humphrey bogart

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is Hamlet Better than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are Hamlet (Best Picture) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Best Director), the winners from 1948. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which everyone knows at least for the “stinking badges” line (which isn’t actually exactly that, but you probably know that, too). It’s so much more than a memorable line. One of the best films on either of these lists, Sierra Madre is a serious look at men who feel the world owes them more than what they’ve got. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) teams up with two other men (Tim Holt and Walter Huston, the director’s father) to search for gold in the mountains of Mexico. They luck out after relatively few setbacks and are rewarded with small personal fortunes. It’s enough to split three ways, but that logic only holds up until it’s dark out and you’re alone with your thoughts. Do you really have to split it? Don’t you deserve it all? How well do you really know these other guys, anyway?

The Best Director director: John Huston, who was nominated for the award four more times. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was his only win. Like seemingly every other great director on the list, he was married a number of times (five) and has famous offspring (Anjelica Huston). His name may not be one you immediately know like some others on this list, but he fits right in with the other drinking, smoking madmen who made great art in the 40s and 50s.

The Best Picture film: Hamlet (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 81st on my list of every Best Picture winner. I was pretty brutal to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in my first viewing, largely because I disagreed with the choice to play up Hamlet’s sexual feelings towards his mother. It might benefit from a rewatch, but I can’t imagine sitting through three more hours of those two actors inches from each other’s faces.

The Best Picture director: Laurence Olivier, who directed only a handful of movies despite being one of the greatest actors of all time. I recently watched the insane The Boys from Brazil and he nearly saved even that disaster. He was marvelous in Hitchcock’s Best Picture winner Rebecca. He was an iconic Shakespearean actor, but he seemed to only want to direct a few works. I haven’t seen his Henry V or Richard III, so as a director I can only judge his Hamlet. I judge it harshly, but more for the directing choices than for his performance, which is exactly what you’d expect from an actor of his stature.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? No, though I’m harder on Hamlet than the average viewer. I don’t like the interpretation of the play and that distorts my ability to judge any other part of the film, but it’s a lesser piece of art than Huston’s adaptation. I haven’t read the original The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but I have to imagine it’s closer to the film than Hamlet. There are comparisons to be made beyond that, but the most important thing to comment on here is how impressive Bogart is. He’s one of the greats for a reason, and he plays Dobbs with such darkness right from the start that it fills the viewer with unease. His portrayal sells the message of the whole picture, and I think that, on top of so much else, deserves the nod.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashNope. Hamlet is harder to sit through and it’s certainly less interesting, but the “interest” when you’re talking about Crash is morbid curiosity. I still think about that scene in Crash where a guy almost kills a kid in the street in broad daylight and then no one does anything about it. I think about that scene a lot.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952)Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Casablanca Better or Worse Than Crash?

casablanca

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1943 winner Casablanca. Is it better than Crash?

I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to find something new to say about Casablanca. Fresh off The Godfather, I have to find something new to tell people about one of the other consensus picks for greatest movie of all time (G.M.O.A.T., which is not a great acronym). I think it’s this: Casablanca is one of the rare things in life that is as good as you hope it is.

We constantly expect disappointment from the supposed canon now. Just yesterday someone was telling me about a guy who wouldn’t watch Citizen Kane because he didn’t expect it to live up to the hype. I still haven’t read any of the (stop it) Game of Thrones (I know) books yet (note the yet, I said yet, you don’t have to tell me to) and I’m skeptical that they could possibly be as good as people say. None of us will take “this show is hilarious” as enough reason to watch something. We just tell people “oh, I’m sure, I’ll check it out” and then we continue with whatever we were going to watch anyway.

Is that so wrong? Do we need to be broadening ourselves on recommendations of the people we surround ourselves with or the cultural arbiters of our world? Casablanca exists as a monument to the argument that we do. The beautiful lines are still beautiful, 70 years later. The performances are incredible; Humphrey Bogart’s Rick has become one of American film’s most enduring characters, even though he didn’t win Best Actor for it that year. The love feels like love actually feels: complicated, painful, and overwhelming. Casablanca is a romantic movie and a war movie and it’s never one at the detriment of the other. It defies you to pick one of those to describe it.

I think that’s what comes through the most: it’s so many things. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of a brief period of time in Rick’s Cafe Americain, a bar/casino/nightclub/etc in Morocco in the early 40s. Rick doesn’t want to deal with the war, he just wants to drink and quip one liners to his patrons. His life of rolling his eyes at everyone’s silly “war” is broken up when his ex Ilsa shows up with her new beau Victor. It’s more complicated than all that (because it always is) but the movie depends on this triangle. It also depends on the war, but Casablanca is such a great war movie precisely because the war is never the biggest thing in any one scene. It’s not about combat, it’s about the realities of war outside the battlefield. Just how The Best Years of Our Lives is a war movie with no real war going on, Casablanca is a war movie that happens entirely in tensions between people. Oh, and a really loud version of “La Marseillaise.”

