DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – A Fistful of Dollars

Sergio Leone delivers a new form of western with A Fistful of Dollars. It is a film about a myth that is born from another myth. Leone grew up with the films about the west that were made in America. Living under a fascist regime, he found the open landscape and traveling characters a source of the concept of freedom that he wasn’t being given. However, he did have criticism about the genre he loved. He would find them too clean, too straightforward. Everything was boiled down to heroes and villains. The American western film was built on a myth about that particular era. Leone takes that mythology, strips it down and injects Italian culture into it. 

The most obvious element of A Fistful of Dollars is Clint Eastwood. Leone and Eastwood combine to bring forth a protagonist that was not often seen. One of style. One who is enigmatic. For this film we know nothing about this stranger who has drifted into the town of San Miguel. He gives no specific morals or values except that he’s just trying to make money. No moral justification is given for any of his actions. This is a far cry from the characters of John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. San Miguel is not a town full of people doing the right thing and trying to live their lives. It is a town of amorality. Criminal factions operate, law enforcement is corrupt. Therefore, Eastwood’s character is a perfect fit for this environment. I’ll be honest, it’s far more enjoyable watching this man of questionable morals play these two factions against each other than if he was a flat out “good guy.” Though by the end of the film, you do see that he does possess some morals, particularly in his interactions with the family.

Leone is not simply an Italian director who is making a western. He makes sure to layer it so while it is presented in the form of a popular American genre, he makes it distinctly Italian. One way he does this is pepper the film with Roman Catholic iconography. San Miguel is a place of death. A place of coffins. A place of widows. There’s even a “holy family” with the mother Marisol (Mary), her husband Julio (Joseph) and their son Jesus. The actions of the stranger help this family leave the place of death to begin new lives. Another piece of Italian culture Leone inserts is when Eastwood is beat up by the Rojos. The assault is to get the stranger to talk and Leone borrowed this from political situations in fascist Italy where those in power would try to get the people to talk and name names regarding any reprisals or insurrections.

The way everything is ratcheted up in A Fistful of Dollars, the violence, the amorality, the fact that you can’t place the main character in any sort of box, you’d think Leone was mocking the western. This is not the case. There’s no parody in place here. It’s an evolution of a mythology. With A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone introduces gray into a genre that hid historically been black or white.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Duck, You Sucker

It really should have used the title, “Once Upon a Time…The Revolution.

The first time I watched Duck, You Sucker, I did not enjoy it at all. I thought it was monotonous and thought that Sergio Leone was tired of the western. He was in a way, but upon this second viewing, I see he constructed a different type of western. I now have a new perspective on this film and how it fits in with his filmography.

Duck, You Sucker is the story of morality and amorality. The film is set during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. We have 2 lead characters. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger in a charming yet problematic performance), a bandit who represent the amoral side of things. He’s aware of the revolution yet doesn’t bother to get involved because he feels that these thing will eventually upset your way of life. Then we have John or Sean (James Coburn), a revolutionary from Ireland who has fled his home after killing British forces. He represents the morality.

You get insight into Juan Miranda during a conversation between the leads. Juan talks about the upper class who read and write the books and how they tell the lower class who can’t read the books how they need to change. So the lower class attempts to change. Only by the end of the revolution, the poor end up dead and those who read the books, keep reading them while the poor have even less than they did before. As the film goes on these men change perspectives. Juan slowly becomes a part of the revolution and John becomes disillusioned.

The works of Sergio Leone always strip away the gloss, the popular, the romantic of the subject. In Once Upon a Time in America, he asks us why are in love with the gangster film? The Dollars Trilogy attempts to tear the romanticism, the John Wayne-ness of the western genre. He wants to reveal the ugly. That this thing we loved was a lie, and he does that here with Duck, You Sucker. Here, Leone wants to remove the myth of revolution. This film reflects Leone’s feelings on the subject as not being worth it. That it destroys irrevocably. He presents it quite cynically. Juan becomes a hero of the revolution not because he made the decision to become a part of something bigger than himself, but by accident. Because the bank he thought he was robbing actually held political prisoners and not money. Yet his heart changes and things both good and bad begin to happen as a result. John, who always had a cause, loses faith after seeing what being a part of the revolution has cost his new friend. By film’s end, Leone is saying quite loudly, “Duck!” He’s saying keep your head down, don’t get involved because it will cost you more than you can ever imagine. I do understand however that it’s a sentiment that will not go over well with many viewers. Yet I also understand why he would take that stance, having grown up in Italy during an era of fascism.

