Thursday, May 27, 2021

Crime Month Gets an Offer it Can't Refuse

The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film, The Godfather, is one of the most acclaimed movies of all time. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, it was the biggest moneymaker of its time, and it still shows up near or at the top of critics' lists of best films. And yet, I’m going to write less about it than I do about a Christian Slater direct-to-video stinker.

Why? Because we write about clergy and churches in movies, and a cheesy film like God’s Not Dead spends more screen time on those things than this particular classic -- which won an Oscar for the director, Coppola, screenwriter Mario Puzo, and Best Actor Marlon Brando (who refused the award and sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to accept in his place).

But the church doesn’t come up a lot in the film. We see the Godfather’s son, Michael (Al Pacino), coming out of a movie theater with his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). They’ve been watching The Bells of St. Mary (a contemporary film for the characters, as the scene takes place in 1946). Kay asks Michael, “Would you like me better if I was a nun?” (A rather bizarre question to ask on a date.) 

He says, “No.” 

But then she asks, “Would you like me better if I was Ingrid Bergman?” 

To that, he says, “Now that’s a thought…” But then Michael spots a headline at a newsstand. His father, mob boss Vito Corleone, has been shot. So no more nun talk.

It’s interesting that Kay wonders if Michael wishes she were more “moral,” while the film is chiefly about Michael's descent into immorality. The son of a mafia Don (Brando), he tells Kay the criminality is “my family, it’s not me,” but throughout the film, he is increasingly pulled into the family business.

The first time we see a priest is at the second wedding in the film. Don Corleone wanted Michael to be able to stay out of crime, become a lawyer or a politician, but when an attempt is made on the Don’s life, Michael seeks revenge. He commits two murders and flees to Sicily. In the small town where he's hiding, he meets a beautiful woman, is "thunderstruck," and marries her. We briefly see the priest bless the couple at the wedding, and that’s all we see of him.

Don Corleone recovers somewhat from his injuries and goes back to leading his “family.” Other crime families want to get into the business of selling narcotics, but Don Corleone resists -- though not for reasons of morality. He says, “It’s not like gambling, liquor, or even women which is something most people want nowadays, but is forbidden by the pezzonovante of the Church.” His connections in government and the police department won’t help him if he gets into the drug business. (The word “pezzonovante,” Italian for “big shots,” didn’t appear in the subtitles on the DVD I was watching, but it is interesting that the Don seems to view the bureaucrats in the church just like bureaucrats in any other worldly organization.)

When Don Corleone dies later in the film, the funeral is a traditional Catholic ceremony, and all the attendees (mostly criminals and, apparently, good Catholics) cross themselves.

The film has all of the traditional church rituals: two weddings, a funeral, and even a baptism. The baptism is the most interesting service for us here at Movie Churches.

Michael agrees to be the godfather for his sister Connie's (Talia Shire) son. In one of the most powerful sequences in the film, Michael arranges for his chief rivals and enemies to be executed at the same time as the baptism.

Michael, as his nephew's godfather, answers the traditional baptismal questions.

“Michael, do you believe in God, the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth?”

 “I do,” the killer answers.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord?” 

 “I do,” Michael responds.

“Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church?” 

“I do,” Michael says. Is he lying or telling the truth? Great question.

Michael must answer the questions for his infant when the priest asks, “Michael Francis Rizzi, do you renounce Satan?” 

Again, the question is asked as people are being killed on his command. And Michael answers, “I do renounce him.” 

The priest continues, “And all his works?” 

And Michael answers, “I do renounce them.” 

The priest asks, “And all his pomps?” (What the heck are “pomps?”) 

“I do renounce them,” Michael answers.

And finally, the priest asks, “Michael Rizzi, will you be baptized?” 

And Michael Corleone answers for his nephew, “I will.” The priest sprinkles the baby, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (in Latin, of course). The ceremony ends with the priest's blessing, “Michael Rizzi, go in peace, and may the Lord be with you. Amen.”

The music of J. S. Bach provides a lovely accompaniment for the baptism, and a dissonant accompaniment for the assassination of Michael’s enemies, as editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner expertly intersperse the killings with the ceremony.

The Church doesn’t come off well in this film. The members of the Mafia (a word never used in the film because of pressure from Italian heritage groups) seem to be accepted members of their Catholic churches. I know church discipline isn’t widely loved these days, but still… An active career of murder would be a reason to deny someone the sacraments, wouldn’t you think?

That’s why, though The Godfather is rightly regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, the church in the film earns a meager Two Steeples.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Crime Month: Can I Get a Witness Protection?

Can I Get a Witness Protection?

Many people can’t stand Christian films because the films tend to should I put it? Let's just say sub-par quality. Or incompetently produced. Or insipid. We here at Movie Churches have a different problem with Christian films. We figured that if any filmmakers get the mundane, nitty-gritty details of church and Christian service right, it would be Christian filmmakers. But no.

This sad fact was demonstrated once again in this week’s film, Can I Get a Witness Protection? The 2016 film has a potentially workable high concept: a man who witnesses a murder is put in the witness protection program as a pastor in a small church. Similar themes have been used in films like My Blue Heaven, For Richer or Poorer, and Did You Hear About the Morgans? but this film gets very few of the facts of small church life right, especially in the particulars of denomination and location.

This appears to be the only movie writer/director Robert G. Lee has written or directed, though he has written a number of episodes of VeggieTales. Lee has had an extensive television career as a warm-up comic for a number of sitcoms - Designing Women, Perfect Strangers, Wings, Just Shoot Me, and others. To make this film, he used crowdfunding resources (Kickstarter and Indiegogo).

The wacky comedy tells the story of Jack (Jamie Alexander) and Julie (Jacquelyn Zook), a couple with a rocky marriage forced to move from San Diego to Fresno in the Witness Protection Program after Jack witnesses a murder in a garage of his trucking company. (Since Fresno is only a five-hour drive from San Diego, one might wonder if this is much of a hiding place. Someone in the film raises this objection asking, “You don’t think people in San Diego can find Fresno?” The federal agent responds, “We’ve found most people in San Diego don’t want to find Fresno.”)

Jack is given a position as associate pastor in the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno. Senior Pastor Bronwen (Kevin Brief) takes two large bricks of cash from the federal agents as reimbursement for helping  Jack and Julie. He provides them with living space in the church (which has no showers or private bathrooms) and admits the dilapidated church has been struggling financially. Federal protection money helps them get by.

We then meet the rest of the staff of the church. Danny (David Storrs) serves both as the church janitor and youth pastor (of a youth group with a single member.) Kathy (Karen Whipple) is the music director who is not only unable to play any musical instruments but can’t even play a boombox (at a memorial service she inadvertently plays Christmas carols and the Hallelujah Chorus). And Linda (Jodi Shilling) is the church secretary but calls herself the pastor’s “indentured servant.” With Jack, that makes a staff of five serving a congregation of fewer than fifty people (guessing from the church services we see). The staff all seems quite incompetent, and I was sure the joke would be that they were all part of the witness protection program. But no, this congregation hired and continues to pay a large staff of people wholly unsuited to their work.

The next plot twist comes when the senior pastor dies, putting Associate Pastor Jack in the place of Senior Pastor (you know, like royalty or Presidents). Jack really shakes things up by going out into the neighborhood, serving community meals, and letting a couple of homeless men sleep in the church. This brings the church to the attention of the media (oddly, it's as if no church anywhere -- not just in Fresno -- has ever done such a thing before) and the media draws the attention of the killers.

At the conclusion of the film, the killers come to the church during a service and --at gunpoint -- threaten to take Jack away. But the congregation is able to overcome the killers and call the police. Jack admits he isn’t a real pastor, does not have any seminary training, and, in fact, just became a Christian during his weeks of service at the church, but the congregation acclaims him their new pastor nonetheless.

