An old black sedan, at first resembling Roger Smith’s Griffon, is smashed within a press as a scrap yard. An old man and his worker android, and best friend, are just finishing up the day’s work and discussing when next to go out for supplies like food and high quality oil for the android, when out of the blue, a dart latches onto the back of the android. The dart pulsates a red glowing light that begins slow and then speeds up rapidly before unleashing a powerful explosion, which utterly destroys the android. The assassin slinks off undetected.
Dan Dastun and his Military Police regiment are on the case, which is one out of a number of developing cases in which androids have been assassinated in the same manner. A Paradigm investigator appears on the scene to help handle the case, much to Dastun’s chagrin. He is only further incensed when he finds out that the investigator, R. Frederick O’Reilly, is actually and android himself who has been sent to work alongside Dastun specifically for this case. Elsewhere, Roger’s existential questioning begins anew as he explains that forty years, not only the memories of human beings, but the memories of androids as well, were all lost. Could these androids being targeted, like the humans previously who began to recover memories, have become targets because their own memories began to surface?
At Roger’s mansion, recent repairs on Big O have been completed for the most part, and all that remains to put on the finishing touches is to retrieve some oil to grease the Megadeus’ joints. Norman sends out Dorothy on this errand, which works out as she too needs to retrieve premium oil for herself and the oil drums weigh a ton. However, on her way back from the market, the assassin makes an appearance and shoots Dorothy with a homing bomb. The message is clear: the assassin is targeting androids through their connection with this particular oil vendor. The purpose of these assassinations, however, remains completely unclear. Norman, who decided to leave the mansion on second thought, watches as Dorothy is hit with the bomb and tries his best to pull off the incendiary device to no avail. Luckily, Dorothy is no lightweight. She catapults into traffic, takes control a man’s car by manipulating the wheel through the windshield after breaking it with a swift kick, and then she manages to get close enough to a large semi-truck, which knocks the bomb off of her side with the force of its grazing impact.
The whole affair is one of the most dynamic action sequences thus far in The Big O. And the encounter results in Dorothy’s being detained by Dastun and ‘Freddie’ the Android Investigator for further questioning, as she is the titular eyewitness. In fact, she is the only eyewitness as all other androids that came into contact with the assassin have been killed.
Dastun, meanwhile, has remained openly hostile to Freddie’s presence and dislikes the fact that he must have a partner in this investigation. When the two go out to a rich district of the domes to interview an old man whose android friend and companion was previously killed by the assassin. Freddie takes this opportunity to make his disdain for Dastun known as well as he chides Dastun for interviewing a man who could give them no useful information regarding the identification of the assassin.
Elsewhere, Roger has been interviewing the old man at the scrapyard who lost his friend as well. The man seems to have some knowledge of mechanics and hopes to be able to remember enough memories to one day rebuild his friend anew. Later, Roger visits the Big Ear, the Informer at the town’s Speakeasy Club. He alludes to the fact that in Paradigm City, people are generally safe and murder and crime rates are extraordinarily low. He explains that the only time this truism proves false is when someone foolishly claims to have recovered memories from forty years ago, and thereby hints toward the fact that some of these androids who have been targeted may have been doing likewise. He gives us, the viewers, a bit of background explication by explaining that all of Paradigm’s previous efforts to extract memories from forty years ago out of the memory banks of androids have proven totally futile, despite the androids memory’s not functioning like human beings. There is one theory that in the universe of The Big O, something in fact did occur. However, if even android memory banks contain no information prior to the mythical Event, maybe this assumption is false.
At the end of the conversation, Big Ear alludes to the possibility that the androids could be experiencing false memories, like deja vu. However, Dorothy was a target and we know for a fact that she was not experiencing deja vu or recurrence of once-forgotten memories. No, it seems that the assassin is merely targeting high-functioning androids in Paradigm City through their connection with a particular machine oil market that sells high-quality oil for androids who might merely hold the possibility of having such memories, like the Senator Roscoe Fitzgerald previously. This reasoning will later lead Roger to suspect Alan Gabriel, Alex Rosewater’s henchman and the assassin responsible for the death of Roscoe Fitzgerald whose memories never left him. Alan Gabriel is an obvious suspect as he killed the ageing Senator merely to claim the disc on which his memories had been burned: Something Alan Gabriel may now be doing to other androids in the hopes of unlocking some secret technological memories for Alex Rosewater and Paradigm Corp.’s benefit.
As such, Roger visits Paradigm Corp. to track down Alan Gabriel. He finds that Alex Rosewater is out of town, presumably in a foreign city or region far away, on business. Roger meets Angel outside, sitting within his car as he leaves the building. She reveals that Alan Gabriel likewise left the city with Rosewater, and as such, he cannot be responsible for the murders. As the two drive off toward the ocean, the sun begins to set and the mood takes romantic turn as the two muse over questions of why people retain certain memories, of why Roger can pilot the Megadeus. He tells Angel that he feels guarded around her, as if he can’t trust her, and yet he confides in her that both of them seem to share a quest, a search for the truth and a willingness to follow their questions down the rabbit hole wherever it leads.
The episode ends with Freddie and Dastun tracking down the assailant, and Freddie completing his mission: to serve as a target for the assassin who can simultaneously get close enough to kill the assassin. Freddie sacrifices an arm in the process of killing what turns out to be a mad android assassin. Outside of the city’s prison, a large Construction Megadeus, piloted by a member of the Union, appears and tries to track down and destroy Dorothy. Norman fends off the beast with his motorcycle’s heavy artillery until Big O arrives and puts the machine out of commission. Angel watches as the machine is destroyed, and she mouths a foreign word, indiscernible in nature, but quite clearly the name of one of her compatriots in the Union. After the mecha is disposed of, a red balloon floats into the air, seemingly signalling the death of the pilot inside the Megadeus.
Is Roger truly the ordained protector of Paradigm? Some sort of programmed being meant to pilot Big O as a defense against foreigners? And if so, why does Angel stay so close to him? Is it just an attempt to keep her friends close, and her enemies closer? Why did the Union target Dorothy in the Construction Megadeus? Is this somehow connected to the android assassin’s mission? And if so, how does this make any sense when the purpose of the Union is make the existence of foreigners known throughout Paradigm City? If Alex Rosewater was out of town, who sent Freddie out on this assignment? He is the first of his kind, the first android police investigator in Paradigm’s remembered history. Who could have authorized his being sent on this mission? And how much about the mission was he told before he left to complete it?
There are, in Act 19 of The Big O, way more questions than answers. Each more confounding than the next.
Cast in the Name of God,
(Check out my previous Bakshi review: Cool and The Crazy)
After the completion of his first live-action feature film in 1994, Bakshi went back to creating one-off animations for various companies starting with two short films for the Hanna-Barbera series What a Cartoon!. The animations were called Malcolm and Melvin and Babe! He Calls Me!, which followed a clown named Melvin who is also the biggest loser in the world. He meets a cockroach who plays a mean saxophone and the two team up to take the world by storm as Melvin books gigs and hooks chicks, as Malcolm plays sax from within Melvin’s mouth, making sure to keep himself hidden.
