In His 60’s, Batman Looks Tired; Film Forum’s Pre-Code Parade

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, from a screenplay by Mr. Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on a story by Mr. Goyer and the Batman characters created by Bob Kane and published by DC Comics, plays out more like an afterthought to the four-movie Batman series than a self-confidently organic addition to a thriving cycle. As it happens, I’ve never read the Batman comic books, which were launched back in 1939, nor watched the 60’s television series that preceded the movies. But then I never got into the habit of reading comic books, even though I was and remain an avid follower of newspaper comic strips. I don’t claim any profound reason for this cultural inconsistency. Perhaps it’s because comic strips have always been part of something larger in real life, whereas comic-book characters dwelt by themselves in Neverneverland. I know this isn’t true of some of the contemporary “graphic novels,” but let’s face it-a habit is a habit.

The fact remains that I have managed to drag myself to see all four of the previous big-deal, live-action Batman movies, though I passed on Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm’s 1993 animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and Leslie Martinson’s 1966 quickie Batman with the original television Batman and Robin, Adam West and Burt Ward. (I must confess that I can’t help smiling wickedly when I recall the way Milton Berle leered around the “w’s” in “Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson,” when referring to the popular television show.)

The Batman movies I did see were Tim Burton’s darkly stylish Batman (1989), with Michael Keaton’s curiously introverted Bruce Wayne/Batman providing an interesting contrast to Jack Nicholson’s clownishly extroverted Joker; Kim Basinger was the one-shot female in the mostly male proceedings. Mr. Burton returned at the helm of Batman Returns (1992), with Mr. Keaton’s Batman having to battle Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Christopher Walken as the megalomaniacal Max Shreck; on the distaff side, Michelle Pfeiffer bared her villainous claws as Catwoman. The series took a directorial downturn with Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995), but there were compensations in Val Kilmer’s charismatic Batman, Tommy Lee Jones’ Harvey Two-Face and Jim Carrey’s Riddler supplying expertly villainous comedy relief, and a new dimension in Bruce Wayne’s double life with then-newcomer Nicole Kidman’s randy psychologist.

The series took on an extra burden with the debut of Batman’s teenage sidekick in Batman & Robin (1997). Mr. Schumacher and the franchise-holders pulled out all the stops, not so much with the low-key good guys-this time with George Clooney as Batman and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, assisted by tasty teen morsel Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl-as with the supercharged villains Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). But by then it was a no-go, both critically and commercially; people seemed tired of Batman and his eternally beleaguered Gotham.

Why, then, a new Batman movie, with a title and an ending designed to encourage a sequel a few years hence? Apparently, someone out there in La-La Land decided that there was still some life left in this now-almost-ancient comic-book conceit. The trick is to find new angles and new villains and new dangers. That couldn’t have been hard in this paranoid period, but first you need a somewhat venturesome director with a venturesome screenplay. Mr. Nolan provided the promise of the former with his previous work in the time-juggled Memento (2000) and the moodily sleepless Insomnia (2002), while Mr. Goyer displayed promise of the latter with his bizarre, end-of-the-world vampire scripts for the Wesley Snipes action vehicles, Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) and Guillermo de Toro’s Blade II (2002).

There are no vampires in Batman Begins, but for the first time in the series there are thousands of bats (or their special-effects replicas). It seems that when Bruce Wayne was a little boy of 8 (Gus Lewis), he accidentally fell into a well, at the bottom of which was a hitherto hidden cave from which a multitude of bats flew out in fearful panic. At least that’s how Bruce’s father, the saintly Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache), explained the phenomenon to his traumatized son when he rescued him from the well. But to no avail: When Bruce and his parents later attend an opera with monstrous, bat-like stage effects, young Bruce becomes so hysterical that he forces his parents to take him outside to an empty alley, where they’re gunned down by a Depression-era derelict who needs the money, inasmuch as widespread crime and corruption have destroyed Gotham’s economy. But Bruce takes all the guilt for his parents’ deaths upon himself, and years later, after a confusing (to me) sequence of events, their killer gets out on parole and is shot by a person or persons unknown, though a grown-up Bruce is in the crowd with a gun in his pocket.

