Wednesday, October 17, 2007

#78: The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick, 1940, directed by Edward Cline, screenplay by W. C. Fields (credited as Mahatma Kane Jeeves, as in "M'hat, m'cane, Jeeves!").

In its rough outline, The Bank Dick sounds almost hard boiled. A misanthropic drunk with a miserable family life lies his way into a job as a bank security guard. Once there, he convinces a coworker (and son-in-law to-be) to embezzle money and invest it in a stock market scam. When an auditor shows up looking for the money, he collaborates with a sleazy bartender to poison the auditor to cover up the theft. Only that doesn't work out quite the way he planned it either. David Mamet could direct it. But odds are he wouldn't cast this man in the title role:

That's W. C. Fields swallowing a lit cigarette, an old vaudeville bit that's about as far from noir as you can get. In fact, it's about as far from narrative coherence as you can get; Fields never bothered much with structure or plot. The opening titles, for example, feature a safe door being blown open:

That's the last time you see that safe, hear anyone mention a safe, or see any explosives. That's par for the course; no one involved in the film gave a damn about telling a story. The movie exists just as an excuse for W. C. Fields to do his W. C. Fields thing: putter around drunk, get into trouble, and say and do morally reprehensible things. Fortunately, that's more than enough to keep me amused.

Fields plays an unemployed alcoholic named Egbert Sousé, (pronounced, as he continually reminds people, "sou-say, accent grave over the 'e.'") His only goal in life is to slowly drink himself to death, but he shares a house with his wife, mother-in-law, and two daughters, and they have other plans. Basically, their plans seem to involve sitting around the house doing crossword puzzles, but that doesn't mean they aren't disappointed at Egbert's failure to provide. And they express their disappointment... physically. Within the first five minutes of the film, Sousé's adorable youngest daughter gets adorably angry enough that she throws an adorable ketchup bottle at his head.

I lost count of the number of times Egbert gets hit in the head by a projectile in the course of the movie, but this is a representative still:

Fair enough. Fields does the typical comedy thing: letting out a bizarre, high pitched yelp of pain and staggering out the door. Very funny. But then he comes right back in and attempts to murder his daughter with a concrete vase:

And that's the real gag. A great deal of the pleasure of this film comes from moments when we underestimate the level of animosity Egbert has for everyone around him. Homer Simpson's character often works in much the same way (think of him strangling Bart), and as in "The Simpsons," The Bank Dick operates in a world where sloth, dipsomania, and mendacity are invariably rewarded. Actually, Egbert's world is more morally inverted than Homer's; on "The Simpsons," Homer usually has to learn some sort of lesson before an episode reaches a happy conclusion. But Egbert learns absolutely nothing.

The film is at its best when Egbert is treated with undeserved dignity, as in the scene where he lies his way into a job as a film director. He tells a desperate producer, "In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the rest of them... Nights, I used to tend bar." You can't really write about his timing in a way that makes that line as funny as it is when he delivers it, of course, but you can appreciate the way this sequence works from this still of production assistants carrying their director around like the maharaja:

Of course, Egbert's dignity never hangs around for very long, whether he's falling out of his chair:

or getting hit over the head by his daughter once again:

Shortly before being hit on the head, by the way, Fields explains to the movie's leads that he's changed the film slightly: "Instead of an English drawing room dray-ma... I've made it a circus picture." And then the plot he describes is not, in fact, a circus picture, but a sports movie. The Bank Dick never really goes anywhere from here. Sousé falls over backwards on top of a bank robber and tells everyone that he foiled the crook's escape deliberately. This gets him a job as a bank dick, but what he really wants is alcohol. Which, fittingly enough for a "dick," he prefers to get at an establishment he refers to several times as "The Black Pussy."

