[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

The saga of the left profile: Cooper has to always have the most marked face possible… (Sergeant York, 1941)

Gary Cooper became famous, most of all, in uniform: thirty of his eighty-two films present him in attire, starting from Opus 5, Wings (1927), till the penultimate one, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), and we must perhaps also include For Whom the Bell Tolls, where he is in plainclothes but at war. He stands, then, for the conventional, official Right, somewhat perverted towards the end of his career since, in the comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), he plays an officer holding a post that has nothing to do with his capabilities, since The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) shows him as an outcast general criticizing the decisions of the army. And the captain of the Mary Deare, the only man on board the ghost ship that traffics arms, would also go on trial, just like Billy Mitchell.

But more than a moral value, the uniform represents a visual asset: it throws Cooper’s great height into relief. His lean build makes him look almost like a model. All outfits go on him: army, navy, air force, ancient (in Westerns) or exotic (attire of the French legionnaires) uniforms, or both at once (The Lives of Bengal Lancer).

Morocco (1930) is not the first film where he is a legionnaire (there was Beau Sabreur already in 1928), but it’s the one that imposed this brand image. Undoubtedly, the success of Morocco incited lazy producers to cast him as an army man in five consecutive films from 1931 to 1933.

Watching Sternberg’s Morocco, we could say that Cooper is more of a silhouette, a statue, an image, a model, a prop, an element in the general aesthetic of the film. He belongs to the class of Sternbergian strongmen, the giant variety (like John Wayne later) that alternates with the stout variety (Bancroft, Jannings, McLaglen, Beery, Mature), the Mitchum of Macao being both — a predilection that might explain the failure of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov-Peter Lorre being evidently the antithesis of the Sternbergian man.

This mythical aspect goes hand in hand with the spirit of the film. You get the feeling that Sternberg—in this film as in his other works of the period—accepted and even sought out all the already-mythologized elements of convention—a handsome army man, a femme fatale, an impossible love, a rich and wily old French seducer, and the charms and the dangers of mysterious Africa. This strategy allowed him to come out of all charges unscathed: if the film failed, wise guy Sternberg could always claim that it was impossible to make anything from such a ridiculous plot. If the film succeeded, he could boast of having overcome all these superhuman obstacles.

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[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Gary Cooper visits John Wayne on the sets of Rio Bravo

Film actors are always cursed. Not just the second fiddles, but the most famous ones too. Especially the most famous ones, I’m tempted to say. Indeed, their reputation is tied to two primordial elements: first of all, their private lives. That’s to say, their loves, their death. If one had to find an animal that symbolizes the media (just like the squirrel evokes saving, the lion MGM, or the donkey stupidity), it would be the hyena: death gives its victim a dignity, a gravity, a timelessness the person never had during his lifetime. Respect comes automatically: we never dare to speak ill of the dead, especially not immediately. With our praise, we seek to make up for a lack of enthusiasm in the past, sometimes imaginary. We’re ashamed to be living while he isn’t. Nothing like a premature, accidental and especially dramatic death. Valentino, Dean, Monroe… Can we imagine James Dean attaining eternal and universal celebrity if, on 30 September 1955, instead of getting killed in a car, he had simply retired? Marilyn Monroe would probably have lived in people’s minds anyway, but her supposed suicide (nothing more mediatized than this sustained uncertainty), her supposed affair with a president of the United States (with a death no less mysterious), and her measurements contributed much more to her survival than her exceptional work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Bus Stop. Of course, talent helps, as the cases of Dean and Monroe prove. But it doesn’t turn out to be indispensable: had he lived on, Valentino would’ve remained in obscurity alongside other ham actors of the twenties.

The second important element is commercial success. Here, we clearly see the discrimination that exists between filmmakers and actors: directors like Jean-Marie Straub, Roberto Rossellini or Samuel Fuller, who didn’t have a single real success at the box-office, are the subject of a number of monographs. Cults form around their name and their body of work. If not for La Grande Illusion and French Cancan on one side, Breathless and Pierrot le fou on the other, we could’ve said the same of Renoir and Godard. Such a contradiction is impossible with actors: if, in place of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart, I had told my editor that I’d like to write a book on Dominique Laffin, Denis Lavant, Claude Melki and Jean-François Stevenin, I’m absolutely sure that, with due respect, he would’ve pulled a face this long—or even longer—even though the second set of four aces has nothing to envy the first as far as quality of work is concerned.

In short, what counts in the evaluation of a director is the artistic value of his films, and what essentially counts in the evaluation of an actor is the commercial value of products bearing his name.

That’s why I said that great actors of international renown are more cursed than supporting actors. The attraction they exert is based, most of all, on wrong reasons. Which means that we can lump together Gary Cooper with Valentino or Peck or Schwarzenegger… This contempt, this misunderstanding doesn’t exist with great secondary actors like Jean Abeillé, Walter Brennan, Hume Cronyn, Serge Davri, Mercedes McCambridge, Michael J. Pollard, Kurt Raab or Dominique Zardi. We can like them only for the right reasons. And if we don’t like them, it’s probably that we don’t know them. No one knows about Walter Brennan’s love life or the circumstances of his death, and it’s for the better.

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[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Adapted from Ayn Rand’s madly popular 1943 novel, The Fountainhead (1949) is the story of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), a genius modernist architect whose refusal to accept established styles and conform to public standards make him a pariah among his peers. Roark declares that his primary quest is his work itself, not its possible beneficiaries. He does not accept the judgment of collectives and knows that no “group, board, council or commission” would give him projects. Recognizing his greatness, but lacking the courage to be by his side, are Dominique (Patricia Neal), an architecture critic in love with Roark’s work (and thus Roark), and Wynand (Raymond Massey), a self-made media baron trying to regain the strength of character he lost on his way to the top. Running the crusade against Roark is Toohey (Robert Douglas), a social-minded critic at Wynand’s publication who is convinced of Roark’s genius and wants to break him down for that very reason.

            Much of the drama of the script, adapted from the novel by Rand herself, passes through a romantic triangle. Dominique is in love with Roark, but is afraid that the world will grind him down. To protect herself from the heartbreak, she marries Wynand, who also loves Dominique. Wynand is a very nuanced figure, an antagonist trying to redeem himself, who sees in Roark the man he could have been, but was too scared to become. Roark, for his part, is a cipher, an emotional monolith who refuses to compromise his work, whatever be the personal and professional cost of that attitude. The characters’ attraction to each other are modulated less by erotic fervour than their appreciation of each other’s moral outlook.

There’s a starkly new style of acting afoot in Vidor’s film, no doubt informed by the nature of the material at hand. Unusually for a Hollywood hero, Roark is not someone the viewer identifies with. Vidor’s direction divorces our perspective from that of Roark, whom we get to know only through information supplied by other characters. In the opening volley of exchanges, Roark stands as a silhouette at the edge of the frame, as his varying interlocutors describe his personality by way of cautionary advice: stubborn, uncompromising, visionary, individualistic, too idealist for this business. Throughout the film, we hear about the brilliance of Roark’s Frank Lloyd Wright-like designs, but we’re never told why they are so.

Cooper, in turn, dials down his already minimalist style and turns the character into a near-mythical figure. Many shots present him from the back, his obscured profile lending him a larger-than-life presence. Rand’s story constantly compares buildings to people and locates the integrity or inauthenticity of architects in the designs they produce. Roark, like his creations, is solemn, impassive, upright, impenetrable and flawless. Cooper is really playing a slab of marble here. He stands tall, hardly moves and performs very few actions. Except for a pair of gestures involving his fingers, his hands always remain close to his body or in his pockets. Whatever reactions he has, he conveys using microscopically calibrated facial expressions. His general unflappability becomes a moral quality, set against the neurotic body language of characters like his frazzled, covering peer Keating (Kent Smith). This idea of laconic speech and reduced physical movement conveying a superiority of character was already present in Cooper’s role in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and it’s taken to its philosophical extreme in The Fountainhead, thanks in no small part to Rand’s scenario.

Similar principles are at work with Patricia Neal’s character. In the initial stretches of the film, Dominique is dead-eyed, never blinks or moves her pupils when she fixates on something. She is cold and removed, her distance an expression of self-protection and a fear of loss of control. In her first scene, she tosses away a pretty statue because, she says, it’s too beautiful for this wretched world. Her melancholy defiance and whip-wielding dominance, of course, melt away when she lays eyes on Stark’s chiselled body drilling down a marble. As a result, Neal’s eyes become progressively warmer, her hands less in control. Vidor cranks up the sexual tension to untenable levels, curiously sublimating it in architecture talk. The dynamic culminates in the proto-fascist iconography of the final scene where Dominique, now wholly submitted to her love, ascends via a fork lift towards Roark, who stands atop a skyscraper looking down at her, his hands on his hips.  