The What a Cartoon! series was really important culturally as it gave many animators their first chance to a break their own beloved properties in pilot form. Some shows that emerged from this series include The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and Courage the Cowardly Dog. The quality of Bakshi’s shorts for the series was such that they could have been picked up for a long-running series of their own. However, Hanna-Barbera heavily edited Bakshi’s original cuts for his episodes of the series, and despite how good they turned out, he felt that Hanna-Barbera disrespected as an artist and butchered his original vision for the works behind his back.
two years later, Bakshi finally found a home for the kind of adult-oriented transgressive cartoons that he was known for making: HBO. They hired Bakshi to create six episodes of a series that would become the first animated series targeted specifically toward an adult audience (which beat South Park to air by a month). Bakshi assembled a team of animators and collaborators to write and create a Sci-fi film noir, or cyberpunk, animation series called Spicy City with a world visually similar to the dystopian, Metropolis and Blade Runner inspired one from his 1992 mixed media live-action-animation film Cool World. And unlike dozens of his past endeavors, he actually managed to exert the amount of creative control he desired to finally, once again, create what amounts to one of his final top-form works.
As on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, ten years prior, Bakshi split up the work of direction and gave each team creative freedom as long as the scripts were good and the animation was of the same style as the series. The three units that resulted from this process were headed by directors John Kafka, Ennio Torresan Jr., and Bakshi himself, and I feel that all three of these men created compelling work.
As for Kafka, he directed the first episode ‘Love Is a Download’ in which an attractive young woman with an abusive, gangster boyfriend retreats into the digital world to escape her troubles as a geisha avatar. There, she falls in love with a boxer avatar who, in real life, is a morbidly obese, one-armed, ex-military veteran who now works as a cybersecurity detective. Although the episode becomes a bit conventional toward its end, it was a good solid start for the series as it displayed all of the main influences on Spicy City including the spinners, smog, modernist architecture, and Vangelis-like chimes of Blade Runner, as well as a film noir look, technology influenced by the aforementioned film, and a dystopian city straight out of Metropolis.
Kafka’s second episode of the series was its final one, episode six, ‘Raven’s Revenge’ wherein the Elvira-Jessica Rabbit-like host of the series learns that she was not born, but manufactured by a giant global corporation called ATC and run by a man named Corbin who has created a virus to kill all ‘undesirables’ such as carnie mutants within the city and living beneath the city in its sewer system. Raven is a host for this virus and has spread it to a core group of inhabitants of Spicy City unknowingly. A man named Bird appears, who seemingly has ties to the giant Tyrell-like organization, and whisks away Raven and her Siamese twin ‘mutant’ friend to infiltrate the corporation and administer the cure to the world before its too late.
The second director, Ennio Torresan Jr., directed episodes three and four of the series, the first of which, entitled ‘Tears of a Clone’, is maybe the most emotionally affecting of the bunch. In this work, a rich elderly man’s young girlfriend runs away from home and attempts to leave him. But her beauty is of such a high caliber that she is taken off of the streets by human traffickers who sell her to a subterranean organization that creates clones of women, presumably for sexual purposes. The old man hires a private detective named Mr. Lowe and his robot partner (pictured above) to track down the girl. But the trip proves too difficult, and instead of bringing back Melissa, Lowe brings the old man a clone of the girl. The transhumanist message seems to be that a perfect clone will be the exact same person, but in this case, without the baggage of knowledge about the old man and Melissa’s failed relationship. The old man recognizes that Melissa may not be the original girl he came to know and love (and he suspects that she may be a clone, rather than merely brain-damaged into losing her memory as Lowe suggests), and yet he takes her in. But back at the corporation, the original Melissa remains a slave to the organization who will clone her until she is of no more use to them, and then will probably dispose of her as one more useless hunk of meat. Talk about dystopian, this episode would fit comfortably within the Black Mirror film series if live-action.
Ennio’s second contribution to the series was ‘An eye for an Eye,’ the tale of a hardened cop named Ernie who works to take down a corrupt fellow officer who works under deep cover and often brutally exploits her seemingly heartfelt relationships with down and out types in the city merely to make a quick buck on the side throughout their associations. Ernie turns over evidence on the woman, but even his police chief and the local judge are being blackmailed by this black viper police officer. It takes the death of Ernie’s own wife at his corrupt partner’s own hand to finally put her away for good, onto the prison colony of Alpha-Centauri where she is later subjected to death by dissection, and her organs are distributed to the world. In death, this femme fatale is, for the first time, an actual benefit to society.
finally, Bakshi himself directed episodes two and five of the series. The first of these two, ‘Mano’s Hands’ is the least effective of any of those within the anthology. a young bongo player’s hands are cut off by a jealous thug, one is later destroyed, and the other makes friends with the thug and eventually runs away with him into the sunset (to give him handjo…. Uh, I’ll stop there). It’s just an awful concept and it isn’t executed in a particularly compelling manner either. The second one, ‘Sex Drive,’ is, however, a great episode. A young police officer named Lolita is investigating the mysterious disappearance of prostitutes in the city just as a mechanical prostitute named Virus finds herself out of business with the advent of competition from virtual prostitutes who have the added benefit of being completely clean, unemotional, and thereby impossible to track by men’s wives. The company behind the creation and distribution of virtual prostitutes, M & G, has apparently created these women by collecting prostitutes and scanning their brains online for use as ‘programs’ in the virtual sex pods. Together, the two girls figure this out and bring down the company, free the prostitutes, then set up a legitimate prostitution business with real girls from atop the same headquarters that the immoral bastards of M & G once occupied. The episode has the added benefit of being extremely erotic, and if you think that sounds weird of me, just go watch it first.
Spicy City was a successful show for HBO and they ordered a second season of the show, but on one condition: that Bakshi fire his current writer’s team and instead hire on a professional team of writers from L.A. He refused and the projected second season was later cancelled. In retrospect, Bakshi probably could have found interesting writers with whom he would have gelled for a second season of productions, but his hard-headedness, his loyalty to his friends and to the teams he assembles, and his general need to get his own way are things that make him Ralph Bakshi, the imitable animator and director whose career has produced visionary work and pushed the medium of animation farther than almost anyone else, historically speaking, both technically (through rotoscoping and mixed-media approaches to the art) and topically (as the creator of the first R and X-rated Animated films that reflected life in urban America and served as social and political documents as well as works of entertainment).
But the story doesn’t end quite here. There is one more major production to discuss within the career of Bakshi, as well as the need to mention many more failed attempts at picking up his career in the twenty-one years that have passed between Spicy City and this, the moment of this review’s publication.
[Concluded here: Last Days of Coney Island]
A red balloon floats over the city of Paradigm. Military Police Chief Dan Dastun sits within an old movie theater watching a film he has seemingly viewed on hundreds or thousands of prior occasions. A man and a gorgeous woman stand on a dock, the man’s face obscured by shadow. She moves, he guns her down, and as she lay dying, the man approaches her, kneels down, and speaks with her. She responds in a foreign language unknown, unrecognizable, and untranslatable to Dastun (French): ‘Vous-etes si gentil.’ She dies and the man is left alone. Dastun awakens at his desk and wonders if this sequence is from a film, or if it is ‘a lingering spectral image of something he’d seen long ago?’
Downtown, in a large gothic cathedral, hundreds of the city’s elite stand, singing hymns with a meaning they no longer understand after The Event of 40 years prior, and to a god they not know cerebrally or even emotionally. The effort is mere ritual and today seems to signify a connection to one’s lost past, and to occasionally demarcate those of high social status from those of low status. Meanwhile, a toy robot wanders about in the corridors beneath the city, eventually making its way into the sanctuary of the church through a basement access door. A young child attempts to touch it and the toy robot’s purpose becomes chillingly clear as it explodes and rends apart the bodies of 46 people who it kills immediately, as well as many others its blast injures.
