George Stevens’ “Anne Frank”

anne frank 40x60

Fox Home Entertainment has remastered George Stevens’s problematical but historically important 1959 film “The Diary of Anne Frank” — one of the first Hollywood films to deal directly with the Holocaust — for a handsome new Blu-ray edition. A review here, in the New York Times.

145 comments to George Stevens’ “Anne Frank”

  • edo

    “It strikes me as not too well conceived in narrative terms, with Dillinger not sufficiently sympathetic, with the Girl too naively enthralled, indeed, with the whole figure of Dillinger in another world from the forceful -image of Dillinger we get from photos of him (just Google “Dillinger’s wild ride,oup.com ” and take a look at 1930s HARD, more like atough Bogart than this Depp).”

    This is a common criticism of Mann – that his attention wanes when it comes to story and character development, especially in dialogue scenes. For a time, I used to dismiss the point, rather haughtily, as inconsequential, because I thought the overall style transcended what I took to be an inessential issue: storytelling. But over the past year, I’ve let go some of that naive essentialism, and begun to think it’s really a matter that needs confronting.

    The more I’ve returned to Mann’s films the more I’ve come to appreciate a very meticulous kind of dramaturgy that I think is very much there even in MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES. I have become frustrated with those who elevate Mann by simply stating “we can’t evaluate him on these terms”. First of all, I think that’s not how Mann himself conceives of and conceives his films, and second of all, I think it’s a little too easy to just invoke the formalist turn a la Brakhage that Mann is inventing a new “way of seeing”. Even if, in the last analysis, what he does amounts to that, he still uses plot and character to get there.

    So, Alex, you’ve pointed out Mann’s play of faces, and you’ve acknowledged the psychological values Mann finds in this play, but then you say there’s no attention to the “macrodynamics of character”. This seems somewhat contradictory. If you see psychology there, then how is this not attention to character? It may not be a conventional way of conveying character in script-based narrative films in that Mann eschews a lot of back-story exposition, especially in this film and MIAMI VICE, but there’s an ethic to his manner of revealing facets of his characters that has to do with freedom and identity. The way we get to know Dillinger is by how he reacts to situations, how he robs a bank, how he courts Billie, how he spars with the press and the law. Mann’s characters are revealed by what they do, and their words are usually terse and direct, belying the deep self-awareness these people have. They know what they want, and they’re going to get it before it’s too late. His people are free within the moments that they have. It’s the only freedom they do have, because the walls are closing in. While chasing a paradise, everyone is also in flight from something – for Dillinger, and many of Mann’s outlaw figures, it is the depersonalized life of prison; for Billie (and for Isabella in MV), it’s the life on the margins, on the reservations, as a social and ethnic minority. Mann’s stylistic riffs connect with these aspirations for freedom – so many sequences structured around the event of a group of people slipping through a mortal situation in the nick of time. I think the story and the character are there and very deeply thought out, and this isn’ a case of narration that borders Bordwell’s notion of the parametric, the narration defined by style. Rather it’s straight storytelling clipped to its essentials.

    And, incidentally, didn’t Sternberg frequently work with not so good scripts? (e.g. BLONDE VENUS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN)

  • Tony Wiliams

    On John Wayne as the centurion, David, surely the problem is the film’s “Who’s Who in Hollywood” conception similar to AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS? It may work in SHOW PEOPLE but not for this biblical epic. Wayne is too old to play the role and his appearance appears ludicrous. It parallels his wearing a Union officer’s outfit at the beginning of THE UNDEFEATED where one expects it to burst at any moment like William Shatner’s ill-fitting outfit in STAR TREK 2.

    At any moment, one expects him to draw a six-shooter and help the Savior escape the Cross.

  • Larry Kart

    About “Public Enemies”:

    Lots of self-consciously stylish touches in terms of camera position and movement (many oddly angled close-ups), but for my taste there just was not much “story” there; the facts of Dillinger’s life were draped over a semi-void. In particular, much was made of his ties to his main squeeze Billie Frechette — a scene between her and the G-Man who killed Dillinger concludes the movie — but while neither the actress who played Billie nor Depp were at all off-key in their roles, the movie gave me no idea as to why Dillinger supposedly thought she was that important to him. It just felt like one of those hooks a screenwriter comes up with because he needs some hook. Christian Bale as G-Man Melvin Purvis was kind of annoying, so closed off and clenched, though I suppose that was the concept.

    The John Milius “Dillinger” from 1973 with Warren Oates as Dillinger and Ben Johnson as Purvis is worth tracking down; Johnson is just incredible, a force of nature, and the relationship between him and Oates is elemental, a whole plot in itself. Interesting how a guy like Johnson, who was then age 55, seems much older (as in more grown up — albeit in fairly dark and mean ways), than any actor now on this planet. Oh, maybe Jack Nicholson or Clint Eastwood, but there’s nothing charming or old-coot-like about Johnson; it’s like he could dig the Panama Canal with his bare hands or bite off a chunk of the moon.

  • DK, I too thought of the Lang/’M’ connection while watching PUBLIC ENEMIES – the way both cops and criminals target Dillinger as a problem to be eradicated. But this seemed to me a truncated or half-baked notion in the Mann; the criminal side of it is mentioned a couple of times (some of the plotting is purely verbal in this film, that is, when you can manage to hear the verbiage!) but never develops into an actual Langian structure on any level except the sketch of its bare intention. Partly, the problem here, for me at least, is the same problem as in some recent Scorsese: the absolute avoidance/abhorrence of politics, of a political point of view or critique. It is an amazingly unpolitical gangster film! I couldn’t see or feel Mann’s investment in the material, except in order to run through some of the Mannian preoccupations (also a little half-baked here) that Edo has eloquently mentioned: life lived at the moment it is threatened, the romance of hardboiled guys and their ‘caught’ gals, etc. The author of the forthcoming Illinois book on Mann, Anna Dzenis, is pursuing the idea of the strange discrepancy between Mann’s evident involvement in film style, and his endless delcarations that he is a documentarian, that he is only interested in reality. (As is well known, he scotched the publication of a book manuscript that argued for his brilliance as a stylist!!) Where Mann’s sense of his ‘craft’ fits in there is quite a mystery. I would also mention that another major theme in Anna’s work – the ‘pathos of the photographic’ in Mann – gets major treatment in the final 2 major scenes of PUBLIC ENEMIES (Dilinger in the cop shop, then his death at the cinema): I did find that veritable HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA moment of his ‘subjective re-edit’ of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA – where a whole bunch of decisions of Mann’s scripting and casting get retroactively justified on a sheerly poetic plane – pretty stunning, if ‘too little too late’ to really save this often empty movie for me. However, I have sometimes found (especially with HEAT, not with MIAMI VICE) that first viewings don’t really yield the richness that can be there in Mann.

  • edo

    Adrian, I came away with similar feelings about PUBLIC ENEMIES after my first viewing, and I remember having reservations about MIAMI VICE for the same reasons (again after a single viewing).

    But today I think MIAMI VICE is nearly flawless, and having seen PUBLIC ENEMIES a second time last night, I no longer think the elision of its two major contextual storylines (the corporatization of the mafia, the birth of the FBI) is so much a flaw as it is indicative of the avenue Mann wants to take toward dealing with greater political issues. I think this avenue is indeed consistent with, and a further development upon, ambitions born out in his past work. That is to say, while Mann’s films may not be “political” in the manner of a Godard or Jia Zhang-ke, I don’t think we should extend this fact into an assertion that they lack a “political point of view” toward the events they depict. In Mann’s case, I don’t think that’s ever been the case.

