The Morning After: March 21, 2011

I know that I’m still not caught up, but I’m trying. I have only two Feed the Queue films left to watch (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and last week’s selection The Hustler). I also have reviews left to write for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Dog Day Afternoon. What I have for you this week includes recent theatrical release The Adjustment Bureau, mind-clearing diversion The Naked Gun and Feed the Queue entry Touch of Evil.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

TOUCH OF EVIL


Corruption in a small, U.S.-Mexican border town threatens to upend the work of a Mexican drug enforcement officer when an investigation into the bombing of a prominent U.S. dignitary in Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil.

Foreshadowing much of the struggle against drug operatives in the United States and Mexico, Touch of Evil is surprisingly modern for a film made more than fifty years ago. The black-and-white cinematography creates a prescient, almost otherwordly quality for the film. Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston in one of his best performances) is trying to thwart a major drug cartel in Mexico, but finds himself at odds with prejudiced, corrupt Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) over the bombing claimed to be part of the drug war. Certain that the culprit could not be a Mexican citizen and afraid that any such validation could damage relations between his country and the U.S., Vargas begins his own investigation into the events while his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh) becomes an unwitting pawn in the whole affair.

Although Heston is the lead and delivers a solid performance, it’s Welles who is the clear standout. Welles gives perhaps his greatest performance, eclipsing his celebrated turn in Citizen Kane by a small margin. Quinlan is quick-witted, vicious and deceptive, and Welles does a masterful job keeping the character from verging into caricature. You don’t sympathize with the character, but you somewhat understand him and his motivations.

Welles directed few films, but among his works are three of the most celebrated films in history. Citizen Kane is an obvious example of his forward-thinking vision and The Magnificent Ambersons is similarly feted; but Touch of Evil never did meet his personal expectations as studio butchers stripped much of his vision, re-shot and re-edited it and then ignored his impassioned letter requesting his changes be reverted. Today, a re-edited version, attempting to adhere to the designations in his correspondence, is available on DVD and may be the most accurate example of what Welles attempted to do that we may ever see.

Universal, claiming Welles refused to return and do re-shoots to match their expectations of the film, re-edited the rough cut Welles had provided and began manipulating it into something Welles disliked greatly. They even brought in director Harry Keller to perform the desired changes, further maligning Welles’ vision. Welles wrote a 58-page memo to Universal detailing how he wished the film to be cut and fixed, but his request went unheeded, releasing it at a scaled-down 93 minutes. In 1976, thinking it had found an original cut, Universal released a 108-minute print that post-dated Welles’ letter. It wasn’t until 1998 that famed editor Walter Murch took Welles notes and attempted to cobble together a more Welles-ian cut of the film with what available footage they had. Unfortunately, we will likely never see the original version Welles had intended for much of the extant material is lost, so we’ll have to accept the 1998 111-minute version (the one that I reviewed) as the closest we may ever get.

But the legacy of Touch of Evil will endure regardless of how much of the original we wont’ be able to see. The 3-minute opening shot, a single-take tracking shot, remains one of the most iconic in film history. It has been discussed and mimicked a number of times in history and many filmmakers (like Robert Altman in The Player, Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence and Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights) have done their best to create similarly memorable shots, but we’ll always remember the terrific one used in Touch of Evil as the most impressive.

The dark atmosphere, compelling story and evocative plot help Touch of Evil stand out as fine example of the film noir genre. The film has aged very little in the last fifty three years. Its dark, daring narrative was more progressive than other films of its time and even when compared with modern films, there’s more boldness and inventiveness in even an incomplete cut of the film than most of today’s movies aspire to be.

THE NAKED GUN


It has been a number of years since I’ve seen the original Naked Gun film and watching it again, I’m taken aback at how well it has aged.

Released in 1988, The Naked Gun was the first of three films adapted from the short-lived television comedy Police Squad starring Leslie Nielsen (in both incarnations) as bumbling detective Frank Drebin. The film opens as a number of prominent, and dangerous, world leaders are meeting to discuss an event that will destroy the credibility and prominence of the United States. That one of the leaders, Muammar Gaddafi, is a prominent figure in the news of late, the scene carries a bit of eeriness today. And the other leaders, Yasser Arafat, Idi Amin, Ayatollah Khomeini and Mikhail Gorabachev, have, for ill or good, become important parts of that history. Yet, it’s Nielsen’s skill as a physical comedian with unquestionable timing that gives the film much of its timeless quality.

The film concerns itself with a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II while she is in Los Angeles on a three-stop American trip. At the head of the plot is prominent business tycoon Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) who has invented a watch-based mind control device that will turn ordinary citizens into assassins. It’s like Manchurian Candidate without the psychological torture or controlling mother. Ludwig’s goons assaulted police detective Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), pulling Drebbin out of the field and back to Los Angeles where he can investigate the near-fatal attempt on Nordberg’s life, which then leads to an investigation of the scheme to kill the queen.

Through a series of pratfalls, well-timed comic dialogue and clever sight gags, The Naked Gun dances through the narrative to create an entertaining and exciting comic triumph. Part of that success is thanks to director David Zucker, his brother Jerry and their cohort Jim Abrahams who created the original series on which the film was based. Their initial success with Airplane! in 1980 set them up a gifted team of spoof filmmakers. Though their post-Naked Gun series output has left a lot to be desired, their ’80s and early ’90s successes have been copied and augmented ever since. The other output has been undeniably inferior, which speaks volumes of the quality of the originals.

While I remember nearly every detail of The Naked Gun since I last saw it more than 15 years ago, a number of small sight gags that I missed the first time around made for a more enriching experience. Whether it’s the origin of the finger hot dog or the self-moving expired refrigerator food, there’s seldom a scene or segment of the screen that doesn’t provide fertile ground for capable humor.

There have been few comic actors like Nielsen. He could deftly deliver a witty line without so much as a smirk. His trademark face of idiotic sobriety added depth of purpose to his work. How many actors could deliver a line like “Yes, he’s in the intensive care ward at Our Lady of the Worthless Miracle” without seeming like he’s trying too hard to be clever. He was one of a kind.

But the film wasn’t a one-man show, though it often feels that way. Ricardo Montalban plays the film’s villain with effortless charm, playing straight to someone playing his comedy straighter isn’t an easy task. Doing so while keeping your prestige and dignity in tact is. Also in fine form is Oscar winner George Kennedy. Kennedy plays Drebin’s boss and friend Ed Hocken, a well-meaning, by-the-book leader whose stupidity is just a shade more bold than Nielsen’s. They play so extremely well in scenes together that you might have imagined them playing elder versions of Laurel and Hardy with a great deal of ease.

Despite the historical frame of reference with Arafat, Khomeini and Amin having passed away between then and now; and Gorbachev having faded into the historical Cold War reference material as a private citizen, the film almost feels like it could have been released only a few months ago. The design elements and fashion only seem slightly faded and some of the cultural references are a bit obtuse these days, but there’s no question that The Naked Gun is as funny as it ever was.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU


What if free will is a myth? What if the creator gives the semblance of free will in an effort to placate the masses to push forward with his own vision of the future. The Adjustment Bureau speaks both for and against this concept with equal frustration.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is an up-and-coming congressman from New York whose attempts to be elected to the Senate are thwarted, not by his past indiscretions as we are first led to believe, but by a group of “corporate” adjusters forcing him into a predestined plan. It is during the election night event that he meets the beautiful British dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) who he shares an intimate moment in the men’s restroom shortly before going on stage to give his concession speech. It is this encounter that gives him the encouragement he needs to stand in front of the crowd and deliver an electrifying speech that sets him up for a sure victory in six years. The only problem is that the girl he has just encountered was supposed to be his fated lover, but plans have changed and David is close to a life-altering discovery.

After moving into the private sector, a chance encounter with Elise on a bus, a bus David was not supposed to catch, sets in motion a series of events that slowly unravel the master plan that the adjusters are trying to keep together. Faced with a crisis, The Adjustment Bureau reveals itself to David and tells him that terrible things could happen if he continues to pursue and interact with Elise. It does not stop him and, after a time, he tracks Elise down again only to invite the scrutiny of the Bureau once again. This time, they convince him to stay away from her or risk her life and happiness because of his foolishness. Out of love for her, he agrees not to see her again, abandoning her when she needs him most.

Other forces are moving in David and Elise’s lives and they are not part of the “Chairman’s” plan. The power of passion and love compel them down their paths and they won’t be dissuaded by external forces, despite the manifest destiny that has been laid before them, in rapidly changing maps of the future held by the Adjustment Bureau’s be-hatted members.

Screenwriter George Nolfi takes on two duties with his debut feature, which he adapted from a Phillip K. Dick short story. The Adjustment Bureau bares little resemblance to the Dick short, which only concerns itself with the concept of an Adjustment Team (the story’s title) with everything else jettisoned. Other than for copyright reasons, there is little reason to have given Dick any credit. It would be like taking a painting off the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and building a papier maché model. Good for a bit of reference, but missing a great deal of the detail and richness that made the source compelling in the first place.

Not that Damon and Blunt don’t work extremely hard to make it feel more resonant. Their performances stand out from the film as examples of rising above the material. Their innate chemistry makes for a compelling story. Ignoring the film’s more troubling elements, Damon and Blunt navigate skillfully through the light twists in the narrative and make you root for their success. It’s like watching a classic Hollywood team like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Gifted thespians whose work together often transcended the quality of the material to make for a more engaging experience.

The three most prominent adjusters, played by Anthony Mackie (David’s personal adjuster), John Slattery (his immediate superior) and Terence Stamp (the cleaner), provide able support to Damon and Blunt, each appealing to the audience in their own way. Even their support of the story seems minimal when compared with the undeniable leads.

Hollywood has a knack for diluting the basic premises of source material in order to appeal to a broader demographic. And while such diversions can be entertaining, there’s a hollowness left behind that makes it difficult to love. The Adjustment Bureau is a smart framework filled with no heft or weight, it all having been drained out by producers with no idea how to tell a good story without pandering. What they don’t recognize is how often the public has the ability to understand complexity. Christopher Nolan’s been working on the right track and has proven entertainment, intelligence and art can be combined without sacrificing box office or your soul.

Perhaps The Adjustment Bureau is less about religion and more about the power structure in Hollywood. The studios have a plan and deviating from that plan, they believe, will have catastrophic effects on their future, so anyone or anything that gets in their way is adjusted and moved out of the way so that their lofty aspirations can continue unabated. Yet, every once in awhile, a smart, sophisticated work finds the flaws in the system and struggles to escape those confines and capture the hearts and minds of the public. The Adjustment Bureau is a great metaphor, but a terrible example.

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  1. I’ve seen Touch of Evil countless times, but have yet to spot Keenan Wynn. I think his performance may have been left on the cutting room floor. And doesn’t Joseph Cotten’s voice appear to be dubbed by Welles himself?

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