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Archive for the ‘CINEMA-PHOTOGRAPHER’ Category

Bardelys, The Magnificent

27 Sep

Bardelys The Magnificent – directed by King Vidor. Silent Swashbuckler. 90 minutes Color Filters 1926.
★★★★★
The Story: A philandering blade, on a Cymbeline-bet to marry a certain lady, falls for her on sight and is almost hung for his pains.
~
What we see here is John Gilbert as a quite good actor.

Good?

Really?

Watching Queen Christina, who would have guessed? There, he looks like a high-strung ham.

Here, however, everything he does is geared to bodice-ripper style but played in the lowest key. He simply lets the tinpot gesticulations of the plot zoom around him, while he stays real. Smart actor. Too much makeup on his eyebrows does give their whites a gluttonous glare of intensity, perhaps, but otherwise he is light and easy, convincing and fun.

He rescues himself at the end with a series of spectacular aerial acrobatic feats, ala Douglas Fairbanks, worth waiting for. In the meantime, he has the fair Eleanor Boardman, (soon to marry King Vidor, the director). She is lovely, real, unusual. Worth seeing her acting and her spirit.

In a different way, the same can be said for Roy D’Arcy. Now there’s a villain for you. The eye makeup astonishes. Covering his eyebrows with flesh-colored tape, he pastes tiny upward slanting brows and below them the suspect balcony of a moustache, and below that the poisoned stiletto of a goatee. In silents, even in late and technically advanced ones like this, actors sometimes still used stage-makeup. What terrifying teeth! What a loathsome smile he generates with them! What a captivating gift is his! Repulsive. Silent films were his onion. Don’t miss him.

The story, of course, is tosh. But it is wittily over-costumed, and the sets, which look like sets, are hyperbolic – just what this sort of material requires. Amid a flurry of unconvincing duels with sabers, the film contains a number of famous scenes. The love scene in the punt with the swans floating past the weeping willows is justly renown.

This is MGM at its most expensive. The great William Daniels, who photographed Garbo and right up to Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, lavishes the talent of his lighting on every scene.

Check it out for your revision of Gilbert’s gifts. Gilbert almost married Garbo. He married Ina Claire for fifteen minutes. Marlene Dietrich saved his life in her usual manner. Dead at thirty-eight, alas. His daughter by actress Leatrice Joy, whom he also married, talks about him movingly, and the extras include two well informed commentators.

It’s a King Vidor film, so it has the power of true sexual attraction in it. The film was thought lost until recently. Its discovery and reconstruction is a wonder and a treat.

 

Ace In The Hole

29 Aug

Ace In The Hole – produced, written, and directed by Billy Wilder. Docudrama. 115 minutes Black And White 1951.
★★★★

The Story: To hot up the headlines, a sleazy reporter stretches out the rescue of a man trapped in a mine.
~
A remarkable film. In some ways. None of which count.

I saw it when it first came out and disliked it for a reason I now understand. It is over-written and over-acted, which is a form of waterboarding. Force everything down our throats and we have no room to respond. The movie failed in America.

Looking at Kirk Douglas chew every line to death with his many teeth, I wonder at him. Is this a human being at all? I have never found him so, save once, Lonely Are The Brave. Otherwise, I watch him force his lines and attitudinize, and I realize that the director must also have wanted this. But why? Douglas’s character becomes a crazy Hitler – an egomaniac who can manipulate events into a spectacle that will hypnotize a multitude. Billy Wilder was a Nazi-fled Austrian Jew, and I don’t think the film has anything much to do with America, a country, unlike Germany, geographically too large to give itself to a single morbid distraction.

For supporting players, the difficulty when the leading actor overacts is the requirement to play into his pitch and overact too. The only one who escapes this necessity is Porter Hall, the one character in the picture you believe.

What’s remarkable about the picture is its setting in New Mexico and the vast cast of extras which gathers to witness the rescue of the trapped prospector. The costumes by Edith Head are tip-top. But the main appeal of the film as a story lies in the way it is told by the camera, which is in the hands of (18 Oscar nominations) Charles Lang. He’s as much responsible for Paramount style as Claudette Colbert is. It is one of those films whose posthumous reputation can be credited more to him and the Paramount production team than by the temperament of its director.

Wilder always kept things simple. It’s a good rule. He had made Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard, and was to go on to make Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, most of which Charles Lang also filmed. But if you have a bastard for your leading role, he must first be human. Human first. Bastard second. In fact, human alone would probably suffice.

 

Body And Soul

01 Nov

Body and Soul – directed by Robert Rossen. Sports Drama. 104 minutes Black and White 1947.

★★★★★

The Story: A poor young man, to be a boxing champion, risks his soul and almost his body in the attempt.

~

The earliest great boxing film, it is a good picture raised to a masterwork by the genius of James Wong Howe: he took a hand-held camera into the ring and followed the grand-finale fight on roller skates. The film has a gritty, realistic, newsreel-in-the-streets quality, which creates a world, the Bronx, from which the fighter fled by means of one seedier, the ring.

At first one wonders what the German actress Lili Palmer is doing in it as the good woman, except soon it is plain that she really is a good woman and a voluptuous one too. On the opposite side of the fighter stands his mother, Anne Revere, with her stoic, modest probity. And Art Smith as his kindly dad.

All around the fighter hover a swarm of trainers and promoters and pals, men and women of mixed motives. Williams Conrad plays his guilt-ridden trainer, Joseph Pevney plays his chum, and Canada Lee the boxer he defeats and then befriends. Lee, himself a boxer, executes his final scene in a flare of intensity.

Behind these ignorant, greedy, devoted souls stands the chill person of the American powerbroker, played with ruthless élan by Lloyd Gough.

The film was a huge hit in its day, but its day was the same day as the HUAC. When you look at the film today, you can see that it presents a perfect model of capitalism at its most ruthless, thoughtless, and cruel. The boxer is thrice a commodity. He is worker, product, and buyer. All are a commodity – never human – each a thing to be manipulated into great profit. The boxer himself does this. He is the worker who transforms himself into a moneymaking machine and he buys into himself as popular merchandise. It is a powerful dramatic construction, and one never surpassed in film to my knowledge.

Whether or not this was understood by the Un-American Activities Committee, it dragged in John Garfield, who plays the boxer and produced the film, as a Communist. He was not one, but he was forever blacklisted from work. So were Anne Revere, Lloyd Gough and his wife, Art Smith, Robert Rossen, and scenarist Abraham Polonsky. Their careers were destroyed; they were impoverished and publicly shamed. Canada Lee, the greatest of all Negro Rights Activists, was hounded to his death by it at the age of 45. He was not a communist either.

Nor is the film Communist. Just because it is not Capitalist, does not mean that it is Communist. It is not a polemic either, so advise yourself to see it. As you would see any beautiful work of art. As you would see any picture filmed by James Wong Howe.

 

Snowden

22 Sep

Snowden – written and directed by Oliver Stone. Biopic. 142 minutes. Color 2016.

★★★★

The story: A brilliant young computer whiz mounts a high level career in US government agencies, learns the terrible truth, and breaks it to the press.