    As Mann does not provide a political critique of the FBI, or more broadly of American media society in the thirties, which is perhaps what Lang would have done (frankly I don’t find Lang very political either… his concerns seem much more cosmic than that), I think it’s safer to assume this was not his intention in the first place. So rather than label this lack a flaw or an underdeveloped conceptual limitation, we might rather identify it as a different notion entirely. In this sense, Mann’s tact is better compared to de Toth than Lang. Which is to say Mann is a humanist.

    During my second viewing, I found the scene in which the beefcake FBI agent tortures Billie Frechette to be incredibly effective. Mann’s emphasis on the fragility of Marion’s figure echoes a similar scene in MIAMI VICE – the capture and torture of Trudy by Aryan Brotherhood. I believe I recall an interview where Mann testified to the fact that the resonance with Abu Graib was indeed intentional in the case of the more recent film. So I find it pretty difficult to read the scene as constituting anything less than a grave condemnation of American torture. And what I find really extraordinary about it is that it’s not simply executed with perfunctory due diligence. Rather Mann seems to be aiming from the heart. Not only is the tactic viewed as wantonly cruel, but it is also seen as ineffective and lazy, a coward’s substitute for good investigative trade-craft. And isn’t the ethics of professionalism one of Mann’s most personal themes? Again and again we find it in his films from MAN HUNTER to THE INSIDER to PUBLIC ENEMIES.

    Now, it seems that a lot of folks, like Adrian, have come away feeling slightly benumbed by this film, and interpreted the experience consequently as evidence of a lack of commitment to the material. Hence, the sentiment that even the typical “Mannian preoccupations” are “a little half-baked here”, but to me this is on the contrary his most potent expression of his themes yet, and I think this really has to do with the pace and the clipped quality of every scene. I’ve just received an e-mail here from a good friend, Yoel Meranda, who just saw the film. And he describes Mann’s approach well, “story-wise, it’s so open-ended, ephemeral, inconclusive”… I think these are instructive words for capturing what Mann is doing. In this film even more so than ALI or THE INSIDER or MIAMI VICE, Mann seems to feel he hasn’t a moment to spare. Everything goes by so quickly it can feel as if it’s passing without any weight behind it or thought invested. But my feeling is that this breathtaking pace, this poetry in flight is in fact what makes this film such an original achievement: a lyrical epic of images that are hyperreal in their immediacy and all the more ephemeral for it. And with its deep sense of fatalism – “I have a feeling my time is up, Johnny” – the whole thing has a vaguely Homeric quality. I think there’s real commitment here, but it’s just expressed with a finely spare and ruthless rigour that loses the flourishes and moments of introspection we find in earlier Mann works. There’s no time to waste.

  • Great post, Edo, very persuasive. I think I will now need to see this intriguing and elusive film again! (With my ear right to the theatre speakers, next time!!)

  • Gregg Rickman

    Long time reader, first time poster.
    Cycling back to early Stevens, our genial host (who has praised William Seiter in previous threads) may be interested in my opinion that Seiter’s Wheeler & Woolsey comedies, CAUGHT PLASTERED, PEACH O’RENO, GIRL CRAZY and DIPLOMANIACS, are superior to Stevens’ two films with the duo, KENTUCKY KERNELS and THE NITWITS, despite (or perhaps because) Stevens’ attempts to inject some visual style into the proceedings (as with THE NITWITS’ fogbound opening). This opinion must be qualified by the fact that Stevens’ two W&Ws are post-Production Code, and more so than most comedians Wheeler & Woolsey thrived in pre-Code conditions. Moreover Stevens’ two films are much better than any of the teams’ subsequent films, as RKO seems to have given up on them after 1935 (for more on all of this, see Ed Watz’s excellent book on the team). Nonetheless Seiter’s relaxed style seems better suited to their brand of comedy than Stevens’ relative heavy-handedness. Barry Putterman’s comments on Stevens and McCarey’s roots in the same school are quite apt; I think it was Robin Wood who pointed out how Laurel & Hardy inflect both MY SON JOHN and RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS. (Viewing recent DVD excavations of silent Charley Chase films will help viewers connect the dots between those films and a comedy like THE AWFUL TRUTH.) Seiter (and many others, including Howard Hawks) worked in silent comedy as well, and absorbed its rhythms. I will further agree with Brian Dauth that SWING TIME is lesser Astaire & Rogers, due in part to Stevens’ leaden pacing. (Of course Seiter directed that RKO team as well). Not to deny that Stevens made some good to excellent films over the years, however, when his style suited the material (PENNY SERENADE, I REMEMBER MAMA, SHANE).
    Good luck in getting a Wheeler & Woolsey boxed set, however.

  • Alex Hicks

    I don’t see why John Dos Passos’ script from Pierre Louys’ “La femme et le pantin” should be regarded as less an a very good one for Von Sternberg’s Purposes in “The Devil is a Woman. The novel, which also inspired Duvivier’s “La femme et le pantin” (1959) and Luis Buñuel’s “ Cet obscur objet du désir” (1977) strikes me as no less a perfect narrative scaffolding for von Sternberg’s obsession with female destruction of high presumptuously high status male predators than Heinrich Mann’s “Professor Unrat” did for “Bluer Ange” or than Frank Wedekind’s “Erdgeist” and “Die Büchse der Pandora” did for Pabsts “Lulu”). Likewise, the script for “Blond Venus,” such as it can be adduced from the film strikes me as a perfect narrative scaffolding for the more benign form of masochistic submission before female powers Von Sternberg expresses in “Venus” (and that Studlar explicates in her masterful “In the realm of Pleasure”). Perhaps, my use of merely “good” script was too vague. In any case, an overall, conceptualizations and story lines, complete with apt and compelling protagonist developments, for Von stern berg’s painting with light seem to me to have been available for the von Sternberg films, unlike “Public Enemies.”
    Such macro structure might have helped Mann connect his mini digital portraitures into some persuasive delineation of a coherent, developing character in the world. That evocative psychological miniaturism will particularly tend to cohere biographical acumen or even a sense of personality dynamics beyond the moment seems entirely farfetched to me.

    (On the other hand, the film’s moments do engage one enough to attract a second viewing and instill some hope that, it may then better cohere, if only as one of those venture in which one is led (and unlike in “Marienbad”) enabled to construct a fabula from filigree that have not proved to be about nothing.)

    The Mann of “Public Enemies” looks to me like a jazz musician trying to jam without his fake book, like Coltrane with a tune to play off.
    Larry Karts’ observations about “Public Enemies” underlying semi-void and Warren Oates’ Dillinger seem to me most apropos.

    For digital experimenation that not only impresses but –that though not half as pretty as Mann’s– clearly works, I refer folks to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

  • Larry Kart

    Adrian writes: “its two major contextual storylines (the corporatization of the mafia, the birth of the FBI) …”

    “…the ‘pathos of the photographic’ in Mann – gets major treatment in the final 2 major scenes of PUBLIC ENEMIES (Dilinger in the cop shop, then his death at the cinema)…”

    Edo writes: “During my second viewing, I found the scene in which the beefcake FBI agent tortures Billie Frechette to be incredibly effective. Mann’s emphasis on the fragility of Marion’s figure echoes a similar scene in MIAMI VICE – the capture and torture of Trudy by Aryan Brotherhood. I believe I recall an interview where Mann testified to the fact that the resonance with Abu Graib was indeed intentional in the case of the more recent film. So I find it pretty difficult to read the scene as constituting anything less than a grave condemnation of American torture.”

