Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Thriller A Day Keeps the Bogeyman Away...

If you're a fan of Boris Karloff's 1960s horror anthology Thriller (as I am...), I can highly recommend the series review site, A Thriller A Day.   In fact, I'm now officially a "follower!"

The site -- by authors Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri -- reviews a new Thriller episode each day, just as the blog title promises.

But more than that, the accomplished writers also regularly conduct interviews with the likes of Gary Gerani (who wrote the landmark TV reference book, Fantastic Television back in the 1970s...) and Steve Mitchell who produced the special features on the DVD set along with Gerani.

There are many fascinating insights about the series to be found in the interviews and the reviews, and the site is already up to Season One, Episode 19, so don't miss out. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981)

In advance of reviewing Escape from New York (1981) for J.D.'s much anticipated John Carpenter Blogathon at Radiator Heaven in October, I've been screening some American films from the same epoch that similarly portray the Big Apple as a crime-infested war-zone. 

I've already reviewed Walter Hill's fantasy comic-book The Warriors with this specific context of 1970s-1980s "urban blight"  in mind, and also  made brief mention of Wolfen (1981): a horror film that utilizes the real-life rubble of the on-the-decline Bronx as a home for shape-shifting, nomadic werewolves.

Today, I want to remember a non-genre effort from the same year as Escape from New York, Daniel Petrie's Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Ed Asner, Rachel Ticotin and Pam Grier. 

Although I was only eleven when the film was first released, I still remember the widespread public controversy this film generated.   Police advocacy groups felt that Fort Apache: The Bronx was vehemently anti-cop (because it portrays Danny Aiello as an out-of-control, murdering law enforcement official...). At the same time, some people complained about the film's less-than-flattering depiction of the Bronx's Puerto Ricans and African-Americans.

Another group also widely disapproved of Daniel Petrie's film: movie critics.  The consensus of the day seemed to be that Fort Apache: the Bronx was episodic and loosely-structured...more like a regular old TV show (Hill Street Blues?) than a legitimate movie. 

In retrospect, however, it seems plain that the film's much-complained about loose narrative structure is actually its greatest strength.   Fort Apache: The Bronx  isn't a neat, canned cop movie in which a crime is presented and then solved, clue-by-clue, by heroic, investigating cops.

 Life isn't really  like that, so why should movies have to be? 

On the contrary, Fort Apache: The Bronx is an involving, slice-of-life, workaday peek into the existence of a lonely, aging cop in the Bronx -- Murphy (Newman) -- as he contends with with prostitutes, muggers, and corruption on the police force  Accordingly, the film never pushes an overly-plotted Hollywood-style narrative, and the result is a cinematic work-of-art in which the characters feel more realistic; more true, and which life (like real life...) is full of  unexpected eddies and tributaries that must be navigated.
Director Petrie makes the most of his laid-back narrative approach, never force-feeding on the audience arguments about abstract ideologies. At its heart, the film does indeed present two approaches to law enforcement -- liberal and conservative -- but both prove equally ineffective, and the movie never comes down in favor of one over the other.  Both are treated sympathetically, and both are shown to have unwanted repercussions.

Instead, Petrie is a fine observer, not a propagandist.  He consistently deploys the tenets of realistic filmmaking (authentic location shooting; deep focus long shots, and pans within the frame etc.) to chronicle the life and times of a man with great conscience, but not necessarily great courage. 

What is this, the gunfight at the OK Corral

Welcome to Fort Apache.

Fort Apache: The Bronx was filmed in the Bronx, the northern-most borough, at a time when it was in serious decline and chaos: a garbage-strewn wreck of  20th century modernity.

Specifically, a wave of arson had occurred in the late 1970s.  "The Bronx is burning," announced sportscaster Howard Cosell, famously, and in this case the crimes were believed  perpetrated by desperate landlords hoping to get their money out of failed properties and investments.  

Unemployment in the Bronx was also through-the-roof and the region saw a sudden and dramatic shrinkage of municipal support at the turn of the Carter/Reagan decade...meaning that police and firefighters were understaffed, overworked and stretched to the limit.

A police officer in Fort Apache tartly describes the Bronx of 1981 as a "40-block area with 70,000 people packed in like sardines, smelling each others' farts, [and] living like cockroaches.