~

Any gross invasion of privacy would seem to be, for Edward Snowden, all the 7 deadly sins rolled into one. He is closed off, closed down, closed up. He doesn’t want to be pried-into. And one keeps thinking, thank God Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly cast as him. Why? Because this actor has the face of a man you know is keeping all his secrets. A gross invasion of privacy is what he is shown hating most. No wonder Snowden spilled the beans in the biggest invasion of privacy of all, the invasion of privacy of the US government’s secret invasion of the privacy of its citizens.

Never was such gorgeous use of the big screen. Never was a biopic told with such reliance on the intelligence of the audience to watch and weigh.

And all of that is interesting and consistently vivid, informative and narratively alive.

What is not alive is Stone’s rendering of Snowden’s romance with his girlfriend, which moves through its hackneyed tropes to arrive nowhere. For Stone is not interested in romance or sex or human relations. Stone is a civics teacher, and a darn good one. Besides, it is impossible to take sides with this woman, since Snowden is such a cold fish. His love life is not primarily important to him. Which is why he is such a cold fish.

Narratively, it’s a phony conflict. Snowden’s loyalty would not be between his girlfriend and his job, but rather the tug between his mastery as a computer virtuoso, systems inventor and innovator, smart as paint – and – what would jeopardize this true calling – the disclosure which would result in the loss of this job and this calling. Which is, in fact what happened. Stalled in Russia. In Russia all Russia is a Russian airport.

But Stone never sees this. Instead we get Stone’s canned approbation of Snowden – as though we couldn’t judge that for ourselves.

Still, the film, by Anthony Mantle, is beautiful to behold. We have wonderful actors at their best – Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage. And we have superb production values, Mantle’s stunning and convincing pictures, great editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

And best of all we have not the drama but the biography and background of Snowden well and clearly told, and it is worth the telling and the seeing.

 

Winter Meeting

29 Jun

Winter Meeting – directed by Bretaigne Windust. Melodrama. A WW II hero courts a well-to-do spinster and breaks down her barriers to love. 104 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★
In its day, the picture was not successful, in the sense that other Bette Davis vehicles had been, which does not mean it lost money. It was concurrent with Davis’s huge salary boost to over $10,000 a week, and she is worth every penny of it if quality of performance is any standard. She is wonderful from beginning to end. It is not one of her bitch ladies, such as she crowded out her career and her talent with by playing for the last 40 years of her acting life. It is a quiet performance of a subdued intelligent woman; her transitions from mood to mood, from reception to speech, are an acting lesson to behold. She is always present and she is always free.

She talked about this film as the turning point of her career. One wonders what she meant. Did she mean she no longer looked young enough to hold the screen to a romantic possibility? She certainly looks great, though: she has lost the weight from her pregnancy. Davis had her first child when she was pushing forty. She was a tiny woman and extra weight showed on screen. Here she is svelt and limber. She walks with elegance and ease. Her training with Martha Graham shows in every move she makes, both physically and emotionally.

The top-of-the-line Warner’s staff backs her: Max Steiner does the score; she is beautifully dressed, and Ernest Haller once again masterfully lights her. Janis Paige and John Hoyt and Florence Bates support her.

But Davis said later that she should have gone to Hal Wallis and told him to shelve the production because it wasn’t working. What she meant by that may have related to James Davis as her leading man. They couldn’t get the actors they wanted, so they used an unknown. But, seeing it now, James Davis works OK. He’s not a conventional Hollywood handsome guy. He’s massive; his eyes are dark, recessed, and unreadable. He looks like he’s going to off the deep end, and that works fine, for indeed he is playing a troubled soldier hiding more than one bad secret.

In the course of their association, they have long talks, and these are intelligent explorations of their lives both now and before. Her tiny figure next to his mass is arresting. She is a much better actor than he could ever have become, or rather his style is that of a cowboy, so that you know that they would never really mate well, even had it all worked out between them, which I hope I do not betray your expectations by whispering to you that it does not.

But here she is at the peak of her powers, which in her case was very close to the end of them, and she is grand to watch, an honorable practioner of her craft.

 

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943

★★★★

The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.

~

She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.

 

 

I Wake Up Screaming

18 Mar

I Wake Up Screaming – directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Who-Dun-It. 82 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★

The Story: A young waitress is fostered by a promoter, and she rises into café society until she is murdered, leaving her sister to find out who did it.

~

Gary Giddens of The New York Sun called I Wake Up Screaming one of the most beautiful black-and-white films ever made. The photographer is Edward Cronjager, perhaps the most prominent member of a family of Hollywood cinemaphotographers (Seven academy Award Nominations). At this stage of his long career he is at Fox, and this is one of the first film noirs ever made, and, if you are to judge by its photography, it would be a film noir, with its strong use of dark lighting, angles for dramatic effect, rich shadows, and so on.

But I do not define film noir solely by the way a picture is filmed. My definition of film noir includes that but also must include certain subjects and two sorts of character must be in them. Either a leading male character, who is so troubled and angry he must move outside or beneath the law to realize his destiny. Or a leading female character who is disempowered and must also move outside or beneath the law. And it must be in black and white.

These films emerge from 1941 through just after The War until 1951 or so. In the case of the male character, think of them as written for returning soldiers who have seen in the war a life that lay outside all law. It has made them cynical, hard, pessimistic, bitter, cold, and almost ruthless. The same is true for the female character. She has been on the home front in power to run businesses, work in factories, or mastermind all aspects the home. At The War’s end, all this is stripped from her. She moves into something for which the word crime is a euphemism.

Very few films fill these strictures for content, characters, and filmed treatment. One of them is Murder, My Sweet starring Dick Powell one of the two seminal film noir actors, the other being Alan Ladd in, say, This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia. These men engage in relationships (sexually highly charged because of their coldness) with un-marriageable blonds, such as Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, and the great Claire Trevor.

Few people will agree with this careful view of the matter. Actually I am the only person who has to agree with it and I do. And it has nothing to do with I Wake Up Screaming which is noir only in its remarkable photography.

Betty Grable’s career started two films before this, both  musicals, both in color. But this year, 1941, she was to make one color musical, and two black and white films – one a comedy, A Yank In The RAF with Tyrone Power, and Wake Up Screaming, a drama.

I mention all this not just because she was to become the biggest grossing female star of her era and one justly loved by audiences all her life, but because, having made these two black and white films, Zanuck, the head of Fox, said, because of her Technicolor coloring, he would never put her in a black and white film again, and he never did,. But he wanted to. He wanted her to appear as the tart in The Razor’s Edge, a part Anne Baxter won an Oscar for. Grable refused on the grounds that she didn’t have the acting chops for drama and that the public would only accept her in sequins with her legs showing.

It’s a great example of actor-folly in believing that what the fans wanted should rule. Carole Lombard had the same failing. She never made another serious film after George Stevens’ Vigil In The Night, in which she is very good. Grable also fouled up on getting to play Miss Adelaide in the film of Guys And Dolls, a part she was subsequently to do a number of times on the stage. Grable is perfectly fine in I Wake Up Screaming. She’s responsive, game – a good dramatic actress. And she’s Betty Grable, which means she is sympathetic and you immediately care about her.

Grable is top-billed but the story is really that of the Victor Mature character, and the focus falls rightly on him. People dismissed him for years as a hunky lower-class Italian, which he may have been, but boy is he vivid when he shows up, and he has no trouble carrying the film. He is actually an excellent actor, particularly playing lightweight scalawags. He’s alive, susceptible, and full of fun. Look at his eyes. Delightful performance.

To help him we have no less than Allan Mobray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Carole Landis. But supporting them all is the remarkable Laird Cregar as a sicko detective. He is an actor worth seeking out wherever you can find him – Hangover Square, Blood And Sand, Heaven Can Wait, This Gun For Hire, and Charley’s Aunt. Very few parts but remarkable. Dead at 26.

So this is a particularly rich collection of talent, and the story because of them is worth digesting. These are the days before Elmore Leonard. But this is the sort of thing he would do, particularly as regard the Laird Cregar character. Dwight Taylor (Laurette Taylor’s son) adapted the novel for the screen. I say see it. It’s beautiful in its way, and, when you do see it, tell me, why does it have that title?

 

 

 

The Devil And Miss Jones

15 Feb

The Devil And Miss Jones – directed by Sam Wood. Proletarian Comedy. 92 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A group of department store employees, protesting for a union, unwittingly take into their fold the owner of the store.

~

Gee whiz, what are you waiting for! Get on your pony and order up this proletarian comedy with Charles Coburn as the millionaire who spies on his employees, and Jean Arthur, the store clerk who unwittingly befriends him.

This kind of story was a staple of the age of The Golden Age: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, most Frank Capra Comedies of the era, and any story where some penniless person gets to be the spouse of the boss’s favorite child: You Can’t Take It With You, The Bride Came C.O.D., It Happened One Night, Vivacious Lady, and a spate of screwball comedies from the era.

It was a great age for comedy, and, boy, do they still satisfy. They hold true now more than comedies made now, because the difference between the rich and the poor, the plutocrat and the working stiff are, once again, as marked now as then.

Charles Coburn can really play anything. He never shortchanges a role. He is never without resources. His person exudes a comic potential with every breath. He doesn’t need a situation; he is a situation. Watch him, as the children’s shoe clerk, fumble right and left, the look on him of dignity lost in the face of the preposterous. He is one of the great film character stars of the era; he can carry a film, as he does here; he can steal a film, as he does here.

But check Jean Arthur out as she creates three different ways, to clobber him over the head with the heel of a work boot. Everything she does is open, intentional, and sparse. She is incapable of a false move. Or an unappealing one.

Robert Cummings’s forte was light comedy, and he is at his best moment in his acting life as the rabble-rousing love interest of Jean Arthur. Watch his scenes on the beach and in the courtroom. Everything he says uses the forward energy which was his milk.

All these actors are at the top of their game. They don’t mug; they don’t gesticulate or exaggerate; they don’t reach for laughs or wring them to death. This kind of acting is called comedy of character and is played with the bodies of the performers as personalities, not clown bodies or situation comedy bodies. It’s not entertainment of gag or guffaw. It requires the great fluidity of perfect willingness. Master acting is required. Coburn was nominated for an Oscar and was to win one not long after for The More The Merrier.

The picture moves forward on roller skates. The camera is held by the great Harry Stradling Sr. And the writing is brilliant, surprising, and real: Norman Krasna. Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Let yourself go. Place The Devil And Miss Jones before you.

 

Carol

31 Dec

Carol – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. 118 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A Park Avenue woman takes up with a shopgirl and she with her in a relationship whose seriousness jeopardizes their lives.

~

The idea that this picture is about a lesbian relationship seems besides the point when actually watching it. For the environment of its story is also the story, and to define the movie in genital or sexually deviant terms seems vulgar and beside the point.

The relationship progresses in slow stages, but these stages are rendered through the lens of the setting of such love itself, not directly, but indirectly. The surroundings, that’s what we see and want to see, because the film makes us recognize surroundings as the kind permission and very condition of love – we who have ever known such a passion as is before us here. Unacknowledged setting is the sine qua non and soil of passion.

That is to say, the film is rendered through and as two simultaneous and converging stories, the more important and potent of which is that such love generates itself into being in half-tones, is experienced through doors partly closed, looking out car windows none of the landscape of which has any registration but has carrying power in that it provides the mundane context of Cupid’s wings gently fluttering out of sight behind His back all along. It doesn’t matter what it is.

The banal is the secret doily of love’s Valentine. The ordinary. The every-day. How cigarettes are needed, run out of. How a sales supervisor in a department store can create the very prison of disapproval on which such love will be forced into flower. How a child’s nurse must be reprimanded with a forbidding tone of voice.

The motels, the diners, the friends of the family – things of no importance actually provide the screen and fortress behind which and before which passion plants itself and thrives.

I stopped reading the novels of Janet Highsmith years ago, so I have not read this one. But I suspect the one fault of the film is in the screen writers being too respectful of one of the two women described in the book. Cate Blanchette plays the older one, the Park Avenue lady, and is superb. Rooney Mara plays the shopgirl, and she is good too. The trouble is that she is written as a little grey mouse, and it won’t do. It probably did well enough in the book. But the film needs a different contrast of types, one in whom we can take some interest. For our interest should be the same as Cate Blanchett’s – we’ve got to see what the heck she sees in her! It needed to be either written differently or cast with an actress with a strong personal quality – think of a young Julie Harris in the role – or both.

The film is majestically directed. Haynes’ sense of the ’50s is 100% better now. I lived through that time and I know. Beautiful Packards and Lincolns. Perfectly costumed. Perfect settings. It is shot with noble beauty by Edward Lachman, who also shot Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. Exquisite.

Carol is worthwhile watching for everyone with an adult within them.

 

Youth

23 Dec

Youth – directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Drama. 124 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Two old artists recuperate at a fancy Alpine hotel as their pasts and futures converge on them.

~

You wonder momentarily under what circumstances Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel could have become boyhood best friends, but the common ground is, of course, that both are walking slums. Caine has risen to great heights as a conductor and composer, but he is retired and now refuses to conduct a composition of his before The Queen. Keitel is in retreat with his screenwriters to finish his latest script. They are both in their late 70s, and what the film is about is less its story, which has its suspense, than what old age is like for each of them.

It’s not bad. It’s not what you thought it might be – which is to say that fleeting memory is not looked upon as a defect or loss, but as an advantage which offers to them a wider horizon for living life itself. Life itself, lived, with that horizon filled with nothing but itself. Not dismay. Not fear of death. Not major discomfort. Not regret or remorse or nostalgia for what has departed. But simply space.

I have never seen the matter of age presented in this way, and I, as an 82 year old, welcome the painting of a recognizable landscape. Dignity does not consist in resignation, or bearing-up. It consists of looking reality in the face with shrewdness and humor. And this takes a relish in a slower pace, which this film affords, and a willingness to forgo colors one no longer can relish and to enjoy colors one never expected existed.

The aim of certain scenes does not hit their target, such as the parade of Keitel’s screen heroines on a hillside. But many stern and stunning scenes hold my respect for their novelty, daring, beauty. We are given a good long time to contemplate here, which is what being 82 gives you. Editing does not rush us by. Things can register.

Youth’s story is told with a quirky idiosyncrasy easy to get used to. Jane Fonda has three terrific scenes, one with Keitel, one going nuts in an airplane, and one as a peasant woman holding a basket. Rachel Weisz is particularly fine in a long monologue. Paul Dano is just right as an abused movie star. Luca Bigazzi filmed it beautifully. And the concert at the end is certainly worth waiting for.

