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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Gumshoes (originally published 9/95)

Few characters in the movies, and in fiction as a whole, are more durable than the private investigator. He's a fascinating, solitary figure, serving the ends of justice like a policeman, and yet largely free of the constraints that society places on its law enforcement officers. The writers who have given us the most enduring private eye characters tend to play on the lone wolf aspect of the profession to give us a romanticized vision of a man whose personal code of ethics takes precedence over a corrupt society's rules.

The golden era of such private eye tales was the 1930s and 40s, when Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were at their peak. The new Denzel Washington film, "Devil in a Blue Dress," returns to that period as the setting for its story. By setting up shop on such classic turf, both generically and chronologically, the filmmakers invite comparison, as did Walter Mosley, the author of the novel on which the film is based. Mosley's novel stood up very well under the comparison, leading to a successful series of novels featuring the character of Easy Rawlins. If you want to see if the movie compares as well with its classic counterparts, you'll want to seek out the movie incarnations of Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Between them, these two characters constitute the absolute prototype of the hard-boiled gumshoe. Look for these titles on home video.

"The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Sam Spade appeared in print in only a single novel and a handful of short stories, but the mark he left on the detective genre is profound and indelible. The novel, "The Maltese Falcon," has been adapted for the screen several times, and the character of Spade became the basis for a popular radio drama series starring Howard Duff. The Sam Spade who will endure, however, is the 1941 movie portrayal by Humphrey Bogart. He embodied the essence of the wisecracking private eye who plays strictly by his own rules and always manages to one-up his antagonists. In this classic film, Spade encounters a group of shady characters who are obsessed with the pursuit of an artifact of incalculable value -- the statue of a falcon, embedded with precious stones. The supporting cast is impressive, including Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor, but it is Bogart's performance and the fascinating character of Spade himself that make the film work.

"Murder, My Sweet" (1944). Even more intriguing than Sam Spade is Raymond Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe. Whereas Spade is a pragmatist, Marlowe is more of an idealist. Both have adapted to the underbelly of urban life, but Marlowe remains perpetually disappointed by it. Both are hard-bitten cynics, but Spade's cynicism goes right to the bone, while Marlowe's is nothing more than a surface armor, a carapace that defends him against a hard and brutal world. Marlowe, in short, is a contradiction, which makes him more complex, and therefore more interesting, than Spade. In "Murder, My Sweet," director Edward Dmytryk exploited the contradictions at the heart of Marlowe's character by casting against type. Dick Powell had been known primarily as a singer, having starred in a string of light musicals. With this film he sharply changed that image, giving a memorable performance as the hard-nosed Marlowe. Hired by a thug to trace his missing girlfriend and simultaneously hired by a society matron to investigate a murder, Marlowe learns that the upper crust and the dregs of society aren't all that different when you start digging into their secrets.

"Farewell, My Lovely" (1975). Some 30 years later, this same story was remade, restoring Chandler's original title and featuring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. Mitchum is absolutely brilliant in the role, creating the most achingly world-weary Marlowe of all. This is a man who has seen it all. And most of what he's seen, he hasn't liked.

The real fruition of the hard-boiled private eye film occurred during and immediately following World War II, as many Americans returned from the battlefields of Europe and Asia having seen a side of humanity that they didn't like. We had lost our collective innocence at Buchenwald and Dresden, and our movies turned dark to reflect that fact.

By now, however, we have become more hardened, more like Sam Spade and less like Marlowe as a society. It will be interesting to see what sort of societal mood "Devil in a Blue Dress" reflects.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Thousand and One Nights (originally published 9/95)

Of all the collections of tales assembled by storytellers down through the centuries, few can claim to be as influential as "The Thousand and One Nights." The Arabian Nights tales were supposedly told nightly by the wily Scheherazade in order to postpone her scheduled execution by arousing her royal husband's curiosity as to how each tale would end. The king can hardly be blamed for being taken in, however, since these spellbinding stories have left their mark on the imaginations of generation after generation of artists. From the music of Rimsky-Korsakov to the poetry of Tennyson, the creative works bearing the imprint of the Arabian Nights narratives are many and varied.

Movies, certainly, are no exception. The current animated release, "Arabian Knight," is an example, as is the recent Disney megahit "Aladdin." For those who remain entranced by the narrative spell of Scheherazade, here are some earlier examples of Arabian Nights movies that are available on home video.

"Arabian Nights" (1942). During the 1940s, Jon Hall and Maria Montez were teamed for a series of flashy, gaudy adventure movies. Neither of them can be called a great actor by any means, but they both looked good in their costumes and their movies did very well at the box office. In recent years their films together have become cult classics, much prized by the camp crowd. If you're willing to lighten up and not try to take the movie seriously, this one can be great fun. Montez plays Scheherazade, with Hall as her suitor. How campy is it? Let me put it this way: the role of Sinbad is played by Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges.

"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1943). Following up on the success of "Arabian Nights," Hall and Montez teamed up again to tell the story of Ali Baba. The storyline borrows at least as much from the Robin Hood legends as from the Arabian Nights tales, but when you're having this much fun, who's counting? Shemp doesn't appear in this one, but you do get to enjoy hearing perennial Western sidekick Andy Devine wrap his trademark raspy voice around Arabian Nights dialogue.

"Kismet" (1955). This story of Arabian romance and intrigue had been a stage vehicle for some time before it was converted into a musical. The songs, including "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads," were based on themes by Alexander Borodin. The film version of the musical play was produced by MGM at the height of the studio's glory days as the home of the finest musical production unit in Hollywood. Howard Keel stars as The Poet, around whom the intrigues of the plot are centered. Sebastian Cabot is the Wazir, whose machinations drive the plot.

"The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958). For a rousing fantasy adventure, you can't do much better than this tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Kerwin Matthews stars as Sinbad, but the real star of the show is Ray Harryhausen, who created the visual effects. Courtesy of his sophisticated stop-motion animation techniques, you'll find it easy to suspend your disbelief and come away feeling as if you've actually seen a cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, and a host of other Arabian Nights wonders. This film was followed by a series of Sinbad pictures, but "Seventh Voyage" remains the best of the lot. Just to give you a sampling of the film's striking visual effects, a re-release trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"1001 Arabian Nights" (1959). If you're looking for something more along the lines of "Arabian Knight," try this animated feature starring the one and only Mr. Magoo, as voiced by Jim Backus. Other familiar voices include Dwayne Hickman of "Dobie Gillis" fame, Hans Conried, and Herschel Bernardi.

"The Arabian Nights" (1974). In the early 1970s, controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini made what he called his "Trilogy of Life," adapting first "The Decameron," then "The Canterbury Tales," and finally "The Arabian Nights." This is a somewhat spicier version of "The Thousand and One Nights" than the others I've mentioned, taking its cue more from Sir Richard Burton's 1885 unexpurgated translation.

All of these are delightful in their own way, but probably the best Arabian Nights movies of all are the two classic renderings of the story of "The Thief of Bagdad." The first was a silent version made in 1924 by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the other was made by Alexander Korda in 1940. Each one is an absolute delight, packed with laughs, thrills, and wonders.