film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Odd Man Out (1947)

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Odd Man Out is a film I’m going to be thinking about for a while.

I’ve only just this minute realized how surprising it is that this film exists; it’s a British and Irish collaboration, made only 20 years after the Irish revolutionary war.  That’s like if a Hollywood studio had teamed up with a film company in Saigon in the 1990s (there was a 1993 film set in Vietnam, but that was Hollywood collaborating with France).  Not only that – it was only 20 years after the Irish revolutionary war, and opens with a faction of the IRA robbing a factory’s office as a fundraising move.  True, they all refer to themselves as “our organization” instead of using the name, but you know exactly who they mean.

That raid and the resulting fallout is…well, it’s not the plot, it’s more like the catalyst for the plot.  James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, the head of this particular faction of…”the Organization”.  He insists on leading the current raid, even though he’s been hiding from the law for six months after a prison escape and has started questioning whether diplomacy might be better. The rest of the team thinks he’s not quite ready for action yet, and his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) would rather the two of them slipped away to the country. But Johnny swears he’s up for the gig and swears to Kathleen that he’ll be fine for just one more job, and then they can take off.  But then things go pear-shaped when Johnny ends up scuffling with a guard during their escape, killing the guard and taking a serious wound himself.  The rest of the team loses him in the shuffle and Johnny’s left a fugitive fending for himself.

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And that’s when the story really gets interesting.  A title card at the top of the film primly insists that this story is “not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”  James Mason is ostensibly the star, but he actually doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot aside from wander from one encounter to another, then collapse into a corner and look weak; the people Johnny meets in his travels are who this film is ultimately really about, as Johnny makes his way around the city searching for shelter and safety.

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Everyone else in the film Johnny meets is confronted with a choice – he’s a fugitive member of an illegal organization (one which some quietly support), but he’s also a human being bleeding out from a gunshot.  Everyone finds their own way to square that circle; try to help Johnny while keeping their own hands as clean as they can, from the fussy matrons who bandage his arm before sending him back outside, to the barkeep (played by a pre-TARDIS William Hartnell) who sees him stagger into a snug and lets him nap there before sending him along after closing, to the cabbie who smuggles him to an out-of-the-way junkyard and leaves him there, telling him to “make sure your mates know I helped you”.  There are also those who prey on Johnny’s desperation – the drifter who sees Johnny in one of his hiding places and then tells Kathleen he’ll let her know where he is if she pays him, or the drunken painter who drags him into his studio to sit for a portrait (Johnny’s being near death gives his eyes the exact kind of haunted look the artist favors).  And it’s these characters’ choices, and what those choices say about them, that is the real meat of this story – where everyone sees themselves in the miasma of politics that was post-war Northern Ireland, and how far they’re willing to risk their own safety to help another human being.

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When it comes to stories about Ireland and The Troubles, I tend to be a little more critical than most; one of my good friends is Irish, and we’ve had a few conversations about that region’s history and the exact nature of the IRA.   Here in the United States, your average person doesn’t know much about Ireland’s history, which left a gap for the IRA to shift the narrative on this side of the Atlantic; in Ireland itself, though, the IRA of the 1970s and 80s was treated as a terrorist organization.  A lot of the films I’ve seen that deal with “The Troubles” have been disappointingly one-note in their politics; prior to this film, the only time I’ve seen anything like a nuanced response was in the U2 concert film Rattle And Hum, in the sequence when the band does “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. That bit was filmed on the same day as an IRA attack on a veteran’s parade in the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen, and Bono stops mid-song to deliver an absolutely blistering condemnation of both the IRA’s violence and of the rest of the world’s ignorance of the politics involved.  This film is a quieter statement – a reminder that whereever your politics fall, in the end we’re all people, all trying to make the best choices we can.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

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As I’ve often said in here, I believe that sometimes how a person receives a film can depend strongly on what the person brings to the film – their personal history, their current mood, their religion or philosophical beliefs, their job history, a fight they got into with family, any number of things can affect how a person responds to a piece of art like a film; sometimes in unpredictable ways.  And sometimes, this unpredictable reaction is shared amid a whole audience; maybe there was a news story that is uncomfortably similar to events in the film, or maybe one of the stars of the film gets embroiled in some kind of scandal a week after the film opens.  Sometimes these issues aren’t under the artists’ control; sometimes, they kind of are.