The director also directed The Great Beauty, which won the 2014 Oscar for the Best Foreign Film.

 

Metropolis

06 Dec

Metropolis – directed by Fritz Lang. SciFi. 148 minutes Black And White Silent 1927.

★★★

The Story: In a modernistic city controlled by an oligarch, his son enters the bleak world of the lowly workers to make things better.

~

Fritz Lang is in possession of a reputation for high art which leaves me stumped. When I read David Thomson on Lang, I don’t doubt the enthusiasm of what Thomson is saying, but I don’t see it evidenced in the films. I don’t see Lang as a telling director of actors. I don’t see his working with difficult or timeless subjects. I don’t see a visual style that is ever a narrative force in and of itself. He’s not a bad director, but it seems to me that his reputation stems from his professional associations rather than with his innate gifts.

Lang’s big name comes from his work in Germany — from Metropolis, M, two of the Mabuse films, and several others — from before 1933 when he withdrew his fortune and emigrated to France and Hollywood. The remarkable thing about those films is that they were all conceived not by Lang at all, but by a woman, Thea von Harbou who wrote them. She became his wife, and, both before and after her association with Lang, was the top script writer of German films.

Lang also had to hand various highly skilled technicians, and much of the critical attention to him stems from the presence of the spectacular sets in his work. He also had the creative genius of Gunther Rittau to conceive and execute the filming of the renowned special effects of Metropolis. And he, of course, had a remarkable cinema-photographer, who was to go on to shoot Garbo’s Camille, Pride And Prejudice, Tortilla Flat, Without Love, and Key Largo and end up – and then on to being hired by Desi for his inventiveness with cameras and to film I Love Lucy.  It is none other than the great Carl Freund. What we are seeing, it seems to me, probably belongs to all these people, rather than to Lang.

I feel Lang is a director without a vision and not much heart. I feel he is drawn to the obvious. Jamie Lee Curtis said, with pride, that her mother the actress Janet Leigh took on anything the studios threw at her. I feel Lang did the same, but with a mean streak. He directed because he liked to live well. His subjects are the psychological small potatoes of human life. A large subject, as here, he reduces to a maxim. On the other end of his spectrum for platitude he indulges in conflagrations, which is like someone who can’t get their own way having a tantrum. He sat by the camera, pressed the button, and whole sets would explode.

Metropolis establishes its cliché from the start, just as each and every modern science fiction movie does, by making the Metropolis a dystopia. The drive to hold onto the lineage of the dictator’s dominance is both enforced and undermined by a mad inventor who is able to recreate in a robot the love he lost years before to the dictator. She comes to life as a Duessa version of the Una version of the heroine who wishes to reform the Metropolis, and both of these, in identical dresses, are very well played by Brigitte Helm.

Lang nearly burned her to death in the immolation scene (he was never very good with actors). But he is here and elsewhere served well by his German character people and a zillion extras. However, on all available occasions demanding an impression, his leading man lodges his irises in the middle of his eye sockets and stares vividly, a  one-size fits all technique. He is like many Silent film actors who tend to rely on lots of mascara for their art.

It’s a film worth seeing, for it is felt to be the greatest film ever to be made in Germany, at one with the work of Beethoven and Bach. I don’t see it that way  — after all, it’s science fiction, a genre that forbids depth by very definition. It’s pulp made to appear important with lots of mascara. But you must make up your own mind. If you can face the delirium and live.

 

The Lost Moment

14 Aug

The Lost Moment – directed by Martin Gabel. Turgid Melodrama. 83 minutes Black And White 1947.

★★

The Story: An American publisher inveigles his way into the lives of an ancient woman and her niece in order to make off with a literary treasure.

~

A curious inert version of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, it holds one’s attention through its photography by Hal Mohr and the gothic atmosphere of a haunted palazzo in Hollywood’s version of Venice.

The script collapses around its own improbabilities, but it might have worked if the story had started later in the telling than it does. The romance needs to begin in the first reel, not the fourth. The publisher needs to be already inside the house. Who he is and what he is doing there should also be a mystery.

It also has two actors destined not to work opposite one another, born to clash.

Robert Cummings is too mealy-mouthed to play a ruthless and mendacious publisher sneaking into an old woman’s house to filch her love letters from a famous dead poet. As an actor he is not insensitive, but he is also nothing else.

Opposite him is the redoubtable Susan Hayward. Her stride is martial. Her voice deep. Her air draconian. She is an actor feasting on tension. Never a relaxed or spontaneous moment comes near her. All is calculated. One wonders she gives herself permission to breathe.

Agnes Moorhead is so covered with latex, her face never actually appears before us. She is evidently 105. And her voice never claims our ears with Morehead’s belovèd hysteria. She speaks with an English accent, so all is lost.

Almost from the start one is tempted with rewriting this film into a workable version. The story appeals to the writer in one, because it is about a priceless relic, such as every writer ambitions to leave behind to confirm his immortality.

Perhaps it has to remain the novella James made of it.

 

 

The Liberation of L.B. Jones

24 Apr

The Liberation of J.B. Jones – directed by William Wyler. Drama. 102 minutes Color 1970.

★★★★

The Story: In a Tennessee town, two bad cops pursue domination over the black community, while two black members of it seek and achieve retribution.

~

Important violence raises this picture out of the mud flinging of a message film and into an imaginative tale of human fact which has not dated.

Willi Wyler’s films earned more Academy Awards for acting than any other director in history. Usually it is Hollywood-type acting, but he certainly cast his pictures well. The original casting of the Lee J. Cobb lawyer who compromises justice for the sake of social peace was Henry Fonda, who would have brought more scope to the role’s requirements of a basically honest man doing the wrong things for what he thinks are the right reasons.

The real mistake in casting is in placing Lee Majors in the key role of his nephew and neophyte law partner, for Majors has a peculiarly corrupt Hollywood handsomeness to him and gift for histrionics that is truly oaken. Barbara Hershey is fine as Major’s wife, but neither of them have scenes sufficient to make the balancing of the whites dangerous.

Not so the casting of the black actors, which is impeccable. The excellent Yaphet Kotto looms as the sweet-natured avenging angel, and Roscoe Lee Brown brings his storied refinement to the role of the rich undertaker who is divorcing his wife. She is played by Lola Falani who is very beautiful and very gifted as an actor. She moves through a dozen ambiguities in the role of Brown’s young wife, and her skill keeps us away from asking a simple obvious question about her: Why doesn’t she just tell her husband? Fayard Nicholas and Zara Cully bring their piquancy and smarts to open the material up for us into the black world. Watch Nicholas, that dancing genius, turn and waylay that woman with a just blow to the jaw. What timing!

Anthony Zerb plays the principal fool cop, and, like Arch Johnson as the other one, they lose their characters behind their put-on deep South accents, so their human projection is lost behind their stereotype sound. It’s a common foible for actors. All you have to do is listen to Chill Wills here to get what a real country sound does when it rings true.

