Movies: “This film is not yet rated” … Documentary on Hollywood censorship

14 02 2012

This is a documentary film about MPAA’s ratings of movies, and discusses whether this is institutionalized censorship of movies or not.

MPAA ratings today

In the US, MPAA ratings of movies is well-known. These ratings are said to be recommendations about what audience groups a movie is suitable for. The ratings are according to a five level hierarchy:

  • G: “General Audiences” – All ages admitted
  • PG: “Parental Guidance Suggested” – Some material may not be suitable for children
  • PG-13: “Parents Strongly Cautioned” – Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
  • R: “Restricted” – Under 17 not admitted without parent or adult guardian
  • NC-17: “No One 17 and Under Admitted”

Looking at the names of these levels, we see that the first three (G, PG, PG-13) are suggestive, in that they seem to give advice, while the last two (R, NC-17) express categorical prohibitions.

These ratings are part of the public image created by producers, distributors, and exhibitors. That is, in marketing of movies, you see these ratings clearly announced.

The images below show a part of the “Saw 3D” movie poster, and how “This Means War” is presented at

"Saw 3D" movie poster

"Saw 3D" movie poster

"This is War" marketing

"This is War" marketing

On the movie poster, the rating (“R”) is highly visible compared to all other credits in this text-dense part of the poster. Hence, glancing at the poster is likely to inform you about its MPAA rating.

The column describing “This Means War” has the MPAA rating as third item from the top, preceding “genre”, “starring”, “director”, etc.

These two random examples indicate that MPAA rating is definitely an important part of the US world of movie business and pleasure.

The objective of the documentary

The film “This film is not yet rated” aims to investigate what these ratings mean, how ratings are decided, and what effects ratings can have on the movie industry.

"This Film is not yet Rated" dvd cover

"This Film is not yet Rated" dvd cover

Within the movie industry, the concept of MPAA ratings is well-known, as well as the importance of getting the most desirable rating of the movie you want to market. But the way ratings are set sometimes surprise persons with a good overview over the spectrum of movies produced during a decade or so. If you, as a movie producer, want to get a specific rating, what in the movie can get it that rating? Or what in the movie would prevent it from getting that rating? The process of deciding upon MPAA ratings is not transparent, and much confusion exists about the processes, preferences and priorities of the MPAA rating system. One could compare it to Kremlinology during the period of the Soviet Union, where important decisions were made behind closed doors, and where the effects of decisions could have major impact on the rest of the world.

This documentary aims to uncover what the MPAA rating is in practice, what it is officially stated to be, and whether it is appropriate to have these kinds of institutions in a well-balanced democratic society.

More on MPAA and control of movies in the US

MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is an American industry association, basically a cooperation platform for the biggest Hollywood studios. Currently the following studios support MPAA:

  • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
  • Paramount Pictures Corporation
  • Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
  • Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
  • Universal City Studios LLC
  • Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It has broadened its scope to cover not only the movie sector, but also television and home video. This change corresponds well to the evolution of the Hollywood studios that survived., they had to include other channels and reaching other audiences.

In 1922 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was created as a signal that the movie industry was embarking on what could be called social responsibility. One reason was the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal , which raised a national uproar about “immoral behavior” of individual persons in Hollywood, and also cast doubts about the role of the movie industry as such. The first president of MPPDA was Will H. Hays, and his role was to defend the industry against attacks from many US organizations, mainly on religious and moral grounds. To avoid boycott at the movies, which could hit the studios hard, MPPDA embarked on campaigns to eliminate criticism.

At the end of the 1920s, there were some real threats that there might be federal legislation that could control what studios could do, and to avoid this, the MPDDA created the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly known as the “Hays Code”). This Code, accepted and supported by the major studios in 1930, was a set of detailed rules about what movies could show and what they must not show, ranging from bans of showing “suggestive dances” and homosexuality, to upholding the sanctity of marriage. During the first years of its existence, the Code was officially supported, but in practice, it did not constrain too severely the movies made by the studios. One could say that during this period it was intended to serves a real self-regulation within the studios. But studios were mainly interested in profits, and saw what created  success at the box office, so the Code had not much effect.

As criticism of Hollywood started to rise again, a change was instituted in 1934, with an industry agreement that all movies produced in the US, intended for public display, must obtain a certificate about adherence to a modified set of rules about acceptable movies. In effect, this was largely a framework for censorship. Even though there was no federal legislation that could ban movies from public display, as distributors in general also supported the Code, movies without a certificate were in practice not shown.

In 1946, the name of MPDA was changed to Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

This system of self-regulation was alive and well until the beginnings of the 1950s. At that time, there were court decisions that eroded the application of the Code, as well as protests from within the movie industry itself.

This escalated during the years, and in the 1960s everybody understood that the old Code was impossible to uphold. In 1968, MPAA (now with Jack Valenti as president) created the voluntary rating system, which replaced detailed rules about what movies can and cannot show, with a rating indicating suitable audience categories.

The system was voluntary, which means that there is no formal objection to producing, distributing , and showing whatever movie you want. Instead the ratings should serve as advice to potential audiences, with special emphasis on advice about what children and teenagers could and should not watch.

