Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice

PAWN SACRIFICE              C+                  
USA  (114 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Edward Zwick

It’s hard not to be completely overwhelmed by Bobby Fischer, a young American chess champion that became the youngest grandmaster ever in 1958 at age 15 (though more than 30 years later, 6 others have achieved this distinction at even younger ages) before becoming the number one ranked player in the world in 1971, advancing to the World Finals in 1972 where at the height of the Cold War in a match that was broadcast around the world he faced Russian champion Boris Spassky and beat the best of the Russians in a sport dominated by Russians since the end of World War II, who consider this their national sport subsidized by the State, receiving plenty of money and support along the way where the leading chess players are treated to the comforts of the highest standard of living available in the nation, where players have staffs of coaches to assist them in their preparations.  Fischer on the other hand was basically all on his own, a young Jewish kid raised by a single mom in Brooklyn, largely self-taught, having grown up playing chess against himself since he had no one else to play.  What was perhaps even more shocking was the convincing fashion in which he won, steamrolling his American contemporaries before dominating the Russians to an extent never seen before or since, where even today he is revered as the greatest player that ever lived (along with Garry Kasparov), becoming one of the strangest heroes this nation has ever seen.  Despite his brilliance, Fischer refused to defend his title and became a recluse, disappearing from the public eye, falling victim to psychological delusions, paranoid conspiracy theories, and self-hating anti-Semitism that clouded his judgment for the rest of his life, becoming a caricature of his former self.  While there have been other portraits of Fischer, this new addition is not among the better efforts, though it’s one of the few to provide insight into his early childhood years, but it grows more troublesome, losing the focus on chess and delving into the psychological idiosyncrasies (including those of Spassky) during the second half of the picture, becoming more like Ron Howard’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), struggling against his inner demons without any confirming medical diagnosis, where it’s unclear how he can be so focused on the game in some moments but so easily distracted, growing downright delirious in others, literally fizzling out by the end where the film doesn’t really have an ending.  Much better works would include Fischer’s own definitive book, My 60 Memorable Games (1969), Ralph Ginzburg’s journalistic essay from Harper's Magazine, January 1962, Portrait of a Genius As a Young Chess Master, Elie Agur's brilliant Bobby Fischer: His Approach to Chess (Cadogan Chess Books) , a much more convincing Liz Garbus documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), Frank Brady's classic biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, and his follow up Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, provoking an exquisite piece written by Russian chess great Garry Kasparov, published in the New York Review of Books on March 10, 2011, The Bobby Fischer Defense, all of which provide unique insight into this troubled genius.  From Garry Kasparov:

Fischer returned from beating Spassky in Reykjavík—the Match of the Century—a world champion, a media star, and a decorated cold warrior. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. With a few minor exceptions, he turned it all down.

Keep in mind that the chess world of the pre-Fischer era was laughably impoverished even by today’s modest standards. The Soviet stars were subsidized by the state, but elsewhere the idea of making a living solely from playing chess was a dream. When Fischer dominated the Stockholm tournament of 1962, a grueling five-week qualifier for the world championship cycle, his prize was $750.

Of course it was Fischer himself who changed this situation, and every chess player since must thank him for his tireless efforts to get chess the respect and compensation he felt it deserved. He earned the nickname Spassky gave him, “the honorary chairman of our trade union.” These efforts meant he was often an event organizer’s worst nightmare, but that was not Bobby’s concern. Ten years after Stockholm, the purse for the 1972 World Championship between Fischer and Spassky was an astronomical $250,000, plus side deals for a share of television rights.

It’s barely an exaggeration to say that Fischer’s impact on the chess world was as great financially as it was on the board. The world championship became a hot commodity and as we know, money talks. Chess tournaments and chess players acquired a new respectability, although it did not all outlast Fischer himself. My epic series of matches against Anatoly Karpov from 1985 to 1990 fanned the sponsorship flames into a blaze—we were not going to play only for the greater Soviet glory now that we knew there were millions of dollars to be had. We had learned more from Fischer than just chess. Last year’s world championship match, in which Viswanathan Anand of India defended his title against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria in Sofia, had a prize fund of nearly $3 million despite receiving no real publicity outside of the chess world. In spite of corrupt federations and no coherent organization among themselves, the top players today do quite well without having to also teach classes or write books while trying to work on their own chess at the same time.

