Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hardly Working (1981) / The Judge (1949)

Hardly Working
(Jerry Lewis, 1981) - When Jerry Lewis made Hardly Working (filmed in '79, released in '81) it was his first movie in a decade, and you can sense it in nearly every minute of the running time. Watching it, one often gets the vibe of observing a man returning to his old workplace to do the exact same job later on in life - a little heavier, a little more serious, a little more deliberate. I've often heard the word "pathos" used in discussion of Lewis and his work, but I'd never seen it much myself, not until the early scene here where Lewis sits in silence, tearful and in clown makeup, staring mournfully into the mirror at what might as well be a stranger: call me crazy, but it is one of the saddest, most personal images I've seen in the movies in some time. This sadness continues to coast at a low level throughout - and that's not to say that Hardly Working isn't still as expressive, uncomfortable and funny as any other Lewis I've seen; it is - only to elevate itself again towards the end in the form of a poignantly staged accumulating street procession, as well as in the overly-determined-with-a-hint-of-bitter "happy ending", two elements which called to mind Ford's devastating magnum opus The Sun Shines Bright. And in the two films' depictions of "doddering relics" for whom history has all but drifted by, there are some interesting parallels to be made. For my money though, the most compelling sequence in Hardly Working involves Lewis's first (and only) day of work as a gas station attendant. Having just witnessed his newly hired and utterly incompetent employee single-handedly reduce a mother and child's car to a disheveled mass of wheezing smoke and metal, the uber straight-laced bossman (Britt Leach) begins carelessly knocking over a methodically mounted pyramid of oil cans, while a look of both bemusement and puzzlement dances across his face. It's a disconcerting and mysterious moment, and one that further develops a pet theme for Lewis which occupies much territory in his final two films: the nature and transfer of chaos, portrayed here as an almost free-floating contagion, and then finally in the climax of 1983's masterful Cracking Up as a kind of invisible soul-hopping specter.


The Judge (Elmer Clifton, 1949) - Similar to that of Raoul Walsh, the career of Elmer Clifton included early collaboration with Griffith (with acting roles in both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), before branching off independently to rack up a prolific directorial career whose features (some counts put it at over 100) swung freely between various genres. Very little of Clifton's output however is currently available to the public in any capacity, and it seems as though even among more seasoned cinephile circles his main claim to fame is suffering a heart attack in the early stages of filming the 1949 noir Not Wanted, allowing star Ida Lupino to step behind the camera for her first proper (if uncredited) directorial gig.

The Judge
was my first foray into the work of Clifton, and it's a completely oddball and strangely fascinating film, one that initially teases a sobering look at legal ethics before morphing into an EC Comics-like tale of a secretly demented character in good social standing becoming outlandishly consumed with a morbidly grandiose plot. That character is Martin Strang (Milburn Stone), a successful public defender with a dark past and an unhappy marriage, who concocts a twisted scheme to affirm the course of his life after becoming increasingly disillusioned with his job of setting one murderer after another free onto the streets. There are many interesting touches present in The Judge, the most striking perhaps being the completely unorthodox choice of music, a mixture of both haunting gothic choral and eerie solo violin, music which freely hops in and out of the diegesis and even appears to inform the rhythms of Clifton's editing in certain key sequences. There is actually very little camera movement present here at all, and Clifton relies frequently on this rhythmic style of editing - which borders on becoming a musical presence itself at times - often favoring setting up a scene with a long or medium-long static shot, and paying little attention to dialogue delivery while cutting to and creating a circuit of various human reactions and the handling of objects. Clifton also displays a dark, witty sense of humor at times, particularly towards the end with a dream sequence that entails a simple, mundane domestic quarrel, emphasizing the absurdity of the events the main character has painted for himself in his waking life. If The Judge is any indication at all of the measure of artistic freedom and creativity Clifton was able to enjoy throughout his career, then I very much look forward to digging around in his basement further and seeing what other treasures are there to be unearthed.

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