Movies Due for a Revisit
Continuing with more category-defying odds and ends:
Margin Call (2011)
w./d. J. C. Chandor
You don’t see this kind of thing too much these days; a completely dialogue-driven story, and I mean dense dialogue – big, fat, talky scenes with big fat words — yet this thing moves like an express train. “It’s structured as a thriller,” Chandor has described the film, “a ticking time-bomb movie — but an hour into the film you know the bomb can’t be defused and the crux of the story becomes who are they going to drop it on?” This is probably the gabbiest-yet-propelling movie since 12 Angry Men (1957), and just as sharp, and just as engrossing (and I say this as a huge fan of those dozen squabbling jurors)…which is a pretty neat trick for a movie about something as arcane as – are you serious? — mortgage bundling? Really? Yup.
The story, which all takes place within a twenty-four-hour period, is a fictionalized, compressed version of what went on in mortgage brokerage houses like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers leading up to the 2008 financial crash. After a brutal layoff, some of the junior brokers (Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley) find out that one of the layoff victims (Stanley Tucci) had been working on projections based on some of the house’s shakier investments. Once Quinto finishes the calculations, storm warnings go off, the house’s biggest guys are brought in to try to figure out how to help the company survive the inevitable, pending crash. As for whatever damage it does to investors? Well, this is Darwinian capitalism at its bloodiest so too effing bad for them (the movie is built on the same real-life financial disaster that’s the subject of true story The Big Short  but with fewer laughs and more Jesus-these-people-suck).
Considering this was Chandor’s first feature film (he’d been directing commercials and documentaries for years prior) and that he was working with a meager $3 million budget (Chandor admits nobody was paid very much) and a whirlwind 17-day shooting schedule, in the writing, the look, and the performances by a wonderful 12 Angry Men-caliber ensemble (Kevin Spacey, Quinto whose Before the Door Pictures company produced, Tucci, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore), Margin Call has a remarkably full, rich, textured complete feel. Watching this kind of cast throwing Chandor’s fine-tuned dialogue back and forth is like watching the members of a small chamber orchestra passing off the lead in a smooth round-robin without missing a note and nailing every beat.
It’s an intelligent, challenging, Oscar-nominated script; you don’t always understand what everybody’s talking about, but then you reach a point where you sort of do, and what becomes ever more clear is the threat to the house and the larger financial disaster ahead. It’s hard not to wince as you watch characters who don’t seem like bad people wrestle with the pragmatic, self-rationalized, yet morally dubious decisions they see as necessary to save the company. Chandor knows a bit about how these particular financial conflagrations work; his dad spent thirty years at Merrill Lynch, and the movie has the absorbing sense of an insider’s view.
For me, the moment that seems to encapsulate the rationalizations and conflicting moralities (if high finance has any such thing) comes in a wry verbal aria Chandor gives Paul Bettany. As he’s driving back into Manhattan with one of his juniors (Badgley) after trying to persuade the fired Tucci to come back to the company, he lays out how the Wall Street game works:
Bettany: …if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you’re necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin’ houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is ’cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so fuck ’em. Fuck normal people. You know, the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes tits up, they’re gonna crucify us for being too reckless, but if we’re wrong, and everything gets back on track? Well then, the same people are gonna laugh till they piss their pants ’cause we’re gonna all look like the biggest pussies God ever let through the door.
Badgley: Do you think we’re gonna be wrong?
Bettany: [a beat] No, they’re all fucked.
d. Richard A. Colla
w. Evan Hunter, adapted from the novel 87th Precinct by “Ed McBain”
Ok, first things first; I want to explain those quotation marks around the name Ed McBain. I love this, this is funny: Evan Hunter is Ed McBain. McBain was a pen name Hunter used for a string of crime novels including a popular series set in the fictional – you guessed it! – 87th Precinct (the novels are set in a fictionalized Manhattan, but the movie is set in Boston). As Evan Hunter, he wrote more literary stuff, like The Blackboard Jungle which was based on his experiences teaching in an inner city school. Ironically, Evan Hunter also wasn’t his real name; he legally took it on when an editor advised it would look better on a book cover than his own Salvatore Albert Lombino. So, it’s kind of an inside joke when you’re watching the movie and see: Screenplay by Evan Hunter; Based on a novel by Ed McBain. Gotta laugh!