So what does the film get wrong about churches? And about Fresno? And even about crime? So many things.

First, mistakes about churches:
  1. Pastoral hiring. It was a very poor choice to make the church Presbyterian. There are a number of Presbyterian denominational variants in the United States, but all of them have elaborate procedures for hiring pastors involving bureaucracies in the denomination, church elders, and the congregants. If filmmakers had made the church an independent congregation or even if they just called it Baptist, it might be possible the senior pastor would choose his own associate and the congregation chooses its own senior pastor, but this doesn’t happen with Presbyterians.
  2. Church signs. We see a number of “witty” sayings on the church sign in the film. (“We Don't Raise Our Hands In Church - We're Afraid God Might Call On Us!” “Presbyterians - We’re like Methodists but without the excitement.” “Download God’s Prayer App for Quality God Facetime”) I’m more than willing to believe all of these sayings have appeared on the signs of real-life small churches, but the signs don’t get changed that quickly.
  3. Financial accountability. The senior pastor keeps the funds in cash in a safe. No one but the senior pastor has the combination to the safe. The IRS would be very interested in these things.
  4. Pastoral requirements. Jack’s first sermon is a disaster and his attempts to use the former pastor's library just confuses him,  so his staff gives him several books: Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, and Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I’ve read all these books, and they’re good, but it's hard to believe that in one week these books on apologetics not only lead Jack to become a Christian but also make him a passable preacher. As Paul wrote, “Whoever aspires to be a pastor desires a noble task...He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” I don’t think Paul would have been cool with making Jack a pastor.
  5. No way this would be First Church. The name of the church is First Presbyterian Church of Fresno, but it seems to be located in an upscale newer neighborhood. In a city like Fresno, most First churches (and sometimes even Seconds and Thirds) of a major denomination will have their campuses near the center of the city in a downtown area.

Geography is outside our purview here at Movie Churches, but as a former resident of Fresno, I have some quibbles. The few people in the congregation in what appears to be a very tidy neighborhood seems relatively well-to-do, but our introduction to the church mentions homeless people living in the neighborhood (we see a few well-groomed people pushing shopping carts on the street or getting clothes from what they think is a clothing giveaway). In addition, everybody seems very white, though Fresno's population is only about 50% white. About 40% of the people living there are Hispanic, more than 10% are Asian (Fresno is home to the second-largest Hmong population in the US), and about 30% are Black, Native American, or "other"). Not surprisingly, the church used in the film is located in a Los Angeles suburb. 

I also had real problems with how the way the criminals conducted their business. I admit I'm not an expert, but does it make any sense that criminals concerned about one man witnessing their criminal activities, would hold a whole congregation at gunpoint, creating dozens of witnesses? Again, I’m not in the murder business, but that isn’t how I’d conduct my murder dealings.

But we don’t rate geography, demographics, or the accuracy of criminal representation here. We rate churches and clergy in movies, and we’re giving the entirely fictional First Presbyterian Church of Fresno a meager Two Steeples.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Crime Month Reminds us: YOLO

You Only Live Once

“Father Dolan is for everybody!” 

It’s hard to find a more ringing clergy endorsement than the words of Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) in praise of the prison priest in 1937’s You Only Live Once. The film is the second American film made by the great Austrian/German director Fritz Lang, who had already made great films in Germany like Metropolis and M

Though baptized a Catholic as a baby, Lang had Jewish heritage and he worried about the rise of the Nazis. This fear intensified when the regime began to censor his films, so he left Germany for the United States in 1933. It is interesting that Lang’s first two American films are quite critical of the American justice system, almost as if he was testing whether he would be able to practice the freedom of expression that was becoming impossible in his homeland. After making Fury, he made this film, the story of an ex-con who falls in love and marries his public defender’s secretary (echoed in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona where an ex-con marries a prison guard.)

