‘Scarface’: Blasting to the Top

scarface_titlecard.jpg‘Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it’

The original Scarface, loosely but boldly based on the notorious life and legend of Al Capone, didn’t invent the modern American gangster film. It blew it up. It reinvigorated and redefined the nascent genre, thanks to the rat-a-tat direction of Howard Hawks and scrappy performance of Paul Muni, a pug of an actor who packs his firecracker frame with dynamite.

The movie transformed the story of an insolent immigrant hood who blasts his way to the top spot of the Chicago crime world into a perverted twist in the American dream (“The World Is Yours,” flashes an advertisement outside the gangster’s new, bullet-proofed digs, a tease as much as a promise). And the film cast Tony Camonte, a scrappy street mutt of a gangland soldier with big ideas, bad taste and a dangerous lack of inhibitions, as its Horatio Alger.

Films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had whetted the American moviegoing appetite for crime movies that delivered a vicarious thrill before delivering a sentence of poetic justice. Scarface delivered something more dynamic and insidious, so much so that censors pressured producer Howard Hughes to cut out the more audacious elements. Hughes hired lesser hands to add sanctimonious lectures denouncing the criminal scourge, flat scenes that have all the impact of blanks in the film’s barrage of live ammunition.

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Paul Muni as Scarface with his latest toy

What’s amazing is how much escaped the censors’ scissors: the incestuous attraction between Tony and his party-girl sister (Ann Dvorak); the real-life gangland events “ripped from the headlines” and referenced in Tony’s bloody climb to the top (Hawks brilliantly re-creates the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an evocative scene of shadows and sound effects); the brutal montage of drive-by machine-gun hits in the mob war, with thrilling high-speed car chases and careening getaways through the rain-soaked streets of Chicago city sets, victims crumpling like paper in their wake.

The way Hawks marks Camonte’s victims with the shadow of an “X” (echoing the scar marking Camonte’s cheek) is still effective, and his inventive touches, from the death of Boris Karloff’s mob boss suggested in the falling of a bowling pin to a machine gun blasting away falling leaves of calendar pages, evoke the brutality of Camonte’s bloody reign without showing a single murder. In these days of blood-soaked gangster operas, this incendiary masterpiece still packs firepower.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Love and Bullets: ‘Prizzi’s Honor’

prizzis_honor_poster.jpgKathleen Turner shoots cool and true in Prizzi’s Honor.

The movies are full of girls with guns: sexy slingers who can strike a pose with a firearm in hand and blow away the bad guys with all the lethal intent of a sex kitten vogueing for a pinup. Kathleen Turner’s Irene Walker, the “talent from out of town” in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is anything but a kitten. She’s a jungle cat who prowls the underbelly of society. A cool and cagey pro, Irene wields a gun like a precision tool and never leaves an assignment unfinished.

A blackly comic and insidiously sly love story in the unforgiving underworld of mob families and freelance criminals, Prizzi’s Honor plays like The Godfather stripped of its Shakespearean dimensions of underworld royalty and tragedy. Adapted by Richard Condon from his own novel and directed by John Huston with a bemused cynicism and clear-eyed acknowledgment of human nature in matters of greed, love and loyalty, it stars Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, devoted hit man to Brooklyn’s Prizzi crime family and adopted grandson of the wizened old Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, in a career-defining performance).

Nicholson may look a bit dopey, with his pursed lips and brows permanently furrowed in puzzled intent, but he’s a sharp cookie when it comes to handling the family business. It’s only women who confuse him.

Irene is a hothouse flower Charley finds blooming in a garden-variety greenhouse. He falls head over heels for this poised, confident beauty long before he finds out she’s in the same business.

Turner, who reincarnated the classic film noir femme fatale in a sleek, modern edition of “Body Heat,” couldn’t have been better cast as Irene, a woman just as fatale but far more earthy and, in a strange way, authentic. She may be a hustler at heart, but her lies are just what Charley wants to hear. Irene’s love may be the only genuine thing about her — apart from her skill as a freelance assassin, that is.

When we finally watch Irene in action, she’s a model of cool homicidal efficiency: no wasted motion, no hesitation, no regrets, at least not until the unforgiving rules of blood and honor demand a hard sacrifice. When you’re in the human disposal business, you always hurt the one you love.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…

That bastard Patton Oswalt!

I had ten minutes for a phone interview with Oswalt. It was just supposed to be a quick, light ten-minutes, a tie-in with the DVD release of Ratatouille. I would lob him some goofy questions about the movie, he’d bounce back some funny answers. I mean, he’s a comedian right? That’s what he does. Often with words that cannot be printed in a family publication..

