Saturday, January 18, 2020
(October 1944, U.S.)
If you're familiar enough with the Golden Age of Hollywood, then I suppose you're familiar enough with the off-screen romance and eventual marriage between legends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That in mind, I can't help but watch their first of four films together, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with a pair of wider eyes, trying to see just what it was that sparked their initial chemistry and heat that would inevitably lead to Hollywood history.
The story, loosely based on Ernest Hemingway's 1937 novel, centers on the romance between charter fisherman Harry Morgan (Bogart) living in Martinique and American drifter "Slim" (Bacall), which is complicated by the growing French resistance in Vichy France during World War II. Harry makes a modest living with tourists alongside his drunken mate Eddie (played by Walter Brennan). The island of Martinique is a haven harboring assorted people sympathetic to a Free France. While Harry stays at his hotel home owned by "Frenchy" (to his English-speaking customers), he's urged to help the French Resistance by smuggling in some people onto the island with his boat. Refusing at first, he reluctantly accepts when he not only hooks up with "Slim" and wants to help her get out of Martinique, but also finds himself dead broke. Upon picking up his cargo, a young married couple, his boat is seen and fired up by a navy patrol boat. The male passenger is wounded, but Harry manages to escape by turning his boat into a dense fog bank.
Returning to the hotel, Harry is able to apply his experience with gunshot wounds to remove the bullet from his wounded passenger. Still seeking Harry's assistance in their operation, he continues to respectfully turn them down. When the police arrive, they confront Harry, having recognized his boat from the night before. They also reveal they're holding Eddie and will exploit his drinking problem to get the information they require about the smuggling plot. His back against the wall, Harry acts with "Slim's" help, and gains control of a hidden gun and the situation he's faced with, turning the tables on the police and killing one of them in the process. He forces the police captain to release Eddie, and the two of them with "Slim" escape on Harry's boat, having finally agreed to help with the mission for the French Resistance.
It's curious to note the theme of fishing in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, because it was apparently during a fishing trip that director Howard Hawks tried to convince his friend Hemingway to write the script, despite Hemingway's disinterest in working in Hollywood. I also have to say that I've never been truly convinced of the line that apparently put Bacall on the map when she told Bogart, "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." I'm sure there's plenty of sexual innuendo behind it, even for the 1940s, but I still just don't get it. Still, one can't deny the strong connection between Bogart and Bacall which continued in three more films (including THE BIG SLEEP and KEY LARGO). While this film is certainly no CASABLANCA, it remains a solid romantic melodrama with the traditional Bogart wit his fans love. However, I personally can't help but feel cheated when the film ends the moment the main characters decide to leave the island, their police enemies still undefeated and the story lacking any credible closure. Regardless, I suppose if you're even a small fan of the Bogey-Bacall screen phenomenon, you take what you can get and try to enjoy it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Harry Morgan: "Johnson's my client."
Slim: "He doesn't speak so well of you."
Harry: "He's still my client. You ought to pick on someone to steal from who doesn't owe me money."
Saturday, January 11, 2020
(October 1996, U.S.)
TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY is a story about loss, and as I sit and write this blog post, I'm dealing with a loss of my own; the same loss every fan of the Canadian rock band Rush is dealing with upon learning the news of the death of drummer Neil Peart (so naturally, I'm listening to the music of Rush as I write this).
By the time I saw this film when it was released on video, it was the summer of 1997, and I'd just re-opened the beach house in Westhampton Beach that had been in the family for nearly twenty years. I'd always been a sucker for poignant stories that took place on the beach (think SUMMER OF '42, as an example), so my interest was immediate. What I didn't expect was an almost atypical ghost story in the tradition of GHOST (1990), but without the thrills. I was instantly drawn to David Lewis's (played by Peter Gallagher) Nantucket beach house and it's isolation from neighbors and town's hustle and bustle. The beach and the ocean right outside his doorstep was an easy way for him to lose himself in his own private world after the loss of his beautiful wife Gillian (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) two years earlier when she foolishly climbed the mast of their sailboat and fell to her death. David is so affected by her death, that he willingly and knowingly communicates with Gillian's spirit as if she were standing right in front of him, while unwittingly neglecting his daughter Rachel (played by Claire Danes).
