Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Most Dangerous Game, The Getaway, Dressed to Kill, Gunga Din

The Most Dangerous Game (Schoedsack, Pichel, 1932) Rating: 7/10.

A classic piece of pulp adventure that still retains some power to thrill despite its low budget and visible seams.

It stars a young Joel McCrea, who, bless him, hasn’t really figured out how to act yet--Fay Wray acts rings around him with a glance and a few words.  Leslie Banks as the villain Count Zaroff is pretty effective without being quite great.  There’s no doubt the film would be elevated significantly by a different lead, and if you changed out a couple of the sportsmen at the beginning, Fay’s obnoxious brother, and maybe replaced Banks with Karloff or Lugosi, you might have something like a masterpiece on your hands.  Because that chase finale is really gangbusters, with evocative sets (used for King Kong weeks later) and thrilling POV shots and some pretty intense violence courtesy of the pre-Code release date.  Schoedsack knew how to get some atmosphere and fear with his camera.  McCrea’s strategy during the chase is pretty weak from today’s perspective, but I’m sure at the time it must have thrilled 10-year-old boys no end.  And isn’t that the objective they were going for?

Anyway, my point is the thing is influential and worth watching.  The themes of civilized man vs. barbarian and human vs. animal are eternally rich, if barely tapped here.  Beneath the cardboard sets and even-more-cardboard people there is something primordial bubbling; an underground spring of pulp-myth that has trickled in all directions and has yet to dry up.

The Getaway (Peckinpah, 1972) Rating: 5/10.

You'd think a movie based on a Jim Thompson novel, adapted for the screen by Walter Hill, starring Steve McQueen, and directed by Sam Peckinpah would be more tight and thrilling than this. Unfortunately (with that lineup, tragically), you'd be wrong.
The characters are admirably ruthless, the opening sequence is atemporally edited with brilliance, and there are several strong scenes, but none of that can obscure the fact that I was ready for this to be over long before it was. Peckinpah's shaggy qualities get the best of his storytelling here.

Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980) Rating: 6/10.

I got interested in De Palma after watching Blow Out last year on a whim, and realizing I’d seen a masterpiece.  (I’d seen Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables long before, of course, but neither led me on to his other work.)  I’ve since seen Obsession and this movie, and I confess I’m a bit flummoxed.  If Obsession is practically a remake of Vertigo, then Dressed to Kill is something like a fan fiction retelling of Psycho.  (Think 50 Shades of Grey’s famous relation to Twilight made explicit.)  Neither seem to exist on their own, but at least Obsession feels like an actual plot with actual characters, even if they’re (intentionally) unbelievable.

Dressed to Kill opens with a sequence of pure softcore porn, and tosses in a couple more as it goes along.  But of course no porn director, not even in the ‘70s, ever moved his camera or cut his footage the way De Palma does; the movie is always visually interesting, often virtuosic.  And along the way, he scores points for (and against) seemingly every single team in the sex and gender debates.  (If you think watching Angie Dickinson soaping herself and moaning is offensive and objectifying, De Palma can respond that we’re watching her dream, after all, so he’s really just being frank about the sexual desires and needs of the middle-aged housewife.  Right??)  The first act is impossible to take seriously (you either have to use it like porn or laugh defensively), but then it turns into a genuinely exciting thriller for a while, and turns a hooker and a nerdy kid into pretty lovable protagonists--before diving back into ridiculous sleaze at the end.  That sequence in the museum is mesmerizing!  That chase on the subway is terrifying!  That fake-out ending is stupid!

I just don’t know.  I can’t take it seriously, like I said, but then it’s probably all a big meta joke anyway.

Gunga Din (Stevens, 1939) Rating: 8/10.

Here is a movie that would have instantly become a favorite, if it weren’t so racist.  There’s an argument to be made that over the course of the narrative, the English fun and games are gradually invaded and taken over by the Indians--Din moves from dumb lackey to sacrificial hero, and the Thuggee Guru from freakish pagan priest to eloquent critic and honorable/brave adversary--but the ethics of representation surrounding them are too compromised from the beginning (they’re both white actors in brownface, after all) for me to embrace such a reading.  And the way our heroes treat all Indians they encounter is so filled with contempt and suspicion (though Din is eventually tolerated/patronized like a child), so clearly evident of colonialist cruelty, that it’s disturbing the movie never takes the time (even at the end) to punish them for it, or suggest a change of heart.  Indeed, their attitude is fully justified by the Thuggee activities.  (Again, you could make an argument that this is just reflecting the way the soldier acts in Kipling’s poem, and change of heart is implicit in the final shots, but this is undercut too strongly by the trio’s practical joking in the middle of the battle--after Din is already dead.)

All that aside, the rest of the movie is still pretty swell.  The darker elements are all smoothed over by the slick swashbuckling surface, surely among the most joyous and entertaining of such swashbucklers made in classic Hollywood.  The Adventures of Robin Hood is what most comes to mind in comparison, and while Gunga Din lacks the Flynn-de Havilland romance, the team of Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is considerably funnier than anything Robin’s Merry Men get up to.  This was clearly an important movie for a lot of directors who saw it young; it’s immediately apparent as a primary source for Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, and probably Star Wars as well.  There are a couple action scenes here that must be among the finest in history to that point, and the climax especially appears to be a model for the Battle of Five Armies.

It’s basically a perfect movie for a 10-year-old boy: girls are icky, fist- and swordfights are cool, elephants are funny, and heroes can walk into the swarming enemy’s camp alone and come out alive.

(Gunga Din poster from Doctor Macro.)