On the Waterfront (1954)

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Technically, my first experience of Marlon Brando was watching Superman as a kid, not that I would have had any clue who he was then.  Later, in my grad school Shakespeare class, we watched bits of Julius Caesar, where he famously portrayed Mark Antony.  But beyond that, I mostly know him only from the Truman Capote profile in The New Yorker.

Capote has his own mythos surrounding him, in much the same way as Brando – the center of everyone’s attention in New York City.  While Capote placed himself at the heart of a web of society, almost reveling in the fakeness of it all, Brando went the other way, receding ever deeper into seclusion of his own making.  You can almost see that moment of decision in the profile (though it’s probably more interesting to read about how it came about).

Anyway, I thought about that sort of mythos a lot as I watched On the Waterfront.  There’s that famous line, about the contender and the bum, and I found myself wondering, every time somebody used one of those words (happens more than you’d expect in this movie) when the famous moment would come.  Like so many other iconic scenes in cinematic history, when it comes, and you already know to expect it, it’s kind of a disappointment.

Brando plays Terry Malloy, a longshoreman whose older brother is right-hand man to a mobster.  The mob runs everything in New York, including the longshoremen’s union.  He decides to stand up to the mob, and embarks on a Christ-like journey that is inspiring, but also kind of futile.

One of the thoughts attributed to Brando in Capote’s profile, as he laments the idea of being a movie star and not making some kind of meaningful art, is “Movies date so quickly.”  It’s true – how many of these Best Pictures will we watch in another forty years?  That’s not a criticism of movies per se, so much as of entertainment or history of any kind.  The things of contemporary life that survive us are not necessarily those we would choose, or expect.  Much of the profile focuses on Brando’s current film, Sayonara, based on a novel by James Michener.  Both have faded into the mists of the twentieth century.

I guess I’m also thinking about the idea of legacy, thanks to my recent stint of (finally!) listening to Hamilton.  Brando has this legacy of brilliance, but what did he really do that lasts?  What makes him so much better than the other actors of the time, if not simply the story that everyone tells of his superiority?  He’s the kid sitting on top of the pile of candy, maybe buying into the mythos a bit, maybe not, but ultimately, like anything mythical creature, he’s forever alone.

 

Theme:  Marlon Brando

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Contender or bum?

The French Connection (1971)

One of the difficult parts of watching older films is that you inevitably find things that seem overplayed or cliché, but you can’t tell whether that was the case at the time or if its techniques were novel.  For example, if you were to picture a car chase scene in a movie, one of the things you might recall being a common trope is the “woman with baby stroller narrowly avoids getting hit by out-of-control car in chase.”  But was this new at the time, or already a joke by 1971?

The other thing about a film like this is that you’re not really sure whether the anti-hero trope is yet overplayed.  These days, you can’t shake a stick without thwacking an anti-hero (who will probably thwack you back in response to your thwacking), and I suspect the early 70s wasn’t too early to catch the cynicism and ethical grayness that brings out the average anti-hero.  And as much as I love me a good ol’ anti-hero, I’m a little underwhelmed by Popeye Doyle’s tough guy persona in this film.  I suppose it’s just a personal preference thing – to me, anti-heroes are only interesting when you get a sense of what drives a character to make the decisions he makes.  I don’t really get that sense of interiority here; I don’t understand what drives Popeye, which ultimately makes him not very sympathetic to me.  Especially when you take into account the body count in this film, much of them thanks to Popeye himself.

The French Connection, according to Wikipedia, was apparently a common term for a certain period when heroin was smuggled into the U.S. from Turkey and beyond via France.  I wasn’t familiar with that, so this little chapter on the War on Drugs was something new.  Given that most of the country (and perhaps beyond) is in the midst of an opioid crisis, it’s interesting how timely this feels.  Yet also simplistic.  There’s a sense of the stakes here – admittedly ramped up for the sake of the movie – that suggests how much of an impact this one drug bust will prove.  Popeye and his unit break out all the stops to catch this one dealer, and there’s a genuine feel that this will truly have an impact on the addicted guys hanging out in the bar waiting for their next fix.  We don’t see that there’s another shipment right behind it.

Too cynical a view, perhaps?  Well, don’t blame me.  I’m just rolling with the bleak outlook these kinds of film demand.

I’ll be honest:  I was kind of expecting to enjoy this more than I did.  I figured that it would be more plot driven and exciting than the typical Best Picture biopic, that it might be wittier or more of a mystery than a straight up thriller.  And to be fair, I watched it while a bit distracted by other things, so there were some moments when I’m sure I missed something.  Either that, or I just suck at following storylines.  Instead, I found it kind of ponderous in parts, occasionally hard-to-follow, and without a sense of character that I find in more recent films (or, for that matter, books).  It also didn’t surprise me.  When somebody, a “good guy,” was shot near the end, I thought for a moment that he was actually playing for the bad guys, but that would be too surprising a twist, I guess.  Instead, we watch another good guy make questionable decisions and try to convince ourselves that he’s still the hero.

 

Theme:  undercover

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  I’m picking my feet in Poughkeepsie.