The film is a fine picture, Wyler’s last, co-directed by Robert Swink, for Wyler was laid up by the Southern heat. As a subject it stands as a recompense for his two cowardly attempts at The Children’s Hour, both of which failed and should have failed. But this is a strong film, interestingly framed and shot by Robert Surtees. It is the first film ever made showing a black man killing a white man. And about time too.

During the filming in Humboldt Tennessee, someone approached Roscoe Lee Brown on the street and said, “How come you don’t talk like other colored folk?” To which Brown replied, “Because when I was young, we had a white maid.” And about time too.

 

The Gambler

03 Jan

The Gambler – directed by Rupert Wyatt. Suspense Drama. 111 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A man gets in over his head and owes a fortune to three men who mean mortal business.

~

Mark Wahlberg is a wonderful actor.

What does that mean? It means that I look upon him and wonder. I contemplate his visage, his emotion or his emotion held in check or his delivery or what his mouth is or what his eyes are, and I wonder.

What does this mean to me? It means that both of us are in exactly the right places, I in the audience doing what I am supposed to be doing and he is up on the screen doing likewise.

Various things fall in his favor as an actor. First, he seems to have learned on the job, a good way to come into the craft. Second, his essence is working-class, which in this role would seem out of place, for he plays a college English professor and the son of a millionairess bank owner – yet his presence as such is without contradiction because he has conceived the role as beyond circumstance. Irony is the razor edge of death. Third, his male energy does not prevaricate. It stands there giving him, along with his medium-height and tone, the common touch. And finally he knows how to be before a camera such that both the camera and the audience can participate being there with him.

I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Departed. I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Fighter, but the withdrawn character he played was neoned-out by the electricity of Leo and Bale. He’s a first class screen actor. Will someone please hand one to him?

The picture is beautifully directed in terms of narrative intrigue. The director allows every actor forward into their talent. Jessica Lange, always a touchy actor, holds herself in strict check to play Wahlberg’s mother. John Goodman is filmed half naked, which grants us the power of his mass and the mass of his intelligence. Brie Larson holds us as the student taken with Wahlberg. Michael Kenneth Williams makes great book as the black money-lender. Alvin Ing is the still point of a knife in the role of a Korean gambling king. Richard Schiff plays a tip-top scene as a porn broker.

Every scene counts. Every scene is delicious to look at and never distracts with that fact. The music is mad and neat. It is perfectly cast. It is elegantly written. Grieg Fraser has filmed every scene color-right, and the unusual frequent use of closeups brings us into the situation every time. Production design, art direction, costumes, editing – all are unexceptionable.

The Gambler is the best movie I have seen all year.

Oh, this is the second of January, isn’t it! Well, you know what I mean. Take a gamble. See it.

 

The Story Of Emile Zola

25 Nov

The Life Of Emile Zola – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. 219 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★★

The Story: A famous writer mounts a polemic against the injustice of a Jewish Army officer falsely accused of treason.

~

The word Jew is never mentioned. But it is seen written down on a list. From this we are able to deduce that Dreyfus was scapegoated to Devil’s Island for years – for his taste in  neckties perhaps?

Idiotic. And forced. Forced into silence by the Hollywood style of the era, which ten years later would produce Gentleman’s Agreement, which the Jewish moguls in Hollywood begged Daryl Zanuck not to film. Zanuck had been turned down at a Hollywood country club because he was Jewish; he wanted vindication; he filmed it anyhow. And he wasn’t Jewish at all.

Here we have the same cowardly, goody-idealism and naiveté of approach. Here everyone is wide-eyed and jejune, everyone’s eyeballs stuffed with white bread. In contrast to this, the execution of the material is coarse, one big bang scene following upon the one before, like a rhino in a puce tutu jetéeing en pointe from one Alp to the next. This is the Warner’s bio-style of the ‘30s. To call it crude would minimize its delicacy.

The piece is overwritten wherever it can manage, and the actors tend to fall into the trap of that, which is to say, they emotionalize. You have to watch Henry O’Neill and Harry Davenport neatly underplay their parts to appreciate the peril of such a script. As Cezanne, Vladimir Sokoloff himself barely escapes with his life, but has a lovely reading of his exit line when Zola asks for him to stay as a reminder of the old days: “You can never return to them, and I never left them.” Gale Sondergaard, with her poisonous smile, can’t help herself but emote, although she has one lovely moment in court, and even the magnificent Louis Calhern has trouble keeping his corset on. The script writers should be spanked.

The problem is that the script is mostly exposition and narrative. Because it jams in Zola’s life from age 22 to his accidental death forty years later, the dramatic scenes are foreshortened and perforce glib. In playing scenes that are purely expository or narrative, an actor’s temptation is to goose them up with emotion to provide them with human interest, but the emotion involved is generally ungrounded or generalized or forced, and the humanity resulting becomes spurious. The audience has to sit through this pretension in order to endure The Story Of Emile Zola. It’s a story that has it’s value, to be sure, and, although I don’t know from the placard which opens the film how factual the screenplay is, there is certainly a general inauthenticity in the enacting of it.

Muni took it on just after his Louis Pasteur, for which he had won The Oscar. It had the allure for him of playing another good guy, a hero of history, someone to admire, a ”moment in the conscious of mankind”. After playing parts like Scarface, Muni may have come up against the problem Cagney had after playing public enemy number one – the frustration inherent to be always shooting men and slapping women. For Muni, Zola’s story might prove another perfect antidote – on the surface of it: Emile Zola! What a mensch!

However, the question one must ask of a performance is: is this a credible human being?

Here, for me, the answer is no.

Jerome Lawrence in his book on Muni recounts Muni’s preparation for the role: how he researched Zola’s gesture, his pince-nez, his tummy-tapping, his ancestry. Muni was a great master of stage makeup so Muni prepared the makeup for the part four months in advance. He grew his beard and hair to the length they would be at the end of the film; the beard would be shortened as he youthened to 22. Thus the film had to be shot backwards. The Westmores, the makeup and wig family at Warners, met with him and photographed Muni over and over to perfect the makeup for each of his four ages.

All of this is interesting, but all of it is surface. Muni made his living in the Yiddish theatre playing old men from the time he was a teenager to age 33, so he was a master of stage whiskers. And I notice as I watch that I am more interested in the whiskers on him than I am interested in Zola himself. Actually, I thought the whiskers were pretty good, but false.

In fact, I believe the whiskers may have sabotaged the performance, for obliging Muni, at 42, to start filming Zola at 62 may have tricked him into believing that acting-for-age was called for to distinguish him at that age from his younger versions still to be filmed, so Muni makes him somewhat doddering. A sort of foolish, fond old man, and cuddly. The result is that I never believe there is a real person there, but only A Noble Personage-who- is-sometimes-rather-dear.

If you consider the texture of the performance, you can see that Muni’s craft as an actor leads him often to a specious and superfluous craftiness. He seldom fails to overdo. He seldom keeps it simple. His idea is to entertain us with his acting and for us to like him. His performance might work all right on a New York stage. But here, inside it all, I do not detect a recognizable human being. Opposite him, as a corrective, Joseph Schildkraut must underplay even his own shouting. Muni did not win the Oscar for this. Schildkraut won it.

One wonders why. A put-upon Jew? If so, the award supplies an irony to the anti-Semitism which the movie timorously avoids.