This melodramatic framework is fundamental, and not incidental, to Rand’s script. In direct opposition to Freud, Rand believed that a person’s emotional life was founded on a bedrock of reason and that one could direct one’s sentimental life by rational analysis. “A man falls in love with and sexually desires a person who reflects his own deepest values”, she wrote. In flagrant contrast to the Hollywood model, Roark and Dominique fall in love with each other through an appreciation of each other’s moral, intellectual virtues. A long scene of romantic confession takes the shape of Dominique’s admiration for Roark’s nonconformism. This notion of an amorous relationship based on “rational self-interest”, if it isn’t given a lie by Rand’s own love life beset by passion and jealousy, at least makes for odd drama.

Another aspect of Rand’s script that goes against the grain of classical Hollywood is its unapologetic verbosity. Rand adores reiterating her declarations against mass culture (incriminating Hollywood indirectly), collectivism, altruism, solidarity and common standards in exceptionally lofty, impossibly articulate dialogue. She puts her most scandalizing lines in the mouth of Roark’s rival Toohey, whose cigar-blowing critic is a caricature of the New York intellectual. This writerly excess reaches its crescendo in an extended courtroom scene where Roark spells out his (and the film’s) philosophy in unequivocal terms. Like Roark, Rand sold the film rights on the condition that not one word of any of this be changed.

All the same, Vidor activates the material with a vertiginous imagery scored to Max Steiner’s thunderous score. Vidor’s style here can justifiably said to be baroque. His strong, rectilinear compositions in deep space make dazzling use of Edward Carrere’s modernist interiors and the highly directional lighting. A scene set at a marble quarry is a veritable series of minimalist canvases harnessing the straight edges of rock formations to great effect. Vidor’s eye for geometry is visible even in minor scenes like an idyllic interlude of three characters relaxing under a tree. The filmmaker’s characteristic camera movements impart a dynamism to scenes threatened by Rand’s wordiness. Even the long-winded courtroom speech is made snappy thanks to Vidor’s fluid sequencing and Cooper’s deadpan line delivery.  

Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Rand’s novel during the war, but it couldn’t be made into a film because of America’s pro-Russia stance at the time. In 1949, however, things were markedly different. The Cold War had begun and anti-communist sentiment was in the air. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pursued its investigation into leftist infiltration of Hollywood. At the famous HUAC hearings of 1947, Cooper and Rand were summoned as friendly witnesses to denounce communism, which they did in their own unmistakable manner. First among those promising cooperation and clean-up was Jack Warner, the head of the studio that saw a major workers’ strike in 1945. It’s something of a bitter irony that Warner Brothers, known for its socially-conscious cinema and films about the little man, would go on to make a work that decried these very values. But the climate had changed, and one thing that the old Hollywood moguls understood well was which direction the winds blew. The Fountainhead was fashionable once more.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946) was made at a peculiar historical moment in 20th century American history. The Second World War had just ended and with it the rivalry with Germany. But the Cold War, marked by red scare and communist witch-hunts, hadn’t yet begun. The effect of this unusually peaceful period, nevertheless characterized by an exhaustion with the long war and an anxiety about the nuclear future, is palpable both in the circumstances of the film’s production as well as its narrative. In its own way, Cloak and Dagger attests to the passing of the baton from Hollywood’s left wing, in the ascendant since the Great Depression, to the conservatives, who will dominate the industry in the subsequent decade.

Made by Warner Brothers, the film is set just before the end of the war and opens in southern France with one of its many wordless sequences: a reconnaissance mission involving freight trains, a liaison with an Allied informant at the back of a bar, a double-crossing leading to a double murder. Back at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington D.C., we learn that Germany is amassing raw material for the development of an atomic bomb and that the OSS needs a scientist in their ranks to sabotage this development. So they solicit Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper), a physicist at “Midwestern University” working on the Manhattan project.