During a family weekend gathering, in what's supposed to be the second anniversary celebration of Gillain (who happened to die on her birthday), David's sister in-law and her husband have brought with them a woman they hope will spark a romantic interest in David's heart. No such luck. David ignores her and proceeds with a series of rituals to celebrate his deceased wife's birthday. The events of the weekend prompt the grown-ups to re-examine their own lives and relationships, while Rachel's best friend Cindy (played by Laurie Fortier) has no problem being as provocative as she can, even while showing off her developing body on the beach (sorry, no pictures, as that would be inappropriate due to her character being underage). It's not until Rachel has a very realistic nightmare about her mother that David finally realizes his isolation and self-indulgent fantasies are hurting his daughter, and finally agrees to her moving in with her aunt and uncle permanently. He also comes to realize he must close the beach house and move back to Boston in order to move on with his own life...and above all, to give up the ghost, while not betraying the memory of his beloved wife.
It's easy enough to simply dismiss this film as just another tearjerker that could've easily been a TV movie on the Lifetime network instead of a theatrical release. The story and performances are solid enough (particularly Claire Danes's anguish as the troubled daughter), though hardly worthy of Oscar mentions. The exterior shots of the beach and the ocean offer the traditional sort of moonlight and magic one might expect from such a setting.
Beyond all of this, I suppose the film needs to feel personal to the one who's watching it. As I mentioned, I'm a sucker for beach stories (though I'm not a fan of Bette Midler in BEACHES), particularly it its power to heal painful emotions and experiences (always worked for me). The timing of my seeing this film was effective in that by the time I saw it in 1997, I was alone in the family beach house and struggling with my own painful memories of love lost. However, upon seeing GILLIAN and it's ultimate message of closure, I was inspired to take a daring step in my own life that would bring closure of my own. I contacted a woman I'd once been in love with and had also ended things badly with. After nearly four years of not speaking to each other, I was inspired to reach out to her in order to finally settle my demons with her so that I could finally move on with my life. In a nutshell, my efforts paid off. I settled things, I moved on, and soon met the woman who would one day become my wife.
You see - this is the point I've always tried to make - that movies continue to have the power to inspire us in our own personal lives. They may not be great movies, but if they managed to touch a nerve within us, then they work, nonetheless.
So thank you GILLIAN for touching that nerve within me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cindy Bayles: "Live people can't compete with dead ones."
Sunday, January 5, 2020
(August 1955, U.S.)
Happy New Year to all of my readers! I said I'd be back, and here I am...and what better way to return than with the all-mighty Alfred Hitchcock. But while TO CATCH AT THIEF is a great film, it's not necessarily a great Alfred Hitchcock film. As the "Master of Suspense", Hitchcock will be forever known as the genius behind great thrillers like PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and NOTORIOUS, just to name some. But we have to remember that every once in a while, Hitchcock told stories that often concentrated more on romance and intrigue rather than hardcore suspense. While TO CATCH A THIEF may play up on the traditional cat-and-mouse tactics of who-did-what-and-how, it's surely the on-screen chemistry between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly against the cinematic backdrop of the French Riviera that captures our attention and our hearts.
As cat burglar John Robie (also known as "the Cat"), Grant is retired and looking to save his reformed reputation by tracking down and catching an imposter burglar who's been victimizing the wealthy tourists of the Riviera. An ongoing pattern of jewel robberies leads the French police to believe that Robie has come out of his alleged retirement of growing flowers and grapes to resume his life of crime. When they try to arrest him, Robie gives them the slip and looks to clear his name by consulting his former gang (now restaurant workers) who were paroled for their efforts in the French Resistance during World War II. They're the first to suspect Robie of the recent crimes, and it's the restaurant's owner's daughter Danielle (played by Brigitte Auber) who gets him to safety due to the fact that she has a crush on him.
