The Inessentials: The Chase (1966)

the chase poster

Arthur Penn made a handful of really remarkable films spanning the late 60s and 70s: Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man among the most notable.  The Chase comes in third for Penn’s great works, but that’s kind of like admitting that A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t quite up to par with Hamlet.

On the surface, The Chase is a standard crime narrative: Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped from prison with only a few months left to go on his sentence.  He makes his way back to his Texas hometown, where his wife Anna (Jane Fonda) has been having an affair with his friend Jake (James Fox), the son of Val Rogers, richest man in town (E.G. Marshall).  The hometown sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) promises to catch Bubber if he comes back.  That’s the basic plot, and it could have turned into a standard wrong man narrative, as Bubber attempts to win back his wife, avoid the sheriff, and expose the corrupt rich man.  Luckily, the film doesn’t go that way at all.  

What we’re treated to instead is a town full of seething animosity, sexual, racial, classist, and generational, that Bubber’s return brings boiling to the surface.  Calder is despised because the townsfolk believe that he’s been bought by Val Rogers.  Rogers in turn is despised by his son, who chafes under his father’s rule without understanding how much his old man truly loves him.  Anna is in love with both Bubber and Jake, imprisoned by her poverty and her stepfather (Bruce Cabot).  Meanwhile, Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall) is terrified of Bubber’s return for his own reasons, dealing with his drunken and flirtatious wife (Janice Rule).  She, meanwhile, has been carrying on with bank vice-president Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford), a character who becomes increasingly despicable as the film goes on.  In the background lurks the petty racism of mid-60s Texas, as black characters are assaulted by whites, victims of white insecurity.  Into the midst of all these complex, hateful relationships comes poor Bubber, a boy who isn’t as bad as everyone makes him out to be.  There’s no way this is going to end well.the chase redford

The Chase peels back layers of love and animosity, misunderstanding and paranoia, all in the middle of the very drunken Saturday night Bubber has chosen for his return.  From the staid birthday celebration of Val Rogers, we descend the social scale to the more raucous party of the Stewarts, and then the parodic gyrations of the teenage crowd (watch out for young Paul Williams, you really can’t miss him).  There’s no difference between any of them, except perhaps for the veneer of respectability that gradually falls away.  Calder prowls the parties searching for Anna, knowing that if Bubber is going to come back, it will be her he goes to.  But Anna doesn’t trust the sheriff, the sheriff can’t trust his deputies, and the party-goers begin to believe they can take the law into their own hands.

Without going through all the hideous plot machinations that the film goes through – it all tends to the same end, which becomes pretty clear by the time everyone leaves the parties to take to the streets – just let it be said that the film proceeds with a sense of inevitability.  You cannot live in this sort of society without being caught up in the witch-hunt.  We come to understand that Sheriff Calder and his wife (Angie Dickinson) are among the few sensible people in the whole town, the few not stuck in the web of violence and deception.  Calder tries desperately to do what’s right and protect those that need protecting. By the time we come to the fire and blood drenched conclusion, any pretensions to justice or even civilization have fallen away from this sweet little Texan town.  These people are a mob.

What is most disturbing about The Chase is that the mob becomes a mob slowly, drawing us under its influence.  By the end I was reminded of Rebel Without A Cause.  Bubber gives us the clearest indication of generational defiance, as he confesses to his wife and his friend that he escaped because he could not handle prison life any more, and that he would never be told what to do ever again.  It’s as close as The Chase will come to a true act of defiance against the social system, even if it ultimately proves futile.

brando the chase

The Chase has been maligned – I think unfairly – as a potboiler akin to Peyton Place.  It certainly has those elements of sex and violence underlying small town society.  But it rises above that, buoyed by the ability of the actors – what a cast! – and the complexity of the narrative.  Brando anchors the film as the conscience of the town that is habitually insulted and ignored, even lambasted.  Sheriff Calder’s pretended corruption is the cross laid upon him by the society that surrounds him – he must be corrupt, because they are.  They cannot permit the existence of an honest man.

It’s a film about love, hatred, confusion, intolerance, and violence without justice.  Images resonate – there are elements of the Kennedy assassination, of early Vietnam, of social upheaval crushed under the weight of the power structure.  Calder is a sheriff with a conscience, but the town does not deserve the protection he gives it.  Bubber is the wrong man without redemption; Anna the whore who was never a whore; Jake the unspoilt spoiled child.  The price of their rebellion against their proscribed roles is destruction.

The Chase has a similar cadence to Bonnie and Clyde – that generational defiance that must be punished by the powers that be.  If there is hope here, it is in the depiction of Calder as a man who continues to do the right thing, against all odds.  But it’s a very dark film for a multitude of reasons.  It’s very brilliance lies in its lack of compromise.  We all knew how it was going to end, but the film makes us so very angry that it has to end like that.

The Inessentials: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)


I first saw The Man Who Knew Too Much on a cheaply produced VHS tape that included a good three-quarters of Hitchcock’s British films.  The sound was scratchy, at points indecipherable, the picture grainy and the black and white so contrasted that it was difficult to identify characters without squinting.  I was, to put it mildly, unimpressed, and I more or less forgot about the film, choosing instead to pay attention to the Hitchcocks – most of them from his American period – that I could actually get in good prints.

Thank God for the Criterion Collection.  After gifting me with The Lady Vanishes – a film that reignited my love of Hitchcock and gave me fodder for three graduate papers – and The 39 Steps, they’ve finally fixed The Man Who Knew Too Much and released it on Blu-ray.  Beautiful picture, clear soundtrack, all of the glory of Hitchcock’s British work, up there on the screen.  Finally.  It’s like watching a completely different film.

The Man Who Knew Too Much stands as the only Hitchcock film that Hitchcock himself remade, in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in the roles originally occupied by Leslie Banks and Edna Best.  The plot is basically the same: vacationing family becomes friends with a man who is subsequently murdered, but not before he can pass on the details of an assassination attempt to them.  To stop them from talking, the baddies kidnap their child (in the original a little girl played by Nova Pilbeam, who would later be a Hitchcock heroine in Young and Innocent).  The conflict lies in the couple trying to decide if the life of a foreign diplomat – and a possible war – is worth the life of their daughter.The-Man-Who-Knew-Too-Much-1934-2

That’s where the parallels between the two films end, however.  I have to say that the original is far and away the better film.  At a punchy 75 minutes, it wastes no time setting up the situation, or the audience’s sympathies.  A few well-placed and economical scenes give us all we need to know – the affection between the parents, the affection between the parents and their daughter, the cost of their silence, and the cruelty of the villains.  There are some truly Hitchcockian set pieces, as the father sets out, in the company of the comic relief Uncle Clive, to find his daughter based solely on an address.  The scene in the dentist’s office must have inspired Marathon Man among others.  It’s a surreal, comical and sinister side-note, to go with the far more serious sequence in a cultish church (The Tabernacle of the Sun, in which old British grandmothers carry around firearms) as the father fights his way to his daughter, only to be captured.  And then there’s the excellent Albert Hall scene, a masterpiece of intercuts, and the final shoot-out.  The whole film is perfectly tailored without sacrificing plot or character.  Coming in at just over an hour, it’s an example of what can be done by a truly great filmmaker.  Any director who thinks they need 2.5 hours to tell a good story should take note.  The Man Who Knew Too Much represents some of the best of Hitchcock’s early work, and that’s saying a lot.

peter lorre man who knew too muchThen there’s Peter Lorre.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was his first English-speaking role – he learned his lines phonetically – but you wouldn’t know it.  He brings the same weird, sadistic vibe that he used with such aplomb in Fritz Lang’s M, but without the sympathetic undertones.  He’s a villain, through and through, and more than that enjoys the suffering he causes.  Yet there are moments of pathos, as when one of his compatriots dies during the shootout, or his humorous introduction.  Leslie Banks anchors the film with a stolid sense of Britishness, honesty and fair play; Lorre provides the chaos.

The film does not hold up as well as The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps, widely acknowledged as the best of British Hitchcock.  It’s very sparseness sometimes works against it, leaving certain plot elements under-developed while spending a little too much time on getting characters from point A to point B.  It’s a little rough around the edges, which provides some charm but also a somewhat perfunctory feel.  I found myself longing for a little more emotion on the part of the father – at least earlier on.

But these are minor quibbles in an excellent film.  The Man Who Knew Too Much outstrips its remake in every sense.  It’s a taut, clever masterpiece, finally presented by Criterion in the way it must be seen.

Oh, and the mother? Screw Doris Day; Edna Best wins every time.


The Inessentials: The Cameraman

buster keaton busThere’s a friendly rivalry – at least in retrospect – between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  Who is the greatest silent clown? Is it the sweet and genial Little Tramp, or the great Stoneface, equally small and lithe and seemingly always behind the eight ball? Every time I watch a Chaplin film, I’m convinced that it must be Chaplin.  But today, I think that Keaton has the edge.  Because I finally watched The Cameraman.  

In contrast to his acknowledged masterpiece The General, Keaton’s The Cameraman is a smaller film, less heavy on the sight gags and insane stunts, and far more reliant on the gentle nature of his protagonist as he attempts to impress a pretty girl.  But it’s also a story of art and moviemaking, of what constitutes ‘good’ cinema.  Where Sherlock Jr. gave us cinema as narrative magic, The Cameraman gives us cinema verite.

The plot could be just about any Keaton (or Chaplin) film: the scrappy little fellow meets a girl, is smitten and immediately sets about trying to win her heart.  In this case, the way to do that seems to be to become a newsreel cameraman.  Naturally enough, this sets up all the gags we might expect: Keaton attempts to film a Yankees game, only to arrive at an empty stadium.  Never one to be outdone, he plays the game himself, acting as pitcher, batter, umpire and fielders.  Then he tries to film a Tong war with hilarious results that include the near destruction of his camera and his friendship with a monkey.  There are other sketches too: Keaton attempts to change his clothes in a swimming pool dressing room also occupied by another, much larger fellow – watch that one closely, because old Stoneface actually cracks up several times; he loses his bathing suit and must obtain another one; displaced from a bus with his lady love, the old boy rides on the side instead.  As with all Keaton gags, the physical comedy is meticulously constructed, such that we’re almost bored by the seemingly meaningless set-up.  Then the gag hits and the man’s true genius – all that build up, for a moment of exceptional acrobatic hilarity – comes through.

The Cameraman is much more than the sum of its gags, however.  The love story, often secondary in Keaton’s work, comes forward.  Never have I cheered so heartily for the little guy.  His sweetness, and the girl’s apparent disregard for his qualities, is heartbreaking.  His attempts to win her have a tentative nature, though.  She really isn’t callous, nor does she fail to understand him; she simply is uncertain of what she wants.  It’s a complex narrative, and one that evinces a much deeper contemplation of human relationships than usually seen in silent comedies.

the cameraman 1

Keaton’s musings on his own art also impress.  The cameraman’s failure to produce ‘usable’ newsreel footage at first is complicated by the quality of what he does produce.  Simply by accident he overlaps frames of a battleship and Broadway, spools a swimmer diving backwards, and creates a pandemonium of traffic in spliced together footage.  These are scenes that are not only hilarious; they would be welcome in European arthouse films of the same period.  But that’s not what newsreel is about, and the cameraman finally learns where the demands of his profession lie.  The footage he takes of the Tong war is GOOD; intense, close-up scenes of mob violence and knife fights.  Throughout the film, we watch a director directing himself, then see the footage that he produces.  Few contemporary musings on the nature of the cinema art come so directly, and poignantly, to the point.

What Keaton has done with The Cameraman is to draw a parallel between the different forms of cinema, from camera tricks and manipulation to the ability of movies to present reality.  It is a movie that finally convinces the girl that she was wrong about him.  His native understanding of what constitutes good cinema gets him his job.  The cameraman will never be rewarded with a ticker-tape parade, but as far as Keaton is concerned, he should be.  In the end, it is cinema, in all its forms, that tells the inherent truth.

The Inessentials: Trafic

Jacques Tati’s final Hulot film Trafic (1971)is not the filmmaker’s greatest … but that’s like saying that a particular vintage of a fine wine is not quite as good as the years before.  It’s still a remarkable achievement, and a pleasurable experience.

For fans of Tati, Trafic takes on an immediately recognizable conceit.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around Monsieur Hulot – Tati’s gentle and clownish character who already appeared in M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, and Playtime – now a designer for car company Altra.  Hulot and truckdriver Marcel (Marcel Fraval) have to take a truck containing a recreational vehicle to an auto show in Amsterdam.  That’s it.  That’s the whole plot.

Tati’s films are never plot driven, but this one probably even less than the others.  The truck consistently breaks down, runs out of gas, or gets into trouble with the cops and border patrol.  PR woman Maria (Maria Kimberly) throws hissy fits, but gradually softens as her journey through the French and Dutch countryside transforms her from the clichéd high-fashion maven to a calmer, happier human being.  Intercut with Hulot’s journey is the auto show itself, with typical Tati sight and sound gags that include comical juxtapositions of car trunks opening and closing, the construction of a ‘forest’ in the middle of the show, and small boys who keep stealing car brochures.

None of the gags fall flat, but some of them are repeats of Tati’s visual or aural puns from Playtime – widely considered the filmmaker’s masterpiece.  Some of the best, though, are hilarious: the traffic collision begun by the Altra truck, Hulot’s sprint through the fields when he goes looking for gas, the extended sequence at border control as Hulot and Marcel exhibit to the Dutch police all the accoutrements of their car, the ‘moonwalk’ performance of Marcel and a car mechanic (Tony Knepper) after watching a rocketship take off.  The character development, particularly of Maria, is subtle but touching: her constant outfit changes indicating the relaxation of her character as she goes from haute-couture to a leather jacket and jeans.  If there’s a problem, it’s that there isn’t enough Hulot, whose gentility and decency permeates the other Tati films to a far greater extent.

But that’s a minor quibble in what is ultimately a beautiful, funny film.  Hulot is there, after all.  What makes Tati’s film so wonderful – I don’t know how else to describe them – is his obvious love of humanity.  Here is the human condition, in all its weird glory, interacting with each other and with technology.  Tati makes no judgements; technology is neither the enemy nor the indicator of human progress.  It’s funny and bizarre, but it only serves to highlight how wonderfully eccentric human beings can be.  Technology mirrors and accentuates the people it serves – or fails to serve.  Windshield wipers imitate drivers; cars limp and groan when they’ve lost a wheel; a traffic jam sends people out into the rain.

If Tati preaches anything at all, he preaches a gospel of humanity.  His Hulot is a bit of a buffoon, but he’s a well-meaning buffoon, a man who is not superior to anyone, who is never at odds with the world.  Even when he’s fired from his job, he shrugs his shoulders and moves on, off into the rain with the newly happy Maria and her dustmop dog.

Trafic does not represent the crowning glory of Tati’s achievement, but it is a fitting farewell to a character as gentle and humorous as the Little Tramp or Buster Keaton.  All through the three previous Hulot films, Hulot seemed to just narrowly miss getting the girl, always rejected by the adult society that he really has no problem with.  At the end of Trafic, Hulot does not walk off into the sunset; he walks off into the rain with a grand smile on his face and Maria on his arm, crowded together under the perpetual umbrella.  For a moment we almost lose Hulot as he vanishes into the underground, but suddenly he returns, borne back on a tide of humanity.

The final image is of a massive traffic jam with umbrellas flitting here and there.  The people, it seems, have left their cars and crowded beneath umbrellas together – a sea of Hulots in the midst of the technological wilderness.

The Inessentials: The Circus

I firmly believe that if you don’t like Charlie Chaplin you have no soul.  How anyone can sit through City Lights or Modern Times and not fall in love with the Little Tramp is beyond me.  Even if you don’t particularly like silent films, Chaplin must be able to melt your cold, cold heart.

The Circus is one of the lesser known of Chaplin’s feature-length films.  Made in 1928, at the height of his popularity, it’s a short, sweet film about the Tramp joining up with a circus.  It does not have the pathos of City Lights and The Kid or the social commentary of Modern Times.  What it does have, and this in abundance, is comedy.

The plot is simple enough.  Down at the heels as always, the Tramp (Chaplin) blunders into a job with a traveling circus when he accidentally gets more laughs than the clowns.  There’s a girl (Merna Kennedy) being bullied by her ringmaster father (Allan Garcia), which naturally raises the Tramp’s hackles.  Then there’s the competitor for her affections in a tall, dark and handsome tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker).  But the plot is really incidental and largely exists to move the Tramp from one comic situation to another.

