Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)

January 19, 2018 (Sundance), June 22, 2018, release dates
Directed by Ben Lewin
Screenplay by Robert Rodat
Based on the book The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff
Music by Howard Shore
Edited by Mark Yoshikawa
Cinematography by Andrij Parekh

Paul Rudd as Moe Berg
Mark Strong as Werner Heisenberg
Sienna Miller as Estella Huni
Jeff Daniels as Bill Donovan
Tom Wilkinson as Paul Scherrer
Giancarlo Giannini as Professor Edoardo Amaldi
Hiroyuki Sanada as Isao Kawabata
Guy Pearce as Robert Furman
Paul Giamatti as Samuel Goudsmit
Connie Nielsen as Koranda
Shea Whigham as Joe Cronin
William Hope as John Kieran
John Schwab as Lefty Grove
Pierfrancesco Favino as Martinuzzi

Distributed by IFC Films
Produced by Animus Films, Serena Films, Palmstar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Productions, Filmnation Entertainment

I was intrigued by The Catcher Was a Spy for many reasons when I first heard about it: Paul Rudd starring in a dramatic role, World War II espionage, a former Boston Red Sox baseball player turned wartime spy. What’s not to like?

The film is based on a nonfiction book by Nicholas Dawidoff, which is a fact-based examination of Moe Berg’s life. The film is a fictionalized account that gives viewers a quick glimpse into Berg’s days playing catcher with the Boston Red Sox and then spends most of its on-screen time concentrating on Berg’s spying for the Allied powers, specifically for the U.S. Office of Special Services (OSS), in Europe during World War II.

(This blog post about The Catcher Was a Spy contains spoilers.)

I enjoyed the laying out of the plot and the examination of Moe Berg’s personality in the film, although I understand that the film is much more kind to Berg than is the book. For example, the book (which I have not read) explains that Berg became something of a loafer and a ne’er-do-well after the war. For me, however, that makes him perfect for the world of espionage and intrigue, perfect for a shadowy, noirish world. The film also apparently lends more credence to the idea that Moe Berg was gay.

For more details about the book on which The Catcher Was a Spy is based, click here.

The film opens with the following white type on a black background:
In 1938, German scientists split the atom for the first time and the nuclear age was born.
The Nazis gave the task of building an atomic bomb to Nobel Prize–winning physicist Werner Heisenberg.
In response, the U.S. government sent a Jewish baseball player to assassinate him.
His name was Morris “Moe” Berg.
Based on a true story.
Then the black and the type fade to out-of-focus city lights, which come into focus with two men, whose backs are to the camera, walking down a cobblestone street. It is nighttime, but the streetlights give a soft yellow glow to the scene. More type tells viewers that this is Zurich, Switzerland, in December 1944. Viewers see one of the men cock a handgun, then walk away into the background on the cobblestone street, with the other man watching him from the foreground. As the man with the gun makes his way down the cobblestone street, the film’s title appears over him.

This shot reminded me so much of the front covers of pulp novels, and, of course, so many classic films noir are based on pulp novels. I don’t know if the director intended it to be, but I thought the opening of The Catcher Was a Spy was an homage to the films noir and spy films from the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, several plot details reminded me of specific films noir, for example:
O.S.S. (1946), starring Alan Ladd
Cloak and Dagger (1946), starring Gary Cooper
Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950), starring Alan Ladd
There are probably several more films with similar narratives, but these are the films that I have already seen.

A good part of The Catcher Was a Spy uses that soft yellow light from the film’s opening, the light that mimics the aura of streetlights. I remember noticing its use while watching the film, and I thought it worked well. Afterward, while taking screenshots to use in this post, I wondered if the technique might have been overused. Of course, most people watching the film will probably never take a screenshot and never notice this effect, and I don’t think I would have noticed how much it was used if I hadn’t taken the screenshots. It does make me wonder if the director and the cinematographer used the yellow lighting to soften and “age” the film a bit, something like adding sepia tint to photographs to make them appear older than they are.

Many online reviewers weren’t very enthusiastic about the film or about Paul Rudd’s performance, but I enjoyed The Catcher Was a Spy even more than I thought I would. And I thought Paul Rudd was great in the role of Moe Berg. I’m so used to seeing him in comedies that it was a welcome surprise to see him in something so different. This film shows that he can handle dramatic roles, too.

The most fun part of watching The Catcher Was a Spy was that it transported me back into the black-and-white world of film noir. If it had been filmed in black and white, I might have mistaken it for a film noir from the 1940s. The sets, the costumes, the level of intrigue—all of it worked. It’s a good old-fashioned story, with tension that slowly builds until the climactic scene. I had no idea what Moe Berg was going to do once he arrived in Zurich or what he would do once he found Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who might or might not be working with the Nazis to build an atomic bomb. And because I had not read the book by Nicholas Dawidoff, I wasn’t even sure if Moe Berg would survive his assignment.

I always enjoy a story, whether on film or in print, that keeps me guessing. And I count the close similarity between The Catcher Was a Spy and films noir of the 1930s and 1940s as big plus. I have a feeling that other fans of film noir and classic films will enjoy The Catcher Was a Spy, too.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

December 25, 1947, release date
Directed by Otto Preminger
Screenplay by David Hertz
Based on the novel Daisy Kenyon by Elizabeth Janeway
Music by David Raksin
Edited by Louis R. Loeffler
Cinematography by Leon Shamroy

Joan Crawford as Daisy Kenyon
Dana Andrews as Dan O’Mara
Henry Fonda as Peter Lapham
Ruth Warrick as Lucille O’Mara
Martha Stewart as Mary Angelus
Peggy Ann Garner as Rosamund O’Mara
Connie Marshall as Marie O’Mara
Nicholas Joy as Coverly
Art Baker as Lucille O’Mara’s attorney

Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

I didn’t expect to like Daisy Kenyon much. I’m not a big fan of Henry Fonda. I always admire Joan Crawford’s work, but I was convinced she would be overpowering in the title role. I have since learned that Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews didn’t want their respective roles for almost the same reason: They were afraid they would not have much to do in what they assumed would be a Joan Crawford vehicle. But Dana Andrews was enough to convince me to see Daisy Kenyon: He is one of my noir favorites. And I wondered why a film about a single woman having an affair with a married man while dating and then marrying another would be called a film noir.

(This blog post about Daisy Kenyon contains the spoiler.)

After seeing the film the first time, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Daisy Kenyon could be called film noir. Foster Hirsch, in the audio DVD documentary, makes the same point I have made about other films: that Daisy Kenyon can belong in more than one category, and Hirsch chooses film noir and the rather outdated category of women’s film. I would call the film about 35 percent noir and 65 percent romantic drama.

I found myself wondering which man Daisy would choose: Peter Lapham or Dan O’Mara, a point that absorbed me completely while following the story. Foster Hirsch mentions in his commentary that the production code at the time wouldn’t have allowed Daisy Kenyon to break up Dan O’Mara’s marriage; thus, viewers today should know the answer to Daisy Kenyon’s dilemma. For once, I’m glad I didn’t put two and two together before I watched Daisy Kenyon!

The cinematography is well-suited to the story. And the story is pretty realistic about the characters and their emotions. The use of light and shadow in the framing of many scenes is what helps make Daisy Kenyon a film noir. The story is not a glamorous and fun portrayal of romance, that much is certain. I think the film does an excellent job of showing violence and the threat of it between romantic partners—even if its overall approach is muted for the production code in place during the 1940s.

Henry Fonda’s character, Peter Lapham, is a World War II veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. His emotional turmoil is part of the narrative and complicates his relationship with Daisy. What I find interesting about the film is that Peter Lapham, in spite of his emotional vulnerability, is the one who outmaneuvers Dan O’Mara. Peter tells Daisy that he knows a thing or two about tactical maneuvers, and he uses it to his advantage in his romantic life.

I watched many of the features that were provided on the DVD (DVD release © Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC), including the following:
“From Journeyman to Artist: Otto Preminger at Twentieth Century Fox”
“Life in the Shadows—The Making of Daisy Kenyon”
Audio commentary by film historian Foster Hirsch
What really struck me as an overarching theme for all of these features was this: male reviewers and commentators telling viewers that Joan Crawford was too old for the part of Daisy Kenyon. I have to admit that I got really tired of hearing that opinion—again and again.

Foster Hirsch mentions that the character of Daisy Kenyon in the novel by Elizabeth Janeway is thirty-two and that Joan Crawford (at age forty-three when the film was released) had passed the Hirsch imaginary cutoff point for age appropriateness in the torn-between-two-lovers dilemma. (Dana Andrews was almost thirty-nine when the film was released; Henry Fonda was forty-two.) According to Hirsch, everyone leaves all doubt and confusion behind when they age out of their thirties! Not one mention is made of Dana Andrews’s portrayal of a married man who is romantically confused enough to be carrying on an affair and isn’t quite sure whether he loves his wife or his mistress, or whether he loves them both equally. And not one mention is made about Dana Andrews being age-inappropriate for the part of Dan O’Mara.

Foster Hirsch also describes the Dan O’Mara character as being “cold.” “Cold,” Mr. Hirsch, is an understatement. In one scene, Dan O’Mara threatens to kill his wife Lucille. In another, he physically assaults Daisy Kenyon in her apartment. The only thing that stops him is the appearance of her friend Mary Angelus at the front door of Kenyon’s apartment. I would say that Dan O’Mara is more than “cold,” Mr. Hirsch: He has a cruel and violent streak.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that you pass up these DVD features. They were also packed with a lot of great information: about the production of the film, the three stars (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, and Henry Fonda), the director Otto Preminger. But you will have to wade through a lot of male opinion (and it is opinion) about how a woman should be conducting her romantic life. And it may be disconcerting to discover that the male commentary provided by a male film historian in 2008 about a film released in 1947 shows how little has changed since 1947. The DVD was released in 2008—before the Me Too movement; let’s hope more has changed in the last ten years and continues to change.

It might be tough for many to call Daisy Kenyon a film noir, and I can see that point. But the film does have some noir characteristics, with its shadowy cinematography, violence against women, and the ongoing emotional turmoil. I was caught up in the story completely. All three lead actors add a lot of depth to their characters, and none of them acts the star or takes up screen time just because he or she can. I’m glad I didn’t let labels get in the way of seeing the film.