Determined to catch the thief, Robie works with insurance man H.H. Hughson (played by John Williams), who provides him with a list of the most expensive jewelry owners currently vacationing on the Riviera. A rich widow and her daughter Frances (Kelly), are the ones that top the list. Robie befriends them, and is immediately attracted to Frances (because who wouldn't be attracted to Grace Kelly?), while her reaction to him is modest, at best. Robie maintains his facade as a wealthy American tourist, despite Danielle's jealousy of the new relationship between him and Frances. Frances is no fool, however, and easily sees through Robie's cover, playfully confronting him about his true identity, even teasing him with her priceless jewels, and offering up herself as a partner who can share in his life of crime. This moment ends with an unforgettable visual scene of distant fireworks in the night sky as they kiss for the first time (this is also a moment when we should remember that Hitchcock could be a master or romance, as well as suspense). The next morning, the jewels belonging to Frances's mother are gone, and Frances wastes no time in accusing Robie, demanding he give them back to her, and accusing him of using her as a romantic distraction so he could steal the jewelry.
Again, Robie disappears before the police can catch him, and proceeds to stake out a targeted estate. He struggles with an attacker (Danielle's father) who ends up dying in the fight. The police are satisfied they have their man as the accused jewel thief, but Robie is not convinced, citing that the attacker had a wooden leg and couldn't have possibly climbed all those rooftops to steal the jewels. As the love develops between Robie and Frances, the investigating to the thief's true identity draws closer. When the film climaxes on yet another rooftop, we learn that Danielle is the true thief (truth be told, it's not to hard to figure that out while you're watching the film) when she's forced to confess loudly to the police below while she dangles from the rooftop ledge. The thief is caught, love prevails, and the French Riviera continues to shine brightly on the screen before us...
As is often the case, a film shot on location in such a vivid and colorful manner often entices its viewer to fantasize of its reality. I'm no exception - I've wanted to visit the French Riviera ever since I first saw TO CATCH A THIEF, and I'm still awaiting the opportunity to go there. Beyond that inspiration for luxurious world travel, the film may be regarded with mixed reactions, at best, in the grand scheme of Hitchcock's impressive career. The film certainly lacks the true suspense that one comes to expect from Hitchcock, so it becomes necessary to embrace the film on a different level, mainly its visual setting and romantic intrigue between its two major stars. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly express a sly and grand seduction toward each other, and their performances strongly support that seduction. In the daring cat-and-mouse process in which Grant seeks to clear his name, we concentrate on his tight and fast-paced technique against the backdrop of dramatic developments. These developments are not particularly exciting or suspenseful, but again, when we're so delighted and seduced by a locale that provides wealth, romance and intrigue, perhaps it's one of those moments when we give our traditional expectations of Hitchcock a break, and embrace the alternate possibilities of what defines suspense. Whether it works or not depends our our ability to open our minds and hearts to a filmmaker who had so much to tell us, in so many different ways and places. Perhaps that's what made Hitchcock so special.
Favorite line or dialogue:
John Robie: "Say something nice to her, Danielle."
Danielle Foussard: "She looks a lot older up close."
Frances Stevens: "To a mere child, anything over twenty might seem old."
Saturday, June 29, 2019
Hello, everyone. I've decided to take a short hiatus from my film blog while I concentrate a little more of my time and effort in writing my follow-up book to IT'S STRICTLY PERSONAL: A Nostalgic Movie Memoir of 1975-1982.
Fear not, though. As dear Arnold continuously tells us, "I'll be back..."
In the meantime, you can enjoy reading my recently published book by purchasing a copy of it at the following sites:
Thanks you all for the support you've shown me over the years. I'm truly grateful.
- Eric Friedmann (Published Author) 😎
Monday, June 10, 2019
(December 1997, U.S.)
For most of my blog posts, I usually re-watch the film I'm going to write about in order to gain a fresh perspective. I hardly needed to watch James Cameron's TITANIC again. I've seen it many times, and it was recently aired on Showtime for a month, so I was constantly catching bits and pieces of it here and there. Instead, I chose to watch the 1958 British film A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, and realized that Cameron (to his discredit) adapted many of the same camera shots, as well as numerous pieces of dialogue. However, regardless of any similarities or discrepancies between Cameron's film and the multitude of Titanic films that came before it, it's the TITANIC this generation of film fans has come to love the most, over and over again. I'm no different.
