Sunday, February 18, 2018

Film Noir Meets Welles' "Touch of Evil"

Come on, read my future for me.You haven't got any. What do you mean? Your future is all used up. So speaks a fortune-telling madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, to the drunken sheriff of a border town, played by Orson Welles, in "Touch of Evil."

Her words have a sad resonance, because Welles was never again to direct in Hollywood after making this dark, atmospheric story of crime and corruption.

It was named best film at the 1958 Brussels World Fair (Godard and Truffaut were on the jury), but in America it opened on the bottom half of a double bill, failed, and put an end to Welles' prospects of working within the studio system. Yet the film has always been a favorite of those who enjoy visual and dramatic flamboyance. “I'd seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story,” the director Peter Bogdanovich once told his friend Orson. “That speaks well for the story,” Welles rumbled sarcastically, but Bogdanovich replied, “No, no--I mean I was looking at the direction.”

That might be the best approach for anyone seeing the film for the first time: to set aside the labyrinthine plot, and simply admire what is on the screen. The movie begins with one of the most famous shots ever made, following a car with a bomb in its trunk for three minutes and 20 seconds. And it has other virtuoso camera movements, including an unbroken interrogation in a cramped room, and one that begins in the street and follows the characters through a lobby and into an elevator. The British critic Damian Cannon writes of its “spatial choreography,” in which “every position and movement latches together into a cogent whole.”

Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, were not simply showing off. The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils.

Some of those loops were removed when Universal Studios took the film from Welles and re-edited it, adding closeups and chopping scenes, so that it existed for years in a confusing 95-minute version, and then belatedly in a 108-minute version that still reflected the studio's meddling. Now at last Welles' original intentions (explained in a 58-page memo to the studio) are reflected in a restored version that is three minutes longer and contains 50 changes, some large, some small. This version was produced by Rick Schmidlin and edited by Oscar winner Walter Murch, inspired by a crucial 1992 article in Film Quarterly by Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The story takes place in Los Robles, a seedy Mexican-American border town (“border towns bring out the worst in a country”). It's a place of bars, strip clubs and brothels, where music spills onto the street from every club. In the opening shot, we see a bomb placed in the trunk of a car, and then the camera cranes up and follows the car down a strip of seamy storefronts, before gliding down to eye level to pick up a strolling couple. They are newlyweds, Mike and Susan Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh); he's a Mexican drug enforcement official.

At a border checkpoint, they're eventually joined by the doomed car, which has been delayed by traffic and a herd of goats. Mike and Susan are completing the check when there's an offscreen explosion--and then finally a cut, to the burning car lifting in the air. (I've always felt this cut is premature; better to hear the offscreen explosion, stay on Mike and Susan as they run to the burning car, and then cut.)

Everyone awaits the arrival of Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Welles), a massive, sweaty, rumbling figure who looms over the camera. (Welles was not that big when he made the picture, and used padding and camera angles to exaggerate his bulk.) Quinlan takes charge, “intuiting” that the explosion was caused by dynamite. Vargas, a bystander, finds himself drawn into the investigation, to Quinlan's intense displeasure; the movie becomes a competition between the two men, leading to the sheriff's efforts to frame Vargas and his bride on drug and murder charges.

Viewers familiar with the earlier version will not feel they are seeing a different film, but may be able to follow the plot more easily. The most important changes take place in these opening minutes, when the stories of the Heston and Leigh characters are now intercut (the studio positioned all of the wife's hazards with a local gang after her husband's dealings with Quinlan). Another significant change: The opening shot is now seen without superimposed credits (they've been moved to the end), and with music from car radios and clubs, instead of Henry Mancini's title theme (Welles thought source music and sound effects would better establish the atmosphere).

Welles fills his story with a meaty selection of supporting characters, including Quinlan's faithful sidekick Menzies (Joseph Calleia), the slimy local crime boss Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the local madam (Dietrich), a butch gang leader (Mercedes McCambridge), an ineffectual district attorney (Ray Collins, from “Citizen Kane”) and particularly a sexually obsessed motel night clerk (Dennis Weaver), whose peculiar skittishness may have given ideas to Anthony Perkins for “Psycho” two years later.

These figures move back and forth across the border, through a series of grim and grungy locations. Although the plot line is possible to follow, the real point is the way Quinlan veers from the investigation to follow his own agenda. He's prejudiced against Mexicans, resents Vargas for invading his turf, and supports “hunches” by planting evidence. When Vargas calls him on the fraud, he vows to destroy him.

