Monday, July 18, 2016

Classics: A Review of Algiers by Lauren Ennis

Atmosphere, intrigue, romance, and suspense are all in a day’s work for France’s most notorious jewel thief, Pepe Le Moko. In the classic romantic thriller Algiers, Pepe’s exploits showed audiences just how right it could feel to be on the wrong side of the law. Released in 1938, the film is one of the earliest examples of the emerging film noir genre, which highlighted the isolation, paranoia, and existential ennui of modern life, even in the midst of the exotic underworld of the Algerian capital.
A bad boy with a heart of 14 karat gold to be exact

The story begins with police tracking Pepe (Charles Boyer) in the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful sting efforts. Recently arrived Commissioner Janvier (Paul Harvey) is humiliated when his strong-arm techniques fail and scoffs as veteran officer Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia) continues to maintain a strangely amiable game of cat and mouse with the elusive thief. As his criminal associates celebrate their latest success against the local authorities, however, Pepe remains aloof. It is then revealed that despite his latest victory against the authorities Pepe is in fact already a prisoner, albeit in a cell of his own making. Regardless of however many victories he may have against local inspectors, he is all too aware that should he leave the native quarter known as the Casbah he will find himself at the mercy of the full force of the French police, whom even he can’t elude forever. After years resigned to his fate he meets the alluring French tourist, Gaby (Hedy Lamarr), who is similarly trapped by her own efforts to enter high society through an impending loveless marriage. Invigorated by the first genuine connection that either of the mercenary duo have felt Pepe and Gaby hatch a plan to escape not just the Casbah but the lives of quiet desperation that they have resigned themselves to, no matter what the cost.

While at first glance Algiers appears to be just another exotic romantic drama, upon closer observation the film is revealed to be an innovative catalyst in Hollywood filmmaking. Perhaps best remembered today for inspiring amorous cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew, the remake of the French hit Pepe Le Moko was one of America’s first efforts to integrate European techniques since the use of German Expressionism during the silent era. With its claustrophobic settings, murky morals, and existential outlook, the film introduced the philosophical and social themes prominent in European films, while still maintaining the cleverly entertaining guise of a romantic adventure. The film also successfully merged American and European cinema through its gritty focus upon the criminal lifestyle reminiscent of the American gangster film, while still maintaining its core European sensibility. Although produced four years after the enforcement of the Hays Code, the film managed to lend viewers a frank look at modern sexuality through its portrayals of Pepe’s relationships with both local beauty Ines (Sigrid Gurie) and kept woman Gaby, without condescending to pass judgment on its complicated cast of characters. The film also offered a starkly modern finale in an interesting twist on the typical crime film by presenting Pepe’s tragic end not as an example of the ways in which ‘crime doesn’t pay’, but instead as the ultimate form of freedom. The film featured breakout performances for both Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr (who made her Hollywood debut in her role as Gaby) and went on to inspire a host of thinly veiled imitations, including the now classic Casablanca. In fact, it is reported that when screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein persuaded producer David O Selznick to loan out Ingrid Bergman’s contract to Warner Brothers for the role of Ilsa, they only succeeded after describing Casablanca as “A lot of s*** like Algiers”.
It's all about the bling

Although a faithful remake of Pepe Le Moko, Algiers became a classic in its own right through its truly star-making performances. Joseph Calleia exudes a fascinating combination of world weariness and sly charm in his role as Pepe’s greatest ally and most dangerous foe, Inspector Slimane. Sigrid Gurie takes what could have been a one-note role as Pepe’s scorned mistress and transforms Ines into a truly complicated woman who is at once the epitome of worldly sensuality and the picture of damaged vulnerability. Hedy Lamarr is luminous in her role as the elusive Gaby, aptly capturing both Gaby’s ambition and desperation while still maintaining a sophisticated fa├žade. In the scenes that she shares with Boyer she perfectly embodies the playful excitement and anxious hesitance of new love with such nuance that it is little wonder that she quickly became a household name. Despite the multi-faceted performances surrounding him, the film truly belongs to Charles Boyer, whose charismatic anti-hero is at once a Robin Hood-esque rogue and a tragic figure. While Boyer himself felt that his performance paled in comparison to Jean Gabin’s, modern audiences continue to hear the name Pepe Le Moko and immediately picture Charles Boyer, and with good reason.

