Hitler Versus Sam Spade, Private Dick.
Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
Though not particularly well known, this Humphrey Bogart starring vehicle is actual one of his best films. It’s not quite on par with The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, or even The African Queen, but it definitely deserves some notice. When modern audiences think of Bogie, they often think of him as either a private detective or a gangster, but in reality he played a wide variety of other roles in his career, all of them lawyers. As odd as it may seem to have Sam Spade play a DA, this is not the first time we’re expected to buy Bogie as a lawyer, but it is the most successful. Bogie’s performance is captivating, though every time he gets his blood up and starts yelling we’re reminded of the fact that he sounds like Elmer Fudd when he gets pissed. Sibilance aside, the film is quite good, and fairly explicit for its time period. Based quite accurately on Lucky Luciano and Albert Anastasia’s Murder, Inc execution gang, the film introduced the concept of contract killings to cinematic audiences in the 1950s, and featured overt references to icepick murders and mass graves. While this may not seem too shocking nowadays, it must be remembered that prior to the 1960s the public were a little more sensitive to visual excess that they are today. Back then, the closest things to graphic violence were still photos from Jack Dempsey fights, and even strippers wore full-body underwear for fear of exposing a well-turned calf and sparking a gang rape. Told mainly in flashback, Bogart as District Attorney Martin Ferguson must build a case against Albert Mendoza, the Anastasia-stand in who runs the unnamed murder gang. When Bogart’s main witness kills himself to avoid testifying, the hunt is on to try and find a new way to keep Mendoza behind bars, as well as to try an find that wascally wabbit. The Enforcer was directed mainly by Raoul Walsh after original director Bretaigne Windust became ill, no doubt due to mortal embarrassment brought on by his ridiculously foppish name, and stands as one of Walsh’s finer efforts, easily surpassing the over-rated High Sierra, another Bogie vehicle, and even White Heat which had the distinction of creating an entire sub-culture of James Cagney impersonators. Through some ingenious plot twists and a hard film noir edge, The Enforcer stands as a little seen, but highly entertaining Bogart film, standing alongside Casablanca, The Big Sleep, or the one where Bugs Bunny goes back in time to King Arthur’s court and gets mistaken for a dragon.
Nominated for an Academy Award, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful and controversial film Downfall chronicles the final days of Adolf Hitler, as he sits, stews, and rants in a bunker beneath a besieged Berlin. The film is dark, depressing, and sickening, though I suppose that kind of goes without saying, as sunny, soft-focus Hitler comedies tend to not be particularly commercially viable outside of select markets in the American Midwest and white prison gangs. The last days of the Third Reich are pervaded with a pervasive sense of doom, as well as pervasive sense of the color blue, a situation which apparently resolved itself once Germany surrendered and allowed the use of Kodak daylight filters. Bruno Ganz’ performance as Hitler is absolutely stunning, captivating, and jowly, coming off like a charismatic, intense, and mildly insane pit-bull. Though his face droops in layers of fat, his hair is gray, and his motivating speeches often drift off into incoherent ranting, the audience is still treated to the almost addictive personality that made Hitler one of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century. Director Hirschbiegel masterfully structures the film in a way that we build sympathy for Hitler, whose lieutenants rapidly begin abandoning him as the Reich falls, only long enough to be reminded of his monstrous nature, and then the sympathy begins again. This has brought the film no end of controversy, on the some what shaky assumption that if history begins to see Hitler as a human being instead of a 12 foot horned beast bathing in the blood of unbaptized children, that might somehow change the way the whole Holocaust thing played out, but in the end, it works. Unlike Max, which showed that a sensitive, somewhat rat-like Hitler would have been a sensitive artist had John Cusack only not been late for a dinner date, the humanity of Ganz’ Hitler is believable, powerful and terrifying, not unlike the man himself. Only more blue.