setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

Robert Newton is most directly responsible for the modern conception of the pirate--the voice, accent, the lopsided swagger. He played the title character in 1952's Blackbeard the Pirate, a good film but not half as good as Treasure Island two years earlier, the film that established Newton so firmly in the public mind as the figure of the pirate archetype. Newton plays an unambiguous villain in Blackbeard while half the fun in Treasure Island is studying him, trying to guess his motives. Though it's nowhere near as good as Treasure Island, Blackbeard is by no means a bad film, in fact it features some extraordinarily beautiful colour compositions and some of the best pirate battles of the 1950s.

Released the same year as the cheerful, brightly coloured The Crimson Pirate, the contrast in visual style in Blackbeard the Pirate could hardly be more severe for another colour pirate film. Instead of blinding blue skies and red and blue sheets, Blackbeard the Pirate goes for a gorgeous chiaroscuro, darkly shaded indigo clouds and charcoal edged hulls.

Directed by veteran noir and adventure film director Raoul Walsh, whose career goes back to the beginning of Hollywood, it's easy to see there's a sure hand at work in the action scenes where scores of seamen swing from one ship to another and the swordplay is convincing and fast. Although he's good with a sword, the film's biggest problem is its protagonist, a dull, nondescript hero, Ben, played by William Bendix.

He lacks the sparkle of Errol Flynn or Jean Peters and the weirdness of Robert Newton. It's surprising that Newton's success as a pirate character didn't inspire filmmakers and studios to cast more creatively for the other pirate roles in the film but, aside from the fascinatingly weathered face of Skelton Knaggs as Newton's treacherous mate Gilly, most of the crew come off as modern American thugs.

The plot involves a rivalry between Blackbeard (Newton) and Henry Morgan, played by English actor Torin Thatcher who actually makes an effort at a Welsh accent. In reality, Blackbeard and Henry Morgan never sailed the seas at the same time, Morgan died when Edward Teach, Blackbeard, was still a child. Aside from this obvious departure from history, the film actually has a few details of historical perspective. Ben is trying to prove that Morgan still operates as a pirate despite the fact that, at the time the film takes place, Morgan is Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, as the real Henry Morgan eventually became. Blackbeard accuses Ben himself of being a pirate because he'd been on a ship that attacked a Spanish ship after peace had been declared but Ben defensively asserts he and his captain had been acquitted because news of the peace had not reached them at sea, which are actually very plausible circumstances.

The crew depicted in the film are also about as racially and culturally diverse as actual pirate crews, though black and Asian crewmembers aren't given more than a few lines.

Linda Darnell as Edwina Mansfield easily outshines William Bendix as her love interest not just because she always has plenty of décolletage on display. Their chemistry is curiously sexless, partly due to the fact that Bendix is a drip, partly due to Darnell playing her character in the virtuous damsel mould. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two oddly makes a bit repeated twice in the film even funnier in its understated humour--twice Ben is about to help her escape the ship but notes she'll never be able to swim in her cumbersome clothes, twice she says with unselfconscious pragmatism she can just take them off, and twice, of course, 1950s audiences were prevented from seeing anything.

And Newton is great, of course. His look in the film seems partly inspired by etchings of Edward Teach that show his beard always tied with fuses for his pistols (though this isn't explained in the film) and partly by early 20th century illustrator Howard Pyle.

setsuled: (Skull Tree)

One of the most difficult things for a privileged white person to understand is how thoroughly and in how many ways a lack of privilege affects the life of a black person in the United States. Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 film No Way Out is an admirable endeavour to provide illumination, particularly for the year it was made. With an excellent cast, headed by Sidney Poitier in his first film role, the movie uses the film noir mode to demonstrate racism as an existential trap.

Exhausted after a day at work, Dr. Luther Brooks (Poitier) gets into bed with his wife, Cora (Mildred Joanne Smith), who affectionately muses on her husband's extraordinarily difficult journey to becoming a doctor. "'A' was your passing mark," she recalls of his experience in medical school. "Not for the others, just for you." As the film had already made clear by this point, Luther was obliged to work twice as hard as his white colleagues just to be considered adequate. Poitier was only 22 at the time but shows he was already capable of a fine performance, his Luther Brooks barely able to contain his rage at the racist rantings of a patient, a thief brought in by the cops along with his brother, both suffering from gunshot wounds.

It's easy to see that Luther's rage isn't simply in response to the irrational hatred from a man he's expected to treat but because he knows that, in this world, the word of a raving thief can tarnish the reputation of a doctor if that thief happens to be white and the doctor happens to be black.

Richard Widmark plays Ray Biddle, the thief, succeeding in making the character thoroughly repulsive. 1950 was a great year for Widmark--he starred that year in two other great films noir, Night and the City and Panic in the Streets, and his role in each film was totally different. Ray Biddle to some extent recalls Widmark's star making role as the villain Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. But while Udo was pure, psychotic sadism, Ray is possessed of a feverish self-pity from which his pathological hatred is born. Living poor in a bad part of town all his life, like many real life racists, Ray has piled all the blame for his woes on black people.

The film takes time to explore the less obvious, systemic forms of racism, though. We see that Luther would have had no chance getting a job at the hospital if not for the strong endorsement of a respected white doctor (Stephen McNally) who has a scene with a hospital administrator where the two discuss the political benefits of having black employees--and the necessity of taking politics into consideration, further emphasising that Luther can't risk making a single mistake. When Ray's brother dies under Luther's care, for something that could happen to any doctor, Luther's whole career is thrown into jeopardy.

Linda Darnell is also in the film as the dead brother's wife from whom Luther tries to get permission to perform an autopsy to prove his innocence. She exists has a pivot point for the social commentary aspect of the film, coming from the same part of town as the brothers, the film shows her journey to overcome her own prejudice. She also plays a part in the existential drama of the film--she lives in a lousy apartment and has a bad job but she did get away from the brothers and the community they represented, showing someone can build their own identity. But the centrepiece of the film is the contrast between Luther and Ray. In some sense, it reminds me of the relationship between Toshiro Mifune's cop character in Stray Dog with the thief in that film--in a sense, the two men could probably relate to each other under different circumstances. Both were born into disadvantage and hopelessness, though one chose to fight while the other chose self-pity. The fact that Luther's disadvantage was greater and truly inescapable makes Ray seem truly despicable.

Twitter Sonnet #1001

If pelicans consort in valour's lot
Redeeming birds complain for fallen cup,
For jokes too faintly printed show a knot
Along the bottom edge ere clerks'll sup.
Expensive drifts affront the flower forge
Offending fortune, turning tubes to top
Cascading mulch immersed in mud to gorge
The mental grass where green can never stop.
In gaining realms of kicking clods and nails
A coughing hammer rots inside a cone
To keep a cat or dog from biting tails
Or anything but plastics in the zone.
A case of forks disrupts the point of prongs.
To-night a striker tunes to sparking songs.


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