Sunday, May 31, 2009


As one of the earliest examples of cinematic science fiction and fantasy, "Destiny" director Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (**** out of ****) ranks as an unparalleled achievement in its size, scope, and vision. Forty years would elapse before Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) would rival Lang's epic spectacle about a troubled, dystopian society fractured along the fault lines of the economic inequality that isolated the haves and the have-nots. Nevertheless, nothing could ever be said to surpass "Metropolis" as a film of scale, special effects, and surrealism. According to Frank Miller at the Turner Classic Movies Website in his Overview Article about "Metropolis, "Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou were influenced by several writers: "They drew ideas from a variety of sources, including Karel Capek's play about a robot revolt, R.U.R.; the pioneering Soviet science fiction film "Aelita" (1924); and H.G. Wells' novels." Miller describes "Metropolis" as "the most influential science fiction film of all time." Miller may be going out on a limb to make sure an assertion, but the limb that he treads on his very sturdy. "Metropolis" deals with machines that allow its futuristic society to flourish and how those machines govern mankind's relationships. Nevertheless, moviegoers should keep in mind that "Metropolis" was not the first science fiction film. The definition of science fiction here is fiction of a speculative sort set in the future. French filmmaker Georges Méliès' short, 14-minute, black & white silent film "A Trip to the Moon" aka "Le voyage dans la lune" (1903) and the Soviet film "Aelita" (1924) preceded "Metropolis."

The preamble encapsulates the film's timeless, universal message: "It has a moral that grows on the pillar of understanding. The mediator between the brain and muscle must be the heart.” “Metropolis" inspired generations of filmmakers with its use of state-of-the-art visual effects that transformed the science fiction film. Thea von Harbou's saga about an evil robot designed by a vengeful inventor to impersonate a flesh & blood female Christ figure and incite anarchy can clearly be traced as a source of inspiration to many contemporary sci-fi films and television shows, such as the "Terminator" franchise, "Robocop" franchise, "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "I, Robot," “Logan’s Run,” “The Fifth Element,” "Westworld," and Battlestar Galactic.” The "Metropolis" robot was not the first robot, but it was unmistakably the seminal one that sired a long line of cinematic robots. Robots appeared in films as early as Italian filmmaker André Deed's "The Mechanical Man" (1921)about a robot gone berserk, but only bits and pieces of the film have survived the ravages of time.

Meanwhile, according to Dominik Zunt at The Karel Čapek website, Čapek introduced the public to the word "robot" in his play R.U.R.("Rossum's Universal Robots")in 1920. Specifically, Čapek's drama took place in a factory that builds artificial people designated as 'robots.' Earlier examples of robots can be found in literature, especially the Greek and Roman myths. Indeed, robots are to sci-fi films what horses are to westerns. The famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov has written many novels and short stories about robots. The famous transformation scene where the robot turns into a human foreshadows the "Frankenstein" franchise.

Many detractors of Lang's visionary work—primarily noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells--derided it as shallow and Wells' criticisms are not without some justification. Indeed, the characters lack depth because they represent archetypes instead of individuals in this larger-than-life story set in the year 2000. The spectacle, this Marxist chronicle of humanity at odds with itself over machinery, and the anarchy that emerges from this division makes "Metropolis" a memorable mediation about our flawed society, part sci-fi, part horror and a statement about the incompatibility that comes about between those who control and those who are controlled. In this instance, those in control are the heads and those that carry out of the orders of those in control are the hands. Again, von Harbou’s theme re-echoes with greater intensity. The virtuous Maria would say that the head and the hands would need a mediator and the mediator would be the heart. You cannot understand and appreciate science fiction as a cinematic genre until you see that every sci-fi film owes a debt of gratitude to Lang's masterly work of genius. Actually, while Lang would make many great movies in a long career, the legendary Austrian director never made another sci-fi film that surpassed this milestone.

