Night People and The Wild One John Flaus October 2014 John Flaus Dossier Issue 72 These two articles were originally published in consecutive issues of Voice: The Australian Independent Monthly, vol. 3, no. 11 and 12, August and September 1954. Written when Flaus was 20, they represent what is possibly his earliest published writing on film. Many of the subsequent ideas developed in Flaus’ criticism can be found in nascent form in these early critical pieces as well as a sense of his quick development as a writer on film. Flaus went on to write a further two articles for this left-wing journal, on Cayatte’s Nous sommes tous des assassins and Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (very belatedly passed for release in Australia), before falling out (being fired) by the editor over a review of On the Waterfront in 1955 (a review did subsequently appear signed by the editor himself). They are republished with the permission of the author. Night People (August 1954) Night People is a hard-bitten, level-headed account of a single dramatic incident rising directly out of the super-charged atmosphere of present-day Berlin. Some concessions to the flag-wavers had to be expected – the quite obscene opening shots of the great showy parade of military strength, which are neatly divorced from the action of the film, and the closing fade with the suddenly rising volume of march music, which is offensive, but a legitimate cinematic effect; perhaps also the colonel’s reference to the opposition as “blood-thirsty, head-hunting cannibals” which comes as the culmination of a furious, highly-charged clash of tempers, but is robbed of its earnest dramatic force by the immediate, crippling anti-climax, the off-hand remark to his stunned opponent, “Care for a drink?” The film has been constructed within the framework of existing conditions; it feeds upon topical references to heighten dramatic situations. Films which rely on contemporary issues for their appeal, and subjugate dramatic principle, will, upon examination in a later period, fall with a doughy thud, in the manner of Borzage’s mutilation of The Mortal Storm, recently resurrected in Sydney. Night People, however, will remain a thoroughly exciting piece of work when today’s world-shaking events are as remote as the Crimean War. As a vehicle for propaganda, Night People is found wanting; it ignores all the elementary rules. It should have manufactured opportunities to present the representatives of the USSR as objects of abomination, and the representativeness of the US as the personification of honour and courage, triumphant against overwhelming odds; yet is neglected opportunities already present. The Russians are rarely named, and are not seen, except in the introduction and the closing scenes. It is a fundamental principle of propaganda that in cinema, essentially the medium of vision, the object to be vilified must be seen. Only the most cunning director could hope to operate successively by exclusion of the main theme from visual participation; but the persons who are impressed by propaganda are precisely those who are unable to keep pace with the methods of the enterprising director. What little we do see of the night people, although skilfully directed, would establish them in the minds of regular movie-goers as somewhat less dangerous than those familiar “heavies”, the Indians on the warpath and the gun-crazy gangsters who, according to Hollywood, rum amok in their own backyard. The word, “Russians”, is not given the traditional treatment – either being plugged so frequently it offends by the insistence of its repetition, or being prudishly avoided in the most pointed anti-climactic manner – it is employed sparingly. There were three examples of [director Nunnally] Johnson’s declining to take advantage of opportunities for propaganda arising as legitimate products of the story – the question of why America finds it necessary to maintain armed forces in Europe is never raised; the opposition is always referred to as Russians, never as Communists, although this is a word with strong domestic associations; and the particular incident which is the subject of the film reveals the night people as former agents of Himmler, here using Russian co-operation to settle an old score from Hitler’s time. This third point is particularly difficult to understand, since it weakens dramatic logic in order to unreasonably deflect the implication of blame away from the obvious enemy. The issue, previously stated, is complicated by the introduction of the kidnapped boy’s father, who happens to have “connections”. He would be a mere hindrance to the accepted propaganda method, but here he serves to resolve the conflict of the film in personal terms. In the mechanics of the dramatic conflict, he plays the villain to the colonel’s hero for some two thirds of the action, before the role reverts to the Russian. The turns of conversation involving him which emphasise that Money, the great American institution, can be quite useless in some situations, may appear as pretty heavy backhanders at certain prophets of private enterprise who are trying to intrude their time-honoured methods into international diplomacy. As for the hero-colonel, there can be no doubt that an attempt was made – fairly successfully – to equate the front that the US turns to the world with the figure of Gregory Peck. With an excellent script and some of the actor’s best work, this colonel, like the heavy-handed businessman, really comes to life. And yet this is no ideal hero, no demi-god, not this colonel. The matter of the Russian colonel, who killed himself with his family when his plan to sell out was discovered, is pretty low propaganda; yet if we accept this as intended, we are then confronted with the fact that the whole unpleasant business was a direct result of the hero’s philandering – propaganda on the rebound! Also, in their many heated exchanges, the bombastic businessman often shows sufficient humility to point the colonel’s rudeness. The feature of Johnson’s directing is its remarkable economy. In this most efficient pedestrian style, all his points are made clearly and forcefully and then passed over; there is no lingering over effects. Such scenes as the kidnapping and the stampeding of the Russian ambulance are brilliantly managed, and utilise the new screen and sound facilities for a definite artistic purpose. The general rule, however, seems to have been all scenes shot from eye level, and an absence of trickery. This lends itself to an uninspired but undeniable impression of authenticity. The walking from room to room, which uses up a considerable amount of film, contributes further to this impression. The players could scarcely be queried. And their lines were expertly fashioned to their personalities. Contrary to expectations, Night People was not a rousing saga of a crusade in shining armour against the forces of darkness, but an intelligent account of grim test of strength, with