That the MPAA rating system was a voluntary system sounds fine. But formal freedom does not entail practical freedom. The rating system is controlled by three parties: MPAA, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), and the International Film Importers & Distributors of America (IFIDA). This is a significant fact, as NATO and IFIDA largely influence the distribution and display of movies. That is, if a movie does not get rated, then the effect can be that no distributor of theater owner wants to touch the movie — which means it can be commercially dead. There is also another aspect where the existence of rating has a monumental effect on commercial success. Marketing is based on advertising, and movies that do not get page space of air time for their advertisements will not be known to any sizable part of the candidate audiences. And if a film is not rated, media can refuse to provide advertisement space and time.

In this way, the rating system can effectively be a censorship system.

And this is the major issue that the documentary “This film is not yet rated” addresses.

What is achieved by this film?

The documentary has been directed by Kirby Dick. He has been making documentaries since the 1980s, which explains the smooth flow in this film.

The production of this film has been done by Independent Film Channel (IFC), in association with NetFlix, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Chain Camera Pictures, and Red Envelope Entertainment.

Themes that appear are: a short (fragmented) history of the Hays Code and the MPAA ratings; “deviant” movies made before institutionalized control of movies; types of objectionable themes and depictions; examples of surprising differences in ratings for what looks like very similar movie scenes; process of rating; who is on the MPAA rating board; how rating decisions can be appealed.

To put some meat on the topic, there are numerous short clips from movies — preceding the Hays Code, during the reign of the Code, and during the reign of MPAA ratings — that illustrate what can and what cannot be shown. Much nudity, of course. But as all such clips from other movies are quite short, they do not convey a real sense of the context for the chosen seconds of play time to display. So no need to get sexually aroused by this. It is mainly a potpourri of glimpses of what has at one time or another been accepted or condemned by MPDDA and MPAA.

By presenting some clips side by side, we can see how seemingly similar scenes different are rated quite differently. The implication presented is that the ratings actually prefer traditional, straight, non-adventurous sex in scenes, while having negative feelings when sexual roles are reversed, when there is potential homosexuality involved, when women are taking initiatives, when some deeper pleasure is expressed, etc.

Another theme is how strong violence can be accepted, but even moderate discrete sex is not accepted. This can be compared to modern European judgment (formal censorship, ratings, or informal judgments) on movies, where violence is regarded as more dangerous than sex.

One major thread in the documentary is the search for the identities of the rating board members. MPAA, who provides the organizational platform for the rating board, has covered the board in a veil of secrecy. No-one outside the MPAA should know who is on the board. And this is what Dick (and others) find unnatural. In a democracy, when some group makes decisions that can have a dramatic influence on the success of your work, should that group be anonymous? How can we feel assured that the group is really acting in the interest of all? Therefore, Dick, with the help of a private investigator, tries to track down the members. This thread of the story is like a detective story, where hidden cameras and binoculars are used, calling MPAA using fake identities, following cars to restaurants, etc. Dick does manage to find out the identities of the board.

A second question is whether these members are representatives of the categories of citizens that they purport to represent. As mentioned earlier, the rating system is mainly targeting parents, giving them advice on whether they should or should not let their children watch some movie. MPAA states that the board is composed of “average parents” with children of age 5-17.

As Joan Graves (MPAA Ratings Chief) says:

The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films. Our ratings reflect how we believe a majority of American parents, not just from large cities on the coasts but everywhere in between, would rate a film.  It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.

When we assign ratings to films, we do not make qualitative judgments; we are not film critics or censors. We are parents who ask ourselves the same important question during every screening: What would I want to know about this film before I allow my child to see it? The board makes ratings decisions based on the film in its entirety, not by comparison to other films.

 MPAA Ratings Chief Defends Movie Ratings (The Hollywood Reporter, Feb 23, 2011)

What Dick wants to investigate is whether the board members match the demographic profile as stated by MPAA: “parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17”. Now, having names on the board members, Dick gets information about the family situations of these members. And the result is that some, but not all, have children in that age span. Hence, MPAA is lying when it says we should be assured that the board is populated by parents who should “eat their own dog food”.

To further test what the rating process entails, Dick submits an early version of this documentary to get a rating. As it is crammed with sexually explicit material, it gets an NC-17 rating. Just to test the system, Dick makes a formal appeal to the MPAA ratings appeal board. This boards is also secret, and it was difficult to get any sensible answers to questions posed to MPAA. By some undercover work, most of the members of that board were discovered, and it turned out that they are representatives of industry — movie production, distribution, theaters. And they decided not to reverse the rating board’s decision. Case closed.

The documentary contains quite a lot of statements from persons on the fringe or outside the established movie industry. Of these, perhaps John Waters is the most well-known. We do get from these persons some refreshing statements about what movies can achieve if permitted some freedom, but also how the rating system introduced practical barriers to distribution and display of independently made movies.

What is missing?

"This Film is not yet Rated" - illustration seen on

"This Film is not yet Rated" - illustration seen on

OK, this movie wants to get some wider distribution, so it aims to position itself as an easy and entertaining story, not requiring much effort or stamina from the audience.  Television documentaries — the main channel for these kinds of works — need to take it easy in their storytelling. We see this here, in that quite a large part of this film concerns the investigation trying to uncover the names of the rating board members. So we get to see how a certain kind of investigative journalism can be done. And this is more attractive for screen audiences, compared to digging into libraries and archives looking for information. But “the chase” we see was not needed to be part of the film, It would have been enough to tell us the end results: “the board members are …”.