It’s a rather odd casting choice whose oddity is revealing too. As he’s written, Jesper is a nuclear scientist who speaks German, which suggests that his character was imagined as an immigrant (like Lang himself). Casting Cooper—and not someone like, say, Edward Robinson, the star of Lang’s previous two films—transposes a flavour of American exceptionalism over the anxious scientist character. But Jesper remains a man of science only for his first scene, in which Cooper, in suit, fixes a lab equipment, flexes his fingers and plays with an apple as he converses with the OSS emissary sent to persuade him. Convinced of the importance of using science only for humanity’s good, Jesper is reluctant at first, but joins the mission nevertheless when he thinks of the horror of a German nuclear weapon. Once recruited, Jesper becomes a full-time spy—a character that fits Cooper like a glove, even when he’s speaking German with an American accent.

Right away, Jesper flies to Switzerland to gather more information from Dr. Lodor (Helen Thimig), a German scientist who has just fled the Nazis. At the end of a series of twists, Jesper finds himself en route to Italy to meet with Lodor’s colleague Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff). After his illegal crossing into Italy via a lake—another tense, wordless sequence—he meets Gina (Lilli Palmer, also a German immigrant to Hollywood), an Italian resistance fighter who will help him contact Polda and lie low until an escape is planned. His first sight of her is when Gina removes her dark raincoat and hat in the cargo truck, her sexy white dress and blonde hair illuminating the dark interior of the truck. It’s a tender introduction that sets the tone for the film’s first major transition: following a long meeting with Polda, which slows down the narrative tempo and prepares us for the second movement of the film, Jesper is asked by his peers to simply hole up with Gina for a week.

This is where Cloak and Dagger turns into a full-scale romance, as its guiding perspective shifts from Jesper to Gina. The focus of their first night together moves from their mutual seduction, mediated by a hungry cat, to the scars from Gina’s past. We learn that Gina was a hopeful musician in love until the war forced her into an untrusting, broken girl who kisses without feeling. As they flee from her flat—now no more a safe space—to an abandoned circus to a lavish apartment and finally to the ruins, the film enacts a narrative of tortured domesticity, emphasizing the feeling of never being able to settled down. Their journey through these symbols of purity and homeliness becomes a reminder of what the war has damaged, perhaps irreparably. Even so, this time together with Jesper is a moment of respite for Gina, who finally dresses up in a nostalgia for life before the war.

While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

Cloak and Dagger might also be regarded as one of the first examples of the Euro thriller—a sub-genre of Hollywood thrillers whose action takes place in attractive European locations and which is predicated on the prerogative of the American hero to go wherever he wants without hindrance. The challenges of the film’s plot are rather conveniently resolved by Jesper, who wanders around Switzerland and Italy without much trouble. The Italian streets splattered with Mussolini propaganda are, of course, shot in Hollywood studios, whose artificiality sticks out all the more considering Rossellini made the neorealist epic Paisan the same year. Realism of appearance, however, is not the primary concern here. Cloak and Dagger puts its finger on a paranoia that will come to define a decade, attaining its full proportions when the Soviet Union performs its first nuclear weapon test in 1949.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Sergeant York

Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), starring Gary Cooper as First World War hero Alvin C. York, was the biggest box-office draw of the year and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Even so, it isn’t cherished the same way the classics of the period are. The film doesn’t feature in critics’ polls nor do cinephiles count it among director Hawks’ finest. There are reasons for this. Produced by the Warner Brothers, Sergeant York is ostensibly a prestige picture, very different in tone from the studio’s lean, mean films about the “little guy”. Intended to celebrate Alvin York’s personality and exploits, it’s too reverential of its subject, taking artistic omission or modification as sacrilege—understandable given that the studio had a tough time convincing York to let them make a film of his life. Moreover, it’s not as muscular and economical as the regular Hawks picture, with its pious solemnity and overlong acts and coda. Yet, Sergeant York is full of those fruitful tensions and contradictions typical of Golden Era Hollywood, that glorious period of film production between the 1910s and the 1950s.

The film opens with a church service by Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) in a village tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. As the pastor talks about God’s stray sheep, he’s interrupted by the sound of gunshots. It’s York and his pals, drunk and raising hell on a Sunday morning. Disappointed, York’s hardy, suffering mother (Margaret Wycherly) requests the pastor to pump some sense into her wayward son. The pastor tells York that a “fella’s gotta have roots in something outside his own self”. The sermon doesn’t move York, but he does change. The first half of the film unfolds like a religious parable, tracing a boorish, vengeful drunk’s transformation into a forgiving Christian. The first turning point comes in the form of Gracie (Joan Leslie), the girl York intends to marry. To that end, he works day and night to buy some “bottom land”, a piece of field in the valley more fertile than his barren ranch on the hills. When cheated out of the deal by the landowner, he sets out to kill him, only to be struck by lighting on his way. Saved by what appears to be a miracle, York trudges into the church, having found the light.