    Well, yes, to all three of those points, except that you seem to find them fresh and subtle when they might well be characterized as long-familar, stale, and obvious. I’m no film historian, but certainly a fair percentage of ’30s gangster films find the protagonist concerned with his public image and its visual-media representations, likewise with the lone-wolf versus corporatization theme. As for the Abu Graib link in the torture scene: first, this stance echoes one taken in countless op-ed pieces and editorials by now; second, by making the torturer both the most oafishly beefy and guilty member of the G-Men crew (Billie tells him that he could have nabbed Dillinger when they nabbed her if hadn’t been afraid and had had his wits about him), the script provides this G-Man with an essentially personal, shame- and rage-driven motive for his brutality and allows other cooler G-Men figures to distance themselves from him and condemn him. I know, there’s probably a fancy way to square the circle here; my main point is that the AG allusion, however one pushes it, isn’t integrated but a sore thumb appeal to those in the audience who are already securely righteous.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘while Mann’s films may not be “political” in the manner of a Godard or Jia Zhang-ke, I don’t think we should extend this fact into an assertion that they lack a “political point of view” toward the events they depict.’

    I agree about that Edo. I am glad you said something good about MMIAMI VICE. This movie has political theme of corrupt global capitalism, may have been more important in original screenplay, explaining how Columbian gangsters obtained CIA equipment and who was Washington DC collaborator. Also was showing gangsters trading consumer goods and drugs, and showing Cuba as place of refuge from US security state and capitalist gangsters both, movie is having political opinion.

  • Thanks for your observations, Gregg Rickman. I hope you’ll be sticking around. Perhaps the slow-burn style that Stevens (presumably) acquired while working as a cinematographer on the Laurel and Hardy shorts, often under McCarey’s direction, was simply unsuited to the freneticism of Wheeler and Woolsey; if Seiter is able to get much more out of them (in “Peach O’Reno” in particular) it may be because he was able to see them less as cartoon figures and more as characters worthy of exploration (something Seiter brings off brilliantly in films like the Zasu Pitts vehicle “Sing and Like It”). On the other hand, Stevens’ deliberate approach works nicely with the slow-motion Stuart Erwin character in his first feature, “Bachelor Bait.” I’d be curious to hear from Jim Niebaur or any of our other specialists in two-reel comedy what impressions they have of “The Boyfriends,” the short-lived Hal Roach series that marked Stevens’s actual debut as a director. I don’t believe I’ve ever come across any of these shorts, though surely they exist.

  • Alex Hicks

    Do such components of Mann’s “political point of view” a conception of “Cuba as place of refuge from US security state and capitalist gangsters” make positive, rather than negative, contributions to such “political point of view” as Mann may have?

  • Gregg Rickman

    You are most welcome, Mr. Kehr. Here is Ed Watz (in his WHEELER & WOOLSEY, McFarland, 1994, p. 125) on Seiter’s W&W films: “He brought the gentler side of their personalities to the fore, giving their roles greater depth while simultaneously integrating comedy routines into the story line.” You perceived the same, presumably without having read Watz’s invaluable book. FYI Seiter’s GIRL CRAZY is often criticized for jettisoning most of the great Gershwin score from the original stage production, but that came about when David O. Selznick took charge of RKO and ordered $200,000 worth of retakes under the direction of Norman Taurog. Those numbers are pretty bad, but then (as you mentioned in a Times piece on Elvis Presley films) Taurog was one silent comedy veteran who did not age well. Seiter’s musical numbers in PEACH O’RENO (and his parody of Lubitsch’s Parisian musicals in DIPLOMANIACS) are spot on.
    I would add that Seiter’s DIPLOMANIACS and McCarey’s DUCK SOUP have similar settings and were developed at the same time (advantage McCarey, though!).
    TCM has broadcast several of the “Boyfriends” series – they suit Stevens’ style and at their best have something in common (with more gags) to the small town, yearning youth atmosphere of ALICE ADAMS.

  • Alex Hicks

    Gregg Rickman, I’m sure that there is even more than the usual room for differences in tatse when it comes to a film like “Swing Time” as taste for which in part depends on a taste for a certain kind of delight.

    Still, at a cinephilic level i do recal that a ong the numerous and welviewed cohiotrts of film viewers in Film society, studies and joutnal cirtcles in the mid-1970 “Swing Time” was famed as a film with a high number of fans who’d seen it many times (e.g., 15). (At the pop end “Swing Time” ranks with “Top Hat” –at 7.7– as the most highly rated Fred and Ginger movie.) Maybe it’s more the combination of Fred and Ginger, Jerome Kern’s great score, the film’s Able cinematography, and scenarioist Alan Scott than it is whatever Stevens brought to the film, but I’d say the product shines.

    Thanks for the Wheeler & Woolsey revelations.

  • Alex Hicks

    Ugh! That very garbled stretch should have been “…among the populous and well viewed cohorts of film viewers in film societies, Film studies and film journal circles at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-1970s….”

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘a conception of “Cuba as place of refuge from US security state and capitalist gangsters” make positive, rather than negative, contributions to such “political point of view” as Mann may have?’

    It is negative view of capitalism, becuase capitalist busines is like gangster, and American security state is collaborating. Cuba is alternative to that. It is not described, just one scene in Cuba of people at driniking stand on beach is contrast to other scenes of interiors that is dark, cramped, dirty, or too kinetic at nightclub in beginning where violence happens.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex Hicks – No one is wrong to like SWING TIME! I like it myself. I just prefer GAY DIVORCEE, TOP HAT and (heretically) FOLLOW THE FLEET (all directed by Mark Sandrich), as well as (also heretically) THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE (H.C. Potter). Potter does a nice job with the latter’s very appealing autumnal quality of nostalgia. I do like SWING TIME better than SHALL WE DANCE and CAREFREE (Sandrich), which suffer from script problems, as well as Thornton Freeland’s FLYING DOWN TO RIO. I haven’t seen Seiter’s ROBERTA in years, so won’t pass judgment.
    Sandrich is a markedly underrated director, despite his signature on at least two recognized classics. He directed the two best Wheeler & Woolseys (HIPS, HIPS, HOORAY! and COCKEYED CAVALIERS) just before he directed the two best Astaire & Rogers films, so he clearly had something on the ball.
    The A&R films are collective texts, with many authors. Astaire himself is an author of the series, both in his persona, his singing voice, and of course in his meticulous control of the dances and how they were shot. Then there is Hermes Pan’s choreography, the splendid scores for the series by Kern, the Gershwins and others, and Ginger Rogers’ emerging persona. Allan Scott wrote/co-wrote ROBERTA, TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET, SWING TIME, SHALL WE DANCE and CAREFREE so his (literal) authorship cuts across all of the A&R series at RKO. (He also wrote two outstanding LaCavas, 5TH AVE GIRL and PRIMROSE PATH, as well as other interesting films including THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR T and the 1959 IMITATION OF LIFE, so he is clearly a subject for further research.)
    This site is however dedicated to investigating directorial inspiration. What Stevens brings to SWING TIME is his somewhat stately style, embodied in Victor Moore’s slow-motion stammer of a performance, as opposed to Sandrich’s indulgence of character actors like Horton, Blore, Broderick, Erik Rhodes et al. Stevens’ slow motion humor, derived most obviously from his apprenticeship at Roach, works at times in this film, although you can always see the wheels turning as it does in say the toast sequence of WOMAN OF THE YEAR.
    In terms of a politique, I (and perhaps others on this site) would value McCarey > Sandrich > Seiter > Stevens > Taurog, at least in terms of 1930s/1940s comedies and musicals. As Stevens was an A-list director of obvious moral intent in the post-war era this seems audacious to some, but doesn’t to me mean that Stevens was a bad director or even overrated. His flaws include heavy-handedness in both his ponderous style and in his underlining of intentions (as in Tracy’s denouncing of Hepburn’s character in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, so much more painful than the equivalent scenes in Cukor’s PHILADELPHIA STORY). In terms of lightness of touch, Stevens makes Capra look like Lubitsch.
    Footnote: Thirty seconds of restored trailer for Seiter’s lost HAPPINESS AHEAD (a 1928 Colleen Moore film) was screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival yesterday – it looked somewhat more melodramatic than other Moores I have seen.