Most of the time, the movie only toys with violating the Hays Code (Sousé's curse of choice is "GOD-frey DAN-iels! MOTHER-of-pearl!"), but I was kind of amazed he got away with this one. The movie gets bogged down about halfway through when it starts to flirt with a plot. Sousé gets taken in by J. Frothingham Waterbury, the least convincing con artist in cinema history:

After convincing a coworker to invest $500 of the bank's money in the "Beefsteak Mines" shares Waterbury is selling, Sousé has to match wits with J. Pinkerton Snoopington, bank examiner, straight out of fuddy duddy central casting:

These parts of the film fell flat for me. And the final car chase struck me as tedious, although it does show a remarkable disregard for the safety of stuntmen:

Basically, every scene The Bank Dick spends advancing the plot is a scene wasted; I would have been happier with a movie called W. C. Fields Hangs Out In A Bar And Then Beats Up An Eight-Year-Old. All the moving-the-plot-along drudgery does pay off nicely in the end, however: Egbert is redeemed, not because he has learned a damn thing, or changed a bit, but because he finds himself filthy rich.

Most comedies from this time forgive a certain amount of anarchy at the beginning, but only because the worst impulses of the main characters are curbed. The genius of W. C. Fields, and his enduring appeal, lies in the fact that his characters continue to wallow in the muck; these are films where having a static main character is absolutely the right decision, Robert McKee be damned. The Bank Dick gives viewers what looks like a happy, if somewhat ridiculous ending; his mother in law, wife, and daughters all adore him (his daughter calls him pater noster!), and he no longer has to worry about losing the family home. But he's still a drunk with no interest in anyone around him. Fields really got something about the way we mistake wealth for character—the most cutting joke in the film comes as Egbert toddles off his estate to get drunk again. His family fondly watches him go.

"What a changed man. You deserve a lot of credit, Agatha," says his mother-in-law. "Hasn't been easy," his wife replies.


  • Fields loathed tourists and paparazzi more than Britney Spears and Sean Penn put together. He was known to hide in his front bushes and shoot unwanted gawkers with a BB gun.

  • I wonder if Martin Scorsese had this in the back of his mind when working on Taxi Driver. It has a scene that's kind of familiar, if much less creepy.

  • Russell Hicks, who played the con artist, had a phenomenally distinguished career as a character actor. He was in more than 300 movies, going all the way back to The Birth of a Nation.

  • No less distinguished was the actor who played the sleazy bartender:

    That's Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, in a rare non-Stooges appearance.

  • For some reason, W. C. Fields was rumored to have hated children. That's a charge he explicitly denied in this film, where he gives himself the memorable line:
    I'm very fond of children. Girl children, around 18, 20...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Yet more self-promotion

The second part of Christopher Zane's interview of me (and probably the only time my words will run with a still from Josie and the Pussycats) is here. And I highly recommend you check out the rest of his blog.

Monday, October 08, 2007

#77: And God Created Woman

And God Created Woman, 1956, directed by Roger Vadim, screenplay by Roger Vadim and Raoul Lévy.

After 76 Criterion films, we finally arrive at straight exploitation. And God Created Woman has a joke of a plot, terrible acting, retrograde sexual politics, and exactly three good qualities: eye-popping colors, CinemaScope, and Brigitte Bardot. And the first two aren't that important. And God Created Woman is more colorful (and racist) than Black Orpheus, fluffier than Charade, more voyeuristic than Peeping Tom. You know pretty much what you're in for from the film's fifth shot:

Like I said, bright colors, Cinemascope and Brigitte Bardot. It's not too hard to figure out why this film caused a sensation in 1956. Of course, leering at Brigitte Bardot wouldn't be acceptable without some semblance of a plot. And that's exactly what Vadim and Lévy provide: some semblance of a plot. Bardot plays an orphan named Juliette who's living in foster care in St. Tropez. That silhouette on the other side of the sheet is a yachtsman and real estate developer named Eric Carradine, played by future Bond villain Curd Jürgens:

Like anyone with a Y chromosome, Mr. Carradine has unwholesome plans for Juliette. Unfortunately for him, she only has eyes for a local cad named Antoine Tardieu, played by Christian Marquand:

Tardieu is willing and eager to sleep with her, but wants nothing else to do with her. As the movie opens, Juliette's relationship with her foster parents has deteriorated to the point that she is using her foster father in his wheelchair as a shield to keep her foster mother away:

Like Helena in Autumn Sonata, this is the sort of filmic use of the handicapped that you are unlikely to ever see again on screen. Anyway, to prevent further wheelchair battles, Juliette's foster mother arranges to have her sent back to the orphanage. To avoid this fate, she marries Antoine's younger brother Michel, out of an unconvincing mixture of spite and desperation. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Michel as a brooding, sensitive type with low self-esteem:

You can see where this is going: Juliette's sexuality is too wild and uncontrollable to ever be tamed by such a man as Michel; neither Antoine nor Carradine can resist her, scandal ensues, and so on. Along the way, Vadim puts Bardot in as many shots as possible, whether she's sullenly eating a carrot:

Or sullenly opening an umbrella indoors for some reason:

Or even not-so-sullenly putting on a dressing gown behind the most unlikely-to-actually-be-sitting-there ship model with a semi-translucent curtain in cinema history:

This isn't a narrative film so much as it's a peepshow, but as peepshows go, it's first-rate—if you're from the fifties and incredibly repressed. Still, the film does have its charms. San Tropez looks suitably picturesque:

The cinematography isn't brilliant, but there are some nice CinemaScope compositions (although virtually no closeups):

And although this was shot in Eastmancolor, a single-strip film that I thought was responsible for the faded look of many post-three-strip-Technicolor movies, it's very crisp and bright.

In San Tropez, even color is more saturated. None of that outweighs the terribleness of a film that takes it as a given that Bardot alone is responsible for corrupting the men around her. When Antoine sleeps with his little brother's wife, then walks off to tell his mother that they have to throw Juliette out of the house, there's hardly a suggestion that Antoine shares any of the blame.

And I'm not even going to comment on Juliette's final descent into alcohol-fueled madness, where she falls so far that she dances with black men:

Let's just say that the film leaves a lot to be desired, politically and sexually. Its principal value today is, as Nathan Rabin wrote for The Onion A.V. Club, "a historic bit of pop-culture sociology." As historic bits of pop-culture sociology go, this one's painless and easy to look at. Just don't expect a great film.


  • Roger Vadim was married to Bardot at the time they made this film (he'd been dating her since she was 15 and he was 21, if his IMDB page is to be believed). I'm not sure if that makes it more or less creepy that he made a film whose principal attraction was staring at Brigitte Bardot, but I think it makes it more of an exploitation picture. This was Vadim's MO for the rest of his life: he dated Catherine Deneuve while directing her in Le Vice et La Vertu, and he was married to Jane Fonda when he directed her in Barbarella. I suspect Robert Rodriguez has studied Vadim's career closely. But given the relative fame and success of Vadim compared to Bardot, Deneuve, and Fonda, I think Rose McGowan may have paid more attention.

  • About that film Le Vice et La Vertu: I haven't seen it, and hadn't heard of it until this evening. But it's an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's Justine set during World War II, with Nazis. Which reminds me a bit of the hardest-to-watch-film in the Criterion Collection, made twelve years later.

  • As attractive as Bardot is, there are at least two other bodies at least as curvy and attractive. Carradine's yacht:

    And his car, a Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider.

    Putting Bardot and the car in the same frame seems gluttonous, but here you are:

  • A confession: a disproportionate amount of this site's traffic comes from people doing image searches for various actors and actresses (that, and middle school students looking for essays to steal about The Most Dangerous Game or Lord of the Flies). So, with a tip of the hat to Roger Vadim, here's one more picture of Brigitte Bardot, one of the film's few closeups. Greetings, internet horndogs!

Shameless Self Promotion

And God Created Woman is nearly done. In the meantime, Christopher Zane interviewed me over the weekend for his blog. Part one of two is posted here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

#76: Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter, 1946, directed by David Lean, written by David Lean, Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame from the play Still Life, by Noël Coward.

Brief Encounter is the epitome of a genre that has completely vanished from cinema: the woman's picture.1 Jim Shepard memorably described this type of film as stories that:

...trundled through decades of forbearance: slow-moving, mile-long freight trains of self-denial. All those women gave up what they most wanted for somebody else's sake. Which meant that their movies centered on events that didn't happen: the singing career that wasn't begun, the wedding that didn't occur, the meeting in the park that never came off, the key phrase left unspoken. Which made for movies obsessed with the life not lived: a weird negative space of the never-was and the might-have-been.

