The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946). This adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel is a film noir classic. It’s an exemplar of the form, and perhaps the perfect introduction to the dark charms of the sub-genre built around the basest of human instincts and the shadows in which the manifestation of those urges are obscured, if only because it spells out its duplicitous so plainly. It’s also, sad to say, only a middling film, unfurling its plot with a rushed anxiousness that sometimes leaves behind necessary depth and character development. Tay Garnett’s directing is moody, but also a little rote, as if the whole form was still trying to find its way from the plainness of the Hollywood soundstage to the far more evocative urban caverns of existential bleakness that would follow. John Garfield and Lana Turner are both sharp in their leading roles, but even they can’t quite obscure the labored grinding of the narrative wheels.
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, 2011). There was plenty of scoffing when Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg signed on to write a film version of the regularly recycled old radio series hero the Green Hornet. That reaction remained but became tinted with intrigue when Michel Gondry agreed to direct. It would be nice to report that this unlikely crew of creators found their way to a devious little masterpiece or at least a sharp entertainment, but the resulting film is even worse than the scathing speculation could have anticipated. Rogen plays layabout playboy Britt Reid who’s stirred into do-gooding by the death of his media magnate father and the discovery that there’s a gadget-generating kung fu master on the household staff, just waiting to be recruited as a sidekick. The film never settles into a coherent concept, sometimes trying to be a hipper superhero adventure, sometimes playing around with daft satire and occasionally even getting mired in the overt casualness of a weekend home movie project. There’s every indication that all were baffled by this material but no one wanted to admit it, so they plowed ahead anyway. The Green Hornet feels like everyone was standing around expecting that the bluff would be called any minute.
Hesher (Spencer Susser, 2010). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is solid as ever in playing a easily enraged wild child who forcibly inserts himself in the lives of a family wracked by grief over the car crash death of a young wife and mother, but the film that surrounds him is populated too blatantly by indie film cliches. Spencer Susser directs with a dedication to the bleached moodiness of a certain brand of cinematic depression chic that leaves the film straining from start to finish. He, and just about everyone else involved, could have actually used some lessons in anarchic freedom from the film’s title character. That spirit may not have completely saved the film, but would have at least freed it up a bit.
The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963). Considering it against modern films that position themselves as eager crowd-pleasers, The Great Escape inspired genuine anger in me. It is smart, polished, energetic and terrifically entertaining, and it makes it look so effortless. I know it’s not, as the actual top-grossing film of 1963 made abundantly clear, but director John Sturges’s tale of a group of crafty, rascally inmates of a Nazi POW camp plotting and perpetrating the getaway of the title still represents a time, perhaps somewhat mythic, when filmmakers believed the surest route to box office success was toiling to make sure a film is actually good instead of the current equivalent of crassly hitting as many theorized audience enticements as possible. Running just under three hours, the film is paradoxically brisk and light, offering a primer on the art of sustaining dramatic momentum. It’s known as the film that cemented Steve McQueen’s fame, but the film’s best performance may very well belong to another paragon of American masculinity, James Garner. He plays his wry G.I., who has a way with securing elusive items, with a infectious spirit of beleaguered charm and bullish nobility.
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). It’s hardly novel to note a recurring pertinence to Alfred Hitchcock’s famed thriller about voyeurism practiced by a wheelchair-bound photographer with a sharp view through the windows of neighbors across his apartment building’s courtyard. In American culture, prying eyes never go out of style. Still, a fresh viewing put me in mind of the unique development of falsely-felt intimacy in an internet culture driven by social media. After weeks of convalescence, Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies feels like he fully knows those across the way whose existence he sees in glimpses as a he moves from room to room, just as someone know might conjure up a connection on the basis of the skipping stone of a Twitter feed, willfully oblivious to the import of all that’s beyond their gaze hidden behind the borders. There’s also a cunningly wonderful depiction of the ways that individuals stick doggedly to their own version of the truth no matter what contradictory data comes their way that actually winds up making the moment that Jeff is proved right a touch disappointing. Hitchcock’s directing is expert, of course. Rear Window may represent his most ideal balance between dynamic inventiveness and smooth narrative storytelling.