  • edo

    “first, this stance echoes one taken in countless op-ed pieces and editorials by now; second, by making the torturer both the most oafishly beefy and guilty member of the G-Men crew (Billie tells him that he could have nabbed Dillinger when they nabbed her if hadn’t been afraid and had had his wits about him), the script provides this G-Man with an essentially personal, shame- and rage-driven motive for his brutality and allows other cooler G-Men figures to distance themselves from him and condemn him. I know, there’s probably a fancy way to square the circle here; my main point is that the AG allusion, however one pushes it, isn’t integrated but a sore thumb appeal to those in the audience who are already securely righteous.”

    Larry, it’s difficult to debate your points, because of the way you frame them, which figures your interpretation as empirical fact and brackets any interpretation alternative to yours as inherently invalid and, you suggest, even dishonest. You say that this scene is unequivocally a “sore-thumb appeal”, and to call it anything else would be putting a “spin” on it or “a fancy way to square the circle”. So, if I understand you correctly, no matter how anyone else interprets this scene your interpretation is the correct one, yes? Because your interpretation is not an interpretation it is fact, yes?

    I’m sorry, but no. The parallels to op-ed columns and the use of caricature in that scene, both of which I readily acknowledge are there, do not amount to the effect you describe without an act of interpretation framing them in the way you have.

    In the case of the op-ed connection, the parallels are, I think, just that, parallels, but they do not suggest simply by their presence that Mann constructed them deliberately to “appeal” to an audience. They could just as well be their incidentally, and/or in the service of a different purpose more integral to the specific construction of the film (this is of course my view). So it seems to me that you’re no less putting a “spin” on it. It takes your interpretation of these parallels to create a reality where Mann is designedly invoking liberal sentiments that his audience will eat up.

    In the case of the latter, the use of caricature, I believe I can show this to have a place in the structure of the film that is more integral than you think. I too came away from my first viewing thinking it stuck out and was not well enough justified to constitute a statement of earnest conviction. But during my second viewing, it was easier to see how the character fit into the greater whole. First of all, he doesn’t just come out of the blue. He is not given to be isolated, as you say, from the other FBI agents, rather he is viewed as one among a number of iterations of Hoover’s inexperienced men of quality who are perennially screwing up over the course of the film. In essence, he represents the worst of an already bad crop. Thus, his particular brutality and wantonness is connected to a lack of skill, training, and most importantly of discipline that defines the group as a whole, and thus connects back to Hoover’s favoring of surface over depth.

    Often in films we find figurations of this kind that express the extreme end of a spectrum. This brute is a point where the tendencies linked to the whole bureau achieve a certain saturation. It is more economical and expressive for a film such as this one to deal in metonymy in this way. The most disturbing quality of this figure of the brute coward is that he is never punished or reprimanded. He is humiliated, yes, but otherwise his position within the bureau is maintained. This constitutes a lacuna, a lack of resolution in the plot that whether deliberate or not I find very unsettling in a positive sense. I think the presence of such lacunae constitute one of the film’s great strengths as well as one of its most intriguing idiosyncracies.

    Here, Mann’s political point of view is expressed in a precisely felt sense of ambivalence toward law enforcement and the compromises it ends up making that crystallizes on the face of Bale’s Purvis. The work of the bureau is shown as a corporate and dehumanizing enterprise that takes its toll on this genteel young man. When Dillinger says, “You ought to find another line of work, Melvin”, Purvis seems to almost wince at this before exiting the frame. And of course the title card suggests how it all came to an end for him.

    As I said, I see Mann’s approach as fundamentally humanist in this light. There is no structural critique of the bureau, but instead reveals the way the half-defined structure exerts pressure upon individuals (on Purvis, on the brute coward). Mann condemns the brute for his cowardice, but in showing him returned to his place within the team at the film’s finale, he also implicitly condemns the atmosphere and the mandates that have allowed it to fester. And he shows how these also destroy Melvin Purvis.

    At the end of the film, just before the coda, Melvin departs from the site of the assassination to phone headquarters in Washington that the mission has been accomplished. It is not he, but Winstead who will communicate Dillinger’s last words to Billie. The old-fashioned gunman will make a personal report, while Purvis, the instrument of the new federal police force will make an investigative report, that which will go recorded in the archives of a political institution. The historical Dillinger’s last words are unknown. But for Mann the whole point of this film has been to divine what Dillinger must have been thinking in that cinema just moments before his death. To know exactly what was going on inside his head in his last moments. There must have been something in those last dying breaths. The question for Mann: how to personalize this moment in history? How to make it human? The official discourse of the FBI must not have the last word. We cannot let it erase Dillinger as it has already erased Purvis (Mann has expressed his fascination in interviews with how Hoover purged all information on Purvis after his departure from the bureau). It is here that we see a political point of view emerge. The transmission of a single phrase, “bye bye blackbird” is significant not in itself, but in its resistance to the network that has made the small form gesture all the more precious. When Winstead exits through that door in the film’s final shot, after making his gallant report, it reads to me very much like the nail in the coffin of that era, the modern age thus begins.

  • Larry Kart

    Edo — I’m sorry if my tone suggested that I was presenting my interpretation as empirical fact, and I thank you for providing an alternate interpretation that certainly is, at the very least, logical and internally consistent. I agree that the brute agent is not isolated from the others; what I should have said is that at certain points (as in the scene we’ve been talking about) they need or chose to attempt to isolate themselves from (or make a show of isolating themselves from) him and his behavior — because his relative lack of control is expressive of the institutional forces that affect and control them all and that they chose not to ‘fess up to. Again, the parallel to AG is there
    — the need to characterize the literal torturers of AG as lower-level rogue elements within the military — but I don’t find that the film adds anything intriguingly idiosyncratic to this by now sadly characteristic bureaucratic pass-the-buckism.

    As for Winstead’s communication of Dillinger’s last words to Billie and your “for Mann the whole point of this film has been to divine what Dillinger must have been thinking in that cinema just moments before his death,” it may be a flaw on my part, but in all the film before that I never felt that Dillinger’s relationship to Billie had much specificity or weight to it. Thus I was left to choose between two alternate interpretations of that final scene: 1) that it as an essentially empty (as in inexpressive) “last chord” that was there because a last chord was required, or 2) more generously, that Winstead was relating Dillinger’s last words, but that those last words were what Mann’s Dillinger felt that his last words SHOULD be — that Dillinger was, in his final breath, speaking as a character in his own self-fashioned crime melodrama, and that his final gesture amounted to his ultimate submission to a network of fictions that was no less powerful and insidious, and as crucial to the shape of the modern age, as the official discourse of the FBI.

