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Sneakers (1992) – The 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon

Sound is important in Sneakers. Not only the soundtrack by composer James Horner, but also the daily sounds of life and conversation.

Sneakers is a comedy/cyber/caper released in 1992 and starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, and Ben Kingsley. It’s about a group of anti-authoritarian misfits who make a living by sneaking into businesses to test security and make recommendations for how the businesses can improve their security. As one woman tells Redford’s Martin Bishop, it’s not a very good way to make a living.

But then they are hired to steal a mysterious box, which turns out to be the ultimate code breaker. A box that contains the key to breaking the code of every encrypted computer system in existence. The project is called Setec Astronomy, which is an anagram for “Too Many Secrets” (Wikileaks, anyone?). Needless to say, nearly everyone wants it – Russia, NSA, mobsters, and Redford’s former friend and now turned mad genius Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley.

I’ve always enjoyed this film and since I’ve recently been watching a lot of Sidney Poitier films, this seemed like the perfect choice for Film Music Central‘s “2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon.”

The score for Sneakers is actually quite unexpected. It has the usual tense, caper music that one expects for a caper, but he does something else rather unexpected. He elicits a sense of wonderment.

Listen to this clip when the group discover that the box is really a code breaker. As composer Nicholas Britell notes, “at first, we hear a simple yet catchy piano theme repeated over and over. As it continues repeating, a second piano line joins in as a partner to it. The music is quiet yet densely populated with short little piano notes. The music feels like a perfect counterpoint to what is taking place on-screen.” When they finally solve the mystery, the music, with its use of choir, takes on a sense of excitement, but also wonderment.

Britell describes it best. I really have little I can add to it.

Horner’s dense texture of uniform repeated notes feels like the “little bits of data,” the “ones and zeroes” that are at the heart of the film’s drama. Listening further to the piece in the “Setec Astronomy” scene, we see the music continue to develop: one, two, then three different pianos playing along simultaneously. As the characters get closer to deciphering the code, more and more musical elements join in: female choir, harp, strings, woodwinds, percussion. We really begin to feel viscerally the newfound power of these “little ones and zeroes.”

But I think there is also that sense of wonderment. Wonder at the world and what makes it up and what people can do. The wonderment and thrill of discovery. Cosmo argues that “it’s not about who has the most bullets. It’s about who has the most information…the world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.”

But with Horner’s music, information, little bits of data, ones and zeroes are beautiful. Like wondering at the DNA that makes up the world. I like it because it adds a dimension that would otherwise be lacking in the film if the score had been more conventional.

Of course, once they realize the power of what they have, the music becomes much more frightening. Jumping around, in the lower registers of the piano, agitated, menacing.

But here is the lovely music for when Cosmo and Bishop – friends as young men – see each other last. That lovely, mournful saxophone. Where Cosmo cannot kill his friend. It makes you think how lonely Cosmo has been all these years, in prison, working for mobsters. Only Bishop, he feels, can understand him and what he wants to achieve. And Bishop, who feels partly responsible for getting Cosmo in trouble in the first place.

I mentioned that sound in general is important in the film. One of the group, Whistler (David Straitairn), is blind and so notices sounds and conversation while the others are caught up in visuals. When Bishop is knocked unconscious and stuffed in a trunk and driven somewhere, Whistler later helps him track down where the car went by tracking the sounds Bishop heard. The sounds of a car driving over concrete bumps on a bridge, cackling geese (which Bishop thought sounded like a cocktail party).

And then there’s the wonderful voice of James Earl Jones. We first hear him over the phone, but he makes an appearance at the very end and is marvelous. The tonal shades he can put into his voice never ceases to amaze me. He has presence, but his voice has presence, also.

If you have never seen Sneakers, I definitely recommend it. A great cast – I always liked Sidney Poitier as the ex-CIA Crease, who is extremely security conscious and is always being driven nuts by Dan Ackroyd’s paranoid conspiracy theories. I also enjoy Mary McDonnell, who’s bemused good humor with Bishop and the entire eccentric group and their escapades mirrors our own. As she remarked when Bishop suddenly bursts out with “Setec Astronomy!”

“I just love it when a man says that to me.”

But I also really appreciate the soundtrack by James Horner. It fits the mood of the film, enhances it, but is never just dully predictable.

I want to thank Film Music Central for hosting this great event! It was wonderful to have the opportunity to give the score of a film the attention it deserves….especially a score by James Horner. Be sure to read the other posts from the blogathon for days 1, 2, and 3.

