July 16, 2009

The Unmaking of Oliver Cromwell

Simon Healy's essay in Patrick Little's recent collection of essays about Oliver Cromwell is one of the more interesting things written about him that I have read recently. Healy has done thorough research into Cromwell's early life and what he has found indicates some interesting things about Cromwell's position in life, his personality and his religion. Almost any student of Cromwell's life can quote a letter that he wrote to Oliver St John's wife in 1636, in which Cromwell famously says

My soul is with the congregation of the first born, my body rests in hope and if here I may honour God by doing or by suffering, I shall be most glad... You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh I lived in and loved darkness and hated the light. I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true, I hated godliness, yet God had mercy upon me. O the riches of his mercy.

Cromwell's statement has often been interpreted as what it is- a confession of religious conversion in the late 1630s. However Healy argues that there is more to this statement than that- that it reflects the fact that Cromwell in the 1630s was repenting for his unscrupulousness- that the future Protector may well have been attempting to convince not merely Mrs St John, but her husband and their friends that he was not untrustworthy or malicious but a true upstanding Christian.

Healy suggests why Cromwell might have needed to do this by examining in detail his movements in the 1630s. Cromwell was elected to Parliament in 1629 and had in the late 1620s emerged as the loser in a long factional fight in Huntingdon politics against his former schoolmaster Dr Thomas Beard (a struggle most discovered and documented by John Morrill). What happened then was very unusual- for Cromwell sold all his lands in Huntingdon and moved to St Ives- he was waiting on an inheritance from his rich uncle, Sir Thomas Steward. In July 1635 though something happened- we have evidence of a hearing in Cambridgeshire about an accusation that Sir Thomas was mad and so ought to be disseized of his estates. This was not unusual- mental incompetence could lead to your heirs holding your estates- what was unusual is that Sir Thomas proved he was sane and consequently held onto his estates. Healy suggests and brings evidence to bear that Cromwell may have been behind this incorrect accusation- hoping to push the old man out of his estates because he would not go into a grave quick enough. Furthermore he suggests that Cromwell's inheritance may have been diminished because of that- that when Sir Thomas eventually did die he encumbered his property deliberately with all his debts, (usually debts were matched off against the deceased's movables). Cromwell's letter becomes therefore a redemptive document aimed at persuading St John (who had acted as a lawyer in the affair) and others that he had repented.

The whole episode, if true (the evidence is fragmentary- from later lives, lines in court records and the like), would account for the fervour of the letter. In a sense though more interestingly it would show how precarious Cromwell's finances were in the 1630s- he was lucky that Sir Thomas Steward still left him the estate. Furthermore many actors in this drama- St John, Henry Lawrence with whom Cromwell stayed in St Ives- were prominent later on in Cromwell's life. But just as much as that it reminds us of two factors within the Protector's character- his religious belief through which he interpreted everything he did and his boldness, his ability to seize the main chance and bravely go for it. It would be a brave man that would indicate that his benefactor was mad- just in case the benefactor bit back- but that bravery would carry Cromwell through war and peace where he would excell politically and militarily through the use of the bold, stunning stroke. Perhaps that feature of his character goes back to his earlier career as a farmer in East Anglia.

July 15, 2009

Baby Face Nelson (1957)

Simplicity in cinema is an underrated virtue. It is what the New Wave were striving towards- if they never quite got there with their arty Parisian view of the world and what increasingly directors strive to present. Reality or simplicity- the twin hopes of over subtle intellectuals is to reach something real or something simple- to reduce the world to a theorem and find a law which explains circumstance. On screen that can take the form of Breathless, a film about a girl and a gun, or of the Dogme movement and Lars von Trier- but both of those instances are actually complex. The first the work of a film theoretician (Goddard) trying to reduce film into its purest elements- the second the work of a self conscious auteur who wants to force constriction on his medium to stimulate creativity. No, for simplicity in cinema and its attendant virtues, you should turn to a film like Baby Face Nelson- made for no budget by Don Speigel in 1957, starring Mickey Rooney and a mixture of character actors and actresses (the criminally underrated Elisha Cook Jr. amongst them) about the gangster of the same name. Baby Face Nelson was a real person- who shot and killed his way through the halls of American banks with the Dillinger gang- beyond those facts the film has little to do with his actual life, the name and that of Dillinger are useful hooks to hang the audience's anticipation upon.

Self consciously this is an anachronistic film. It begins as many of the thirties gangster films did with a voice over and a sociological announcement- about the virtues of the FBI, about the vices that the prison system hoped to cure. Then it dives into the action: Nelson has just been released from prison, a local Mr Big Rocco attempts to get him involved in crime, Nelson turns down the opportunity so Rocco implicates him in a murder and lets him take the rap for it. Nelson of course escapes prison and finds Rocco and shoots him as full of holes as a piece of Emmental cheese- then in a sanitarium run by an underworld doctor, he links up with the Dillinger gang. Add to that mixture one of the sexiest gangster molls ever- Sue- whose face is a perfect picture of her emotions and you have the classic ingredients of a gangster film. The voice over, the girl, the guns, the banks, the gangs- they are mixed together with style but without self conscious style- and over the top comes a jazz score which moves with the action but does not obstruct it.

The construction is simple- the point is simple too. Baby Face Nelson's character is uncomplicated but it does not really matter. The film knows its merits- it isn't there to be a sociological documentary but to entertain. To a certain degree it is a nostalgia piece- in 1957 the era of the Public Enemies was twenty years in the past and the film is anchored in a time where prohibition was as much a constant in American life as dark suits and black hats seemed to be for thirties cinematic criminals. It evokes the past but does not laud it. Indeed it goes at such a pace- the entire film is a mere 83 minutes that it does not have time to (note to aspiring directors, an entertaining film is often a short film!) That it condemns gangsters is as evident as the fact that it celebrates the verve and vigour of their lives- the audience like Nelson's girl feel his attraction and vitality- but we also see his brutality. The G-Men are portrayed as being sturdy and upright but no match for the little guy with the machine gun.

This film is pure and absolute fun- seldom have I seen a film which was such pure escapism. It is film making at its most simple- we go to the cinema to be excited and entertained- Baby Face Nelson does that as well as any film I know of.

July 12, 2009

The Doll's House (1973)

The Doll's House isn't one of the greatest films that was ever made. It came out in 1973 at the same time as another film, made from the same play, and was released on television rather than in cinemas and it vanished pretty quickly after that. The makers included illustrious members of the aristocracy of the cinema- Joseph Losey, Trevor Howard and Jane Fonda- but the film has fallen into obscurity. Its fall into obscurity is pretty just- the film does not succeed really and as a failure I think its a worthy one. The Doll's House is a play by Ibsen about the constrictions of nineteenth century marriage- the way that it constrained women and meant that their lives were ornamental to their husband's lives rather than instrumental to their own good. It is one of the most famous plays of the century and that enduced Losey and company to an over respectful treatment- the play is set in 19th Century Norway, the swish of long skirts and the rustling of monocles dropping into pockets is the visual accompaniment to Ibsen's dialogue. There isn't anything neccessarily wrong in attempting authenticity in your treatment but you have to give the script life and vibrancy- the respectful treatment of the text translates in this case into a kind of lifeless stagy acting. The acting isn't wrong and every line is pronounced rightly but the overall effect is that the actors are trying to act rather than acting themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Jane Fonda's performance. Ms Fonda here has to act as a silly girl growing into a mature young woman who demands her own liberty to define her own life. That transition has to be made subtly- in this case it is not. Suddenly in five minutes Ms Fonda's character makes that transition. Losey decided that Ibsen's dialogue needed improving so he added scenes of exposition to the beggining of the play. In those scenes Ms Fonda does nothing so heartily as she irritates- she gives a performance of being a giddy girl without constraint. The missing element is any depth or colour- Ms Fonda's transitions in this film are between moods but she does not convey a character. The film in a sense like Fonda makes too much of an effort- the most irritating effect to my mind was ponderous music draped over the first ten minutes telling me what to think of the scenes, telling me how to react. Music can serve films well- Scorsese's Mean Streets made a couple of years after this shows you how it should be used- but in this film it was not used well. Furthermore those scenes of exposition deprive the rest of the plot of its mystery and leave the main point of the story as the political feminist point but the feminist point emerges slowly and for too much of the film, this viewer knew what was going to happen and could not be interested because he could not be surprised.

The film's point is a good one. Fonda's character Nora married a man named Torvald and secretly through borrowing money got him to go to Italy, a move which, in the context of the film, we have to accept saved his life. Later on, Torvald treats her as though she were an ornament- his little bird, his little this, that and the other. He patronises her and refuses to acknowledge her existance. His code of honour seems to have little place for female personhood within it but more to exist within a patriachal universe in which only men and their moral selves exist. He ultimately gets a comeuppance for this particular example of sexism. The point is well made and perfectly illustrated and the last ten minutes in which the point is made are the most impressive ten minutes of the entire movie- but that does not excuse all that has come before.

Having a good ten minutes though does not make a good film- obscurity in this case was thoroughly deserved.