TITANIC - you've seen the film, you know the flawlessly-crafted story, you thought all of the performances were top notch, you love that it won Best Picture of 1997, you know that James Cameron was "King of the World", and if you're a red-blooded heterosexual male like I am, you probably built up many fantasies around seeing Kate Winslet naked for the brief moment we were treated to it during the sketching sequence...
(sorry. Couldn't resist. She was HOT!)
So what I'd like to try and do is discuss TITANIC just a little outside of the box, so to say. I'd like to take James Cameron's epic film and describe the social relations and conflicts on their socio-economic levels. Don't think I can? Stay with me a while and we'll see...
TITANIC was released after months of delay and high anticipation that it would be the most epic event in the world of film entertainment, as well as bringing new depths to the common disaster film. On its surface, it's a spectacular disaster film, as well as a heart-touching love story between two young adults who meet on the legendary ocean liner just days before it would meet its fate when colliding with an iceberg. It's a grand film of not only scale and size (like the ship itself), but also a breakthrough technological effort in the world of film sets and CGI. My post, however, is meant to focus more on not only the love story aspect of the film, but its depiction of social class relationships and conflicts aboard the great liner. Much like traditional travel even of today, one's place aboard the ship is solely dependent on what class level each passenger falls under. Aboard the RMS Titanic, one's class level is bought and paid for as commonly as any other commodity. Those of high end wealth and privilege are in the financial position to buy the best the ship can offer, whether it be their stateroom, the food they’re served, the deck level of the ship they're permitted to occupy or even the right to take part in the Sunday church services. Those who cannot afford such luxuries of the ship are placed in third class and must dwell within the ship's depths, grouped together like filthy rats.
Cameron makes a deliberate effort to distinguish both classes by first depicting the very elegant dinner of the first class passengers with all the items of the table in their proper place and the very fine food and drink they will dine on. Third class passengers, on the other hand, eat cheap food, drink cheap beer and dance themselves into exhaustion. These two distinctions, by comparison, not only depict the level of what is considered entertaining for each social class, but also makes a point that the third class are apt to loosen up and enjoy themselves more than the stuck-up first class. The love story of the film takes place when Jack Dawson (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet). Jack is a third class passenger, while Rose is a first class passenger. Jack is alone on the ship, while Rose is flanked by her fiancée Cal Hockley (played by Billy Zane) and her mother Ruth (played by Frances Fisher), both people of upper crust breeding who make no secret of looking down on and even despising the lower class elements that occupy the same ship as them. Even the employees of the ship are not exempt from their "holier-than-thou" attitude, as they are considered nothing more than mere servants in life who don't deserve equal respect. Because of Jack and Rose’s social class differences, it seems highly unlikely that the two of them would ever even meet because they're expected to occupy their own portions of the ship.
Through luck or perhaps even fate, they do meet when Jack saves Rose's life from an aborted suicide attempt on her part. Her stuck-up fiancée Cal, while outwardly grateful to Jack for saving Rose's life, dismisses the efforts of this lower class individual by simply paying him off with a twenty dollar bill. Rose, on the other hand, while being of the same upper crust breeding, is drawn to Jack's free spirit and apparent lust for life's daily pleasures. This is an unavoidable attraction for Rose because we learn that she is a prisoner of her own life of stuck-up privilege, as she is expected by her mother to marry Cal as a matter of convenience that will ensure her family’s name and security in high society's social order. Rose, by all practical definition, is a mail-order-bride, bought and paid for by a man who believes he can possess anything he wants in life simply because he has the means to do it. Jack, while falling for Rose, is not immune to the realities of their class levels and financial positions in life. By the time ship collides with the iceberg and destiny, the love story takes full effect as Jack and Rose come to realize that disaster and the potential for one’s own survival will make their love for each other stronger and more dedicated. Indeed, as the ship is in the process of sinking, Rose is forced to make the choice of possibly surviving with the rich man she doesn’t love, but who will give her everything in life, nonetheless, or the choice of possibly dying with the poor man she truly loves.
