You can forgive Roman Polanski if he wanted to take things easy in 1972 and make a light-hearted, frivolous little movie. Less than two years removed from the grisly Manson family murders that took from the acclaimed filmmaker his wife and unborn child, Polanski first confronted his troubled demons with a suitably grim adaptation ofMacbeth(1971). After that, apparently ready for solace of a livelier variety, he and a motley crew of friends and associates set sail for Carlo Ponti’s extravagant Italian villa. There they made the peculiarly disappointingWhat?, a raucous sex comedy without much sex and with very little comedy.
What?begins as globe-trotting Nancy (Sydne Rome) has hitched a ride with some Italian natives. As she speaks of her touristic adventures, the men in the car are more focused on her palpable sexuality. A rather bumbling attempted rape ensues (uneasy watching for many post-1977 Polanski audiences) and Nancy emerges safe but with shirt sufficiently and strategically torn. She seeks shelter at a nearby residence, which houses an aimless assortment of odd inhabitants, including the sleazy Alex (Marcello Mastroianni, like you never want to see him again), and Polanski himself as Mosquito, one of several leering, pervy men who come and go at random (one character likens the villa to a railway station).
The gathered assembly participate in a number of unfettered activities, sometimes together, sometimes alone. As more people are introduced and the potential for new storylines emerge—though seldom coalesce—the characters adopt a carefree go-along acceptance tinged with animosity. Some act as if they are in on a scheme together, while others appear to adopt a certain character or character type (Alex literally does this, donning costumes and playing various parts). Other than the mystery of why these individuals act the way they do and to what aim, there isn’t a whole lot to keepWhat?moving at a persistent, interesting pace. With so much going on, nothing really happens.
Written with frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, Polanski craftsWhat?from bad dirty jokes and broad humor. Like other sexual farces popular at the time, especially in Europe, the film has its fair share of innuendo. Alex is teased about being gay, having V.D., and being a pimp (“A pimp, yes. The rest, no,” he argues), and Mosquito threatens to sting with his stinger—actually a harpoon gun—but flatly rebuffs the idea that he meant anything sexual. While the sex itself is free and easy and open (though never seen), Rome herself is contentedly topless on several occasions.
Basically,What?is a loose hodge-podge of fitful antics. When Mosquito goes missing, some of the others check for him under the ping-pong table and in his hammock. When he still isn’t found, one resident declares the disappearance to be very strange; meanwhile, we’re left to wonder, exactly by what standard is something strange in this wonderland? Seeing Mastroianni on all fours, donning a tiger skin and growling as Rome feebly strikes him with a whip, one is simply at a loss for words.
What?’s saving grace is undeniably its setting. As a showcase for Ponti’s stunning Mediterranean villa, the film rivals anything on the Travel Channel. This isn’t at all surprising given Polanski’s knack for creating potent atmosphere and utilizing setting as a vital character itself. Yet even this is somewhat ruined by the crudity of the occupants. Though it is a dwelling designed from obvious wealth and ostentatious style, the reckless residents trash the place like hedonistic rock stars.
In an interview on the newly released Severin Blu-ray of the film, Rome likens her character inWhat?to a combination of Little Annie Fanny (from the Playboy comic series) and a school teacher. She even more perceptively compares the film to an erotic comic strip or dream, one where you don’t really see anything explicit and everything has a fanciful air. She makes a point, but it is hard to argue that there is much even remotely erotic or fantastic aboutWhat?.And either quality would have put the film on par with similar movies, which can be enjoyable in their blatantly teasing, whimsical bawdiness. While her additional comments makeWhat?sound like it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch, she is somewhat naïve when she says nothing about the film has dated. It may not look old fashioned, as she rightly argues, but it is certainly a film of its era.
What?was a success in Italy, less so throughout the rest of Europe, and was a bomb in the United States. It failed to even garner much interest when it was re-cut, re-titled (Roman Polanski’s Diary of Forbidden Dreams),and re-released in an exploitative attempt to cash in on Polanski’s rape case. This goofy romp may have better production values and a better director than most of its kind, but there is little to distinguish it as something exceptional. If one tries hard enough, one could perhaps find Polanski parallels in the film’s initial situation of a stranger in a strange land (The Tenant, 1976) where a foreign language creates communication barriers (Frantic, 1988). Or, one could make the case that this singular setting serves the purpose of intimidating confinement (Repulsion, 1965, andRosemary’s Baby, 1968). But really,What?is simply not the type of film one expects from a director as talented as Roman Polanski. At best, it is for a curious few or a devoted Polanski completist (the only reason I’ve now seen it twice).
“A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere…” With a blistering rock and roll soundtrack, a host of trippy filmic flourishes, and dialogue representing the ideology of a very unique period in history (“They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ‘em.”),Easy Rideris a landmark motion picture and a great independent success. Written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern – an iconic 1960s trio if there ever was one – and directed by Hopper (rather haphazardly according to some reports, but evidently well enough), the film achieves a cohesive and engrossing quality, seemingly despite its best efforts. The story is thin and the structure is loose, but with a stand-out performance by Jack Nicholson, dazzling imagery, an accurate and acute sense of time and place, and, again, that music,Easy Rideris a seminal work of American cinema.
When we first meet Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, AKA “Captain America” (Fonda), their broadly sketched types are immediately apparent. Billy is overly anxious, leery, child-like, and perpetually high as a kite; Wyatt represents the more stoic, calm, meditative, and conscientious version of this duel hippie characterization. We also see at the outset a self-conscious, though by no means unappealing effort by Hopper as director to utilize an array of cinematic techniques. Among the formal devices, he and editor Donn Cambern often use a curious, if initially jarring, inter-scene editing method that functions as a sort of flash-forward/flash-back cutting process, rapidly providing glimpses of the scene to come, then cutting back to the current scene, then back again to the future. This usually continues three times until the scene does finally transition to the new setup. Creative credit should also be given to cinematographer László Kovács, the great image-maker also behind the camera of such terrific and equally era-representative films asTargets(1968),Five Easy Pieces(1970) andShampoo(1975). There is no question, his illustrative contributions toEasy Rider, an extremely visual film, are immense.
Easy Rider’sphilosophic grounding is also firmly established at the off. After a profitable drug deal, Billy and Wyatt have accumulated enough money to head out on the highway, as it were, on a pot-infused road trip toward Mardi Gras. Their notions of freedom and the willful escape from uniform society are admirable in intent (albeit somewhat naive), but too much validity is cut short when one becomes aware of the fact that the whole trip, including their break from said culture, is nevertheless necessitated upon the amassing of the almighty dollar. Even in this hippie/biker culture, American capitalism is alive and well.
While entertaining from the very start,Easy Riderdoesn’t quite take off as a great film until about 45 minutes in, when Hopper and Fonda are arrested (for hilariously parading without a permit of all things) and are locked up in a small-town prison. There, like a booze-induced epiphany, bursts onto the screen ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Nicholson), the town’s resident drunk, a “regular regular” in the jail and the character who provides not only a terrific early role for Nicholson to relish in, but also one who gives voice toEasy Rider’s didactic discourse, which it is by no means coy about espousing. We have already heard affirmative statements concerning Billy and Wyatt’s way of life—“You do your own thing in your own time”—but now Hanson offers the alternative, opposing view of things; not that he believes them, but he knows how others see characters like these two and he subsequently explains the threatening symbolism of the two mischief makers. The free-wheeling figures represent freedom, which, Hanson cautions, can be a thorny concept. “Talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things,” he notes. “Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are…. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”
After a stopover in a volatile town where “they’re trying to make everyone look like Yul Brynner,” according to newfound friend Hanson, the three are brutally beaten in their sleep and Hanson dies. Jaded and warped by this horrific incident, Wyatt and Billy continue on to New Orleans. There, after visiting a whorehouse of Hanson’s suggestion, they take two women (including the always wonderful Karen Black) through the festive streets and finally end up in a graveyard where they drop acid. Unfortunately, this is the wrong time and the wrong people, contrary to the acid-giver’s instruction, and things go badly in a kaleidoscopic sequence of sights and sounds, distorted and mottled in a nightmarish mélange of varied film stock.
It is after this, back on the road, thatEasy Riderreaches it tragic and (in)famous conclusion. The film’s idealism has been firmly opposed by cruel realities, and when Billy somberly declares, “We blew it,” he is alluding to a wider cultural disappointment and a national failure.Easy Riderhas much to do with notions of hippie enlightenment, but at the same time, it appears to approach such issues rather cynically. Still, the fact that it was such a success indicates it was very much tapping into a present and popular cultural zeitgeist all the same. During this tumultuous period when youth culture was cinematically represented—in Hollywood, at least—by Doris Day and beach blanket bonanzas, this representation was decidedly more authentic, in terms of settings, clothing, sentiment, and, of course, drug usage.