A malevolent robot, messianic crusaders, a patriarchal titan of industry, a vindicative mad scientist, and masses of mindless men and women enslaved by the patriarch constitute the array of characters in this milestone of German Expressionist cinema that embraces Art-Deco in his architectural designs. Scenarist Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang assembled these protagonists and antagonists for the clash of the century with visuals that were designed to overwhelm 1920’s audiences by their sheer beauty and grandeur. In the annals of science fiction film, these special effects, involving the use of mirrors to supplement shots of live action, matte paintings for sprawling cityscapes, and miniatures of the city, were singular. All the planes, trains, and automobiles in the long shots were done either with wires pulling them along or shot-action photography. Reportedly, Lang got the idea for his cityscape from a trip to Manhattan, but there are too many undocumented stories about Lang and his inspiration so you’d have to read the biographies available about his life to sort out the fiction from the facto. One thing is certain Lang was more a film dictator than a director and he toiled endlessly and made his cast and collaborators toil to forge his vision. Lang drove his actors, actresses, and technical crew like a slave driver and often exhibited a sense of perfectionism that defied civility and common sense. He amounted to a cinematic Herod.

While “Metropolis” qualifies as sci-fi, the film also dabbles in the disaster film. The villainous father of the hero, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), enlists the evil inventor, C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), to create a robot look-alike of the virginal heroine, Maria, who preaches a gospel of sorts to unit the workers. Rotwang dresses in dark colors, has wind-blown hair, and wears a black glove on his right hand. Fredersen wants Rotwang to forge a robot that can assume the identity of Maria (Brigitte Helm), mislead the masses, and get them to destroy themselves. Joh has obtained secret plans about meetings among the workers in the catacombs and wants to thwart them. When they learn about the meeting, Rotwang escorts Joh down into the 2000 year old catacombs to witness Maria preaching her gospel of unification. During this scene, Joh spots his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) among the workers and watches as he embraces Maria.

Previously, Freder has been smitten by Maria since he saw her first early in the film. She entered the Club of Sons where Freder cavorted with various women. Freder was so stricken by Maria that he descended to the depths where the workers operated the machines and witnessed a meltdown. Joh is worried about his son’s dalliance with the workers because it threatens to destroy everything that he has worked for so many years. In fact, Joh fires his secretary Josaphat (Theodor Loos) because Josaphat didn’t inform him about the incident with the machines. Joh replaces Josaphat with the Thin Man (Franz Rasp) and orders him to keep him constantly abreast of his son’s whereabouts. Eventually, the false Maria does mislead the workers into destroying the Heart Machine and the loss of power leads to a flood that wipes out their homes. Grot, the foreman in charge of the machines, warns Joh, but he orders Grot to open the gates so that the workers can destroy the Heart Machine. The evil Maria leads the men and women workers alike to the machine hall, but she slips out a back exit while they destroy the machines. What the workers fail to realize is that the destruction of the Heart machine.

Meanwhile, Freder and the real Maria rescue the children below as the flood waters rise from an underground river that Joh had constructed. They use the air shafts to escape from the depth and take the children to the Club of the Sons above the earth. At the same time, Grot alerts the workers about the dangers of what they have done and how it will jeopardize their children. The furious workers now want to kill Maria. The evil Maria has gone to a nightclub where she is celebrating her triumphant masquerade over the workers. The nightclub revelers leave the club with Maria on their shoulders and go out into the night air. The virtuous Maria has gotten separated from Freder and the children and is now being pursued by the mob of angry workers. She runs into the revelers and wicked Maria and the mob grabs the evil Maria. They tie her to a stake and set fire to her. Rotwang captures the real Maria and takes her to the top of the cathedral. Freder spots Rotwang with Maria over his shoulder and sets off in rapid pursuit. They fight on the roof-top and Rotwang plunges to his death below. In the last scene, the virtuous Maria calls on Freder to serve as the mediator between his father and Grot, the worker’s representative, to work together.

“Metropolis” concerns one of Lang’s favorite themes—mob violence. Later, he explored this theme in “M” (1931) with Peter Lorre and “Fury” (1936) with Spencer Tracy. Although “Metropolis” has been available as a cheap, inexpensive public domain film for over 40 years, Kino Video has released a splendid restored version that true movie lovers will genuinely appreciate for its clarity of picture. Meanwhile, this is one hell of a silent German movie!