When Dastun appears on the scene, his lieutenants have discovered that three old government officials, politicians, were amongst the crowd, and were probably the target of this terrorist attack. This means that 43 of those dead were merely innocent bystanders. As Dastun wanders off to collect his thoughts and begin investigations into this incident, the voice of our noir protagonist Roger Smith narrates and explains Dastun as best as he can: ‘Dan Dastun is a har-nosed cop. He’s completely devoted to the force and he has more pride in the Military Police than anything else. In a different sense, Paradigm City needs him as much as it needs me.’ A sentiment that has become apparent as Smith’s Megadeus is not really the tool most suited to tracking down terrorists who attack seemingly at random and through apparently harmless means (the toy robot).
Further investigation of the charred remains of the explosive device reveals that it is of unknown origin, probably foreign, as it contains a message in another language on its interior: ‘Fin’. But in Paradigm, it is common knowledge that nothing exists outside of the city, that the rest of the world is merely a desert wasteland left after some catastrophic environmental event that is potentially one and the same as The Event that wiped out the memories of the city’s denizens. Roger’s narration again appears: ‘More than likely, he [Dastun] is a man who has no interest in romance.’ But little does Roger know about Dastun’s dreams and the woman who haunts them.
When Roger appears at Dastun’s office, he is greeted by a departing Dastun who must make his way quickly to Alex Rosewater’s domain and an inquiry board to discuss the current terrorist attacks and what is being done to stop future attacks. Before leaving, Dastun asks Roger if he knows the meaning of the inscription ‘Fin’, but Roger is not even familiar with the language it comes from and can be no help toward this ‘end.’ At the board, Dastun explains that there are some ‘inexplicable elements’ in this case and that a foreigner might be involved. He is dismissed by the board who condescendingly explain that this is not a possibility as everyone knows there are no foreigners left on the planet, no people whatsoever who do not live within the domes. Angel is seen typing up the minutes of this board meeting, and when Dastun departs, Rosewater explains to his board members (and to Angel) that there are foreigners outside of the city and that finally releasing this news to the general public of Paradigm might be beneficial. How this is so, is not discussed, and Rosewater’s master plans are left obscured by the veil of his mind and his own discretion.
When Dastun returns to his office, he finds a supervisor there. the man tells Dastun to take a few weeks off as a paid vacation, and that he has been removed from the current investigation. The man quips that one day Dastun will learn ‘what Justice is really about.’ And Dastun responds, ‘Well sir. As far as I’m concerned, I understand it perfectly.’ And it has nothing to do with being a mere lap dog to Paradigm Corp. HQ. Dastun leaves and heads toward the Amadeus club wherein drinks and the piano of Instro lull him into a daytime revelry and visions of the woman from his dreams. Another red balloon ascends over the city, and an explosion takes place elsewhere in the city. Dastun awakens and runs toward the sounds. what he finds disturbs him immensely. Within the crowd, the woman from his visions stands across the street. He attempts to reach her, but loses her within the crowd as she turns tail and runs away.
Dastun, still on leave, decides to visit Roger at the mansion. He tells his old friend about the visions and dispels Roger’s preconceived notion that Dastun is a man without an inner romantic life. Dastun believes he is going crazy, that he might be delusional and didn’t see the woman in that crowd at all. Roger dismisses this possibility and decides to help out his friend. After visiting the Big Ear and roaming around the city for a few days, Roger meets the re-instated Dastun at an amusement park where, later that night, an old politician has planned a rally (and is thereby a potential target for the terrorist). Roger has found out that the woman in his dreams is one Sybil Rowan, a woman of foreign birth who lived in Paradigm more than 30 years ago. She starred in only one film entitled Winter Night Phantom and was heavily involved in politics. But the powers that be saw her pretty face and movie stardom as a potential stepping stone toward real political power on her part and thereby took her into custody, imprisoned her, and left her in jail to spend the remainder of her days. Rowan is now dead and the city has destroyed all prints of her one and only film appearance, but Dastun may have seen the film as a young man as the scene in his dream is purportedly the final scene of the picture. As for the modern Sybil, records show she had no children or nieces.
Just them, a giant Toy Robot Megadeus named Eumenides attacks the dome. Roger calls upon Big O and attempts to defeat the foreign Megadeus, but realizes quickly that its core is full of bombs. As such, he is restricted to merely restraining the machine from entering the park. Dastun saw a red balloon ascend into the sky before the attack, and has followed it to find a balloon truck nearby. The thing speeds off, but eventually Dastun tracks it down and finds the woman in his dream standing upon a dock as fireworks ascend into the night sky and snow descends to the earth. He walks in to the scene and finds that he is the own from his own recollections. And after a noir stand-off wherein the woman chides Dastun for a being a lap dog to Paradigm, and he responds that even dogs have their dignity, he asks who she is only to get a obfuscating, though poetic answer: ‘the one who can grant eternal sleep to an accursed past.’ As she pulls the bomb trigger mechanism, Dastun pulls his service pistol, and the latter is the faster to the draw. He takes the shot and approaches the wounded woman. Both reveal that this moment seemed destined, that they both knew it would occur. And she dies exclaiming ‘vous-etes si gentil’ just as in Dastun’s dreams.
The tale of the Winter Night Phantom is one that can be explicated through her designation as a foreigner and insufficient records of Rowan’s past, and through knowledge of Paradigm’s true ontological structure. Dastun’s memories could be reverberations through time of things that already happened over and over again. But this still doesn’t explain how the film and the reality of this moment intersect so poignantly. Unless the film is a fabrication or a staging in code of this moment. None of these explanations are ultimately satisfying intellectually or, especially, emotionally. And as such, it might be better for us as viewers and reviewers to give up the project entirely, to let the episode stand as an inexplicable piece of art, and to merely revel in the mystery of an enigma so tightly shrouded that (like Mulholland Drive) all our theories become like mere conjecture. And in the deep eternal sleep of nothingness, a fable to guide the formless toward emergence.
Cast in the Name of God,
Previously, I’ve discussed the role of head writer Chiaki J. Konaka in working to shape the concept of The Big O into a masterful script. I’ve also talked a bit about the importance of the musical compositions in the series by Toshihiko Sahashi and how his eclectic approach to Classical Western film score techniques incorporating Jazz and Electronica help to set a mood throughout the series in keeping with its film noir, trad mecha, and Western animation influences. A third figure of major importance to the film’s development was its chief director Kazuyoshi Katayama whose role in shaping The Big O into classical form deserves, even cries out, for a brief discussion.
Katayama developed The Big O as a pastiche on 1960s-70s American and Japanese cultural influences including neo-noir, Jazz music, American cartoons, Kaiju and Tokusatsu films and shows, and the Giant Robo mecha genre pioneered by Go Nagai. Although Katayama has directed little of renown since The Big O, besides the 2009 feature film King of Thorn, his early career from the mid-80s onward is replete with pioneering work. He began directing in 1984 as an episode director on shows like Magical Fairy Persia and Magic Star Magical Emi, before moving on to helm the OVA film Maris the Chojo in 1986, an adaptation of a manga work by Rumiko Takahashi and part of the Rumik World OVA series. In the following years, he directed acclaimed work including the 1988 OVA Appleseed (one of the few shining stars of traditional animation in the franchise’s bad-CGI riddled history), 4/7 episodes of the OVA series Giant Robo: The Animation, the sci-fi anime epic Super Atragon, and the classic anime series Argentosoma. Katayama has retained an intense interest in mecha anime and sci-fi throughout his career, which ultimately aided him when it came time to assemble a team of great collaborators and direct his masterpiece: The Big O.