There is scarcely a scene of Wyatt and Billy on the road that does not pulsate to the tune ofEasy Rider’sphenomenal classic rock accompaniment. The music is not necessarily an overt commentary on the action (though many times there is a general commonality between narrative and musical subject matter, namely in this case, again, drugs), nor is the music emotionally manipulative, in the sense that it sweeps one away in sentimental rapture. Rather, it is simply there—great music over two men riding their bikes through a vast landscape; the music’s placement for its own sake, oftentimes independent of what is seen yet also complementary to the imagery, is in a way a precursor to the music video form set to emerge years later.
A generic comparison is also notable when it comes toEasy Rider. Its obvious allusions to the Western are readily apparent and significant. Aside from the names Wyatt and Billy (references to mythical Wild West icons of the past—the real and embellished versions), the film’s essential image of two loners journeying through the southwest also evokes familiar Western motifs of scenic landscape and wide open possibility. The parallels are also aided in the juxtaposition of motorcycles in place of horses, a point hammered home in a frame that depicts ranchers shoeing a horse in the foreground while, in a strikingly similar position, Wyatt and Billy fix the tire of a bike in the background (curiously, though, Wyatt and Billy are in the barn while the others are outside).
The bikes themselves are literal and figurative vehicles of unimpeded freedom. Billy and Wyatt are open to the environment, with a direct physical closeness between them and the purity of nature. But there is also an associative notoriety to the bikes (aided in large part by previous films), which represents if not lawlessness, at the very least rebellion. In a Kenneth Anger-esque collage of slows pans and lingering close-ups, the hand-crafted choppers are almost fetishized in their graphic and signifying role.
The three main stars ofEasy Riderhad their roots in the hugely influential film school that was Roger Corman. Fonda had to his credit performances inThe Wild Angels(1966) andThe Trip(1967), the latter of which was penned by Nicholson and costarred Hopper. But here, in this Oscar-nominated (screenplay and Nicholson as supporting actor) and Cannes-winning (Best First Work) feature, the trio really scored. For Nicholson, the film would pave the way for a decade of stellar work, including such seminal movies asFive Easy Pieces,The Last Detail(1973),Chinatown(1974),The Passenger(1975), andOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1975). Though Hopper’s role inBlue Velvet(1986) is one for the ages, neither he nor Fonda would match Nicholson’s ultimate historic importance. Fonda, especially, would never quite evolve popularly from a ‘60s icon, an association cleverly recycled by Steven Soderbergh in his 1999 film,The Limey.
Easy Rideris not just a significant American movie. It is also an exceptional example of independent filmmaking, one where, with the unwavering ambition of youth and a desire for something different, a film rises above and beyond the studio-beholden establishment to achieve a triumph all its own. Determination, relevance, and a reasonable degree of skill combined to create a work that firmly stood, and still stands, as a defining work of a generation, as well as a profoundly transitional phase in American cinema.
Twelve years before David Lean took his esteemed brand of filmmaking to an epic scale with a string of movies notable for their sense of grandeur (among other laudable features), he was operating on a less spectacularly sweeping cinematic plane. Chief among these earlier titles isBrief Encounter(1945), Lean’s fourth film as director, which is not only one of his finest, but in its restrained, poignant sensitivity, it gives his lavish super-productions a run for their emotive money.
An accomplished editor since the early 1930s, Lean and the famed artist-of-all-trades Noël Coward had collaborated previously onIn Which We Serve(1942), which then led toThis Happy Breed, an unsung British masterpiece from 1944, andBlithe Spirit(1945). Based on Coward’s “Still Life,” a one-act play Lean actually didn’t care for,Brief Encounterwas next for the duo. While his actual work on the screenplay is debatable, Coward more than Lean at the time was the name to know and accordingly gets his name above the title.
Brief Encountertells the fleeting tale of a short-lived affair between Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard in his first starring role). Both characters are kind, courteous, decent, and married—to other people. And both are hopelessly in love—with each other. Their affair is an intensely intimate one; not necessarily in the physical sense, but in the way their surroundings fade as their concerns, and the film itself, forgo all else around them for the sake of their momentary though passionate connection. With spotlight effects from the great cinematographer Robert Krasker, Lean arranges scenes to shift focus from the environment that frames the drama and to hone in with a tender concentration on these two and these two alone (in a larger, national sense,Brief Encountereven seems to omit its wartime setting). This sort of dissipating of background features—people, places, sounds, etc.—is utilized from the start, as Laura and Alec carry on their evidently wrenching conversation despite bickering at the nearby bar and the horns and rumbles of trains passing by their station refreshment room (“[A] Lean film is incomplete without a locomotive,” notes scholar Kevin Brownlow).