At once a captivating tale of romance and adventure and a psychological study of a life on the run, Algiers is a classic film with a modern edge. Through its clever dialogue, layered characterizations, and entrancing atmosphere Algiers is a journey into the good old, bad old days which audiences continue to return to. So what are you waiting for, follow Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr into the labyrinth of mystery, intrigue, and passion that is Pepe’s Casbah.
A jewel thief's greatest match; a gold-digger

Monday, July 4, 2016

Classics: An Independence Day Tribute By Lauren Ennis

Today marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In honor of this milestone, I will be reviewing three films that capture the innovative and pioneering spirit that the United States was founded upon. Happy Independence Day!
A little frontier justice
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Few genres are as unique to American culture as the Western and few actors are as synonymous with America as John Wayne. This 1961 film provided a unique take on the western that exposed the grit and lawlessness that made up life in the early West and left the genre forever altered. The film begins with US Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart) traveling from Washington with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), to attend the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in Shinbone (a fictional town in an unnamed state). When a reporter questions why a senator would go to so much trouble to pay respects to a rancher the film launches into a flashback of the incident that put Ranse on the path to political success.  The film then chronicles law-abiding Ranse’s efforts to rid Shinbone of local gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), while still remaining within the boundaries of the law. What begins as a simple story of citizens versus gunslingers quickly spirals into a masterfully told tale of a region coming to grips with its place in an emerging nation, as the citizens of Shinbone contemplate impending statehood. The film excellently depicts the democratic process at work through its portrayal of town hall meetings, political debates, and a free press. While the plot focuses upon the benefits of statehood and the American political system, it reveals the resistance that statehood was often met with and the ways in which the political system is all too often manipulated. The film also examines the meaning of bravery and grit through its focus upon the initially pacifist Ranse rather than his macho counterpart, Tom. Furthermore, the film turns the typical structure of the Western on its head as it argues in favor of restraint and rule of law and only shifts its focus to genre staple Wayne after his character defies genre expectations and sacrifices both the glory and the girl for the greater good. While the film does not shy away from America’s gritty past, it does highlight the principles that this nation was founded upon through its emphasis upon the best aspects of our legal and political system and reminds us of the hope and promise which those systems were founded upon.
Everywhere around the world, they're coming to America!
Moscow on the Hudson: This 1984 film portrays modern America from the perspective of a newly arrived immigrant. The film begins with musician Vladimir Ivanov (Robin Williams) trying to eke out a living amidst the financial hardships and political repression of 1980’s Moscow. Eventually he tours the world with a circus, and after his first glimpse of life beyond the iron curtain, he realizes that he can no longer stand the deprivations and repression of Soviet life. In a scene that is at once heartfelt, suspenseful, and comical Vladimir ultimately defects to the US in the middle of a Manhattan Macy’s. The film then chronicles his efforts to assimilate to US life and struggles to make a new life in a strange land. While the film does offer commentary on democracy vs. communism and is very much of the Cold War era in which it is set, Vladimir’s tale of immigration and assimilation is one that both recalls the immigrants who founded this country and those who continue to arrive today. The film realistically portrays the struggles with language and culture that many immigrants face as such simple activities as shopping at a supermarket inspire culture shock and Vladimir struggles to understand the slang used by his coworkers and roommates. Although the film is perforated with fish-out-of-water shenanigans, it also provides a serious look at the immigrant experience as Vladimir faces prejudice, isolation, and financial hardship and ultimately begins to question if defecting was the right decision after all. Throughout his various ups and downs, however, the film maintains an infectious sense of optimism and a central message that the freedom to live your own life, regardless of how difficult that life may be, is something to be cherished.

Who says tough guys can't dance?!

Yankee Doodle Dandy: No Independence Day film list would be complete without this 1942 musical biography. The film chronicles the life and work of turn of the century composer George M. Cohan (James Cagney), best known for such patriotic standards as “You’re a Fine Old Flag”, Over There”, and of course “Yankee Doodle Boy”. The films begins towards the end of Cohan’s career as he meets President Franklin Roosevelt and is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his contribution to American music. The film then launches into a flashback starting with Cohan’s birth to Irish immigrant vaudeville performers (Walter Huston and Mary Decamp) on, of all days, the fourth of July. The film then chronicles his years as part of the family vaudeville act alongside his parents and sister (Cagney’s real-life sister Jeanne) and the trouble the family faces when his adolescent arrogance gets them blacklisted by producers and directors. Eventually he sets out on his own and attempts to sell his songs while courting a struggling chorus girl (Joan Leslie), before finding success and humbly asking his family to rejoin him onstage. While the film’s focus is upon Cohan’s life and career, it is permeated with the same patriotic spirit found in Cohan’s music in its celebration of both American music and the American Dream. Interestingly, the film’s emphasis upon Cohan’s patriotism was in part inspired by Cagney’s efforts to highlight his own patriotism after the House on Un-American Activities Committee unjustly accused Cagney of being a communist. In an effort to redeem his public image, it is reported that Cagney overcame his personal dislike for Cohan, who had sided with producers during a 1919 Actors Equity Strike, and set out to make the “goddamnest patriotic picture ever made”. One viewing of Cagney and company’s stellar performances, and it is there is no doubt that Cagney succeeded in doing just that.