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15 November 2018

Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, and The Magnificent Seven

My entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association
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The Seven ponder their battle plan

Akira Kurosawa was one of the undisputed artistic geniuses of film. His understanding of exposition, character, and connection with the audience -- not the Japanese audience alone, but the human audience -- made his great works of art popular successes, which is something rare. They have also been deeply influential on other filmmakers and storytellers of all kinds. Like all of Kurosawa's works, Seven Samurai is extremely beautiful; almost any frame could be frozen and mounted on a wall.

Gorobei the Archer

Seven Samurai was a huge international hit; since its release in 1954 it has remained one of Kurosawa's most popular movies. The story is straightforward; during a time of instability in 16th century Japan, a small farming community has become the target of a predatory bandits who return again and again to steal their harvest. The villagers hit on the idea of asking some ronin to defend them. Rather surprisingly, this is based on a true incident. (Ronin were highly trained warriors who had been high-level guards and soldiers attached to noble clans; during the societal upheaval of the 16th century many of the clans were disbanded and their samurai became wanderers, selling their skills wherever they could.) The ronin are not exactly criminals, but they are not really welcome anywhere, either; their skills make them dangerous, and their former allegiances make them suspect.

The villagers ask Kambei (Takashi Shimura) for help, and he recruits five other experienced, competent men to join his force. A hotheaded young wannabe, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) tags along; when they can't get rid of him, they gradually accept him into the group. Among the others are Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a matchless archer, and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyoguchi), a cool-headed and deadly swordsman.The way Kambei assembles his team, seeking them out, seeing each man in action, getting to know something about him, became to model for countless films that came after this one; it seems as natural as breathing now, but Kurosawa really was the first one to think of it.

The villagers become an effective fighting force
In normal times, the peasant farmers and samurai would barely have any occasion to speak to each other. The fact that they are interacting at all is evidence of the breakdown of society. The villagers both fear and need the samurai. When the Seven arrive at the village they scout it out as if it were a besieged castle, mapping the three ways to enter and exit, taking inventory of anything that could be used as a weapon, calculating how much food, water, and fuel they have left. In other words, they treat the situation like professional soldiers, including sending out spies to discover the enemy's location and the number of forces arrayed against them, so they can make a battle plan. Kambei paints a simple banner for the seven to follow. He also makes map of the village, including a chart with a symbol for each bandit. As the action progresses, the bandits are checked off, one by one.

The action is crystal clear; Kambei deploys his forces like a great general, with a cool expertise the undisciplined bandits can't withstand despite their greater numbers. He even manages to train the villagers into an effective fighting force.

The samurai take their job seriously, although there is a vast difference in class between them and the villagers. The truth is, to the displaced samurai, cut off forever from the world they grew up in, trained in. and found a place in, battling to defend even these poor farmers feels like a return to their reason for being. Once they guarded and fought for great lords and their households; now they use the same skills and training to defend peasants they probably would never have noticed in former times. But it's the job that counts. In the end they're willing to risk, or even lose, their lives to feel that commitment again, despite the cost in pain and loss. For a while, at least, the world returns to its natural order, and they have the comfort of knowing that they have an important place in it. Once the job is finished, of course, the survivors must resume their rootless existence, alone again.

Not everyone survives
In 1960, United Artists released The Magnificent Seven, adapted from Kurosawa's film. Though it is set in the Old West and filmed in Mexico, most of the story is the same -- a village of peasant farmers is being targeted by a gang of bandits who return again and again to steal their harvest; they pool every penny they have and hire a gunmen to defend them. Chris, obviously a very tough and very experienced man, picks his team just like Kambei did. He too hires hardened professionals, including an invincible gunman (Robert Vaughn), and an over enthusiastic youngster (Horst Bucholtz) attaches himself to the group.

The Seven
The tactics used to defeat the bandits are almost exactly the same, too; the Seven and the newly trained villagers lure the bandits into town one and two at a time, cut them off from all the ways out, and kill them. The villagers do this without skill, but with a great deal of enthusiasm. This version does make a real and rich character of the bandit chief (Eli Wallach), who is much wilier than his men.

Eli Wallach is a wily bandit chief
The social background is not as clearly defined as in Kurosowa's film, but it doesn't need to be. The American Seven are not displaced aristocrats but simply a few standouts among the swarms of rootless men who (according to legend, at least) populated the Wild West. There is some mention of some of them being Civil War veterans, but it's not really emphasized. They are, however, cool-headed professionals, and they approach their job as such -- even though they are only being paid twenty dollars. Each man chooses to be his best self, honoring his commitment to his fellows as well as their clients. For these men, as civilization crept over the Western states and territories their ability to earn a good living as soldiers of fortune began to fail. Like the Japanese ronin, they approach their task with a certain pride in their hard won skills, because it reminds them of how valuable they once were.