Indeed, in TITANIC, love does triumph above all others, which is why perhaps I still consider it the greatest love story every put on screen. But it's when the ship is slowly and progressively meeting its doom that we come to realize just how far and to what extent the order of social classes will take its toll. Early in the film, we learn that there are not enough lifeboats to accommodate every passenger aboard the ship should they be required. When the time comes that they are required, it's not necessarily the traditional law of "woman and children first" that comes into play, but rather the more socially-accepted law of the time when first class women and children shall come first. The notion of all human beings having their own right to survival has just gone out the window simply because many of the ship’s first class passengers shall be deemed "the better half", as Cal puts it. Even Rose's mother is not shy about blatantly asking if the lifeboats shall be seated according to class. This is not only the social order of Cameron's film, but also the historical order of the time it actually happened. Many of the seven hundred plus survivors of the RMS Titanic were of the first class passengers and the social order of the time simply had the odds of survival stacked higher in their favor. The film deems this order as seemingly acceptable by not only the first class, but among the third class passengers, as well, because they don't think to question the injustice of it. When asked by her little girl what is going on, her mother, a third class foreign immigrant tells her that the ship is calling upon first class passengers to the lifeboats first and then will eventually be getting around to the third class passengers, and that they’ll want to be ready to go. Her facial expression, however, tells us that she knows differently and that she, her children, and all the other third class passengers are likely going to die.
Upon watching TITANIC, audiences are likely to walk away with only the gratification that true love did, indeed, triumph above all odds and that even though Jack Dawson did die in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, Rose never let go of his love and his memory. While not as gratifying on the level of pure entertainment, it might also be deemed necessary to realize that such social class orders of the time not only defined who had the right to live and who had the right to die, but also that time and change would inevitably pass laws of travel that would not only provide enough lifeboats on luxury ocean liners for all passengers concerned, but perhaps even do away with factors of class existence and class conflict that would decide a person's ultimate fate in the face of disaster.
TITANIC won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1997. I loved the film immensely, but I personally thought L.A. CONFIDENTIAL should have won instead. But that's me!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cal Hockley (to Rose): "Where are you going?! What, back to him?! To be a whore married to a gutter rat?!"
Rose DeWitt: "I’d rather be his whore than your wife!"
Saturday, June 1, 2019
(April 1953, U.S.)
Do the research and you'll find there are a lot more films and documentaries (both theatrical and television) about the sinking of the RMS Titanic than you might imagine, including the very first ten minute silent film called SAVED FROM THE TITANIC, released only twenty-nine days after the actual sinking in 1912, and a 1943 German Nazi propaganda film bearing the same name as this. Of course, my generation as well others before will likely most equate the legendary tale with James Cameron's 1997 Oscar-winning epic. As time went on, and each film became just a little more sophisticated in its filming and its special effects, movie audiences got more of a sense, or at least imagined they did, of what occurred on that fateful night of April 15, 1912.
By the 1950s, an American drama like TITANIC would not only rely heavily on whatever special effects could be achieved by then, but also on its star power. Stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Thelma Ritter and Robert Wagner were likely as important to a box office draw, as well as the powerful events of history unfolding on the big screen. As an estranged married couple sailing on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the great ocean liner, Webb and Stanwyck have great chemistry together, if for nothing else, in their ability to display great bitterness and animosity toward each other. At the last minute, Richard Sturges (Webb), a wealthy European socialite, manages to buy a steerage-class ticket in order to seek out his runaway wife Julia (Stanwyck) and their two children. He learns that she intends to take their children back to her home state of Michigan, where they'll be brought up as down-to-earth Americans rather than spoiled socialites, like their father. Learning of her mother's intentions, the oldest daughter Annette (played by Audrey Dalton), she insists she'll return to Europe with her father to continue the life she's been brought up on. Julia concedes that she's old enough to make her own decisions, but insists on keeping custody of their son Norman. Richard, unwilling to accept this, learns the shocking truth that Norman is not his child, but rather the result of a one-night stand after one of their many bitter arguments. Upon hearing that, he agrees to give up all claim and emotional ties to Norman.