Before he ascended to the zenith of his career with the Oscar-winning Best Picture “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and then plummeted to his nadir with the costly western “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) that bankrupted United Artists and forced them to merge with MGM, writer & director Michael Cimino got his start with Clint Eastwood. Initially, Cimino contributed the Russian roulette sequences to the “Dirty Harry” sequel “Magnum Force.” Incidentally, Cimino’s first credit as a scenarist occurred earlier on director Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi epic “Silent Running,” with Bruce Dern. Anyway, Cimino made his directorial debut with “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (**** out of ****). This exciting, tour-de-force Clint Eastwood & Jeff Bridges thriller ranks as one of the top ten perfect crimes heist movies of the 1970s. Cimino’s film chronicles the friendship between an older man, a Korean War veteran on-the-lam, and a hopelessly footloose but fast-talking twentysomething who cherishes grand theft auto, easy women, and cliches.

Ultimately, Joe Doherty, aka ‘Thunderbolt’ (Clint Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) team up reluctantly with Eastwood’s old partners-in-crime, Red Leary (George Kennedy of “Cool Hand Luke”) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis of “High Plains Drifter”) to rob an armored car company. They wind up wielding a 20MM cannon to blow gigantic holes in the wall of the safe. The first third of the action introduces us to the rogue’s gallery of thieves, and the second third details their elaborate plans as they accumulate the necessary tool to pull it off this complicated heist. The third focuses on the frenzied getaway, dissolution of the gang and the final showdown with Red. Not only is “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” a memorable crime caper with quotable dialogue, but also it is a top-notch drama with interesting characters, including Geoffrey Lewis as a bumbling fool and George Kennedy as a sadistic killer. Jeff Bridges received as Oscar nomination for his sympathetic but ill-fated bad guy. The scenes with Bridges dressing up like a girl to lure a tubby security guard in the alarm systems board are hilarious.

The action opens with scenic long shots of wheat fields to the lovely strains of Dee Barton’s music and we find ourselves near wooden church with a majestic steeple as an old black car wheels up to it. A burly guy in a dark suit and white hat, Dunlop (seasoned heavy Roy Jenson) gets out to stretch his legs as he listens to the choir warble a standard hymn. Cimino switches to another setting as the eponymous young drifter, Lightfoot, limps onto a used car dealership, and admires a Trans Am. The owner, brilliantly played in a bit part by Gregory Walcott) invites him to climb behind the wind and kick the engine over. “She’s cleaner than a cat’s ass,” the dealer brags and then wonders if a youth like Lightfoot can handle her. Lightfoot tells him that he has a wooden leg. While the dealer ponders this sudden shift in conversation, Lightfoot steals the car and tears away across country.

Back at the church, we discover that Clint Eastwood is posing as an Episcopal minister in black suit with a white collar. Just as John ‘Thunderbolt’ Doherty utters some Biblical homilies about the lion lying down with the lamb, Dunlop bursts into the sanctuary with a Mauser machine pistol and triggers a barrage of shots that sends everybody scrambling for the doors, including Doherty. Our hero charges across the wheat field with a wheezing Dunlop in close pursuit, pausing occasionally to fire at his fleet-footed quarry. Doherty flags down a sports car, Lightfoot in the Trans Am, and Lightfoot swerves, plunges into the wheat field, smashes into Dunlop, and kills him. Reversing, Lightfoot races back out of the field. As Lightfoot races past Doherty, Doherty slings himself onto the automobile, climbs through the passenger’s window, dislocating his shoulder, and settles in alongside Lightfoot. Presto, their friendship begins. Along the way, they swap cars with a family and Doherty decides to go his separate way at a bus depot.

Doherty leaves Lightfoot at a bus station. While he is sauntering through the depot, Doherty spots is old crime partner, vindictive Red Leary, and rejoins Lightfoot before he pulls out of town. The guys head off to a motel, and Lightfoot changes vehicle license tags. Along the way, he picks up two cuties, Melody (Catherine Bach) and Gloria (June Fairchild of “Detroit 9000”), and takes them back to the motel. Doherty, we learn, has a bad leg. Gloria inquires about all his scars and he explains that he received them in Korea. When Doherty refuses to take Gloria home at 3 AM, she runs out in her underwear and screams "rape!” Doherty gives her cab fare.