He then ticks down a list of considerable problems including "youth gangs," families that have been "on welfare for three generations," "high unemployment," the "lowest income per capita" and "the largest proportion of non-English-speaking" denizens in the city. 

And the men and women policing this population? 

The "natives" grow restless.
"We've got the connivers, the slobs, the shirkers. Guys who beat up the wrong Guinea. Gave a diplomat a parking ticket. Screwed a Big Mouth Hooker.  Or shook down the wrong peddler," says Captain Dugan, in the same breath that he calls the Bronx "Siberia."

On the very day that the new captain arrives at the 41st Precinct in The Bronx (Ed Asner's Captain Connolly),  he is also informed of the office's widely-held nickname: "Fort Apache." 

This shorthand has arisen because the police officers consider the precinct to be not a police station, but rather a "fort in hostile territory." 

Historically, of course, we recall Fort Apache as the site (in Arizona) of a sustained battle of some duration between Native Americans and an American army cavalry outpost in September of 1881.  Not coincidentally, that's almost exactly a century before the action of this 1981 film.

As it happens, Connolly's (voluntary...) transfer to the Bronx occurs on the very occasion that a "cop killer" has murdered two rookies...and another battle of some duration is set to occur.  History is about to repeat itself. 

Law enforcement assumes it is "open season on cops" after the brutal double homicide, and that the murders are a deliberate political (and revolutionary...) statement against police.  Yet the truth is somewhat different...somewhat more random.  
Charlotte's (Pam Grier) web of destruction.

To wit, the fearsome, anonymous cop-killer is actually a strung-out junkie prostitute named Charlotte (Grier). 

Importantly, she boasts no rational, ideological or even racial motives for her violent crimes (she also cuts a john's throat with a razor blade in one memorable scene...).

Rather, Charlotte is simply a symbolic force of chaos; the spark that ignites an explosion of fear and retaliation throughout the Bronx.  She is a reminder in that if you live in a powder keg, motives are incidental.  One little spark...and flames erupt.

As Connolly assumes command of the 41st Precinct and deals with the specter of a cop-killing bogeyman, he orders a huge wave of  arrests.  The police bring in and book prostitutes, bookies, and other petty crooks literally by the bus-ful.  The idea is that by shaking the trees, so-to-speak, something will fall out; a clue about the identity of the cop killer.

"You're just making thing worse," third-generation cop Murphy (Newman) insists, but Connolly continues to go by the book, in the process actually escalating the tense situation.   "You're going to war," Murphy points out, again linking the situation of 1981 to the historical Fort Apache battle of 1881.

When citizens riot at the precinct to complain of the new captain's heavy-handed tactics, Connolly orders  - without compunction -- "gas 'em," firing tear gas into the crowd.  Then things really spiral out of control.

Questions of conscience at Fort Apache.
Another cop, Aiello, murders an innocent kid...throwing him off a roof. 

Murphy witnesses the crime and must wrestle with his conscience about it.  Should he report his fellow officer and risk being considered a "rat" or "stoolie?"  Or should he keep his mouth shut?

While the cop-killer case causes further trouble for the police and citizens in the Bronx, Murphy initiates a romance with a beautiful Puerto Rican nurse, Isabella (Ticotin).

To his chagrin, Murphy learns that the brilliant and loving woman also happens to be a junkie...a heroin addict.  In emotionally-wrenching terms, Isabella describes for Murphy the reason an intelligent, empathetic person might use drugs: it's like a vacation from reality for her; one that she occasionally needs just to cope with daily life in the Bronx.

As the relationship between the police force and the community it serves degenerates to violence and paranoia and Murphy grapples with his conscience, the real cop-killer, Charlotte is herself murdered by drug dealers, rolled up into a carpet, and dumped...unnoticed on a heap of trash. 

The haunting final images of the film find Murphy and his partner, Corelli (Wahl) chasing a perp through garbage-lined streets in relatively close proximity to the cop-killer's corpse...but they never see it. 

 Petrie's camera pulls back to a long shot of the chase (through garbage and societal detritus), and then pans down to the carpet and the secret within. No cutting here: the use and preservationn of space in the frame is vital and important.  By preserving the integrity of the space in his shot, Petrie reveals how everything is connected in The Bronx; how the blighted environment literally precludes the resolution of an important case.