A more annoying aspect is that the MPAA’s role is not more clearly described. It is actually doing much more that movie rating. All matters of common interest to the movie industry can be handled by MPAA. The three main headings offered by MPAA at their home page are:

  • Film Ratings
  • Content Protection
  • Policy & Research

Actually, during last decades we have heard more about the MPAA campaigns against media piracy, than about movie ratings. Jack Valenti was for a long time a feared and hated opponent in the debates on copyright enforcement, and how he wanted to to introduce restrictions onto the Internet, to make sure that movies could only be accessed in acceptable ways.

If Dick had spent a little bit more time on clarifying that industry is using MPAA to control market and media, and what critical industry needs are, and how the MPAA acts in the interests of its supporting industry. Then the framework for MPAA rating can be better understood – and actually rational from the studios’ point of view – than what we get in this film: the rating process is a mystery.

Nevertheless, it is informative and entertaining to watch this documentary. It sheds some light on those rating acronyms that moviegoers see all over the US.


Entertaining, but not an in-depth study of the major forces that control the whys and whats and hows of the MPAA. The opinions expressed by the many movie people appearing here is enlightening, but other perspectives (e.g. from the studios) are missing. And too much time is spent on chasing the board members of the MPAA rating board. But probably this is one of the few practical ways of getting information about the MPAA rating system, unless you want to dive into some volumes of academic analysis of movie production.


This Film Is Not Yet Rated” (2006). Directed by: Kirby Dick. Written by: Kirby Dick, Eddie Schmidt, Matt Patterson. Starring: Kirby Dick, Cheryl Howell, John Waters, Maria Bello, Atom Egoyan, etc. Running time: 1:37:51 (Movie at IMDB)

Movies: “The Fall of the House of Usher” … early examples of pushing cinematic techniques

1 11 2010

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The fall of the house of Usher” has been filmed several times. Two very early examples show how –what then were new — visual techniques are used. Only for the the cinema historians.


The Edgar Allen Poe short story “The fall of the house of Usher”  (1839) is about two twins — Roderick and  Madeleine Usher — who live in an ancient castle. An old friend of Robert’s is asked to come, to help Robert as he does not feel well. Madeleine is getting successively weaker, and finally dies. Robert is distressed, not sure that his sister is really dead, but finally agrees to her burial. Some time later, one night, a storm breaks loose. Madeleine (or at least her apparition) appears, and Robert and Madeleine fall dead to the floor. The visitor flees the castle, and the castle falls apart and sinks into the lake.


Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover


It is definitely a story in the Gothic tradition. Death, maybe-death, nights, storms, strange signs and indications. Now, Poe is really not a Gothic writer, but it is easy to reinterpret some of his stories as horror stories.

This has been done by the movie industry several times, with different kinds of results. A version quite well-known in its time was the 1960 Roger Corman production, which helped type-cast Vincent Price as “evil man”.

Here we have two early examples of cinematic rendering of the Usher story. They were both produced in the same year (1928), one on each side of the Atlantic,  and with different approaches and fidelity to the original story.

The American film

The American film  “The Fall of the House of Usher” was directed by Watson and Webber, and is a short film (13 minutes) that really does not bother with the story itself. It just picks up a few components (the Usher twins and the visitor; the death of Madeleine; the psychic breakdown of Roderick, the return of Madeleine (dead?, alive?), and the physical disintegration of the House of Usher).


Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior

Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior


What the movie does is to offer a portrayal of the psychic breakdown of Roderick, expressed entirely in visual images. Madeleine plays a minor role, as does the visitor. It is all about the state of mind of Roderick. A tormented mind … the pressure that it is subjected to and that it puts on itself … how it looks upon itself and the surroundings … All such things concern mental states, and this is where this film is using novel means to express mental states in images. It has obvious correlations to early German expressionistic cinema in the first half of the 1920s — e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923). The horizontal and vertical dimensions are twisted. Corners and angles are unnatural, visual patterns break our expectations, and so on.


Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine


But there is also a second relationship, namely to European surrealistic cinema as started in the mid 1920s — e.g. Entr’acte by René Clair (1924), La Coquille et le clergyman by Germaine Dulac (1928), Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929), L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray (1928), L’Âge d’Or by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1930).

As indicated, this film is not telling a story in the traditional sense. It can be understood in two ways. Either as an attempt to find cinematic means to express mental/psychic states, and just using one perspective on Poe’s story as basis. The other way is to see it as methods looking for an objective. Devising novel cinematic methods that break with traditional cinema techniques, … how can I put them to work, more or less as a piece of art? Yeah, perhaps as in this film. So we could equally well  look at it as a technology/technique demonstration, intended to impress with its novel ways of using camera and supporting optical tools and tricks.


Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine


At IMDB there are only three cinema items associated with Watson and with Webber, so what we see here was not carried much further by them into the context of movie production in the US. An interesting example, but not much more.