The signature of Hunter’s 87th Precinct novels was to set several plotlines in motion and then coax them into a climactic intersection. In Fuzz, the precinct detectives are investigating an escalating series of extortive assassination threats and some youths who’ve been setting fire to the neighborhood homeless and a percolating caper by some of the local lowlifes.
I’m biased because I’m a fan of the McBain novels: the dialogue always sparkles (one of my favorite scenes from his novels – not this one – is between two homicide detectives debating whether the proper descriptive for a murder victim hung from a lamppost is “hanged” or “hung”), the characters are life-sized – no super cops here – and Hunter’s ability to get those various plotlines to come together is like watching someone juggle an egg, an apple, and a bowling ball (there was a guy back in the ’80s who used to do this on TV – no, really!).
But that’s not why the movie stands out to me. It’s — … I’m trying to think of the right word. Muddy. By intention. Smaller ancillary cases come and go through the squad room, stories overlap, there’s a lot of the kind of ball-busting which goes on between familiars in any workplace, there’s fun little asides (“There’s a woman who says she’s being molested; I have her on hold. What should I tell her?”)… I guess the best way to put it is that there’s always a lot of business going on around the central plot(s) and that gives the movie a vitality and a seriocomic flavor that’s very different from most cop movies. If anything, it more closely resembles the 1970s TV series Barney Miller – but more evenly balanced between the comic and the serious — which, in a survey at the time, policemen voted as the most realistic portrayal of cops on TV.
What makes this play is Colla, a TV director making his only feature effort, has a flavorful ensemble cast working for him. Burt Reynolds has top billing, but at the time, he wasn’t the heavyweight marquee name which Deliverance – released that same year – would make him. Prior to Fuzz, he’d done a lot of TV, mostly in guest spots and starring in two failed series (Hawk, Dan August), as well as some forgettable cheapie B flicks like Sam Whisky (1969) and Skulduggery (1970). Point being he’s on an equal footing with everyone else, giving neat give-and-take with Jack Weston, Tom Skerrit, James McEachin, Steve Ihnat, and Dan Frazer. Adding color around them are Raquel Welch and a bunch of fine Familiar Faces: Bert Remsen, Brian Doyle Murray (this was Bill’s brother’s first movie role), Don Gordon, Charles Tyner, a very young pre-American Graffiti (1973) Charlie Martin Smith, Peter Bonerz, Peter Brocco (a hoot ad libbing a story about people leaving garbage in his car), Gino Conforti, and, as the big, bad villain, Yul Brynner. It’s a full Crayola box – the big one with the sharpener – of wonderful character actors adding to a kind of every-scene-alive rhythm you don’t see in many movies of any genre.
Look, it’s not great cinema, but it’s arresting fun (ok, go ahead and groan).
None But the Brave (1965)
d. Frank Sinatra (also produced with Kikumaru Okuda)
w. John Twist, Katsuya Susaki, story by Kikumaru Okuda.
You read that right: Frank Sinatra was the director on this one. Yup; The Frank Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes. Chairman of the Board. And it’s the only time in his long career he sat in the director’s chair (although his production company, Artanis, would turn out nine films over the years and this particular Artanis effort was especially notable as the first Japanese/U.S. co-production).