Why see this film? A number of reasons: To Have Seen It. To experience the very interesting oddity of a French courtroom of the 1890s. To consider the whiskers the many male actors wear, for it must have taken the makeup people three years every morning to get these men into their muttonchops and mustaches. And to see Muni deliver what William Dieterle called an uncut, six-and-a-half minute tablecloth speech in the courtroom at the end, which he does simply and well.

The film was highly praised by critics. Why? Zola was the Bernstein and Woodward of his day, a whistleblower for all time, and like Zola, the reviewers too were journalists. Muni won the New York Film Critic’s award for this one, and the film won the Oscar for best picture of the year. Also for best screenplay.

Oscar Wilde knew both Dreyfus and Esterhazy. Esterhazy, the real traitor, Wilde found to be charming, Dreyfus dull. “It is always wrong to be innocent,” was his conclusion, and in this, as in all things Wilde was not wrong.

 

The Judge

26 Oct

The Judge – directed by David Dobkin. Courtroom Drama/Family Drama. 141 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A slick lawyer returns to defend his alienated father from a murder charge.

~

“I only defend the guilty because the innocent can’t afford me” is the repost Robert Downey Jr. gives to the untidy lawyer calling him shyster, and it’s all you need to know, because the fact that Robert Downey Jr. is playing the big-city lawyer will tell you all the rest. Downey, with his large, lambent, devil-angel eyes brings his inner mischief to the role. He plays heads on with Robert Duval as his cantankerous dad, the small town judge who is on trial for first degree murder. These are two superb actors, and they make the most of their big fat roles, but nothing they do can rescue the longueurs into which this film falls through over-extension both in length and attempted breadth.

We have rich actors on all sides: the cruelly brilliant Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecuting attorney and he is given a meaningless scene explaining what he is doing working in that small town. Vera Farmiga plays Downey’s high school sweetheart twenty years later and she is given a meaningless daughter. We are expected to take an interest in matters that have no depth, no dramatic truth, and no place except as extraneous exposition. After all, how fascinating is a herring – even one that is red? Downey is given two brothers, and neither of these, well-played though they are, add to the central situation, which is a father-son situation solely.

It is another example of a film, essentially a courtroom drama, that doesn’t know that things need to pick up in the third act. Instead we have far too many scenes and a courtroom denouement which is disgracefully sentimental, legally impossible, and coated with the sprinkles of a score after enduring which one requires a cold shower. The picture is beautifully shot by the great Janusz Kaminski. The settings and physical properties of the film are first rate. The great talents of Downey and Duvall and Thornton and Farmiga are worth watching for the first two acts, but the picture wearies itself before one’s eyes. You want it to be good, but the screenwriter has betrayed the novel by following it too closely – at least that’s my hunch.

But the real problem is that the film is trying to validate a lie, that lie being that traumatized  relations between family members are resolved by their own efforts. When the unforgivable has occurred, the idea that a two hour and ten minute movie can erase it is claptrap. There is a wonderful scene in a bathroom with Duvall and Downey, true, and to watch Downey and Duvall negotiate this lie without running stark mad is a spectacle worth witnessing. We dishonor the contents of the unforgivable in swallowing such tripe. For shame on the film-makers for asking us to.

 

Osaka Elegy

06 Oct

Osaka Elegy – directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Drama. 71 minutes Black And White 1936.

The Story: A young working woman tries to raise money to pay off her father’s debt and becomes the object of abuse and scorn.

~

Two things.

Mizoguchi demonstrates:

First: women exist in a culture which abuses them. No further point need be made about it by Mizoguchi, since what he shows makes it self-evident. It isn’t that his leading actress is particularly sympathetic as a performer that makes this telling. It is rather that she is a bit silly, a bit foolish, a bit selfish, a bit vain. But she is a human being, and she does not deserve to be treated like something else.

It is also true that the female is also capable of delivering abuse, even our heroine, and surely the battleax wife of her boss. Gender is not the weapon. Money is.

Second: This complicated story is delivered to us in style so revolutionary it is difficult to imagine that it was filmed in 1936. It is a style which seizes one narratively in long continuous shots, and set-ups which rivet and enliven the drama and the characters. The placement of figures in a scene, one near with his back to one, another in a distant room.  One muttering about morality, while stealing money from his children, and over there, the prig of a son he’s stealing from, devouring his greedy dinner.

Mizoguchi serves his actors well. And they are wonderful. But the remarkable force of Mizoguchi’s story-telling camera is the real source of revelation. We do not have master shots, followed by two-shots, followed by closeups, in the prescribed Hollywood style. But something different and distinct. It does not call attention to itself, because the truth it reveals is greater than its technique in doing so.

Here’s a master new to me. I wish I were able to speak less clumsily of him. But here’s a director I intend to study, enjoy, immerse myself in, and learn all I can from.

Although he had made many others before this, this is said, by him, to be his first accomplished film.

 

 

 

Forbidden

19 May

Forbidden – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1932

★★★★★

The Story: A small down librarian heads for the high-life and finds true love.

~

Imperturbably soigné is how we usually see Adolphe Menjou, tailored so perfectly you don’t even notice it – except here we peer under the togs and find an actor of chance.

He had moved from playing betrayed and betrayer of husbands in the Silents, and now in the Talkies, we find a character with perfect diction and a well placed voice. All of which is to the good when his tuxedo gives out to a warm heart inside it. Surprise, surprise!

An unusual love story, pre-code, in which that heart is given to his mistress, played by Barbara Stanwyck, whose heart is also true. But Menjou can’t marry her, or won’t, he says, because he is already married to a woman he is indebted to. Perhaps it is the case that he can’t divorce and remain a successful politician. In any case, what we have is a story that rings true in its execution at every turn. All I know is I care for both these people and have not a single word of advice for either of them. All I can do is watch.

A triangle is completed by Ralph Bellamy as a muck-raking journalist, with a mean streak that gets wider as the years elapse. It’s not his usual thudding part, and he is very good in his crudeness, energy, and drive for Stanwyck’s hand. Surprise, surprise!

The story takes them through the years. They age. And things get worse for all of them as they do. Surprise, surprise!

Each scene is beautiful Their romance at night horseback riding on the beach is one of the most stunning scenes I have ever seen in a film. And the big confrontation filmed outside in a downpour is emblematic of the hardship true lovers will put up with to be with one another. Again – no surprise –  because all of it filmed by Joseph Walker.

And, also no surprise, it is written by Capra’s standby Jo Swerling.

Stanwyck is interesting, vulnerable, raw. When speech fails, Capra uses her as Silent actress, and she never gets it wrong, too big, too broad, too much. Always just right. She was one of those actresses who was greatest when young. Here she is 24. Her name is now above the credits. It will never find itself anywhere else.

She and Capra made four films in a row together. Then, years later, Meet John Doe, a collaboration of masterworks, as fresh and true in their execution and playing as a glass of milk at dawn.

 

 

Rain Or Shine

07 May

Rain or Shine – directed by Frank Capra. Backstage Comedy. 88 minutes Black And White 1930.

The Story: A madcap, double-talking circus manager is caught between his love for the pretty circus owner and his love for the circus which needs saving.