This is where their affair begins, and this is where it ends. When a friend happens into their deliberate privacy, it is a painful intrusion, but one they can do nothing about. Though they are obviously annoyed, Laura and Alec retain their manners and uphold social protocol. This properness and decency in the face of adultery, a composure they maintain throughout the film, allows the two to quickly, and permanently, obtain our sympathies.
As we see in flashback, there is nothing special or exotic about their first meeting in this same train station. It was simply a matter of chance that brings them together—some grit gets blown into Laura’s eye and Alec is the doctor in the house. And it is pure happenstance that continues to align their paths. There isn’t even an instant passion; Laura at one point says she didn’t think twice about their initial introduction. Befitting the film’s overall sense of solemnity and calm, the infatuation ofBrief Encounteritself proceeds slowly, thoughtfully yet unavoidably.
Lean and Coward continually stress that Laura’s life is not unpleasant. She resides in a loving domestic position, albeit one rather routine and perhaps a bit bland. It is a life of comfort, to be sure; a life of sewing and crossword puzzles. She and her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond), are happily married, or at least they were—it’s hard to imagine Laura coming back from such a life-altering experience as this fervent affair. But with children and a loving spouse, she admits her world seemed enough. After an early, and again chance, meeting with Alec, she even tells Fred she had lunch with the stranger, to which he responds with indifference. Is it carelessness, disinterest bred from a complacent trust, or simply distraction? Are one of these three reactions, or all of them, partially to blame for her illicit actions? Everything about their marriage seems so agreeable, and Laura is such an upstanding woman, that we—with her (sympathetically, not judgmentally)—struggle to make sense of her decisions.
Laura’s voiceover narration (which is sometimes a direct play-by-play) is an imagined recounting of events to her husband. As she recalls, there is nothing exciting about the blossoming love between she and Alec, something they both constantly remark upon. In his essay accompanying the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray ofBrief Encounter, Brownlow notes that partially for this very reason Lean considered the film the “riskiest thing I ever did.” “He was afraid the film would turn out to be little more than a women’s magazine trifle,” writes Brownlow. In Lean’s words, “There were no big stars …The main love story had an unhappy ending. The film was played in unglamorous surroundings. And the three leading characters were approaching middle age. A few years ago, that would have been a recipe for box-office disaster.” “They are not ‘movie people,’” adds Adrian Turner, “and the world they live in is resolutely ordinary.”
But from this banality emerges instant, immense charm. There is nothing the least bit lurid about their rendezvous. It just happens. She is hesitant at first and tries to resist the temptation, while he is more assured and somewhat more insistent. In either case, there is an open warmth between the two, which is why their relationship is so enticing and why the viewer is so engaged. To achieve this degree of empathetic association, Howard and especially Johnson are necessarily superb. Their performances are so powerful, so subtle, and so moving, no matter what they’re talking about, what they do, or what one may think about their situation.
There is a time when Laura allows herself the fantasy of a fairy tale life with Alec, but the film is generally – refreshingly – more grounded than that, and soon it’s back to reality. As opposed to the external forces that hinder most cinematic romances, in a way, it is their own happiness that wears them down; more specifically, it is their resounding guilt for being so amorously elated. Their conscious seeps in and the unspoken risks are no longer unavoidable, nor are they permissive. Alas, while it may have been a true love, it is a doomed love. As the consequences of her actions and emotions begin to penetrate her soul, Laura’s grating regret is less about what she does than how she feels, which is appropriate given the film’s pronounced internal struggle. There are precious few romances that attain this degree of emotional resonance on such a familiar level.
In accordance with Lean’s knack for composition, Krasker’s cinematography is gorgeous, even if what we see seldom is. And while the settings are limited and oftentimes restricted, just as the film’s story is about the beauty of ordinary life, Lean’s visual strategy hinges on the depiction of the everyday. The rich photography, the fateful sense of tragedy, and the past-tense voice-over tinged with regret frequently illuminate this romantic film in the shades of noir
Having seen the stages of their relationship play out, the final emotional thrust ofBrief Encounteris the devastation of no proper goodbye. With her friend at their table (incessantly chatting in cruel though unintentional mockery of Laura’s desire to express so much), Alec simply places his hand on Laura’s shoulder and gently squeezes down. Then he leaves to catch his train and to travel forever out of her life. It is as unassuming a farewell as their entire relationship has been. While their painful parting was implied at the start, when the scene is repeated at the conclusion of the film, and we now know the full extent of the despair, the realization is agonizing. “I hardly knew him at all really,” Laura says in voice-over. And it’s true. This was indeed a very brief encounter, but it is one Laura and Alec will remember forever, and this is a film that similarly lingers long after its conclusion.
