Miracle on 34th Street
The miracle is an understanding of the Queen Kelly disaster, or Sunset Blvd.
Stroheim is figured twice at the outset, as the finical spectator and the drunken Santa.
The actress: “I speak French but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”
Her colleague: “Maybe he’s only a little crazy, like painters and composers, or some of those fellows in Washington.”
Her supporting analyst stints his wife, whose brother ought to work.
The actress’s daughter: “I’m not an animal, I’m a girl.”
The analyst ladles out a “guilt complex” and “latent maniacal tendencies”.
Kringle at Bellevue fails his test deliberately: “I said Calvin Coolidge was the first president.”
His lawyer quits the firm, the defense of “little people being pushed around is the only fun in the Law anyway.”
“Idealistic binge,” the actress calls this. The lawyer praises “lovely intangibles, the only things that are worthwhile.”
The authors have been to school with Preston Sturges. “The District Attorney is a Republican.”
“Your Honor, the State of New York concedes the existence of Santa Claus.”
To the unknown god at Athens goes the mail.
“I believe, I believe, it’s silly but I believe.”
The Big Lift
Operation Vittles, Tempelhof, the great image of a cargo plane amid apartment buildings, like Lawrence of Arabia’s ship in the desert.
Two Berlins, the one you can’t get out of, the other you can’t get into. The city persuasively realized as wreckage and ruin, a massive hallucination, the abandoned and dead city.
Two sergeants, one in the air (a plane every three minutes, or even less) and thinking to marry the widow, the other at Ground Controlled Approach with the goods on her.
Filmed on location not long after with GIs and reporters playing themselves, and a partly German cast. Crowther was mightily unimpressed.
Gerda reads the U.S. Constitution and is no longer born yesterday, the mystery of Berlin culture gets its say in the frau, an SS wife. Reed’s The Third Man and Wilder’s A Foreign Affair deal with it from similar perspectives.
The Country Girl
The therapeutic style favored by Seaton defines things as they are despite all appearances, the action takes place in the audience (pace Reisz, who says “the dramatic development is not really interesting enough to sustain a film of the intensity for which it strives”). It should not be too difficult to see that Miracle on 34th Street is the basis of Seaton’s understanding, his artist undergoes an examination down to the foul rags-and-bones, the mystery of a dark theater is “night without a star”, the mysterious blockade is a fortuitous structure waiting for its momentary material, he smiles upon it. Taking off from Odets, the strapping satire of a Broadway show in the works adds a lot of mere subsidiary laughs.
Mallarmé need not be called to witness (though the stage director says Montaigne is “too polite”), Kästner’s “Confession of a Poet” covers a lot of the ground.
We should rather play the market then!
Poetry is, God knows, no longer the thing.
Ah, five-footed in the New Age to go walking,
isn’t fit for gentlemen.
The harp upon our selfsame nerves we play.
And when we groan, it all comes out in rhyme.
Throwing stones at us we think no crime.
It sounds so fair. Poets are made of clay.
We travel in emotion like you in soap.
We decorate each sorrow and each smart
in bow and wreath—tastefully, we hope.
And sacrifice thrice daily our own heart.
We are, fie on the devil, one rum lot.
Desire is with us cut out to measure.
Whate’er befalls—we make words to treasure.
Whate’er betide—it boils up our pot.
We dispense perception by the yard.
And should a child of ours die,
we hurry up the body into novellæ!
We shame ourselves, shameless as we are.
We should rather get us into trading!
Houses or mine shares, it’s the same to us!
For as a poet in cities to go promenading,
The Proud and Profane
Seaton’s analysis proceeds directly from The Country Girl, which follows a thorough line of analysis from Miracle on 34th Street.
Admirable films, admired but not much understood. Seaton leaves the artist’s studio with his latest, it sinks without a trace, the misunderstandings have built up until they blind the critical establishment responsible for doing away with them.
The surrealistic jump from mild-mannered cultivated Stateside architect to Marine Corps lieutenant colonel is not much harder to perceive than most such stylistic pirouettes. Anyway, it usually happens that other directors can grasp a film even when no-one else can, Otto Preminger takes some of the material over for In Harm’s Way. The theme of forgiveness is scholastically stated in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
With some mild strands (or contrapuntal “inner voices”), La Belle et la bête is to be inferred, and Jane Eyre.
Teacher’s Pet may have begun as a wager between George Seaton and himself, even. Shaw had said that a poet at work could not be represented on stage, because his activity is uninteresting. Seaton accepts the challenge, and constructs his masterpiece around Clark Gable reading a small-town newspaper for the truth in it.