This film is of interest to those who want to see examples of the evolution of cinema … specifically what happened at the “artish bleeding edge”. Could be shown at the museum of modern art as an early example of what we now call “video art”. Now you know what this work by Watson & Webber looks like 😉

The French film


Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover


The French movie — original title “La chute de la maison Usher” — is directed by Jean Epstein, a French director that directed movies from 1922  to 1948. The mise-en-scène we look at here is more faithful to the Poe story. Not that it is a literal transcription of the written story to the screen. No, there are many adaptations made, like turning Madeleine into the wife of Roderick instead of a sister. But most literary sources are tweaked when remade for the silver screen, so this is not a criticism of Epstein.

Is it a horror movie? Yes, and no. There are the typical ingredients of the horror movie, like fog, rain and lightning, unpleasant landscape, trees that look threatening, etc. But the film is not about an outer threat. There is no werewolf or such thing. Even the dead (?) Madeleine is not something that really frightens us. It is, again, a question of how we can frighten ourselves, how we may strain our mind so that it breaks.

The starting point of the storyline is that Roderick is obsessed with painting portraits of Madeleine. He is so focussed on these evolving portraits that he does not really notice how Madeleine is physically deteriorating. The portrait is more important … more true. “There is life in this portrait”; “This portrait is life!”. When Madeleine dies, Roderick is devastated, and not sure whether she is really dead. In the 19th century there was much worry about “like death” bodily states, where some such not-really-dead person was nevertheless  buried … so buried alive. This is the concern of Roderick. Is Madeleine really dead? He becomes more and more distressed, and then the stormy night happens, and Madeleine comes back, all goes “asunder”.


Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine


The visual rendering in this film is quite good for its time. The selection of camera angles sometimes surprises. The positioning of the entites within the rectangular view-port is innovative. But still, much of this film feels aged … a representation of what silent features of its day looked like.

Interestingly enough, Luis Buñuel has writer’s credit for this film. He soon became known (or , rather, infamous) for Un chien andalou and L’Âge d’Or, and much later for his provocative pictures in the 1950s and 1960s. The film “La chute de la maison Usher” is not a Buñuel film. He probably had only minor influence on the final result. But, most likely, Buñuel learnt a lot by being part in the creation of this movie.


All in all, this film succeeds in balancing the Gothic elements with traditional drama elements, and the result is a quite enjoyable experience, if you are willing to ignore a few outmoded acting techniques.


Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin



(1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928). Directed by: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber. Story by E.A. Poe. Starring: Herbert Stern (Roderick Usher), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline Usher), Melville (a traveller). (Movie at IMDB)

(2) “La chute de la maison Usher” (“The Fall of the House of Usher“) (1928). Directed by: Jean Epstein. Written by: Edgar Allan Poe (story), Luis Buñuel, Jean Epstein. Starring: Jean Debucourt (Sir Roderick Usher), Marguerite Gance (Madeleine Usher), Charles Lamy (Allan, The Guest), Fournez-Goffard.  (Movie at IMDB)

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Movie: “A Single Man” — life at the bottom

16 10 2010

A day in the life of a man who has lost his partner. A mental journey to the bottom. Is there anything left to look forward to? A fascinating movie with a very polished surface.


"A Single Man" -- poster

"A Single Man" -- poster



Christopher Isherwood (1904 – 1986) is an English novelist, most known as the author of “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), the basis for the play “I Am A Camera” (1959) and the film “Cabaret” (1972) by Bob Fosse. His novel “A Single Man” was published in 1964. 45 years later it was transformed into a movie script. The movie that resulted received excellent critical acclaim, as well as generated a nice profit for the production company.

The psycho-social setting of the novel is the gay mind of main character. In this sense it builds upon Isherwood’s own experiences, glimpses of which we saw in “Goodbye to Berlin”. Despite the gay setting, the story has relevance for all of us. Anyone of us may one day find ourselves in a similar state of lacking faith in the future.

Short résumé

It is Los Angeles, California. George Falconer, an university professor in English Literature, of British origin, (Colin Firth) wakes up to yet another day. For some time, he has gone through the regular motions, doing what is expected of him, but with absolutely no enthusiasm. The reason is that his lover (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident some months earlier. They had had a relationship for 16 years. This day he takes a resolution to end his life. During this day and night he encounters students in his English class, bumps into a homosexual young man outside a shop, has a dinner and spends an evening with a dear old friend (Julianne Moore), and in the late evening is contacted by one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) that finally brings some life and hope to Falconer. He sees that losses can generate emptiness, but that new experiences can bring hope and expectations.


It was a pleasant surprise to see that the director Tom Ford (1961- ) — well-known American fashion designer — in this, his first move direction job, succeeded so well. Not only has he avoided all the usual traps a novice director can fall into. He has also brought a personal visual touch to the movie, no doubt correlated to the visual taste in the fashion domain.

The story takes place in California in 1962. The locations have been chosen and settings designed to reproduce a strange magical feeling of the early 1960s. The general colouring scheme is greenish brown, with a washed-out/misty tone. That is the colour representation of the depressed mode of Falconer, and at the same time something to remind us of the somewhat restrained colour schemes of the late 50s and early 60s. In a few scenes the sun makes an impression, bringing a more living tone to the scenes.

Falconer’s flashbacks, that provide some key pieces of his recent history, are presented with a sharper palette, containing pronounced colouring schemes, and strong presence of various shades of red.

The same holds for those moments of this day in Falconer’s life when his curiosity or interest is unexpectedly triggered.