no illusions, against a dangerous, hidden, but estimable antagonist. It makes a plain statement, asks us to believe that a particular state of affairs exists, and then proceeds to fashion dramatic entertainment from this material. It views the story from one side, but does not labour to enlist sympathy for the cause of either side; and employs provocative topical issues (such as the reference to the incident as either “just another needle or a second Korea”) for greater dramatic effect. It cannot be denied that even the more critical members of the audience will be left with a rather warm, soupy feeling of confidence in the United States and its ability to get really tough – and, if necessary, turn on the big heat. What we wonder at is that this feeling has been transferred to a vast number of persons without recourse to the usual pernicious inflation of dramatic values. The Wild One (September 1954) Once again Stanley Kramer has set out to probe the social conscience. This film draws its inspiration from an incident which occurred a few years ago in the US, when a marauding gang of youthful motorcyclists descended upon an orderly, respectable country township and, for want of other amusement, reduced the place to a shambles. From small beginnings (the first idle larrikin stunts) the waves of lawlessness – meeting with no restraint, seeing the official keeper of the peace in retreat, flinching from contact – expands uncontrollably and exceeds the critical point. Outrages follow, citizens are terrorised, property plundered and destroyed, eventually an innocent spectator is killed. This film has the benefit of the talents of [Laslo] Benedek, one of America’s most conscientious and methodical directors. He displays a remarkable care [for] visuals and an active appreciation of the qualities of sound and space. The screenplay of John Paxton deals almost entirely in externals, in the execution of which Benedek excels. The introductory scenes of the silent, open highway, stretching far back, then emerging in the distance to the high-rising roar of the engines of the band of motorcyclists, roaring closer, roaring past, cut suddenly to a close view of the front rank, a close-up of the leader arrayed in fierce martial trappings. In these brilliant opening shots the essential qualities of the film’s principal theme, the bicycle gang, have already been impressed in emotional terms. The gang of riders, closely grouped, flying at top speed, the great engines booming, so conscious of their allied brute strength, bears obvious association with the wolf-pack, the glittering, jack-booted attire recalls the significance of the Nazi thug’s uniform. The fault to be found with Paxton’s script is that, however skilfully he presents the externals, he neglects to investigate the origins and social significance of larrikinism. He neglects to demonstrate that larrikinism is not a spontaneous outbreak, but a social symptom. The hooligan has the physical and economic status of an adult, but his moral and emotional development is still in flux. He is the youth who represents the injustices imposed upon him by his elders, his “superiors”, who regard their seniority as infallible, ignore his first claims to equality, and refuse to acknowledge their own defects, so apparent to him; in consequence he seizes the first opportunity to exert himself – by his new found physical superiority. In the less emotionally mature, more injured person, this may lead to pernicious aggressive behaviour. Taught brutality, he responds with brutality. The screenplay does make some shrewd points in this matter. The respectable members of the community are shown to be not entirely blameless in the whole tragic affair. With all their mean and cowardly indifference to social responsibilities (the theme of High Noon) they can produce their bullies and troublemakers. The perverse, anti-social attitude of the hooligan is summed up in the incident where the flashy motorcyclists insolently disrupt a legitimate motorcyclist tournament. Within a screenplay that could bear considerable improvement, director Benedek presents examples of beautiful filmcraft – the near spiritual relationship between man and machine, emphasised in the scene where the gang leader staggers back to his cycle after being bashed almost senseless by the righteously indignant defenders of law and order; the rising sense of terror as the roaring, glaring machines pursue and surround the fleeing girl; the poetic passage of the retreat of the leader and the girl through the darkened countryside; the staggered, impressionistic editing of the incident where the careering bicycle runs down the old man. Benedek’s directing, possibly superior, is similar to that of others of Kramer’s directors, lately Zinnemann and Dmytryk. All are executors. They can execute only the material on hand. They will operate on the prepared material with scrupulous thoroughness, they will re-fashion sections to achieve greater technical advantage, their work is characterised by the utter efficiency and polish of the expert craftsman. But there are limits to the craftsman’s method, as they demonstrate. Their work does not show a sense of conception; they do not create; they merely construct rather than regard the film as unique and integral, an organism in which each scene cannot be considered without relation to the whole; they seem to approach it as a set of components in mathematical procession, each to be carefully weighed and tested and then fitted into the pattern. By this method the director is principally dependent upon his writer, his directing may be a cunning preparation of the materials, but the film as a whole may fail to be convincing if the materials are at fault. (Zinnemann under Kramer has been fortunate with Carl Foreman’s screenplays.) The director who can conceive the film as an entity, and be free to develop it accordingly, will succeed or fail solely on his own aesthetic judgement. And for such a theme as this, requiring the most artistic, sustained expression of violence, describing the course of wilful, urgent patterns, the talent of Rossellini or Huston was needed. The weakness in this film is that the scriptwriter never decided whether this was to be a dramatic incident, an opportunity for investigation of the peculiar phenomenon of hooliganism (concentrating particular attention upon the character of the leader of the mob as representative of the hooligan class in society), or a drama whose theme was the personal conflict of an exceptional and tragic character, played out against the background of a particular historical incident. Benedek’s impartial, conscientious treatment of both themes only helps point the schism more clearly. Of the two, that of less social significance, the portrait of the “wild one” of the title, is more successful; the other comes close to failure. The film is not ugly enough to do justice to its theme. Stanley Kramer has been content to stir the social conscience only a little.