As Vargas and Quinlan jockey for position in the investigation, Susan is endangered in scenes that work as a terrified counterpoint. Vargas unwisely checks his wife into a motel run by the local gang, and young thugs terrorize her. Her perils sometimes border on the ludicrous, especially in a scene where they shine a flashlight into her room. Later, a gang rape is implied, but the movie curiously ignores or forgets its repercussions for Susan.

Menzies, the deputy, has been faithful to Quinlan because the sheriff once stopped a bullet intended for him. The movie establishes his gradual enlightenment, as Vargas proves that Quinlan planted evidence and framed innocent people. Why does Quinlan stoop so low? Thirty years earlier his own wife was murdered, and the killer went free; now he boasts, “That was the last killer that ever got out of my hands.”

The final sequence involves the disillusioned Menzies wearing a concealed microphone while prompting Quinlan into a confession. Vargas shadows them with a radio and tape recorder. This scene is visually effective, as the sheriff and deputy follow a garbage-strewn canal, but it's not logical. Vargas wades through water and climbs mountains of debris to stay within radio range of the talking men, when he could simply have hidden the tape recorder on Menzies. And he inexplicably leaves the radio turned up, so Quinlan can hear the echo of his own voice. That works as showmanship even while it fails as strategy.

The surface themes of “Touch of Evil” are easy to spot, and the clash between the national cultures gets an ironic flip: Vargas reflects gringo stereotypes while Quinlan embodies cliches about Mexican lawmen. But there may be another theme lurking beneath the surface.

Much of Welles' work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn't get it. He's running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble.

Is there a resonance between the Welles character here and the man he became? The story of Welles' later career is of projects left uncompleted and films altered after he had left them. To some degree, his characters reflected his feelings about himself and his prospects, and “Touch of Evil” may be as much about Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan. Welles brought great style to his movies, embracing excess in his life and work as the price (and reward) of his freedom.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

ALL ABOUT EVE - Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!


Growing older was a smart career move for Bette Davis, whose personality was adult, hard-edged and knowing. Never entirely comfortable as an ingenue, she was glorious as a professional woman, a survivor, or a bitchy predator. Her veteran actress Margo Channing in "All About Eve" (1950) was her greatest role; it seems to show her defeated by the wiles of a younger actress, but in fact marks a victory: the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty. She never played a more autobiographical role.

Davis' performance as a star growing older is always paired with another famous 1950 performance -- Gloria Swanson's aging silent star in "Sunset Boulevard." Both were nominated for best actress, but neither won; the Oscar went to Judy Holiday for "Born Yesterday," although Davis' fans claimed she would have won if her vote hadn't been split, ironically, by Anne Baxter, who plays her rival and was also nominated for best actress.

When you compare the performances by Davis and Swanson, you see different approaches to similar material. Both play great stars, now aging. Davis plays Margo Channing realistically, while Swanson plays Norma Desmond as a gothic waxwork. "Sunset Boulevard" seems like the better film today, maybe because it fits our age of irony, maybe because Billy Wilder was a better director than Joseph Mankiewicz. But Davis' performance is stronger than Swanson's, because it's less mad and more touching. Daviswasa character, an icon with a grand style, so even her excesses are realistic.

The movie, written by Mankiewicz, begins like "Sunset Boulevard" with a narration by a writer - -the theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), bemused, cynical, manipulative. He surveys the room at a theatrical awards dinner, notes the trophy reserved for Eve Harrington (Baxter), and describes the survivors of Eve's savage climb to the top: her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), who was her greatest supporter. And the idol she cannibalized, Margo. As the fatuous old emcee praises Eve's greatness, the faces of these people reflect a different story.

The movie creates Margo Channing as a particular person, and Eve Harrington as a type. Eve is a breathless fan, eyes brimming with phony sincerity. She worms her way into Margo's inner circle, becoming her secretary, then her understudy, then her rival. Faking humility and pathos is her greatest role, and at first only one person sees through it: crusty old Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo's wardrobe woman. "What a story!" she snaps. "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."

Margo believes Eve's story of hard luck and adoration; no actor has much trouble believing others would want to devote their lives to them. Good, sweet Karen also sympathizes with the girl, and arranges to strand Margo in the country one weekend so that Eve can go on as her understudy. Karen is repaid when Eve tries to steal her playwright husband, after an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to steal Margo's fiancé, Bill. He is played by Merrill (Davis' real-life husband), who turns her away with a merciless put-down: "What I go after, I want to go after. I don't want it to come after me."

Eve is a universal type. Margo plays at having an ego but is in love with her work -- a professional, not an exhibitionist. She's the real thing. But the sardonic tone of the film is set by Sanders, as DeWitt. He's the principal narrator, and with his cigarette holder, his slicked-down hair and his flawless evening dress, he sees everything with deep cynicism. He has his own agenda; while Eve naively tries to steal the men who belong to the women who helped her, Addison calmly schemes to keep Eve as his own possession. Sanders, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, lashes her in one of the movie's most savage speeches: "Is it possible, even conceivable, that you've confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?" And: "I am nobody's fool. Least of all, yours."

Glittering in the center of "All About Eve" is a brief supporting appearance by Marilyn Monroe. This film, and John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" earlier the same year, put her on the map; she was already "Marilyn Monroe," in every detail. She appears at Margo's party as DeWitt's date, and he steers her toward the ugly but powerful producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), advising her, "Now go and do yourself some good." Monroe sighs, "Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?"

It has been observed that no matter how a scene was lighted, Monroe had the quality of drawing all the light to herself. In her brief scenes here, surrounded by actors much more experienced, she is all we can look at. Do we see her through the prism of her legend? Perhaps not; those who saw the movie in 1950, when she was unknown, also singled her out. Mankiewicz helped create her screen persona when he wrote this exchange after the Monroe character sees Margo's fur coat.

"Now there's something a girl could make sacrifices for," Monroe says.

"And probably has," says the director.

"Sable," Monroe explains.

"Sable?" asks the producer. "Did she say sable or Gable?"

Monroe replies: "Either one."

If Monroe steals her own scenes, the party sequence contains Davis' best work in the movie, beginning with her famous line, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." Drinking too much, disillusioned by Eve's betrayal, depressed by her 40th birthday, she says admitting her age makes her "feel as if I've taken all my clothes off." She looks at Bill and bitterly says: "Bill's 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He'll look it 20 years from now. I hate men."

It was believed at the time that Davis' performance as Margo was inspired by Tallulah Bankhead. "Tallulah, understandably enough, did little to dispel the assumption," Mankiewicz tells Gary Carey in the bookMore About All About Eve."On the contrary, she exploited it to the hilt with great skill and gusto." Press agents manufactured a feud between Davis and Bankhead, but Mankiewicz says neither he nor Davis was thinking of Bankhead when the movie was made. Davis could have found all the necessary inspiration from her own life.

Davis smokes all through the movie. In an age when stars used cigarettes as props, she doesn't smoke as behavior, or to express her moods, but because she wants to. The smoking is invaluable in setting her apart from others, separate from their support and needs; she is often seen within a cloud of smoke, which seems like her charisma made visible.

The movie's strength and weakness is Anne Baxter, whose Eve lacks the presence to be a plausible rival to Margo, but is convincing as the scheming fan. When Eve understudies for Margo and gets great reviews, Mankiewicz wisely never shows us her performance; better to imagine it, and focus on the girl whose look is a little too intense, whose eyes a little too focused, whose modesty is somehow suspect.

Mankiewicz (1909-1993) came from a family of writers; his brother Herman wrote "Citizen Kane." He won back-to-back Oscars for writing and directing "A Letter to Three Wives" in 1949 and "All About Eve" in 1950, and is also remembered for "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947), "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954) and "Guys and Dolls" (1955). He remained sharp-tongued all of his days. When "All About Eve" was recycled into the Broadway musical "Applause," Mankiewicz observed that the studio had received "infinitely more" in royalties than it paid him for writing and directing the film. He said he had no complaints. The reason they have the "no refunds" sign in the theater ticket window, he said, is to keep the rubes from calling the cops.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Enduring Power of "The French Connection"

"The French Connection" is routinely included, along with "Bullitt," "Diva" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," on the short list of movies with the greatest chase scenes of all time. What is not always remembered is what a good movie it is apart from the chase scene. It featured a great early Gene Hackman performance that won an Academy Award, and it also won Oscars for best picture, direction, screenplay and editing.

The movie is all surface, movement, violence and suspense. Only one of the characters really emerges into three dimensions: Popeye Doyle Gene Hackman, a New York narc who is vicious, obsessed and a little mad. The other characters don't emerge because there's no time for them to emerge. Things are happening too fast.

The story line hardly matters. It involves a $32 million shipment of high-grade heroin smuggled from Marseilles to New York hidden in a Lincoln Continental. A complicated deal is set up between the French people, an American money man and the Mafia. Doyle, a tough cop with a shaky reputation who busts a lot of street junkies, needs a big win to keep his career together. He stumbles on the heroin deal and pursues it with a single-minded ferocity that is frankly amoral. He isn't after the smugglers because they're breaking the law; he's after them because his job consumes him.

Director William Friedkin constructed "The French Connection" so surely that it left audiences stunned. And I don't mean that as a reviewer's cliché: It is literally true. In a sense, the whole movie is a chase. It opens with a shot of a French detective keeping the Continental under surveillance, and from then on the smugglers and the law officers are endlessly circling and sniffing each other. It's just that the chase speeds up sometimes, as in the celebrated car-train sequence.

In "Bullitt," two cars and two drivers were matched against each other at fairly equal odds. In Friedkin's chase, the cop has to weave through city traffic at 70 m.p.h. to keep up with a train that has a clear track: The odds are off-balance. And when the train's motorman dies and the train is without a driver, the chase gets even spookier: A man is matched against a machine that cannot understand risk or fear. This makes the chase psychologically more scary, in addition to everything it has going for it visually.

The movie was shot during a cold and gray New York winter, and it has a doomed, gritty look. The landscape is a waste land, and the characters are hardly alive. They move out of habit and compulsion, long after ordinary human feelings have lost the power to move them. Doyle himself is a bad cop, by ordinary standards; he harasses and brutalizes people, he is a racist, he endangers innocent people during the chase scene (which is a high-speed ego trip). But he survives. He wins, too, but that hardly matters. "The French Connection" is as amoral as its hero, as violent, as obsessed and as frightening.

The key to the chase is that it occurs in an ordinary time and place. No rules are suspended; Popeye's car is racing down streets where ordinary traffic and pedestrians can be found, and his desperation is such that we believe, at times, he is capable of running down bystanders just to win the contest. I had an opportunity at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1992 to analyze the sequence a shot at a time, using a stop-action laserdisc approach, at a seminar honoring the work of the cinematographer, Owen Roizman. He recalled the way the whole chase was painstakingly story-boarded and then broken down into shots that were possible and safe, even though actual locations were being employed. Lenses were chosen to play with distance, so that the car sometimes seemed closer to hazards than it was. But essentially, the chase looked real because its many different parts were real: A car threads through city streets, chasing an elevated train.

The other key element in the film, of course, is Hackman. He was already well known in 1971, after performances in such films as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Downhill Racer" and "I Never Sang for My Father." But it's probably "The French Connection" that launched his long career as a leading character sta r-- a man with the unique ability to make almost any dialogue plausible. As Popeye Doyle, he generated an almost frightening single-mindedness, a cold determination to win at all costs, which elevated the stakes in the story from a simple police cat-and-mouse chase into the acting-out of Popeye's pathology. The chase scene has, in a way, been a mixed blessing, distracting from the film's other qualities.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

How Technicolor changed movies...

Glorious Technicolor was much more than groundbreaking movie technology.

Updated by

You’ve probably heard about “glorious Technicolor” before. But Technicolor wasn’t just a groundbreaking technology — it was a powerful corporate influence in Hollywood and created an aesthetic that shaped the look of the 20th century.

Technicolor still exists today, but at its zenith, it was an inescapable part of the visual landscape. From Gone With The Wind to The Wizard of Oz, it shaped how our movies look. But, as the above video shows, that influence stretched far beyond technological trends.

If you want to learn more about Technicolor, visit The George Eastman Museum or Barbara Flueckiger’s fascinating website, which catalogs the many competing color technologies that emerged in the 1900s. Technicolor made the greatest impact, thanks to its revolutionary technology, staunch advocates like Technicolor supervisor Natalie Kalmus, and a look that was inimitable for decades.

You can find this video and all of Vox's videos on YouTube.

Friday, November 10, 2017

WHERE DOES TRUTH LIE: Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner"

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

In an earlier review of "Blade Runner," I wrote; "It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story." This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway. Even one character we can safely assume is human, the reptilian Tyrell, czar of the corporation which manufactures replicants, strikes me as a possible replicant. And of the hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), all we can say for sure is that director Ridley Scott has left clues in various versions of his film that can be used to prove that Deckard is a human -- or a replicant. 

Now study that paragraph again and notice I have committed a journalistic misdemeanor. I have referred to replicants without ever establishing what a replicant is. It is a tribute to the influence and reach of "Blade Runner" that 25 years after its release virtually everyone reading this knows about replicants. Reviews of "The Wizard of Oz" never define Munchkins, do they? This is a seminal film, building on older classics like "Metropolis" (1926) or "Things to Come," but establishing a pervasive view of the future that has influenced science fiction films ever since. Its key legacies are: Giant global corporations, environmental decay, overcrowding, technological progress at the top, poverty or slavery at the bottom -- and, curiously, almost always a film noir vision. Look at "Dark City," "Total Recall," "Brazil," "12 Monkeys" or "Gattaca" and you will see its progeny.

I have never quite embraced "Blade Runner," admiring it at arm's length, but now it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon. Ridley Scott has released a "definitive version" subtitled "Blade Runner: The Final Cut," which will go first to theaters and then be released Dec.18 in three DVD editions, including a "Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition" that includes, according to a press release, "All 4 Previous Cuts, Including the Ultra-Rare 'Workprint' Version!" plus the usual deleted scenes, documentaries, bells and whistles.

The biggest change Scott made in earlier versions was to drop the voice-over narration from the 1982 original. Spoken by Ford, channeling Philip Marlowe, it explained things on behalf of a studio nervous that we wouldn't understand the film. Since much of the interest in the film has been generated by what we weren't sure we understood, that turned out to be no problem. The ending has been tweaked from bleak to romantic to existential to an assortment of the above, and shots have come and gone, but for me the most important change in the 2007 version is in the print itself.

Scott has resisted the temptation to go back and replace analog special effects with new GCI work (which disturbed many fans of George Lucas' "Star Wars") and has kept Douglas Turnbull's virtuoso original special effects, while enhancing, restoring, cleaning and scrubbing both visuals and sound so the film reflects a higher technical standard than ever before. It looks so great, you're tempted to say the hell with the story, let's just watch it.

But the story benefits, too, by seeming more to inhabit its world than be laid on top of it. The action follows Deckard, a "blade runner" who is assigned to track down and kill six rebel replicants who have returned illegally from off-worlds to earth, and are thought to be in Los Angeles. (The movie never actually deals with more than five replicants, however, unless, as the critic Tim Dirks speculates, Deckard might be the sixth). Replicants, as you know, are androids who are "more human than human," manufactured to perform skilled slave labor on earth colonies. They are born fully formed, supplied with artificial memories of their "pasts," and set to break down after four years, because after that point they are so smart they have a tendency to develop human emotions and feelings and have the audacity to think of themselves as human. Next thing you know, they'll want the vote, and civil rights. Much of this comes from the original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Since replicants in general do not know they are replicants, there can be real poignancy in their lives. We feel sympathy for one in particular, Rachael (Sean Young), who finds herself involved in romance with Deckard. He loves her even though he has reason to believe she is a replicant, but a very good one, almost impossible to detect.

What I have always wondered is why the Tyrell Corporation made their androids so lifelike. Why not give them four arms and settle the matter, and get more work out of them? Is there a buried possibility that Tyrell's long-range plan is to replace humans altogether? Is the whole blade-running caper simply a cover for his scheme? But never mind. What matters to the viewer is that the ground rules seem to be in place, and apply in one of the most extraordinary worlds ever created in a film.

The skies are always dark with airborne filth in this Los Angeles of the future. It usually rains. The infrastructure looks a lot like now, except older and more crowded, and with the addition of vast floating zeppelins, individual flying cars, and towering buildings of unimaginable size. When I first saw the film I was impressed by the giant billboards with moving, speaking faces on them, touting Coca-Cola and other products. Now I walk over to Millennium Park and see giant faces looming above me, smiling, winking, and periodically spitting (but not Coke). As for the flying cars, these have been a staple of sci-fi magazine covers for decades, but remain wildly impractical and dangerous, unless locked into a control grid.

The "human story," as I think of it, involves practical tests to determine if an individual is a replicant or not, and impractical tests (such as love) to determine how much that matters to (a) people, if they are in love with a replicant, and (b) replicants, if they know they are replicants. This has always been a contrived problem, easily avoidable in practical ways, unless (as I suspect) the Tyrell Corporation has more up its sleeves than arms. But to stumble on plot logic seems absurd in a film that is more about vision. And I continue to find it fascinating how film noir, a genre born in the 1940s, has such a hammerlock on the future (look at "Dark City" again). I suspect film noir is so fruitful and suggestive that if you bring it on board, half your set and costume decisions have been made for you, and you know what your tone will be.

Ridley Scott is a considerable director who makes no small plans. His credits include "Alien," "Legend," the inexplicable "1492: Conquest Of Paradise," "Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down" and the brilliant "Matchstick Men," and his "American Gangster" opened Friday in theaters. He has the gift of making action on a vast scale seem comprehensible. I have been assured that my problems in the past with "Blade Runner" represent a failure of my own taste and imagination, but if the film was perfect, why has Sir Ridley continued to tinker with it, and now released his fifth version? I guess he's only... human.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The True Story of 'Hidden Figures' and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA

While telling the story of three unknown space heroes, Hidden Figures also reveals a greater truth about NASA.

Feb 3, 2017

There's a moment halfway into Hidden Figures when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn's upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford's response is dismissive—"There's no protocol for women attending." Johnson replies, "There's no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir."

The quote underlines this based-on-a-true-story movie. For NASA to get John Glenn into space and home safely, institutions that supported prejudices and biases needed to start tumbling down. All hands (and brains) had to be on deck.

Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film focuses on three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were part of NASA's team of human "computers." This was a group made up of mostly women who calculated by hand the complex equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and Glenn to travel safely to space. Through sheer tenacity, force of will, and intellect, they ensured their stamp on American history—even if their story has remained obscured from public view until now.

A Large Capacity for Tedium

Women working as so-called "human computers" dates back decades before space exploration. In the late 19th century, the Harvard College Observatory employed a group of women who collected, studied, and cataloged thousands of images of stars on glass plates. As chronicled in Dava Sobel's book The Glass Universe, these women were every bit as capable as men despite toiling under less-than-favorable conditions. Williamina Fleming, for instance, classified over 10,000 stars using a scheme she created and was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs. While working six-day weeks at a job demanding "a large capacity for tedium," they were still expected to uphold societal norms of being a good wife and mother.

In 1935, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA) hired five women to be their first computer pool at the Langley campus. "The women were meticulous and accurate... and they didn't have to pay them very much," NASA's historian Bill Barry says, explaining the NACA's decision. In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt looked to ensure the growth of the federal workforce. First he issued Executive Order 8802, which banned "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin" (though it does not include gender). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NACA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers.
While they did the same work as their white counterparts, African-American computers were paid less and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. They became known as the "West Computers." Despite having the same education, they had to retake college courses they had already passed and were often never considered for promotions or other jobs within NACA. Hidden Figures depicts this in a scene in which "computer" Mary Jackson is asked if she's want to be an engineer if she were a white man. Jackson responds, "I wouldn't have too. I would already be one."

Katherine Johnson, the movie's protagonist, was something of a child prodigy. Hailing from the small West Virginian town of White Sulphur Springs, she graduated from high school at 14 and the historically black West Virginia State University at 18. In 1938, as a graduate student, she became one of three students—and the only woman—to desegregate West Virginia's state college. In 1953, Johnson was hired by NACA and, five years later, NACA became NASA thanks to the Space Act of 1958.

The movie muddies the timeline a bit, but Johnson's first big NASA assignment was computing the trajectories for Alan Shepard's historic flight in 1961. Johnson and her team's job was to trace out in extreme detail Freedom 7's exact path from liftoff to splashdown. Since it was designed to be a ballistic flight—in that, it was like a bullet from a gun with a capsule going up and coming down in a big parabola—it was relatively simple in least in the context of what was to come. Nonetheless, it was a huge success and NASA immediately set their sights on America's first orbital mission.

The film primarily focuses on John Glenn's 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson's main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to "get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go."

While Johnson is the main character, Hidden Figures also follows the trajectories of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson as they work on the Friendship Seven blast-off. Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) was one of NACA's early computer hires during World War II. She became a leader and advocate for the "West Computers." In 1948, she became NACA's first black supervisor and, later, an expert FORTRAN programmer.

Despite these successes and her capability, she was constantly passed over for promotions herself. As Spencer tells Popular Mechanics, Vaughan struggled with the same things all female computers did while at NASA. "The conflict of working outside of the home to provide the best life for your children and, yet, not physically being there. But she knew she was changing the world."

While Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is also considered a "hidden figure," she certainly stood out during her time at NASA. After graduating with dual degrees in math and physical science, she was hired to work at Langley in 1951. After several years as a computer, Jackson took an assignment in assisting senior aeronautical research engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki and he encouraged her to become an engineer herself. To do that, however, she needed to take after-work graduate courses held at segregated Hampton High School. Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to be able to learn next to her white peers. She won, completed the courses, and was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA's first African-American female engineer—and, perhaps, the only one for much of her career.

John Glenn

While these three women's stories remain front and center, John Glenn's recent death makes this film particularly timely. Featured prominently, Glenn is depicted as a goal-oriented, joke-making, tension-cutting, folksy, equal opportunist. According to Barry, that's pretty much exactly how he was.

"Everybody thinks of John Glenn as this iconic war hero... and astronaut, but what's missed a lot is his humanity," says Berry, "Glenn was in a, classic sense, a gentleman. He was always concerned about the people around him and it didn't matter what package they were in. He was a real people person."

Barry also notes that there's an "easter egg" in the film that most people who aren't deep into NASA history will not catch. There's a short scene where Glenn is talking to reporters, and beside him there's a woman—Cece Bibby—painting the Friendship Seven logo onto the spacecraft. The true story is that NASA officials originally did not allow Bibby access to the launch pad, but Glenn intervened and insisted that his artist be allowed to do her job.

Another Day's Work

There's no way a two-hour movie could tell the full story of these women; Shetterly's book paints a much fuller picture. But Hidden Figures highlights NASA's (relatively) progressive attitude for the time, driven in large part by necessity. This happens literally in the film, when the head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) destroys the "colored ladies room" bathroom sign. As Shetterly says to Popular Mechanics, the movie also focuses on Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn's "transcendent sense of humanity" that allowed them to endure.

Johnson would go on to work on the Apollo program, too, including performing trajectory calculations that assisted the 1969 moon landing. She would retire from NASA in 1986. In 2015, President Obama gave Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last May, a NASA computational research facility in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia was named in Johnson's honor. And yet, despite the accolades and getting the Hollywood treatment, she told the audience in May that she was just doing her job and "it was just another day's work."

Sometimes changing the world is just that.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


By Roger Ebert

"Dog Day Afternoon" runs a little longer than the average feature, and you think maybe they could have cut an opening montage of life in New York. But no. These shots, stolen from reality, establish a bedrock for the film. It's "naturalistic," says the director, Sidney Lumet. I think he means it has the pace and feel of everyday life. When you begin with the story of a man who sticks up a bank to finance his lover's sex change, when you have a situation that has attracted hundreds of cops and millions of TV viewers, you run the risk of making a side show. "Dog Day Afternoon" never makes that mistake. The characters are all believable, sympathetic, convincing. We care for them. In a film about cops and robbers, there are no bad guys. Just people trying to get through a summer afternoon that has taken a strange turn.

It's an actor's picture. Lumet and his editor, Dede Allen, take the time to allow the actors to live within the characters; we forget we're watching performances. Although the movie contains tragedy and the potential for greater tragedy, it is also tremendously funny. But Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning screenplay never pauses for a laugh; the laughter grows organically out of people and situations. You can believe that even with hostages taken and firearms being waved around, such elements of human comedy would nevertheless arise.

One of the funny moments comes at the beginning, when three robbers enter a bank but one of them chickens out and says he can't go through with it. "Stevie," says his partner Sonny, "don't take the car." "But how am I gonna get home?" Stevie whines. Is that real? Yes, because you believe that Stevie would in fact have driven himself home and that Sonny (Al Pacino) would think of that.
Pacino has said the most memorable moment in the movie involves the delivery boy (Lionel Pina) who brings pizza to the robbers and their hostages. He's been watching the drama unfold on live TV, and when he's applauded by the crowd, he does a little skip and jump and says, "I'm a star!" 

Television turns the moment into what, at that time, was a fairly new event for live broadcasting. Sonny expands in the TV lights, strutting back and forth in front of the bank and unwisely exposing himself to rooftops lined with snipers. His remaining partner Sal (John Cazale), on the other hand, shrinks within himself. He can't believe he's a bank robber. He can't believe Sonny says he will kill people. He's offended that on TV, which has the facts a little confused, he's described as a homosexual. He can't believe he's expected to get on a jet with the others and fly to safety. He's never flown before. Asked to name a foreign country they can fly to, he says "Wyoming." The line was improvised on the spot by Cazale.

The movie take place almost entirely within a bank branch and the barbershop across the street, which becomes the police and FBI "command center." Back and forth Lumet's camera moves, on a shuttle of negotiations. The side view down the street in either direction shows their escape route, until it's blocked by a crowd that quickly forms and becomes a character in itself. At one point, making threats on the sidewalk, Pacino shouts "Attica," referring to the infamous massacre of prisoners in an upstate prison. "Attica!" the crowd shouts back, without prompting. They never see Sal, who is trembling, pale, sweaty, frightened. They respond to Sonny, first as a hero and then (when they find out he's gay) with jeers.

Sonny is gay, along with many other things. He is also a son whose mother mercilessly criticizes him, a husband and father whose wife (Judith Malina) won't let him get a word in edgewise. Asked why she didn't come to the bank when he asked for her, she explains on the phone, "I couldn't get a baby-sitter." She and her husband speak the same New York dialect. Denying that her husband could possibly have robbed a bank, she says: "He mighta done it, his body functions mighta done it, but he, himself, he didn't do it."

Sonny is many things and wants to be all things. The writer Pierson, unable to interview the robber in the real-life story, says he found the key for the character after being told Sonny was the kind of man "who would take care of you." He walks into the bank, waving the rifle but also saying, "I'm a Catholic and I don't want to hurt anyone, understand?" He listens when a teller has to use the toilet and is worried about the bank guard with asthma. He often says, "I'm dyin' here," because the problems of the tellers become his problems.

The most colorful of the tellers is their head, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), who cares for her "girls." Outside the bank and free to escape, she goes back inside: She's staying because she enjoys being the center of attention. "He don't have a plan," she says of Sonny. "It's all a whim." She may be right. Sal certainly has no idea what Sonny is capable of. In an interview on the disc of extras, I learned that Sonny met Sal in a Greenwich Village bar and didn't even really know him very well. We sense that when Sal starts trembling when he learns they'll leave the country by air. "You said if it went wrong, we'd kill ourselves!" he protests. He'd rather die than fly.

More than halfway through the picture, the other key character appears. This is Leon (Chris Sarandon), Sonny's lover. He is adamant: He certainly never asked Sonny to rob a bank to pay for his sex change. Brought into the barbershop and put on the phone with Sonny, he indirectly reveals his emotional inner life. He was in a mental institution. He and Sonny are drifting apart. He can't keep up with Sonny's emotional needs. He sits in the barbershop and talks to Sonny on the phone. This conversation was written as two monologues, Pierson says, and intercut into an exchange that essentially won Sarandon his supporting actor Oscar nomination. Throughout the film, neither man exhibits gay stereotypes. Leon is vulnerable and easily wounded, but not a drama queen. Pacino is matter of fact; in a scene when he dictates his last will to the bank manager (Sully Boyar), he says he loves Leon "more than any man ever loved any other man." He states this as a matter of fact; there's not a whisper of gay spin to it, and indeed even his wife and mother tacitly accept his bisexuality as simply the way he is.

The cops and FBI agents are instrumental to the film, but less fully developed than the people in the bank. Charles Durning plays the NYPD officer in charge, and James Broderick is the chief FBI agent. Neither one is given the kinds of plot elements that usually come with cops in hostage movies. They're unburdened by standard subplots (trouble at home, a conflict with a superior) and just do their jobs; afraid that a bloodbath will erupt, Durning actually runs at cops who won't holster their weapons. Both are matter of fact, direct, playing their roles right down the center. Many of Broderick's most essential moments come in reaction shots. They help demonstrate Lumet's naturalistic approach.

 Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker. His book on directing joins David Mamet's as two contrasting approaches to the subject, both written with clarity and conviction. Starting young by directing live TV, Lumet launched his big screen career with "12 Angry Men," based on one of his TV productions. His subjects have ranged widely; he clearly cares for the story above all else and doesn't specialize in genres or themes. If he's known for one aspect of his broad creative career, it is films about New York, including "The Pawnbroker," "Bye Bye Braverman," "Serpico" (also starring Pacino), "Q&A," "Network" and the suburban "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Here he has created a film made brilliant by its deeply seen characters, in a plot that could have obviously been cheapened and exploited but is always human and true.