I’ll end with this clip from the film. The music seems to positively delight in the ingenuity of solving what appears to be an impossible task…via sound.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2017 in Movies

 

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Band of Angels (1957)

band_of_angels_1957Band of Angels is an odd film. It has the kernel of an interesting idea wrapped up in an infelicitous combination of The Sheik and Birth of a Nation, with a few attempts to update the story to a more progressive era.

The story follows Amantha “Manty” Starr (Yvonne De Carlo), who is raised by her white plantation owning father to believe that she is a white Southern belle. But when her fathers dies, she discovers that her mother was a slave and that (since her father evidently never thought to formally free her) she can be sold with the rest of the plantation.

She is bought, however, by Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a tormented former slaver who is now trying to atone for his misdeeds by treating his slaves well (which is odd – apparently it never occurs to him to free his slaves or become an abolitionist?). She also meets Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier), who was raised and educated by Bond, but harbors resentment against Bond because, as he tells Manty, kindness can be used to enslave as surely as brutality. But Manty still becomes Bond’s mistress and then the Civil War begins.

One of the things that is odd (among many things that are odd) is that we never really believe that she is half-black. This is not only because Yvonne De Carlo was not black, but because of how all the characters (including the slaves, with the exception of Rau-Ru) treat her, like an “honorary” white person. She never evinces any interest in who her mother was or really attempts to grapple with her own identity. Instead, it comes off more like exploitation, an excuse to get a white woman into slavery and the power of other men. It’s kind of trashy in that way. She even suffers from Stockholm Syndrome and is molested by practically every white man who comes on the scene.

I think the film was trying to be progressive in that Hamish Bond really has no prejudice against Manty, but because it’s hard not to think of her as really a white woman, the film loses its edge. And in truth, the story would have been a hundred times more interesting if the romance occurred between Manty and Rau-Ru.

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

In an uncharacteristically turgid film by Raoul Walsh, whose films I otherwise always enjoy for their energy and pacing, the only real source of energy and tension comes from Sidney Poitier’s character. He despises how Manty continues to view herself as white and above the rest of the slaves (she becomes very angry at the suggestion that she is having an affair with Rau-Ru and always goes out of her way to remind people that she is a lady – which is understandable, because she was raised to think of herself that way). He also points out that, despite their education and relative freedom, neither of them has any identity outside of Hamish Bond. A working out of a relationship between them – if not a romantic one, at least one of mutual respect or understanding – could have made for an intriguing story.

Although we are evidently supposed to disapprove of Rau-Ru’s lack of gratitude to Hamish, he is right. If Hamish Bond had really cared, he would have freed him and all his slaves. No matter how much you may actually care for someone, if you do not respect them enough to realize that they are separate individuals who cannot be owned, then if push comes to shove, you will always exercise that power you possess over them. This happens with Manty’s father. He prides himself on never selling his slaves, but when one of the slaves hints about who Manty’s mother really was, her father sells him in a heartbeat.

Rau-Ru may have been raised like a son by Hamish Bond, but he still finds himself running from the dogs and hunters like a runaway slave after he hits a white plantation owner in defense of Manty.

I usually enjoy Clark Gable, but he seems tired in Band of Angels as the romantically tormented hero. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, because of his guilt, having to burn his plantation when the Yankees come, but it is difficult to do so. Worse, in the film all his slaves love him, including Michele (Carolle Drake), who seems to have been his mistress before being casually tossed aside for Manty, who both he and Michele treat as being above her. And we’re supposed to feel more sorry for him than for Michelle? Or any of his supposedly happy slaves?

182-1200-630The film also suggests that the Northern army and the abolitionists were a bunch of hypocrites, no better than the Southern plantation owners. The myth of the hypocritical abolitionist shows up in a number of Hollywood films, which is frustrating, because there were few people less hypocritical than the abolitionists.

In short, it’s a very odd and frustrating film. Interesting idea; gives one something to think about. And it does illustrate the limited number of roles available for black actors in the 1950s, though it was improving. But it never would have occurred to anyone to write a romance between Poitier and De Carlo…or a romance between Michele and Hamish Bond. Or to cast a black actress as Manty. Which is too bad because, at the very least, Sidney Poitier would have been a great leading man for the film.

I viewed Band of Angels as part of the “90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon,” hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts celebrating his life and career, which can be found here.

sidney-poitier-blogathon-2

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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No Way Out (1950) – Sidney Poitier’s Movie Debut

Poster - No Way Out (1950)_01Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.

Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.

After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.

But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.

But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.

Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.

No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.

1083_019851.jpgRichard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.

Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.

No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.

In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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