December 18-24, 2003
The General/Steamboat Bill Jr. ($24.99 DVD) Buster Keaton is at his sublime best in this modestly priced twofer, enhanced by The Alloy Orchestra's bouncy original scores. Though the Chaplin/Keaton comparison has been worked to death over the years, it's worth noting how much more expansive a director Keaton was: Ever the vaudevillian, Chaplin thought in set pieces, while Keaton's movies have the forward momentum of a runaway train (or steamboat, as the case may be). For all Chaplin's elegance, there's something just as exhilarating about Keaton's physicality: Where Chaplin falls, Keaton plummets. The fundamentally self-deprecating Keaton might have avoided Chaplin's grand themes, but especially as a pair, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. (released in 1927 and '28) resonate just as deeply on a personal level. In The General, Keaton unsuccessfully attempts to enlist in the Confederate Army; unbeknownst to him, his application is rejected because it's ruled he'll be more useful as a railroad engineer, but both he and the woman of his dreams take it as a smear on his masculinity. In essence, the movie, which plays out as one intermittent chase scene, is about not just getting his girl, but getting his manhood. In Steamboat Bill Jr. , he's the effete son of a coarse steamboat captain, who doesn't bother to hide his contempt for his city-educated offspring. (Even more than The General, the film exploits Keaton's small stature, topping his tiny frame with a dainty beret.) Daringly, the movie doesn't extinguish Keaton's "feminine" weakness so much as work through it; if it hasn't been appropriated by queer theorists, now would be the time. In addition to providing a peerless score, the Alloy has tracked down superb prints of both films, which frankly crush the other available DVD versions. For any fan of silent film, or anyone who likes to laugh, it makes the perfect last-minute holiday gift.
They Drive by Night/High Sierra/To Have and Have Not/Dark Passage ($19.98 each DVD) "I'll make you look as if you've lived," says the plastic surgeon in Dark Passage, about to remake a fugitive convict's face. Considering that the face he ends up with is Humphrey Bogart's, you'd have to say the doc was true to his word. Though Bogart got top billing, Delmer Daves' 1947 thriller (based on David Goodis' novel, The Dark Road) keeps its star literally under wraps until an hour into the picture. Initially played by shadowed stand-ins or the camera itself -- repeating the failed POV experimentation of the same year's Lady in the Lake -- the film's wrongly convicted wife-killer emerges from his back-alley operation swaddled up like the Invisible Man; with only his eyes peering through the gauze, Bogart looks shockingly vulnerable, as if those moist sockets might flood with tears at any moment. The template for such image-assaulting star vehicles as The Man Without a Face and Vanilla Sky, Dark Passage's delayed introduction of its featured attraction's likeness betrays a deep ambivalence about the star image Bogart would assault the following year with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Despite the fact that Bogart's face first appears in a mirror, Dark Passage is short on self-reflection, climaxing in a blitz of harried and improbable plot convolutions. But as an epitaph for Bogey's classic persona, it's an appropriate capper for a wave of reissues that shows how Bogart finally got to the top.
Directed by Raoul Walsh, a studio old hand best known for the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle The Thief of Baghdad, They Drive by Night and High Sierra (1940 and '41) show Warner Bros. undergoing an identity crisis of its own. With WWII under way, the gangster picture's heyday was over, but its demise gave Bogart a chance to escape from the Murderer's Row B-list. Drive casts Bogart and George Raft as freight-hauling brothers whose fortunes turn when they're hired by an old friend (Alan Hale) who's started his own concern, then turn again when his unfaithful wife (Ida Lupino, in her first major role) bumps him off to get close to Raft. With Raft mired in dour sincerity and Bogart confined to a small role (he was billed fourth), the supporting players steal the show: Hale, with his gleeful vulgarity (when his wife brings her drunken husband a glass of water, he yells, "I said I was thirsty, not dirty!"), and Lupino, whose stagy courtroom breakdown wowed contemporary audiences.
Lupino's theatrics got enough ink to get her top billing in High Sierra, despite the fact that it was Bogart's first genuine lead. In an elegy for the gangster era, Bogart plays grizzled bank robber Roy Earle, whose sense of morality clashes both with his brash young partners in crime and the world at large. If there's beginning to be poetry in Bogart's heart, though, there's none in Walsh's brawny direction, and surprisingly little in John Huston and W.R. Burnett's dialogue. Huston, of course, would make his directorial debut later that year with The Maltese Falcon, solidifying Bogart's stardom in the process. Though not as vulnerable as Dark Passage's swaddled fugitive (who spends a night tied to Lauren Bacall's bed), Bogart's Sam Spade is trapped between law and disorder, destined (cursed, almost) to know both worlds while living in neither: a man of the mean streets, though not himself mean.
Then, of course, there was To Have and Have Not (1944), as much a pillar of Bogart's temple as Falcon or Casablanca. A ship's captain making his way in the morally murky world of war-era Martinique, he's an idealist in a pragmatist's shell, waiting only for Bacall to come along and scratch. Bogart's privileged background, shared with director Howard Hawks, arguably worked in his favor, suggesting a broader knowledge he's done everything in his power to suppress. Bacall, whose low-voiced screen persona wasn't so much molded by Hawks as created in toto, is the woman of action to Bogart's man of ideas, famously instructing him in the fine art of whistling: "You just put your lips together and blow." Regardless of the size of his role, To Have and Have Not is the only one of the four that really feels like a Bogart movie, but if you'd as soon see sketches as masterworks, the others all provide points of interest. Watch the recent reissues of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and In a Lonely Place first, though.
Misc. Picks On Friday, check out Exhumed Films' "Creepy Christmas" at the Prince, featuring unintentionally oogy Christmas shorts (including one featuring the always unnerving Davey and Goliath). The 8 p.m. start leaves you plenty of time to truck out to Bryn Mawr and catch the midnight showing of The Evil Dead. (It plays Saturday, too.) Once you've got all the holiday spirit out of your system, it's safe to return to the Prince for their annual showings of It's A Wonderful Life (Sun.—Tue. at 7 p.m., with a Tuesday screening at 3 p.m.). Come to think of it, that one's pretty creepy too …