DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of A Beautiful Mind, Iris, Proof , Torn Curtain, The Man Who Knew Too Much , North by Northwest, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, Sabotage, The Lodger, Stage Fright, Notorious, Marnie, The Hitchcocks on Hitch, Sherlock Holmes, The House on 92nd Street

 

Title: A Beautiful Mind

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 140 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Universal; Dreamworks; Imagine

Director; Writer: Ron Howard, based on book by Sylvia Nascar

Producer: Brian Glazer

Cast:  Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Judd Hirsch, Hosh Lucas, Anthony Rasp, Christopher Plummer

Technical: 1.8-1

Relevance to doaskdotell site: polarity

Review:  Here is a biography of 1994 Nobel Prize (Economics) winner John Nash , going all the way back to 1947 and his college days at Princeton, where he was immersed in his own mental world, that grand “idea,” and where his people skills could not have been tolerated in many workplaces. In fact, he seemed to need this own world to make himself important.  This sounds like the self-indulgence of the psychological defenses of the subjective feminine personality. Well, his schizophrenia would have a chemical basis afer all.  In the 1950s, the World Book Encyclopedia would write “half of all hospital beds are filled with people with mental illness,” and the treatments—insulin shock therapy--could be brutal indeed.  His delusions of involvement with fibbies and black ops (Ed Harris) as a master codebreaker, complete with tattooed implant as a “Secure-ID card” in his forearm, seem compelling enough, as rogue Soviets apparently plan terrorist atomic attacks within the U.S.  It fizzles out as you begin to realize it really is all make-believe. Here is an “ordinary” man (however genius) who yearns to be important in a public manner.

 

Some gay bulletin boards have complained that Dreamworks intentionally left out gay material.  Well, Nash is married in the movie, but one of his playmates, an imaginary roommate, seems to play on his need for affectionate approval from other men.  But if you make a movie about Alam Turing, the real codebreaker without whom we might not have beaten the Nazis, you have to present his homosexuality, in full measure.

 

John Nash was interviewed on CBS “60 Minutes” on March 17, 2002. He described the extra-reality of schizophrenia as extra information coming into one’s world, refutable by logic

 

A related film is Iris, from Miramax (2001), with Judi Dench (as the aging British writer Iris Murdoch, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet (as the young Iris) and Hugh Bonneville directed by Richard Eyre. We watch the slow descent of Iris into Alzheimer’s disease, starting innocently enough when she can’t remember how to spell the word, “puzzle,” and progresses when she forgets her subject matter during public speaking engagements. Her husband, John Bayley (Jim Broadbent) is homely enough, but their committed marriage seems to generate the creative energy behind her mysterious, often sensual, writings for most of her career.  However creative, she was no singleton, and at the end can only survive, as she moves finally into a nursing home, because of the complete dedication of her husband.

 

{Proof} (2004, Miramax/Endgame, dir. John Madden, based on the play by David Auburn, PG-13, 99 min) seems related to “A Beautiful Mind” and furthermore tries to make mathematics filmable. It’s often considered a no-no to confer too much didactic information in a screenplay, but here it works reasonably well. First, there is a theorem in the movie, not mentioned explicitly. It might be Fermat’s last theorem. (http://www.coolissues.com/mathematics/Fermat/fermat.htm ). It may have to do with Fibonacci numbers (http://mathworld.wolfram.com/FibonacciNumber.html ) mentioned once in the script. (The number theory example of the number 1729 is given, as 1**3 + 12**3 or as 9*83 + 10**3. We could also speculate about the notorious “four color problem: in algebraic topology; http://www.math.gatech.edu/~thomas/FC/fourcolor.html; this was proved on a computer at the University of Connecticut in the 1980s, I believe. )  Working inside out, a young female grad student Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) claims to have proven a new theorem. Her slightly younger grad student boyfrield Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) exercises some doubt (call it lack of faith) that causes her and their relationship great strain. Gyllenhaal is, despite his hunky and fatless build, usually the gentle young man—here a very well adjusted geek. Her sister Claire (Hope Davis) has incurred great resentment by leaving Catherine to take care of their father Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant mathematics and number theory professor who has just passed away from an aneurysm. But (like Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”) he was also mentally ill and often unproductive in his last years. Catherine is high strung and fears she has inherited her father’s tendency towards schizophrenia. Two other elements of the film: most of the history of her relationship with Dad is told in flashbacks, sometimes confusing, as sometimes she imagines he is alive and in the room. (At the funeral she says, he had B.O., talked to himself, and was horribly self-indulgent, and she is glad that he is dead!) The other element is Dad’s compulsive writing, mostly mathematical proofs, and in handwritten composition notebooks, not on the Internet (as with me). Writing and proofs seemed to be a way to avoid too much interaction with other people. So it is with me.

 

The question toward the end is whether she could have written the proof, since it is somewhat derivative of her father but still different. The handwriting is the same, but the mathematical techniques are new (infinite matrices). Hal sees this, and then he will believe her, but only through his own intellectual processes. Knowing what a proof is (the notorious “Given” and “To Prove” in plane geometry), then, is crucial to appreciating the play and the movie.

 

The film is shot on location in Chicago and is quite breathtaking to watch in spots, although a few of the close-ups got fuzzy in the widescreen cropping. (Indoor scenes were shot in the U.K.)

 

This film is also one of the last from the Weinstein brothers as executive producers under the current Miramax distributor label. We don’t know yet what they will call their new company after their spin-off from Disney takes effect.

 

There is information about my own numerical analysis Master’s Thesis at the University of Kansas in 1968, at http://www.doaskdotell.com/personal/resume/thesisab.htm

 

Do not confuse this film with Proof of Life. 

 

Torn Curtain (1966, Universal, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, wr. Brian Moore, 128 min, PG-13). While this looks like a stereotyped Hitchcock film with its close-ups, it is more an exotic adventure into danger and escape than it is mystery. I recall that the title was a bit of a joke in 1966 among friends in grad school – more like “torn clothes.” But the title of course refers to the torn Iron Curtain. A major episode in the film takes place in Leipzig, East Germany, with subsequent journey to Berlin. Now I met a grad student in a disco in Berlin in 1999 who had been born in Leipzig, “escaped” to Britain and grown up in Britain (before the fall of the Wall), so this movie ties into some personal adventures. As does the story. An American scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman, youthful here) has been recruited to learn a secret formula for a resin. The movie starts in an unheated boat in a Normway fjord, moves to a hotel in Copehagen, where Armstrong enjoys the company of his fiancé Dr. Louise Sherman (Julie Andrews). She picks up a mysterious book for him, and on page 107 there is a treasure-hunt clue in the number “pi.” This leads Armstrong to Leipzig, and Louise follows him out of devotion. He is the first accidental spy, and she becomes the second. There is your typical Hitchcock “murder” on a farm with the help of an oven spewing carbon monoxide. He meets a brainy professor who scribbles physics formulas (they look like those for electric fields) that seem to encode the secret (remember the show “Numb3rs”). The escape back to the west will be harrowing enough, with a scene in a ballet played to Tchaikowsky’s “Francesca da Ramini.” (It does not get to finish, as someone shouts “fire!”  (The show Smallville has used Tchaikowsky at some emotional moments). At the end, we think they are crowded into baskets to be lifted onto a winch onto a ship, but thankfully they are both good swimmers.