Still later, Bruce is fighting off a horde of convicts in a Far Eastern prison when he is rescued by a strangely mystical man named Ducard (Liam Neeson), who is given to a form of psychobabble and paradox-spinning that seems reminiscent of the philosophy department of Star Wars University. Ducard’s boss turns out to be an Asian type known as Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who leads a band of ninja-style vigilantes decked out in black as the League of Shadows. At one point, I couldn’t help thinking of Busby Berkeley as the ninja chorus line feinted and parried in perfect unison with the ninja-costumed Bruce Wayne as he searches for his inner self by conquering his own personal demons, the fear and anger and vengefulness spawned by the murder of his parents.

Bruce parts company with Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul when he learns that they plan to destroy Gotham for its original decadence and depravity, as if they were gods destroying Sin City for its resemblance to Sodom and Gomorrah. In this sense, Batman Begins takes on a post-9/11 aspect of apocalyptic anticipation. It’s at this point that Bruce Wayne decides that the only way he can save Gotham from all its evil enemies is to give birth, metaphorically speaking, to Batman. He is assisted in this mission by the family’s loyal butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a demoted scientist in his father’s old company, which is now controlled by an unscrupulous corporate raider named Earle (Rutger Hauer), who has abandoned the philanthropic activities that Bruce’s late father pursued in favor of all sorts of weapons programs. Earle, however, isn’t the most dangerous enemy that Gotham and Batman face, and he is rather easily disposed of in a stock-market coup engineered by the supposedly spoiled playboy.

Another red herring in Batman’s quest to save Gotham is gangland chieftain Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson with a Sopranos accent). Batman hands over Falcone on a silver platter to the one honest police official in Gotham, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). But when Falcone threatens to spill the beans on the real master criminal in Gotham, he is driven mad by a sinister psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), on the crooked city’s payroll.

Meanwhile, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s childhood sweetheart-now grown up to be an assistant district attorney-is nearly killed by Crane when she investigates the sudden unavailability of Falcone for prosecution. Batman rescues her with the help of Lucius, Alfred and Gordon, who comically takes a fancy to driving the Batmobile. Crane is finally subdued in a straitjacket, but he turns out to be yet another red herring in the search for Mr. Big.

At this point, I must leave the reader to guess who that Mr. Big turns out to be. One clue: It is someone we have met before. This is not the usual disclaimer-i.e., that I don’t want to spoil the ending of a movie I’m recommending-because I am not recommending this movie at all. Like all its predecessors, it’s over two hours long, and I can think of many more pleasurable ways to spend your time.

Even so, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what the master plan to destroy Gotham was if I really understood it, but I’m almost afraid to say that I didn’t. It involves an elevated train, some gas in the water supply, declining water pressure and rapid-fire cutting. It was all too high-tech for me.

Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer are nothing if not pretentious in their variations on a comic-book fantasy. Political correctness is, of course, a given, but there is also more than a little squeamishness about means and ends when all hell breaks loose. I didn’t understand why rich and poor alike took the el and walked in the dark, deserted alleys of the city so that they could be kidnapped and killed more easily. Indeed, there is less raw city life here than there was in the far-from-realistic Sin City, and what violence the movie has is both evasive and derivative.

A slight gap in the plot appears when the district attorney is murdered by a crooked policeman, and there is no official follow-up beyond Rachel’s slightly annoyed comment that he is missing. As for Rachel and Bruce and their first tentative kiss, I couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer were scratching their heads wondering what to do about two characters played by actors who might or might not be in the sequel, as nearly happened with Spider-Man 2. Both Mr. Bale and Ms. Holmes were more than adequate here, as were Mr. Caine, Mr. Freeman, Mr. Neeson, Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Hauer and Mr. Watanabe. I was particularly impressed by Mr. Oldman as Jim Gordon and Mr. Murphy as Dr. Crane. Yet for all the effort and expense that went into this salvage job on an old, abandoned property, I would have preferred that Batman-now past 66 years old-be given his pension and sent on his way.

Pre-Code Mode

Film Forum, as is its wont, is enlivening a largely listless and lifeless moviegoing season with a series entitled “Paramount Before the Code,” a four-week, 46-film celebration of provocative features, shorts and cartoons from one of Hollywood’s most sophisticated studios in the relatively less-censor-ridden years between 1930 and 1934 (after which it was goodbye, Mae West, and hello, Shirley Temple). The series is programmed by Bruce Goldstein, who created the theater’s first pre–Production Code series in 1988. Since then, “pre-Code” has been one of the Film Forum’s hallmarks.

