Benedek, Lang, Morris, Scorsese, Wilder

Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008). The Oscar-winning documentarian turns his attention (and his Interrotron) to the appalling abuse of prisoners inflicted by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. The resulting film is exhaustive and exhausting, laying out the ugly details of the matter with an appropriate relentlessness. Morris corrals interviews with most of the principals, and their collective testimony seems painfully honest if sometimes buffered down in the name of understandable self-preservation. Morris inserts a handful of subdued and yet entirely unnecessary recreations. It’s a tactic that he’s notably employed before, but this time out it’s just intrusive. The infamous photographs that brought the scandalous behavior to light in the first place get a fresh exhibition here, and they still have the capacity to shock all on their own.

The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, 1966). Jack Lemmon plays a CBS cameraman who gets clocked on the sidelines by an football player whose momentum gets the better of him. Walter Matthau plays his unscrupulous brother-in-law who conspires to leverage the incident in a major lawsuit. Billy Wilder’s comedy doesn’t rank among his masterpieces, but his sure, seasoned hand keeps it brisk and dependably amusing with just enough perfectly executed moments to reinforce the theory that he was one of the finest filmmakers of his era. The exasperated everyman role was already old hat to Lemmon by this point. He plays it well, but its Matthau who dominates the film in a role that won him an Oscar. He takes the stock character of an oily lawyer and plays it as a cheerful soft shoe instead of resorting to easy aggression.

The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953). Marlon Brando applies his transformational murmur and swagger to a character that’s supposed to be icy cool, putting up a shield against a world he doesn’t know how to meet. The results are predictably magnetic, even if the movie is the sort of boilerplate angry youth nonsense that was often ushered onto screen with the sounds of a small battalion of roaring motorcycles during this era. All the revved up drama is effortlessly outdone by Brando’s justly famous response to the query “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” Looking back with heavy lidded eyes to respond immediately and impassively, “Whaddya got?” Brando gets at the alluring heart and tricky danger of rebellion with one line reading better than all the film’s supposedly gritty images of tough guys running wild in the streets.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988). At the time of its initial release, Martin Scorsese’s rumination on the person, spirit and very nature of Jesus Christ was discussed more for the controversy it engendered–many theaters were framed by the unfamiliar sight of angry, vocal protesters–than the actual content of the film. And this was well before any perceived affront against faith inspired a flurry of fiery blog posts and email chains among the digitally-deft devout. From my admittedly secular seat, the film is a moving, forceful, lovingly crafted testimony to Jesus, which particularly marvels at the grand selflessness of his sacrifice upon the cross. Indeed, the temptation of the title does not, as its detractors assumed (it’s folly to believe that most of them had actually seen the film they rallied against), impugn upon the divinity of Jesus. If anything, it reinforces his generosity, fortitude and personal faith. It’s certainly about the value of his teachings and the enduring glory of his crucifixion in a way that Mel Gibson’s horrid, beloved snuff film never approaches. It’s clearly an intensely personal film for Scorsese, and while his expert eye and inventive filmmaking is in evidence, he’s also just as likely to get out of the way and let the material sell itself.

Clash By Night (Fritz Lang, 1952). Fritz Lang’s career was on the decline by the nineteen-fifties, and a murky sense of doom infuses this balmy, noirish drama based on a Clifford Odets play. Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who drags her bruised life back to her hometown, and finds herself in some tricky romantic entanglements in short order. Lang takes a fairly traditional approach to structuring shots (his most famous film was released before anyone had need to coin the word “talkie,” after all). This sometimes makes the film a little stiff, but it also achieves the opposite. Several scenes play out with Lang setting his camera in one corner of the set and just panning and pivoting to take in the shifting action, giving the moments he cuts and zooms in more authority. Stanwyck is characteristically terrific, and there’s a nice supporting turn by Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Best of all is Paul Douglas, a fine character actor who’s taken through the wringer. He plays both the humble elation and the pummeled anguish of his role with equal force.

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