But now to the episode at hand. It opens to the sounds of a manic, crazed, intense, and lively sturm und drang piano piece played at lightning speed, something like the product of a mind that must be deranged or in a mad fever of creation. However, this piano is being played by Dorothy with flat effect and no emotion behind it. It awakens Roger Smith who has apparently overslept by 15 minutes and allowed his breakfast to get cold thereby. At the table, Dorothy pretends to drink coffee and Roger reflects that she surely cannot be a sentient being, and is merely an android, a machine copying the behavior of those around her. Dorothy, of course, as a sentient being or no, seems not too pleased by these comments.
The lights in the parlor turn off suddenly, but no one is alarmed as this is an ongoing problem in the city of Amnesia where very few have the requisite memory fragments to work on electrical grids, not to mention build new ones, that or new dams or other sources of energy for the city. A young woman named Casey Jenkins visits the Smith mansion with a job for Roger as a Negotiator Go-between for the denizens of Electric City and the Paradigm Group. The woman works for the latter organization, which employs the city’s military police and runs its government as a social subsidiary of the Paradigm Corp’s Corporate Police State. This structure mirrors the dystopian society of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles ruled over by the Tyrell Corporation, and serves as one more example of that film’s influence in Japanese culture, and specifically within the medium of anime.
Once Roger arrives in Electric City in the dead of night to investigate the hydroelectric power plant, he immediately comes into contact with the town’s residents. The gate to the dam is locked and a band of vigilante activist types surrounds roger and explains that if the power plant is turned back on, this will anger the god of the lake who will consequently ‘rain down his lightning of wrath.’ Roger takes this as mere superstition and decides to feign retreat and investigate the dam another way. He studies the terrain from afar and realizes that there may be an underground access tunnel leading down from the adjacent hills. Coincidentally, there is an old cabin on this hill, which upon closer inspection does indeed hide a staircase, which most likely descends below the plant. As he approaches this access route, he hears the rustling of leaves behind him and then prattles off his third professional rule: ‘It’s not my style to carry a gun.’ This he concludes by remarking, ‘I don’t mind being slugged from behind either,’ which he hopes will dissuade the aggressor from doing so.
To his surprise, his suave manner has little effect and the man slugs him anyway. Roger awakens the next morning, unties the ropes binding him to a chair in the kitchen, and thereby assures the old coot, a Swede named Sven Mariski, of his competency in the process. Roger helps out with chores and even makes the old guy breakfast before Sven heads out to chop wood and the house is vacant. Our jaded hero next searches the home and finds a trap door leading to an abandoned and largely destroyed lab in which a large fish tank has been smashed. A circuit turns on and electricity surges throughout the space of the room, and it seems that someone has snuck into the old man’s secret dam access tunnel and turned on the hydroelectric dam. Roger investigates and eventually finds the Paradigm employee Casey Jenkins within the subterranean passageways. She reveals that her true affiliation is not with Paradigm proper and that her name is not Casey. Instead she goes by the moniker Angel, and a fallen one at that, Roger muses: an observation of her femme fatale nature as a spy who has seemingly made Roger the fall man in the eyes of the denizens of Electric City. The observation will prove even more apt as the ontological nature of the Paradigm City Universe becomes apparent in the series’ later episodes.
As the hydroelectric dam comes online and begins to generate power, a mysterious beast begins to cry out with the moans of a lone whale. The song is eerie, primal, and touches the deepest levels of insecurity in all those in the surrounding area. The beast eventually emerges from the lake and begins to wreak havoc upon the buildings of the surrounding area. Is it truly a god? Or merely the creation of a man in the image of a god? As Angel makes her get away in her sedan, the creature locks onto her and eventually electrocutes her car into a false start. Roger calls upon Big O and begins to fight the beast. But the old man, Sven, is out on the water in a small inflatable boat and could be killed if Roger uses the full power of his Chrome Buster laser ray attack. As such, he merely holds off the beast, and is electrocuted pretty severely in the process, until the old man turns off the beast’s power supply: the hydroelectric dam. After the old man is out of harm’s way, Roger finishes off the Eel Megadeus and begins to reflect on the true nature of this beast as potentially partially mechanical and partially organic, a god of man’s fusion of the natural and the technological orders: the self-same nature as the Big Megadeuses?
When Roger returns to his mansion, Dorothy is playing the blues. He prods at her a bit by throwing a verbal-emotional dart about why an android would play such emotional music. She responds merely that even she occasionally feels like playing them. And Roger, confused, ponders the notion of an android feeling a particular way and comes to the conclusion that its not worth throwing himself into another existential quandary over, and if she says she feels that way, then he might as well act as if she truly does. After all, Cartesian certainty ontology only leads one to the conclusion that you yourself exist. All other beings may in fact be mere creations of your cosmic-creative mind. So what difference does it make if she’s an android?
Cast in the Name of God,
It’s time to get back into the swing of things after a full week-long break from reviewing anime series. I’ve decided to return to it with a comprehensive commentary on one of the most legendary, mythic, and stylish anime series of my childhood: The Big O. Like the last two series I reviewed on this blog, Serial Experiments Lain and Digimon Tamers, The Big O is a Sci-fi series written by one of Japan’s most talented screenwriters of the anime medium: Chiaki J. Konaka. And like all anime series that can qualify as amongst my favorites, it is a work of sublime visual quality whilst simultaneously dealing in myth, metaphor, futurism, posthumanism, and the power of the human spirit.
‘My name is Roger Smith. I perform a much-needed job here in the city of Amnesia.’ The city of Paradigm, a vast metropolis wherein urban decay and obscene wealth live side by side in an uneasy proximity. A city, partially domed, and protected thereby from the sands of the infinite deserts surrounding this technological bauble. Smith is a Negotiator and drives along within his car toward the outskirts of his city where he plans to meet with Beck, a small-time criminal who has kidnapped the daughter of a rich industrialist and inventor, named Soldano, and plan to return her only in exchange for a large sum of money. As he rides off toward the checkpoint, the sun catches the lenses of his black sunglasses momentarily, and in that moment the hollows of his eyes are revealed to be mechanical. Although human, there is some deeper truth to the identity of Smith, not merely a physical reality as Other to humanity, but as ontologically different from what he seems to be.
A solemn Jazz soundtrack of keys and saxophone plays out throughout many of the show’s more somber moments as a reflective etude signalling viewers to at once live the moment with the characters or scenes in the show, as well as to take on a critical distance and the emotional-logical pain of separation and isolation, of Otherness and alienness that is the core feature of human life. When Smith reaches the meet-up point, the exchange goes off without a hitch. Until, that is, Soldano rushes up to meet his daughter Dorothy and reveals to Smith, just as Beck and his lackeys ride off with the money, that this Dorothy is merely an android (though an extremely realistic one). Smith, confused by the situation, but always professional, pulls out a remote, which activates a drone mechanism within the briefcase that has the effect of causing it to return to him through the air. But before Soldano’s money can be recovered, Beck’s men shoot down the briefcase in mid-air, which results only in the case opening and losing its cargo in a nearby bay.
