Sunday, October 31, 2010

Soaring 'Birdman'

It's rather odd that I visited Alcatraz about a decade before finally seeing "Birdman of Alcatraz."

If you've never toured the famed prison, and you're visiting San Francisco in the near future, I highly recommend it, and that same recommendation extends to this fine drama about Robert Stroud, a convicted killer who used his life imprisonment to become an expert on birds. Burt Lancaster stars in one of his best roles, and while the drama tends to omit some facts from Stroud's story, it's still a compelling portrait of a solitary man and what he's able to accomplish.

Stroud, a convicted murderer, kills another man while imprisoned in Leavenworth prison in Kansas. Sentenced to death, his mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads his cause, going all the way to Washington. She manages to get President Woodrow Wilson to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. While in solitary confinement, he finds an injured canary and nurses it back to health. His work with birds leads to impressive research and scientific writings.

For a film that spends so much time inside a jail cell, it's filled with memorable characters. In addition to his mother, you have Warden Harvey Shoemaker, prison guard Bull Ransom, fellow inmate Feto Gomez, and business partner Stella Johnson. Each has a distinct relationship with Stroud, and considering how few people Stroud comes in contact with, these relationships are beautifully fleshed out. And each character is played by a flawless supporting cast.

For example, Ritter is a loving mother who becomes possessive of her son's affections. It's one of Ritter's rare performances without wisecracks, and she is memorable in it. Karl Malden plays Shoemaker, who goes toe-to-toe with Stroud on several occasions. Toward the end of the film, Stroud lectures Shoemaker about reform, faulting the prison system's -- and Shoemaker's -- inability to see beyond their own regulations at the humans who are behind bars. Malden's face may register a resignation that Stroud may be correct, but it's momentary, and Malden returns to the task at hand, wearier than before. It's these kinds of moments, ones filled with tension but without histrionics, acted by people who have crawled inside of their characters' skins, that makes the drama riveting.

Telly Savalas is brilliant as Gomez, who switches from loudmouth con to tender bird lover, whose exchanges with Stroud are both belligerent and touching. It's impressive to see Savalas find this mix of bravado and vulnerability, as these two men who trust no one unwittingly come to trust each other to forge an unlikely friendship.

Neville Brand plays Bull as a straightforward man who eventually gains Stroud's trust. And Betty Field plays a woman who reads Stroud's works and wants to know more about him, eventually forming a professional and personal relationship that's surprising in its respect, with Field conveying Stella's loneliness not as pitiable but heartbreaking.

All of these players provide support for Lancaster, who gives one of his best performances. As an actor, Lancaster excels with characters who keep their anger just below the surface, men who are smart and passionate, the latter sometimes leading to trouble. With Stroud, Lancaster maintains an inner rage that simmers for much of the film, finally giving way to an acceptance for his position. He also juxtaposes that rage with the tenderness he shows his birds, creatures who cannot talk back or ignite that anger. Lancaster is compelling, complex and brilliant.

Lancaster received his third Oscar nod for this film in a year that saw sensational performances, including Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" and Jack Lemmon in "The Days of Wine and Roses." Ritter received her six Oscar nod for supporting actress, and it's a shame this great actress never won an Oscar. Savalas deservedly received a nomination as well.

It's a long movie, just under two-and-a-half hours, but it's a compelling film. TCM is airing the film on Tuesday (Nov. 2), so if you haven't seen it, set your DVRs. You'll be happy you did.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The 'Face' of Power

It's hard to imagine what audiences thought of "A Face in the Crowd" in 1957.

This story still speaks volumes about fame and power and the mass hordes who blindly provide it. While the screenplay's deadly aim focused on the power of television, a fast-growing medium in the 1950s, the message goes beyond that today and can be applied to politicians, talk-show hosts and celebrities who have done nothing except use their fame to become more famous. And the masses still lap this stuff up, providing the fuel that these people thrive on.

It's something Budd Schulberg got right, but in the 1950s, this type of cynicism didn't always play well with the public.

But before discussing this, the story is pretty straightforward. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) plays a small-town radio reporter with a popular series called "A Face in the Crowd." A trip to the local jail turns up Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, full of bravado and sleeping off a bender. He grabs a guitar and immediately shows his genius for improvised entertainment. Jeffries sees ratings and convinces the station to give Rhodes his own show, which quickly succeeds. His homespun, on-air demeanor wins over fans. When the show is picked up nationally and aired on TV, his fan base skyrockets, although most are unaware of his increasing addiction to power and fame and his cavalier opinion of the people who give him this.

The film, beyond Neal, is filled with fresh faces. Audiences today are familiar with Griffith and his gentle Andy Taylor from his 1960s TV show. But this was his film debut, and today we can marvel at his range as an actor. Walter Matthau and Lee Remick are also appearing early in their career. These new faces actually may have hurt its appeal; even Neal wasn't a big star at this point, so today we can relish the fine job being done across the board but perhaps not then.

Director Elia Kazan was no stranger to the entertainment world. By this point he had won two Oscars, yet his agreement to testify during the McCarthy era certainly tainted his image. Kazan and Schulberg worked together on "On the Waterfront," and "Face" has an even harder core.

Which leads me to the point about cynicism, and two other films from the 1950s come to mind. "Ace in the Hole" was Billy Wilder's biting look at a news story that is literally turned into a media circus in order to sell newspapers and gain fame. "The Sweet Smell of Success" shows what lengths a publicist will sink to in order to gain publicity for a client. These films, along with "Face," nail their topics with relentless power, but their tones turned off audiences who didn't shy from drama but would turn away from it if there was no strong protagonist or redeeming idea to follow.

My only criticism is that "Face" suffers from making its point too early. On a recent viewing (my third) on the big screen, I found myself satisfied by the 90 minute mark but felt restless for the final 30 minutes, thinking that the screenplay had made its point and was chugging toward an inevitable climax that didn't surprise or involve me. If anything, Griffith's searing performance also runs on one speed -- at most times fascinating yet wearisome at others. The monster had been created, and while the monster was not to be liked, he wasn't nearly as compelling at the end. I felt this diminished the overall power of the film, despite how spot-on its observations were -- I mean, when the story talks about how politicians should change their image and tap into the power of television, who would have thought that three years later the presidential election would turn on a TV debate?

Despite my criticisms, this is still a great film, well-made with a strong cast. If audiences in 1957 weren't sure what to think, today it's clear that Schulberg understood exactly what he was writing and that fame and power and influence haven't changed much in 50 years.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Audrey of the Month

Audrey, take me with you! Looks like she's going on a trip ... a vacation sounds nice, although it sounds nice all the time :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The First CiMBA Awards Are Here

Hello to everyone, and my apologies for not posting anything as of late. I've started a new class, was on vacation before that and am juggling several other commitments, one being my work with the Classic Movie Blog Association.

The association has released its nominations for the first CiMBA awards. Members of the association self-nominated in various categories, and those categories that received more than five nominees were whittled down (in this case, to six nominees because of ties). The nominees can be found here:

Rather than read another of my postings, I urge you to take time to look through the excellent work that has been nominated. Everyone deserves a round of applause for keeping classic film alive and well. I'm thrilled to see my own work on this list, and I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Meanwhile, later this week I'll start posting again. I have some fun stuff coming up, and in another month I'll start my second annual Twelve Days of Christmas countdown. Stay tuned!