Tuesday, December 4, 2012

An Army of Phantoms

In October, PFA held a series called An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War.  Curated by noted film critic J. Hoberman, An Army of Phantoms is also the name of Hoberman's latest book.  That arrangement seems more overtly commercial than most PFA series.

The films in An Army of Phatoms, the PFA program, "captures the hottest decade [1950s] of the Cold War with all the unnerved, high-spirited, and irrational emotions that combative moment could muster."

I saw only saw two of the nine films in the series.  Among the series were two films I've seen in rep houses within the past few years - Pickup on South Street and The Wild One and two I've seen on television - Fort Apache and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  I regret missing Storm Warning (with Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers & Doris Day) and Panic in the Streets (with Richard Widmark, Jack Palance & Zero Mostel).  I don't regret missing Invaders from Mars despite Hoberman description of it as "a Cold War Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

The two films I saw were:

The Next Voice You Hear starring James Whitmore & Nancy Davis; directed by William Wellman; (1950)
The Steel Helmet starring Gene Evans; directed by Sam Fuller; (1951)

The Next Voice You Hear looks like a B film but is a cut above.  Let's call it a B+ film which is what you would expect from William Wellman.  Actually, I wouldn't expect Wellman to be making B films so maybe this wasn't one.  The premise of the film is that God comes on the radio every night for one week.  You never actually hear his voice due to some clever cutaways.  Instead reacting to the voice, the audience reacts to the characters' reaction.  Joe and Mary Smith (Josepth & Mary!) are played James Whitmore and Nancy Davis (she was still a couple years from marrying Ronald Reagan).  With son Johnny (Gary), they form the nuclear family although they are far from perfect.  Joe has a bit of a temper and he gets fall down drunk which frightens young Johnny.

The God in The Next Voice is secular based on his recited messages.  His message is not "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."  It's more "Can't we all just along?"

At 83 minutes, the film loses traction at times but Whitmore's performance is enough to buoy the film for most of the way.  An under-appreciated actor, Whtimore has always reminded me a little of Spencer Tracy crossed with William Bendix.  He captures the common man (even though he went to Choate and Yale and was a member of Skull & Bones) with flashes of anger in many of his films including The Next Voice.  The way he tears out of carport onto the street was memorable.

If The Next Voice isn't a great film, I wasn't disappointed because I wasn't expecting anything; one way or another.  I saw The Next Voice You Hear because it was part of a double feature.  I was more interested in the second half - Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet.

Steel Helmet is an unusually frank cinematic depiction of men at war for the era as well as the first film set during the Korean War.  Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), the protagonist, shoots an unarmed prisoner towards the end of the film.  The North Korean prisoner (Harold Fong) is one these wily and diabolical Orientals...and he speaks English.  Credited as The Red, Fong's character attempt to foment discord among the US ranks by reminding the African American soldier about Jim Crow laws and Nisei soldier about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.  The Red deserved what he got.  That's the attitude which underlies The Steel Helmet, at least on the surface.

As anyone who has read The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer knows, captured prisoners were shot; especially in the Pacific Theater where Japanese mistreatment of Allied prisoners were well known and Japanese troops often fought to the death making captured prisoner a rarity compared to Europe.  Never publicized but easily understood (perhaps even tacitly approved of), these practices would have shocked the home front or so military censors thought.  Similarly, segregation was the law in several states at the time and Order 9066 was fresh in everyone's memory.  These are taboo film subject for 1950.

Although Fuller cloaks Steel Helmet in virile and patriotic disguises, he is really levelling some serious indictments against US hypocrisy, self-delusion and war, in general.  I didn't fully pick up on this until after I watched the film.   The film ends on such a jingoistic note that it is unclear if it is intended tongue-in-cheek or at face value.  Sgt. Zack intones, "[We're] US Infantry."  Within the context of the film, is that something to be proud of?

No comments: