dir. Robert Wise
As was mentioned in the post from the Velvet Café that I linked to yesterday, some people have issues with grading older films. Specifically, they have trouble placing themselves in the context of the times in which older movies were made. An understandable issue, and one that I’m certain has lead more than one, otherwise open-minded individual to dismiss out-of -hand a movie he would otherwise enjoy.
It’s kind of hard for me to enter this conversation—that is to say, my position is a little skewed. You see, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, I grew up on older movies. At this point, the rhythm, the fashion, the sensibility, the style of older movies is not only ingrained in my brain, it’s part of my DNA. I just get these flicks. Just to stress, I don’t say this as a means to brag on my older film knowledge, nor as a way to proselytize to the unconverted; just to show you where I come from. Styles and filmmaking conventions have changed to such a degree over the years, that if you go into these older movies blind—lacking knowledge or experience with the older conventions—you’re liable to be put off.
‘Why would they do such and such a thing? Don’t they know there’s a much better way of conveying such and such a concept?’ Well, that’s the thing, as with any other art, film is a continually evolving medium: we build on and, sometimes, correct the conventions of the past, thus evolving the art-form. Many conventions fall by the wayside, some stick with us, and some are brought back ironically. In summation: shit changes.
Because I have a fondness for dated conventions, I’ll let certain shit slide in older movies that I'd have no patience for in newer pictures. I am able to put myself into the mindset of olden times. Yes, we’ve moved past certain conventions, but these older folks hadn’t learned any of this shit yet. And certainly, there are many present-day conventions that future generations will look back on with scorn (shaky cam and incoherent editing, anyone?).
Even when I find an older convention laughable, I usually enjoy the movie more because of it. Case in point: the voice-over narration in Robert Wise’s early fifties criminal world expose, The Captive City. When ace reporter Jim Austin (John Forsythe) and wife Marge (Joan Camden) fly into the police station of highway city USA, the frantic couple begs for a police escort. They’ve got no time to explain; their lives are in danger; get something here now. When the desk cop explains that it’ll be at least an hour before anyone can get there, the couple agrees to wait.
What’s this, Jim notices; the cops have a tape recorder. Would the desk cop mind if the reporter fiddled with the machine? You know—so as to record their ordeal, just in case their pursuers off them before the police escort can arrive? Knock yourself out, in so many words, the cop replies. At which point, Jim plops himself in front of the machine and begins narrating the story that the movie will now flashback to. Now, the main-character-voicing-over-the-flashback-that-is-the-movie-being-movied convention is quite old and one that will surely continue for many years. That isn’t the dated part.
What is odd is the way Jim narrates his story. The frantic man, on the run for his life, gives his story the sort of semi-enthused, half-interested tone that only a person deeply removed from the proceedings could convey: he talks like a nature documentary narrator. Hey, asshole, you and your wife fear for your lives; make us believe it. If this narration were accurate, it would be a semi-coherent series of gasps, catching of breaths, and shrieks—interrupted by the occasional string of words:
“Oh Jesus fuck, mayor—no, I mean, police chief—he’s the one who’s—fuck! They’re all gonna get us. Fuck the mob. Yeah, I said it. Don’t you—Fuck, why’d I have to cross the goddamn mob? Wait. Did you hear that? They’re here. They found me. I don’t know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty!”
Instead, Jim gives his narration a thought-out three-act structure, fooling us with the bobs and weaves, twists and turns that his story takes. Realism was sacrificed for clarity. Given the plethora of movies in The Captive City’s wake that experimented brilliantly with voice-over narration (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Informant!), it might be a little disconcerting to the modern viewer to watch such an unrealistic, yet cut and dry, take on the narrator.
Nevertheless, I got a kick out of it. For me, the disconnect from reality was really goddamn funny. Don’t get me wrong, if modern movies try to pull this shit, I immediately tune out. They should know better. But The Captive City? I can’t stay mad at it.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this movie is redeemed by damn near everything else about it. A riveting story, this tale of city-wide corruption never lets up. And style-wise The Captive City ain’t too shabby. Robert Wise certainly makes no secret his indebtedness to Orson Welles. Filling every depth of field in every deep-focus frame with every kind of action, Wise could be accused of showboating. And I would fault him with ballsy hubris, if every image weren’t so damned captivating.