Like with Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. This black comedy about a “bluebeard” serial killer who woos and marries wealthy women and then kills them for the money was born in a discussion Orson Welles had with Chaplin back in 1941.  Back then it was going to be more of a docudrama about a real French serial killer, Henri Landru; it’s unclear whether they were going to collaborate or were just spitballing ideas.  But Chaplin thought enough of it to eventually buy the idea from Welles outright, giving Welles a story credit on the finished film.  But Chaplin made some great changes to the original idea – his Monsieur Verdoux still preys on widows and murders them for their money, but Chaplin uses the idea as a springboard for some of his own sociopolitical ideas, and bends over backwards to make us sympathize with his killer.  The actual Landru was a struggling furniture salesman, but Verdoux is a banker who’d lost his job in the Great Depression, and was forced into a life of crime to care for his family – especially for his quadriplegic wife.  At his actual trial, Landru professed innocence, refusing to answer any questions about his victims; but in Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s Verdoux doesn’t deny anything.  Instead, he observes that all the world’s nations just finished killing people by the millions; and wasn’t that worse?  There is one implied murder in the film, but otherwise any of Verdoux’s murder attempts fall flat, and in one case the attempt is just a setup for some slapstick.  In another case, he even drops his plans when his victim turns out to be a war refugee.

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Audiences were likely expecting to see Chaplin in his “Little Tramp” persona, so this was all probably something of a shock. The film’s publicists tried to do what it could to nip that in the bud – a lot of the posters I’ve seen feature Chaplin as Monsieur Verdoux alongside a photo of his earlier “Tramp” character, with the slogan, “Chaplin can change – can you?” Chaplin certainly had the right to change, but there are some changes audiences may have found a bit too great to swallow; it’s one thing for a comedian to take on a serious role, it’s another for him to use that serious role to lecture audiences about the universality of the evils of war and the inherent evils of capitalism, which is how some of Chaplin’s script comes across.  Audiences didn’t want to be reminded of war casualties, and anyone that spoke ill of capitalism in the early days of the Cold War got a bit of a stink eye.  To add insult to injury, Chaplin also was caught up in a bit of a morals scandal – a couple years previously, the middle-aged Chaplin had married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, while at the same time was simultaneously caught up in a drawn-out paternity suit filed by another actress. A blood test had already cleared Chaplin in 1943, but at the time, blood tests were inadmissible as court evidence, and Chaplin’s former paramour was not willing to give up all that easily.

So audiences who weren’t already turned off by Chaplin’s war-crimes lectures and anti-Capitalist statements were probably kept away by the morals scandal, and Monsieur Verdoux didn’t really do all that well in theaters.  His film found some fans, however; journalist James Agee wrote three separate opinion pieces praising the film, pointing out that on one level Chaplin kinda had a point; and anyway, it was just a movie, what was everyone getting so upset about?   As the memory of the Second World War and Chaplin’s moral scandals faded, and anti-Communist panic subsided, newer audiences have rediscovered the film; it’s not enjoyed the same popularity as Chaplin’s silent films, but it’s gained fans in more recent years.

Which is why I’ve been thinking a lot about my own reaction, and how it has taken none of that into account. Like audiences of 1947, I was also used to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” – but unlike them, I’m coming to this film in the aftermath of the Cold War, and well after any of Chaplin’s moral scandals have been discussed (and at a time when there have been moral scandals which make Chaplin’s May-December marriage and one lone paternity suit sound almost quaint).  The things he says about war crimes got just a shrug from me.  And as for economics?  Shoot, I’ve met actual anarchists who probably think Chaplin didn’t criticize capitalism enough.  At most it felt like Chaplin was getting a little heavy-handed.

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And ultimately that feeds into my own reaction – which is that this felt like an “I am not Spock” sort of move for Chaplin, and that his efforts to re-invent himself were falling a little short.  It’s not uncommon for a comic actor to try to go serious; sometimes it works very, very well (go watch Robin Williams in Awakenings or Good Will Hunting), and sometimes…it doesn’t (there is an infamous Jerry Lewis movie I shall not name).  For me, this fell somewhere in the middle.  Chaplin is trying to play against type, but he’s included so many comedic moments, and his comic instincts are so good, that a lot of the business just reinforces Chaplin-as-comic for me.   There’s an extended bit in the middle when he’s trying to do in one of his conquests, but all his plans fall flat, with slapstick business that feels straight out of his silent films.  At one point, he even gives someone the exact same kind of fake-innocent gurning simper that he used in the boxing scene in City Lights

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I suspect, though, that if I hadn’t seen Chaplin’s films so recently, that might not have stuck in my head.  But I was only introduced to Modern Times and City Lights a few months ago, and this has all been my introduction to Chaplin as a whole. His serious turns sounded a little bit pretentious, but he was clearly shining at the comedic bits, and I found myself feeling like he was trying too hard to Be A Serious Actor but kept getting instinctively dragged back into comedy.

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Chaplin can change, but maybe he tried to change too much; and the times changed on him too.