Sam Fuller was having a rough go of it by the early 1970s. The success of his bombastic B-movie masterpiecesShock Corridor(1963) andThe Naked Kiss(1964) had dwindled, his Burt Reynolds-starringShark!(1969) was an obstructed critical and commercial disaster, and as American cinema underwent a resounding transitional phase, Fuller the iconoclastic director faced repeated difficulties in seeing new projects realized. Ironically, while he struggled to get a string of features off the ground, his popularity was nevertheless growing, especially in Europe, and his prior work was in the midst of a pronounced reevaluation.
It was within this career context that Fuller was approached for his first international production. In California to interview directors from Hollywood’s golden age, German filmmaker Hans-Christoph Blumenberg met with Fuller and the two hit it off. Before their session of wine, food, and conversation was complete, a new venture had been proposed. Fuller was set to write and direct an episode of the tremendously popular and extremely long running German television series Tatort (roughly translated as “scene of the crime”). His contribution was not to be an average segment, however (Fuller, for one thing, thought the series rather dreary). Shot on 35mm,Dead Pigeon on BeethovenStreet was always primed to be a theatrical feature that could stand apart from the rest of the series.
Inspired by the Profumo affair making English headlines at the time,Dead Pigeonpicks up as American private investigator Sandy (Glenn Corbett) tracks down the negative of a compromising photograph showing a socialist United States senator in rapturous embrace with a less than reputable female figure. Behind the provocative picture is a syndicate of blackmailers enlisting high-class call girls to get wealthy statesmen in sticky situations. One of these enterprising young women is Christa (Christa Lang, Fuller’s wife), a seductive mystery woman and, to Sandy, the key to the extortion ring.
Passing himself off as a fellow blackmailer and potential competition, Sandy strikes up a manipulative relationship with Christa and the two partner. And what a Fuller partnership it is. “I like a careful bastard,” she tells him. “I like a bitch who can make up her mind,” he responds. As we watch the drama of their developing alliance, all the while knowing that he is working an angle just as she does on a regular basis, we can’t help but have some sympathy for them both. The question of who is playing who never fully dissipates, but such is the name of the game. In the meantime, though, they are a good team in business and a good pairing as a couple, even if there continually remains the pervasive likelihood of probable deceit.
Christa is a likeable femme fatale, especially when she showcases her efficiency and yet still expresses some guilt with certain victims, or seems to anyway. She likens her work to acting, and she’s not far off. She is essentially paid to put on an act and play a part. But this is exactly why one questions much of what she says and does. We know what Sandy is up to, but with her, we’re not so sure. For his part, Sandy is a smooth operator himself, slick and underhanded when he needs to be. Though ostensibly working on the side of law and order, he can be a shady fellow if that’s what the job calls for. Other times, he is clearly out of his element. He looks hopelessly lost and disheveled, a naive stranger in a strange land. Christa says he resembles an “unemployed rapist.”
Part of this sense of literal foreignness also stems from Sandy’s explicitly conveyed American identity. He is red, white, and blue to the core, so much so that he gushes over John Wayne to the point he nearly misses Christa as she attempts to evade his pursuit. Sandy is also an oddity in that he isn’t always a proficient hero. He is a very Sam Fuller type of protagonist, with faults in his abilities and his character. He is beaten up rather handily near the start of the film, which allows for his prime suspect to escape (“Wasn’t anybody there to give me a hand,” he complains), and at the end, in a rather comical duel, he is a generally inept opponent (though his resourcefulness leads to a brutally haphazard improvisation that nevertheless gets the job done).
Like most of the characters inDead Pigeon, Sandy saunters about exuding a lifetime of tough guy posturing and corresponding tough talk. He is putting on his own act, and like that facade, the film itself is a purely fanciful creation of almost cartoonish violence and behavior. It bursts open in a classically Fuller geyser of energy, with a chase, a shooting, and a murder all in the first scene. From there,Dead Pigeonhas much of what one looks for and admires in a Sam Fuller motion picture – or “emotion picture,” as he would contend. There is a barrage of inventively dynamic camera angles and movements (he films from rooftops and through a hole cut in a baby carriage as it gets pushed along the candid streets), and long takes are bolstered by era-giveaway zooms and broken by flittering quick cuts. Certain settings are exceptionally colorful – in their interior design and their tonal vibrancy – which sets up a swinging contrast of illustrative ebullience within the film’s gritty crime story milieu.
