Now, the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.
The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, a film that deals candidly with the subject of drug addiction, was denied the Production Code’s Seal of Approval upon its initial release. The year was 1955, and the Code still viewed drug addiction as a taboo subject for a feature film. Quite surprisingly, the Production Code stood alone on this one; even the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency gave The Man with the Golden Arm a passing grade. Bolstered by the Legion’s support, the producers decided to go ahead and distribute the film, marking the first time a major studio production was released nationally without the Production Code’s Seal of Approval.
Based on the novel by Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm tells the story of Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), a former heroin addict who’s just returned home from a stint at rehab. Having beaten his addiction, Frankie is determined to start his life over again, hoping to finally realize his lifelong dream of becoming a jazz drummer. But the pressure Frankie feels from those around him, including his wheelchair-bound wife, Zosch (Eleanor Parker), threaten to drive him back to his old ways. Only Molly (Kim Novak), a former sweetheart, supports Frankie through this troubling time, and works hard to keep him from drifting back to his addictions.
I’ve always been a fan of Frank Sinatra as an actor. He was not only excellent in films like From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate, but also managed to shine brightly in a handful of smaller movies, such as 1954’s Suddenly. What struck me most while watching Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm was that he never rushed his performance. Frankie’s fall happens very methodically, so much so that it’s initially quite difficult to even spot a difference in his behavior. Ultimately, the only way to tell that he’s back on ‘the fix’ is the look in his eyes. Several times, director Preminger focuses his camera right on Sinatra’s eyes, giving us a first-hand account of the effect that the drugs were having on Frankie. Once the drugs start up again, however, it doesn’t take long for Frankie to get completely hooked. All at once, he transforms from a former addict who felt he could control the occasional fix into a junkie who loses total control of himself.
Due in part to their experience with The Man with the Golden Arm, the Production Code updated their strict regulations the following year, approving changes that would allow the sensible depiction of, among other things, drug addiction and prostitution. As the Production Code was forced to realize, Post-War America was facing a bitter struggle with its own identity, and a multitude of social problems were finding their way into the public consciousness. Times were tough, and it was high time for films to reflect this reality. With The Man with the Golden Arm as a starting point, Hollywood would never be quite the same again.
British author Horace Walpole once said, “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think”. For comedian Lenny Bruce, whose career was plagued by censorship, legal battles and drug addictions, there was no differentiating between the two. In him, comedy and tragedy existed as one.
Based on Julian Barry’s Broadway play, Bob Fosse’s Lenny is the story of Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), perhaps the single most influential stand-up comedian of his, or any other, generation. Employing humor that was considered too controversial for early 1960’s America, Bruce was arrested numerous times for lewdness and obscenity, occasionally being led off stage in handcuffs before his act was even finished. Yet Lenny gives us not only Bruce’s legal struggles, but his personal skirmishes as well, many of which stemmed from his turbulent marriage to Honey (Valerie Perrine). Both would play a part in Bruce’s eventual downfall, culminating in his death by drug overdose in 1966.
In Lenny (which sets a perfect tone with its black and white photography), we’re given both sides of Lenny Bruce: the sharp, observant comic who challenged the status quo every chance he got, and the sad, depressed man who became a victim of his own excesses. We witness his brilliance on-stage, with observations that were as funny as they were poignant. One of his favorite subjects to explore was society’s uptight reaction to certain words, which would culminate with the legal battles he faced as a result of his words. For Lenny, words were precious; they were the tools he used to shake up the world, and the more explosive his words were, the more people sat up and took notice. Unfortunately, the law noticed as well, leading to numerous arrests in cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. Before long, Lenny Bruce was defending his words in open court, and using as many of them as he could to plead his case.
This story alone would make a great film, but what makes Lenny all the more insightful is that it goes beyond the drama of stage and courtroom to the tragedy playing out behind closed doors. In so doing, we see another side of Lenny Bruce, whose private life was just as volatile as his professional one. Bruce meets future wife Honey while working as a comic in a Baltimore strip club, where she herself is the main attraction. Eventually, the couple moves to California, where they begin experimenting with a variety of drugs, resulting in long-term addictions for both of them. Years later, Honey, looking back on her days with Lenny, tried to sum up her husband’s actions with one word: Insecurity. “He had to prove himself”, Honey says, and in defining his behavior, Honey also managed to sum up his entire life. Whether on stage or off, Lenny Bruce always had something to prove.
Yet it was Lenny Bruce himself who provided the perfect epitaph for his life, saying his entire act owed its very essence to “the existence of segregation, violence, despair, disease and injustice”. By attacking such issues at a time when nobody else was doing so, and in a way nobody else dared, Lenny Bruce captured the attention of the entire world. In the end, it proved more than he could handle.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired thief. Having done his time in London’s criminal underbelly, which included serving a nine-year prison term, he has now retired to a villa on the Spanish coast, where he spends his days in the company of the love of his life, former porn star DeeDee (Amanda Redmon). Despite the fact that a runaway boulder has just damaged his swimming pool, Gal really can’t complain. For him, life is pretty damn good.
While out to dinner one night with good friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White), Gal is given some disturbing news: an old acquaintance from his days in London has just called Jackie, and is coming to Spain to ask for Gal’s help with a new heist. No worries, Gal tells them. He’s retired now, and has no plans to return to his former life of crime. But that’s not the problem. The real concern arises from who it was who called, and who it is whose coming to Spain the next day. With terror in her eyes, Jackie tells Gal that the call came from Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley). All at once, the table grows silent. Gal tries to shrug the news off by ordering a plate of calamari, but he is visibly nervous. Don Logan is coming to Spain to see him.
Shit. Don Logan.
This is a great scene from director Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, and it works to perfection. At this point, we the audience have no idea who this Don Logan is, yet judging from the faces of Gal and his companions, he’s obviously someone you don’t want to mess with. Still, what’s the big deal? After all, how bad can Don Logan really be? The next morning, he flies in. We meet him. We watch him interact with Gal and the others. After three minutes, our question of “how bad can it be” is answered.
Pretty damn bad!
Don Logan is like no film character I’ve ever seen. This is a man with no fear. None. He is arrogant, angry, sharp-tongued and violent. To borrow a quote from Denzel Washington in Training Day, King Kong ain’t got shit on Don Logan.
Sir Ben Kingsley is a tremendous actor, one who’s played some of the cinema’s most sympathetic characters. He was wonderful as Itzhak Stern, the man who helped Oskar Schindler save over a thousand Jews from the Nazi ovens in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In fact, Kingsley’s first major film role was the title character in Richard Attenborough’s award-winning epic, Gandhi, a man who abhorred violence. Well, with Don Logan, it seems the great actor is equally at-home playing pricks as he is at playing saints. Kingsley completely disappears behind the wild, volatile eyes of Don Logan, building his character by way of sneers and insults. It’s an incredible performance.
When I think back on all of the movie villains I’ve hated in my life, I’m reminded of characters like Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance in a film of the same name, Stephen Boyd’s Messala in Ben-Hur, and Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. These were detestable characters, to be sure, and now I can add Don Logan to that list. A vile, despicable man with no redeeming qualities, I dare you to like anything about Don Logan.