8/27/2010

Top 6 Words: High

Posted in Top 6 Words at 5:00 am by Sam

This week’s word in the Top 6 Words series is “high.” My favorite movies with the word “high” in the title follow the jump, but try thinking up some “high” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.

No trouble coming up with six this time. Some pretty good movies miss the cut: High Society (1956), a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra; Ride the High Country (1962), an early Sam Peckinpah western; Romance On the High Seas (1948), Doris Day’s debut; Riding High (1950), Frank Capra’s remake of his own Broadway Bill; The Noose Hangs High (1948), an unusually good Abbott and Costello vehicle; High Road To China (1983), a great old-fashioned adventure movie; Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), one of the definitive 80s teen comedies; Sky High (2005), a surprisingly good superhero comedy; The High and the Mighty (1954), with John Wayne in a plane; and High Fidelity (2000), which I have to thank for having Top 6 lists in the first place.

Some might also include two comedies that just miss the mark for me but which I sort of like anyway: Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) and Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1978).

The division between those that made it and those that didn’t is pretty arbitrary. My top 4 are solid, and my #5 was obligatory, but the next dozen or so are pretty even.

6. Hang ‘Em High (1968)
6. High Plains Drifter (1973)

These two films are Clint Eastwood westerns linked by a common theme. Hang ‘Em High starts with a bang and progresses through an engrossing adventure story almost to the end. The third act meanders and loses its way. But the film, one of Clint Eastwood’s early westerns, is well worth seeing for its surprisingly complex study of justice and the ways it is sought and thwarted.

High Plains Drifter also has to do with justice, but it deals with it on more of an internal level. While Hang ‘Em High was primarily about a government justice system, High Plains Drifter deals with justice on a more personal and possibly even spiritual level. It’s also a lot more subtle: it doesn’t really directly address the moral and ethical correctness of executing justice, but the questions are raised nonetheless by its uncompromising look at the anti-hero of the film. Sometimes what Eastwood’s character does here feels right, and other times quite wrong. Part of the ambiguity is that the film is cagey about telling you just who this character is, and on what authority, if any, he is acting.

If I’ve made these films sound excessively intellectual, fear not: these are rowdy action films set in the rough, dirty worlds of the spaghetti westerns.

5. High Noon (1952)

I’m convinced this is not as good as everybody says it is, but how can I ignore it? High Noon, perhaps the most well-known of all classic westerns, provokes a broad range of strong reactions. I think it works on a metaphorical level: the story of a man who stands up for what’s right against all odds, and even after everyone else has deserted him, is a compelling story. The Gary Cooper character can even be seen as a Christ figure of sorts: he stands firm to face a daunting challenge that will probably result in the loss of his life, all to save a people that have betrayed him. Small wonder this film resonates with people.

But the story is not really a biblical allegory. It was commonly seen as a criticism of the Hollywood blacklist, which somewhat famously did not sit well with several filmmakers of westerns, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who teamed up to make a rebuttal of sorts with the great film Rio Bravo (1959). But the politics are less clear to me than with, say, On the Waterfront (1954), whose storyline maps more directly to the blacklist brouhaha. High Noon, by contrast, doesn’t really work as a commentary on the blacklist unless you accept the validity of the metaphors it uses. I’m not sure I do.

I’m also not sure I buy the story on a literal level. One of John Wayne’s criticisms of the film makes a lot of sense: “Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fighting off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy.”

But as I said, High Noon is not a film that can be ignored. Whatever fundamental problems I have with it, the fact is that High Noon is gorgeously shot, sounds beautiful, and is an inspiring story about a man who takes a difficult stand when it would be so easy just to cut and run.

Me? I’d have cut and run. I’d like to think I’d have stayed if the townsfolk had been more deserving of it, but these cowardly wretches aren’t. Then again, if we are to see the film as a biblical allegory and Gary Cooper’s character as a Christ figure, isn’t that the point? “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

4. High Sierra (1941)

High Sierra, starring Humphrey Bogart, is one of the great classic gangster films, continuing the traditions of the 30s (when the gangster film was at its peak) but dabbling with romanticism and stylized cinematography more characteristic of the film noir genre, which wasn’t quite formed by 1941 but soon would be. The script, in fact, was co-written by John Huston, who also wrote and directed another formative noir film, The Maltese Falcon, in the same year.

Opposite Bogart — and earning top billing, interestingly — is the tough-as-nails Ida Lupino, who not only did great acting work in crime films but became one of Hollywood’s first major female directors when she started making them herself in 1949.

3. The High Sign (1921)

Buster Keaton was fascinated with the mechanical aspect of comedy and filmmaking. This short is a fine example of that. Creative camera work and elaborate mechanical props provide the working materials for this showcase of Keaton’s comic talent. Although the concluding chase scenes go on a tad too long, the comedy here ranks with his best and funniest work. The hilarity is near non-stop.

2. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

An American bomber unit suffers heavy losses over Germany, and morale is low. Enter Gregory Peck, a general who reassembles the unit. Rereading that sentence, I fear I’m making it sound like an inspirational story of the band of misfits that pull through in the end. It’s not that kind of movie at all. These men knew what they were doing. They knew they’d most likely die on the missions they were assigned. The problem was getting the job done as best as possible under the circumstances, and with as much pride and dignity as could be mustered.

The film was based on a real unit, which suffered unconscionable casualties — upwards of 87% — in their daylight precision bombing raids in 1942. Additionally, most of the characters were based on real people. Peck’s character was based on General Frank Armstrong, one of our greatest military leaders. Leadership is what the movie is really about; it may be the single best and most exhaustive film on the subject. It is studied in Navy training programs and even non-military leadership seminars. And it is embraced by many veterans of the air raids over Germany as the film that tells their stories.

The film’s authenticity is not surprising: it was written by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr, who flew on the kind of bombing raids this film portrays and knew General Armstrong personally. Bartlett, in fact, flew in the lead plane in the first bombing raid and became the first American to drop a bomb on Germany in the war. No doubt this film’s compelling portrayal of the psychological effects of war was based on the writers’ personal experiences and those of the men they fought beside.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the movie works as an entertainment. It provides audiences with a rewarding time at the movies, while more importantly documenting this important bit of history. It honors the veterans of the war simply by telling the truth about it.

1. High and Low (1963)

Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low just might be the first forensic science procedural, at least in the form we recognize it today. A child is kidnapped, and the middle chunk of the film goes into fascinating detail showing us how clues are unearthed, deductions formed, and investigations uncovered. On this basis alone, the film is a great entertainment.

But it is so much more, too. The real heart of the film lies in the moral consciences of the characters. Consider that the kidnapped child was thought to be the son of a rich businessman. A steep ransom is demanded, but the businessman knows the truth: his own son is fine. It’s the son of his chauffeur who was taken. The chauffeur cannot possibly afford the ransom, but isn’t that his problem? The chauffeur, meanwhile, has a dilemma of his own. He already owes much to the businessman. Can he ask that he pay the ransom too, without hope of ever being paid back for it? It’s not just the money, anyhow: it’s that the timing is such that even a temporary loss of funds will cause the businessman to lose control of his company, a company he helped build and takes pride in, to corporate bandits who just want to plunder it.

These character crises take place in parallel with a police investigation that must be kept hidden from the kidnappers, who seem to see and know everything that goes on. There are numerous deceptions and con games from both sides, trying to get a leg up on the other, and the film winds up in some strange and unexpected places. It all adds up to an exciting, unpredictable, and profoundly human story.

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