Unlike Kurosawa, Sturges does not create elegance and beauty with every scene; the location in Mexico provides starkly gorgeous scenery, though, and of course Elmer Bernstein's music is one of the great film scores of all time.

The first two films are not mere adventures or action films; the drama hinges on the decision of expert killers to commit their skills to protecting ordinary people who only want to provide for their families and live in peace. Unfortunately, this entire moral dimension is missing from the third version. Here, the bandits are not violent criminals but wealthy land grabbers. They are not stealing the food from the mouths of subsistence farmers, but using legal tricks to rob settlers of their land and virtually enslave them (which is simply unbelievable). This makes the whole battle rather less compelling; the landowners are not helpless, and the bad guys are not simply violent predators. Frankly, the townspeople could just as well pool their money, get a lawyer, and challenge the bad guys in court.

The newest Seven

The one thing the third version does have going for it is Denzel Washington as Sam Chisholm, this film's version of Kambei or Chris, the leader who assembles the crew. There are some other fine actors in the cast, but frankly they are, for one thing, all so dirty that you can't tell them apart, and second, not presented as real individuals by the script. But Washington, like many great actors, seems to be carrying a different, and better, movie around with him. His actions are thought through, however dangerous, and knowledge of the consequences can be seen in his eyes.

Denzel Washington, a completely convincing Western hero
I don't suppose there was really any choice, making such a movie today, whether to make it into a gigantic spectacle or not. This third version of the story is more like a war zone than a struggle by simple farmers to defend their homes. Unfortunately, the action scenes are muddled, and the Seven's victory rather less convincing, since there seem to be hundreds of bad guys and a gattling gun. They may be good, but that good? That would mean that each of the Seven dispatched about twenty guys. Really?

This version contains massive amounts of killing and violence, as if just adding to the numbers of dead will make the story more involving.The death toll must be several times that of Seven Samurai, where each one of the desperately fleeing bandits becomes pitiable as he dies, even though they are robbers, rapists, and murderers. The reason for this is complicated; it has been said that modern audiences are desensitized to violence. But if modern audiences were presented with the violent deaths of human beings the way Kurosawa presented them, not matter of factly, but flooded with each individual's pain and terror, they might feel differently.

A bigger problem is with the motives of the Seven themselves in this second re-make -- they don't have any. They are not there to defend the helpless, and they are not there to re-establish their professional self-worth. There are some good moments when the Seven work together to free the townspeople; but since the characters haven't been delineated very clearly, it's not as meaningful as in the previous versions. The unlikeliness of the original story has become simply unbelievable with the expansion of the story to such a huge size. More bad guys, more deaths. and more guns don't make for a more compelling story.

03 November 2018

The Mask of Dimitrios: Mysterious, Glamorous European Noir

Film Noir is one of the best-known and most popular film genres. From the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties, these suspenseful, often gritty stories of dwellers in the shadows -- the shadows thoughtfully provided by black and white photography inspired by German expressionism -- provided a welcome counterpoint of cynicism to the cheery melody of popular films.

Though mainly an urban genre, Noir can be set anywhere, including on trains or boats taking the protagonist(s) from one setting to another. A whole sub-genre of Film Noir existed, most notably at Warner Brothers, from 1938 through 1955. I would call this Swanky European Noir, because it usually depends on an atmosphere of dark, multi-lingual exoticism barely comprehensible to innocent, straightforward Americans. This would include wartime spy movies, but also films from those pre-war years when everyone knew something bad was coming (and soon), and the immediate post-war years (see list at the end).

But the king of this types of film, and the most sterling example of all, is The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by the versatile Jean Negulesco, and starring Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Stephan Geray, and Victor Francen, among many others. It is an excellent adaptation of Eric Ambler's bestselling novel A Coffin for Dimitrios (a very good read, by the way).

Peter Lorre plays Cornelius Leyden -- a normal person
The screenplay follows the unusual structure of the novel, which all seen from the point of view of Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch professor who has retired from teaching after writing a bestselling mystery novel. He uses the proceeds of his success to travel around Europe. While visiting Istanbul, Turkey, he comes across the story of a notorious criminal called Dimitrios Makropolos. He becomes acquainted with a police inspector, Colonel Haki (a character who appears in other Ambler novels and is in fact played by Orson Welles in Journey Into Fear), who describes his own efforts to track down Dimitrios. The character of Dimitrios begins to fascinate Leyden; from here on, the whole story is told to him by different people he meets while pursuing his researches.

