[originally published December 28, 2010]
Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)
Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.
Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.
It’s pure Capra, run through with the tension between idealism and corruption, faith in the goodness of the common man and acknowledgment in the easy manipulation of people and processes by the rich and powerful for their own gain. Industrialist turned publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, a favorite Hollywood fatcat) is the puppetmaster here, an industrialist who buys a newspaper to serve his ambition for public office. Capra makes his priorities clear in the first shot of the film: the first letters blasted off the bronze plaque at the paper’s entrance read “Free Press.” The promise of that phrase is replaced with a new plaque that reads: “The New Bulletin: A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era.” When the John Doe clubs start sprouting spontaneously across the country, Norton happily sponsors them, and not just to boost the prestige of his paper’s golden goose. When this non-partisan movement becomes a social force, Norton is ready to harness their energy and redefine their agenda for his own political aspirations.
Hard to believe that screenwriter Robert Riskin wasn’t writing about the Tea Party and Fox News but the parallels are striking and a little alarming: a popular movement adopted and sponsored by what should be an objective news organization that pillories all opposition with screaming headlines, while the membership buys all the lies the paper feeds them. Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard, the same narrative ascribed to the Tea Party, and somehow this grass-roots organization standing against the system is becomes funded by corporate interests while longtime political aspirants hitch their ambitions to the movement.
Capra isn’t on the side of the publisher, to be sure, but his faith in the common man comes with some ambivalence and more than a little patronizing. Like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, two key populist Capra films of the thirties, the gee-whiz innocence of his simple American folk make the common man little more than a naïve rube played as a patsy by the politicians and industrialists until the final reel, where their perseverance finally pays off. Even here, the happy ending is cast in shadow, not so much a victory as a defiant stance against the callousness of the rich and powerful trying to play them for fools. I supposed that’s a victory of sorts, but for Capra, it’s always the naïve but pure “people” versus the smart, calculating, manipulative men running the system. For him, instinct finally wins out over intelligence. In the real world, that’s not always such a happy ending.
Meet John Doe has been widely available in substandard (and in some cases downright terrible) public domain editions since the birth of home video. It’s one of those odd Hollywood orphans, a big-budget, star-fronted hit released by a major studio but produced independently and the rights fell through the cracks of renewal that studios meticulously kept up on. And as no company had financial stake in the film, there was no incentive to protect the original elements. That was common to poverty row companies and independent producers of B-movies and programmers and in many ways is the only reason hundreds of forgotten film have been rescued in any condition. But in the case of a film like Meet John Doe, a film that would otherwise have been protected in studio vaults, it means we’re left with whatever prints have been rescued by collectors and archives. This new edition, restored by Laureat Productions from appears to be multiple sources (none of them the original negative), isn’t as sharp as the best studio classic releases and appears to be a PAL transfer from a British digital master. Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver notes that the image is interlaced (which I didn’t note but did notice on my viewing) and is more critical of the disc. It is weakly mastered from what appearance to be better original materials than previous editions, but it is still an improvement over previous DVD releases, with generally stronger image and clear sound (without the incessant chorus of hiss and white noise of much-worn PD prints and 16mm reductions) throughout most of the footage. I did notice one overt mastering flaw in my copy of the disc, a video distortion running down the left side of the screen staring about the one-hour mark and lasting a few minutes. We’re still a long way from a definitive edition of the film, but it is likely the best we’re going to get without some major archival discovery or exhaustive restoration effort.
The two-disc set features commentary by historian Ken Barnes interspersed with archival audio recordings of Frank Capra, which is informative enough but not particularly engaging; too often, the Capra quotes have only a vague connection to the scene on screen or the point being made by Barnes. Also includes short featurettes on Cooper, Stanwyck and Capra, audio-only “Lux Theater” radio productions of “Sorry Wrong Number” (with Stanwyck) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (with Cooper) and cast and crew profiles.
The American (Universal)
The release week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally, shall we say, a dead week for home video. Which is not to say that there is nothing coming out, or even nothing of note, simply that it’s off the radar when it comes to introducing new titles to either the sales or rental racks. But the maw demands to be fed nonetheless and, with the competition taking a break, it’s a good time to release a title that might otherwise get lost in the glut of pre-Christmas advertising and star-driven nothings with big promotional budgets.
For example, Anton Corbijn’s The American, a cool, continental thriller starring George Clooney as the titular American, a professional in the assassination game in Europe. I use the term “thriller” in the generic sense, as this plays out more like a Jean-Pierre Melville portrait of isolated underworld professionals, freelancers in the international network of criminal enterprise. Clooney’s character, who responds to either Jack or Edward, depending on the situation, is a blank in personal terms, defined entirely by his skills, his reputation and his actions. He’s alive because he’s attentive and wary and trusts no one, even those he ostensibly loves, and he proves his ruthless survival skills and survivalist instincts in the crisply-executed opening sequence set in the snowy wilderness of what should be a far-north retreat from his brutal world. In this kind of movie, your world follows you.
The American is just as much a crime fantasy as an Ocean’s heist movie, it just trades the light humor and fun-loving camaraderie for the tragic romanticism of the cruel criminal code of existential killers and brutal crime bosses. This is the second feature from Corbijn, a photographer and designer turned music video director who attacked his first feature, a biopic about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, with a rough and ready style to get at he rawness of the troubled singer’s buried emotions and anxieties. For The American, he goes for stillness, aloof observation and studies in minute details of behavior and action. The anxiety here is all about knowing your surroundings and your enemy and the American is always vigilant, especially when it comes to Pavel, the man who hands him assignments and sets him up with a safe house after he escapes an assassination attempt.
Clooney lets his natural charisma through the mask but doesn’t try to woo the audience. Given the fallout of his last job, he looks for love with other professionals (you know, hookers) while working one last job for Pavel, enough to get him out of there for good while “the Swedes” try to track him down. He’s isolated, removed, a stranger in a picaresque old-world Italian village who speaks the language but stands out in this culture of trust and ease. When a local asks if he’s American, he answers “Si, il Americano.” “No, l’Americano,” is the Italian’s response, a lesson in grammar that also defines his presence there: He’s not an American, he is the American, not just the only one in the village but the only American in the international cast of characters (and actors) in the film: working for a vaguely Russian contact, hired out to a vaguely British client and pursued by Swedes with guns while hiding out in the most beautiful rural Italian village you’ve ever seen. The old-world town looks like it has been carved out of a hill, the alleys winding down through the stone and brick buildings. In one shot, the clouds around the base of the town give it the look of a heavenly escape floating in the sky.
For all of its precise direction and beautiful imagery, it’s a classic genre picture, and a damn good one at that, a superb portrait in isolation and justifiable paranoia that is less a thriller than an icy portrait in survival and revenge dropped into the peace and old-world calm of a rural paradise. And once again, the possibility of connection, this time to the gorgeous, earthy hooker (Violante Placido) who becomes more than a business arrangement, becomes a liability in the life of a man whose life is all about death.
I would have enjoyed knowing what was on director Anton Corbijn’s mind for this film, but his commentary is halting and awkward, more play-by-play description of what’s on screen than behind-the-scenes discussion. The 11-minute making-of is even slighter. They’re nominal supplements for a strong film. Also includes five minutes of deleted scenes (very handsome) and the Blu-ray includes the usual interactive BD-Live functions.