To return to the very beginning of the film, in a credit sequence cut from certain existing prints ofDead Pigeonbut restored for the new Olive Films Blu-ray, Fuller kicks things off with something of a sign of things to come, though it has little bearing on the actual plot until the ending of the picture. This enjoyably bizarre opening features most of the cast and crew (crew including the great cinematographer Jerzy Lipman, the assistant director, editor, and clapper man, among others), all adorned in clownish attire befitting their carnival situation. Fuller himself appears under his credit dressed in a multicolored jacket, sporting a pink hat, and chomping on his trademark cigar.Dead Pigeonmay not maintain this degree of outlandish craziness at all times, but there is an atmosphere of “high jinks and hilarity,” as Fuller puts it, which remains throughout the movie. And as much as anything, this credit sequence also sets up the notion that those who were part of this film, a largely German production team, were evidently having a great time assuming their respective roles, something similarly conveyed in the exuberant, at times somewhat exaggerated, performances.
This is classic Fuller filmmaking, though, and as Dominik Graf notes, there is no mistaking the director’s “brand of ecstatic underground cinema.” Renowned film scholar Janet Bergstrom, who with Graf, Wim Wenders, Christa-Lang Fuller, Samantha Fuller, and others is interviewed as part of a fantastic, nearly two hour documentary on the making of the film (the Blu-ray’s standout supplement), arguesDead Pigeonis Fuller operating at the level of “pop art.” The opening that provides a behind the scenes glimpse of the filmmaking process itself is just the beginning of the movie’s artistic self-awareness. Emulating the French New Wave filmmakers who so admired him, Fuller includes inDead Pigeona variety of cinematic allusions, from Godard’sAlphaville(a clip that features Christa Lang alongside Eddie Constantine and Akim Tamiroff) to a German-dubbedRio Bravo. The “audacious and Brechtian director’s cut” (in Samuel B. Prime’s words) is the only way to see this film that Fuller wanted to be both “funny” and “self-mocking.”
Sometimes it seems Fuller’s enthusiasm gets the better of him and the film’s overall construction can be a little choppy, as if it can barely contain itself. But the distinctly Fulleresque sequences that constituteDead Pigeonmake enough of the individual moments genuinely memorable even if the film as a whole might not add up. See, for example, an early scene at a hospital, which includes not only shots fired in a maternity ward, but a wheelchair bound patient being pushed down a staircase and Eric P. Caspar’s baddie Charlie Umlaut having his jaw cracked on each step as he makes his own rocky descent down the stairs. (Incidentally, Umlaut was a character Rainer Werner Fassbinder wanted to play, a casting decision Fuller nixed but later regretted.) Set to the rock-jazz music of Can, the film is a frenetic junction of “texture vs. story” (the name of a chapter in the aforementioned documentary), where the sights and sounds take precedence over a fully coherent narrative.
Dead Pigeonalso marked Fuller’s conflicted return to Germany, his first visit to the region since he was stationed there as a combatant during World War II. Looking at the country with a new perspective, Fuller cinematically surveys the cities of Cologne, Munich, and Bonn with an admiring, touristic sense of exploration. His fascination with the West German locations was so evident during filmmaking that he would craft entire scenes around particular settings (Beethoven’s birth house, for example, a site where Fuller once spent the night as a soldier in the famed Big Red One unit).
ThoughDead Pigeon on Beethoven Streetwas generally well-received, Fuller’s career didn’t fare much better as a result. Further television work rounded out the 1970s, and in 1980, he was finally able to direct the long-gestatingThe Big Red One, his autobiographical passion project. But even that suffered under the weight of outside interference, as would his following film,White Dog(1982). For a brief time in Germany, though, Sam Fuller was operating just as he liked, with autonomy and enthusiasm. “Hell,Dead Pigeonwasn’t my most accomplished movie,” he acknowledged, “but it was an accomplishment for me to have made it in Europe instead of in my own country.”
The difficulty in picking a definitive Howard Hawks film is that there are so many strong contenders. From his westerns to his screwball comedies, Hawks repeatedly applied regular themes, characterizations, situations, and, less obviously (because his visual style was so unassuming), similar formal features. To the list of potential qualifiers addOnly Angels Have Wings. Released a year after Hawks’ classic—though at the time generally panned—Bringing Up Baby, this 1939 film surely meets the checklist of Hawks requirements. But it also brings something new to the table. That distinction emerges in its unique categorization and a resulting unbounded organization. Broadly, the film is a drama, but it is both more and less than that, and it doesn’t fully adhere to any strict genre conventions. In many ways, there really isn’t anything in Hawks’ canon quite likeOnly Angels Have Wings, even with its defining auteurist attributes.