But that ex-con, Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), can’t keep a job. The man that hires him out of prison uses the first possible excuse to fire the “jailbird;” Eddie is frustrated that he must rely on the income of his wife, Joan (Sylvia Sidney). He is tempted to return to a life of crime, and his former gang offers him a job. He resists the temptation, but when his former gang's heist goes wrong and six men are murdered, the gang frames Eddie for the killings.

Eddie is convicted of the murders and sentenced to death by electrocution, bringing him back to Father Dolan (William Gargan), the chaplain at the prison. At the start of the film, Father Dolan urged the parole board to give Eddie a chance and helped him gain his freedom.

Now that Eddie's back in prison, Father Dolan encourages him not to give up. He urges him to hope in his wife and hope in God, but Eddie becomes increasingly bitter. Father Dolan assures Eddie that he will be going to Heaven (with a Universalist theology which is quite different from my theology and is rejected by Eddie -- for very different reasons from mine).

The night before his execution, Eddie receives a gun that's been smuggled in, and Eddie takes hostages. As he tries to escape, investigators on the outside discover evidence that clears Eddie of the murders. Eddie is granted a pardon, and the warden tells Father Dolan. The priest tries to convince Eddie that he's been granted his freedom, but Eddie thinks it’s all a trick to make give up his gun.

With Father Dolan as his hostage, Eddie makes his way to the prison gate. When gunfire breaks out, Eddie inadvertently shoots the priest. If Father Dolan should cry out that he's been shot, the guards will come down on Eddie. Instead, the priest decides to remain quiet and give Eddie a chance to escape and live his life. Father Dolan acts out the words of Jesus in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for a friend.”

Early in the film, when Eddie’s criminal friends argue that Father Dolan was just another cog in the prison system, Eddie said that the priest was concerned about everyone, including the cons: “Father is for everybody!” And that is why the priest earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Crime Month has an Appointment with Danger

Appointment with Danger

This blog is supposed to focus on clergy and churches, but sometimes we get distracted. 

1951’s Appointment with Danger, part procedural and part salute to the Postal Service, presents an amazing piece of casting. The inciting incident of the film is the murder of a postal inspector, Harry Gruber, by two seedy criminals, Joe Regas and George Soderquist. Joe is played by Jack Webb and George is played by Harry Morgan. TV Land fans will recognize the stars of the 1967 revival of Dragnet, a show that followed two straight-laced Los Angeles police detectives. To see “Friday” and “Gannon” as thugs is rather jarring.

This bit of casting is even more interesting because Appointment with Danger's format is quite similar to the films and TV shows that Jack Webb made as a producer, writer, and director. (In addition, Dragnet's first incarnation -- as a radio drama -- also first appeared in 1951.) This film, like much of Webb’s work, provides a rather hagiographic presentation of law enforcement -- in this case, the United States Postal Inspection Service.

The film opens with a narrator lauding the glories of the United State Postal Service (“the biggest business in the world”). It is noted that Americans use the mail “for business, for pleasure, and sometimes to address that busy man at the North Pole” (Yup, it's a nod to Miracle on 34th Street, a film with a similar reverence for mail carriers) and then salutes “your mailman who visits you a dozen times a week.” And then the announcer introduces the real heroes of the film: “behind this army[of postal carriers] is a special army of trained men, the oldest police force, Postal Inspectors.”

The narrator then gets to the action. “Our story begins in Gary, Indiana.” It is there that we meet Joe and George, who -- after murdering Gruber -- together drag the body outside to their car. George notices a nun standing in an alley. She's having trouble opening her umbrella, and George (demonstrating exemplary manners for a murderer) goes to help her. He explains that he and Joe are carrying a friend who has “had too much to drink.”

Unfortunately for Joe and George, that nun, on a short layover on a train trip, lets a street cop know about the odd incident. That report eventually finds its way to the postal inspectors investigating Gruber’s murder.