Interior design, dresses, etc. are in the style of the period. It is all consistent, believable, and impressive.

But does this mean that the movie is all surface and no contents? Ford — a fashion designer — is only interested in the surface, right? So is there any substance in the movie?

Yes, it is. This kind of story is notoriously difficult to turn into a good movie. The entire movie is about the inner state of Falconer, and when we combine this with the fact that Falconer is a person with a controlled and restrained (British) behaviour, we understand the challenge in production and direction.


"A Single Man" -- Firth and Moore

"A Single Man" -- Firth and Moore


This is where we need to turn to Colin Firth who is the star of the film. From a celebrity point of view, Julianne Moore is probably more well-known, but in “A Single Man” she is definitely in the shadow of Colin Firth.

Firth’s low-key playing here is admirable. He manages to express  moods and states using body postures and body movements of the smallest kind. Ford’s direction, and camera work  by Eduard Grau,  critically uses extreme close-ups. Parts of a face, fragments of lips, … this is a  challenge for an actor, where the smallest muscles need to be used to communicate a psychological state to the viewer.

Even though Firth dominates the entire film, most other key actors also deliver admirable performances.

The pace at which the story evolves is very slow. “A Single Man” can be seen as an anti-thesis to an action movie.  But that is OK, as it is not about the outer world, but the inner world of George Falconer.


This is a film that deserves the praise that it has received. It is not a feel-good movie, rather a dissection of a life gone stale. But the sheer skill with which it is made is certainly a reason for watching it.


A Single Man” (2009) Direction: Tom Ford; Script: Tom Ford, David Scearce, Christopher Isherwood (book); Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Ginnifer Goodwin; length 1:39 (movie at imdb)

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Movie: “The Big Steal” – a story on wheels

19 08 2010

An early Don Siegel film (1949), with glimpses of what he would later achieve. The surface story is quite simple … people chasing each other across a rural landscape. But we see some novel cinematic techniques put to use, especially in the context of the car chase. And the plot itself is nicely disguised, so the audience has to fill in the unknown pieces of the story as it unfolds. Not a perfect movie, but nice to view at least once.

"The Big Steal" -- poster

"The Big Steal" -- poster

Short resumé

On a ship that has just docked (or is it about to leave?) in a Mexican port, Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum) is caught unaware when Vincent Blake (William Bendix) steps into his cabin whith a gun in his hand. There is a fight, Blake is knocked unconsious, and Halliday leaves the ship and takes refuge in this seaside Mexican town. He tries to surprise Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles) in a hotel, but arrives too late. Instead he finds Joan Graham (Jane Greer) there. When Halliday detects that Fiske is leaving the city in a car, he and Graham get a car and chase after Fiske. Then Blake gets a car and chases after Halliday. And then the chase is on, across the Mexican landscape, towards another city where something is about to happen, something that may have to do with money. Roads are bad, and obstacles encountered. The parties nearly catch each other, but succeed in getting away again. Finally Fiske reaches his destination, where he is to meet a “fence”, Julius Seton (John Qualen). Halliday and Graham are caught when they are almost at  Seton’s house, and brought into the house where Fiske and Seton are finalising their business. Then Blake arrives, and in the final climax there are some surprising information disclosed. Halliday and Graham survive, Fiske is killed, and Blake is arrested by the Mexican police.


Don Siegel had directed a few movies before getting enrolled to do “The Big Steal“. He was still looking for his approach to movie direction, so we should see this movie as an exploration of how one can tell an engaging story on the screen, while at the same time not exposing too much of the socio-psychological space in which the story unfolds. Action is important; movies  are about what is seen; and what cannot be directly shown, that should be left to the viewer to find out. Many of his later works were good at the box office, and several have achieved a lasting reputation — e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Killers (1964), and “Dirty Harry (1971).

Another dimension explored by Siegel in this movie is the “you gotta do it yourself” attitude expressed by the characters on the screen. Each has his own separate agenda — though it is never completely obvious what that agenda is. Most have been having talks with the police, but instead of getting the law engaged, they try to keep the law out of the action, leaving the troubles to be sorted out by the main characters.

Robert Mitchum was already established as a major star, and he was often typecast as a silent strong man with clear idea about what he wants. Many script that try to be a  box office success do have such roles, so Mitchum was never really out of jobs. In “The Big Steal” he is the strong man, but a strong man with an eye for fascinating women. Here Mitchum is 32 years old, and has already worked in a huge number of films. His performance in this movie is on par with what he usually does, meaning that he does not give us any surprises. It is rumoured that he never in his career felt really dedicated to the movies, rather that Hollywood provided him with a steady and good income, so he spent as little effort as possible when in a movie production, and played out the standard Mitchum look-and-feel. This is most likely why we immediately recognize the “Mitchum” figure in all of his movies.

"The Big Steal" -- poster

"The Big Steal" -- Jane Greer in action

Jane Greer was 29 at the time. She had ten movies behind her, starring in many of them. Her performance as Joan Graham is quite good. Female roles in those days were mainly of two types — the helpless innocent young woman, and the dangerous femme fatale. Here Jane portrays a woman who is strong-willed and wants to do right, and she makes a nice counterpoint to Mitchum’s more robust style. Of course there is a sort of “love story” glued onto the side of the film, but Siegel only uses it as a vehicle for entertaining dialogue between Mitchum and Greer, and does not surrender to the temptation to turn this into a sweetened romantic storyline. Not even at the end of the movie is there a clear “and they lived happily ever after” statement. Instead we are left wondering what will happen next to  these two persons and their relationship.