WW II, the Pacific, and an American transport plane loaded with mostly green Marines crashes on a small island which turns out to be, in the words of its diary-keeping commander, “…a little chunk of coral…a forgotten outpost of the Japanese Army.” The two forces are about evenly matched, and there’s some parry-and-thrust as the two units carry the far-away war to this remote corner of the world. But when the Japanese commander (Tatsuya Mihashi) offers the American C.O. (Clint Walker) an exchange of food and water for the use of Walker’s medic (Sinatra), that opens the door to an initially uneasy and then more relaxed truce. But the war is like a recurring case of malaria, lying dormant until circumstance and duty tragically bring it back. The last shot of the movie captures its sad and bitter thesis: that remote, worthless mound of green sitting alone in the ocean, and across the bottom of the screen: “Nobody Ever Wins.”
In its equal attention and respect to both sides (the movie doesn’t cheat; the Japanese speak Japanese), the movie presages Clint Eastwood’s duology, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), but without either their visual or literary flair (although there are times Mihashi’s voiceover has a few wonderful passages: “There is no death where the spirit lives…”). Still…
By the 1960s, Frank Sinatra was one of the biggest forces in entertainment on the planet and could pretty much call the shots on any project – musical, TV, or film – in which he was involved, and no doubt he liked the idea of being totally in charge of a project thus taking the director’s helm. But Sinatra, at least by this time, also had a reputation as an actor of being impatient with rehearsal or doing more than just a few takes, and some of that lack of discipline and focus shows up. Visually, the movie is, well, not bad, but sort of functional, and watching the final firefight, one wonders if by then Sinatra just wanted to be done because it barely qualifies as perfunctory. But at the same time, Ol’ Blue Eyes does seem to be engaged by the antiwar heart of the movie.
The performances, for the most part, are solid. Sinatra gets a nice melancholy out of Walker and Mihashi as his more poetic counterpart, and the movie has its moments: the closing bits after that final combat have an appropriate stately sadness to them, a sense of mourners at a wake. Sinatra, despite having (understandably) top billing is really only a supporting actor, and for much of the movie there’s a bit too much of the glib, boozy Vegas Sinatra to his performance, but he gives himself a nice showcase of the kind of actor he could be when he committed to the work in a tense scene when he’s forced to amputate the gangrenous leg of a young Japanese soldier. He’s got a wonderful moment as he takes scalpel in hand, looks heavenward, and with a certain quiet desperation says, “Don’t just look down.”
It’s not a subtle movie, it’s a competently if not exceptionally executed flick with a healthy balance of action (usually well done except for that last showdown) and drama, but there’s enough strong spots to carry its heartfelt despair over the pointlessness of war – particularly at a time when Vietnam was beginning to heat up – to engage you. At least it does me, or maybe having witnessed so many pointless wars since then, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing.
Morituri (1965) (aka The Saboteur: Code Name Morituri)
d. Bernhard Wick
w. Daniel Taradash, Walon Green (uncredited), based on the novel by Werner Jorg Luddecke.
Morituri comes out of the same post-WWII sense of disillusionment that bred movies like None But the Brave. Over eighty million souls had been lost in the war, great swaths of Europe and Pacific Asia had been devastated, yet it seemed humankind had yet to tire of war. The years after the war were filled with local conflicts; wars of colonial dismemberment, proxy wars between the communist east and the more-or-less democratic west…the bloodletting never ceased.
Hollywood continued to churn out war movies ranging from action adventures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) to victory celebrations like The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) to revisions like 12 O’Clock High (1949) and Battleground (1949) which revealed the war to have been more brutal and emotionally traumatic than propagandistic wartime titles let on. But what Eisenhower had dubbed The Great Crusade, and Studs Terkel called The Good War, also became a malleable platform to examine the subject of armed conflict in a larger, more abstract, more philosophical manner; movies that were set in WW II, but were about something more existential. These were movies like Attack! (1956) and None But the Brave…and, yes, Morituri.
(To that point, in a tragically sad coincidence, None… and Morituri — movies about the pointlessness of war — both were released the year the U.S. first sent ground troops to Vietnam. Within three years of the landing of those first 3,500 Marines, America would have over 550,000 soldiers in the field in a war that seemed increasingly pointless and endless.)