Taken out with the trash: the cop-killer is never caught.
So the movie's major crime is not solved.  It will never be solved. 

The cop-killer case is was never more than random.  The match that lit the flame.

What is important, the film establishes in its final freeze frame, is Murphy's response to the unceasing violence and tragedy all around him.  The film freezes in mid-leap, as Murphy is about to tackle the perp, and -- echoing in some canny fashion the final, famous freeze frame of Truffaut's The 400 Blows  (1959) -- the camera beautifully expresses the essence of this particular man. 

Once a policeman, always a policeman

Law enforcement is in Murphy's blood (he's a third generation cop, we learn...), and no matter how bad things get for him -- with the community or with his brethren in blue -- he's going to keep fighting the good fight.

It may be simplistic, but that seems to be the film's ultimate point-of-view regarding law enforcement ideology.  Connolly is a hardcore hawk (a conservative), but the film does not portray him as an ogre or monster.  On the contrary, he supports Murphy and willfully roots out corruption in his department.  At one point, Asner emotionally delivers a speech about the law-abiding people who live in the Bronx and deserve the safety and protection that the law should and must provide.  He is an admirable man.

Connolly's approach is deliberately contrasted with Murphy's approach.  Murphy has been tagged as a "liberal" by his fellow officers and he believes that, given the miserable situation in the Bronx, the best way to go forward is with some level of understanding  and empathy for what this particular community deals with.  It's not necessary to bludgeon and bother the community every day, every minute...not when it is dealing with desperation, poverty and other problems.

These two men -- of vastly different stripe -- are both dedicated to protecting and serving, though they view the situation differently, and I like how the film never attempts to make either a "villain" or a "hero."  Rather, they are both pursuing a higher goal in the way they honestly believe is best, and again that strikes me as authentic and even-handed.  The final freeze frame -- of one cop in action, doing his job -- suggests the answer to such crime and poverty is individual commitment.  Personal dedication (in the form of Connolly and Murphy) -- not political agendas -- will bring better days.

"We're Living in a World We Never Made..."

No escape from the Bronx.

Fort Apache: The Bronx is an affecting film for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because the audience comes to recognize Murphy and Isabella as good, likable people.  They are not so very different from us at all. 

Accordingly, we root for the characters to succeed, and for their relationship to succeed as well.  Together, they could share some sliver of hope; of happiness.

Yet, that's not a realistic hope given where and when the characters live.  To intimate this, Petrie often shoots the film's star-crossed protagonists from behind bars as if to visually represent or symbolize their entrapment and eventual doom.

Deep focus cage.
You just know that for Murphy and Isabella, things aren't going to end well, so we consistently see them through these myriad visual "cages."   Strung-out Isabella through the panels of french doors in her apartment, for instance.  Or Murphy -- like a gorilla at the zoo -- shaking the zigg-zagged bars of the precinct windows.

It's not a world that either Isabella or Murphy made, but they are victims to its eddies and tributaries, as I wrote above.
The loneliness of the long distance cop.

In some of the best of these cage-styled  compositions, Petrie employs deep, or long focus, so we see not merely the cage and the characters trapped within....but the chaos whirling outside; the oppressive world crushing them: riots, violence, drug-dealers, etc.

Petrie also powerfully and regularly utilizes real locations in long-shots of his star, Paul Newman, navigating the streets of the Bronx.   He does so not just to foster the film's sense of authenticity or realism, but to reveal -- again -- the crushing effect of the "larger world" upon Murphy and the other characters. 

Again and again we see Murphy walking the garbage-strewn streets alone; pacing, deep in thought,  before a world of  desolation, rubble and destruction.   Society at large has abandoned this place; this "hostile" territory.

I should add that these shots are not faked; not augmented with Hollywood fakery in the slightest.  This is what the Bronx looks like in 1981 (on the centennial of the Fort Apache battle...), and in seeing it, we start to understand the suffusing sense of despair evident in the film. 

Another long shot of Murphy in the ruined Bronx.

No one should have to live or work on this blighted landscape...and yet -- if you were born there -- how do you escape it?  If you have no income to speak-of, how do you pick yourself up and just walk away from what little you own?  How do you get a job, if there are none available? 