Which is largely the point.  More so than any other Chaplin film, The Circus is an expression of pure comedy.  Its very subject matter is comedy.  The Tramp gets his job with the circus when he’s chased by a police officer into the big top.  He’s running for his life and his freedom, but the circus audience laughs harder at the improvised comedy than at the professional clowns.  His next big hit comes when he’s employed as a prop man, chased by an angry donkey and pitches into a barrel.  Then, without intending to, he ruins a magician’s performance by revealing every trick.  As the Tramp dashes around trying to capture the wayward animals that spring the magician’s hats, the audience behind him howls with laughter.  He’s a hit, but he’s oblivious.  When the Tramp attempts to be funny, he fails.  But when he’s actually in danger, or in pain, the audience goes into hysterics.  His real life is a comedy.

For some reason, I’ve never thought of Chaplin as an acrobat.  Most of his films don’t place as much emphasis on high-flying tricks.  In The Circus, his acrobatics give Buster Keaton a run for his money.  One of the most spectacular, hilarious set-pieces takes place on the high-wire, when the Tramp takes over for the missing tight-rope walker.  As the routine falls spectacularly to pieces, the Tramp loses his belay and is chased across the wire by monkeys.  He’s in great physical danger and it’s funnier than hell.

He was also quite a spectacular filmmaker.  He’s the definition of an auteur — wrote, directed, starred in and sometimes even scored his own films.  And his use of the cinematic medium is flawless.  When the Tramp runs into a funhouse hall of mirrors to escape the police, the spectacle of cinema comes into play.  The Tramp begins to lose himself in the myriad reflections, chasing after his hat in the mirrors.  He comes to understand the mirrors, though, and when he’s caught, it is the Tramp that has to show the police officer the way out.  He becomes the manipulator of the image; the filmmaker.

Chaplin often had a tinge of melancholy in his work, and The Circus brings it into very sharp relief.  While we laugh at his antics — and they are very, very funny — there is always a sense of sadness in the Tramp.  He’s poor, he’s destitute, he’s basically a decent man who cannot catch a break.  His comedy comes from poverty and danger.  Even when he becomes a star, the villainous ringmaster keeps him in the dark about his popularity.  He’s treated as a prop man, not a performer, and bullied by everyone.  Even his relationship with the girl is doomed.  He protects her from her father, feeds her when she’s hungry, and treats her decently as no one does.  But she’s not in love with him; she’s in love with the tight-rope walker and looks on the poor Tramp as just a friend.

That does nothing to diminish the comedy in The Circus; it rather enhances it.  Chaplin’s great talent was taking serious subjects — poverty, unemployment, starvation, abuse — and making them funny.  He turns obtaining food into a juggling act, running from the police into a comic chase.  He steals a hot dog from a child, is chased by a donkey and bit by monkeys.  It’s all a funhouse game, an elaborate magic trick.  It’s turning tragedy into comedy.

The Circus is entertaining because it’s funny, but it is a great film because it is melancholy.  Chaplin takes comedy very seriously, and it shows.  He’s more than willing to put himself in danger for laugh — at one point, he climbs into a sleeping lion’s cage and the terror on his face is quite real.  And the subject of The Circus is exactly how far a performer will go for the pleasure of the audience.  The Tramp is not a naif; by the end of the film, he’s aware that he’s been exploited, mistreated and manipulated.  But that’s all right, because he did it all to make the girl (and us) smile.

Chaplin’s films often end with an uncertain future.  In Modern Times, the Tramp and the girl are still destitute, still jobless and still running from the authorities.  The war and the Holocaust have not ended in The Great Dictator.  Even The Gold Rush draws the future happiness of its protagonist into question.  Yet no one would call Chaplin’s work pessimistic.  His great sensibility is that, no matter what, the little Tramp will still carry on.  Strange, quiet, gentle and gentlemanly, he might be poor, he might be starving, but he will still pick himself up and walk onwards, into the sunset.  At the end of The Circus, alone in the circle of the big top, he collects himself and wanders off.  Where he goes is anyone’s guess, but you still have the sense that he’s out there, always ready to help the innocent child, the frightened young woman.  Always ready to make us laugh, even if he feels a bit like crying.