Going My Way (1944)

 

Ah, the forties. A more innocent era, when priests could spend their time with troubled young boys, even offer to take them to baseball games and say to them, “It’s a date,” without raising any questions from the community. A time when a group of boys who stole turkeys off the back of a truck would willingly join a boys’ choir and, after only a few lessons from the priest in the church basement, start touring the country with their road show.

Jokes aside, it’s hard to watch a movie about a priest without the context of the recent Catholic Church scandal. All the same, I think there have been more stories on film about priests than there have been about any other religious figure. How many movies about a monk or rabbi or imam have you seen? Okay, okay, I’ll give you Sister Act.

Going My Way is less a narrative of a priest character than it is a set piece to demonstrate Bing Crosby’s singing talents. When I think of Bing Crosby, I think of two things (which, come of think of it, are basically the same thing): Christmas songs and that version of “Little Drummer Boy” he did with David Bowie just before he died. I re-watched it during the movie – as in, I literally paused the movie at one point so that I could pull up the video of their duet on YouTube because I thought about David Bowie’s recent death and felt sad and thus needed to revisit that poignant moment between the two of them. It turned out to be a worthwhile diversion, thanks to a one-off cheesy joke about the way people sang back in the day, i.e., back in Bing’s era of the crooner. That era is definitely over.

This film is inoffensive enough, but it is, like Bing Crosby himself, of a particular era. These days, our superheroes come in the form of costumed oddballs with unusual powers, but in the old times, they came in the form of Bing Crosby dressed up like a priest, swooping in to fix all the problems of a beleaguered parish using only the power of his magnificent singing voice. We get a sense of a character who has an interesting past – he clearly led a relatively normal life prior to the priesthood, based on his one-time romantic interest and his familiarity with popular music – but unfortunately, if the film makes an effort to explore how he made the transition into a life of faith, I must have missed it.

Maybe the idea of a priest with a normal life was surprising or radical enough to audiences at the time that it didn’t seem necessary to explore why he committed himself to the church. But that would have intrigued me more than this story, where everything moves effortlessly from conflict to denouement. Even the doddering old man who’s been running the church gets to see his wee Irish mother again – and I was convinced that she would have died long ago. They were uncomplicated times. Granted, this movie was released right in the middle of World War II, so maybe audiences needed to have a story in which everything worked out just fine in the end.

On a final note, I’ve learned an interesting bit of baseball trivia that I didn’t know before this film. Prior to becoming the Baltimore Orioles, the team was known as the St. Louis Browns – the uniform Bing Crosby’s character wears at several points during the film. In 1944, the year Going My Way was released, they won their only World Series, where they played against the Cardinals, and also happened to be the last year in which the World Series was played entirely in one stadium. Interesting if true! (It is true.)

 

Theme: Priest

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I gave it my blessing, and it gave me the bird.

Annie Hall (1977)

Recently, my boss, who’s a psychiatrist, was asked to give a lecture at the annual meeting of his profession’s major organization. He spent a lot of time debating over the title of his lecture. Once he came up with an idea he liked, he solicited people’s opinions to gauge how it might go over with an audience. The title? But We Need the Eggs. Few people got the reference.

I spent a good chunk of time during this movie wondering whether I’d misremembered Annie Hall being the film from which that punchline is derived. It’s basically the very last line, a summation of why we carry on in relationships despite their absurdities. And I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure I understand the metaphorical eggs, either in the way Woody Allen meant it or my boss (though, to be fair, I never actually heard my boss’ talk). But it’s interesting how joke-telling plays a role in the film, not so much as a character trait, but as an overarching commentary.

Joke-telling itself is sort of a dying art. That is, of the sort that Woody Allen’s character partakes in here, where he tells us a joke and ends with the punchline. Jokes that used to be filed away in paperback books, like 1001 Funniest Jokes about Walking into a Bar. I don’t know anyone who tells jokes like that these days, excluding stand-up comics. Now we have the internet and memes and gifs, but people don’t tell old school jokes. I imagine cocktail parties in decades past, where people would gather around the resident wisecracker, who rattled off a parade of jokes, and everyone laughed at the appropriate point. Maybe people never did that. Or maybe I just don’t have very many friends.

Before this, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything Woody Allen has made, and certainly didn’t realize that he’s released a movie every year since the 1970s. Of course, even underneath the homey little rock where I live, I have a general sense of Woody Allen: neurotic filmmaker, skeevy personal scandal.  That’s all I got.

What’s striking about Annie Hall to me is that, even in the context of these Best Pictures, this film is quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. It’s not so much that any individual device used is unique in itself (although it’s quite possible I’m thinking of all the people that stole his techniques afterwards); it’s the cumulative effect that makes the movie stand out. This is self-aware, with a knowing narrator pausing in the action to address his audience directly. It’s also full of hilarious, subtle lines (“Darling, I’ve been killing spiders since I was 30”) that often stand out as clever, written lines rather than natural speech, but don’t detract in such a meta sort of film.

Although I enjoyed it, I did find the frenetic pace overwhelming. That’s partly a personal quirk – I tend to struggle with following dialogue-heavy scenes, which is basically all of Annie Hall. Also, watching anxious people usually makes me feel a bit anxious. As I write this, several days after watching the film, I’m a little fuzzy on the specifics of the plot. Will I check out his other films? I’m not sure – how do they compare to this one?

 

Theme: New York romance

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: Like a $400/month apartment in New York.