Over and over, the surfeit of long shots on location  establish and emphasize the most dangerous "enemy" lurking in Fort Apache

That enemy is not the mad hooker murdering cops and pimps; she's just a side-effect of the environment.  The real enemy is a failed, even cursed borough, and the strange society that has grown up in it under the shadow of ubiquitous fires, pervasive violence and utter poverty.. 

The Bronx is burning.

The overall aura of Fort Apache: The Bronx is, finally, one of resignation and forbearance.  The movie assiduously observes how things are in "the moment" (Murphy's moment in 1981, specifically).  It reflects conditions on the ground, so-to-speak.  My argument about the film is that this vibe has been persistently misunderstood as lassitude; as languor or lack of energy. 

Alone again.
The loose narrative structure and the oppression of the surroundings are meant to overwhelm us (the viewer); but in some cases, critics seemed to think that they also overwhelm the film, or Petrie himself. 

I don't see that; and nor do I see the film as a collection of cliches, as others have suggested. 

By taking the "crime investigation" aspect out of the drama (and by downplaying action as much as possible), Fort Apache: The Bronx actually squeezes out many commonly-held cliches of the cop movie format, leaving audiences a plain view of a city in chaos, and the people who inhabit it.  Perhaps the movie works best as a time-capsule, then.

Fort Apache: The Bronx is a movie about a world Murphy and others in the Bronx "never made" but have to live in  and navigate every day.  They have a responsibility to make it better, and in the end, that's what the movie is about. 

The final freeze frame suggests that, at the very least, Murphy is on the job and will stay on the job.  That's a start.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 120: Mission: Impossible: "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" (1969)

A suspenseful game of Cold War chess, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" gets my vote for the all-time best episode of Bruce Geller's Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). 

This third season installment -- originally aired in mid-January of 1969 -- commences with a close-up shot of Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) unlocking a small padlock to gain entrance to a secret location and receive his taped orders. 

The remainder of the episode involves how Jim unlocks the mind of his opposite number in a foreign intelligence unit: one wily and devilish mastermind named Stefan Miklos (Steve Ihnat). 

Specifically, Phelps must establish for the brilliant Miklos that a man named Townsend (Jason Evers) is still working for Miklos' government and is not, in fact, a double agent for the Americans, as has been suggested by another foreign agent, the conniving Simpson (Ed Asner). 

The Switch.
Why the con? 

Because Townsend possesses top-secret but  false information that the U.S. government wants Miklos' government to believe and act upon.  

Therefore, Miklos must believe  that Townsend is still trustworthy, along with his information. 

Yet in order to believe this carefully constructed-lie, Miklos must "discover" what he deems the truth  himself.  He must see through a carefully-constructed "frame" of Townsend that Phelps has painstakingly created.   His ego must be satisfied that he has arrived at the right conclusions.

Got that? 

Good...because "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" is almost impossible to explain in terms of language, yet perfectly understandable -- perfectly plain -- in the watching.

In large part this is due to director Robert Butler's frequent use of extreme close-ups and insert shots to highlight important narrative clues (an airport locker key, a passport, etc.).  This is one reason I have always admired Mission: Impossible: because the series' creators always understood that television is primarily a visual medium and acted upon that knowledge. 

During the episode's opening briefing with Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), Rollin (Martin Landau), Willy (Peter Lupus) and Barney (Greg Morris), Phelps describes his foe, Miklos,  as "cold, calculating and ruthless," and a man with "no weaknesses, no flaws," thereby setting up the character as a truly worthy adversary; one quite different from the run-of-the-mill villains featured on the series.  Miklos is a man quite expert at mind-games, one not easily led to a conclusion, so Jim must make certain his plan for Miklos is not too obvious...but also not so byzantine that he can't decipher it. 

To employ a cliche, it's a tightrope walk all the way.

The only way to defeat Niklos - a man "invulnerable" except "to himself" --  is for Jim to play on Miklos' own cunning; to manipulate his belief in himself and his abilities.  To accomplish this, Jim and his team lead Miklos through a precise maze of small clues and have him think his way to the "right" (or is it wrong?) conclusion.  

Rollin plays Miklos, with Simpson.
Those clues -- also revealed in true M:I-styled economical, visual  storytelling -- involve small, simple things: a match-book, a painting and a small time discrepancy.