Part of this unique standing has to do with the film’s story, or its lack of one. Based on Anne Wigton’s seven-page synopsis, “Plane Number Four,” which was then fashioned into a five-page treatment by Hawks called “Plane Four from Baranca,” which was itself bolstered by anecdotes from Mexican bush pilots, the film ultimately bears the screenwriting credit of Jules Furthman, who would later write three other movies for Hawks, includingRio Bravo(1959), Furthman’s final work in Hollywood. (Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin provided uncredited work on theOnly Angels Have Wingsstory as well.) Set in a romanticized South American port, the film follows a few days in the lives of a group of airmail aviators led by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). The picture moves along not so much in a single straight story, but in a series of scenes built largely upon character interaction, a type of structure oftentimes preferred by Hawks over narratives assembled from related, clearly consequential actions. There are certainly some big moments in the film, occurrences that carry significant weight in terms of the film’s plot: the overriding attempt to secure a government contract, Joe’s (Noah Beery Jr.) death early in the movie, the developing romance between Geoff and Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), and Kid’s (Thomas Mitchell) devastation at not being able to fly when his eyesight is deemed too poor. But in general,Only Angels Have Wingsunravels moment to moment, without one grand story to tell.
More than anything, the film is a chronicle of the job at hand, and it is around that basic focus that even these aforementioned dramatic benchmarks gain their relevance. A World War I pilot and builder of airplanes, Hawks has a clear admiration and intricate knowledge of these men and their flying machines. Having recently directed another aviation feature,Ceiling Zero(1936), he was particularly attuned to the sounds of an aircraft, a reverberation that throughoutOnly Angels Have Wingssignifies tense transitions of life and death as planes perilously take off or land safely. There is also a perceptive aural emphasis on the systems of aviation, the methodical processes of registering weather conditions, radio checks, relaying messages, and analyzing technical settings.
InOnly Angels Have Wings, the men are an admirably professional lot (would they be anything else in a Hawks film?). They are good at what they do, and what they do defines them. The community of flyers, like the film, is primarily concerned with competence and camaraderie. Subsequently, when Kid is told he can no longer continue, the news is devastating. This is more than a job; this is his life. To be grounded is to die. At the same time, the job is nerve-wracking for those on land and death-defying for those in the air. When not performing their normal mail courier responsibilities, they are taking on side duties (delivering nitroglycerin into treacherous oil fields, for instance), adding further complications to an already harrowing liability. This enigmatic profession is something singular, something distinct from other lines of work. “It’s like being in love with a buzz saw,” says Bonnie, confounded by the love of the job even with its fundamental hazards. So what’s the appeal? Even the men say they don’t know.
After Joe dies, perhaps the scene whereOnly Angels Have Wingstakes its sharpest dramatic turn and reveals the heartbreaking, horrific severity of the occupation, Geoff is confronted about the death. “That was his job,” says the matter-of-fact supervisor. “He just wasn’t good enough.” Dutchy (Sig Ruman), the resident bartender/restaurateur/shopkeeper/confidant, says Geoff is too hard. Which is true. When asked about the recently departed Joe, Geoff responds with, “Who’s Joe?” a blatant, unfeeling attempt to quickly forget the loss. He can be cold and callous, hardened by a life that has seen more than its fair share of despair. It is his unwavering toughness, however, that enables him to run a tight ship of proficient experts, which is why Joe’s suggested professional ineptitude is the only reasonable explanation for his death.
As such, Geoff is not as much fun as other Hawks leads, even if the director argues he is more sensitive than the characters played by Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. A lot of that has to do with his jaundiced view of life and work, and that, in turn, is based on a seemingly unsympathetic practicality (why bother mourning when there’s nothing to be done), as well as a stubborn reluctance to give in to emotion. Furthermore, Geoff expresses an acerbic remoteness rare for Cary Grant, though he nevertheless excels in the role (by comparison, his one prior collaboration with Hawks, and the three to follow, were much lighter comedies). As odd as Geoff’s sentiments are to Bonnie and to the audience at first, it becomes evident that such is the way of the land and he is not alone in this cynical view of life. These bad things happen, and people carry on. A fatal plane crash occurs literally in their backyard, but within minutes, everyone is eating and drinking as if it were any other night out.