★★★★★

~

There is an elephant here. Here and there is an elephant. Here, there, and everywhere there is an elephant. The elephant is the circus itself, which needs an elephant to move it around and to provide comic weight. Very Funny.

Because  — also very funny — the light comic weight is carried by one Joe Cook whom no one has ever heard of, but who was the star of the Broadway musical of the same name.

Capra threw out all the music and focused on Cook, who is certainly worth the camera. He is a master of circus double-talk and con, and his sequences with his stooge Tom Howard are on a The Marx Brothers plane for pataphysical loonyness. They are doubly funny because you have never seen these characters before.

Capra was a master of crowd scenes like none since, so the handling of the material seems completely up to date, as does that of cinemaphotographer Joe Walker – particularly when Cook, to save the circus, embarks upon a series of acrobatic acts that make one’s jaw drop with delight and incredulity. Cook is a Cirque du Soleil all rolled up in one. Wow!

What makes Capra still modern? Still admirable? Still funny?

His narrative foreshortening, for one. He moves things along with an intelligence which trusts ours intelligence to catch up, and we are flattered and join in. Also Capra’s care for The Actor: everything Capra devised was meant so the audience could enjoy The Actor. And so two-scenes are kept in play instead of the folly of back and forth closeups, and you really get to understand what is going on in people. Capra had a steady crew of cronies who worked with him, and you see their credits and welcome the smartness of screenwriter Jo Swerling again, just as you see a drenching rain scene in every film and wonder how he will get his players out of it once more. Also Capra’s big heart, which shades and colors everything.

Is that enough?

It’s enough for me.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterwork of this director of great Americanness. Rain Or Shine’s an early one. Underlying honesty is our forte, a beckoning to the truth of the matter, a condition discovered when justice is balanced between folks. To righten the scales, Joe Cook performs an act of comic sabotage. It is nothing to the one Capra himself inflicts as he let’s loose a stupendous grand finale. How would anyone dare! Although anything less entertaining in the end would be unthinkable, un-Capra-like, unfinished.

 

Ladies Of Leisure

05 May

Ladies of Leisure – directed by Frank Capra. Melodrama. 99 minutes Black And White 1930

★★★★★

The Story:  a call girl models for a rich artist and falls in love with him and he with her, and all is well until his socially prominent parents intervene.

~

To see this film is to see one of the great stars of the movies in her first principal role and to see her at not just her first but her best.

Some movie stars start slow. They take a good long while to jell in the public value: Bette Davis, Bogart, Grable, Monroe, Hayworth. Others appear instantly out of the brow of Zeus, with something so particular, so fresh, so honest, and so inherently entertaining in all that, that the public never ceases wanting again what they first saw in them suddenly and at once: Brando, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Vivien Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, Chaplin, Garbo.

Barbara Stanwyck falls into the second category. And Women of Leisure is her Roman Holiday, East Of Eden, Streetcar Named Desire, and Torrent. She comes forth fresh, full, young, open, ready, and of a wide range within the confines of the material. The confines of the material are large, for they are full scale melodrama.

We don’t see melodrama any more as a serious dramatic medium, but in 1930 and before it was an accepted, honorable, and, by audiences, well understood and appreciated dramatic medium.

Melodrama is a word that means drama with music. And in movies you used to find a lot of it. Now Voyager with its big Max Steiner Score is a good example of it, and as you watch that movie you wonder if the acting of the actors could carry the scenes without the music elbowing in. But what the music did in movies was actually to elbow out written scenes. Movie music supplants writing, speech, dialogue, the working out of human drama through what people say to one another.

But in stage melodrama, the music was not present. (I’m not talking about meller-dramer, which is mock melodrama, in which music often is present: Irma Vep, Little Mary Sunshine.) In real stage melodrama the music is verbal, or rather the emotions attached to the words are a music which the words, in their completeness, cue in the actors. The only modern equivalent still played is opera. Opera dramas are ridiculous; the music sublime; the words are none, they are in a foreign tongue. But in real stage melodrama, the music is written out in lengthy dialogue, and in these scenes, nothing is ridiculous save the comic relief interluding them. Melodrama, that is to say, depends upon dramatic scenes written out to their fullest extent. No twist or turn is left out of the dialogue of a scene. The 19th Century theatre was rich with melodrama as serious theatre. Schiller a great exemplar of it, Pirandello makes use of its tropes, Shaw of its volubility. There is great pleasure in watching. good melodrama played out to the full by good actors willing in invest.

In modern plays, we do not often have such scenes; in modern movies never. Dialogue scenes are short and rationed. Emotion in them is rationed. It’s a different way of playing. It’s a good one. And actors expert at it are (by no means little) admirable since certainly through taciturnity they can avoid being hams. Sometimes less is more.

But sometimes more is more. And melodrama is always more. Screenwriter Jo Swerling has written a good one.

Stanwyck in his piece might become hammy at any moment, and never does. Watch her take the big confrontation scene with the young man’s mother. Seven minutes of sustained and varied dialogue and emotion in a demonstration of screen acting you will seldom ever seen again from any actor at any time in a movie. The scene does not move around, it does not stop and start, it does not cut away from her unduly. Rather it stays on her and watches her and honors what it is seeing in her. It is also written out unflinching through all its permutation and possibilities. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is withheld. Everything is offered the actors and us. And we revel in it. The length and scenic fullness of melodrama allows the audience to see into the actor’s being. It gives the actor time. That is its key virtue. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility to give ourselves to it.

Provided the actors can negotiate. it.

Any young actress starting out might well place herself here before this actress as she was starting out. It’s a big part, the focal role of the film. It offers her a range, and she takes it and runs with it in directions you would not expect. She is never sentimental, weep though she does, and she is never shallow, wise-crack though she does.

Her co-star is a lunky actor, who is neither good nor bad, so his performance does not sabotage hers. And she has decent support in Blanche Sweet and the rest of the company.

And she is held like a treasure by Frank Capra who directed her. He learned at once that Stanwyck had only the first take, and so he rehearsed everyone separately, went through the blocking with her, and then shot it with two cameras so as to gather the co-actors in the shot. He shot her closeups first so they were fresh. He had a superb sound man, and one of the great cameramen in movies, Joe Walker. Capra said to Stanwyck, “You are not beautiful, but I will do something for you that will bring out the beauty that is in you and in your acting,” and so he and Walker did. Stanwyck’s skin was luminous under light, she had high cheek bones, and an alto voice perfect for sound. And she had the common touch.

Capra did not want to use Stanwyck in this pictures. He interviewed her, and she was surly. She had come to Hollywood and made some bum films that led nowhere; no one was taking an interest in her; no one told her anything about screen acting. She was about to go back to New York where she had had a big success as a stage actress. But she had made a screen test at another studio; Alexander Korda, then a young director directed it; they had no one to act opposite her and no script, so Korda asked her what she wanted to do, and she played a scene from one of her Broadway hits. When she later told Korda that Capra didn’t want her, Korda (or, depending on the story, her husband Frank Fay) went to Capra and took the test over and urged him to see it. Unwillingly Capra did, and in it he recognized exactly what he needed. That surly girl was a brilliant actress waiting to be released.

What he saw, and what all of us still see in Ladies Of Leisure, is a young actress flying at her full potential: honest, straightforward, strong, vulnerable, varied, brave, loving, and smart. These are the qualities Stanwyck has been famous for forever. It is wonderful; it is refreshing to see them here and for the first time.