Each clue is surreptitiously offered to Miklos only once, but Phelps gambles on his enemy's photographic memory (shown as almost subliminal flash-cuts or freeze-frames in the body of the episode).

Phelp's only advantage over Miklos in this "sting"-type tale is the fact that one foreign agent (Simpson) has never seen another foreign agent (Miklos). 

Therefore, Rollin impersonates Miklos with Simpson; and then turn around and impersonates Simpson with Miklos. What brass!

Rollin plays Simpson, with Miklos.
This gambit -- with Rollin playing two roles --  permits series regular Martin Landau to craft two really fine, very different performances: one aping the squirrely, suspicious Simpson (Asner) and one mimicking the cool, brilliant Miklos.  

What's even more amazing about these tour-de-force performances is that Landau dances between them, back-to-back, scene-to-scene and -- again -- the viewer always knows precisely "who" Landau is supposed to be. 

It's terrific work, and Landau pulls it off with real joie de vivre.  If you look at the two photos of Rollin featured in this post, you can see that Landau's face actually looks different when he's playing Miklos and Simpson, but no make-up or prosthetics are employed. It's just the way this actor carries himself.

The tension in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" keeps spiking for two reason, primarily.  The first involves split-second timing.  Barney and Willy must get Rollin's photograph into a hollow statue base, taking out Asner's photo in the process. 

But Miklos is en route from the airport and arrives to pick up the statue (and the secret package inside) early...necessitating Barney speed up his delicate work (which involves cutting through a display shelf with a saw...).   Here the plan nearly falls apart. 

The matchbook of a left-handed man?
The second reason for suspense involves the fact that Jim's entire strategy hinges on the idea that Miklos is that "cool, calculating" mastermind, and not a man subject to whim or the vicissitudes of the moment. 

At one late juncture, Jim realizes how much is riding on his assumption about Miklos' character. 

"He's letting his emotion affect his reason," Jim complains.  "He's never done that before.  Maybe I was too clever. Maybe the matchbook and the painting and the time discrepancy were too subtle for him to pick up!"

Finally, Miklos does fall into Jim's trap.  He sees through the carefully orchestrated frame, and puts together the final three clues (the aforementioned match book, painting and time discrepancy.) He thus concludes that since someone is trying to frame Townsend, his information must be true...and accurate. Jim has led him to his downfall.

And finally, this is why this Mission:Impossible episode is such a classic.  Miklos -- his conclusion reached -- stops to expeirence a moment of empathy for his unseen, unnamed opponent (Phelps). "I wish I could meet the man that masterminded the operation," he says.  "He played the game brilliantly, but he lost.  It'll destroy him."

A watch set back a few minutes...

The irony here is powerful.  Miklos doesn't know it, but he's actually talking about himself. 

He has arrived at the wrong conclusion (that the information belonging to Townsend is correct) and it will, indeed, destroy him.  Miklos played the game well, but Phelps played it better.


What I adore about this moment, is that just as Miklos notes how "losing" will "destroy" his unseen nemesis, the episode cuts away from Miklos to a close-up of Jim

Yet Jim is not gloating or swaggering at having beaten his  genius opponent.  Instead, he is composed and there's sympathy evident on his face.  He knows what Miklos does not; that Miklos is speaking about himself.

Game over and mission accomplished: Miklos believes the wrong man.

Jim also knows that there but for the grace of God goes he

It could have very easily been Phelps and the Americans who were "tricked" in such an elaborate covert operation.  The roles might have been reversed. 

What the viewer thus detects of Jim Phelps in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos"  is this sense of respect for the opponent and for the game.  But also Phelps' intrinsic humanity.  He executed the checkmate perfectly, but he still feels compassion for the loser. He knows there are consequences for the (brilliant) Miklos.

Moments like this -- told only with a silent expression on a chiseled face or through clever editing selections -- put truth to the oft-told lie that Mission: Impossible was a show just about the job, and never about the people doing the job. 

In "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" the viewer gains a clear sense (again through the careful visuals) of Jim's respect for his enemy, and also the jeopardy that Jim puts himself in every week to defend this country.  The episode thus becomes very much about character. 

For Jim it's not just an impossible's personal.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back from the Beach!

Just returned from a beach weekend! 

I'll be back to the blog shortly.