Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Lawless

If you have not read Andy Rector's beautiful, compelling reflections from a few years back on Joseph Losey's The Lawless, you should do so.  (This work is available to stream on Netflix now, at least in the US.  It's not very long, and it is very good.)  Losey's film is in many ways similar to the roughly contemporaneous Ace in the Hole (also set out West, in the sticks), but while it is less ambitious than Wilder's excellent film, The Lawless seems deeper and more cohesively critical in some ways.  I will springboard from Andy's comments into some of my own notes.

-The rigorous framing of the police who are only rhetorically good; they let real brutality and distortion happen always.

A representational strategy the film employs: most of its cops are presumably "decent folk," and The Lawless depicts them early on as being a number of reasonable individuals with a bad apple or two in the bunch.  Intriguingly, this representation mirrors the function of the police themselves in the social body depicted, i.e., superficially benign (and indeed perhaps benign almost to a man), but systematically complicit with the mob lawlessness which seeks to enact revenge upon Paul (Lalo Rios) - an imperfect kid caught in a bind.  The effect of this is a beautiful, subtle perversion of the general model, which valorizes individualism and thus individualized action, causation, culpability, etc.  The Lawless grants as much but contextualizes it - "just doing my job."

-The cut from Lalo Rios taking a shower outdoors to the white privileged kid taking a shower in a comfortable bathroom.

We see the latter character first in silhouette, I believe.  Paul though is silhouetted later in the film, at the police station, after they've taken his fingerprints at a desk - and in the same shot, courtesy of shadows on the wall, we see his mug shot being taken.

-The father of the privileged kid as well-meaning only insofar as his wallet goes (shoring up the system in the process)

Though I do think the film positions his behavior as sincere - perhaps he's a so-called "liberal communist" avant la lettre?  The shoring up of the system is not laid at the feet of his supposed character fault, but rather at the incongruity of his liberalism toward a good cause when it fails to link up with the proper destructive/reconstructive mechanisms against the system.  Again and again, The Lawless outlines individualism's dead ends - despite all manner of faith & good works ...

-The long (dare I day Straubian) pan across the quarry where Rios is being hunting for something he didn't do - beginning on the back of the farmers head and going in the opposite direction from the idealistic newspaper man trying to find Rios before the police do - a dialectic shot if there ever was one.

I am constantly impressed again with the flexibility and strength of classical Hollywood cinema - the malleability of its codes and the way that these codes could be applied to ends highly antithetical to what is generally presumed to be Hollywood's product.  (This presumption may be correct in everything except its range across the films themselves.)

-The newspaper man's gestus. Ciment says he's a positivist Capra hero who realizes he is wrong. His stopping to admire the smell of burning leaves in October (representing nostalgia for small town America) in contrast with marred human relations all around him.

And again, I would stress here that the film does not dwell on the individualist wrongness of this "positivist Capra hero" (an apt description).  Burning leaves in October - an uncontroversial existence? - these aren't illicit desires in themselves.  It is the use of these desires in a context which renders them as a screen against more pressing, ultimately damaging concerns which The Lawless criticizes.

-The very Brechtian gesture of the match that the newspaper man lights for the callous and sensational newspaper woman's cigarette as she dictates lies to her paper, saying that Rios had no "remorse" in his eyes, all she could see was "cruelty". This gesture of the newspaper-man's is in contradiction to his moral position in the scene prior. The lighting of the match is an action showing that the newspaper man has not put into action his consciousness of complicity (which the film is so good at laying bare,media/career wise) and it's like the opposite of the fish-wrapping scene in NOT RECONCILED (Straub) where Schrella REFUSES to dine with a still-fascist democrat by having his lunch wrapped up and leaving.

Yes, this is a brilliant scene - in part for how low-key it is, demonstrating something about Larry's "character psychology" but also of political consciousness in general, the way it is so quickly effaced or repurposed into uselessness in the face of social niceties.  Though we do live in an age when manners seem to matter far too little, their convenience as an occasional shield to political (i.e., politicized) interpersonal confrontation is still to prevalent a function.

-Gail Russell's strong moral/political-bearing character. Such a character is not unconventional to Hollywood films of the time but hers stands out in performance and absolute clarity of the political lines she demarcates. Russell's actual personal/professional life during the shooting of LAWLESS is even more devastating, and constitutes a story worth looking into

She's amazing in the film.  Her character does fall into a certain line of anglicized Hollywood tradition - a romantic interest; pale eyes - but she's still a superb character, and her existence is notable for the perhaps shocking (shocking!) presumption that there were women who were politically active, knowledgeable, committed, etc.  (Not simply "won over" because their boyfriends blazed a trail.)

Know that THE LAWLESS is a film directed by a man who studied Fritz Lang and worked with Bertolt Brecht. Know that an argument could be made for it as a Marxist film, made within Hollywood, and after the HUAC purges no less (courage). That its screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (sometimes credited as Geoffrey Homes) was "greylisted" and yet fought for his blacklisted comrades. Somehow Losey went on to make several more politically advanced films within Hollywood, THE PROWLER and a remake of M among them. And know that you must track it down...

... and tracking it down, thanks to Netflix, is very easy.  Just as it was possible - not easy, but possible - make films like The Lawless in classical Hollywood, the system allows for the regurgitation of yesterday's politically critical products.  (The Lawless is less an A-list film than V for Vendetta or Children of Men, but its politics are far better.)

With THE LAWLESS's politics as a film intact, through his account we can already see some irreversible degradations that went on in industrial Hollywood. If THE LAWLESS is a product of a group of people who represent something that has been lost in the US today (Losey, springing from the same lively and progressive artistic/cultural atmosphere as Orson Welles that once existed in Winconsin early in the 20th century; and Daniel Mainwaring, springing from an honest journalistic tradition, now almost completely gone, where it remains it is ghettoized), and who in all sincerity tried to expose the rottenness of certain aspects of America, we mustn't forget that THE LAWLESS was still a product.

Yes, and what sad state of affairs has befallen latter-day Wisconsin?  Exeunt.


Monty said...

good analysis, I'd love to check it out now.

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Just as it was possible - not easy, but possible - make films like The Lawless in classical Hollywood, the system allows for the regurgitation of yesterday's politically critical products.

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It can't have effect in fact, that is exactly what I suppose.

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