Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) Michael Anderson

Based on a novel by Rearden Conner, this story brings us to 1921 Ireland, where citizens and soldiers alike are caught in the maelstrom of the Irish Republican Army, forces of the British Crown, and the Black & Tans. Hired by Britain to help suppress the Irish, the mercenary Black and Tans were joined by other ex-military personnel known as Auxiliaries. Together these two groups became notorious for their indiscriminate violence against the Irish, including burning towns (look up Cork, Conner's hometown), opening fire on a football-watching crowd, and random beatings and killings.

When the IRA, known for its assassinations of British sympathizers and police, would strike, the Black and Tans would brutally retaliate. Their name allegedly came from the fact that when they arrived in Ireland, there were not enough uniforms for all of them; therefore, their clothes became an amalgam of military and police uniforms, khaki and dark. (The wanton violence eventually repulsed even the British, and after wreaking havoc for several years, they were finally removed from Ireland; their presence had served no purpose other than to broaden support for the IRA.)

Enter Don Murray, an Irishman from America attending medical school. He is quickly caught up in random violence that forces him to decide on which side of the fence he will reside. Then meet the powerful James Cagney who is a Professor of Medicine, and a commander in the Irish Republican Army. This is a great Cagney role and worth a movie watch just to see the many layers of his personality unfold.

Other notables are the beautiful Dana Wynter (if you’re a Science Fiction movie fan, you’ll recognize her from the 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), Glynis Johns, Michael Redgrave (father of Lynn and Vanessa), and watch for an early and memorable appearance by Richard Harris. Also present are famed British stage actors Cyril Cusack and Sybil Thorndike.

The film is fairly action packed and quite tense at times. The characters grapple with the use of violence - is it a justified means to an end? If so, to what degree, or are there no limits? When does a person fighting for his country’s freedom become a fanatical terrorist?

Shot on location in Ireland, the cinematography (Erwin Hillier) is stunning in its black and white beauty. Street scenes are gritty and grim, and lighting and camera angles make the most of both city and landscape settings. Near the end, there’s a great shot of Cagney standing in the shadows in a doorway, with the light behind him. Will he step into the light or remain in the dark? Brilliant shooting.

My favorite scene is the last - not because it’s unpredictable but because it’s beautifully filmed. You’ll even see some nice pre-Sergio Leone dramatic closeups. And while the credits roll, someone is pounding on a door, leaving the film with its moral ambiguity intact.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Vice Squad (1953) Arnold Laven

Although the name of the film doesn’t really fit its contents, the author of the novel on which this movie is based, Leslie T. White, was a lifelong member of the law enforcement community, including a stint as an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office; and it shows. The genre is “police procedure,” not a “whodunit.” At times it reminded me of “Dragnet” (debuted on radio in 1949 and on TV in 1951), only with Edward G. Robinson in for Jack Webb, with more personality, and a much larger, more entertaining cast.

This is one day in the life of Captain Barnaby (Robinson). Although the role held no challenges for Robinson, he played it well as the all-wise, always calm, head of the Vice Squad. In one interesting scene, Robinson is being interviewed for TV and is a little nervous. He asks, “Is it alright to smoke in the interview?” Interviewer: “That’s what we want!” Good old, early TV/movie days.

Several crimes need to be unraveled and Robinson is just the one to do it, with the help of his competent police force. The criminals start out equal to the task but will they fall to their deserved fates or outmaneuver the police? This criminal entity has some of the better scenes in the movie and is led by the menacing Edward Binns (Juror #6 in “Twelve Angry Men”). Adam Williams is remarkable to watch as the conflicted, dramatic maybe-criminal. And Lee Van Cleef, everyone’s favorite villain, is seen here in his second year of movie-making.

Two favorite character actors, Barry Kelley and Porter Hall, play a defense attorney and a hapless “victim,” respectively. Both roles are funny and well-played. Look for high-voiced Percy Helton in one of the several subplots, and Paulette Goddard, as a lovely Madam who has good chemistry and repartee with Robinson. (Goddard made only a few more movies and TV appearances after this. She also had a few very famous husbands including Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, and Erich Maria Remarque.)