Meanwhile, as many of us already know from countless other film versions (including Cameron's), the Titanic is picking up speed as she sails closer to iceberg territory. Believing clear skies and calm seas will be their ally, they cannot foresee their dangerous fate ahead. At the moment of impact, the ship is gashed below the waterline and immediately begins taking on water. Remembering that this is a civilized film from the 1950s, there is order and reason aboard between all men, women and children, unlike the chaos we've witnessed before (again, think Cameron). Lifeboats are filled in an orderly fashion and are detached from the ship without incident. Tears are shed, lovers part, and lives are lost with great honor. The most surprising, and I suppose heartfelt, piece of drama is when Richard and Julia, at their moment of facing pending doom, experience a tearful reconciliation on the boat deck, re-declaring their original love for each other. There's great sadness in watching Stanwyck realizing that despite years of hate between them, their true love shines through at the moment when it really matters.
The sinking of Titanic is hardly that of epic proportions. Remember, this is prior to the actual discovery of the sunken vessel by the American and French expedition in 1985, so it was still presumed that the ship went down in one piece. In her final moments, Richard discovers that he truly loves Norman, regardless of biological issues, and declares the great pride he feels toward him now, and always. The two of them join the rest of the doomed passengers and the crew in singing the Welsh hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee". As the last of the ship's boilers explodes, Titanic's bow plunges, pivoting her stern high into the air while the ship rapidly slides into the icy water (again, the way it was presumed to have sunk in real life). As dawn approaches, the remaining survivors wait in their lifeboats for the inevitable rescue from the RMS Carpathia to arrive.
Like Shakespeare's HAMLET or even Bram Stoker's DRACULA, time and history inevitable gets you caught up in countless versions of the same story to the point where you're not sure just how to interpret each and every one of them. One has to wonder what would make a person choose one version of TITANIC over another as compared to say, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) or even a 1979 ABC-TV movie entitled S.O.S. TITANIC. Movie stars surely count for something, and a woman like Barbara Stanwyck shines as not only one trying to break free of a bad situation, but also embracing her own emotions at the point of disaster. Clifton Webb is a perfect English gentleman who knows how to behave not only in life, but also at the point of death, too. Like many tales of the great ship, one must contend with at least an hour or so of prerequisite drama and personal stories of those on board before disaster finally strikes. From then on, its a matter of filming, photography and special effects that will determine just how much the disaster takes a firm grip on our imagination and emotions. Historically, we can never truly count on everything being completely accurate. Certain events and specific passengers (including the names Astor, Guggenheim, and Margaret Brown) have become known as fact, as well as the heroics of Captain Edward Smith and the ship's orchestra continuing to play on the deck during the sinking. Whatever remains as historical nonsense, we must still continue to interpret TITANIC on film as a functional and entertaining story of human drama and survival during what has come to be one of the most historical events of the 20th century.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Richard Sturges: "We have no time to catalog our regrets. All we can do is pretend twenty years years didn't happen. It's June again. You were walking under some Elm trees in a white muslin dress, the loveliest creature I ever laid eyes on. That summer, when I asked you to marry me, I pledged my eternal devotion. I would take it as a very great favor Julia, if you would accept a restatement of that pledge."
Oh, man, that gets me every time!
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
(March 1971, U.S.)
As much as I love all STAR WARS movies (except SOLO!), there came a point in the 1990s when I lost my respect for George Lucas, as did many other fans, when he shamelessly raped the original trilogy to death and gave us the SPECIAL EDITIONS. So, whenever I need to remind myself of just who Lucas used to be, I watch AMERICAN GRAFFITI and, of course, his feature debut film THX 1138. It goes to show you that even the man who created the galaxy far, far away started small at another time and another place.