Leone also steers to this thesis with the flashbacks of John’s life in Ireland. Here he’s presented with a youthful exuberance. It’s a time where his ideals were clear and the purpose of revolution was plain as day. As his story goes on it gets darker and things become less clear. Leone again saying, why bother?

I don’t hear Duck, You Sucker dissected as much as Leone’s other works. I wonder If the thematic choice he took for this film resulted in not much acclaim. I will say this though, for his final 3 films, Leone certainly makes sure you hear his voice even more than you did in his Dollars Trilogy.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Inferno (1953)

Inferno is a nifty blend of film noir and survival adventure. Robert Ryan plays a wealthy man who’s left to die in the desert by his wife and her lover. Although we wonder why these people have done this to the man, we learn pretty quickly that he’s been an awful man and husband. There’s a line that’s mentioned stating that Ryan’s Donald Carson feels helpless without his money. And that’s where the the change in character begins. After setting his broken leg and beginning his long trek of survival, Carson develops over the runtime. He initially wants to survive to wreak havoc upon those who have wronged him. As time passes and he manages his next action or accomplishes a task, he feels a pride within himself and we the audience feel that pride with him. Then it becomes all about Carson doing what he needs to do and nothing else. They become unimportant to his task at hand.

Director Roy Baker cuts back and forth between the survival story and the noir like machinations of Carson’s wife and her lover played by Rhonda Flemming and William Lundigan. Seedy passion leading to potentially deadly acts. Inferno balances both of these genres to provide an entertaining thriller with gorgeous scenery and vibrant Technicolor.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction- Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone’s finale, Once Upon a Time in America, has a much different feel than most crime epics. Leone directs the film as if it were a fever dream. We’re introduced to our main character Noodles (Robert De Niro) in an opium den. From there we get a non-linear story that covers Noodles life as a child, his adult years and also as an old man searching for his stash that went missing.

The film is about the outsider. Noodles and his friends are Jewish-American and this have to navigate their rise in the criminal world in the wake of the various Italian gangs that have a hold on things. Noodles himself is an outsider and that’s where the bulk of the character work is. As a youth he’s sent to prison and once he is released, although united with his friends, they have solidified their crime syndicate without him.

I find that OUATIA as film operates as a critique on the gangster film, particularly The Godfather films since they are definitely the closest to this film in style. The thing about The Godfather and subsequent gangster films, we the audience is fully aware that the characters are criminals yet we root for them because typically we see them do criminal things but most of the time to other criminals. Leone intensifies that and hammers it home that these men are terrible human beings. It’s as much a revisionist film as his Dollars Trilogy or Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone does his best to take away the love affair we have with criminals in the gangster film.

Leone’s direction is in a new dimension. We’re used to the vast, open landscape of the west. Here he’s on the eastern side of the nation. New York specifically. He composes beautiful shots in the sepia toned cinematography. Every shot feels like a post card full of memories. Leone’s structure of the film plays like the non-linear way we recall memories. However it’s not like it is in a Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino film. It feels loose and free flowing just as we remember things.

Once Upon a Time in America closes out Sergio Leone’s career in the fashion he began it. He takes long standing types of narratives that have almost mythological stature and strips that away showing the real face of something we all loved maybe a bit more than we should have. 

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Shanghai Express

I enjoyed Shanghai Express even more than I did Morocco and Dishonored. Josef von Sternberg crafts a film with a couple elements that I always enjoyed. It has very few settings, mostly taking place on the train traveling from Peking to Shanghai. We have a small cast of principle characters. Lastly, the film plays with a mix of genres to make an entertaining Hollywood picture. As I’ve been watching these films of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, I’ve noticed how their connection grows stronger with each film. 

Shanghai Express dabbles in romance, comedy, drama, war and even espionage. I don’t think that von Sternberg really intended for the plot or even characters to mean much, but rather to showcase his talents in the Hollywood system. Yet, it’s a very good showcase. Sternberg has a good handle on light, shadow and surface. It’s really on display here in Shanghai Express. To me it felt as if he merged the surrealist nature of Morocco with the more realistic (albeit still Hollywood) Dishonored. It’s a very theatrical film. There are frames within the frames giving the viewer the sense of looking into a world apart from where you are.

Dietrich continues her streak of playing women who really make sure they are standing apart from the so called norms of the time. I found it interesting how Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily and Anna May Wong’s Hu Fei are women of the same profession yet their entrances are a mirror showing East vs West. Also I liked that von Sternberg had these two women be the better people even though I know 1930s viewers have specific thoughts on what these women do. 

Even though von Sternberg is working in Hollywood now, Shanghai Express does possess some elements of German expressionist cinema as well with shots of crisscrossing lines of shadows, mosquito netting that gives shimmer and texture. Again showing the variety that the director is showcasing in this film.

Shanghai Express is really a grab bag of ideas and more often than not, this does not work for films. For von Sternberg however this was not the case. There’s certainly excess on this Express and it all works.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much really gives birth to the Alfred Hitchcock we are all familiar with. He gets this new era of his career started with a very brisk and economical thriller that sets the stage for his eventual superstar career.

A couple vacationing with their daughter find themselves involved in criminal activity. This is one of Hitchcock’s major recurring themes of people getting swept up into larger events. However what is ironic about that for this film is that while the events are big, Hitchcock continually manages to play it small. For example the scene at the restaurant in which Louis Bernard is shot. It is preceded by a pretty cool visual cue of a string being pulled that we would soon see indicates that his life is running out of time. Then there is the shot through the window shattering a picturesque view of the snow covered mountains. Once Bernard realizes what happens he tries to quietly sit down. These are all major moments in the story and Hitchcock manages to direct it without going into a large dramatic moment with hectic action and a huge musical score. This carries into the final sequence that’s a shootout with police. No score, but you feel one is there. It’s always great to see a director know that the scene in and of itself will stir the reaction needed.

The film’s major set piece of course is the scene at Albert Hall. Here he demonstrates again the theme of one small thing interrupting a grand plan. Normally with later Hitchcock films the audience gets the information that the characters do not and that builds the suspense. During this sequence, we don’t really have the information and do not know what the character of Jill is going to do. Does she let a man be assassinated? Does she warn him and risk dooming her husband and daughter? Jills brief scream throws off the big scheme these people were planning for the entire film. Again the little overtaking the big. It’s a fantastic scene from early in the career of a man who would give so many of the thrilling and suspenseful moments to cinema.

Hitchcock’s remake of this film in 1956 is bigger with more star power, but it’s very important to recognize this original version not just because it’s early Hitchcock and there is a historical value, but because it is also very well constructed thriller with pretty much no bloat. This is one of the early successes of Hitchcock’s British era. It’s efficient and subtle. The traits that Hitchcock carries to America in 1940 begin here and they are just as effective yet slyly incorporated.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder is one of my ten favorite films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Don’t quote me on that, because I’m quite sure it will change. I love this one and I know it’s not too often very high for most.

A common complaint is the Dial M for Murder is very talky. That is true. Hitchcock was adapting a stage play and aside from filming it to take advantage of the 3D craze, it is film very heavy in dialogue with only one typical Hitchcockian set piece, the attempted murder. This is actually what I love about the film and how this still applies to Hitchcock’s formula. The sequence in the beginning of the film with Wendice going over in meticulous detail the entire story of how he found out about his wife’s affair, to blackmailing Swann, to explain how the murder will take place is so captivating to me. I sit and don’t want to miss a single word.

Hitchcock’s manipulation is on display as well. I wonder how did audiences in 1954 feel when seeing a man plotting to kill his wife, yet his wife was having an affair? It’s a case of two wrongs and I can just tell Hitchcock was probably grinning with glee at the macabre conundrum he placed the audience in.

Dial M for Murder might not be considered a masterpiece of the Master of Suspense, but it’s a great example of him managing to take the things he loves to showcase in his works and get the same effect with a smaller setting and more dialogue than the visual storytelling he’s better know for with his thrillers.

DeaconsDen Reaction – Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

I did not expect the shared universe of DC Animated films to come to a conclusion this year. I spent some time revisiting every film in this continuity. Now we’ve reached the end.

Apokolips War follows the surviving superheroes in the wake of a failed assault led by on the tyrant Darksied. We get the heroes charging into battle and then we jump to a desolate planet Earth two years later. There Raven and Superman (now with a kryptonite tattoo of his symbol on his chest) seek out John Constantine and Damian Wayne to help set things right again.

I think what I liked most about Apokolips War was how it brought together all the elements of this universe and moved them to a conclusion. We get a final resolution on the relationship of Bruce and Damian, closure for Raven’s story from the Teen Titans films, we have moments for Constantine from Justice League Dark and even bringing in the Suicide Squad from Hell to Pay. At 90 minutes, it’s longer than most of the films in the franchise, but there is always something interesting.

It is bloody though. Maybe not as bloody as WB Animation’s recent Mortal Kombat film, but it does utilize that R rating. I actually feel it uses this R rating better than it does the usual PG-13 that the films get.

Although this is the end of this particular universe of DC heroes, the film ends in a way that begs the question of what happens next? I’ve enjoyed this journey of animated films and with Apokolips War, it really helps solidify my personal opinion that superhero media works much better animated. Sure this isn’t Into The Spider-Verse, but I always felt the comic medium was best adapted animated. I always pick up these DC animations and I look forward to the future. 

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

A Hitchcock masterpiece. Alfred Hitchcock’s films always possessed a voyeuristic quality. Read Window is his treatise on voyeurism. How we all partake in it and how easy it is to get caught up in it. In addition to the thrills of the story, Hitchcock’s technical prowess is at its peak. They way he sort of layers his scenes so that he introduces the next scene orally while the current scene is still playing. The way he repeats camera movements so that we become grounded in a routine, much like James Stewart’s LB Jeffries is since he has a broken leg. When we feel confined (timely in 2020 I know), who knows what we end up doing?

Rear Window also has an interesting storytelling device where the emotions of the relationship between Jeff and Lisa (an absolutely stunning Grace Kelly), spills out into the apartments across the way, particularly into the views we get of the character dubbed “Ms. Loneyhearts.” Hitchcock has Lisa see herself in this woman who fantasizes about having a man in her life. Lisa has a man, but Jeff would rather fantasize than be a part of Lisa’s life. This is some great use of visuals. There’s also some great scenes that take advantage of Hitchcock’s background in expressionist cinema such as Jeff and Lisa arguing. Lisa seems bathed in a beautiful light while Jeff’s lighting is dimmer. Speaking of Lisa, she is one of the best Hitchcock women. Dealing with a man who insists she isn’t up to a rough life like what he does to take photos, she actually is. Yet she does it on her terms. She’ll help investigate a potential murder, but she does it in her fancy dress and high heels.

Rear Window also has a focus on doppelgänger as much as people peeping. If Lisa is the double for Ms Loneyhearts, Jeff is the double for Raymond Burr’s Lars Thorwald. Jeff wants out from his relationship and Thorwald wants out from his wife. Jeff’s mistress is the life he leads as a photographer, Thorwald has an actual mistress. Even Hitchcock puts himself in the film and not just in his typical cameo fashion. You can see the director as the double of the songwriter played by Ross Bagdasarian of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame. The songwriter works on his music throughout the film and competes it just as the film is completed. Hitchcock again showing a sort of seedy underside to human nature by wrapping it up in the thriller genre.

It’s amazing how Hitchcock manages to tell so many stories in addition to the main plot from just one setting. Rear Window is a testament to the idea that despite how close we are, we are just as equally far away.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Dishonored

Dishonored is another home run starring Marlene Dietrich and directed by Josef von Sternberg. For their second American collaboration, Dishonored sees Dietrich in the role of a prostitute who’s recruited to into spy work for Austria to seduce her targets and gather information. Frau (Marie) Kolverer, later known by her code name of X-27, easily accepts and takes to the profession with ease. Her words at the beginning of the film “I am not afraid of life, although I am not afraid of death, either” give tremendous insight to the character and her ideals. That’s what makes Dishonored a great watch, Dietrich plays a marginalized character who is 100% content with her place and who and what she is. She shows confidence and then even more confidence. Once we get to the final scene, you’ll see how X-27 can be considered one of Dietrich’s best role. Everything she does, even when under orders is on her terms and only her terms. While the spy plot isn’t very strong, Dietrich’s performance and von Sternberg’s direction lift it up. I really think that von Sternberg took issue with the rigidity of the military and wanted to contrast that with Dietrich playing another fluid heroine. Dishonored lends credence to the idea of getting what you paid for.