It turns out that Oswalt is also a serious film buff. The man loves to talk movies. And, well, so do I. He’s also a cartoon fan and comic book fan. After the interview was over, I discovered that he’s even written some comics. Anyway, to make a long story short, we turned a short interview long. We ranged far off topic. He was asking me questions! I stopped interviewing and started conversing.

Patton Oswalt's new CD: Werewolves and LollipopsAnd I still had to turn in a light little interview piece to MSN.

A very small portion of the interview ran in MSN’s “What’s In Your DVD Players” series. I left out oodles of great material, and even more conversations chewing over topics that, quite frankly, I can’t imagine too many people besides us would even be interested in. But it’s there and I loved it so much that I felt I had to print the entire transcript (with minor edits to make me sound smarter). So here it is, in all its geeky glory and nerdish obsession with “The Wire” (the greatest TV series ever made), Michael Maltese, Anthony Mann, and Will Eisner and “The Spirit.”

Click here for Patton Oswalt’s website.

What’s in your DVD player?

I got that Janus Films 50 Years Retrospective box so I’ve been going through that. The last thing I watched on my DVD player was “Fires on the Plain,” which is a Japanese movie from 1959. It’s pretty amazing.

Kon Ichikawa, I believe. I saw that film for the first time just this year.

It’s pretty brutal.

Probably not a film that will ever make an appearance in your stand-up comedy act.

No, I don’t think I’ll be doing any “Fires on the Plains” bits. And I know this is such a lame thing to say, but I re-watched the third season of “The Wire.” I’ve probably watched each of those seasons two or three times apiece.

Continue reading “Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…”

‘The Maltese Falcon’ – The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.

The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.

Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.

This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.

One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.

They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

‘Airplane!’ – Terminal Hilarity

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Airplane! crash lands the disaster film with irresistible farce

Airplane!, the directorial debut of the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (who apprenticed on the screenplay of Kentucky Fried Movie), has my vote for the funniest film ever made.

Ostensibly a spoof of the barely remembered 1957 aviation thriller Zero Hour! by way of the Airport disaster franchise, it’s a lively collision of old school vaudeville and anything-goes comic absurdity delivered with crackpot creativity and the juvenile glee of Mad magazine on speed. They lob gags at everyone in the audience from 7 to 70 and don’t bother waiting for anyone to catch up.

The plot — with shell-shocked fighter pilot (Robert Hays) plucked from his passenger seat to fly an airliner when food poisoning lays the crew low — is the cinematic equivalent of a bull’s-eye mark. The writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams unleashes madcap sight gags and demented dialogue with a machine-gun delivery — fast and sloppy and unrelenting — and sees what hits the target. Nothing is too much or too absurd (“When Kramer hears about this, the shit is really going to hit the fan!”).

But it’s the deadpan delivery of ridiculous non sequiturs by the likes of Peter Graves (“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”), Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Leave It to Beaver mom Barbara Billingsley (who, luckily for us, speaks jive) and the stone-faced intensity of Robert Stack, who delivers his lines like he’s chewing rocks and spitting out gravel, that sends the comedy into bizarro nirvana. It’s as if the Looney Tunes gang broke into the drama unit sometime in the ’50s and doodled over the studio’s latest humorless thriller.

Stephen Stucker almost steals the film as the dotty air-control prankster whose goofball antics and arbitrary outbursts (“And Leon is getting laaaaarrrrrger!”) seem to boomerang in from the Twilight Zone, but no one else mugs for a laugh here (take note, Leslie Nielsen; you’ve apparently forgotten that it’s funnier when you keep a straight face). Even the score by Elmer Bernstein plays it straight, pounding out a state of high tension that the directors deflate with every giggle.

Is it the best comedy ever made? I don’t know, but it surely is the funniest. I stand by that. And don’t call me Shirley.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

It’s alive! Alive! seanax.com is live!

Years in the dreaming, months of procrastination, weeks in the making, my website is finally live, and I spend mere minutes to mark the occasion with my debut post!

I plan to use my blog largely to alert you, my dear readers, of my various pieces online, but once I get comfortable I hope to have add some original pieces as well.

In other words, watch this space!

Excelsior!

PS: My heartfelt thanks to friends and web gurus Felipe Lujan-Bear and Nick Henderson for all their help in making this happen. The art in the header was designed by Mr. Henderson of Henderson Graphics