Early on there are poignant images of a kid growing up by himself, alone in his room with his chessboard, often hearing voices at the door which may be real or imagined, where Bobby grows so obsessed with chess that his mother eventually takes him as a 9-year old child prodigy to play an adult grandmaster, which begins his journey into the official hierarchy of the chess world.  Without revealing much about his mother Regina Fischer (Robin Weigert), a fiery spirit who spoke 8 languages, had previously lived in Moscow during the McCarthy era and was involved with Leftist political activities, she was a poor single mother trying to pursue a master’s degree in nursing education at New York University while moving her family from place to place and her unfocused young son from school to school—all while being investigated by the FBI as a potential Communist agent.  Bobby’s older sister Joan bought him an inexpensive chess set from a candy store when he was age 6, where together they learned the moves, but initially he showed no real interest.  A lover of games and puzzles, he scored a genius IQ of 180, but never adjusted to the New York public school system, expelled from one school for kicking the principal and eventually dropped out of high school in his junior year at age 15 when he became a grandmaster, literally consumed with learning chess, seen visiting Russian bookstores for the latest news on the best players, studying all their moves.  Regina Fischer had ambivalent feelings toward her son’s chess career, encouraging him to broaden his interests and develop social relations, but when it became apparent that chess was his passion, she supported him fully and was often involved with protests and demonstrations, including picketing the White House when the State Department refused to allow the national chess team to play in the 1960 Chess Olympiad in East Germany.  Bobby and his mother, however, butted heads throughout his entire life, both intensely individualistic, where together they remained combative, argumentative and unhappy, which contributed to his social isolation and his obsession with chess, as there was literally no one he confided in or could trust, where his inner turmoil and frustration would at times erupt into violence.  Despite his lack of social skills, he was a genius on the chessboard, devoting fourteen hours a day to studying chess, playing matches against himself that lasted for days, where nothing interested him except the sport, rising through the Junior chess championships to the U.S. tournament almost simultaneously, where at the age of thirteen and fourteen respectively he dominated both tournaments, the youngest to ever do so, winning 8 U.S. championship titles in the process.  He didn’t just beat people, he annihilated them, where he was once quoted in a Dick Cavett interview, “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.”    

While the film doesn’t delineate between his early successes, certainly one of the more intriguing aspects comes when the director infuses Rockabilly and Surf music with 50’s and 60’s archival footage from the times, linking the rise of Bobby Fischer to a combustible force, becoming America’s greatest propaganda weapon against the Soviet empire, as he was the one American who could actually beat the Russians at their own game, where this is expressed with a surge of energy from period music like the Spencer Davis Group, Spencer Davis Group - I'm a Man - YouTube (2:47).  By doing this, Bobby Fischer becomes part of the social landscape of the times, like the select group of astronauts who orbited the earth or the first man on the moon, where his feats were equally indescribable.  Fischer didn’t just win a lot of games, what separated him from others was his utter contempt with playing for draws.  At the highest levels of competitive chess, players are already so familiar with how each other plays, having studied all their previous tournaments, where the opening moves usually go according to script, even with Fischer, whose emergence onto the world stage was noticed at the highest levels, as he was always on the attack.  While the young American upstart was fearless, the Russians called him nyekulturni or uncultured, especially after he accused the Russians of plotting against him by prearranging draws in tournament play, allowing their players easy games to preserve their stamina for the later more difficult matches.  This is where the film starts losing its focus, as Fischer is a much more fascinating figure than this film portrays, starting with the vanilla casting of Tobey Maguire as Fischer, a baby-faced, All-American guy synonymous with comic book heroism, hardly the attributes worthy of Fischer, who is a guy so admittedly strange that part of his legend is surmising what dark spirits were swirling around in his head, as he refused all medical treatment or psychological diagnosis, much like a Christian Scientist, disavowing all traces of his Jewish heritage, becoming a rabid anti-Semite, where he seemed most affected by the mistrust and paranoia of the times, driving a wedge between himself and the rest of the world.  Into his life walks Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall, an attorney connected to the music industry who volunteers to work on his behalf, perhaps an FBI mole having deep connections to the inner workings of the White House, where he comes across a bit like John Du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014), a so-called patriot with private philanthropic motives, a man who wants to see America crush the Russians.  Beyond that, we haven’t a clue who he is or why the skeptical and always overly alarmed Fischer should trust him, but he does so unwaveringly, as it is through his negotiations that Fischer accomplishes nearly all of his demands.  Even after the movie is over, the audiences is left wondering:  who is this guy?  Similarly, Peter Sarsgaard is Father Bill Lombardy, a chess playing priest that Fischer supposedly respects because at some point in his life he beat the child prodigy, something Fischer never forgot.  These two characters are featured prominently in the film, the ones comprising his inner circle, as they are the only two guys that remain by his side every step of the way as he approaches the World Championship, yet throughout it all, we haven’t a clue who they are. 

