Blade Runner (1982)

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Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a movie that asks what it means to be human. Like Frankenstein, mere mortals attempt to create life, but in the world this film invents, most other mortals don’t see this as an abominable thing as Mary Shelley’s characters do. The original theatrical release is still my favorite after the multiple director’s cuts that have been released over the years. I say that mostly because of Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration. It helps bring a classic 1940s film noir element to sci-fi that introduces us to Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckert as a detective just like those in film noir. But much more importantly it also lets us see that Rick values the lives of the genetically engineered beings known as replicants who resemble humans in every way except emotion.

While those around him call him the great blade runner and want to see him once again be the hero they thought he always he was for “retiring” replicants, in the narration he tells us that he sees himself, and blade runners in general, as killers. As in any police work, sometimes killing is necessary and unavoidable, but it’s killing all the same. The genetically engineered replicants aren’t treated as human by other police, but Rick sees things differently, more like a real police officer when forced to kill in the line of duty. Is that because he’s a replicant himself or just has a moral compass that nobody else in this future world has? Of course, people have debated this for 35 years and the movie never answers it. I hope Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t answer it either. Yet I think it’s the second.

Every character in Blade Runner either has a seared conscience, a seared emotional capacity, or both. Rick has no emotional capability when we first meet him, just like the replicants he’s hired to kill. But a new replicant model, Rachael (Sean Young), was made with implanted memories through which she was able to develop her own emotions. She also was made without the 4-year lifespan of all the replicants before her and without the knoweldge that she’s a replicant. Through Rachael, Rick begins to feel again, and they fall in love. Yet his respect for a replicant’s life began long before meeting Rachel though.

Back to that noir-esque narration. After hearing his boss give him his next orders and calling replicants by the derogatory term “skin jobs,” Rick tells us in the narration that his boss is the type of person that would have used the “n” word long ago. That tells us that he believes replicants are fully human. And all his actions throughout the movie continue to show that belief. Because he believes that, and because he respects human life unlike most people in this very dark vision of an amoral, violent future, he does his job much different than anyone would expect him to. During the intense and terrifying chase scenes between Rick and the great villain Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), we see Roy’s humanity. We see the humanity of the replicants he killed. We see the humanity of Rachel.

Rick believes that replicants are human from the beginning, but he doesn’t feel it and can’t express that belief in any tangible way because he’s not emotionally connected to his own conscience. It takes Rachael for him to learn to feel the truth behind what he believes. Thankfully the movie never tells us for sure if Rick is a replicant or not, because all we need to know for sure is that he is human and that he believes replicants are human. As he learns to feel what it means to be human and how to act on the moral beliefs already established in his character, we the audience are taken on our own moral journey in our very own world that parallels perfectly with the dark, futuristic world of Blade Runner. Not that we’re as hopeless and inhumane as the world in the movie, but we are pretty selfish and need to wrestle with the question of what it means to be human and how that relates to our selfishness. Our answers to that question determine the relationships between our consciences and our emotions. It determines how we live in relationship with others and what we’re willing to risk.

Concerning the lack of certainty of Rachael’s lifespan, Rick is told “too bad she’s gonna die, but then again who doesn’t?” He simply nods, and that nod shows us that he’s not going to waste any more time questioning her humanity or his own. He’s going live and he’s going to love even though he lives in a world that has no consideration for life or love. Blade Runner confronts our views of other people and urges us to reject the selfishness so abundant in our world.

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7th Heaven (1927)

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Along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and the first movie to ever with the Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s Wings comes another classic from the first great year for movies and very possibly the best year for movies to date. At the end of the silent era, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer but even though it was the first talky it barely mattered in comparison to the silent powerhouses of 1927.

Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven visually transports us to a seedy Paris neighborhood. The frankness of the subject matter is unparalleled for 1927 and for many years after as the Hayes Code would prevent intelligent portrayals of themes it found indecent for many years. Seventh Heaven is one of the movies that probably paved the way for the code but proves the silliness of it. The Hayes code did not like the topics of abuse, prostitution, and atheism, all of which are at the center of this beautiful film, but the topics are dealt in a way that demonstrates exactly what moral decency is, something that code could never dream of.

Chico likes to call himself “a very remarkable person.” But he work in a sewer, barely makes enough money to live on, desires to be married but has no prospects, and is not well liked by the people around him because his “very remarkable person” schtick is pretty much just cockiness. He claims to be an atheist, yet he blames God for his lot in life claiming that he is entitled to such much better since he is a “very remarkable person.”

He does do one very remarkable thing. He rescues a girl from a horrendous situation where she is physically abused by her sister and forced into prostitution. He saves her life and then regrets it because his good decision gets in the way of his own self-centered plans. He often encounters a priest who doesn’t do much preaching to him. He just helps Chico evaluates how he thinks. He helps Chico see that he isn’t really an atheist, and he confronts him with the truth that his problems are his own fault, not God’s. But he’s also not quite as selfish as he’s convinced himself, as he really does care for the girl who has inconveniently entered his life. Through this relationship, he’s constantly confronted with questions of how he sees himself and how he sees God.

What starts of as pity for her the girl makes him ask the big theological question of why good things happen to bad people. If God really exists (and Chico’s pretty convinced that he does, even though he says otherwise), then he must not care at all about this girl, and that he just let her be abandoned and abused. When she attempts suicide, he seems just as convinced as she does that there’s no real hope for her, that nobody cares, and all he comments on when he saves her is that he didn’t want her using his knife. But this pity and anger against God gradually changes as develops into one of the most romantic films ever made.

The relationship between Chico and Diane is the first kind of heaven Chico experiences. That’s what the title refers to. As he learns to respect the lives of others, he becomes able to love Diane and ultimately himself. 7th Heaven is a picture of a spiritual awakening that unfolds gradually, casually, and believably. It couldn’t be farther removed from the stories produced by Christian companies that shove transformation and religion in their viewers faces in ways that even the most devout Christians can’t take seriously (only people who approve of these films’ not-so-Christian evangelical propaganda fall for that insanity). It wrestles with the deep theological questions that plague all people at some point in their life. It never reaches for easy answers or tries to explain away the harsh realities of life with some canned false hope.

7th Heaven shows both a spiritual journey and a lovely romance. Both of these aspects of the film are life-affirming but based in reality. They give a picture of what the filmmakers think love is supposed to look like without ever minimizing its power that is often activated by grief and sacrifice. But they are never over-the-top. They are never in-your-face. 7th Heaven can be appreciated by people of all faiths or no faith. But just like the priest who works with Chico, it will leave everybody asking big questions that might just require some changes in life. And that is definitely a wonderful achievement that Frank Borzage reached in one of the greatest of all silent films.

The Full Monty (1997)

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Desperate times calls for desperate measures, so the adage goes. Peter Cattaneo’s little gem shows the results of this in a hilarious, sensitive, and extremely intelligent way.  The great British comedy made a surprising splash in America in 1997 making more money than any low-budget foreign film before it and receiving four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture at a time when there were only five Best Picture nominees, and comedies were hardly ever nominated.

Beginning with an actual news reel video advertising Sheffield as an economic powerhouse in England because of its steel mining, the rest of the movie shows how much Sheffield changed in the 25 years after that news reel. The characters we get to know are all men who are unemployed, underemployed, trying to adjust after being released from jail, socially marginalized, suicidal, or some combination of these characteristics.

Only from a movie out England could a crew like this be part of a comedy, and a very funny one. These men don’t just come together to make money, though that is a need for all of them. Though they don’t realize this until the end, they come together to learn from each other what it means to be men. Whether because of the states of their marriages and families, their difficulties finding or keeping work, their sexual identity, or their self-esteem, each one of these men sees his manhood as in crisis. That’s what spawns their crazy scheme.

The movie never attempts to depict stripping as anything other than degrading, regardless of the gender doing it. Because the men find themselves seeking the desperate measures that many women before them have, they learn what it means to be judged by their physical characteristics, to experience body shamming as it’s now called, and how much more difficult it can be for women than for many men to learn to respect themselves.

A strange and beautiful thing about The Full Monty is that it’s a feminist movie with all male heroes. They’re heroes because they grow as people, they become men, and they learn to respect women out of the desperation they endure and the degradation they subject themselves to. But because they come together and reach this goal together, they are forced to give up self-centeredness and wrong ideas they had been clinging to about what it means to be a man. Their eventual victory over their difficult circumstance doesn’t happen because they’re chippendale dancers who go “the full monty” (complete nudity), but because they join together, they learn to put each other’s interests ahead of their own and to work together as a team. Their success happens because none of them does it for himself but for each other and for their families.

Having said that, The Full Monty is not only one of the funnies movies ever made but also one of the most inspiring. Dustin Hoffman said about his performance in Tootsie that it made him a better man because he learned what it meant to endure the many hardships that women do. All the actors in The Full Monty went through that same type of journey. It shows in the movie because the changes in the characters flow so naturally, because the laughs and the emotions are never forced but come as the result of bringing viewers in right in the middle of that journey. The Full Monty is a smart, joyous, delightful experience that encourages all of us to make sure our lives are filled with others who we empathize with, share life with, and grow with, others who make us better people.

Easy Rider (1969)

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So we all know Billy and Wyatt start off on their journey with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack. But it’s what happens before that and another Steppenwolf song on the soundtrack that makes all of Dennis Hopper’s countercultural masterpiece work. They collect the drugs from their connection that they plan to make their fortune from. They talk about getting to New Orleans in time for Mardis Gras, where they will make their money. They get on their bikes and we hear Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher.”

The song is used as kind of a prayer, very literally asking God to damn the pusher, and this is exactly what we see unfold in the rest of the movie. We see the results of their greed and their willingness to use people for their own gain without any regard for human life. “You know I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ ’round with tombstones in their eyes, but the pusher don’t care if you live or die.” Every time Billy and Wyatt get off their bikes, we see this disregard in new, more profound ways until in the end the “prayer” is answered.

Along with playing Billy, Dennis Hopper also directed Easy Rider. He and Peter Fonda, who played Wyatt, co-wrote the screenplay. But the story unfolds so naturally, just following them on their bikes, encountering different people, that it would feel more like a travelogue than a movie if it weren’t for the opening with “The Pusher.” The two arranged everything we see in this remarkably strange and brilliant film in a way that is actually a lot like several of the psalms of the Bible. A prayer for vindication against enemies is followed with praise to God for his justice. Throughout Easy Rider, we see the results of an evil that is harming and killing many people and eventually something that looks very much like the divine justice expected in those prayers of the Psalms.

Billy and Wyatt talk a lot about freedom as they hang out with hippies and to some degree see themselves as hippies. But they’re not interested in the communal hippy lifestyle. They have their own countercultural movement that loves drugs and the idea of freedom just as much as the hippy movement did, but their idea of freedom is built on hypocrisy. The more money they get the more free they are, but of course that means that the more free they are, the more bound other people become since they have to get new people hooked on new drugs in order to reach the freedom they’re looking for. They hate corporate America because it’s too scared of freedom and wants to keep people bound, because it’s only interested in its own monetary gain at the expense of all other people. Yet they refuse to admit that their behavior is exactly the same. They refuse to admit it, that is, until they’ve just about made all they’re money. They think they’ve accomplished the point of their trip and are about to get all the money they need to make them free when Wyatt very randomly responds to Billy’s bragging about their gain by saying “Billy, we blew it.” This movie’s most famous line is an admission of hypocrisy, greed, and all types of evil that makes the way for a perfect conclusion to everything that started when they got on their bikes and headed to New Orleans while we listened to “The Pusher.”

 

 

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?

 

Other Alfred Hitchcock films I’ve reviewed: Notorious (1946) Psycho (1960); Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942)