Compulsion (1959)

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Artie (Bradford Dillman) is compelled by dangerous, violent, and perverse whims. Judd (Dean Stockwell) is compelled by Artie. Whatever Artie desires becomes Judd’s goals. Artie has gained so much power over Judd that it’s as if he thinks for him and controls his actions. This makes for a very deadly pair. Artie may think for Judd but his conscience has been completely seared and his emotions have become completely numb. So Judd is left feeling for himself, feeling his own feelings while someone else thinks for him. Because of this, though they’re a deadly pair, they’re not unstoppable. Judd’s fears, hurts, and occasional lapses of conscience hinder Artie’s desire for a completely amoral existence, and it’s also those things that Judd possesses but Artie doesn’t that eventually gets them caught.

Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion is a fictionalized version of a real murder case. The first half of the movie follows the criminal partners. It takes us deeply into Artie’s own world where morality doesn’t really exist and all that matters is what he thinks he wants at any given moment. It takes us even deeper into Judd’s process of being brainwashed into acceptance of and submission to Artie’s beliefs. As he falls deeper in compulsion to Artie’s thinking, he becomes Artie’s pawn, fulfilling Artie’s every demand. Judd does all of Artie’s dirty work until he has one of those lapses of conscience, but after each one he always quickly re-submits to Artie’s massive hold on him.

Artie and Judd are both law school students who have determined themselves above the law. One of their fellow students is suspicious of the viewpoints they express in class but not to the degree that he expected they were capable of the crimes they had already committed. This student is dating a girl who develops feelings for Judd. She has difficulty expressing or even knowing for sure if they are romantic feelings or intense sympathy for Judd. She doesn’t recognize Artie as the source of the problem, but she recognizes that he is in need and not always in control of his actions.

The second half of the movie takes us into the murder trial. The lawyer uses the girl’s sympathy for Judd as the only hope to evoke that same sympathy in the judge who had the power to sentence both boys to death. Orson Welles is credited first in the movie, though he doesn’t show up until the second half, kind of like The Third Man. He plays the boys’ attorney. He knows they’re guilty. He has no evidence to work with to make any kind of plea for them other than a guilty plea with a life sentence. He has successfully prevented previous clients from getting a death sentence, and the second half of the movie hangs entirely on the question of whether or not they will be sentenced to death.

Compulsion is as believable and as gritty as any movie about violent crime could be in 1959. It never softens the reality of what the murderers have done. It allows us to feel the weight of their destruction. We are to feel whatever portion of the victims’ terror, grief, and trauma is possible, never for a second minimizing their suffering. But first through the girl who felt sorry for Judd and secondly through the lawyer, Compulsion also asks us to feel sympathy for the perpetrators. The lawyer’s closing argument is not so much a plea for his clients as it is a very persuasive argument against the death penalty. Wherever we might land on our convictions about that issue, the movie is helps us navigate our own thoughts and beliefs about justice, about the rights (or lack of rights) of criminals, and about the value of all human life. It asks big questions that it’s not willing to answer. We have to make up our own minds, but the movie helps us to weigh both sides of the debate very thoroughly.

12 Angry Men (1957)

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Currently ranked at #5 on IMDB’s list of top 250 films according to its viewers, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is beloved for its inspiring portrayal of justice defeating racial injustice and the ideals of the American justice system (innocent until proven guilty, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.). 12 Angry Men is actually even more than these admirable qualities. Because it’s set entirely during the jury’s deliberation, we see plenty of details of the case but all second-hand through the jurors. The movie is about the jurors, not the case or the defendant, as the title says. And being about these jurors, it is also a movie about anger.

12 different types of anger are presented through the 12 angry men. Each juror’s thinking process is influenced, maybe even controlled, by the type of anger prominent for him. The juror played by Ed Begley is controlled by his hateful anger that always refers to the defendant with phrases like “one of those people,” revealing prejudicial anger toward an entire people group that has no basis in reality. The juror played by E.G. Marshall expresses a self-righteous anger, so in love with being right that his anger manifests itself in a suspicious antagonism against anyone who disagrees with him but never in a mad, violent way like Eg Begley’s character. The juror played by Robert Weber shows a passive aggressive type of anger that tries to soften everything with jokes but at the same time uses his humor as a weapon to try to get his way showing his own anger against anyone who tries to upset the way he sees the world. The juror played by Jack Warden has the most selfish anger of the bunch, throwing childish fits whenever it looks like deliberation could prevents his plan of going to the Yankees game later in the day.

The juror played by Lee J. Cobb has the most violent outbursts of any juror in the movie. His character is also the one most developed. His anger works against him and is more effective at changing votes from guilty to not guilty than Henry Fonda’s direct attempts to do that. We learn that his anger is mostly against himself, and he takes that anger out on the defendant who reminds him his son. His anger, like all the others I’ve mentioned, threatens to stand in the way of justice being accomplished. They hinder justice because their anger hinders them from sound thinking and judgment. They’re all so bound by their prejudices and selfish ambitions that they’re unable to clearly see the facts they’re presented with.

The other jurors are all more open-minded than the others. Even though 11 initially vote guilty, the others are willing to listen to the juror played by Henry Fonda when he shares what he believes to be plenty of reasonable doubts in favor of the defendant. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any less angry than the jurors I’ve already mentioned. These all have types of anger that enhance their abilities to think well, to feel for other people, and  to do the jobs they’re there to do. Because of the relationship between anger and thinking, 12 Angry Men is just as much about critical thinking as it is about justice.

One is motivated by the anger related to his own childhood similar to that of the defendant. This anger motivates him towards beliefs that no one should have to grow up that way, it motivates him towards sympathy with the defendant, and it will not stand for the ignorance spouted by the other jurors. Another juror’s anger is about being an old man who feels ignored and disrespected. When a few of the jurors blatantly disregard him, that anger motivates him to stand up for himself and for those who are at that point in the minority in favor of acquittal. I could go on like this for all of them, but I will stop here.

Yes, that means I’m not going to talk about Henry Fonda’s anger, but that’s just because his is the easiest, he’s angry at injustice. He’s the reason the movie is so well loved, because he is the center of the movie’s view of justice. That’s great and reason enough for the movie to be as well loved as it is. There’s just a lot more to the anger than anyone ever seems to talk about, and I think it’s about time we listen to the title of the movie and learn from it, because the movie is a profound portrayal of both healthy vs. unhealthy anger. Anger affects our thinking whether for good or for bad, and this movie is about the necessity to check ourselves and our anger, is it serving our thinking as it does for the jurors I mentioned last, or is our thinking serving it like those I mentioned first?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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Shadow of a Doubt is one of the prime reasons Alfred Hitchock is considered the “master of suspense.” It’s odd, though, because the movie is an anti-mystery. In the opening scene we hear the “Merry Widow Waltz” being played and we see Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) acting very cagey as he avoids two men coming to see him. It only takes a few minutes for the viewers to realize that Charles is the merry widow murderer. This knowledge never prevents the movie from being suspenseful, because all that matters for the suspense is that his niece Charlie Oakley (Theresa Wright) doesn’t know what we know.

Charlie idolizes her uncle. I don’t mean that in a normal, healthy way that many kids and teens look up to elders as role models. I mean that she believes the world revolves around her uncle. When she experiences a crisis, she thinks that he is the only one who can make things right. She has expectations of him that no person could live up to. When she thinks her family is stuck in a rut, she turns to him assuming that he can single-handedly get them out and bring new life to the family. She has very literally made him her idol.

Charlie’s sick beliefs about her uncle were inherited from her mother Emma who is played by Patricia Collinge with so much vulnerability, compassion, tenderness, and naive trust, that we can see how her life has been shaped by her devotion to her brother and that when others say that an investigation on Charles for murder would kill her, we believe it. Emma made sure that Charlie, her first child, was named after her beloved brother. She made sure that her daughter’s life was as shaped by her idolatry of her brother as her own has been.

Charlie is a teenager and hasn’t had the time to become quite as overcome by Charles’ deception as her mother has, but she’s definitely blinded to the possibility that he has committed unspeakable evils. After repeated viewings of Shadow of a Doubt, it becomes obvious that those who do not know Charles, including Charlie’s much-younger siblings, have a lot of suspicion about Charles when he comes to “visit” (he’s actually hiding and plotting his next murder/robbery). Charlie is a very smart girl, much smarter than some of the characters who had instant suspicion that turned out to be right. The movie shows how when deception takes over in people’s lives, smart people can believe very stupid things. This was the case with her mother for years, and has become the case for Charlie throughout her whole life.

Uncle Charles’ visit includes many twists and turns where he wonders how much Charlie knows. Her life depends on how she handles the information she discovers. The suspense in the movie comes from whether or not she will be willing to face the truth as she is confronted with it that shakes the core of who she is. If she’s willing to face it, it means her own life is at risk. If she’s not willing to face it, it means many other lives are at risk.

Joseph Cotten plays the villain with such a cold, calculated demeanor that a smile or a look from him can be terrifying. He represents all the things we believe in life that are not as they seem. The character is written in such a way to reflect the reality that when trust is misplaced, the results are always disappointing and sometimes devastating for the one who chose to trust the one unworthy. Because of the idolatry shown of two family members toward Charles, there is a strong spiritual dimension to that theme of trust. As Charlie learns the truth about her uncle, she is faced with the choice of whether she will renounce her worship of him and treat him as the murderous criminal he is by cooperating the police or protect him, refusing to let go of her nearly-divine opinion of him. Whether she will be a hero, a victim, or a co-conspiriator in her uncle’s crimes is the question we ask throughout the movie. So much for every character depends on Charlie’s decisions. All the suspense that Hitchcock brought so brilliantly depends on this question. Is Charlie too completely lost in her idolatry of her uncle to help others, or does she still have enough conscience to make sure that his next plans do not succeed?

 

Also directed by Hitchcock: Psycho (1960); Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942)

M (1931)

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Fritz Lang’s M is probably the greatest inspiration to all all horror films from 1931 forward. With cinematography that highlights shadows, sound that follows its villain’s every footstep, and an eery signature to know that the villain is about to pursue (for M, that signature is Peter Lorre’s whistling of Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King”), all the makings of a horror film began here.

But, strangely enough, M is not a horror movie. It founded many of the techniques that are musts in horror movies, yet its purpose is not to incite fear. But it is about fear. It’s about the inner life and the actions of a terrorist. The word “terrorist” is a strange one since it doesn’t convey murder but we always use it to refer to people who commit or attempt murder. A terrorist is not just a murderer, but a person who wants to control a large group of people through fear. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre’s character) is a terrorist.

We see the results of Hans’ terrorism before we ever see him. The opening scene of M shows a group of small children playing a game where they chant “The man in black is coming soon to chop you up.” A mother tries to stop them, gripped by her own fear for her children, but another mother tells her to leave them alone because as long as the kids are singing, they know they’re ok. We see that Hans has been effective in controlling the whole community by fear.

Police officials fight over how to find the murderer. They’re in pursuit of their own control. They don’t mind so much that the community is overcome by fear, so long as they can be the heroes that bring the murder to justice. There’s no need to try to bring the community together after the tragedies it has endured as far as the police department is concerned. But they don’t have much of a chance of finding him when all they do is fight amongst each other, constantly compromising their investigation.

The rest of the town, left to themselves in fear and anger, are ready for vengeance. They’re so naturally overcome by the fear and anger that results from terrorism that they’re liable to commit their own injustice, so ready and willing to kill the killer that they could very easily condemn the wrong person. The division between the local authorities and the public creates so much confusion that the clear clues given to the audience are missed by the characters even though they should be obvious.

There’s no good news in M. It’s one of the bleakest films ever made, but that bleakness is more because of the community’s reaction and division resulting from the murders even than from the murders themselves. There is a strong message behind the bleakness that a choice always exists in desperate times of trauma, grief, and the effects of terrorism. The choice is for people to unify through shared values to heal where necessary and even to make a positive impact together or to divide, letting fear, anger, and the terrorists win. Of course there’s no choice over whether people experience terrorism and the fear and anger that go along with it, but how they relate to the other people that experience it with them makes a great difference in the future of communities gripped by any type of terrorism. has no good news in it because its characters choose division, but watching M we can still find good news in knowing there is a better choice available with much better outcomes.

Captains Courageous (1937)

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Some of the most bizarre “news” from the White House was published last week, informing us that our president gets two scoops of ice cream while each member of his staff gets only one. Of course nobody should be surprised to hear of more evidence that Donald Trump has the mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual constitution of a 10-year-old bully, but it it surprising to me just me how much he is like Harvey, the 10-year-old played by Freddie Bartholomew in Victor Fleming’s wonderful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous.

Harvey demands his way and is successful enough in his entitled manipulation to usually get his way no matter how much distress it causes others. He stays successful in his narcissistic ventures because of his money. As long as he’s given lots of money, he believes he can buy his way to anything he wants, and he often does. He bribes, he tricks, he schemes. He always has to be right, best, first. Sounds very familiar, right?

The good thing about 10-years, as opposed to a 70-year-old president, is that they are impressionable. Harvey was as unlikable as any child could be. As a result of one of his schemes to try to prove himself superior to others, he accidentally goes overboard on a cruise ship. He is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman named Manuel played by Spencer Tracy in the best performance of his career. Harvey is the way he is because nobody ever taught him differently or modeled anything different for him. His mother died when he was an infant, and his father left him with lots of money while attending to his business matters. The private school he went to didn’t know what to do with him as nobody there was capable of fulfilling the parental roles he needed most. But then came Manuel.

