We need A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood more than ever

abIts quite possible indeed that we need A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood now more than ever, for patently obvious reasons considering everything going on in the world, and what I’ll get to in the last paragraph of this post. Its a shame its not a classic life-affirming film in the same way that Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life is, and likely won’t be remembered for as long or as warmly as that genuinely Great film, but that’s like complaining that a good film isn’t a great film- if all films were great, as in ‘Great’ with a capital ‘G’ then there wouldn’t be any special films, would there? Indeed, I can almost imagine Tom Hank’s playing Fred Rogers smiling and saying, “not all films can be ‘Great’, and that’s good, because not everybody can be ‘Great’, we can just be ‘Good’, and that’s okay, we just have to try to be as good as we can be.” 

Listen to me a second, its like the Fred Rogers persona is infecting my blog. What is this strange spell this film works over us? Well, maybe its not the film itself, maybe its more its subject matter, a genuine hero for many Americans who grew up with Fred Roger’s (‘Mister Rogers’ to his viewers) gentle children’s programme that ran on American television for many years. Its just wonderfully refreshing, frankly, that the film never found any bones hiding in the cupboard. While I imagine that Rogers himself would never describe himself as perfect, he seems that way- if only because he seems to have been genuine. And that’s so rare. Here is a guy who seemed to live a simple life of purpose, scandal-free, someone who lived up to the myth, the hype (‘hype’ is the wrong word exactly, but you know what I mean). In that sense, the casting of Tom Hanks is particularly perfect, considering his own rather wholesome reputation, as if just his face layers the film with additional authenticity.

I live in the UK, and I have no idea how many entertainers in America have had their reputations crushed by later scandals and revelations , but here in the UK we’ve had more than our fair share- my own generation, in particular, has had more than a few of the entertainers, the people who were entrusted in our living rooms with their family programmes and children’s programmes here in the UK, particularly of the 1970s, turn out to have been genuine monsters. So much so that, watching a film like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is almost something that makes us nervous, and so relieved, really, that by the end, it turns out some heroes are really heroes. And some people are really genuinely good if only for goodness sake. While the cynic in me roars at lines like that I have to accept that its nice to have something to believe in, that people can indeed be good- I just wonder when such sentiments became old-fashioned and rare.

Its seems so very odd and ill-timed, that this very week when I watched this film, our BBC here in the UK announced it is making a drama series biopic of one of the BBC’s homegrown monsters, Jimmy Saville, which won’t in any way be as life-affirming and pleasant as this Tom Hanks flick. Think something more akin to The Exorcist and The Shining to get some idea of the tone I’m expecting the BBC to take with that one, as opposed to the quite fluffy Capra-like feel that this film justly has. Different kind of childhood heroes, clearly, even if the times were largely the same (Mister Roger’s Neighborhood ran between 1968- 2001, while over here the BBC were broadcasting TV and radio programmes featuring paedophiles and other horrible people). I think the BBC is wrong to be making that drama – and indeed if it has to be made, I think the BBC is the wrong broadcaster to make it. Be that as it may, the news struck me as being particularly unfortunate being received in the same week as I saw this film.

 

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

city2John H Auer’s City That Never Sleeps is a bizarre mixture of realistic film noir, procedural crime drama like The Naked City and a fantasy fable like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Its such an odd combination that it has a surreal Twilight Zone-like feel, a sense of unreality persisting throughout which is at odds with its attempt to be gritty and ‘real’ (or at least as far as film censors would allow at the time).

It begins with shots of the city of Chicago at dusk,  “I am the city, the hub and heart of America…” instantly instilling the feeling of a Rod Serling introduction for a Twilight Zone episode, albeit here with the casual cosiness of the Angels chatting in the beginning of Capra’s classic. We are introduced by this narrator through short vignettes to the key players in the drama to follow, and then we are off and running on a busy night in which a troubled cop, Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), has come to a crossroads in his life and has to make some life-changing choices. Gig Young himself is a piece of casting that instantly evoked Twilight Zone again, as he appeared in what was possibly its very best episode, Walking Distance, several years later.

city1Kelly is a career cop, albeit a career for which Kelly seems to feel little inclination, forced on him by family tradition (his father a long-time cop near the end of his own career) increasingly resenting, and feeling emasculated by, the fact that his wife earns more than him (and endlessly reminded of it by his mother-in-law who feels her daughter married the wrong guy). So Kelly feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like and a marriage on the rocks, and tonight is the night he has to make a final decision regards quitting  his job and accepting the corrupting influence of crooked lawyer Penrod Biddel (a commanding Edward Arnold) whose offer of big money leads Kelly to think he can then leave town with his nightclub dancer mistress and set up a better life on his own terms.

