17 December 2012

APOCALYPSE WEEK: DEATH BY NUKES

Stanley Kramer is a name that doesn't get thrown around much these days, him being mostly forgotten by all but the dedicated, historically-minded cinephiles who are far likelier to respond to mention of the director-producer with an involuntary dry heave than with any kind of fondness. Yet there was a time, in the lifespan of those now living, when Kramer was the King of the Grown-Ups, American cinema's most reliable creator of achingly serious message movies about very important social issues, the kind that might not be especially fun to watch, but are surely very significant and respectable. To the tune of six Best Picture Oscar nominations for the films he produced between 1952 and 1967; that kind of respectability.

We are not gathered here today to attempt a rejuvenation of the man's reptuation, because by and large, his films certainly do err on the side of claustrophobic self-importance, and even the very best of them feel a little bit like homework. But they're not all as aggressively lifeless as Ship of Fools or shrill as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and as proof, I would like to offer one of the very best of Kramer's social-minded dramas, one that actually manages to work as compelling, watchable cinema, and not just a delivery system for pious messages about The State of Things, 1959's On the Beach, adapted by screenwriter John Paxton from Nevil Shute's 1957 attack on Cold War militarism.

The 1950s, as any fan of cheap monster movies knows, were uncommonly dense with movies about nuclear paranoia, but On the Beach breaks ranks by setting itself squarely and proudly in the real world, so to speak: without sugarcoating or hiding behind allegory or metaphor or fake names, it is about what would happen if the United States and the Soviet Union made good on their constant threat to blow one another into nuclear ash. Rather sensibly, the film proposes that the scale of such a conflict, along with the amount of radiation it would produce, would end all life north of the equator, and it's in the aftermath this situation that the story begins: as far as anybody can tell, the only people left alive are on Australia, or inside nuclear submarines that made it through the war intact by virtue of being specifically designed to protect the crew from radiation. The American captain of one such sub, the U.S.S. Sawfish, is a certain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), who arrives in Melbourne to meet with Admiral Bridie (John Tate) of the Royal Australian Navy, hoping to figure out what in the hell comes next. A question of particularly immediate importance, given the estimate by one of Bridie's science advisors, Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire) that there's only about five months to go until the cloud of radioactive particulates currently leaving the Northern Hemphisphere an uninhabitable wasteland have drifted enough to do the same thing to Australia.

On the Beach covers two plots, what we might call the "political" story and the "human" story, though they are intimately related. In the one, Towers is sent north into the Pacific, with a science team and Lt. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) of the RAN, to run some tests in the hope that it might be possible to evacuate in that direction, and later to investigate an erratic Morse code signal originating from San Diego, California. In the other, Holmes and his wife Mary (Donna Anderson) attempt to deal with the knowledge that impending doom is coming for them and their infant daughter Jennifer - or not deal with that knowledge, in Mary's case - while Towers rather uncertainly strikes up a romance with Mary's friend Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), and the people of Melbourne do their absolute best to keep on living like there's actually something to live for.

The scenario - one of the best in Kramer's filmography - is uniquely human in the annals of post-nuclear cinema: almost totally concerned with people doing their absolute best to just get by in any way possible, to live as fully as possible in the small time still allotted to them, and to try not to live in the constant awareness of their immediate death. Every one of the five principals, and even several of the side characters (Bridie's secretary, Hosgood, played by Lola Brooks, has some particularly fine, tiny moments as she quite peacefully decides right before our eyes that her sanity will be best preserved by acting quite ordinarily), approaches this situation differently: Towers longs for oblivion, having prepared for every iteration of his own death, but not of those around him; Moira wants to finally make the emotional commitments that, in her hard-partying life, she'd always pushed off till later; Holmes is wracked with morbidity. The film is consistently focused on small character moments: Paxton's dialogue-heavy script includes no end of nuanced exchanges between character that range from the tired and sorry and even pathetic (the Towers/Moira courtship, in which it's quite clear that both of them are willing to do some very emotionally damaging things just because there's nothing worse than being alone) to the believably overwrought and savage (the gradual, heartbreaking evolution, across the movie, of Peter's attempts to convince Mary that at some point, they're going to have to kill their daughter to prevent her from dying of radiation poisoning - his anguished description of his wife lying dead herself while Jennifer wastes away in her crib is the most horrifying of several passages in the script). The discovery as to what, exactly, is behind the signals coming from San Diego is a wonderfully dark, sardonic moment, coming off of an exploration of the empty city that is quite possibly the best-directed sequence in Kramer's career. And Osborn's wry musing that the war was probably caused by some radar operator making a simple mistake is beautifully underplayed by Astaire, reducing the matter of nuclear devastation to "eh, it happens", in a way far more chilling - particularly in '59, when nuclear devastation was an everyday fear - than a more operatic scenario could ever be.