Admittedly, a movie about two guys sitting across from one another at a chessboard does not make for great theater, although Liev Schreiber as the placidly unruffled Boris Spassky is a treat, so while there is this momentous chess match going on, the film foregoes any interest in the game of chess and instead focuses all its attention on the psychological eccentricities of the two men, creating a bewildering sideshow that becomes more prominent than the spectacle itself taking place on the world stage.  While the film is purportedly a true story, so much of this is pure conjecture, especially how a film projects one’s state of mind, which is certainly open to interpretation, and despite the myriad of mental health issues associated with Bobby Fischer, the truth is we don’t really know what was going on inside his head, yet this film presents itself as a definitive version of what happened.  In doing so, it fails miserably.  Maguire is nothing like Fischer, as he’s always too nice a guy, the kind of person that likes to be the center of attention, while what Fischer craved, more than anything, more than the millions in endorsement deals that he turned down, was his anonymity where he could be left alone.  We never get that feeling from watching this film, which offers surprisingly little new insight into his character and is afraid to reveal just how shockingly disturbing his condition had become.  As riveting as the first half is, the second half dwells on the ponderous nature of some unknown force that simply can’t be explained, becoming a frustrating viewing experience that at best feels incomplete, presenting an all too simplistic, black and white view of the world where the Russians come across as gangsters and thugs, eventually feeling more like a condensed, PG rated version that leaves out many pertinent details about his life, where winning the World Championship actually feels anti-climactic, as the film literally stops after an early turning point in his match with Spassky.  What happens afterwards is a downward spiral into oblivion that is left for each of us to surmise, as without the game of chess to focus upon, his condition erodes and deteriorates further, with Fischer becoming an exile, an outcast wandering the globe alone, spewing his venom wherever he goes. 

Rene Chun from The Atlantic, December 2002, Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame - The Atlantic:

Bobby Fischer was singing the blues. As he wailed along with a 1965 recording by Jackie (“Mr. Excitement”) Wilson, his voice—a gravelly baritone ravaged by age but steeled by anger—rumbled through the microphone like a broken-down freight train on rusty wheels: “You go walking down Broadway, watchin’ people catch the subway! Take it from me, don’t ask for a helping hand, mmm, ‘cause no one will understand!” With each note he became increasingly strident. “Bright lights will find you, and they will mess you around! Let me tell you, millions will watch you! Have mercy now, as you sink right down to the ground!” Even if you knew nothing about Bobby Fischer, listening to him sing this song would tell you all you needed to know. “There just ain’t no pity. No, no, no, in the naked city, yeah—New York City.”

This unlikely duet, featuring Jackie Wilson and the world’s first and only chess grand master fugitive from justice, was broadcast live, on July 6, 2001, by DZSR Sports Radio, a Manila-based AM station that has embraced Fischer as a ratings booster. In exchange for these rare interviews (Fischer hasn't given a magazine or TV interview in thirty years), Sports Radio management has happily provided Fischer with hours of free airtime to spin his classic R&B records and to lash out at his enemies, both real and imagined. Fischer categorizes these enemies—including the former New York mayor Ed Koch, both Presidents Bush, and the Times Mirror Corporation—as “Jews, secret Jews, or CIA rats who work for the Jews.”

This radio broadcast was Fischer’s seventeenth in the Philippines. The bizarre karaoke interlude was a departure of sorts, but otherwise the broadcast was no different from the previous sixteen. Fischer’s talking points never vary.

·         Bobby Fischer is being persecuted by world Jewry.
·         The United States government is a “brutal, evil dictatorship” that has falsely accused Bobby Fischer of a crime and forced him to live in exile.
·         Bobby Fischer has been swindled out of a “vast fortune” in royalties by book publishers, movie studios, and clock manufacturers (yes, clock manufacturers), who have brazenly pilfered his brand name, patents, and copyrights.
·         The Jews are a “filthy, lying bastard people” bent on world domination through such insidious schemes as the Holocaust (“a money-making invention”), the mass murder of Christian children (“their blood is used for black-magic ceremonies”), and junk food (William Rosenberg, the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts, is singled out as a culprit).

For chess buffs who tune in for some shoptalk from the game's most revered icon, there is this:

·         Chess is nothing more than “mental masturbation.” Not only is the game dead, it’s fixed. Gary Kasparov, the world’s top-rated player, is a “crook” and a former KGB spy who hasn’t played a match in his life in which the outcome wasn’t prearranged.

The No. 1 transgression, however, the thing that has devastated Fischer, embittered him, and made him screech at night, alone in his apartment, is the “Bekins heist.”

·         Millions of dollars’ worth of personal memorabilia, painstakingly collected and stockpiled by Bobby Fischer in a ten-by-ten-foot Bekins storage room in Pasadena, California, has been stolen from him in a secret plot involving the Rothschilds (Jews), Bill Clinton (a secret Jew), and unnamed Bekins executives (CIA rats who work for the Jews).

The international chess community, which tracks Fischer’s downward spiral the way astronomers track the orbit of a dying comet, has been monitoring his radio interviews since the first one aired, back in January of 1999. For the most part chess people have for years downplayed the importance of his outlandish outbursts, explaining that Fischer’s raging anti-Semitism, acute paranoia, and tenuous grasp on reality are hyped by the media and misunderstood by the public. In the early 1990s Fischer’s girlfriend at the time said, “He’s like a child. Very, very simple.” A friend who spent a lot of time with him in the 1990s says, “Aside from his controversial views, as a person Bobby is very kind, very nice, and very human.” Another friend, asked how he could stand by someone so blatantly anti-Semitic, replies, “A lot of people wouldn’t care if Michael Jordan was an anti-Semite if they could play a game of Horse with him.”