The lead inspector on the case, Al Goddard (Alan Ladd), is assigned the task of finding the nun (His boss asks him, “What about the nun? How many nuns are there anyway?” Goddard  responds, "I don’t know, I’ve never counted them.”) 

Al's partner says he's a cynical guy. "You’ve been chasing hoodlums for so long you don’t like anyone.” 

Al responds, “We’re all working for ourselves, everyone’s a pitch artist.” 

His partner tells him, “You’re a good cop, Al, that’s about all you are.”

If you know movies, you know Al’s cynical view of life will be challenged by his witness, Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert). Al tracks her down and interrogates her about what she saw. She tells him,“I got off the train to get Sister Gertrude some medicine.” It was then she saw Joe and George with Gruber’s body.

Al tells her she might have to go to court to testify, but the nun balks at leaving the convent, “I don’t think so, I have classes to teach.”

Al responds, “It’s the devil’s work to let someone else do your job.” Sister Augustine acknowledges the wisdom of that statement and asks who said it first. 

Al tells her it’s from the writings of Martin Luther

“His early writings, I imagine,” the sister responds.

She goes to the police station and identifies George in a book of mug shots. Al tells her she will need to go to Gary, Indiana, to testify in court. 

Sister Augustine expresses sympathy for the man and asks about his likely fate. 

“He’ll get a trial and everything the law allows,” Al tells her. 

“But not a drop of charity.” 

When Al doubts George deserves charity, the sister tells him, “I don’t think you have a heart.” 

Al answers, “When a cop dies, he doesn’t die of heart failure. It’s a charlie horse to the chest.”

Eventually, Joe learns that the nun has identified George, so he kills George and makes an attempt on Sister Augustine’s life (he pushes bricks off a scaffolding down on her, but misses). Joe's boss, Earl (Paul Stewart), asks Joe how the nun survived, and Joe tells him, “She got lucky.” 

Earl tells him, “I’m glad. This murder is bad business.” He tells Joe to forget about the nun. Joe can’t.

When Al learns about the attempt on Sister Augustine’s life, he tries to get her to take a gun for protection. She tells him, “You don’t need to worry about anything happening to me. I’ve a guardian angel.” When Al tries to persuade her that a gun can be a guardian angel, she tells him, “My angel doesn’t jam.”

Al does get Sister Augustine to agree to go to a different convent where he can provide better protection. Al finds her at the new school teaching the kids baseball. He asks how she likes working with the new group of children, and she replies, “They’re lovely children, but the little boys are very badly trained in baseball. We’ve sent three boys to the major leagues, but they’ve only sent one. And it was to the Cleveland Browns.”

Al decides on a new strategy to catch the crooks which he believes will keep Sister Augustine safer. He pretends to be a crooked cop willing to help the thieves rob a postal truck carrying a million-dollar shipment.

He says goodbye to the nun. She says she’ll keep him in her prayers.

But the robbery doesn’t go smoothly, and Joe abducts Sister Augustine for protection. When the gang gathers, the sister acknowledges Al -- so the crooks know that Al isn’t crooked. 

Al pleads for the nun’s life. “Earl, I know you don’t believe in hell. It’s a bad time to bet against it.” 

Earl tells Sister Augustine that he’ll let her go if she gives her word that she won’t rat them out. She responds, “I can’t give my word about that.” She wouldn’t lie to the authorities any more than she’d lie to Earl.

To protect her, Al begins a fight with Joe, just as the police arrive at the scene. In a shootout, all the members of the gang are killed, but the cop and the nun survive.

Al asks someone to take Sister Augustine to her train so she can return to her home convent. Noticing his affection for the nun, Al’s partner says to him, “You know Al, if you work real hard, someday you may qualify for the human race.” 

And Al tells him, “I may join it at that.”

Though all the Jack Webb lore is interesting, we really need to get down to the business of giving Sister Augustine a Steeple Rating. Though there are times in the film when the good nun seems a little dim, her faith, integrity, and compassion overcome that to earn her our highest rating of Four Steeples.