Manuel was the first person to recognize Harvey for what he was (spoiled, entitled, obnoxious, and completely lost within a world all his own where he could buy his way into or our of anything) and to treat him accordingly. This is exactly what Harvey needed and what helped him become a decent human being. Manuel is quickly and easily annoyed by Harvey as anyone would be, but this doesn’t stop him from loving Harvey. He becomes the father Harvey needs. He shows Harvey how to live in reality, how to work for what he needs and what he wants, and how to find real contentment. He demonstrates both his own contentment and Harvey’s lack of contentment in how he loves people, in how he works, in his deep passion for fishing, music, and other things that Harvey doesn’t understand. Most of all, he shows this contentment in how he communicates his faith in and love for God to Harvey. The Christianity lived in Captains Courageous is never the cheesy, lifeless, self-centered so-called Christianity of the TBN/Joel Osteen variety that has more in common with Harvey (before Manuel) and Mr. Trump than with Manuel. It is a life of sacrifice and suffering mixed with great joy and hope that make the sacrifice and suffering worthwhile. It is what allows Harvey accept love, to give love, and to become a good person.

Also directed by Victor Fleming: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Rome, Open City (1945)

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Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City shows the darkest possible side of doing what is right and heroism. The film is arranged in two separate acts, both about lives effected by the 1944 Nazi invasion of Rome. The first tells the story of Pina (Anna Magnani), a pregnant woman joined closely with the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), to protect Italian resisters of Nazi occupation. We are taken into the depths of their passions for the people suffering around them and of their own hurts. They suffer much and are faced with many temptations to risk other peoples’ lives for the security of their own, but they both continue to fight, to suffer, and to sacrifice for others regardless of the cost to themselves.

The second act continues the story of Father Pellegrini but this time closer to the trenches. He and Giorgio (Marcello Palgiero) are detained by the Nazis, and again each one is faced with the choice of betraying his own friend to free himself or continuing to experience the torture that they’re enduring and that they know could kill them. We see the brutality of the torture in surprisingly graphic detail for a 1945 film. In fact, in makes the torture in Zero Dark Thirty look fairly tame.

Watching Rome, Open City can fell almost like an act of torture itself, because it is so unrelenting in telling us the truth about what it was like to attempt to resist the Nazis in their situation. Torturous, yes, but it is nevertheless gratifying. It is so because we see what true heroism is. We watch people willing to sacrifice and to give their own lives for others. Seeing the horrible things that happened before our faces confronts us and forces us to ask ourselves how we would respond in such situations. It shows what it looks like for love to conquer hate, even when by all accounts it appears that hate is winning. Father Pellegrini lives his faith in God and his love for humanity in every scene of the movie. He spreads that to the other people in the movie, especially his main partner in resistance for each act. We get to see what it means to live out a life of faith and love in circumstances that couldn’t be more hostile to faith and love.

Rome, Open City is one of the great examples of the Italian neorealism movement that directors Vittorio De Sica and Luchiano Visconti are best known for. Rossellini holds little back, taking us right in the midst of torment and evil. But because his three main characters so faithfully resist that evil, we see hope that even in the most violent of situations in the world, there are always people successfully fighting against that evil. The movie encourages that type of resistance and helps motivate us to join it wherever we see injustice, regardless of any potential outcome that will be harmful to ourselves.

The Killing (1956)

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Stanley Kubrick’s first great film The Killing is one of the most intricately detailed crime films ever made. From how the gang is formed to the plan and from the crime to the multiple getaway plans, we see everything almost second by second. The timing of everything is shown with so much precision it almost feels like a documentary. Kubrick’s style in The Killing was followed in many later crime films, especially some of the great ones in the 70s like The StingDog Day Afternoon and All the President’s Men.

While the gang is being formed, we get to know the characters individually and their family lives. Most interesting is George Peatty (Elisha Cook) who is emotionally abused and emasculated by his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor). George is co-dependent and takes the abuse, going to desperate lengths to try to make her love him. This type of sick marriage is so common, but this is the only movie I know of that directly and honestly portrays a woman being blatantly abusive to her husband.

George assumes that his wife is dissatisfied because she’s not getting the amount of money out of him that she expected. He’s right about that, but he also thinks that if he can make his “killing,” that her attitude and behavior will change and they can have a decent marriage. He’s wrong about that, but it’s the reason he agrees to take part in the robbery planned by the gang.  Yet we know he’s wrong when he doesn’t because he can’t see how manipulative she is when she tries to get information out of him about the plan. She has no problem with his criminal activity as long as she’ll be the one to get the money and not him.

We know this double-cross is happening in the first ten minutes of the movie, but watching it unfold is as intense and thrilling as just about any movie could be. Then there’s the robbery itself at a racetrack. Seeing each of the six gangsters isolated in his own role in the scheme brings that same intensity. Then we have six getaways. The Killing is always to interested in the details of the crime to get caught up in pointless chase scenes. The action that the movie does have is plot-driven and necessary to the tension already created, not just thrown in Bond-style to become the excitement and an excuse for a boring story. The excitement of The Killing is entirely because of its perfectly crafted intricate screenplay with unique believable characters that are all played to a minimalistic effect, keeping every scene intimate and realistic.

 

Also directed by Stanley Kubrick2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)