Eventually, Red and Goody catch up with our heroes. Initially, Red tries to ambush in a roadside diner parking lot. Lightfoot leads Red on a careening chase through the mountains with Red blasting away with his carbine but missing. Later, Red and Goody get the drop on them and try to kill them. Doherty disarms Red but refuses to kill him. Instead, he explains he didn’t take the loot from the previous hold-up. They stashed it in a one-room school house. When they returned to get it, the school house had vanished. Lightfoot’s suggests that they rob the same armored car company. Red hates Lightfoot from the get-go, but he cooperates reluctantly as they set up the crime. They take jobs. Goody drives an ice cream wagon. Red is a janitor at a local department store. Doherty goes to work as a wielder. Lightfoot works as a landscaping technician. They live in a trailer and pile their dough together while they plan the heist. Lightfoot tells them about his encounter one afternoon while he was pounding turf and a bored housewife stood in the window with nary a stitch on, beaver and all on display. Naturally, the perverted Red wants to know what Lightfoot did. Lightfoot surprises him by clapping his hand over Leary’s mouth and kissing the back of his hand. Predictably, Leary is furious and wants to beat the hell out of Lightfoot.

Our conspirators get through old gear out of storage, namely the 20 MM cannon. Doherty and Leary invade the Montana Armored supervisor home (Jack Dodson of “The Getaway”) wearing hose, tie them up, and get the combination for the safe. Meanwhile, Lightfoot poses as a woman to get into the alarm systems office and silence the alarms. Doherty masquerades as a cop and brings a prisoner, Leary, up to Montana Armored and bluffs his way inside. They slug the guard unconscious, drag him into the toilet, and tie him up. On the other side of town, Lightfoot does the same thing to the alarms system guy, gagging him and leaving him knotted in ropes in the toilet. While Goody goes to pick up Lightfoot, Doherty and Leary assemble the gun, blast giant holes in the vault wall, and grab the loot. Goody and Lightfoot head to Montana Armored where they hook up with Doherty and Leary, load up the loot and take off, leaving the cannon behind. They plan to sit tight at the nearby drive-in, but they close the trunk on Leary so that his shirttail is hanging out and a fat, red-haired cashier spots it. While the cops converge on Montana Armored, the cashier and manager search the parking lot. Doherty pulls out of the drive-in before the cashier and the manager can bust them, but runs straight into the cops. A chase ensues and shots are fired. Goody and Leary are sprawled in the trunk and Goody dies from a gunshot wound. Leary dumps him on a back trail and then forces Doherty to pull over. He kicks Lightfoot repeatedly until the kid passes out and slugs Doherty. Making off with all the loot and a gun, Leary runs into a road block and the cops pursue him back into town.

Leary evades the cop temporarily, but he crashes into the storefront of the department store where he worked as a custodian. A guard dog attacks him and drags his body off as the authorities show up at the door and decide to leave the dog with its prize alone until the dog handler comes in the following morning. Meanwhile, Doherty gets Lightfoot back to where Leary pushed Goody out and they swap clothes so that Lightfoot is no longer dressed up in drag. Our heroes roam the hills and catch a ride in a pick-up and wind up getting out at the Warsaw exit. They stumble upon a roadside historical park where the one-room school house sits. Although they lost the loot from their robbery, they discover the loot from the original robbery still stashed behind the chalkboard. Doherty buys a Cadillac and picks up Lightfoot. Lightfoot got kicked too many times by Leary and he looks awful. He dies as they are driving through scenic Montana and the movie concludes on a dour note.

Cimino provides recurring comic relief scenes to lighten things up and a number of character actors, such as Gregory Walcott of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” “Gunsmoke” veteran Dub Taylor as a gas station owner, Vic Tayback of “Alice,” and “Deliverance” redneck Bill McKinney as a psychotic who cruises around in a souped up car with white rabbits galore in his trunk, appear at intervals. “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” was one of the 1970s stick up movies where the robbers got away with the loot. Indeed, Lightfoot, Goody, and Red are punished, but Doherty gets away, largely because he had lost track of the original money and because he was the most sympathetic of all the robbers. “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” is a brilliant, sometimes violent, often funny heist thriller that heist fanatics owe it to themselves to watch.