This Damascus conversion is only the first of York’s two major transformations. After York, the champion of turkey hunting, turns non-violent, America decides to enter the Great War. The year is 1917 and, after an unsuccessful attempt at abstaining from drafting, York enlists as a conscientious objector. His sharp-shooting skills at the training grounds gain him a promotion, but he refuses it. His superiors have a long conversation with him, handing him a book of American history, and emphasizing the price one must pay for freedom and Christian living. Still unable to reconcile the commandment against killing and his duty to protect life, York retreats to the countryside, where another supernatural intervention turns his attention to Matthew 22:21 in the Bible. This military reasoning—now a foundational belief of American foreign policy—relieves York of his dilemma and he submits to earthly authority with gusto: not only does he kill German soldiers, but he almost single-handedly captures 132 more in a bloody operation.

The film follows York’s outward spiral, from his self-centred individualism to his coupledom, to his community membership, and finally his American citizenship. This corresponds with an opening up of the film’s consciousness as it moves from the secluded life in the hills, to the national melting pot that is the army, and to the veritable international forum that is the war trenches. Hawks is in his elements when dealing with the egalitarian camaraderie of the recruits at the army camp, and the idea of inverting the village topography in the war field is interesting. But for most part he’s clamped down by the material’s reverence. Hawks and his cinematographer Sol Polito shoot a good part of the film in Warners’ house style full of lights and shadows, but York’s transformation scenes are conceived with a preciousness and sentimentalism closer to Frank Capra territory. His second conversion is a baroque sequence filmed on the edge of a rock, with the silhouette of York and his dog set against the sunset, as the conflicting demands of the pastor and the captain on the soundtrack. Once York’s moral quandary is resolved, the film goes down the hagiographic slope.

In his Oscar-winning role here, Gary Cooper refines the naïf character he developed in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Forty years of age, Cooper interprets the character with a boyishness endearing in its absurdity. He grooms himself awkwardly in front of a mirror as “ma” fixes his pants and makes his meals. His characterization as a great shooter who eschews violence gives him a power that pays off at the end. That he could finally kill the German soldiers the same way he shot turkeys back home bestows on him an aura of innocence beyond corruption. Cooper conveys his entire character with a play of his fingers, especially his thumb: he adjusts his suspenders, dabbles with “bottom land” soil on a plate, turns the page with a lick of his thumb, hesitates with his left hand and, more remarkably, wets the aim of his rifle with saliva before shooting—a single gesture that seals his status as a son of the soil untainted by war, business and the big city life.

Sergeant York isn’t significant, however, for Cooper’s performance as much as for its crucial historical situation. It was made at a time when America had not yet entered the Second World War. The political discourse was divided between isolationists, such as Charles Lindbergh, who didn’t want America to get involved in Europe and those, like the Communist Party of America, who wanted to intervene on humanitarian grounds. These tensions are palpable in Sergeant York, made by Warner Brothers, the first studio to pull its films out of Nazi Germany. Both producers, Jesse Lasky and Hal Wallis were Jewish, as were two of the film’s four writers. One of the co-writers is filmmaker John Huston, a well-known anti-Nazi. Their film clearly calls for an American intervention. The facts from World War I are superimposed current events. The Germans officers in the film are cunning and back-stabbing, far cry from Jean Renoir’s uprooted gentlemen, while Britishers and Frenchmen are good blokes.

One the other hand, the film is directed by someone known to be casually anti-Semitic and fronted by the symbol of corn-fed Americana, Cooper, who testified against suspected communists in Hollywood after the war. The film’s duality is apparent in its ambivalence towards the York’s village. With their blissful ignorance of the war and geographical isolation, the villagers are depicted as being in the wrong by the script, but Hawks treats them with an affection and respect that files their rough edges. The discrepancy was, of course, resolved by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor months after the film’s release. Now, to be in the war and to be an American and a conscientious Christian were not a contradiction in terms. The film’s success is testified by the soldiers it encouraged to enlist in the army and by the fact that Sergeant York was presented as an evidence of communist influence in Hollywood during Senate hearings in September 1941. By December that year, though, all this was a footnote.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]