The real stars are the cinematography (Joseph F. Biroc) and location. This is black and white, 1950s Los Angeles, complete with cars - it’s not a made-in-the-studio movie. Great use of light and shadows and excellent camera angles, particularly for the criminals and their activities, give this a film noir look. And for all the easy banter, the film provides considerable suspense toward the end, suitably set in a condemned, concrete building. Dramatic, tension-laden music (Herschel Burke Gilbert) underscores the criminals’ activities throughout and was otherwise absent.

Look for the easy way police had back then with their methods. Too early for Miranda rights, but not too soon for manipulations here and there, a few scams, and maybe a little blackmail; this was police business as usual, and an entertaining day for us in the life of Captain Barnaby in old Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking Chance (2009) Ross Katz

Private First Class Chance Phelps (1984-2004) died in Iraq at age 19 and was buried in Wyoming eight days later. His body was escorted by Lt Colonel Michael Strobl. This is their story.

You will see things in this very moving film (made for HBO) that you have probably never seen before. Since 1991 (up until April of 2009), any media coverage of the return of deceased soldiers was banned. No coffins being loaded onto air transports, and no unloading. Besides that, most of us are completely unfamiliar with the proceedings regarding the treatment of the combat dead, and this movie is the beginning of our education.

Aluminum transfer cases with bodies packed in ice leave Germany and arrive at Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. What transpires here will amaze you and I won’t disclose the details; their motto is “Dignity, Honor, and Respect.” Every service member who dies in a combat theater is transported by military aircraft to this mortuary for processing and burial preparation. When the body is ready, a military “escort” is assigned to bring that soldier to his or her final resting place.

A lifelong Marine and veteran of Desert Storm, Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) is conflicted about not serving in the current Iran war. He’s working in a cubicle, crunching numbers for the Marine Corps. In the one report to which we are privy, Strobl recommends that the number of replacements at a specific Iraqi site replace the casualty number and not be increased as requested; his superior overrules him in favor of the men on the ground. Strobl is stung by the implied criticism and his guilt worsens. Every night after his family is sleeping, he looks through the list of the names of those who have died that day, hoping he sees no one he knows. One night he sees someone from his hometown, whom he doesn’t know, and he decides to volunteer for escort duty.

The movie is as much about Strobl’s journey as it is his fallen comrade’s. But overall, the story is larger than the characters. At each stop in the trip from Delaware to Wyoming, Strobl is met with respect, acts of kindness, and impromptu tributes. They are directed at Strobl but are really for the unknown Phelps. It’s a unified, national grieving, and eight days of honoring the deceased. People who never knew him were thinking about him.

In Phelps’ hometown, Strobl meets with other veterans (one from the Korean “war” who gives him a dressing down for his guilt), turns over Phelps’ personal effects to his family, effects he has carefully guarded and repeatedly examined, and attends the funeral and burial.

“From Dover to Philadelphia; Philadelphia to Minneapolis; Minneapolis to Billings; Billings to Riverton; and Riverton to Dubois we had been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive. Then they put him down above his grave. He had stopped moving.”

This is not a political movie but a story about the meticulous treatment each of the fallen receives, and about our national, collective mourning. Each casualty is not just a number, but a person with a name, with friends and family. Watching this transport of a KIA brings our wars much closer to home. Watch and weep.

Lt. Colonel Strobl’s escort report became the basis of the screenplay (that he co-wrote with director, Ross Katz), and you can read the original report everywhere online. The movie stays quite true other than adding an obnoxious airline screener, a night spent in an airport hangar, and an impromptu funeral procession.

“Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.” I think we all do.

Of related interest:

Daily reports of the names of casualties: http://www.defense.gov/releases

A 2008 report of the nine-day journey home of Joe Montgomery, written by Chris Jones, from his burial moving backwards in time: http://www.esquire.com/features/things-that-carried-him