Of course, this being a Stanley Kramer message movie, not everything can be sensitive and restrained, and for every quiet moment of Astaire shrugging his shoulders, there's a hectoring lecture about how THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF WE USE THE BOMB. DO YOU WANT THIS TO HAPPEN? DEAD BABIES! A moment with a sailor from San Francisco cheerfully electing to go ashore and die in his hometown starts out as a lovely, sad moment, until Kramer pounds a dangerously explicit moment in the script into outright clumsines; the final shot is comically overstated in its didacticism. He also uniformly mismanages his requisite Big Name Cast - including Gardner's first post-contract role, and Astaire's first non-musical one - and while everybody is good more often than not, nearly everybody does something actively wrong, at some point or another: Perkins chews too much scenery, Gardner waxes too much melodrama, Anderson goes all over the place with her craziness. The accents are also a spectacular misfire: Peck, playing an American, is just about the only person in the film whose native accent is correct, and this extends not just to so many Americans playing Australians and Brits, but to the mostly-Australian crew of the American Sawfish - the film was shot in Melbourne, and apparently it was easier to hire locals for the small parts, but it results in an almost comic mismatch, where nearly the whole cast has swapped roles - an all-American cast would have come off as just the usual Hollywood ignorance, but the strange Opposite Day game being played makes it next to impossible to ignore the mismatched accents (or the occasional weak attempts at putting on an Australian accent, of which Perkins's is the most strenuous). In other words, this very human story of widespread death and inescabable death is, at best, wobbly on the human front. I think it's fair to consider that a significant problem.

The fact is, Stanley Kramer just wasn't that interesting of a filmmaker, and while On the Beach has some very good scenes, it has some very bland, typical ones as well (and it also has a dreadful, Oscar-nominated score by Ernest Gold, relying almost exclusively on arrangements of "Waltzing Matilda", because Australia). If, on the whole, it is a genuinely unsettling and moving depiction of the evils that man can perpetrate despite his best intentions, it is also a movie that makes a lot of unnecessary mistakes. Few than most Kramer movies, it is true, and I'll own that I cannot name any other nuclear war drama from the same period that holds up this well. But there is a stiff self-importance underlying even the most moving, shattering scenes, and this is by no means the strongest film that could have been made from this script, nor the most harrowing. It is a good film, but it could easily be great, not just a time capsule but a genuinely scarring movie; but then it wouldn't be right for Nice People, and Kramer, above all, was a Nice director.

3 comments:

Brian said...

Honestly, I enjoyed Guess Who's Coming To Dinner when I caught it on TMC several years back. Not that it was great, and it surely was heavy-handed as all hell, but there are some really fine performances in it.

franklinshepard said...

So you don't like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World? I kind of love it. There's a real viciousness to it.

Tim said...

Brian- I have to admit, Spencer Tracy is far from a favorite of mine and that keeps me from engaging even with the performances, though it's as good as Poitier ever was in any of those "symbolic black man in a social issues drama" roles he got so often in the '60s.

Franklin- That is, in fact, my favorite Kramer film, not least because the one thing it ain't, is a sober-minded message movie.