Leyden meets Haki
Noirs of any sort often feature a guide for the audience in the form of an innocent  bystander who gets caught up in the noir underworld; in European this is frequently an American contending with ancient and labrynthine European ways, like Joseph Cotton's Holley in The Third Man. It is really refreshing to see Peter Lorre playing a normal person -- well, his Mr. Leyden is more thoughtful, curious, and perceptive than average, but he is completely honest and trustworthy. The more he finds out about Dimitrios' cruelty and duplicity, the more horrified he becomes.The film wanders all over unusual corners of Europe -- not just Paris, Berlin, or London, but Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria, places little known to average Americans. Or average Dutchmen like Leyden, who gamely follows the increasingly harrowing path of crime and corruption. 

The young Dimitrios
Leyden follows Dimitrios' trail to Sophia, in Bulgaria. On the way he meets Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), apparently by chance, who turns out to have an even more eager interest in Dimitrios' whereabouts. What Leyden discovers in Sophia is a tale of betrayal, exploitation, and blackmail, recounted by a notorious queen of the underworld (Faye Emerson) in her sleazy nightclub. We see her in flashback as a beautiful young woman whose life was ruined by Dimitrios.

Exotic and foreign but still sleazy
Peters directs Leyden to Mr. Grudek (Victor Francen), in Yugoslavia. This leads to a delightful scene between Lorre and Francen, portraying two men of the world, more truly sophisticated than even the most urbane of American characters in most films of this era.

Leyden and Mr. Peters "meet cute"

Grudek appears to be a gentleman of leisure who, ensconced in a historic chateau, is spending his retirement writing a religious biography. But the life he retired from was as one of Europe's top spymasters. After taking a moment to introduce Leyden to his two lovely Siamese cats, Grudek tells him another cnapter in Dimitrios' career of destruction. This is the longest and the most tragic episode, as Dimitrios cleverly and relentlessly traps an innocent government clerk (beautifully played by Steven Geray) into betraying his country.

Leyden and Grudek with Heloise and Abelard

The final incident in Paris explains Mr. Peters' interest; as it turns out, he was one of a group of people tricked by Dimitrios into taking the fall for an international criminal fraud, sending him to jail and ruining his life, while Dimitrios himself, naturally, got off scott-free.  Peters is convinced that Dimitrios is still alive. His only interest in life now is revenge. Leyden, despite some skirmishes, has become fond of Mr. Peters, and agrees to help him try to trap Dimitrios if possible. To his horror, it is, and he comes face to face with the criminal whose career he now knows so well. His reaction surprises him as much as it does Dimitrios.

The final conforntation

This movie is endlessly entertaining, a combination of exotic (but shadowy) foreign backgrounds, a subtle, well-informed script, and truly wonderful acting by Lorre, Greenstreet, and Zachary Scott as the wily and heartless Dimitrios, who prowls through civilized society like an amoral predator, with no respect, no ethics, no beliefs, and no affections or ties of any kind to weigh him down, shocking even experienced crime fighters like Col. Haki with his complete selfishness. This, of course, is eventually his downfall.

This movie takes place well before World War 2, and has no direct connection to the rise of the Nazis; but the contrast between the brutal, unfeeling, power-mad Dimitrios and the decent, cultured, ethical, and unsuspecting victims he leaves in his wake is pointed. It's a twofold warning -- first, that a psychopath like Dimitrios is an outlier to the run of humanity, and his advent couldn't really be predicted, and, second, that it could recur at any time, without warning. Like Fascism.

Here are some of my favorite Swanky European Noirs:

Escape, a great film starring Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, and Conrad Veidt,
Rage In Heaven, with Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, and Robert Montgomery,
A Woman's Face, with Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, and the invaluable Conrad Veidt,
One Night in Lisbon, with Fred MacMurray and Madeline Carroll,
Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant,
Journey Into Fear, with Joseph Cotton and Dolores Del Rio,
Background to Danger, with George Raft and Brenda Marshall,Lifeboat, with Tallulah Bankhead and John Hodiak,
The Seventh Cross, with Spencer Tracy and Hume Cronyn,
The Conspirators, with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid
In Our Time, Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid
Ministry of Fear, with Ray Milland
Confidential Agent, Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall
Deception, with Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid
Three Strangers, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Joan Lorring
Lured, with Lucille Ball and George Sanders
Arch of Triumph, Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Ingrid Bergman
Berlin Express, Merle Oberon, Robert Ryan
A  Foreign Affair, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur
Sealed Verdict, Ray Milland
The Third Man, with Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
Deported, Jeff Chandler and Marta Toren