Throughout this sequence, the film noir influence on the series becomes immediately apparent. From the Jazz soundtrack to constant tenebrism and encompassing darkness in the palette of scenes, high angles and sideways dutch angles to heighten the tension of the approach between the Negotiator and those with which he plans to make an exchange. Add to this, the feelings of paranoia, fear, and claustrophobia attendant upon moving through such a dark, dank, closed in city, a city of Amnesia wherein everyone’s memories of forty years prior and all that came before were wiped clean on account of the mysterious Event, and this is the perfect stamping ground for our cop-turned-private eye protagonist. Later, it will become apparent that a second influence on the series was the Batman animated series of the 1990s as Smith is a rich playboy with a large mansion and inheritance, a great black sedan, tons of gadgets with which to fight back against the forces of evil, a butler who is in on his secret, and even an a good cop who helps Roger along the way.
As our noir protagonist roams the city in his attention-catching black sedan with a built-in protected mode, he finds himself in a small bar where The Informer gives him the lowdown on almost any information he needs, for a price that is. He tells Roger that Soldano has apparently gotten his hands on a ‘memory fragment’ (a Big O term that could potentially mean a piece of information like a book or schematics for an ‘ancient’ technology as well as real memories, prophetic dreams, or nightmares dredged up from neuroses preceding The Event). The Informer also alerts Roger to the possibility of Soldano using this memory fragment to create ‘illegal items.’ Roger leaves the bar and drives back to his flat in his sedan, musing on the oddity of a civilization like Paradigm wherein few can even repair old technologies and none are ever built, a civilization without a history that manages to survive.
When he arrives home, his butler Norman Burg alerts him to the presence of a young woman visitor in the parlor of his home. It is here that we learn the first of Roger’s rules: ‘Only lovely young women can unconditionally enter this mansion.’ But when the girl turns to address Roger, she is revealed to be the android Dorothy who demands Roger take on a protection job for her. Roger wants to refuse, but Dorothy will take no for an answer. The situation becomes more confusing when Dan Dastun, Roger’s old police chief, arrives and alerts Roger that the police’s independent investigation into the whereabouts of the real Dorothy Wayneright eventually concluded that Soldano has no daughter, and never had a daughter in the first place.
Roger decides at this moment to leave once more and seek out Soldano for more information. Dorothy insinuates herself into Roger’s journey by tagging along in his car for the ride. Along the way, he prods the android a bit by asking the existentially charged question: ‘What would an android call its creator?’ Dorothy doesn’t respond, though her silence speaks volumes and indicates a deep displeasure brought on by the probing jab. When they arrive at Soldano’s factory, they find it destroyed and Soldano lying within an observation room dying, bleeding out. He speaks a few words before his voice fades and his final message dies is delivered to Roger alone, not even the viewers being privy to these deeply personal final addresses. However, what we are privy to is this message: ‘I never wanted to build it…. for them.’
Norman calls up Roger on his com device and alerts him to the presence of a Megadeus (or Greek-Latin derived ‘Great God’) mecha destroying the city downtown. Dorothy asks Roger why they came here to see Soldano, and he responds that he was hired to do a job, to find the real Dorothy and ensure she is safe, and even though the client is dead it is not within his code of professional honor to cease his assignment before completing it. As Dorothy and Roger speed off in the direction of downtown in the black sedan, and they close in on the disturbance, they are stopped for a short time by a police checkpoint where Dorothy notices an old man standing off-sides who she calls her father.
Finally, the two arrive downtown in West Dome No. 5 where the mecha, which Dorothy recognizes as her sister Dorothy-1, the prototype twin of herself, is raging and fighting against the police. At this point, Roger calls upon his secret weapon: the Megadeus Big O. It rises from beneath the city upon a large rail system and ascends to the surface. Roger enters the cockpit, which proclaims itself ‘Cast in the Name of God’ and deems Roger a worthy Dominus (or Latinate ‘master’) with the phrase ‘Ye Not Guilty.’ He engages the enemy and bursts an incapacitating mega-arm piston blow through its very core, the solar plexus, delivered with the verbal relish ‘Bye-bye Dotty!’. The android Dorothy below is near the action and Dastun tries to protect her, but only ends up potentially killing them both as Dorothy-1 falls seemingly right on top of them.
And the mysteries are no closer to being understood now than they will become at any point during the first season of this series. But as in all great works of narrative, the joy is not so much in the revelations of the denouement, but of the journey toward this conclusion. And the more labyrinthine that journey, the better.
Cast in the Name of God,
For the last two months, my bi-weekly film essays for this blog have focused on the film noir genre. That series was a real success for me as I learned a ton in the process and received quite a bit of positive feedback on it. Thanks for following along, and if you missed it, here are some links to the first in the series and to some of my favorites: Fury, D.O.A., and Pickup on South Street.
For over a year, I’ve had dozens of Westerns staring me down in a stack by my desk. As such, I’ve decided to review many of them, as well as some other classic Westerns on this blog over the course of the next few months. First up: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman, and King Vidor (you know the one!). I hope you’ll follow along with this series. And if you like it, please like, comment, and share, both here and on social media. And follow TheBoronHeist for more essays on film and animation on a daily basis!
See You Space Cowboy,
Wim Wenders’ 1977 film, The American Friend, was one of his first films with a large English-speaking cast although various characters speak German and French throughout the film as well. Although an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s then-as-yet-unpublished novel Ripley’s Game, Wenders incorporated elements, scenes, characters and themes from some of her earlier works in the Ripley series. He transposed many of the locations in the book from Hamburg to Paris, and vice versa, whilst also shooting portions of the film in neither place (specifically in New York).
The film is an ode, an homage to film noir, though it is not strictly a neo-noir and fits more succinctly within the arthouse cinema that Wenders and directors like him were working to develop through the 60s, 70s, and 80s in the New Hollywood Movement and the New German Cinema. This burgeoning cinema was inspired by auteurs of the Hollywood system in the 40s and 50s who created noirs, but it was just as strongly inspired by the French New Wave, Surrealism, the Western, the Thriller, and the film forms that helped to spawn film noir in the first place like Expressionism, Exploitation, and Poetic Realism. As a sort of constant reminder of Wender’s influences and contemporaries, he decided to cast them, mostly directors in their own rights, as the mobsters in his film.
Influences included the casting of the film noir auteurs and Hollywood pariahs: Samuel Fuller (as Pogash, a forger of paintings by a deceased fictional artist named Derwatt) and Nicholas Ray (as The American: a mob figure representing the American syndicate), each of whom had in his own way contributed greatly to the grammar of film noir. The former left Hollywood during the blacklists and later had a long and esteemed career in French cinema as a director and a darling of the Cahiers writers and the French New Wave, which later emerged from that critical movement. The latter was cast out of Hollywood due to his unstoppable substance abuse and his perceived lack of interest in the commercial appeal of his films, which obviously irked his producers.
Contemporaries included the French directors Gerard Blain (as Raoul Minot, a sympathetic crime boss) and the great Jean Eustache (as a Friendly Man within the syndicate) who helped move French cinema beyond the New Wave during his short, but impactful career. Swiss director Daniel Schmid (Igraham) and British director Sandy Whitelaw (a Doctor in league with the mob) round out the European contemporary crowd along with Wender’s New German Cinema counterpart Peter Lilienthal (as Marcangelo).
Finally, to fully round out the class of mobsters for the film, Wenders needed to find his Ripley. He first broached the idea of playing the role to American independent filmmaker John Cassavettes (whose work was influential on the French New Wave, on the very concept of Independent filmmaking, and on auteur filmmaking throughout the world). But as Cassavettes was busy making a film at the time, he told Wenders to consider casting Dennis Hopper instead. Hopper, one of the visionaries and first big voices of the New Hollywood cinema of America, was just coming off of work Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (one of at least three including The Godfather and The Godfather II). During that film he had immersed himself so deeply into his character using stimulants and hallucinogenics that he had to go through a short stint in rehab before he could even act again for The American Friend.