Th seems to be the worldview of Robert Crain, Morituri’s central character, played by Marlon Brando. As he tells the British officer (Trevor Howard, turning snidery into a fine British art) trying to arm-twist him into “volunteering” for a probably suicidal undercover mission:
“I personally don’t believe that war is ever a solution to political conflict. What do wars ever prove? Men, women, and children are slaughtered, and a generation later, friends are enemies, and enemies are friends and the whole stupid cycle starts over again.”
With such a bleak, cynical outlook, I have no illusions that Morituri is for everyone. It’s a grim, broody flick eyeball deep in moral ambiguity, with no clear heroes, and only accidental and questionable victories. I’m tempted to use the word noiry in describing the movie, and not just because of Conrad Hall’s brilliant black-and-white cinematography (Hall’s work on the film would earn him the first of his ten Oscar nominations) but because None But the Brave’s closing title card would’ve provided an equally appropriate coda to this story: “Nobody Ever Wins.”
Brando’s Crain is, supposedly a Swiss expatriate living a rather cushy life in India and dismissive of the war. But then he’s visited by British intelligence officer Statter (Howard) who knows that Crain is really a German deserter and threatens Crain with a return to the unwelcoming arms of the authorities back in the ol’ Fatherland if Crain doesn’t help with a secret mission (“Statter, you’re a cold bastard”; “I was born on a chilly island”). With the faked identity of an S.S. officer, Crain is placed on a German freighter leaving Japan loaded with a valuable wartime commodity: rubber. The ship is skippered by Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner), loyal to Germany, proud of his U-boat captain son, but with nothing but disdain for the Nazis (sneering at one of his Nazi junior officers: “You young men who hold the world breathless!”). Crain’s dicey job is to locate and disarm the ship’s scuttling charges so the freighter can be successfully intercepted by a U.S. Navy ship and the Allies can get their hands on the cargo which is just as valuable to them. But bit by bit, Crain’s situation becomes more complicated and precarious as his true identity threatens to surface, and he’s forced to enlist the help of one of the prisoners transferred to the freighter by a U-boat — survivors of a torpedoed ship — a young Jewish woman (Janet Margolin), an escapee from Nazi custody left emotionally scarred by her captors’ depraved predations. As the movie accelerates into a tense climax, circumstances push the characters to make moves, well, by the end there’s not a lot to like in any of them.
You may or may not buy into Brando’s German accent, but even though the actor, at the time, was turning out a string of box office duds, this was still the lean, dynamic actor which made the Brando legend a legend. It’s a magnetic, multifaceted performance: Brando playing the strutting Nazi, then, in the privacy of his stateroom exploding in self-loathing, and another turn as he forcefully tries to persuade Margolin to help him in a last, Hail Mary attempt to pull off his mission which becomes more about his survival than an act of heroism to benefit the Allies. And then, when it all goes sour so badly Crain’s cynical shell shatters at what his maneuvering has cost others, he tries one last desperate move for no motive any more noble than a kind of “Fuck you all!” gesture.
And that seems to be a running theme of the movie: the shattering of illusions. Brando’s haughty, condescending air of above-it-all judgment breaks down, and Yul Brynner – the proverbial “Good German” — ultimately experiences the shredding of what Crain describes as his “…mildewed concepts of the Fatherland.”
If the movie is to be taken as an assault on romantic visions of the war, it saves its most bitter, pointed jabs through Janet Margolin’s Jewish prisoner, brutalized to the point of numbness by the Nazis in a most obscene way, only to find that some of her fellow American prisoners aren’t that much better.
Morituri‘s throat-tightening climax gives us a big finish…but no catharsis. It offers a win without a sense of triumph, victors without nobility. As I said, it’s not for everybody, but if you’ve grown tired of the candy-coated visions of Good vs. Evil combat in superhero flicks, you may not find a more potent counterweight.
- Bill Mesce