The Movie

The whole movie is about the chase, and almost all of it in the form of cars driven furiously across Mexico, chasing each others. Some  of the scenes with cars can be seen as early examples of “suspenseful car chase”, what some decades later matured into “Bullit” (1968),  “The French Connection” (1971), “Gone in 60 Seconds” (1974), etc. But this is the 1940s, so the cars are more primitive, and camera equipment too heavy to be used live in the cars. So what we are presented with are film-takes from fixed locations by the side of the road. Sometimes from high up, giving a feeling for the twisting and narrow roads, sometimes ground-level close-ups, where we feel the dirt thrown up by the passing cars. Here Siegel has created some scenes that still arouses the adrenalin in the viewer.

"The Big Steal" -- Halliday meets Graham

"The Big Steal" -- Halliday meets Graham

What is also obvious, when we look at the movie from a perspective more than 50 years later, is that cars were much more dangerous in those days. We can clearly seen how unstable these cars are when driven at that high speed on such roads. The cars really twist and turn, one expects at every moment that the cars will topple over. Possible reasons for this behaviour are that the wheels are quite big (diameter wise); this add to the already high centre of weight (a result of building cars that may be 50 cm higher than what we typically have today); the mechanical devices connecting the wheels to the frame of the car may be cause some jitter (“play”) as they are not as tightly fitted as on present-day cars.

The Big Steal” has been called a film noir. I would say that is not really a good characterisation. It is more a thriller or suspense movie — we want the bad guy to lose, and the good guy to win, and there are some obstacles that have to be surmounted before we achieve the desired state.

The movie was partly filmed on location in Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico; and partly at a ranch outside Los Angeles. The entire story is located in Mexico, and enough material was recorded down there to make it feel like a real Mexican environment.

The unique aspect that makes this movie interesting to watch is that the when the movie starts, the viewers find themselves already in the chase. What happens in the first scenes — when Halliday is surprised by Blake entering Halliday’s cabin on that ship — we see what physically happens, but we do not know what it is all about. Who is the good guy? Or are both bad guys? Where a lesser director would have started with an introduction, carefully explaining who these persons are, and what they are fighting about, Siegel just throws us into the on-going story, and we have to collect whatever bits of background information the story reveals to us — on the fly — and try to make sense of it all. Fiske seems to be a bad guy. Or is he a good guy that happened to fall prey to some bad events? Halliday … well, for a long time we do not know if he good or bad. And Blake is good, of course. But actually, no. And does Graham, despite her good looks, have some untold agenda, that can complicate the unfolding of events?

Taking this approach to informing (or, rather, non-informing) the viewer is what makes this movie better than the average car chase movies (and better than the average movie thriller).

In our times we are more sensitive to cultural issues, and there are lots of stuff to note in this movie. It all takes place in Mexico, so the environment is foreign to the four main characters of the story (they are American). What we do note is the paternal or derogatory way in which these Americans interact with Mexican people. Shouting at them; treating them as less intelligent people; taking for granted that the Mexicans should serve the Americans; that the Mexican way of life is primitive; etc. Of course we can see similar examples in pure American contexts.  For example, in “Deliverance” (1972) there is a behavioural / cognitive / cultural gap between the urbanites and the local population in the rough rural areas, but then it is regarded as effects based on individual differences. In the movies from mid 20th century, the differences were in effect regarded as genetic and / or ingrained culturally.

We should note that the story in “The Big Steal” concerns the relationships between the three Americans (and also finally a fourth American, the “fence”), and that he Mexicans are just “extras” (apart from the main police officer who, in the story, is trying to be more American in his manner). Hence, the paternalistic attitude towards Mexicans is not really fundamental to the story, but rather an accidental (though predictable) effect of the geographical setting of the movie.


This is not a great movie. It is more like a kind of decent mis-en-scene, when the script it is based on does not provide much depth. It is only by not giving the viewer some key pieces of knowledge that we actually have a story worth observing. If we had known from the beginning what we know at the end, then there would have been no real story worth telling. So the final conclusion is that one can watch it once, except for those interested in the cinematic techniques used in the film — they can view it several additional times.


The Big Steal”  (1944). Directed by Don Siegel; written by Gerald Drayson Adams, Daniel Mainwaring; story by Richard Wormser; starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and William Bendix. (Movie at imdb)

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Movie: “Death Proof” — the footprints of a movie

11 08 2010

As part of the Grindhouse experiment, Tarantino made the movie “Death Proof“. So it has a cheap story, persons are mostly disgusting, and lots of violence. It has a few positive properties, which could convince you to waste two hours on this movie.

"Death Proof" -- poster

"Death Proof" -- poster

Short Résumé

Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) visits a roadside bar, and meets some young women. When the girls leave the bar and take off in  their economy-size car, Mike leaves in his rugged car, with another girl in the front passenger seat. He describes his car as “death proof”, meaning that the car will protect him in case of a serious crash. The events of this night end by Mike running his car head-on into the girls’ car, killing them and his passenger. Some time later, Mike tries to make another car with three girls crash, but they turn out to be his match. The film end by the girls causing Mike to  crash with his car, while the girls are unharmed.