Based on his own original student film, this dystopian science fiction film set in the 25th century features an underground society in which its citizens are not only required by law to keep themselves on a regular regimen of mind-altering and emotion-suppressing drugs (even the medicine cabinets ask, "What's wrong?" when opened), but are also forbidden to commit acts of sexual intercourse and reproduction. Like George Orwell's 1984, it's a future where everyone is being watched and all activity is recorded. Law and order is maintained through almost unreasonably-calm android police officers who are easy replicas of real-life traffic cops. The mandatory drugs ensure that all working citizens can conduct their demanding and dangerous tasks. Everyone is clad in identical uniforms and all heads have been shaven (male and female) to emphasize absolute uniformity. There are no names, only prefixes followed by four digits. The man known as THX 1138 (played by Robert Duvall) is called by what sounds like the name "Thex" by his roomate LUH 3417 (played by Maggie McOmie). Their relationship is considered normal and conforming. Like Winston Smith in 1984, the story reaches a point where THX begins to wonder and question things. It begins when he realizes that he and LUH have genuine feelings for one another beyond the conforming roomate requirements. Suddenly, life begins to appear to expand itself beyond what he has always been told and encouraged to believe when he goes to his confession booth and confesses his concerns to the portrait of OMM 000 and is repeatedly soothed with a parting salutation of, "You are a true believer, blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy".
Eventually confronted by SEN 5241 (played by Donald Pleasence), THX is pressured into becoming SEN's new roomate, though he resists and files a complaint for illegal housing mate change. The sexual relationship between THX and LUH is eventually discovered and the two of them are arrested. LUH, it turns out, is pregnant and THX is put on trial for his crimes. The trial, if you really want to call it that, is quick and to the point, resulting in THX being sentenced to a term of reconditioning through negative reinforcements and torture by the android police...
These images are simple, in a background of nothing but white, but chilling, nonetheless, especially when you consider that the acts of the police of the future still ring true with the unfortunate current events surrounding American police officers against African-Americans that has penetrated our consciousness since 1992 and the Los Angeles Rodney King beatings. Finding a hidden exit, THX escapes his prison (with the help of a hologram) and continues his escape by stealing a car. Now pursued by two police androids on motorcycles, THX attempts to flee the city. In a bizarre way, time is on his side, because the police are ordered to maintain their pursuit only for as long as the expense of such a pursuit remains within the allocated budget. Once the expense of his capture has exceeded the budget, the police are ordered to cease the pursuit, and THX is free. Thought what sort of freedom has THX really achieved? Once removed from the underground city, he reaches the surface and watches the orange sun setting. This is where Lucas ends the film, leaving us only with questions about what truly exists on the planet Earth outside the city, and what sort of history has brought our world to this existence. That sort of ambiguity and its effect can be argued and debated by those who watch, I'm sure.
I'll be the first to admit that I love, love, love high-concept science fiction. From 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), to PLANET OF THE APES (1968), to BLADE RUNNER (1982), to DUNE (1984), to SOLARIS (2002), to THX 1138 - the more thought it requires, the more I embrace it into my life. These are the kind of films you surely need to watch multiple times to fully understand and appreciate its art and its intelligence. The storyline of dystopia, conformity and control may seem a simple enough tale of a bleak and grim future. But it's truly the film's visual imagination that haunts us, not only in the underground city, with its endless tunnels, corridors and crowds, but also in its people, living in a time of tyrannical technology, and their physical and mental state in which conformity is forced through drugs. One has to admire young Lucas for achieving such visual effectiveness of light, color and sound effects with a budget that must have been small. It's sci-fi art without going out of its way to be too commercial (perhaps this is why Warner Brothers hated it and didn't give it its due respect until after STAR WARS became a big hit in 1977).
Lucas is not so much delivering a political message with THX 1138, but rather showing us how he can use his camera to share a credible experience of a future world that is both fantastic in its visuals, and scary in its oppressive dictatorship. This concept would, of course, lead his imagination to the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion that fights against it. Unfortunately, like STAR WARS in the '90s, Lucas just couldn't keep his hot hands off one of his past projects and chose to shamelessly re-edit and interject moments of new CGI effects into a new Director's Cut he released in 2004. This is the only version you can get on DVD and Blu-Ray, though thankfully, I still maintain a working VCR in my life, and can occasionally watch the original cut of the film (original as it was for its 1977 re-release, anyway) on VHS tape. Call me old school, but I generally don't condone films of the past being messed with years later. It destroys history.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Voice in medicine cabinet: "If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion."