Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fixed Bayonets! (1951)

dir. Sam Fuller

"I can take an order. I can't give 'em. Some men are afraid of high places, some are afraid of water, and some are afraid to be responsible for the deaths of a lot of other guys."
-Cpl. Denno

Back when I was working at New York's famed, now closed, video store Movie Place I had access to all sorts of movies imaginable, movies which were not available in my hometown of Waterville, Maine. Thus I was able to sink my teeth into the oeuvres of many a director that I had only read about before. Sure, back in Waterville I could catch some of these movies on TCM, but it simply didn't compare to the ability I had at Movie Place to rent one director's catalog over a period of a couple of weeks and catch up. Perhaps my favorite of these catch up directors is Sam Fuller. Before working at Movie Place, the only movies of his I had seen were The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. Although I loved these two movies, I didn't think it was possible that all of his movies could be so good. After catching up on most of his work, there was no doubt in my mind as to his genius.

Coming from a hard bitten journalism background, Fuller had about as much use for subtlety as a mule would have for a spinning wheel. He held nothing back. His work is the movie equivalent of a big, swift kick to the balls. His style is especially effective in his war pictures, westerns, and crime pictures, but also works to a great degree in his loving ode to journalism, Park Row, which is now out of print. Truth be told, I was originally going to write a review of Park Row here. I should mention that one of the great perks of working at Movie Place was access to its catalog of out of print movies. Before the store closed, I was able to snag a bootleg of this movie. I figure it would be unfair, however, to write a review of Park Row, seeing as it is not regularly available. Instead I am writing about Fuller's second war picture, Fixed Bayonets.

Coming on the heels of his masterful Korean War movie The Steel Helmet, Fuller revisited this still ongoing conflict in the equally thrilling Fixed Bayonets. Fuller was a decorated soldier during WWII, an experience which he documented in his autobiography A Third Face and his picture The Big Red One (both high recommendations). Because he had first hand experience of the horrors of war, he was adamant about accurately documenting its realities. He was sick of Hollywood's rose colored, patriotic depictions of war. He wanted to show both its ugliness, and the true motives of a soldier. In his experience, a soldier's motivation is not a love of God or country but the survival instinct, plain and simple.

A master of the opening scene, Fuller does not disappoint here. While driving through snowy mountain terrain, a General and a soldier are shelled by a Korean bomb. When medics bring the injured men back to base, a couple of grunts comment on the situation. One of them is surprised that a General would put himself in such obvious danger; a general should be smarter than that. The other soldier replies that it takes more than brains to be a general; it takes guts. Thus, Fuller sets up the major theme of the movie.

Fixed Bayonets centers around a platoon that is given a suicide mission. In order for the regiment to pull off a rear guard action, this platoon must stay at the base and convince the enemy that it is an entire regiment. In this platoon is Cpl. Denno, played by Richard Baseheart. He is a man who would rather stand on the sidelines than fight, let alone lead a platoon. He has the smarts but not the guts necessary to lead. He is also unable to kill. This aspect of his character was, no doubt, inspired by a soldier Fuller knew in WWII, and who was portrayed by Mark Hamill in The Big Red One. Luckily, Denno does not have to lead. There are three officers ahead of him -- for now.

One of these officers is the tough talking, no-nonsense Sgt. Rock, played by the hard boiled Gene Evans. This is the kind of role Evans excelled at. Fuller gave Evans his big break when he previously cast him in a similar role in The Steel Helmet. Rock is completely realistic about the situation. He even makes dark jokes about the fast upward mobility in the platoon due to the high mortality rate among officers. Denno is not amused. During a Korean attack, the commanding officer dies. There are now only two officers, Sgt. Lonergan (Michael O'Shea) and Sgt. Rock, between Denno and leadership.

One night, when Lonergan goes out to scout for a missing soldier, he comes under attack and flees back to base where he gets caught in a minefield set up by the platoon. Lonergan has a map of the minefield but is too injured to move. It is necessary to the platoon's survival that someone save Lonergan so as to retrieve the map of the minefield. Also, if Lonergan dies, Denno is one step closer to leading. So afraid is Denno of the prospect of leading that he decides to traverse the minefield and rescue Lonergan and the map. What follows is the tensest scene I've ever seen in film. For what seems an eternity, Denno inches his way toward Lonergan. Denno eventually rescues Lonergan and brings him back to base. Unfortunately, by this time it's too late; Lonergan is dead. Ain't life a bitch.