Well, the one-two punch of capitalism and feminism seems to have pretty well put paid to self-denial as a filmic virtue. The demographic once courted by weepies now lines up to see chick-flicks, which offer a different kind of pleasure entirely: pure wish-fulfillment. Don't get me wrong, it's fantastic that we live in a culture where self-abnegation is no longer a universal female experience. But it's certainly stranded Brief Encounter. Shepard's essay dealt with the way Babette's Feast transcended the confines of the genre, but that's not how Lean's movie work: it's an exemplar of the form, not a film that challenges its boundaries. Appropriately enough, it opens with one of those mile-long freight trains of self-denial:

Okay, so it's a passenger train of self-denial, and it's moving at a good clip. But the main character's hopes and dreams might as well have been tied to the tracks for all the possibilities the film affords her. Lean cuts to a small refreshment room at the station, where the camera eventually settles on a couple quietly having tea:

That's Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Alec Harvey. Before we get to know much about them, they're joined at the table by Dolly, an older friend of Laura's who's talking as fast as the train that just passed. You can tell from Alec's expression how happy this makes them both:

Dolly prattles on and Alec and Laura are relentlessly polite. Eventually, Alec has to leave to catch his train. Later, we learn that this is the last time the two will ever see each other: Alec is leaving for South Africa. And that's the film in a nutshell: Laura and Alec's chances at happiness are continually, ruthlessly crushed—if not by those around them, by their own senses of propriety.

The rest of the story is told in an extended flashback, as Laura thinks over her almost-affair. That's when the film becomes difficult to take seriously, not because its cultural values are so alien, but because it relies to an insane degree on endless voiceovers. You know the kind of voiceover Scorsese uses in Goodfellas, where the narrator's words are belied by what you're seeing onscreen? Or the kind you see in films noir like Out of the Past, where you forgive the clumsy exposition because the story's moving so quickly? Or even the kind you see in adaptations of novels, where the screenwriter wants to capture something of the author's voice and can't come up with a better way to do it? Yeah, that's not really what David Lean is up to here. Instead, Brief Encounter is filled with basically static shots of Celia Johnson:

Over lines like this:

This can't last. This misery can't last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts, really—neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There'll come a time in the future when I shan't mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was.

I did identify with Celia's character when she spoke those lines, but not for quite the reasons the filmmakers must have hoped. It's a shame about the voiceover, because when the film isn't relying on it, it's excellent. Lean captures the stifling, cramped quality of Laura's life brilliantly, and he doesn't need voiceover to do it. Take, for example, her husband Fred, played by Cyril Raymond as a well-meaning dolt who would never suspect his wife had any sort of inner life:

From what we see of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Jesson at home, his greatest passion is for crossword puzzles, not his wife. Here's the scene where she attempts to tell him she's met someone:

          I had lunch with a strange man
          today, and he took me to the

          Good for you!

          He's awfully nice, he's a doctor.

          A noble profession.

          Oh, dear.


          It was Richard the Third who said
          "My kingdom for a horse," wasn't

          Yes, darling.

          Well, I wish to goodness he hadn't,
          'cause it spoils everything.

If he reminds you of Joylon Wagg, please be assured this is deliberate. Laura's life when she's not with Alec is so miserable that it lends credence to the one part of her voiceover that indisputably works: her reflexive hostility to everyone that surrounds her. This comes through in little moments like a scene where she's shopping at a pharmacy and briefly sees someone she knows socially.

Here's the voiceover:

That awful Mrs. Leftwich was at the other end of the counter wearing one of the silliest hats I've ever seen. Fortunately, she didn't look up, so I got out without her buttonholing me.

The tragedy of Laura's life is that she never lets anyone know what she's thinking, and we get the impression that half of what clicks between her and Alec is that they're willing to tell each other when the stifling pressure of English good form gets to be too much. They first bond at a modest restaurant when they're confronted with possibly the worst cellist in the country:

The single most attractive thing about Alec is that he's willing to respond in the only rational fashion:

That afternoon, in one of the movie's best touches, the pair attend a movie and are greeted with a grim surprise at the Wurlitzer.

And that's all it takes. Alec doesn't really do much, except pay a small amount of attention to what Laura is saying, and react to the absurdity of English cordiality with a bit of humor. But someone as miserably lonely as Laura doesn't need much. In the end, however, he is as unable to make any definitive steps toward happiness as she is. And because of the film's flashback structure, we know all along where this is going: both of them are too unwilling to break decorum to even have a proper goodbye.

Watching today, it's impossible to fathom this kind of miserable self-control, and it makes some of their love scenes seem absurd. They're the first screen couple I would describe as "solemnly in love." Apparently, their reticence provoked jeers even at early test screenings, at least for working-class audiences (the middle class, on the other hand, loved the film). They don't even kiss until 45 minutes or so in—but it's worth noting that their brief moments of physicality are one of the things the movie gets right.

Robert Krasker, the DP, shoots them like it's a noir. They embrace beneath train platforms, with the rumble and squeal of an express roaring by above them. It's one of the best things in the movie, dark and furtive, and even—dare I say it?—sexy.

Well, I may say it, but neither Laura nor Alec would. And what one remembers most about Brief Encounter today is not the love story, such as it is, but the moments of supreme English social awkwardness that Lean captures.

That's the two lovers caught at lunch by two bitchy friends of Laura's ("I do so envy you your champagne," one of them says). Alec has a counterpart scene of social humiliation when they are interrupted before finally consummating their relationship by the arrival of the friend Alec has borrowed an apartment from, the most sallowly unpleasant man in the world:

Neither Alec nor Laura can stand the social pressure: apparently, laughing at cellists is one thing, but doing anything to make yourself happy is quite another.

Brief Encounter is often called "the British Casablanca": a hyperbolic comparison, but a useful cultural barometer. It took the full terror of the Nazi war machine to stop Rick and Ilsa from choosing their hearts over their consciences. But in the British version of Casablanca, it took what, exactly? Fear of the disapproval of biddies in hotel restaurants? Laura's paralysis reaches apotheosis near the end of the film, when she realizes that Dolly has robbed her of any chance to say goodbye to Alec. This is her at her most desperate. The camera tracks in and tilts sickeningly (Carol Reed would be proud):

And at her moment of greatest despondence, Laura gets up from her table, runs to the tracks, and almost throws herself in front of a train. Just like she almost had an affair, almost consummated her relationship, almost left her husband. It's the film's best, sickest joke. Having failed to give her life any of the sweep of Anna Karenina, she is equally unable to recreate its finale. At least Anna got to fuck Vronsky.


  • Trevor Howard also played Major Calloway in The Third Man. His performance here is so different that it took me half the film to recognize him.

  • The original play took place entirely in the refreshment room where Alec and Laura meet. And apparently it did a great deal more with a subplot that's almost wholly superfluous here, a working-class romance between a conductor and a shopclerk that was contrasted against Laura and Alec's middle-class angst.

    Lean did the right thing by paring these two way back, but he might have done better by disposing of them entirely; they did nothing for me.

  • Bruce Eder, who recorded the commentary track, hates the scene where Alec's friend interrupts the two of them at his apartment. He has a point: the rest of the film is scrupulously told from Laura's perspective, and she has no way of knowing what happened at that apartment after she left it. William Goldman eviscerated Saving Private Ryan on the same grounds (but with more cause: the whole movie is a flashback remembered by someone who wasn't there; at least Lean only has one scene with this flaw). But Billy Wilder apparently would disagree with Eder: he found Alec's friend so interesting that it gave him the idea for The Apartment.

  • The sound mix is exceptionally sophistocated throughout, from the opening howl of a train whistle to the Rachmaninoff score.

  • Laura's husband does get a moment of redemption at the very end of the film, and it's almost enough to make her sacrifice seem noble. Almost.

  • There's a nice jab at the film industry buried in Brief Encounter. Alec and Laura see a trailer for a movie called Flames of Passion, which is the usual Hollywood bullshit: a woman tied to a burning stake, natives throwing spears, slightly unbelievable marketing slogans:

    But the best part of the joke comes when the actually go to see the film. Remember, the trailer looks like it could be for a low-rent version of King Kong. Check out the original source material:

1Not counting semi-ironic revivals like Far From Heaven, one of Shepard's jumping-off points.