Geoff’s nature does more than illustrate his integrity and his corresponding expectations from others. It also sets up the somewhat antagonistic relationship between he and Bonnie, who is played to perfection by the beaming Arthur. (With more than 31 films to her credit in the 1930s alone, Arthur would only star in another 10 features afterOnly Angels Have Wings, her final screen appearance being in 1953’sShane;she died in 1991.) Immediately upon landing for a brief stopover in Barranca (now spelled with two r’s in the film), Bonnie is seen as a spunky breath of fresh air, passing by a bar and joining in a song before she is even through the door. Referred to as a “strong character”—the Hawksian woman in a nutshell—she is initially vexed by Geoff and the others. Then, during a key transitional scene, she gets acclimated through another sing-a-long and begins to understand. In the Hawks tradition, the female outsider has been accepted into the predominantly male group, and when Bonnie greets Geoff one morning with a wave and cheery “hello,” even if he hasn’t fallen in love with her yet, we have. Curiously, though, this type of cordial effervescence was not what Hawks had in mind, and he and Arthur would frequently butt heads over their differing ideas for the character. In any event, the connection between Geoff and Bonnie is not a simple one. She intends to model her relationship with Geoff on his relationship with Kid: no questions, no orders, a mutual trust and understanding. Acknowledging the way she has changed during her short time in the area, Bonnie says, “I don’t know if this is me or another fella,” explicitly stating the gender mutability one commonly sees with Hawks’ women.
Together, Geoff and Bonnie are the perfect blend of hard and soft features. Geoff is continually surprised by her challenging inquiries and he doesn’t necessarily appreciate it. Yet somehow, as couples so often do with Hawks, they meet in the middle. She probes and provokes and is shocked by his apparent carelessness, but she’s not done with him yet. Grant and Arthur are spectacular together, and while there isn’t the same sort of sexual tension one sees with Bogart and Bacall, nor is there the playfulness of Grant and Hepburn, there is still a quirky, unconventional romance that stems from a chance encounter between two seemingly incongruent individuals.
An additional subplot of importance concerns disgraced pilot Bat MacPherson, played by Richard Barthelmess, an actor perhaps still most widely known for his excellent performance as the now decidedly un-PC “Yellow Man” in D.W. Griffith’sBroken Blossoms(1919). MacPherson arrives in town with his wife – and Geoff’s ex -Judy (Rita Hayworth in one of her most prominent early roles). She isn’t aware of MacPherson’s notorious past – that he abandoned a plane leaving his mechanic, and Kid’s younger brother, to die alone- but based on the reactions of others, she knows enough to know there is something lurking in his shady backstory. More important than that, however, as befits another Hawks theme, is that MacPherson is still skilled, which leads to a characteristic second chance that sets up a gratifying redemption. Like Dude (Dean Martin) inRio Bravo, for example, or Robert Mitchum’s Sheriff Harrah in the very similarEl Dorado(1966), Hawks’ men are allowed a slip up, a regression in their stalwart character, as long as they regain their proficiency by film’s end.
Only Angels Have Wingsreceived two Oscar nominations in 1940, one for Joseph Walker’s black and white cinematography and one for the special effects by Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn, the first time such an achievement was recognized by the Academy. Benefiting from both of these technical accomplishments is the film’s extraordinary production design, headed by art director Lionel Banks. There is little to no camera movement in the film, but nearly every shot is active and vivid, with individual compositions teaming with life and ornate atmosphere. Constructed under a tent on the Columbia back-lot, the airfield set is an extraordinarily realized location: inimitable, isolated, exotic, and, as Peter Bogdanovich notes in an interview with Hawks on the recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, confined and claustrophobic.
Only Angels Have Wings, or, as the title card actually reads, “— only angels have wings,” suggesting its placement at the end of a sentence, the first part of which is never revealed, is one of Howard Hawks’ finest films, arguably his quintessential work. It is a touching ode to the bravery and passion of a particular group of men, capable men who revel in their chosen profession’s potential for danger; with gun belts leaving pistols at the ready, these pilots are like anarchic cowboys in the South America wilderness. The result of their exploits can be emotionally wrenching (the film includes an absolutely devastating death scene toward the end), but like Bonnie, who marvels as a plane takes off, commenting with awe, “It’s really a flying human being,” we also can’t help but appreciate their devotion to the occupation and to one another. The same could be said for several Hawks movies, but withOnly Angels Have Wings,it really is the case that, as critic David Thomson states, “These are places where you just want to be … a team you want to be a part of.”