During one sequence, Denno admits to Rock that he is scared to lead. He does not want to be held responsible for the lives of other men. He's too afraid to fuck it up. Rock essentially responds with, "Suck it up, bitch. This is war. You ain't got a choice." (I'm paraphrasing, of course.) Later, when Rock is killed, Denno finds his cajones and leads his men in a daring defense of their base.

By the time he made this movie, Fuller had already come into his own as a director. He had perfected the kinetic, intense style that would become his trademark. In Fixed Bayonets, the camera functions as another character, putting the viewer directly into the wartime experience. Indeed, apart from Max Ophuls, few directors of this era used as much of a freely moving camera as Fuller did. Although, where Ophuls' moving camera shots were graceful and used to punctuate the opulence of the subject matter; Fuller's aimed for a more visceral reaction. In a Fuller movie, these shots put you full force into the action. The fast moving camera during the battle sequences in Fixed Bayonets works to ape the feeling of the adrenaline rush that a soldier feels in combat.

This is not to say that this movie does not have aspects that are dated. Some viewers might be put off by the somewhat hokey character, Whitey (Skip Homeier), an absurdly erudite soldier who was clearly thrown in for comic relief. The other soldiers call him Mr. Belvedere, a reference to the character played by Clifton Webb in the movie series that started with Sitting Pretty (Side Note: Yes, this film series was the basis for the TV show "Mr. Belvedere". I saw Sitting Pretty and its two sequels as a kid, and remember them as being pretty enjoyable. (Second Side Note: Wow, I was an extremely lame kid.))

Initially, Fuller didn't want to make this movie. He had just directed The Steel Helmet and didn't want to make another Korean War film. Instead, he wanted to move on to his pet project, Park Row. Eventually, he gave in and directed Fixed Bayonets because of obligations to producer Darryl Zanuck. It is a testament to Fuller's genius that he could make an obligation picture that is every bit as thrilling and inventive as one of his passion projects. A lesser director would have just phoned it in, and cashed the check on his way to the more personal project. Fuller didn't believe in bullshitting his way through a job, however. Every picture had to matter, or else why the hell make it? He was truly a dedicated director of unrivaled genius. (Side note: This is the third war related movie in a row that I've covered. I need to start picking lighter fare.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

R.I.P. Richard Widmark

In my last post I mentioned, in passing, the famous scene from Kiss of Death in which Richard Widmark pushed a wheel chair bound old woman down a flight of stairs. How sad I was today to see that he died. I was a huge fan. Although my first exposure to him was on an "I Love Lucy" episode, I first became aware of his talents when I saw John Ford's Two Rode Together, starring Jimmy Stewart. Although the movie is none too memorable, parts of it have stuck with me. In one scene, Stewart and Widmark sit by a river and shoot the shit. Ford shot this in one unbroken take and had the two actors improvise the scene. It is quite charming. The first time I saw it I was amazed by Widmark's charisma and his ability to keep up with Stewart. I needed to see everything with this man that I could find. And so I did. I have never been disappointed by a Widmark performance, whether he's a cackling maniac in Kiss of Death, a racist asshole in No Way Out, or a scheming pickpocket in Pickup on South Street, he steals every scene he's in. Sure most of his characters leaned toward the nefarious side, but that's what made them so durned interesting.

He will be missed.

(Here is the famous scene from Kiss of Death. Side note: mother's of snitches get stitches.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Like a Crispin Glover Kick to the Head (My Favorite Awkward Interviews)

Harvey Pekar on Letterman

Sick of being a punch line, an irate Harvey Pekar lashes out at Letterman and accuses him of being a shill for GE. This interview was dramatized in the brilliant movie about Pekar, American Splendor.

Adam Green on German TV

Language Barrier + Drugs = Hilarity

Holly Hunter on ABC News

Holly Hunter struggles through an interview with an anchor whose hiring by ABC News was based solely on her dick sucking abilities.

Crispin Glover on Letterman

A certain someone took one too many crazy pills before his appearance on Letterman.

Sigur Ros on NPR

My theory here is that the members of Sigur Ros were taking a tour of NPR one day when they found a room with a hastily written sign saying, "Free Cookies". After entering the room, the door locked and they were forced to do an interview -- there were no free cookies. Either that or they just forgot how to talk.

John Ford Interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich

Hollywood kiss-ass Peter Bogdanovich tries to get two words out of the legendarily stand-offish John Ford.

