Machine men with machine minds

It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything – between the Independence Day weekend and Ashley’s pinched sciatic nerve, it’s been difficult to find time for writing. So I figured I might take a few minutes to go over whatever it is I’ve been thinking about lately. We’ve watched a fair amount of (very good) movies; it’s nice to be able to go back and rewatch beloved classics. Since I’m so preoccupied with watching films I haven’t yet seen (and checking off lists, always lists), this is an opportunity I don’t often get.

And, well, I think all in all repeated viewing is important to understanding and loving film – after all, it’s a very visually and aurally dense art form. So it’s good to be able to watch movies from all time periods, regions, styles, genres, and directors, but at the same time, occasionally it’s good to do some deeper viewing, possibly paying attention to aspects of the work you haven’t noticed before. Beside that, it’s just fun: the two of us are sharing movies we love with each other. What’s more romantic than that?

Among the movies we’ve watched have been, as I mentioned the other day, The Third Man and White Heat. This is going to be short, so I don’t really have time to jump into a full-blown exploration of the two films’ many nuances and significances, but I might as well just touch briefly on the thoughts I had while rewatching.

The symbolic recursion of man within man within man

With The Third Man, every other line in the first half of the film seems to be a clue, a subtle hint to the mysteries Holly spends the rest of the film furiously unraveling. The way the film so carefully traces the effects that Harry Lime had on those around him reminds me of some of Orson Welles’ other contributions to film: say, for example, Citizen Kane, which asks if one word can really sum up a man’s life, or Touch of Evil, which concludes with Marlene Dietrich asking, “What does it matter what you say about people?”

Of course here we’ve instead got the direction of Carol Reed, filling in the darkness and disorientation, as in his earlier films, Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, where the confused protagonists (a dying IRA operative and an ambassador’s young son, respectively) wander through situations just as undecipherable as Holly Martins’ stay in Vienna. Between the nonstop canted angles and the blissfully idiosyncratic, often incongruous zither music, it’s a decidedly off-balance film – the truth is always behind another shadow, another corner, or as Calloway says, “We should’ve dug deeper than a grave.” And the film always keeps a very British sense of dark humor about the whole affair.

Martins: A parrot bit me.

Calloway: Oh, stop behaving like a fool, Martins…

I think The Third Man forms a great contrast with the other film on my mind, released the same year, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. Both contain blithely smiling villains. But while The Third Man coyly clings to secret after secret, layer after layer, White Heat is blunt as hell. (I wonder if I could draw a parallel between Walsh and Samuel Fuller, in that both seem to trade in subtlety for raw brutality.) In the first 5 minutes, we’re introduced to our weirdly sympathetic, totally psychotic central character, Cody Jarrett, a mercilessly hands-on gangleader played by veteran actor James Cagney.

Cagney was returning to the gangster movie a decade after having helped define it with roles in Warner Bros. films like Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces (both opposite Bogart), and of course the grapefruit-smashing iconography of William Wellman’s The Public Enemy. His performance as Cody Jarrett, though, drops the relatively well-intentioned rags-to-riches element of these Depression-era films for a delusional but brazen figure fixated on the support of his mother and her dreams of him going to the “top of the world.” Jarrett doesn’t just want to be well-off and have his best girl by his side; instead, he’s consumed with id and despises his best girl (played with sluttiness and self-interest by Virginia Mayo).

The film is filled with one weird turn after another, from the scorching of gang member Zookie with steam from a train engine (the first of many symbolic images of “White Heat”) to Jarrett’s transferred devotion to partner-in-crime-but-actually-police-informant Vic Pardo, played by frequent noir straight man Edmond O’Brien. It almost reminds me of the way black holes curve space-time: Cagney’s white-hot performance seems to skew the whole film in bleak, slightly disturbing directions. So here we have an interesting way that two films are similarly effective: The Third Man‘s driving force is powerful through his absence, while White Heat‘s makes his mark through an overwhelming presence.

Finally, since you can never embed too many videos in one blog, here’s a climactic excerpt from another movie Ashley and I watched recently, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s a great artist’s first sound film, and a passionate paean to human freedom.

I’m not sure when there’ll be more writing forthcoming from either of us, but we’ve both got plenty of ideas stewing in our heads (both collaboratively and individually), so more eventually.

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