Look Into My Eyes – (1 of 2) « Rob Prince's Blog

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