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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Man With No Name (originally published 10/96)

Every now and then, the man with no name rides into town. He sows the seeds of chaos, then rides away again, leaving behind a changed narrative landscape. With the release of writer/director Walter Hill's "Last Man Standing," the nameless one is back again. The main character, played by Bruce Willis, masks his namelessness with the fig leaf of a generic name (John Smith), but there can be little doubt of his iconic pedigree.

To trace the roots of this character, we must begin with a novel that was never directly translated to the screen. The stories of Dashiell Hammett provided the inspiration for a number of classic American detective films, but his first novel, "Red Harvest," was never adapted by Hollywood. It features an anonymous main character, the narrator of the novel, whom Hammett refers to only as "the Continental Op," because he is an operative for the Continental Detective Agency.

The town that the Op rides into is a nasty little city in the Northwest called Personville, although it is better known to the locals as "Poisonville." The town is run by rival gangs of mobsters, whom the local officials are forced to tolerate. The three principal gang leaders are a bootlegger, a loan shark, and a gambler. The Op learns the dirty secrets of each in turn and uses them to set the criminals at one another's throats. In the end, all three ringleaders have been murdered, each a victim of the violent subculture on which they had thrived for so long.

In creating his anonymous gumshoe character, Hammett was doing more than spinning cynical tales about urban corruption. He was also reacting against the detective story tradition of colorful detectives with fascinating names like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. The Continental Op isn't in this line of work for the stimulation of solving abstruse riddles based on enigmatic clues. He's doing a job to draw a paycheck, and seeing far too much of the seamy side of life in the process.

The detective story would never be quite the same after Hammett's novels and the similarly revisionist fiction of Raymond Chandler. In fact, the influence of this particular story reached all the way to the Japanese cinema, and from there to Italy, and now back to the United States. To trace the development of this story on screen, look for the following two films on home video.

"Yojimbo" (1961). Japanese director Akira Kurosawa translated "Red Harvest" into a Japanese setting with Toshiro Mifune starring as a masterless samurai who happens upon a village torn by civil strife. As in Hammett's Personville, powerful factions are lined up against each other. In this case, the silk merchants are on one side of the conflict and the sake merchants are on the other. Like the Continental Op, the samurai is a nameless figure, referred to only as "the bodyguard" ("yojimbo"), who deliberately sets about upsetting the town's precarious balance of power. He hires himself out as a henchman for first one side and then the other. When the tensions between the two groups erupt into fighting in the streets as a result of his provocations, he perches atop a fire tower and sits back to enjoy the show.

Like Hammett, Kurosawa was reacting against a long-standing narrative tradition. He replaces the hero of the traditional Japanese swordfighting films with a shifty character who uses underhanded means to achieve essentially selfish ends. Also, he tells the story in a comic fashion, inviting us to sit back and laugh at the townspeople just as the samurai does.

"A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). This momentous little Italian production simultaneously launched the careers of director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood, as well as kicking off a cycle of Italian "Spaghetti Westerns." The story is lifted more or less directly from "Yojimbo," except for the setting, which is changed to a Mexican village near the Mexican-American border. Eastwood is a man with -- that's right -- no name who rides into town and interposes himself between feuding families. He plays both sides against the middle and rides away unscathed after they destroy each other. And, like detective fiction after Hammett and samurai films after Kurosawa, Westerns were never to be quite the same again.

Now, with "Last Man Standing," the man with no name has come full circle, back to his roots in American gangster fiction. I can't help wondering what kind of narrative landscape he will leave behind him this time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sophia and Marcello (originally published 1/95)

One of the many delights, for me at least, of watching Robert Altman's current release, "Pret-a-Porter" ("Ready To Wear"), was the on-screen reunion of one of world cinema's most memorable romantic teams. Although both Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren have enjoyed great success appearing separately, it is their performances as co-stars that most movie fans recall with the greatest affection.

Interestingly, their joint film work is largely bound up with a third dignitary of the Italian cinema, Vittorio De Sica. Although best remembered as the director of such Neorealist masterpieces as "The Bicycle Thief" and "Umberto D," De Sica began his movie career as an actor. Having parlayed his reputation as a stage matinee idol into a series of movie roles as a suave leading man, De Sica was cast in a 1954 comedy called "Too Bad She's Bad," along with Loren and Mastroianni.

The three Neapolitans got along famously, and their screen chemistry reflected the fact. The film's success prompted a second teaming of the threesome in another light comedy the following year. There was supposed to be a third, but at the last minute De Sica was replaced by Charles Boyer while Loren and Mastroianni were retained.

Soon after, Loren made the move to Hollywood and international stardom. During the next several years, she appeared opposite American leading men such as Cary Grant, John Wayne, and William Holden. Mastroianni, meanwhile, had achieved something unprecedented among Italian leading men. He had become a major international star without going to Hollywood. Largely this was the result of his lead performances in "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963), both of which were among the most celebrated films of Federico Fellini.

Sadly, those earliest Loren-Mastroianni films, made before their separate careers blossomed, are not available on home video. [2011 update: Happily, this is no longer the case. "Too Bad She's Bad" is now available on DVD.] There was, however, a second phase to their work together, and most of those films have been released on video. Here are some titles to look for.

"Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (1963). This screen reunion of Loren and Mastroianni turned out also to be a reunion with De Sica, but with a difference. This time De Sica was directing the picture instead of co-starring. The film tells three stories involving different characters, but all played by the same actors. In the first story, Loren plays a petty thief who avoids going to prison by turning up pregnant whenever she is about to be sentenced. This allows her to take advantage of a local law prohibiting the jailing of pregnant women for minor offenses. The second story tells of a wealthy woman (Loren) having a brief fling with a lower class man (Mastroianni). It is the third section, however, that people tend to remember. Mastroianni plays a young man studying for the priesthood who becomes infatuated with a prostitute (Loren). In one scene, Loren performs a steamy striptease for Mastroianni that has become a classic in its own right. In fact, Altman took the opportunity in "Pret-a-Porter" to create a scene that echoes that famous encounter, albeit with a wry twist.

"Marriage Italian Style" (1964). Again under De Sica's direction, Loren plays Mastroianni's long-time lover who has spent years caring for his mother and waiting for him to propose marriage. When he suddenly announces his engagement to someone else, she realizes that the time has come to take matters into her own hands.

"A Special Day" (1977). Director Ettore Scola's remarkable addition to the Loren-Mastroianni canon is set in Rome on the day of Hitler's visit to Mussolini. Loren plays a housewife who has declined to accompany her fascist husband to the festivities. Mastroianni plays her neighbor, a radio announcer who has just been fired because he is homosexual and because he disapproves of the fascist regime. The two come together in a brief encounter and then part ways. Both actors were playing against type -- Mastroianni against his Continental lover image, Loren against her glamorous image -- and both made the most of the opportunity.

I can only hope that "Pret-a-Porter" might signal the beginning of a third phase of the Loren-Mastroianni screen partnership. They may be a bit long in the tooth to return to sex comedies, but each has proved many times over that their range extends far beyond farce and their charm far beyond mere sex appeal.
[2011 update: Sadly, additional Loren-Mastroianni collaborations were not to be. Mastroianni died two years after the release of "Pret-a-Porter."]