 

Now the story here roughly parallels one of my own novel drafts (I may call it “Brothers”). Instead of the professor and his fiancé, I have two gay proto-lovers, one mid thirties and one college age. The older man is married with a successful family but yearns for more. He works for the CIA and the college student has a ROTC scholarship. This sets up the problems with security and “don’t ask don’t tell” as the agent is sent around the world looking for clues of suitcase nukes, and finds the enemy is not the conventional terrorists (and certainly not just the KGB as in a 60s film) but is some subset of us determined to take us beyond our own reality, with weapons and viruses determined to transform consciousness. In the novel, the commie professor corresponds to an aging character who provides a portal to the homegrown “right wing” plot to take us down the tunnel. The enemy is not defined so much by ideology as by some kind of essential spiritual change. In the movie, the commies are almost accidental enemies, and one is never sure what side one is one – eventually there may be no sides or edges.

 

It is interesting that the CIA or whatever intelligence service has handpicked a professor/scientist to go fetch this information, and that the Soviets have done the same thing on the other side of the “torn curtain.” The story is about an “ordinary person”, not a special agent. 

 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Paramount, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, story Charles Bennett, Charles Wyndham-Lewis, 120 min, PG) has an average family (James Steward, Doris Day stumbling on an assassination plot while vacationing in Africa. The son is kidnapped, leaving to a great climax at a concert hall in London where Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata” is performed in stirring fashion. Again, we have a Hitchcock story about an ordinary person caught up in intrigue.

 

North By Northwest (1959, MGM, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 136 min, PG-13) is another Hitchcock thriller where an ordinary person gets caught up in cloak and dagger stuff. Here everyman is an advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), who encounters the intrigue in the comfy suburb of Glen Cove, Long Island with an accident. (It doesn’t look like Long Island.) He goes on a road trip with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and winds up scaling Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, a place that I visited last in 1998.

 

The 39 Steps (1935, Criterion/Gaumont, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 86 min, novel by John Buchan) has received some attention because the plot is basically a precursor of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code.” Here, the murder victim is Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim), and the everyman hero is Canadian tourist Richard Hanny (Robert Donat). She collars Richard in a beer music hall, running away from something, then rings at his flat, and is soon found knifed in his flat. (That’s like having a trick ring your apartment intercom and showing up dead.) To clear his mind, he goes on a scavenger hunt in Scotland, where the high country shows well in black and white. He meets up with Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) and winds up handcuffed to her (a device that would like characters Brady (good) and Nicole (bad) in the NBC soap “Days of our Lives” in 2004). But soon he must uncover the 39 Steps, which is a spy ring that has infiltrated Scotland Yard. There is a villain who looks like Hitler (quite imaginative for 1935) and the secrets stolen could have set up the Battle of Britain. There is no great ideology to save or tear down civilization, just an engineering secret. Rosslyn doesn’t quite show up here as it does in Da Vinci, but the use of Scotland is quite parallel.

 

Short from Warner Home Video: “The Hitchcock’s On Hitch” (10 min) Family members, especially a daughter who died in 2003, provide memories, as a dinner where he says, “respectable families commit murder in private.” Hitchcock liked the idea of a man who is not guilty of a crime but, being framed for it because of his personal vulnerabilities, might as well be guilty.

 

Saboteur (1942, Universal, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 119 min, bw) is another Hitchcock “escape” (leading up to films like “The Fugitive”) with corny situations but with a political context that turns out to be quite moving. At the start of WWII, at an aircraft factory in Los Angeles, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is set up for spreading a fire that kills others (quite skillfully filmed, with a smoke cloud that looks like a blob). He escapes the police going cross country, with some improbable coincidences that bring him into contact with the Nazi baron villains (Otto Kruger and also Norman Lloyd) who had picked him out to frame him. Relatively little is said today about internal Nazi threats in the United States during the war, although we do hear about the encampments of non-native Germans and, of course, the Japanese Nisei; it bears comparison to homeland security issues today. Barry meets and wins over a girl (Priscilla Lane) in an amusing sequence involving circus freaks. Eventually, he winds up in New York for the showdown. He comes back to Kruger’s character, who gives a chilling lecture on how totalitarian societies get things done and how power is more important than love.  There is also ironic discussion of “nobility” and whether the American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” will be respected.  The chase winds up in a real movie theater where the gunfire in the embedded film mixes with real murder, and then an attempted terrorist explosion of a ship launching (the film refers to the fire and sinking of the USS Normandie in 1942), and finally the climax at the Statue of Liberty, anticipating “North by Norhtwest” and “Vertigo.” Hitchcock has these wonderful details, like the sewing on the jacket tearing as the villain dangles on the Statue.  Even today, the movie is a telling reminder of how international politics and terror can engulf ordinary “good people.” It deserves being watched again today. 