The toughminded acquisition of knowledge at the center of the film is precisely the art of writing, this will not have been evident to film critics even though essential examples are given rather telegraphically and an extempore demonstration somewhat more lengthy.
To this is added the academic coefficient of analysis and explication, it’s all there in the writing but commentary and “interpretation” lend a fulsomeness or something else.
And behind the academic purview is veneration for the Pulitzer-winning country editor whose legendary paper mostly dithered over “whether so-and-so’s blueberries were not really huckleberries.”
The Counterfeit Traitor
The O.S.S., with “reverse lend-lease” from British Intelligence, turn a neutral Swedish businessman to the Allied war effort as a pro-Nazi oil man for information behind the lines.
Critics have never understood the monumental creation and invention involved, the genius of a businessman and his foolishness, a perfect analysis that forms the character.
He saves himself and loses himself, gives himself away and makes the deal, alternately, it’s his nature.
And when the mission is done, having secured knowledge of Nazi jet plants and rocket bases, he goes in one last time on his own to clean up his mess with old friends in the oil “fraternity”, and sounds the depths of business arrangements on the Herbertstraße in Hamburg, as well as meeting the personal cost of the war in a Jew fleeing Denmark, long since a Polish slave laborer was hanged in his presence during a sit-down strike at a German oil refinery.
The businessman is a powerful analyst himself, why fight a “paranoid” like Hitler if you don’t have to, “another greedy psychopath” will come along in his place, our man has to be threatened with the loss of his business to cooperate at first.
Religion and conscience are no part of his considerations, through-and-through a businessman, they impress themselves upon him incidentally.
Hitchcock repays the very fine citations in The Birds (final shot), Torn Curtain and especially Topaz. Seaton’s perfect technique is entirely formidable and vies with anything (Crowther in the New York Times notices Germania anno zero), the mysterious critical response is entirely negative, the beauty of the thing having been lost, the businessman tried and not found wanting for all his narrowness of mind and purpose.
The Hook is a long look at war from the initiation of hostilities to the victorious end. It’s set in the Korean War, but an opening title gives an explanation, this is an example, and the subject is “men in war” not “men at war”. The casus belli and the postwar consequences are nowhere discussed.
Soldiers are loading aviation fuel onto a merchant ship, they are strafed by a damaged North Korean plane, the pilot ejects and is taken prisoner. Aboard ship, HQ radios it has just been attacked, the hospital and stockade were hit. Master Sergeant Briscoe (Kirk Douglas) wants to know about his prisoner. The South Korean major at the other end replies that the enraged populace has already killed its North Korean prisoners after the attack, there’s no point in bringing the prisoner. The major, who is himself being bandaged for a wound, has given the order. During the voyage the question is whether or not it will be obeyed.
Much that follows is derived from John Ford’s What Price Glory. Briscoe is a career man who saw action on Guadalcanal, he obeys. Private Hackett (Nick Adams) and Private Dennison (Robert Walker, Jr.) are caught up in the service with a certain sense of obligation in different ways. Hackett is convinced he’s a fighting man (Briscoe has taught him this). Dennison feels in the wrong because he never heard the plane and caused an officer’s death in the strafing.
All of this is explored and examined in great detail. The stages are passed, from the enemy as faceless killer to the foe as family man, ending with mere translation difficulties. This is the way it goes, look at it, that’s all the film has to offer on its subject, a record of its events in the abstract.
George Seaton films this straightforwardly in a black-and-white Panavision of wide close-ups and articulated situations. The neutral merchant vessel is of Finnish registry (captained by Nehemiah Persoff) under a UN charter, and its name is just seen on one of the life preservers: AHTI. So brief an allusion to the Kalevala on this vessel threading the islands of the intracoastal waterway gives the measure of Seaton’s austerity, he can afford it because the material is so rich.
The symbolic elements are primarily the aviation fuel, which is extremely volatile if mishandled, and the hook, which is first seen on the end of the ship’s crane as the title is superimposed. It lifts a leaky can of fuel out of the hold and into the water, thus avoiding a catastrophic explosion. The three soldiers are said to be “on the hook”, and Briscoe baits Hackett to the deed with a boxing lesson and a “hook”.
It might have ended, dramatically speaking, like Seven Days in May or even The Bedford Incident, but the point is the ending coincides with A Farewell to Arms (it’s also the starting point for Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, a cease-fire being declared before translations are distributed). “He couldn’t understand our words,” says a changed Sgt. Briscoe as the prisoner is buried at sea, killed while trying to blow up the ship after several halting attempts on his life, “let’s hope he understands our silence.”