The context

Grindhouse movies should be about cheap violence, and this is what Tarantino offers. Senseless violence for its own sake. The two episodes indicated in the résumé are shaped to lead up to violent deaths or accidents, where the man (Mike) intentionally tries to kill the girls, without any reasons other than for his own satisfaction.

It is not as silly as the convoluted companion grindhouse movie — “Planet Terror” by Robert Rodriguez — but there is nothing believable in the storyline.

"Death Proof" -- Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike

"Death Proof" -- Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike

It does break some expectations, though. One expects that women would be beautiful but stupid, passive and helpless victims of violence. The women in first episode behave in a way that in ordinary circumstances would be called self-confident, so in this way they are not completely helpless as persons. In the second episode, the women take charge, and play the same game as stuntman Mike, and are finally better at it than him. So there the women can be said to be the stronger sex.

When watching this movie, I looked for something that would reveal the hand of Tarantino. It took a long time to really detect anything that fell outside the frame of expectations of looking at a cheap B-movie. But there is one scene which is not what you would typically see in an old B-movie about psychopaths. This is in the beginning of the second episode, where the girls are sitting in a bar by the road, and for a rather long time they are just talking to each other. This is where a “Tarantino touch” revels itself. Their dialogue is as independent of the main storyline as the arguments and discussions between Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and  Vincent Vega (John Travolta) in “Pulp Fiction“, where they for instance have that extended debate about  McDonald’s in France and the  “Royale with Cheese”. The topic that the girls raise, and the way they argue, that is as refreshingly different as the debates in “Pulp Fiction“.

"Death Proof" -- The first episode: the girls at the cafe

"Death Proof" -- The first episode: the girls at the roadside bar

One could have imagined a different movie based on the same one-liner as “Death Proof”. It could have been a movie that tried to be a bit more serious, that explored the social game between the participants, where explicit violence would be the visible effects of social confrontations. That Tarantino movie is not yet here. So we are stuck with this grindhouse version, for better and for worse.


Seen as a thriller, “Death Proof” is not intellectually challenging. You can watch it for the car chases and car crashes, but there is little else that speaks in favour of this movie. Unless you want to spend nearly two hours to find the little bits and pieces that makes you say: “Yeah, that was  a Tarantino effect!”


Death Proof”  (2007). Directed by: Quentin Tarantino; written by: Quentin Tarantino;  starring: Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd; length: 114 min; (Movie at imdb)

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Movie: “Crossfire” – suspense and antisemitism

3 08 2010

From the latter half of the 1940s, “Crossfire”  is a movie that can be seen as a murder and detective movie. But it can also be seen as comment on civilian life after the horrors of World War II, where people attack other people for what they are, not for what they do. In this case, it is about antisemitism as a trigger for murder. A solid movie that delivers well.

"Crossfire" -- poster

"Crossfire" -- poster

Short résumé

We see someone murdered in a room, but we do not see who the murderer (or murderers) are. An unassuming Army Cpl. Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper) quickly becomes suspected by the police. A buddy of Mitchell, Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) cannot believe this, and sets out to get in contact with Mitchell. Mitchell’s commanding officer, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) also expresses doubts, but starts to behave strangely. A buddy of Montgomery is later found murdered. The investigating detective, Capt. Finlay (Robert Young), suspects Montgomery, and sets up a trap. Finally the perpetrator receives his punishment.


Richard Brooks write the novel “The Brick Foxhole” (1945) about how a group of soldiers murder a homosexual man. That book was the basis of the script for “Crossfire“, but it was transformed from being about homophobia to being about antisemitism.

Presumably, homosexuality was in the 1940s still a no-no topic, not suitable for Hollywood. Antisemitism, on the other hand, was well suited, as the American society had in the years before become aware of what antisemitism could lead to in the Third Reich. There were other movies in that era that addressed the same topic, e.g. “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947).  It could be interesting to explore that sub-area of Hollywood movies, what caused it to emerge, and when it disappeared. But that is for some other day.

"Crossfire": Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum

"Crossfire": Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum

This is a night-time movie, and an urban movie. Only a few short scenes show daylight. Otherwise it is all in the artificial light of the metropolis. A city where strangers encounter each others. The persons we encounter are either visitors to the city or city residents offering services to others — mainly visitors. No-one is really happy. We see the rootless service-men that have just come back from the war abroad, and have not succeeded in connecting to a the civilian society at home. Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame) is working as a hostess in a bar, and is completely disgusted with her life … a life where she sees no future. The investigating police detective is tried and worn-out, and only now and then has enough energy to get proactive.

It seems that the only two persons who take decisive and immediate action are Keeley and Montgomery. Such targeted behaviour is most likely due to their experiences in combat, where they had to make decisions quickly and get others to follow them in some goal-driven action. In that role — in action — they were probably both effective and appreciated and behaved in similar ways towards the enemy. But now —  in a civilian context — their differ in terms of what they believe they have a right to do, and why they have that right (or not).

Therefore, we can surely call this a film noir, as it has several of the ingredients associated with that film genre.

"Crossfire": Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Young

"Crossfire": Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Young

Plot-wise, the movie keeps the audience in suspense, as it takes some time to understand who we should not suspect, and who we should suspect. There are no extended action sequences, so the suspense in the movie is based on the context and the uncertainties and options that remain until the very end.

Hollywood movies typically has to end in a happy or morally acceptable manner. Here, the culprit gets punished. But we get reminded that there is a fine line between those that actually commit some immoral act and those that are capable of doing so but have not yet crossed that line.


This a a suspenseful film, but action-wise quite low-key. It expresses the suspense of the police investigation and the way various soldiers get involved in this investigation. But at the same time it constantly reminds us about the antisemitic basis for this specific murder, and also illustrates that intolerance is a basic reason for much inter-personal violence in our society. It is worth seeing as an example of a Hollywood movie with a conscience.


Crossfire”  (1947).  Directed by: Edward Dmytryk;  written by: John Paxton (screenplay), Richard Brooks (story); starring: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame; length: 86 min; (Movie at imdb).

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Film: “Hus i helvete” – spetsad humor i invandrarförorten

24 07 2010

Susan Taslimi har gjort en underhållande berättelse över livet i en invandrarfamilj i en svensk storstadsförort. Det känns fräscht och relevant, både i budskapet och i sättet att iscensätta filmen.



"Hus i helvete" - poster

"Hus i helvete" - poster

Dottern Minoo (Melinda Kinnaman) kommer hem till familjen i förorten, efter att ha varit en tid i USA. Anledningen är att systern (Meliz Karlge di Grado) skall gifta sig. Gamla konfrontationer kommer upp till ytan, speciellt mellan fadern (Hassan Brijany) och Minoo. Familjen kommer från Iran, och gamla kulturtraditioner dröjer kvar, speciellt hos fadern och hans mor (Bibbi Azizi), medan hans fru (Caroline Rauf) och barnen inte har något till övers för hårt efterhållna traditioner. Fadern kämpar en ojämn kamp, och måste till sist — i samband med dotterns bröllop — inse att familjens viljor inte kan besegras.


Susan Taslimi (1950- ) är född i Iran, och kom till Sverige 1987. Hon har arbetat med film, tv och teater, och detta är hennes första svenska film som regissör. Hon har naturligtvis insikt i de kulturella spänningar som så  konkret blir del i invandrares vardag.

Hus i helvete” ska ses som ytterligare ett bidrag till att belysa invandrares situation, såväl för de i den svenska kulturen som för invandrare.

Komedi eller tragedi?

Filmen marknadsförs som en komedi, och det är också ett tydligt grepp i upplägget och genomförandet av filmen. Vi serveras underhållande perspektiv av hur barn och ungdomar, som har levt mer i Sverige än i utlandet, hittar sätt att kringgå traditionella begränsningar på uppträdande och liv. Kring farmodern, som egentligen lever kvar i den traditionsbundna iranska mentaliteten och inte accepterat att hon lever i Sverige, skapas dråpliga situationer som vi upplever som farsartade.

"Hus i helvete" -- fadern och Minoo

"Hus i helvete" -- fadern och Minoo

Det är fadern som är den i stort sett maktlöse. Han vill så gärna att  familjens alla medlemmar skall leva upp till de normer han själv ser som viktiga fundament för att vara riktiga människor. Här känns av och till ett kalldrag av hedersproblematik, vilket gör att åskådaren kastas mellan skratt och ångest.

Man skulle kunna beskriva filmen på ett sätt som luktar drama och tragedi. Spänningsfältet och konflikten mellan “modernisterna” och “traditionalisterna” i familjen skulle kunna lägga en grund för ett drama med olyckligt slut … ett skarpt debattinlägg om hur traditioner (i detta fall från öster om Medelhavet) kan orsaka ond bråd död.

Men Taslimi skapar inte ett drama, även om förutsättningarna finns. Istället ser hon till att mata oss med dråpliga situationer — bitvis sådant som skulle kunna vara inslag i en “sitcom” — så att vi i huvudsak roas.

Men hon har ett budskap, som hon bl.a. framför genom att framställa kvinnorna som målmedvetna och viljestarka. Även om kvinnorna inte vinner varje slag, så vinner de kriget, eftersom de har en stark drift att sätta upp och uppnå mål som de känner för.

Det är här man kan se ett tilltal till invandrare i Sverige, vilket säkerligen var en av de avsedda målgrupperna för denna biofilm. Genom att lyfta fram kulturkonflikter inom ramen för en enda familj, så kan hon på ett konkret sätt formulera ståndpunkterna på bägge sidor i konflikten. Genom att visa hur individens referensramar och vilja uttrycks i beteende, så får invandrare möjligheter att på ett någorlunda respektfullt sätt börja diskutera de underliggande kulturella spänningsfälten. Och förhoppningsvis skapa en ny grund för hur traditioner skall kunna anpassas för att fungera inom det svenska samhället.


Det är en underhållande film, som skapar många skratt. Men som även ger en bild av hur individer tvingas hantera kulturellt grundade moral- och etikfrågor. Se den gärna. Den är lika relevant nu som för åtta år sedan.


Hus i helvete” (2002) Regi: Susan Taslimi; manus: Susan Taslimi; skådespelare: Melinda Kinnaman, Hassan Brijany, Caroline Rauf, Meliz Karlge di Grado, Bibbi Azizi (filmen på imdb)

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