 

Sabotage (1936, Film Classics/Laserlight, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). Terrorists, including a cinema owner, plot in 1930s London. Very prescient. Blogger.

 

The Lodger (1927, Vintage, dir. Alfred Hitchcok, 90 min, UK). The landlord suspects the tenant of being a serial killer. Again, prescient. A major silent film. Blogger.

 

Stage Fright (1950, Warner Bros., dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 110 min, UK). A real theater piece, with a character who foreshadows Norman Bates. Blogger.

 

Notorious (1946, RKO Radio/MGM/20th Century Fox, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). A woman (Ingrid Bergman) is hired to infiltrate neo-Nazi spies, marries one (Claude Rains), and discovers a uranium cache which is used to poison her. Also a great romance with Cary Grant as the master fibbie who tries to save her. Claude faces his own demons at the end. Blogger.

 

The House on 92nd Street (1945, 20th Century Fox, dir. Henry Hathaway). Docudrama of a Nazi house in NYC that tried to penetrate US atomic bomb secrets. Blogger.

 

Marnie (1964, Universal, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, novel by Winston Graham, 130 min) is another Hitchcock film with hidden psychological trauma.  Sean Connery (007) is insurance executive Mark Rutland, who hires a mystery girl Marnie (Tippi Hedren) who soon embezzles from his safe in a classic scene of utter silence and a split screen (Hitchcock disliked the widescreen format, but it is needed here). He falls in love with her anyway, and has to deal with the reason for her trauma. There is discussion of psychiatry as it was at the time, a very real issue for me given what I went through. She has an aversion to intimacy, and it turns out to be related to her mother, who was a prostitute, and Marnie once had to kill one of the johns (played by a young and virile Bruce Dern) with a fireplace poker to save her mother. Mother raised her to be well-bred and she turned out, in her own words, as a “cheat.” 

 

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965, Paramount, dir. Martin Ritt, 112 min, BW, PG, novel by John le Carre, screenplay by Paul Dehn) is a classic spy tale, again about defection, but less in the adventurous style of Hitchcock than just in dialogue and ideas. Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is about to retire, and doesn’t want a desk job with paper. He travels to London, and is sent to Leipzig to gumshoe about spies who have been captured, and is arrested himself and, in a “tribunal”, grilled about the undercover activities of the British, who are characterized as terrorists. There is a lot of subtle politics and commentary about the information technology of the time—ranging from cross referencing a library to microfilm, to steganographic publications in obscure newspapers. There is a scene where Nan (Clair Bloom) wants to join him and has to explain going behind the Iron Curtain to her boss, who is mildly concerned about what people will think. The GDR operations are supposed to be an initiative for “world peace” and seem predicated on the idea that the West would never strike first. “It makes no difference to you who is accused; it guarantees your impartiality that you do not know.” Objectivity indeed. Toward the end, Burton gives his girl a speech in a car about the nature of spies, as ordinary people, even "queers" or jilting husbands, looking to make their lives work, used by those in power, usually with no pretense of making moral choices on their own. In an Internet age it might be different.

 

Sherlock Holmes (2009, Warner Bros/Village Roadshow, dir. Guy Ritchie, PG-13, UK) Presents a terror plot in 19th Century London with Hitchcock-like plotting. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law play the “odd” and “gay” couple. Blogger.

Related reviews:  The Sentinel,  PI      Strangers on a Train; Dial M for Murder

 

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