Besides directors, the few remaining roles were cast with Wenders regulars, as well as an American Folk Singer named David Blue (in the role of a Texan man who buys one of the forgeries by Pogash) and the second principal character of Jonathan Zimmerman, which was played by Bruno Ganz, a veritable force to be reckoned with within German, and European, cinema for the next thirty years. But at this time, Ganz was known solely as a theater actor of great force. Wenders admired him and had seen his few teleplays and the one film adaptation of a play he had performed in for an Eric Rohmer film, as well as dozens of his performances on the stage, and decided that he would be perfect for the role. Ultimately, he would become the face of Wenders’ cinema in much of the same manner that Klaus Kinski had for Wenders’ contemporary Werner Herzog.
The film tells the story of Jonathan Zimmerman, a restoration artist and framer of paintings and photographs, who slights Tom Ripley at an auction by refusing to shake his hand (knowing that Ripley is a fraud and a cheat of forgery racket ilk). Zimmerman is dying of a rare blood disease and is unsure of how long he has left to live. This makes him into a sometimes ornery fellow, which doubly explains his initial irritation with Ripley, though he will later apologize to him for his rude behavior and the two will become friends. But this friendship begins all too late as Ripley punishes the Zimmerman for his earlier slight. Ripley is offered a hit job on two men in the mafia, which he turns down and decides to recommend Zimmerman for. He spreads rumors that Zimmerman has not much longer to live and that his condition has reached the terminal stages, which means he could use the money from the wet jobs to support his family after he is gone. The news spreads quickly and even has Zimmerman wondering whether he is actually dying and just hasn’t been alerted by his doctors. He begins to reflect on life and death more seriously and eventually comes to the decision to take on the job.
After the first assassination, which is done pretty sloppily and would probably leave Zimmerman open to police suspicions, if the man he killed wasn’t a low-life mobster that the cops didn’t care about, Ripley finds out that Zimmerman took the job. He has become friends with Zimmerman and formed a bond of sorts, and as such, on Zimmerman’s subsequent hits, Ripley tags along to help out (he does this also because he feels responsible for Zimmerman’s current predicament). His aid proves indispensable as the next event is complicated by multiple bodyguards constantly watching and protecting the target. But they pull it off. As the murders commence and the job looks finished, somehow news of the identity of the man who ordered the hits, Raoul Minot, gets out to the remaining mafia bosses and Minot becomes a target. Ripley and Zimmerman, who previously imagined that they were through with the whole matter, must now scheme to protect their boss, and by proxy themselves. Because if he goes, they’re next in line as the assassins who actually carried out the hits.
The film is at times very organic and fluid like the handheld camera style of the French New Wave and the New Hollywood movements, at other times the stylization of the piece is more expressionistic and traditionally noir, veritably oozing with mise-en-scene. Sometimes the acting of Ganz reaches a fever pitch of traditional dramatic acting and pathos, and at other moments, like the glorious sequence at the end of the film as Zimmerman and Ripley drive along a secluded beach to burn the bodies of their victims, the sky and the reflective sand are nearly indiscernible and it appears as if the cars are floating across a landscape of waves and clouds. This mode is an ethereal vision of cinema, which is part of arthouse style Wenders helped to develop. This sequence probably comes closest to pure cinema and cinema as painting and sculpting time than anything this side of Tarkovsky and Bergman, and is a style that would return to greatest effect in Wender’s classic arthouse film Wings of Desire.
Much of the experimentation and mixing of styles on the film came from the various inspirations of the directors casted as actors in the film. The greatest direct influences came from oft-time shot and approach advice by Samuel Fuller and the inspiration of Dennis Hopper who pushed Wim Wenders to greater and greater experiments and incorporation of ideas and happy accidents into the finished work. But none of it could have been captured in the manner it was without Wenders’ cinematographer Robby Muller with whom he had worked with as early as 1970 on Summer in the City, would continue to work alongside until 1995 on Beyond the Clouds, and who provided wonderful work especially on this film, and on Paris, Texas years later. Muller would also collaborate with American director Jim Jarmusch on five films between 1986 and 2003 including his classic Mystery Train, with Lars Von Trier on Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, as well as with numerous other directors both in Europe and in America on independent and large studio productions. But The American Friend is Muller at top form (he even developed the use of fluorescent lighting for films on this work): a level he would astonishingly reach many more times throughout his career as a cinematographer who can safely be ranked amongst the top 50 cameramen of all time.
(Check out my previous film noir essay here: They Made Me A Criminal)
It has been a good run this past two months and now this film noir essay series draws to a close. Most of the films I reviewed over this time were ones I had never seen previously, and I felt inclined, at first, to continue the process here, but felt it more fitting to essay my favorite noir, the one trad noir closer to my heart than any other: D.O.A.
This 1949 film is, in my estimation, the crowning achievement of the career of one Rudolph Mate. The man began his career in German cinema in the 1910s as a camera assistant working (coincidentally coming up alongside another great camera operator in his colleague and fellow student Karl Freund) before working his way up to the role of cinematographer in the late teens. He developed a style that used deep shadows and chiaroscuro, high contrast, and a very pure cinema approach, which aided him as cinematographer for the greatest of all Danish directors, Carl Dreyer, between 1924-32. During these years, Mate contributed to dozens of films by other directors, as well as three of Dreyer’s five films (Michael, Le Passion de Jean d’Arc, and Vampyr), the latter two of which are classics not only within Dreyer’s oeuvre, but within the history of cinema itself.
In 1934, Mate worked as cinematographer on Fritz Lang’s French fantasy film Liliom, which was the last European picture of Lang’s career for many years to come. With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, many of Mate’s contemporaries had fled the continent for America. Directly after Liliom, Lang left as well, and one can assume he discussed the move with Mate as sometime in the following weeks or months Mate made the move himself.
Known primarily for comedies and action films for the majority of his American cinematographic career between 1935-39, he finally began to break away in 1940 when he provided the cinematography for Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, for which his work was nominated for an Academy Award. This proved to be the first such nomination in what would become a five-year run in which he received a nomination every year for some film or other. With the 1944 war paranoia thriller Address Unknown, the 1946 Hayworth noir vehicle Gilda, and the 1947 Orson Welles’ film The Lady From Shanghai (in which Rita Hayworth also starred), Mate had found a genre within the American Hollywood system that was perfectly suited to his artistic bent and expressionistic/pure cinema stylings: the thriller.
The Lady From Shanghai would prove to be his final job as cinematographer on a film, and finally, he was given a chance to begin directing. The first job was a test. A romantic comedy released in late 1947 in which Mate was paired as co-director with a more experienced director. He passed, and in the following year directed the classic noir The Dark Past. The year after that: D.O.A.
The film is a story about an accountant named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) who runs a small, but lucrative firm where he employs a number of secretaries. Chief among them is Paula Gibson, a woman committed to her work and to Frank on more intimate terms. The two have been seeing each other for years, and she has been waiting on Frank to commit for years and propose to her. But Frank is feeling trapped, hemmed in, and he doesn’t like it. And so, now that he has cleared his schedule for the next week, he has plans to go to San Francisco to cut loose, and maybe meet a few handsome broads along the way.