Many Fischer apologists argue that Bobby Fischer is in fact deranged, and that as such he deserves not public castigation but psychiatric help. They are quick to point out that he was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, has had close friends who were Jewish, and in fact had a Jewish mother (information he has gone to great lengths to deny). It seems hard to imagine that his hate-filled rhetoric isn’t an unfortunate manifestation of some underlying illness.

But even the Fischer apologists had to throw up their hands when he took to the Philippine airwaves on September 11, 2001. In an interview broadcast this time by Bombo Radyo, a small public-radio station in Baguio City, Fischer revealed views so loathsome that it was impossible to indulge him any longer. Just hours after the most devastating attack on the United States in history, in which thousands had died, Fischer could barely contain his delight. “This is all wonderful news,” he announced. “I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a shit. Now it’s coming back to the U.S. Fuck the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.”

Fischer added that the events of September 11 provided the ideal opportunity to stage a long-overdue coup d’état. He envisioned, he said, a “Seven Days in May scenario,” with the country taken over by the military; he also hoped to see all its synagogues closed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews executed. “Ultimately the white man should leave the United States and the black people should go back to Africa,” he said. “The white people should go back to Europe, and the country should be returned to the American Indians. This is the future I would like to see for the so-called United States.” Before signing off Fischer cried out, “Death to the U.S.!”

The United States Chess Federation had always been willing to ignore Fischer’s public antics, no matter how embarrassing. He was, after all, Bobby Fischer—the greatest player in the history of the game. But this was too much. On October 28 of last year the USCF unanimously passed a motion denouncing Fischer’s incendiary broadcast. “Bobby has driven some more nails in his coffin,” Frank Camaratta Jr., a USCF board member, says. The backlash has reached all the way to grassroots chess clubs. “It’s because of Fischer that I’m involved in chess,” says Larry Tamarkin, a manager at the Marshall Chess Club, a legendary New York parlor frequented by Fischer in his teens. “But I can’t help feeling a sense of betrayal, anger, and sadness. You devote your entire life to one player and find out he’s completely off his rocker. It ruins everything. He’s an embarrassment.” Asked about the possibility of a Fischer comeback, Tamarkin can’t conceal his disgust. “We prefer that he doesn’t come back. Because if he does, it will destroy the last vestige of magic.”

In reality the magic has been gone for some thirty years. That’s how long it has been since Fischer played his first and only world-championship match. Why he stopped playing tournaments, and how his life unraveled so pathetically, is a story one can learn only by seeking out those who actually know Fischer. There are surprisingly few such people—and fewer yet are willing to talk. Fischer doesn’t tolerate friends who give interviews. His address book is a graveyard of crossed-out names of people who have been quoted in articles about him. 

But some formerly loyal Fischer associates, appalled at his recent behavior, are finally talking about him. They reveal that Fischer’s story doesn't follow the usual celebrity-gone-to-seed arc. He has not been brought low by drugs or alcohol, by sex scandals or profligate spending. Instead he is a victim of his own mind—and of the inordinate attention that the world has given it. Fischer’s paranoia, rage, and hubris have been enough to transform him into an enemy of the state; they have been enough to sabotage a brilliant career and turn a confident, charismatic figure into a dithering recluse; and, sadly, they have been enough to make us forget that when Bobby Fischer played chess, it was absolutely riveting theater, even for those who didn’t play the game.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Patch of Blue

A PATCH OF BLUE             B             
USA  (105 mi)  1965  ‘Scope  d:  Guy Green

Selina:  “I know everything I need to know about you. I love you.  I know you’re good, and kind.  I know you’re colored and I…”

Gordon:  “What’s that?”

Selina:  “…And I think you’re beautiful!”

Gordon:  “Beautiful?  Most people would say the opposite.”

Selina:  “Well that’s because they don’t know you.”

A variation on the Cinderella fairy tale, told Hollywood style in a wrenching racial melodrama about an 18-year old blind girl, Elizabeth Hartman as Selina D’Arcy, who’s been kept out of school and forced to do menial chores at home all day doing the cooking and cleaning for her tyrannical mother, Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters), before meeting a stranger in Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier), who happens to be black, though she doesn’t learn this until late into the picture.  Gordon befriends her and takes an interest in what’s happening in her life, which leads to a cataclysmic upheaval in her life once her mother finds out.  Literally locked inside her apartment with few opportunities to ever go outside, Selina leads a stifling existence, where her mother’s mental and physical abuse has no bounds, yet she won an Academy  Award for a playing a woman so monstrous that she belongs in the discussion for worst mothers ever depicted onscreen, (which may be reserved for Franziska Weisz in her vile portrayal in Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) in 2014), where her grotesque sadism and sheer lack of humanity overshadows any and all racist shortcomings.  As portrayed in Steve McQueen’s more recent 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), white slave owners are depicted as not just evil, but are exaggerated into such sadistic caricatures that it’s reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).  While this is an extremely popular characterization in Hollywood movies, it’s highly questionable whether this over-exaggeration may do more harm than good, resorting to a sado-masochistic indulgence to such an extreme degree that ordinary racists are paragons of virtue by comparison, so it really misses the point.  Coming a year after the legislative passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it’s hard to believe someone who so completely embodies racial bigotry would win an Academy Award for her performance, even though this film lays it on a bit thick in drawing the moral lines between good and evil, where Rose-Ann literally has no redeeming qualities whatsoever as a human being.  Winters herself revealed in interviews afterwards that it was difficult being this abhorrent, “I’ve always found something to like in the characters I’ve played, but not this time.  I really hate this woman.”  Adapted from the 1961 novel Be Ready with Bells and Drums by Australian writer Elizabeth Kata, the film alters the tone of the novel where the young girl shares her mother’s prejudices, going into a state of shock once she learns the truth about her newly discovered friend, handing him over to a mob of racist vigilantes.  That doesn’t happen here where the subject of race is cleverly downplayed, where instead it’s a film about a sheltered and abused blind girl’s personal liberation and freedom, optimistically breaking the shackles of the past and walking into a new era. 

Just two years earlier Poitier became the first black actor to win an Academy Award for his performance in LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963), which is interesting considering one of the central scenes of the film is the spirited rendition of the gospel song “Amen” Lilies of the Field - Amen - YouTube (3:06), where the musical arrangement and Poitier’s voice were supplied by Jester Hairston, as Poitier was notoriously tone deaf.  Certainly one of the most exceptional performances of his career went unrecognized by the Academy in A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961), featuring an all-star black cast, where his youthful anger couldn’t have more perfectly fit the raging sentiment of the times.  Poitier went on to play the parts of noble and dignified black men not only in this film, but also TO SIR WITH LOVE (1967), IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967), and FOR LOVE OF IVY (1968), where as much as any other celebrity, white America came of age in the 1960’s identifying with the decency of Poitier as a black man, making him a safe choice with movie audiences that embraced him, helping raise awareness for more equal treatment of all races.  While this is an extremely conventional film, what’s interesting is how it balances the ordinary moments of Selina and Gordon spending time together and then how traumatizing it feels with her own mother, who treats her with little more than outright contempt.  There’s an interesting use of flashback and dream sequences, which were much more commonly used internationally in the 60’s than they are today, allowing directors greater freedom in exploring the psychological state of mind of the characters, where in this film it also provides a window into Selina’s brutal past, where her childhood was anything but innocent.  Gordon immediately picks up on this, where this perfectly normal girl, except that she’s blind, has endured and somehow prevailed under the most tragic circumstances.  In many ways it resembles the fragility of The Glass Menagerie, where Selena has been kept inside a cloistered existence all her life, completely unaware of the world outside that represents her yearning for freedom.  We eventually learn what a house of horrors she did come from, as her blindness was actually caused by her mother (discovered in bed with another man) who in a state of rage threw a bottle of hydrogen peroxide at her father when she was only five, where he ducked out of the way but it landed on her face, causing burned scars around her eyes and immediate blindness.  The title of the film references one of her earliest memories, where all she remembers is seeing a patch of blue sky out the window. 

The other surprisingly good aspect of the film is the inventive musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, and while it overemphasizes moments of sentimentality with heartwarming string music, very much a period of its time, it also takes a novel approach for more ordinary moments, creating a slightly jazz-tinged scenario with an interesting use of percussion, where the off-kilter music actually helps the audience see the scene in a uniquely different way.  The weight of the world seems to rest on Selina’s shoulders, having to endure a daily barrage of insults from her mother, who picks on her constantly, literally blaming Selina for all the troubles in her life, particularly her impoverished economic status, suggesting her own life would be so much better without the added burden.  To complicate the woes, Rose-Ann’s drunken father lives there as well, known as Ole Pa (Wallace Ford), and while he’s kinder to Selina than her berating mother who actually slaps her around, he’s pretty much useless, as he never really interferes.  He is willing to drop her off in the park one day, much to Selina’s delight, as the idea of spending an entire day outdoors is like a dream to her, having no problem whatsoever with having to wait until early evening for him to pick her up on his way home after work.  While sitting under a giant tree, she happens to meet Gordon as he lives nearby, where they quickly become good friends.  Astounded that she’s never had any education, and has been deprived of all the things that make life interesting, he helps her manage her away across a busy street intersection and introduces her to the food from a nearby cafeteria, while also teaching her how to use a public telephone and rest room.  Anchored to the same spot all day, she’s not hard to find, where he has a hunch she might still be out there during a heavy downpour of rain, helping her to the nearest protective cover.  In their meetings, she expresses the awe of discovering new things, like pineapple juice or different flavors of ice cream, while also confessing some of the most disturbing incidents that have happened under her mother’s care, which in her eyes is an ordinary occurrence.  There is an unworldly moment that certainly takes us by surprise when Gordon sings to her (in French no less!!) the words to a French children’s song that plays on a music box, A Patch of Blue: "Il pleut, il pleut, bergère." (49 seconds), but other than that, there’s nothing particularly dramatic about their scenes together, which is the beauty of the film, although the interracial eight-second kiss between them was cut for Southern audiences.  Well-acted and always intriguing, even Gordon’s brother Mark, Ivan Dixon, so superlative in Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964) a year earlier, questions his budding friendship with a blind white girl, realizing it could potentially cause a scandal, which it does once Rose-Ann accidentally sees them together on the street, bringing the wrath of Hell down upon her, scolding her for associating with a “nigger.”  Untouched by the sordid reality surrounding her life, Selina is pure of heart, where the music box becomes her most prized possession, as it symbolizes her friendship and developing love for another human being, where it ends on an ambiguous note, as the doors to her future swing open, but the social services available for the blind, mentally ill or disabled in the mid 60’s were hardly a picnic, many discarded for simply being too much trouble for their families, as evidenced in the hackneyed recut version of an early John Cassavetes film A Child Is Waiting (1963), which actually takes place on the premises of a California State Hospital for the Handicapped.  Clearly, however, as evidenced by the idealism expressed in both films, the seeds are planted for a more humane society.  If the 60’s was anything, it was an era of optimism and hope for a better future, despite the lingering Vietnam War and existing racial and economic disparities.


For her performance, Elizabeth Hartman, who was 22 years old at the time, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but suffered from lifelong depression, which worsened following her divorce in 1984, giving up acting and instead moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she worked at a museum while receiving treatment at an outpatient clinic.  On June 10, 1987, at the age of 43, Hartman committed suicide by jumping from the window of her fifth floor apartment. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Odds Against Tomorrow

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW                 A-                   
USA  (96 mi)  1959  d:  Robert Wise

Influenced by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), while also the only American film that even remotely resembles the stylistic virtuosity of John Cassavetes classic Shadows (1959), this was the first production of Harry Belafonte’s own company, HarBel Productions, making this the first film noir with a black protagonist.  Adapted from the William P. McGivern novel, a crime novelist known for his focus on characterization and the psychological effects of corruption in the big city, to capture the gritty realism they were looking for they hired blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky from Force of Evil (1948) to write the script under an assumed name of John O. Killens, where the writing credit wasn’t officially restored until 1997.  Jean-Pierre Melville credited this film as a formative influence, while James Ellroy is quoted in a July 1998 British Neon magazine article listing his ten favorite crime films (all 50’s films except his top two), James Ellroy Selects His Ten Favourite Crime Films – July '98:

This is almost the very anatomy of noir in that it deals with racism and fucked up sexuality.  It’s a film of desperate, twisted guys anxious to make one last score, robbing a smalltown bank in upstate New York.  Of course they’re subconsciously self-destructive men and they screw it all up.  It’s just the best heist-gone-wrong movie ever made.  It’s also rooting through the psychological and social issues of the time, which are significant and profound.  Robert Ryan is really fuckin’ great in this and Harry Belafonte is good too. 

Robert Wise, whose directing credits include WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), listed as #2 and #4 on AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals, may also forever be known as the guy RKO Studios brought in to recut the end of Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT ANDERSONS (1942), actually reshooting several sequences, considered one of the great hack jobs in cinema history, as the original Welles ending was destroyed and has been lost forever.  Wise’s track record with film noir, however, is pretty good, including BORN TO KILL (1947), the nastiest of his noirs, THE SET-UP (1949), a gut-wrenching boxing drama that won the Critics Prize at Cannes, and this remarkable film which is just loaded with late 50’s atmosphere, starting with a brilliant jazz score written by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet (Milt Jackson vibes, Percy Heath bass, Connie Kay drums, Bill Evans piano, Jim Hall electric guitar, Joe Wilder trumpet, and a studio orchestra), Odds Against Tomorrow (John Lewis) Highlights - YouTube (13:27), and the strikingly fresh black and white cinematography from Joseph C. Brun.  Shot on exquisite locations on Riverside Drive in Manhattan (also the soundstages of the Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx) and in the small Hudson Valley town of Hudson, New York (identified as Melton in the film) about 120 miles north, both of which are located on the banks of the Hudson River, each providing their own unique charm, from the kinetic vibrancy of big city life to the seedy squalor of the desolate industrial landscape alongside the railroad tracks, used to great effect in the haunting poetry of extended sequences before the planned heist, as each man is lost in their own thoughts waiting it out alone while quiet jazz interludes accentuate the melancholy of these isolated moments.  Jazz scores became popularized with Michel Legrand’s dreamy and melodic score to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964), where every song feels hummable, but in terms of films literally drenched in sensuous atmosphere, consider Alex North’s moody score in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), one of the earliest jazz scores in American film, wonderfully capturing the simmering heat and sweat of the story and its New Orleans location, Streetcar Named Desire - Alex North (Highlights) - YouTube (6:05), or Elmer Bernstein’s collaboration with Chico Hamilton in Alexander Mackendrick’s SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) heard here “Night Beat” (2:16), Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s music for Otto Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), one of the greatest scores of all time, where a snippet can be heard here Flirtibird (2:14), (all of which can be heard on a 5-CD recording Jazz On Film Noir (Vol 1-5) by Various Artists on Spotify), while who could ignore François Truffaut’s collaboration with Miles Davis in FRANTIC (1958), renamed ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, JEANNE MOREAU IN "LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD" (MILES DAVIS THEME) YouTube (2:15), composed in a one night session, music that so beautifully captures the aching sorrow of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and regret, where the record under the original title remains a collector’s item. 

It should probably come as no surprise that Polonsky’s screenplay is riveting throughout, where this is largely a grim character study of three down and out, self-destructive men that “lead lives of quiet desperation,” yet cover their inner anxiety with male bravado and bluster.  Opening on the windswept streets of New York where the sun is out but the overcast sky is dark and foreboding, we feel the emptiness in the lives of the characters even before they are introduced.  Robert Ryan is Earl Slater, a hard-nosed and embittered ex-con initially shot on infra red film, bleaching his skin tone, making him appear as a walking ghost as he approaches Hotel Juno on Riverside Drive.  The first words out of his mouth are racially derisive, mocking a young black girl playing out front on the sidewalk, picking her up and calling her a “Pickaninny.”  Inside the hotel, he has no time for small talk, ignoring the friendly chat from the black elevator operator, Mel Stewart in his first uncredited role before Nothing But a Man (1964), heading straight for the room of Ed Begley as Dave Burke, an ex-cop whose career was ruined when he refused to cooperate with State Crime Investigators (a pointed reference to McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting).  Both men at their end of their rope, world weary and broke, they don’t even like each other, which is not altogether uncommon among criminals, but the question is can they work together to pull off one last big score in what seems to be a well-thought out bank heist?  Slater doesn’t like it, sensing more risk than reward and backs out of the deal.  Within minutes of his departure, Harry Belafonte as compulsive gambler and nightclub singer Johnny Ingram pulls up in his white Alfa Romeo sports car, joking with the kids outside and paying them money to look after his car, and unlike Slater, actually engages in friendly conversation with the elevator operator before knocking on Burke’s door.  Despite owing heavy debts to underworld loan sharks, where he could use some quick cash, he backs out as well, as bank robbery is not his thing.  What follows afterwards is an intimate exposure to the deteriorating lives of these two men living on the edge, where Slater is living in a hotel with a hopelessly devoted girl that’s crazy about him, Shelley Winters as Lorry, but he’s growing sick of living off of her money.  His wounded male pride leads him back to Burke, who outlines his plan, targeting a small team of bank clerks working after hours every Thursday evening when the bank is full of cash preparing the next day’s factory payrolls, where they open a side door for a delivery of coffee and sandwiches (delivered by a black man), which is their way in, and why they need Ingram.  Slater is fine with the idea except for one problem, “You didn’t say nothin’ about the third man being a nigger,” which is a perfect lead-in to Ingram’s nightclub act, Odds Against Tomorrow - The Club Scene (1959) (9:16), which is strangely interrupted by the overtly gay advances of Coco (Richard Bright), one of the bodyguards of the mob loan shark Bacco (Will Kulava) who’s come to collect after Burke urged him to put the squeeze on Johnny.  Ingram’s marriage is on the rocks from his gambling habits, where it’s clear his wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) still has feelings for him, but doesn’t trust his irresponsible example in front of their young daughter Eadie (Lois Thorne), who obviously adores her father, where we actually get a glimpse inside a middle class black household, extremely rare for 50’s films, where an integrated PTA meeting is going on in her living room.  All of these social references to blacklisting, racism, integration, homosexuality, capitalism and pursuing the American Dream add a unique context to this film, giving it an underlying socio-political subtext, where the darker elements of film noir allow a certain subversive thematic content to appear in the otherwise conformist era of the 50’s.  Bacco’s strong arm tactics, threatening Ingram’s wife and child, drive him back into the waiting arms of Burke, the mastermind behind the operation, but not before a blistering argument between Ingram and his wife:

Ruth:  The child can’t have a father that lives your life. 

Johnny:  You’re tough.

Ruth:  Not tough enough to change you.

Johnny:  For what?  To hold hands with these ofay friends of yours.

Ruth:  I’m trying to make a world fit for Eadie to live in.  It’s a cinch you’re not going to do it with a deck of cards and a racing form.

Johnny:  But you are, huh?  You and your big white brothers.  Drink enough tea with ‘em and stay out of the watermelon patch and maybe our little colored girl will grow up to be Miss America, is that it?

Ruth:  I won’t listen when you talk like that.  You’d better go.

Johnny:  Why don’t you wise up, Ruth?  It’s their world and we’re just living in it. 

Not sure you hear that kind of dialogue anywhere else.  It is significant that this film was released “before” the Civil Rights era, where Slater’s views were in step with the views of a majority of whites, especially in the South where in September 1957, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus became the national symbol of racial segregation when he used National Guardsmen to block the enrollment of nine black students who had been ordered by a federal judge to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School, requiring President Eisenhower to send in U.S. Army troops to enforce the order.  It is in this poisonous racial atmosphere that the film was released, causing little stir at the box office, presumably due to the social objections.  ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is film noir’s pessimistic answer to the feelgood liberalism of Stanley Kramer’s more hopeful THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), featuring black and white actors Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts who are literally chained together by leg irons in a film wondering whether blacks and whites could set aside their differences and actually work together in the interest of survival, where they both end up cradled in each other’s arms at the end.  Slater’s unrelenting racism is shocking in its raw unfiltered expression, where Ingram hates him the minute he sees him.  Both men are given scenes of public humiliation sending them over to the dark side, as Johnny gets drunk and makes a fool of himself onstage, while Earl is goaded into a senseless bar fight with a soldier (Wayne Rogers) who’s just showing off trying to impress a girl.  The outcome in each case is awkward and unexpected, where both come off as loose cannons.  Robert Ryan is thoroughly convincing in one of his best roles, completely emasculated, associating lack of money with a lack of self respect, seething with anger and self-disgust, showing his true loner qualities when he toys with the flirtatious interest of his neighbor Helen (Gloria Graham), first rejecting and then succumbing to her sexual advances, becoming an erotic dance of seduction, where her arousal is stimulated by descriptive thoughts of how he killed a man barehanded, which he willingly whispers into her ear.  Both worked together a decade previously in Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE (1947) and their raw and smoldering descent off the edge of respectability into the darker realms of S/M territory is one of the more graphically revealing scenes of the film, especially the world weariness and self-loathing they both convey.  Ryan and Belafonte work exceedingly well together as well, where in real life Ryan was a progressive leftist speaking out for economic and racial justice as early as the 30’s and 40’s, refusing to cave in to the intimidation and smear tactics of McCarthyism, repeatedly defending the rights and civil liberties of those like Polonsky who came under attack.   But in the film, Slater is violent and miserable, lashing out at a world that refuses to accept him, growing so brutally antagonistic that his noxious racial contempt calling Johnny “boy” even draws the ire of Burke. 

Don’t beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater!  We’re all in this together, each man equal.  And we’re taking care of each other.  It’s one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever.  And I don't want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma!  You got it?

While the robbery is saved for the end, this corrosive hatred seen throughout powerfully sets the stage for what follows, where they split up to avoid being conspicuous, with Ingram arriving by bus, while Slater drives the getaway car, meeting Burke dressed as a hunter just outside Melton, becoming a tense crime procedural whose brilliance is taking its time before the main event, shifting the exteriors from a teeming city landscape to an outlying industrial wasteland, where time literally stops, each man biding their time to allow reflective, contemplative moments where the poetic images of a desolate sky over the river beautifully merge with the quiet improvisation of the music.  Slowly the characters reconnect into the normal routines of any small town, where people stop and talk to strangers on the street and don’t simply ignore one another like they do in the cities.  Still, they reappear back on the streets like the walking dead, ghosts of humanity who would prefer to remain invisible, hoping to make quick work of it before they can get away unseen.  All tormented by their own personal demons, tensions mount as things begin to unravel despite having devised an excellent plan, where it’s a good idea using a side door entrance offering little protection from the unexpected and out of sight from the main street.  Thoroughly unprepared for the worst, however, falling victim to their own ineptitude by their blatant unwillingness to trust and help one another, there are swift mood changes where they quickly turn on each other instead, and with a vengeance, as Slater continues to insult Ingram, fulfilling each bleak promise that this film makes.  Steeped in a mood of existential dread, forced to crawl out of the global catastrophe that was World War II, living under the specter of the atomic bomb and global annihilation, these men operate under a disastrous cloud of fatalistic possibilities, each one a powder keg waiting to explode, continually colliding into one another during the build-up, where racial hatred eventually ignites the fuse.  The stunning originality of the work suffers from a finale that we’ve seen before, whether it be Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), though Cagney’s Cody Jarrett intentionally chooses his fate while here it happens accidentally, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), all reflecting culture clashes along with increasing apprehensions of impending disaster during the nuclear age, while the heist-gone-wrong format does recall Kubrick’s equally taut THE KILLING (1956).  While it is a fitting conclusion, with no hero or villain in a conventional sense, it resembles the rebellious examples of gangster films of the 30’s like Cagney’s ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) or THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), while the granddaddy of them all may be Bonnie and Clyde (1967), all Depression era films where oppressive social and economic forces turn the protagonists into thieves, where robbery is an act of rebellion against that oppression.  Money is the key to power and respect in modern society, and without it, Slater and Burke feel powerless, struggling against an unyielding society that offers no second chances for aging ex-cons, where one last score can somehow reinstate their lost manhood, while Ingram is up against a nation that promises equality, but it only exists out there somewhere just out of reach.  In the end Slater and Ingram are eventually made equal in spite of themselves.  The film is listed at #16 on the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller’s Top 25 Noir Films - Eddie Muller.