It’s taken this long, in the merest of sketches, to give some account of the complexity revealed here. Sgt. Briscoe’s little funeral speech isn’t exactly philosophical. “Nice day,” says Pvt. Dennison in the closing scene. “Kid,” says Sgt. Briscoe, “any day a war ends is a nice day.” It’s just matter-of-fact.
Sgt. Briscoe recalls, earlier in the film, a Jewish buddy on Guadalcanal who told him it was Yom Kippur that day (Briscoe at first thinks his friend’s gone Japanese). He hoped, the buddy did, he wouldn’t have to kill anyone that day. Sure enough, while escorting a prisoner back from patrol, the buddy got his throat cut in the dark. The question, even then, was what to do with the prisoner.
That’s a small detail of Henry Denker’s exhaustive screenplay. It’s not intellectual, it’s told to elucidate Pvt. Dennison’s predicament. Dennison is the voice of conscience in the thing, Hackett could go either way as a blind force mustered into action yet not (for that reason) effective. Even Briscoe, who knows the Military Code of Justice by rote where it concerns insubordination and failure to engage the enemy, even he is not a cold-blooded killer. Neither, as it turns out, is the “gook”.
The vigorous characterizations by this cast are all you would expect and more. The calm, objective direction lets things happen quickly right before your eyes, as Douglas changes on the instant from laughing GI to thoughtless echelon-man, battle-veteran, manipulator, clown, hypocrite, sadist, diplomat, drill instructor, mensch, etc. Adams has a complicated transformation from attentive subaltern to near-psychotic derangement, while you watch. Walker slowly and cumbrously awakens to the realities, Persoff gives a masterful shading to the man of action with a mind to call his own.
Larry Adler wrote and performed the score, helping the abstraction with a sort of English folksong suite. There is an excruciating suspensefulness about the whole business, punctuated by violence or a joke, or the seeming characterizations and symbols and strata of meaning coalesce into a surface of plain utterance.
In which a bright new future for the world is forecast by Nazi Germany to fool a captured American major into thinking the war is over, he can tell his part in it.
The Impossible Missions Force used this very ploy a few years later, more than once.
Considerable expense and difficulty in maintaining the illusion is only to be expected. The slightest glimmer of reality and the head nurse goes back to Ravensbrück, heads will roll, an SS-Standartenführer is right behind the scenes, even takes part.
Christopher Sly and Harry Lime and George Roy Hill know all about this gambit, which generally accomplishes its purpose, if not always.
What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?
An intellectual in New York, a real intellectual, who sees ripe grapes and crushes them in his beak one by one, a real rarity, deep in Gotham, Greenwich Village even, the East Village yet. Or, a toucan with a euphoria-making virus (his name is Amigo, he’s practically the Paraclete).
It does not sit well with the Administration, and it did not sit well with Vincent Canby of the New York Times, either, no sir, you couldn’t pay him, etc. “Anti-intellectual”, he called it, and “uninformed”, the details of plot rather eluded him, let alone the rest of it. Great films are routinely lost upon the New York Times, perfect ones, too.
“Flimsy pretext for a comedy,” says Halliwell’s Film Guide, “further hampered by a less than sparkling script” (signed George Seaton and Robert Pirosh).
“To think”, says Nabokov in a poem The New Yorker published some years before this film was made,
that every brain is on the brink
of nameless bliss no brain can bear...
A satirical indictment of loveless marriages, which in its farthest extreme describes a man blowing himself up so his wife can have the insurance, fruitlessly.
Such a position is rejected. Critics have inexplicably considered this “old-fashioned”.
The central metaphor is a Boeing 707 stuck in a snowdrift. The moral is “keep ‘em flying”. The tail-section gag is astutely employed from Koster’s No Highway in the Sky.
Seaton’s film is so arranged horizontally as to resemble one of Lang’s vertical structures. The sheriff and his ex-partner have behind them the forces of lawful order and outright crime respectively, these tend to overcome and outweigh simple human considerations such as human reason, and produce a catastrophic result.
Still, it can be acknowledged that a life of crime or criminal leanings, though led by an honorable man in his inmost way of thinking, more or less, must come to a bad end with those of his colleagues.
Starts out badly, too, masquerading as a lawman escorting a prisoner on a train they both rob when the rest of the gang halts it outside of town.
Intimate filming in the characteristic landscapes of New Mexico.
Critics found nothing extraordinary.