John Lydon and Keith Levene on Tom Snyder

This would actually make a pretty good "Odd Couple" style sitcom. "Let's see what happens when you put two petulant, self absorbed, British twats in the same studio with a hilariously out of touch American square."

Posh and Baby Spice on The Daily Show

Victoria Beckham is unaware that reality exists.

Harmony Korine on Letterman

Another Letterman entry. I gotta say, there's a certain endearing quality to the awkwardness of this interview.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Observations on Adsense

Because I am poor I thought a neat way to make a little extra cash would be to use Google adsense on my blog. Unfortunately, if you don't have a lot of visitors to your site it's none too easy to make boatloads of cash using this. One thing I like about adsense, however, is that it tailors the ads to suit the site. Usually the ads are quite fitting but sometimes they are funnily ill-suited to the site. I don't know for sure the method that adsense uses to generate site specific ads but I'm assuming that they use a computer to scour the content of the site and pick out repeated key words and use ads based on that. I figured this out after I posted a review of William Peter Blatty's crazy masterpiece, The Ninth Configuration. Because this movie dealt heavily with religion and Catholicism I referred to those aspects in a sarcastic manner in my review. Some time after posting the review I took a look at my blog and noticed that there was an ad for Catholic Singles Online. I thought this was pretty funny. If a human was picking the ads he or she would have noticed the sarcastic manner in which I referred to Catholicism and not placed the ad for Catholic singles Online.

Because of this I want try a little experiment here. I'm going to repeat a bunch of random words and see what kind of ads pop up on my site:

Spanish Inquisition, Spanish Inquisition, Spanish Inquisition, Sploshing, Sploshing, Sploshing, Joe Garagiola, Joe Garagiola, Joe Garagiola, Hagiography, Hagiography, Hagiography, Teapot Dome Scandal, Teapot Dome Scandal, Teapot Dome Scandal,

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

dir. William Peter Blatty

"I don't think evil grows out of madness. I think madness grows out of evil."
-Vincent Kane

Religious faith and the questioning of it have long been an integral part of the arts. Almost as soon as humans developed ideas about what they perceived as the supernatural, they questioned these ideas. Arguments about the existence of a God, started in philosophy, would make their way into literature and eventually film. In the movies, none has broached the subject more thoughtfully than Ingmar Bergman. Bergman's frequently austere movies remain the benchmark for cinematic explorations of faith. Many would try to follow in his footsteps. In the late seventies, William Peter Blatty carried on the Bergman tradition by bringing the religious discussion to its logical conclusion -- an insane asylum.

The Ninth Configuration, based on Blatty's book Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane, was envisioned as a sequel of sorts to The Exorcist, which Blatty also wrote. Blatty had good reason to claim this as the sequel to The Exorcist, seeing as the movie John Boorman made under the title Exorcist II was a ridiculous, if interesting, pile of shit (hell, I should do a feature on all of the insanity that Boorman has released to theaters over time). The Ninth Configuration's story of an insane asylum full of Vietnam Vets might seem to have little in common with Blatty's previous work, but it continues with his exploration of/advertisement for the Catholic faith. Whereas The Exorcist tries to win converts to Catholicism by scaring them shitless, The Ninth Configuration does so with philosophical arguments. Hmm, I wonder which method resonates more with the masses. Drawing equally from Hitchcock's Spellbound and Fuller's Shock Corridor, Blatty creates a masterfully compelling work. If not as effective as The Exorcist in its goals, The Ninth Configuration is a much more interesting work.

Blatty's film opens with the song "San Antone" (as performed by Denny Brooks) playing over images of a rain swept castle (side note: this song was used to great effect in an earlier Vietnam Vet movie, Rolling Thunder). Then the opening credits play over an image of an ominous moon closing in on a shuttle preparing for launch. We have jumped full force into insanity. It is soon revealed that we are witnessing the fevered dream of failed astronaut Billy Cutshaw, played expertly by character actor Scott Wilson. In fact, this movie is filled with some of my favorite character actors of the era. Jason Miller plays an inmate who is producing all dog versions of Shakespeare's work. Joe Spinell plays Miller's casting director. And Robert Loggia screams a lot.

Brought into this mess is a reserved Stacy Keach as the asylum's new shrink, Col. Kane. Kane is a sensitive doctor intent on healing his patients. In the process he lets his patients ride roughshod over him. Giving in to every one of their crazy demands, Kane hopes to somehow cure them of PTSD. One of these demands is to recreate The Great Escape, with the asylum personnel playing the Nazi guards. Kane's passivity, of course, goes against everything we would want to see from a Stacy Keach character (I sure hope he gets violent at some point).

Conflict soon arises when Cutshaw exclaims to Kane that all of the evil in the world proves there is no God. Kane counters that the fact that the fact there is good in the world proves there is a God. One of Kane's examples of goodness is the act of a soldier jumping on a live grenade to save his platoon. Cutshaw doesn't buy it. Throughout the movie they have many heated, if congenial, debates of this sort and Kane promises that if he dies first he will give Cutshaw a sign that there is a God. It is during these debates that Cutshaw spews some amazing non sequiturs. Indeed, part of The Ninth Configuration's importance lies in its function as a warehouse for insane lines of dialogue. Here are a few choice examples:

"This man treats crocodiles for acne."

"I think the end of the world just came for that bag of fritos I had in my pocket."

"The man in the moon tried to fuck my sister."

"The truth of the matter is Custer called Sitting Bull a spic."

These lines all come from one scene, by the way.

Gradally, Kane starts to convince Cutshaw of the existence of God. Cutshaw's world falls apart, however, when it is revealed that Kane was actually a psychotic butcher in Vietnam. Kane blocked this out of his memory and instead believed that he was a psychiatrist. He was brought to this asylum as a form of therapy for himself. A despondent Cutshaw decides to go to a biker bar so that he can get get his drink on. While there he runs afoul of some ruffians. Steve Sandor plays the leader of the ruthless biker gang tormenting Cutshaw (Interestingly, Sandor played a Vietnam Vet battling ruffians in an earlier vet-sploitation movie, The No Mercy Man). Kane, still in denial about his past, travels to the bar to save Cutshaw. They torment Kane until he snaps and lets loose with some whoop ass. What ensues is the most cathartic bar fight this side of Road House.

[Warning: this paragraph contains spoilers] And now we come to the ending -- my only problem with this movie. Intent on proving to Cutshaw, and to himself, the goodness in man, Kane kills himself (yeah, I don't understand it either). Cutshaw eventually leaves the asylum and in a car finds a St. Christopher medal he had previously given to Kane. This is Kane's sign from beyond the grave that there is a God. Given the straightforward, albeit insane, realism streaked tone of the movie up to this point, this scene is wholly out of place. Whether or not this movie succeeds in proving that God exists, supernatural acts do not occur in the universe that this movie has created. Also, I'm not entirely sure how, one man offing himself, proves that there's an invisible man living in the sky who doesn't like genetic manipulation. [End of spoilers]

Watching this movie again, it is amazing I had forgotten about the sheer religiosity of it. I guess I was too distracted by the sheer insanity the first time around. Indeed, this movie is filled with some of my favorite crazy imagery. Most of this is contained in dream sequences (an image from one of these sequences is included directly above this paragraph). I have barely scratched the surface in terms of the crazy shit that goes down in this movie. In one of my favorite scenes, as Kane stands in a hallway talking to an inmate, we see a parade of non sequiturs: two inmates dressed as doctors walk by, a black inmate dressed as Superman (with the "S" on his chest replaced by an "N") stands stoically, and Robert Loggia flies by using a jet pack.

Very few movies are this successful at combining such a wide variety of tones. It manages to be funny, dramatic, and just plain weird -- many times in the same scene. Although this movie is not for everyone it is one that I like to recommend just for the responses I'm sure get. Even if one doesn't like it, there's no denying the entertainment value of a movie as bat-shit insane as this one.

By the way, I realize that I may have focused too much on the religious aspects of this movie in my review. I didn't intend to turn this into a religious discussion. I am not nearly knowledgeable enough about the subject to make any kind of informed opinions. To be honest, I am too apathetic to give two tenths of a flying fuck one way or the other about this issue but, considering the nature of this movie, the religious discussion seemed unavoidable.

(Here is a clip of the aforementioned bar fight. This clip contains the best part of the fight scene -- namely, Stacy Keach opening up his big ol' can of whoop-ass. This clip does not include the agonizingly long earlier part in which the bikers torment Cutshaw. I should note that this fight includes the famous scream sound effect that has been used countless times in movies. It's not the Wilhelm scream, however. I don't know the name of this scream. I guess I should be stripped of my movie geek status.)