Gushing about one of the greatest triumphs in film history is a bad use of time. Let me say this, and we’ll move on to Crash: you’ve got to watch it. Just the same as I’ve got to find out about this throne and the wall and the debts and all that, you’ve got to fill in your cultural blanks. If one is Casablanca, you should start there.

The Best Part: This has to be the piano scene. Ilsa wants to hear “her song” “As Time Goes By” but Rick has banned it from his club because it pains him. We’ve all got that song. The melancholy of hurting yourself with music that’s so deeply connected to an old, beautiful time is an extremely specific emotion, but even though “As Time Goes By” is intensely dated by itself, the scene is timeless.

The Worst Part: Paul Henreid was supposedly worried that his portrayal of Victor Laszlo would typecast him as being “a stiff.” It’s a necessary character for the movie, of course, but you can definitely see where he was coming from. He’s the Scottie Pippen of the greatest movie of all time: a guy who only looks worse because he’s right next to Bogie’s Jordan.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I wrote this question and I’m offended by it. Casablanca is perfect in a lot of ways, but matched up against Crash you start to notice why subtlety is so important. Casablanca is about a tense time in a tense country, but it never feels forced. As you watch it you are aware of the political realities of the characters (like when the police look the other way for most things, but can’t ignore internationally important incidents) without people reading explanations into the camera. The meaning in Casablanca is there for you to find. Crash is a lesser movie in every way, but it’s specifically lesser in that it is so terrible about telling rather than showing. Casablanca hopes you’re smart enough to find everything in it; Crash thinks too little of you to even hide anything worth finding.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: rogerebert.com

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

This one is a bit of a stretch. There are no spaceships, no wars over nascent technology, no deadly viruses, and no door-opening dinosaurs. There are a whole bunch of drunks, smog, and Oldsmobile convertibles. Yessir, this book takes place in 1950s L.A., the world of doctor-endorsed cigarettes, movie stars, mansions, and extensive highway systems. It still fits here because this book and almost everything after it owes its existence to the pulps, a medium that infused SF with the life it needed to become the powerhouse it is today, where it seems half of all new TV shows and movies have at least some type of speculative element.

Pulps were magazines published on cheap, rough-looking wood pulp paper. They were about half the price of the more prestigious magazines, and they published detective stories, horror fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. It was something cheap to read on the train and then throw away. A lot of writers who went on to publish their own novels ate on the checks they won from these magazines. Raymond Chandler wrote for Black Mask, which specialized in mysteries. Chandler has a weird story, as far as writing goes. He was a top oil executive pre-Depression, but lost his job and decided to try his hand at writing. His first short story was accepted at 45, his first novel published at 51. It is an impressively late start for someone who created such an enduring legacy in American fiction. He took what James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett started and forged it into one of the most recognizable subgenres out there: the hard-boiled detective story. Their protagonists are hard-fighting, hard-drinking men with a cynical outlook on life and a questionable relationship with the rest of the human race. Their style is one of spare, densely descriptive prose. The atmosphere of the books (at least The Long Goodbye) is more oppressive and fully-built than most other novels – this type of fiction lives on style. A lot of that style is created by the cynical, fast-talking wisecracking of the main character, Philip Marlowe. Basically, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart together created the American cultural memory of how men spoke in the 40s and 50s. In fact, Bogart delivered the defining film interpretation of Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep.

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If you have not seen Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart acting together, you do not know what American cinema is.

The words and delivery of the main character form so much of the atmosphere of this book that the analysis of the few choice quotes that follow is necessary for an understanding of the book.

I. Intro

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

This is the first paragraph of the novel. It introduces the principal mystery-driving character of a mystery story, so it is pretty important. This uses really simple language to convey a lot of information. First, the description of the character: young face, white hair, drunk as hell. A lot of descriptions work this way – Marlowe’s inner monologue always gives details about every new person in the story, and it is always a handful of key details that then leave you with more than enough to construct a full character. Hard-boiled detective fiction is the spiritual successor of of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. Also, the stylistic flourishes like “as if he had forgotten he had one” and “plastered to the hairline” are beautiful examples of Bogart talk, which, again, Chandler played a key role in inventing.

1948_Rolls_Royce_Silver_Wraith_Freestone_Webb_Coachwork

The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. There’s a line in the book saying that this is more attractive than women, so… different times, I guess?

II. Bogart Talk (BT henceforward)

These quotations are collected from all over the book, and the BT is strong in all of them.

And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

Notice the information-dense recall of Terry Lennox (who has since caused Marlowe a heap of trouble): the “polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith,” followed by the darkly, impossibly humorous “depart rapidly in several directions,” capped off by the cynical and truthful commentary: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.

This second quotation is less complex, but still a great distillation of BT. Cynical, removed, semi-humorous view of the world tinged by disgust at what is being observed, summed up by a weird simile. The jarring quality of the strange simile stretches it almost to tearing, but it doesn’t tear, and the result is stronger than a more measured comparison would be.

The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him.

Not much to say here, just perfect dismissiveness and darkly humorous cynicism

I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.

Again, cynicism and humorous dismissal, the humor arising in large part from the extent of the dismissiveness. Sure, Marlowe’s pretty excited, he’s kissing a beautiful woman, but all he reports is the hilariously understated “It was light, pleasant work.”

III. Social Commentary

Sheriff Petersen just went right on getting re-elected, a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office forever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a closed mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable.

So, The Long Goodbye gets a lot of credit for being a vehicle for social commentary. Here is just the barest snippet, a beautiful dismemberment of the political process. Winning elections is all, all appearance, and no content. If you think Chandler or Marlowe is excessively cynical, just know that handsomeness has had a ridiculous influence on election results ever since Nixon and Kennedy. As a more recent example, I voted for Obama both times (it’s turned out kind of meh, but his stated platform was not explicitly evil, so). I remember being a lot more worried about Romney v. Obama than I was about McCain v. Obama. What created this dynamic? Obama is energetic and attractive, and McCain came off as an angry, wrinkled old man. Romney, on the other hand, was in roughly the same spot as Obama on the attractiveness spectrum. Policies aside, the man’s face is so chiselled it looks like he is currently on Mt. Rushmore. He ended up losing, but especially after that first debate, I was concerned he wouldn’t. Against an incumbent president. Because he was so pretty. Chandler knew and dismantled this failing of the American political system more than half a century ago, and it is only one of the smallest pieces of social commentary he weaves into this book.

President_and_Mrs._Reagan_pose_in_the_Blue_Room_for_their_official_portrait_1981

Walter Mondale didn’t stand a fucking chance.

IV. Philip Marlowe is a badass

A basic requirement of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he know his way with his gun, with his fists, with a chair, or with whatever blunt objects happen to be within reach. The assumed badassery of the character is key. That being said, Marlowe is not some two-bit punk. He does actually try to avoid violence as much as possible, and he shows quite a bit of sentimentality whenever events break through his wisecracking exterior. Anyway, observe:

I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner. I sat down hard and shook my head.

So, this is describing when Marlowe was being questioned by police and made one angry on purpose to get him to hit him so he could gauge his threat level. The data gathered from this experiment indicated that this cop was more a boxer than a fighter, and that Marlowe would be able to take him to pieces if he hit him again. First off, inciting a punch to the face as a fact-finding mission is amazing. Secondly, the BT involved in “Bells rang, but not for dinner” to indicate that it was a hard hit, but only hard enough to make him shake his head, is a perfect incarnation of the form.

You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you. I didn’t say anything at all.

Marlowe is being directly insulted here, but is cool and collected enough to take no offense, let the man keep talking, and say nothing at all. A key feature of the hard-boiled hero is self-control and a certain superiority to emotion-driven idiots. He controls his emotions. Until the man is done talking, that is.  At the end of the conversation, this guy who has been flaunting his wealth and calling Marlowe a nobody left his valuable cigarette case behind. Marlowe moves to return it, and then:

“I got a half dozen of them,” [the rich asshole] sneered.

When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.

A lot happened here. Saying nothing, taking it with equanimity at first. After the exchange has taken place, being taken over the edge by a final snide comment. Then, Marlowe accomplishes two things: flooring a man who has been shitting all over him and inserting a wonderful piece of BT as he does it, “How about a half a dozen of these?” Someone has been served here, and it ain’t Marlowe.

litreactor-marlowe

I don’t always smoke, but when I do, it’s after watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Chandler has been called a hack by some and a thief by others (he has a lot in common with earlier crime writer Dashiell Hammett). Those calling him a hack are hacks themselves, and those calling him a thief should realize that he did not steal a style, he polished and perfected it. He gave to American crime fiction a literary element it didn’t quite have before. His densely-packed, evocative prose created a legion of admirers, from Paul Auster to Joyce Carol Oates. Again, he almost single-handedly invented an entire style of dialogue.

The overarching plot of the book is a little crazy. Marlowe happens to meet a drunk at a club and finds out he has a beautiful wife. About ten pages later, the beautiful wife is dead and the drunk is at Marlowe’s house with a gun asking for a ride to Mexico. The drunk is a bit nervous, so Marlowe pours him a big shot of Old Grand-Dad (which I have been drinking steadily while writing this article). He takes him out of the country, returns, and spends the rest of the book navigating a world of shit as he attempts to find out what happened. By the denouement, there are so many twists and turns and moving parts that the whole thing almost comes crashing down. Almost. That being said, I hit the last 200 pages of this book and could not stop, meaning that I read until five a.m. and went in to work on just under three hours of sleep. Sometimes crazy is good. In addition, the solid, vivid atmosphere put together by Chandler alongside the snappy dialogue means that if it had been a story about the night shift at Pizza Hut, I still would have read it.

American crime fiction started its life in the literary backwater of pulp fiction, and a lot like SF, has since migrated into the mainstream. Raymond Chandler’s cynical style, sparse prose, and satisfying plotting laid a lot of the groundwork for that. He considered The Long Goodbye his greatest work, and you should too. Read it right now.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: IMDB, Amazon, and Litreactor