Sunday, August 16, 2009

Casablanca, Caligari & Conrad Veidt

By Steve Evans

Sometimes mediocrity in movies reminds us of greatness. For me, this almost always involves watching a contemporary picture and being reminded of something much better that unspooled years ago for a lucky audience.

Recently watching Brian DePalma's rather disappointing adaptation of James Ellroy's wicked noir novel, The Black Dahlia (2006), I was pleased to see an oblique plot reference to the tremendous silent film The Man Who Laughs (1928) starring Conrad Veidt. This 81-year-old film was part of the German Expressionist movement that began to bloom (and arguably reached full flower) with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, also starring Veidt, who is unforgettable as the sinister somnambulist Cesare. As The Man Who Laughs, Veidt's horribly scarred face served as the inspiration for Batman's archenemy The Joker.

Veidt fled his native Germany for the United States when the Nazis seized power. In one of life's inevitable ironies, the German actor would gain his greatest fame stateside playing villainous Nazis, none more memorable than Maj. Strasser in Casablanca (1942). Bogart's Rick Blaine got the drop on Strasser and shot him dead when the vile SS Officer refused to put down the phone at the film's climax, prompting Claude Rains' immortal line, "round up the usual suspects."

History recalls Veidt as a quiet, unassuming man who is believed to have self-identified as Jewish on Nazi questionnaires as an act of protest. There is no record to show Veidt himself was a Jew. Yet as Maj. Strasser and in a dozen more menacing roles, the great actor practically oozed malevolence.

Veidt died the year after Casablanca was released, collapsing from a heart attack while playing golf in Los Angeles, less than 3 months after his 50th birthday.

As a star in two of the greatest films of the silent era -- Caligari and Man Who Laughs -- Veidt's place in cinema history is secure. As the catalyst driving the plot in Casablanca, he is immortal.

Veidt appeared in more than 100 films. You should see them.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Transformers 2 Transforms Brains into Guacamole

By Steve Evans

Took my kids to see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Leaky Alkaline Batteries, I think it was called.

Fabulous special effects undone by Michael Bay's direction, and if you're hip to that, as I know you are, then the point already has been made. I will add only this comment on the film: the Transformers sequel is the most noisy, overly plotted action flick I have seen in a 40-plus love affair with the cinema. The sonic booms mixed on the soundtrack could knock monkeys out of trees in Zimbabwe. This might actually be an enticement if you are an 11-year-old boy, which unfortunately I no longer am.

It is rumored that Michael Bay is the bastard child of the late John Frankenheimer who, if he had only directed one film called The Manchurian Candidate (1962), would still be a cinematic immortal in my book. But Frankenheimer also directed The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seconds, Black Sunday, and Ronin, plus Grand Prix, Prophecy, The French Connection II and Reindeer Games, for those of us who enjoy guilty pleasures.

John Frankenheimer was a tremendous director who worked in almost every genre. He was also a quiet, unassuming, thoughtful man whose DVD commentaries are among the most insightful I have had the pleasure to hear.

It is said that talent skips a generation. I am sure Michael Bay's children are going to be geniuses.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.