Paula recognizes that Frank needs his space and that he needs some time away to think everything over before, at least hopefully, coming to a decision about his future prospects with Paula. But she’s none too happy with what he might pull while away and as such, she summons all of the forces of postmodern liberal authority and conscience to subversively keep him in line, without having to be physically by his side. She tells Frank, by phone after he has arrived in his hotel in Frisco, that ‘there’s nothing you can do that you have to feel guilty about.’ The effect should be lost on no one and is akin to a parent telling their child not that they have to visit their grandparents whether they like it or not, but instead that they only have to visit their grandparents if they feel like it, but must recognize how their denial of association with their grandparents will make them feel. In a word, she wants him to behave, and to like it too. Just a bit vicious, but not quite fatale.
Despite this form of warning, an odd whistling effect plays every time that Frank passes a beautiful woman in the hall. The quick rise in tone is pretty obviously phallic in nature and is tied explicitly with sexual arousal in a way that makes that first claim a little less obnoxious (as does noir’s oft-fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis as a way to interpret its protagonists and antagonists actions). Whenever these incidents occur, Frank’s face lights up as a visual signifier of his interest, which is lost on none of the women who smile upon viewing his, how should I put this, shit-eating grin. And a particular woman, a woman married to a salesman with whom she is on vacation in Frisco during a Marketing Convention, decides to take advantage of Frank’s sexual repression and lack of cool, devil-may-care demeanor, to take advantage of his puppy dog way to get him to come along with her and her friends, buy her drinks, and dance with her in the Jazz club: The Fisherman (in which some tough players swing like no one’s business that side of Miles Davis).
But things go wrong fast. As Frank is inebriated, a mystery figure finds it easy to sneak up on him and switch his drink with one spiked with poison of a luminous quality. Too drunk to notice, Frank retires to his room and falls asleep where, over the next twelve hours, the toxins seep into his system, making it impossible to pump them out. What’s worse, the doctors he consults to learn this information (he thought he merely had a stomach ache from drinking too much) tell him that this particular poison has no known antidote, and that Frank now has less than a week to live, and potentially as little as a day.
Over the remainder of the film, Frank works to unravel the secret behind why someone would want to poison a lowly accountant, would want to snuff his life out. He becomes a man on the run from, initially against the clock, and eventually away from thugs working for a mob boss who is unnerved by how much information Frank is disclosing in such a short time. As he runs through the streets of Frisco and eventually the City of Angels, some revolutionary shots are taken on the fly. Stolen shots of streets scenes in which Frank runs and pushes real people around as a man possessed, in a cinematic fever dream extending beyond the world of the camera and breaking out with manic intensity into the real world outside of the studio.
Of blacks so black and shadows so deep, and of a situation so dire and paranoiac that the film seems to move past the realm of pure cinema into the very domain of dreams, of the unconscious itself. As if this poor sap is being punished not for merely notarizing some bill of sale, some MacGuffin, six months prior, but by the very world around him acting as superego inflicting pain and suffering as a reprimand for his sexual desires, his inability to settle down and move past the infantile stage of the Puer Aeternis, to become, in a word, civil. And like all deeply, truly Christian individuals who obtain self-knowledge and thereby transfigure every day into the dark night of the soul, Frank feels always guilty for his thoughts, for what he would do even more than what he has done.
And this is why the film hit me so hard as a young religious man at University studying Religion a few years back before my second atheistic turn. It is the fear I felt. That one day everything I imagined and desired and all the sin I incurred like pollution would damn me to eternal suffering like Frank’s indiscretions of conscience damned him to death. And though I now feel free, maybe the knowledge of damnation (or nothingness in my current case) is the condition for that freedom in the same way that Frank’s knowledge of impending death freed him to become the cool, strong character he always failed to be in life. Freed him to realize his love for Paula and the vanity of time wasted. As Bukowski said, ‘Nothing is worse than too late.’
And in the end, the world’s revenge will come swiftly and mercilessly, but not before I, and you, and any other who feels the same is able to strike back. To figure out who or what administered the poison and strike back mortally against it in the hopes that in some small way we can prevent the same fate from striking another. Just as Frank tracked down and found his mortal enemy, hiding away in that great modernist beast The Bradbury Building (in which Deckard’s chase scene would occur at the climax of Blade Runner thirty years later. Surely another reason that D.O.A. grips me like no other trad film noir.) where Frank punches back at the gods who would damn him for ultimately meaningless indiscretions. And like Deckard spitting in the face of his would-be murderer moments before what seems an inevitable plummet to his death in the streets of the City of Angels, Frank pulls the trigger and shows his utter contempt for this world and every god damn son of a bitch in it who would deny him his pleasures.
That’s just the way I like it.
(Catch my previous film noir essay here: Hangmen Also Die)
The director Busby Berkeley isn’t typically a name that film buffs associate with film noir. No, Berkeley is known first and foremost as a choreographer of musicals who merely dabbled in directing, and to little great effect. Through the early 1930s, he began the greatest period of his work in the medium of musicals and musical comedy’s when, in 1933, he choreographed dance sequences for 42nd Street. He followed up this triumph with work on Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, Fashions of 1934, direction on Gold Diggers of 1935, and later more choreography on Gold Diggers of 1937 and Gold Diggers of Paris (the whole Gold Digger theme was, needless to say, in vogue through the 1930s). It was a time when people, who could afford to, went to the movies as a distraction from the tortures of daily existence and didn’t expect of their entertainments any heady artistic themes or social pictures that could remind them of the impoverishment of the era immediately following The Great Depression.
However, in 1939, general sentiments had changed and the musical form had largely gone the way of the dinosaur, relegated to the fringes as a new form of film began to take precedence in the cultural imagination. A darker film that bore the imprint of German expressionism visually and dealt with the themes of paranoia and nihilism creeping into the general culture ala World War II, ala so-called civilized Christian nations going at it in total warfare. Film noir. Not called such a thing at the time, the films were thrillers, spy films, war films, boxing films, and films of the Underground at odds with the world around it. Both reactions against and defenses of the greater culture. The films would only later be grouped under the heading of noir, but at the time the look and the elements of the form took shape unconsciously and Berkeley was not immune.
They Made Me a Criminal was a remake of a 1933 film entitled The Life of Jimmy Dolan and directed by Archie Mayo (known for his direction of the the proto-noir The Petrified Forest three years later), which was seemingly popular enough to guide the studio system to commission a remake just six short years later. In the 1939 film, Jimmy Dolan has become Johnny Bradfield (played authentically by the great predecessor of Method Acting, John Garfield), a boxer who has just won an important bout and become the Light-Heavyweight World Champion. Bradfield has cultivated a public mask in which he is seen as a good-natured, homegrown type who loves his mother and respects the rules of the game. In reality, he is something of a conman who cheats constantly using eye-gouges and low-blows, which go unnoticed in part through his ability to lead the eye of opponents and referees alike and in part through expectations about Johnny as his public persona. One night, an undercover reporter catches wind of this information and threatens to publish it in the morning paper the following day. Johnny, sauced, takes a shot at the man and misses. But just as the reporter begins to exit the door, Johnny’s manager clubs the man with a bottle, which leads to a brain hemorrhage and quick death.