Of course, few of the films in the series can be considered unqualified masterpieces. At most, a dozen or so deserve to be regarded as “classics” without a nostalgic snicker or two, but the total experience of the past’s texture with a live audience is worth many times the price of admission. This is particularly true of three of the five Paramount Marx Brothers romps, which are among the most anarchic of all their works, beginning with their supreme triumph in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933), with the brothers and their celebrated lady in waiting, Margaret Dumont, along with the famous side-splitting mirror tour-de-farce between Groucho and Harpo. (The same routine had been performed in the silent era by Max Linder and Charlie Chaplin, but not as hilariously.)

Also hilarious in spots is the second Marx Brothers feature, Norman Z. McLeod’s Horse Feathers, with the sadly forgotten period vamp, Thelma Todd. Both films are being shown July 3-4.

The third Marx Brothers feature in the series, being shown two weeks later on July 17-18, is Norman Z. McLeod’s Monkey Business (1931), along with Edward Cline’s Million Dollar Legs (1932), a W.C. Fields vehicle in which he memorably and repeatedly arm-wrestles Hugh Herbert while serving as the president of Klopstokia, a tiny country just a stone’s throw from Groucho Marx’s Fredonia in Duck Soup-and one that has become as obsessed with the Olympic Games as Bloomberg’s New York. Lyda Roberti is the peppy continental sexpot, whom Ginger Rogers was mysteriously parodying in William A. Seiter’s Roberta (1935), while Fred Astaire was singing and dancing “I Won’t Dance” and Irene Dunne was singing Jerome Kern’s haunting “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” (Why doesn’t anyone ever revive Roberta? It’s RKO and after the pre-Code period.)

Anyway, the reason I have called special attention to the Marx Brothers entries is that I simply don’t find them very funny anymore without a live, appreciative audience to laugh through the silent stretches of their theatrically timed gags, particularly Groucho’s double and triple takes on every funny line.

Still, in the brilliant series opener on June 24, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles, one doesn’t even need an audience-you’d laugh even if you saw it in a broom closet. The second feature, Josef Von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich, Marshall and Cary Grant, is second-level Sternberg but first-rate Dietrich, especially in the number in which she pops out of a gorilla suit.

Mae West takes center stage on June 26 with a still-up-and-coming Cary Grant in Wesley Ruggles’ I’m No Angel (1933). The second feature is Girls About Town (1931), an early George Cukor film with Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman as period playgirls. There is also vintage Betty Boop in Boop-oop-a-Doop. If you’ve never seen Betty Boop before, you’ve missed Max Fleischer’s adult alternative to Walt Disney in the 30’s.

I have to take a pass on Harry Wagstaff Gribble and Alexander Hall’s Madame Racketeer (1932), with character actress Alison Skipworth and George Raft, and Benjamin Stoloff’s The Devil Is Driving (1932), with Edmund Lowe and Wynne Gibson; at least the titles are clear in describing the content. Both are being shown on June 27.

But I strongly recommend the next day’s lead feature, the underrated William Seiter’s Hot Saturday (1932), with slowly fading early-30’s star Nancy Carrol doing a nifty good-bad girl jilted by Randolph Scott and redeemed by Cary Grant (at a time when Scott and Grant raised some eyebrows by living together as roommates). I haven’t seen the second feature, Erle C. Kenton’s Search for Beauty (1934), with Ida Lupino and Buster Crabbe, but be forewarned: Lupino is still in her early ingénue-ish period and not the admirably hard-boiled dame she was to become in the late 40’s.

Low-grade horror and crime are the order of the day in Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933), with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, as well as in A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933), with Lionel Atwill. Both are being shown on June 29.

More to my taste is the next day’s program of rediscoveries: Laurence Schwab and Lloyd Corrigan’s early talkie, Follow Thru (1930), with Nancy Carroll at her peak and Jack Haley-plus a Betty Boop and Ethel Merman sing-along. The writing credits alone make the second feature mandatory viewing for any serious cineaste: A. Edward Sutherland’s long-unseen June Moon, with Jack Oakie and Frances Dee, is based on the play by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman.

This takes us through June at Film Forum. I’ll try to polish off July next week.