Having prepared his resignation letter, Kelly begins what he expects to be his last night shift and finds his usual partner is off sick- replaced by an unknown Police Sergeant,  Joe (Chill Willis) whose voice is instantly recognised as the narrator who opened our tale. So there is an air of the supernatural here, with Sgt Joe playing a similar role to George Bailey’s Clarence, Sgt Joe’s subtle remarks to Kelly teasing and prompting him during their night patrol about the value and nobility in being an honest cop protecting the decent people of the city that never sleeps.

Kelly is already something of a corrupt cop and certainly an adulterer, and tonight is evidently his last chance before falling into a bad life of ill repute. The film seems to paint him as inherently a good guy being corrupted by others but I have to say, I took something of a dislike to him from the start. He’s obviously been cheating on his wife (and leading along his mistress Sally (Mala Powers)) and has been working for Riddel in a minor capacity, giving him tips about police cases for some time. This almost soap opera element is the films weakest part, but that may not have been helped by me missing some points during the first third. Riddel has enlisted Kelly to rid him off an over-ambitious associate, William Talman (Hayes Stewart), and the young partner with Talman is Kelly’s own younger brother, Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who is being pulled deeper into Talman’s own schemes to ruin Riddel. So there is some extra tension there that I missed, becoming quite puzzled towards the end when Stubby and Kelly are obviously so apparently so close and familiar, and Kelly hellbent on protecting Stubby. Maybe I was distracted by the melodrama of Kelly’s wife smartly suspecting her husband of resigning from the force and going to Kellys father, John ‘pop’ Kelly Snr in an attempt to save her marriage and husbands career.

In my defence, there’s clearly a whole lot going on here- sections with Talman ruthlessly desperate to thwart Riddel, the machinations of Riddel and his own wife’s betrayal, the romantic triangle between Kelly, Sandy and her nightclub colleague Gregg who is desperately in love with Sandy. Throw in random crimes/incidents during Kelly’s night patrol with the mysterious Sgt Joe… all of it mixed up with the three seperate styles of film playing out (film noir/police procedural, fantasy fable)  and its quite a curious film. I did enjoy it, but the three styles of film don’t really gel, and I actually wonder if it needed the Twilight Zone-like Sgt.Joe/fantasy fable sub-plot at all.

Almost an interesting failure, ultimately its more than a sum of its many parts, largely saved by some great location shooting, particularly in the latter section when it goes full-on film noir with shafts of light, heavy back-light and low camera angles. Its a great, tense finale and there are some genuine surprises during the film too, including what happens to Kelly’s father who begins to realise his son is compromised by Riddel’s criminal schemes. The final set-piece involving a chase through the streets and over Chicago’s famous elevated railroad track is very good indeed and quite memorable – its almost a pity when the noir aspects are finally dispelled in order to give audiences a positive, life-affirming conclusion. I’m still not really convinced that Kelly deserved it.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

shaw1The Shawshank Redemption (Blu-ray)

For what it’s worth, I’ll start this by just pointing out that I saw The Shawshank Redemption at the cinema back on its release in 1994. I don’t know why I feel the need to point that out, but this film was such a ‘sleeper’ hit, only becoming popular on home video really, that it feels pertinent to mention that when there is so little ‘new’ to add about the film, as so much has since been written about it. It is now on so many people’s Top Ten lists it is easy to forget that the film took years to gain its audience and popularity.

I don’t think it is any accident that it reminds me so much of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, another perennial favourite that was ignored on its original release. Both films are life-affirming, and I think it’s fair to say that both films failed to get initial success because they sort of suggest they are going to be one thing, and then turn into something else. Frank Capra’s film seems overly sweet and simple at the start but becomes rather dark, and Frank Darabont’s film starts as if it is just another prison flick, when it becomes something more. And yes, both films champion the human spirit and having faith in oneself and in others, and both films are uplifting cathartic experiences.

Returning to the film after a number of years, and watching it for the first time on blu-ray, I was pleasantly surprised that it really is as good as I remembered. Sometimes films fade or disappoint when revisited after a space of time. Shawshank remains as vital and sincere as it ever was. The script is excellent, the cast engaging, the music score perfect, the direction remarkably restrained of any artifice or stylistic heavy-handedness. The film tells its story at a leisurely pace (over something like two and a half hours) but it never feels long. It feels just right, and the eventual finale is note-perfect and thoroughly deserved. There is, afterall, a simple reason why it is on so many people’s Top Ten lists. It is simply a damn fine film.