The manager plans to pin the murder on Johnny, steals his watch, his money, his girl, and drops Johnny off at his home before riding off into the night. But an A.P.B. is put out on the car as soon as the reporter’s body is found dead in the apartment, and when a duo of police cruisers catch up to the Manager and Johnny’s gal, they make a break for it, and eventually run off of the road, hit a tree, and go up in flames. This turn of events leaves the bodies burnt beyond all recognition, but with the manager wearing Johnny’s watch, the corpse of the Manager is taken for the corpse of Johnny, and the case is closed. Johnny takes the opportunity to run away after recouping what little bit of his money he can from a safe deposit box, and to start a new life for himself in an effort to avoid being convicted for murder of the reporter (despite the fact that Johnny is a southpaw and forensics has concluded that the attack was landed by an orthodox, meaning Johnny would probably have little trouble proving his innocence, with a good lawyer that is).
Johnny runs off and eventually ends up on a Date farm in Arizona where, emaciated and weakened by his long travels atop and inside train cars, as well as by foot, he is taken in by a sympathetic group in the widow Goldie West, Grandma Rafferty, and a group of delinquents from New York (played by the actor troupe known as the Dead End Kids) hired out to improve their characters and keep them out of trouble in the Big Apple now so far away. Things seem idyllic and simple, and Johnny makes a good go of country life, but the farm is under dire financial straits. So, when a travelling Boxer exhibition comes through advertising that anyone who can go more than two rounds with ‘The Wild Bull of Europe,’ Gaspar Rutchek, will receive $500 per round, Bradfield decides to put back on the old gloves and battle it out for the fiscal well-being of his young friends, and the new love of his life, in the hopes that they will be able to buy a gas pump with the money and start raking in dough through their unique geographical situation (placed along a long road with no gas station for 42 miles in one direction and 28 in the other).
But one of the Dead End Kids make a decisive mistake in taking a photo of Johnny during boxing practice, having the film developed, sending it in to a local magazine competition for photography, and winning. The success results in a three dollar prize and the picture’s publication in the zine, which is picked up a New York Detective, one Monty Phelan (Claude Rains) who knows Johnny Bradfield personally and has never believed the claim that the man in the scorched car was Johnny. He begins to track down Johnny, and the two men are set for a confrontation that may end in more violence or in Johnny’s incarceration, but either way in disruption of Johnny’s current predicament and peace of mind.
The film is shot to great effect by cinematographer James Wong Howe (whose achievements I have previously discussed in more detail in my previous film noir essay on Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die), the master of darkness, and one of film noir’s greatest camera operators. The film is taut and paranoiac, but simultaneously vibrant and filled with life, love, adventure, and humor. It’s a shame that Berkeley didn’t direct dozens of film noirs in his time as I believe he had an instinctive knack for it and would have had similar success in future endeavors. However, I’m just glad we’ve got this one, a film noir that combines the thematic staples of the genre with the only sport I really like, one I’ve developed a real love for over the past six months: the Sweet Science of Boxing!
[Film Noir Essays Concluded here: D.O.A.]
Fritz Lang’s 1943 American film noir Hangmen Also Die may be his best, most expressionistic work during his entire American period, often reaching the heights of pure cinema of earlier German-era works like Mabuse, der Spieler and M. The film is visually dynamic, and constantly so, using all of the trademarks of the expressionistic-noir idiom he helped to develop in the late 20s and early 30s in Germany: dutch angles, dramatic lighting, deep focus, chiaroscuro, bold framings, claustrophobic-paranoiac sets, and high contrast.
He achieved the look of the film together with one of American film noir’s greatest cinematographers: a Chinese-born American man named James Wong Howe. Howe began his career in the late teens and early twenties silent cinema, and as such, had developed a sense of how to create visually compelling cinema that tells a story without the need for dialogue. He was a pioneer in his field who used bold and brisk lighting developed through the influence of German expressionist and agit-prop staging, was a master of deep shadows, and was one of the first individuals to ever use deep focus cinematography, where both the foreground and the background are fully in focus and the items therein can be discerned as clear and not fuzzy, and all of this more than a full ten years before Greg Toland’s so-called revolutionary ‘discovery’ of these techniques on Citizen Kane in 1940.
Howe also invented one of the first camera dolly operating systems he called the crab dolly, as well as one of the first hand-held camera units. Both of which he used in major films well before their popularization in the late 50s and 60s by the New American cinema crowd. He tutored another great American cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, and together the two pulled off some of the first helicopter shots for use in a major motion picture. In the 1920s, Howe developed a system for use on orthochromatic film stock, which was notorious for picking up the shadows under actor’s eyes and making the film unusable thereby through the complete obfuscation of one of the most important parts of an actor’s look in silent cinema. He placed black velvet around the lens of the camera, just out of frame, which dampened the available light on the film’s edges, took in less light, and thereby exposed the eyes of actors without also underexposing their surroundings. Finally, Howe was one of the first cameramen to shoot film stock using only candlelight as the available light source: a technique that wouldn’t be used effectively again until Stanley Kubrick’s use of the technique on Barry Lyndon decades later using an impossibly large .7 Zeiss lens.
Howe was nominated for ten Academy Awards during his lifetime. He won two: once in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo and once in 1963 for Hud. His presence on Hangmen Also Die was surreptitious to say the least as the film is one of Fritz Lang’s most visually compelling, and that’s saying something within a career like Lang’s.
Another interesting element of the film, which prompts one to almost call it a pure expressionist film with roots reaching back more firmly to that epoch than into the burgeoning film noir one, is the collaboration on the film of two other German emigres, escaped from Nazi Germany. The first of these is Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright whose theatre works heavily influenced the dramatic stagings of expressionism as well as the themes of the early works within the movement like M and Asphalt that were heavily politically and socially conscious. Brecht developed the story for the film alongside Fritz Lang, and the two developed the treatment and much of the screenplay for the work. The second man is the composer for the film: Hanns Eisner. Eisner was not a film composer first and foremost, and as far as I can tell, this was the only time he committed a piece to the medium. His interests lay in compositions of pieces for performance and for pieces to accompany plays, and more often than not, the productions of Brecht. Having three German emigres with strong histories and footholds in the expressionist movement surely had a strong influence on the film.
Finally, the film itself. The film is about a uniquely German sort of topic of interest at the time. The war was raging in Europe at the time and as such, Lang and Brecht decided to adapt an agit-prop piece about the recent assassination of the SS’s #2 man Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. The film was very topical, but also leant itself well to a growing sense of film noir conventions as it involves revolutionary forces fighting against an oppressor, clandestinely and always with an air of paranoia and suspicion in the air. Information is the name of the game in this struggle as the resistance tries to hide the identity of the assassin, regular Czech’s choose not to rat on their countrymen, the gestapo hold certain pieces of information but not the whole puzzle, and law-abiding citizens who would normally just keep their heads down find themselves in a world-historical conflict in which their action, or inaction, is made necessary for the very fate of their friends, their family, and their homeland.
Unlike film noir, there are no private detectives, the police do not signify justice or the force of the law closing in but instead the complete opposite of oppressive imperialistic power in a state of exception and near-total hegemony, there is no femme fatale, wrong man, charming villain, or MacGuffin. The Underground isn’t an evil force, but a force of good, of justice, of the people, by the people, and for the people working to fight oppression and restore proper order to their country. And the end result is not the base renunciation of wholesome values and belief in the law, in society, and in other people in favor of nihilism, opportunism, and a morally bankrupt world of suckers and the ruthless on the up and up. No, instead the end result is an affirmation of democracy, of rule by the people, of the notion that foreign peoples have no business in Czechoslovakia telling Czechs what to do, and that Nazism and Fascism are not true evental encounters, not true world-historical periods, but aberrations that would one day be vanquished. And in this opportunism, Lang and his collaborators were prescient, and thankfully so.
[Next up: They Made Me a Criminal]