  • edo

    Thanks for the clarification, Larry.

    Perhaps the problem is how we’d be defining “idiosyncratic” in the case of the torture scenario and “specificity” and “weight” in the case of the romance. For me, because I have long been a proponent of Mann’s work, I see in both scenarios a consistency with Mann’s previous convictions that has extended itself beautifully in this newest iteration. So I care less whether the platitudes espoused are in themselves conventional within their broader cultural context, so much as whether I can sense Mann’s engagement and ethical commitment behind those platitudes. This is to say I don’t feel the idiosyncrasy or specificity of any one affect or characterization is in itself very interesting – any unique artistic statement can be flattened out by words. More often than not the root idiosyncrasy lies in the logic and ethic behind an esthetic choice, not in the choice itself, and that ethic constitutes the power we feel crystallized by the choice in our experience of the film. The reasoning has to be reconstructed and the gaps have to be filled in via interpretation, but if we’re syncing up with it the result is sublime.

    Sometimes a unique and idiosyncratic achievement can be recognized immediately because it’s so outrageous even within its context. I’d say this would be the case with a film like King Vidor’s THE FOUNTAIN HEAD or Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, and also with many of the late classic Hollywood masterpieces where Ford and co. all started delving deeply into their own hermetically sealed esthetic universes (e.g. DONOVAN’S REEF). But then you have works like Vidor’s THE BIG PARADE or THE CROWD, which are populist to their core. How do you defend that on the basis of the criteria you’re using? Of idiosyncrasy or specificity? Was Vidor’s mimed romance between France and America very idiosyncratic in its context? I don’t know the history of how it was received, but given that it is thought to have been perhaps the highest grossing film of the twenties, I doubt it was perceived that way. Both these films seem pretty universal in their schmaltziness to me. And yet at the same time they which stand not discordantly alongside THE FOUTAIN HEAD within Vidor’s oeuvre, and they’re all three of them masterpieces to my mind. The three represent different iterations of a unique understanding of mad love, Vidor’s understanding, at different points in its development, and therein lies the specificity and idiosyncrasy of this understanding, in the minutiae of the execution and how these form a structure.

    Mann’s films are often figured to be compromised by their aura of Hollywood prestige, and consequently I feel that many have identified frissons and sentiments that are very much his own as symptoms of a certain kind of boilerplate rhetoric endemic to contemporary Hollywood product. And many shot similar accusations at Fincher’s BENJAMIN BUTTON. These accusations have had the effect of rendering invalid a more sustained look at these works, because they are so dismissive from the outset. If we assume that every nicety on screen was the result of Mann or Fincher letting themselves be ruled by canny commercial instincts in making their esthetic choices, then certainly it will seem like that, especially when the kind of films they are making do not distinguish themselves obviously enough from their contemporaries. Neither of them has yet to make a film like THE FOUTAIN HEAD (I don’t think sensationalisms a la SEVEN and FIGHT CLUB qualify). To some eyes, there’s consequently no difference between BENJAMIN BUTTON and FOREST GUMP. It’s just more of the same. And there’s no difference between AMERICAN GANGSTER and PUBLIC ENEMIES.

    So all I can say in response to your reservations is that to me there’s a world of difference and I encourage you take another look. With regard to the specificity of the romance, I offer these incites in the event that you do see the film again: Mann has always been interested in connection as collision. There’s a force of gravity that brings his lovers together and that works much differently from the intuition of sexual destiny that we find in those of someone like Vidor. For Mann this gravity is the result of the specific psychological reverberations of their personal histories. They are made for each other, because their personal experiences have produced the right psychological circumstances for them to click. I know of no better characterization of this process in Mann’s work than in Ebert’s recent review of PUBLIC ENEMIES:

    “This is very disciplined film. You might not think it was possible to make a film about the most famous outlaw of the 1930s without clichés and “star chemistry” and a film class screenplay structure, but Mann does it. He is particular about the way he presents Dillinger and Billie. He sees him and her. Not them. They are never a couple. They are their needs. She needs to be protected, because she is so vulnerable. He needs someone to protect, in order to affirm his invincibility.”

    These relationships, based on need and fantasy, are at the heart of Mann’s cinema: Neil and Eady in HEAT, Max and Annie in COLLATERAL, Muhammad and all his wives in ALI, Isabella and Crockett in MIAMI VICE. For me, the romance between Billie and Dillinger is perhaps Mann’s most purely expressed. All the fat has been stripped away, and, for their few scenes together, we just have these very beautiful plays on the simple shot-reverse shot construction. I don’t see this as Alex Hicks does – Mann playing with faces without a playbook. They are too precisely interwoven and contrasted with the two-pronged quickening of the noose that is represented by the FBI and the Mafia. Billie and Dillinger have no time, and this is why to me that last scene bares so much weight.

  • Alex Hicks

    Junko, I think our views of the U.S. overlap a lot more than our views of Cuba, though Cuba does have damn fine medical and sports systems.

    Gregg Rickman – No one is wrong to like PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE GAY DIVORCEE, TOP HAT, or FOLLOW THE FLEET more than SWING TIME, though the first does pose unpleasantly close competition (even with the assitance of Kerome Kern).

  • Alex Hicks

    Drats! “…even withOUT the assiSance of Kerome Kern.”

  • Larry Kart

    Hi Edo — Just to be clear, I’m enjoying this. I like to learn things I don’t already know.

    “But then you have works like Vidor’s THE BIG PARADE or THE CROWD, which are populist to their core. How do you defend that on the basis of the criteria you’re using? Of idiosyncrasy or specificity?”

    Because works that are populist to the core don’t always, and don’t always need to, work that way? Likewise, perhaps, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (probably one of my ten favorite films) is more or less a myth — its power and truths operate in a world of elemental types and primal emotional tides, however quirky, not one of psychological realism. The same would go for SUNRISE.

    “These relationships, based on need and fantasy, are at the heart of Mann’s cinema: Neil and Eady in HEAT…”

    I agree, the Neil and Eady relationship was a corker — tremendous engulfing torque to it, never questioned its power and inevitibility for a moment, was just swept along. Billie and Dillinger not very much, at least for me. Perhaps, for my tastes, too much “fat” had been stripped away there versus the marvelous rhymes (in literal physicality and, so it seemed, nerve endings) between the two performers in HEAT.

    “Mann’s films are often figured to be compromised by their aura of Hollywood prestige, and consequently I feel that many have identified frissons and sentiments that are very much his own as symptoms of a certain kind of boilerplate rhetoric endemic to contemporary Hollywood product. And many shot similar accusations at Fincher’s BENJAMIN BUTTON.”

    I was a great admirer of BENJAMIN BUTTON, though I certainly understand your uneasiness about how readily a certain kind of “you can’t fool me” viewer is on the lookout for boilerplate commerical rhetoric at all costs. I hope I’m not that kind of person.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex, I think you mean Jerome Kern. I love him, Berlin and the Gershwins too, but is there any love here for Dorothy Fields? She wrote the great lyrics for SWING TIME’s score, as well as lyrics used in ROBERTA and even THE NITWITS! (And a lot else.)

    Regarding Edo’s comments on King Vidor, Vidor (like George Stevens) was a morally earnest filmmaker within the classical Hollywood tradition. I’ve seen his early silents, such as THE JACK KNIFE MAN and THE SKY PILOT, and unlike many filmmakers he did not grow into his convictions (per World War II’s reputed impact on Stevens). His boldness in stating his point makes him at times seem highly idiosyncratic, whether the film has overt social commentary (eg THE CROWD, THE FOUNTAINHEAD) or is “merely” a melodrama of domestic spaces (BEYOND THE FOREST, JAPANESE WAR BRIDE, RUBY GENTRY). I am presently reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and can see why Vidor was drawn to filming it; I look forward to re-seeing Vidor’s film upon completing the book.

    Regarding Stevens: In SHANE, the sudden barbaric murder of Elisha Cook Jr.’s character at the hands of Jack Palance is at the root of the entire Italian western tradition (or so I understand Leone once said). It’s a good film about hero worship (Brandon DeWilde’s of Alan Ladd, paralleling Jean Arthur’s attraction to him) versus the duty of daily life (as exemplified by Van Heflin’s stable husband and father). (Duty seems to be a major theme in Stevens – he was indeed morally earnest before the War. See for example the parents in PENNY SERENADE, or the nurses in VIGIL IN THE NIGHT. As I’ve mentioned, Stevens gets into trouble when we are lectured about just what a character’s duty is, as in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, when Hepburn is told how to be a real woman. Vidor, as I recall, does not lecture unless the screenwriter insists – as in THE FOUNTAINHEAD.) In SHANE, Ladd’s dilemma is well focused in the excellent screenplay by A. B. Guthrie Jr. in a way Rand’s script for THE FOUNTAINHEAD could have learned from.

    Stevens as visual filmmaker – In SHANE Stevens and cinematographer Loyal Griggs (what a wonderful name!) situate De Wilde’s magical child in a wilderness landscape so that he seems like an alien on Mars – which lends this Wyoming valley an Edenic nature. (The film is so much more visually interesting than that other influential super-western of the early 1950s, HIGH NOON, that it’s not even funny.) Stevens seems to be aiming at creating a parable (as in other of his late films), which marks a different approach to the source material than we see in other films. SHANE was inspired by the same range war in Wyoming from which HEAVENS GATE was drawn, if I’m not mistaken. Robin Wood and this site’s Tony Williams are on record as praising Cimino’s film; I don’t recall if they think a cross-comparison with SHANE would be useful. Both films are didactic (with lessons drawn out for us) in ways a range-war western like, say, Vidor’s MAN WITHOUT A STAR or THE FURIES (by that other Mann, Anthony) is not.

    I would be curious as to what this site’s several critics of Method acting (particularly as exemplified by Marlon Brando) think of Clift’s performance in A PLACE IN THE SUN and, especially, Dean’s in GIANT. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the latter. While I recall Dean was good as the young Jett Rink (a role paralleling his work for Kazan and Ray), it was embarrassing to watch him moving out of his comfort zone as the old Jett. Is this Stevens’ failure, Dean’s, or the Method’s? Generally, Stevens seems to consistently tone down his players (compare Carole Lombard in VIGIL with her work around the same time for LaCava or Hawks; Jimmy Stewart in PENNY SERENADE versus his contemporaneous work for Capra; Cook and Emile Meyer in SHANE versus their work for Kubrick in THE KILLING and PATHS OF GLORY, respectively). Dean is a conspicuous exception.

    Finally, Vidor’s until recently lost film BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT, an entertaining swashbuckler, was screened at the SF Silent Film Festival yesterday. It’s also out on DVD this week (Dave?). It features some interesting overhead camera angles. I’m trying to recall if Vidor used them in some of his other films. Mike Grost might be able to list them all.

  • dm494

    Gregg, I revisited GIANT recently and your memory of Dean’s performance isn’t too different from my impression. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the performance embarassing, but Dean does seem uncomfortable and uncertain playing the older Jett, and his mumbling comes off as the limitation of a mannered actor who isn’t working from a clear idea of his character.

    Count me in on the visual impressiveness of SHANE–the rotogravure color works beautifully, and Stevens knows that 1.33 lends itself well to conveying awesome height in landscape shots.

    What I’m curious about is what exactly led Stevens to the obsession with dissolves and the high amount of coverage which distinguish his later work visually (everyone seems agreed that, rhythmically, he was always consistent, a slow, heavy filmmaker).

  • jbryant

    Gregg: Jimmy Stewart worked for Stevens in VIVACIOUS LADY, not PENNY SERENADE (which was Cary Grant). Good point about the “toning down” of Stevens’ players. Maybe that’s why he also worked well with actors who didn’t typically need toning down, like Joel McCrea and Alan Ladd.

    dm: If I’m not mistaken, some of Dean’s lines in GIANT had to be looped by Nick Adams after Dean’s death, including the drunk scene of the older Jett. So at least some of the mumbling may not be Dean’s own, for what that’s worth.

  • Alex Hicks

    Gregg, I think Kern’s songs and music from SWING TIME much surpass any others written for F&G;
    Agree will all you say about the fine Shane except, perhaps, what seems like praise for the Joey/DeWilde role/performance.
    Don’t get the deliberation/precalculation criticism of Stevens, at least as present presented at this thread. Who was more deliberate than Hitchcock, and what has that inspired or merited but praise? Ditto for the ponderous style criticism that is at least over generalized what is more nimble than GUNGA DIN (or more graceful than SWING TIME)? I can see that the criticism fits some Stevens film, but mainly latter ones like MAMA, SUN and GIANT (in which Dean’s performance has always struck me as even more ungainly than most of the rest of this monstrosity). “Slow” is another matter, but, I thnk, an aeasthetically neutral term.

    Vidor’s great WAR AND PEACE, captures the main narrative events and lines of W&P with a miraculous degree of comprehensiveness and true elegance, though in truth the novel’s narrative — essay-like digressions on War, Napoleon, the Russian, Peasant Christianity, and the like, aside– is not as elaborate as reputed, is more a 700 page than a 1300 page one. (The film does suffer from some for its multitude of accents.)

  • I’ve been staying out of this fascinating discussion, because I’ve never made any systematic study of Vidor or Stevens. These talented directors need such study, to put it mildly.

    I’ve always enjoyed GIANT, and found A PLACE IN THE SUN one of Steven’s least appealling movies. Do not understand why people like Montgomery Clift so much.
    James Dean in GIANT is a special case. The world of GIANT is like a monstrous macho machine, that threatens to take over and crush outsiders, whether they are of the “wrong” class, gender or race. The sister (Mercedes McCambtridge) gets destroyed right away. By contrast, the wife (Taylor) stays and fights for feminism and a place for women to be equal in this constricting world. Dean shows what a non-conformist might be like here, responding to this juggernaut. The sheer weirdness of his character helps the story: The odder he is, the more he becomes a “real non-conformist”. Dean’s ever-stranger preformance actually helps establish him as a non-conformist. He becomes more and more “different” from conformist characters – and that’s a good thing! I’m not justifying his weird performance as “good acting” in the conventional sense. But it helps establish his character as someone who marches to a different drummer.

  • dm494

    JBryant, the looping would explain a lot. Still, I wonder why those scenes needed looping in the first place.

  • jbryant

    Yeah, dm, I was gonna suggest that the looping could’ve been necessitated by Dean’s mumbling in the first place, but it was after 3:00 a.m. and I was losing my ability to form coherent thoughts.

  • Alex Hicks

    Mike Grost, I like your point about a “monstrous macho machine,” but for one of these I’ll re-view “Written on the Wind” any time that alternative is “Giant.”

    On Clift, did Hollywood ever have a better person to fill the rather core narrative role of the the sensitive, beleaguered, conflicted and generally (if not always triumpant) brave young man than it found with him? From Here to Eternity, The Search, A Place in the Sun, Red River and Wild River all seem to me seem like great and rather varied work in that archtypal role. A nice counterpoint to Hollywood’s typically rather brash leads like Gable and Wayne.

    Sure, there were Cooper and Stewart and Peck, but they were rather more apart, I think, from Everyman than Clift, for whom sensitivity could spell pain (or death).
    Of course, we got brashness and vulnerability with Lancaster (and, sometimes, Brando). What a pairing with Clift in “Eternity”! (A fine comeback for Zinnemann from the high-minded mythic hockum of “High Noon.”)

  • Gregg Rickman

    Thanks all for the comments (and the correction). Mike Grost, your defense of Dean’s performance in GIANT is intriguing and I will keep it in mind when I eventually see the film again. Alex, I do like Brandon De Wilde’s magical child performance in SHANE, and consider it a unique strength of the film. Plenty of other great westerns also have outstanding screenplays and sensitively written and played female roles, but there’s only one Joey. (Of course there are other good child performances in westerns, but De Wilde is as I say one of a kind.) I like dm’s comments on the visual beauty of SHANE. Does anyone have an opinion on the quality of the available DVD of the film? It appears to have been issued in 2000. I’ve seen a beautiful 35mm print of the film a couple of times, but my last viewings were of a muddy laser disc, and a muddy print on cable.

    Alex, it’s true that SWING TIME has no less than four great numbers – “Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance” and “Never Gonna Dance,” but what about the equally great numbers in TOP HAT (“It’s a Lovely Day,” “Top Hat” and “Cheek to Cheek”) or SHALL WE DANCE (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “They All Laughed”)? “I’d hate to have to live on the difference” as Howard Hawks would have it.

  • Alex Hicks

    Greeg, I never used to mind Brandon De Wilde’s performance, but college students HATE it to the point of having trouble with the whole film, rather than “magical” (which doesn;t resonant with me) they find it profoundlly annoying — and on this one I’ve been coming aroun tho this view.

    The SHANE DVD is Okay, though it’s a film for right, crisp 35MM.

    Don’t think I’m presuadable on SWING TIME as, for me it’s a repeatable ecstatic experience in it’s own Hollywood way up there with the likes of , say, “Sweet heart Susie” or “L’ Atalante” or “Red Shoes,” or steping down a bit “Easy Living,” “The Aweful Truth” or “Palm Beach Story”– indeed focus of a cult of sorts to which I am long privy.

  • edo

    Larry, sorry for the tardy response. It took me a while to write this, and I had to do so in intermittent stretches. Anyway, I hope you see it!

    Also, Dave, my apologies for flooding your thread with very long posts about a filmmaker I know you don’t particularly like. I hope you don’t feel this has been too much of an imposition. At least this will be the last post I will be making on the subject on this thread. And I’ll try to keep the replies shorter if there’s a next time.

    Larry wrote: “Because works that are populist to the core don’t always, and don’t always need to, work that way? Likewise, perhaps, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (probably one of my ten favorite films) is more or less a myth — its power and truths operate in a world of elemental types and primal emotional tides, however quirky, not one of psychological realism. The same would go for SUNRISE.”

    Larry, I agree with these points, but hence the specific examples – THE CROWD and THE BIG PARADE – which I think are populist works that do “work that way”. They’re also super great films, but what I’m suggesting is the idiosyncrasies behind their style are a lot less readily apparent than those of, say, THE FOUNTAINHEAD, if we’re defining idiosyncrasy according to how much a film lines up with, or diverges from, a contemporary popular ethos working through conventions of cinematic form. My feeling is that Vidor was much in sync with the ethos of his time, of the roaring twenties. He had a good read on the pulse of the nation. I mean this quite literally, because both films seem to have been spun directly from the everyday rhythms and rituals of contemporary American life. And they were both extraordinarily successful. I wager that this had something to do with the extent to which their subject matter and approach embodied a certain weltanschauung.

    While certainly THE FOUNTAINHEAD also acts as a barometer for its time with its nightmarish atmosphere of postwar capitalist super-potency, I’m not sure it does in the same capacity as the silents, 1.) because the Randian ideology is expressed so staunchly, 2.) because Gary Cooper is inappropriately old for his role, and 3.) because the modernist designs that dominate its mise-en-scene affect a kind of vertiginous sense of imbalance that dominates the film. As an esthetic and ideological statement, it sticks out like a sore thumb even within its context.

    On a very superficial level, this is not true of MIAMI VICE or PUBLIC ENEMIES. I sense, even in some of Mann’s fans, a certain amount of ambivalence toward his achievements. For all their idiosyncrasy of style and narration, and their frustration of convention, on some level, these qualities, which seem so obvious to a handful of folks within the critical community, either don’t seem to register at all for others, or they don’t go far enough. It is rare that his films are seen as purely conventional or impersonal. People will acknowledge that he’s talented or serious, only to take him down a notch, with a “but he doesn’t fulfill…” So Mann’s films just don’t seem to satisfy on a certain level. They distinguish themselves but not quite in the sense many seem to hope they would. For instance, my friend Zach Campbell recently wrote on his blog:

    “Mann is a filmmaker operating on all cylinders, a massive presence, but what’s so maddening (and part of what’s also so fascinating) about him is how in some ways he’s one of the most fearless, intuitively gifted directors in the world, and in others he strikes me as a factory foreman, churning out stale conventions.”

    It is this kind of sentiment about Mann that puzzles me, because I actually haven’t ever felt this way about any of his films. Even those of his films I do find too tethered to convention (all the films leading up to and including HEAT) whenever I return to them my appreciation deepens for the care Mann has given to every level of their structure all in the interest of furthering the conflicts he wants to explore. Indeed, some have argued (see: recent articles by Matt Zoller Seitz and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky) that his most recent, and least conventional, works are in fact less fussily (which is not to say less carefully) constructed than his earlier works. In any event, when Mann’s films do make recourse to convention, it’s usually with a great deal of internal resistance and discord: the oppositional structures of both MAN HUNTER and HEAT are fascinating for how they end up consuming themselves, and Mann’s preferred shooting style creates a lot of explosive, unresolved tension in his continuity schemes.

    If Mann has weaknesses, and I think he does have them, I don’t think they have ever grown from a lack of conviction in his material. This notion that Mann compromises his personal investment in his projects by hedging his bets, resorting finally to the safe and canny commercial play, really does not hold water for me, because I see too many viable, interesting, and, to me, more meaningful explanations for almost every effect he employs on the screen.

    Many, for instance, have criticized COLLATERAL, MIAMI VICE, and PUBLIC ENEMIES for being so interested in formal experimentation that they have lacked, as you’ve put it, the “torque” of outings like HEAT or THE INSIDER (the two films most often held as his greatest), eschewing drama for play, and taking his work to a level of abstraction (from meaning) that leads to a certain nullity of esthetic, and thus human, values. Kent Jones has described this sort of phenomenon in contemporary film very well:

    “If you look at Philippe Grandieux’s movies, you can see the same urge towards abstraction of action. It’s a series of disconnected colors, gestures and movements, and it moves towards stasis. I don’t think Michael Bay thinks he does, but he gets into this weird vertiginous space too. It’s a common impulse in the arts, and it’s there in techno music. These things are real, not imagined. I’m not being cheeky or provocative. But you can’t get it mixed up with aesthetic value. Very commonly with criticism, people get value mixed up with novelty, novelty mixed up with provocation.”

    But it is my view that Mann cannot be so easily placed in this basket, and that in doing so we will have already affected a double mix-up of the very kind Kent would like to avoid. I think the tendency to see Mann’s work in the terms described above is more often than not a result of misplaced expectations.

    Since HEAT, Mann has drifted further and further away from a conventional build-up of character, favoring instead an in-media-res approach. Mann himself has cited DR. STRANGELOVE as an early inspiration, not for its technical wizardry (which is I think what most people would expect coming from Mann), but rather for the fact that, as he puts it, the film is entirely third-act. While he had already started heading in this direction in HEAT, it’s really in ALI and COLLATERAL where the tactic announces itself, and loudly. COLLATERAL is a film where all we must know about three people has to be revealed over the course of a single night. Mann’s obsession with pregnant moments, moments where all that a person was/is/is going to be collapse into a single frame (that’s a line in MIAMI VICE) is in COLLATERAL expressed so sharply that the film strikes me as almost a manifesto of sorts. The character of Vincent is some kind of masterpiece on Cruise and Mann’s part. Rather than show how he came to be, he is revealed in resistance to the environment around him. Soon we realize that his past is actually right there for us to see. Twitching across his face and quivering in every action he makes. Zach writes:

    “Despite my reservations about Public Enemies, I do think that criticisms about the film’s failure or decision not to “delve into” the psychologies of these people, these legends (a complaint voiced succinctly by the estimable Aaron Graham here, if I don’t misrepresent his case) miss the point. The subject matter, a fine dovetail with Mann in general, is about a certain superficiality, which is not to say a lack of artistic depth, but the location of that depth in all the spaces between people, people as apparitions moving around, or as nodes in, a network “in the air.” The figural dimensions of human beings in Mann are phantasmatic, mysterious, he doesn’t much strike me as a corporeal (or perhaps more precisely: a kinesthetic) filmmaker. These are not characters who have psychologies, they are psychologies. They are not bodies, they have bodies. Maybe.”

    This is perhaps the best description I have ever read of how we experience Mann’s characters, even in HEAT. But it is only in MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES that this sense becomes fully encoded in the specific qualities of Hi-definition itself. This constitutes a true discovery on Mann’s part. He is one of the first filmmakers to have endowed video with an esthetic value of such humanity.

    Finally, Zach points out how Mann “schmaltzes it up” with music in the last scene where the Bye Bye Blackbird token is invoked in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Whether he is referencing the second of two scenes where the actual Diana Krall rendition is cued, or the film’s coda, I’m not sure, but, whichever the case, Zach clearly finds the use of music to constitute another case of Mann hedging his bets and resorting to “cheap” sentiment, rather than letting his imagery take flight on its own. To me, it’s merely a reminder of the fact that Mann is and always has been a maker of high melodramas, which far from a limitation seems to me a true virtue in the age of films like BRUNO. Mann’s films want to be overwhelming, overpowering, and “engulfing” (which was nicely put, Larry). For me, PUBLIC ENEMIES is the film that clinches his stature, where before it I too still held certain reservations. But, and I mean this in all earnestness, risking disdain and condescension, I feel the fog will have to dissipate before this point of view is fully appreciated.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex, I know how you feel, for I also have repeatable ecstatic film experiences… among them a Fred Astaire film… THE BAND WAGON.

  • Alex Hicks

    THE BAND WAGON! Fine film. One of the best musicals. –But for “musical” ecstasy, I’ll take THE MERRY WIDOw, LOVE ME TONIGHT or that apotheosis of 50s mundanity called THE PAJAMA GAME (not to speak of SWING TIME).

    As regard estasy from non-musIcal sources, just got blown away by most unexcpectedly by the conclusion to Kiarostami’s LIFE AND NOTHING MORE.

  • Larry Kart

    Thanks for your post, Edo. I’ll watch some of the films again and think about what you’ve said.

  • lucian springer

    Visually speaking, I think this is a real achievement. For instance, in the muzzle flashes during the Bohemia Lodge sequence, Mann discovers an image as poetically resonant as the torches and oil lamps in SUNRISE. This is a movie that really immerses one in the ethos of its time period, and that’s really reflected in the way Mann’s meticulously recreated its lighting conditions.

    what does this “poetically” mean? so it is like kenneth koch? or dante? or moore? or rilke? or (yuck) ginsberg? or holderlin? or celan?

    which is it? i have never understood this recourse to the term “poetic”, or “musical” for its sake. poetry is as varied as film and the shorthand of “poetic” is such a simplistic term, acting as a simple reference that says nothing, that it does make one wonder, like what poetry indeed.

  • Jim Gerow

    Alex, I’m in total agreement with you on the breathtaking final shot of LIFE AND NOTHING MORE.

    Gregg, I saw 3 of the films at the SF Silent Film Festival, most memorably Griffith’s LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS. Such a departure from the standard reputation of Griffith as a stodgy Victorian, aided by Carl Struss’s fluid cinematography, William Cameron Menzies’ sets and a radiant performance by Lupe Velez. I missed Vidor’s BARDELYS but plan to catch up with it on DVD.

  • Blake Lucas

    Nice to hear that Jim. LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS is one of my three favorite Griffith features, after TRUE HEART SUSIE and BROKEN BLOSSOMS. It’s not shown nearly enough and few people know it. As you suggest, it’s partly special because it shows how wrong it is to type DWG. I hope it will have a DVD release someday (with the original song sung by Lupe Velez “Where is the Song of Songs for Me?” as an extra at least). I count myself very lucky to have seen it in original nitrates twice back in the day, the first time with the record of the song played to precede the film, which had a magical effect but it would be hard to explain it.

  • Jim Gerow

    Blake, at the festival screening, “Where Is the Song of Songs for Me?” and two other songs were sung live, which had a similarly magical effect on the audience.

  • Blake Lucas

    Sounds wonderful, Jim. I’m glad you could be there for that.

  • Mike Grost

    Molly Haskell’s book FROM REVERNCE TO RAPE: THE TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN THE MOVIES, argued the opposite: that women had more respect and better roles in the Bette Davis era, than in the 1970’s world of studs and bimbos.
    This is clearly a complex issue.
    One genuine advance since classical Hollywood, IMHO:
    TV shows like Cagney and Lacey (women cops) or LA Law 9women lawyers), started featuring women professional in jobs once largely restricted to men.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Jim, glad you could make it to the Silent Film Festival as well. Do you ever make it out to Niles? (Note to non-Californians: an isolated section of Fremont in the East Bay, where the Essanay Studios were located in the 1910s.) I think they are the last place in the US that shows silent films every single week.
    When I was in LA earlier this month I walked by the old Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax. Under their current management they seem to be showing campy films of the 1970s and 80s (I think they had posters up for some roller disco movies). I’m old enough to remember the Hampton regime of that time and all the great films they ran.

  • Jim Gerow

    Gregg, I’m a New Yorker who made the pilgrimage back to the Castro Theatre to attend the festival. I lived in San Francisco in the 90s but I was unfamiliar with Niles. A look at their upcoming programs shows Barrymore in The Tempest, Orphans of the Storm, Spies and numerous shorts. Definitely a cinephilic labor of love. Sad news about the Silent Movie Theater in LA.