And no musical score. Stanwyck does it all.

 

The Temptress

25 Jan

The Temptress  — directed by Fred Niblo. Drama. 117 minutes Black and White 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A gorgeous woman, married to a jerk, has an affair with a dam-builder from the Argentine, to which she follows him, to dam-busting seismic disturbance for all.

Greta Garbo is the most sexually voracious actress ever to have appeared in film.

Her films are all the same. She has been kept by older men or beset by unwanted suitors, too old, silly, callow, married, dense, young. They come upon her and desire her wantonly. They betray all their scruples for her. She laughs, treats them like children, and doesn’t let them off the hook because they pay for her fancy apartment. She keeps them dangling. Obviously no one is the right one. They appear in uniform, with medals, naked, clothed, in rags. They present her with diamonds, furs, and food. Nothing turns her head. They tire her. She makes her living on them. Until there swans into view some young man, so pure, so devoted, so delicious of aspect and potential, that Garbo, who has spurned Dukes, walks over to this young man, seizes him with one hand by the back of the head, grabs his chin with the other, drapes her body upon him, leans her face down over him, puts her mouth on his, and drinks and drinks and drinks.

This skill as an actress she had when she was twenty, when she made The Temptress, her second film. The vamps, such as Nita Naldi and Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, were all dark and tiny wild gypsy bitches. Garbo was a lanky blond, and she was not a bitch. She was a master flirt, but also second-by-second sensitive, open to the subtlest influence, inner or outer. She was simply a lone operative in the big-time world of men with nothing but her female wiles to survive on, and an acting instrument strung like an Aeolian harp.

She brought to MGM the caché of class. She was the top money maker there. As Louise Brooks said, as soon as Garbo appeared in films, every other Hollywood actress had to exist in relation to her. She was able to do on screen what no other actor was able to do before or since, and no one knew exactly what it was. When the war came, MGM did not know what to do with her. They had exalted her in their own eyes. This was stupid and unimaginative of them. It was quite simple, for Dietrich and Lamar and Bergman went on playing Europeans in war stories. Garbo was still a big money-maker – her last film, too. The war cut off her European audience, which was huge. And her American popularity in the sticks had waned, in part due to the number of fancy costume dramas she appeared in, and a certain distance she had created for herself on screen and which was created by her studio as well. She drew a circle around herself and acted inside it, as Brando was later to do. Who could imagine actually wooing her and marrying her? Adoring her, yes. Keeping her, or trying to, yes. But who could imagine actually settling down with her? Her eyes had gone private. So to stand next to her and do the dishes?

Stiller, her mentor from Sweden, began this film, was taken off it, and although it was reshot, he may have coached her here into the Garbo we came to know playing these parts. For it does not seem quite yet to exist in her first film, The Torrent. 

Anyhow here, in The Temptress, she is  young woman, not even of age, and already in full possession of her technique, which originated in her lower-middle back and travelled north. She made it up in the shower. She was already That Thing, Greta Garbo. Cary Grant did the same. They made something up and let it respond in accordance with the scene they were presented with. It was indissolubly manufactured and real at once. William Daniels said that Garbo made love only to the camera. True, and we wouldn’t have wanted her to do anything else. It means her real love-affair, her most intimate sexuality, is actually with us.

 

 

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

15 Jan

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 88 minutes Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

The Story: A girl from a nice New England family is kidnapped by a Chinese warlord.

Nils Asther is certainly one of the more fascinating actors of motion pictures. The actor he puts one in mind of is Garbo. Like Garbo he was Scandinavian, and like Garbo he was very beautiful, and unlike Garbo he was called The Male Garbo – although in a way she was also the male Garbo. In any case, he is a power of subtlety as General Yen (oh, rightly named!) hankering after Barbara Stanwyck. He wears a brilliant make-up, achieved by shaving his eyelashes (which caused his eyes to bleed) and a viperish mustache. He smokes a cigarette so you know exactly what six things he is feeling at the moment, and you presently come to care about his soul, which is his main resemblance to Garbo after all. His eye make-up is so severe he never blinks.

For we are in the arena of miscegenation, and there is no doubt about the story playing upon our inner horror of mating outside our race. We wait out the story to see if it will take place. Oh, horrors! Can a white girl from a proper old New England family actually give herself to An Oriental? We are not dealing with preaching what is Politically Correct here. The film starts with the fine actress Clara Blandick laying it out flat: “They are all tricky, treacherous, immoral. I can’t tell one from the other. They are all Chinamen to me.” So we are immediately thrust into in the underground of our own natural prejudice.

The great character actor, Walter Connolly makes his film debut here in a ripping role, that of a scallywag financial wizard finagling the General’s power. His acting, his presence, and the writing of his part keep tipping the scales not just backward and forward but everywhichway, so our expectations are all a-tumble.

The great cameraman Joe Walker, who filmed many of Capra pieces, brings glory to the screen. His camera placements and lighting are a university education in camera craft.

The only difficulty is that Stanwyck is miscast as a girl from an upper crust New England family, for she is nothing of the kind and does nothing even to suggest that she is. She is common. Stanwyck brings her fabled honesty to the part, which she did all her long life, but that is not enough. But sometimes it was just enough, as here, but she never played deeply with accents, never learned character work. She brings herself at the moment. She started as a dancer so she brings physical certainty to her roles. There are never two things going on. If she says yes and really wants to say no, the “Yes,” will sound like “No.” She is without ambiguity, uncertainty, or subtext. But she is steady on. She has a fine voice for film and a face camera ready in any light and under any conditions. And, a rarer thing than you might think, she is an actor with the common touch. She never blinks either.

The film is magnificently produced. It cost over a million to make. It was the first movie ever to play at Radio City Music Hall (where it failed), and Frank Capra said it was his favorite film. The material is surprising and real, and the treatment unforced and free. It certainly is one of the most interesting films of the ‘30s.

 

Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe

02 Dec

Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe – directed by George Seaton. Musical. The female star of a celebrated New York nightclub falls in love with a man she is trying to con. 104 minutes Color 1945.

★★★★★

Pinup Girl was Fox’s top grossing film for the year. Betty Grable retired to have a baby. Then returned, high spirited as before and even slimmer.

William Gaxton is her co-star on stage, and his grown son, Dick Haymes is her co-star off. Gaxton , a seasoned vaudevillian, refuses to allow his son to enter show business, and Gaxton’s girlfriend Beatrice Kay is jealous of the father’s attention to his ambitious son. So she contrives to bribe Betty Grable with the lure of a mink coat if she can distract the son, whom Betty doesn’t like at all, from the father’s watchful eye, and keep the son on his path as a doctor of medicine.

It sounds like a bit of a stretch doesn’t it? Well, it is, for Dick Haymes had, of all the singers of his era, the most beautiful singing voice. He could have succeeded in show business without really trying. His singing makes your heart stand still; he’s a good actor; his face is interesting to watch. And we only go along with the plot against him because we are told to.

What works, as usual, is the abundance of comic dance and song numbers – which Hermes Pan staged and choreographed. And there is one in particular with Beatrice Kay and Betty Grable competing – modern songs against old-fashioned songs ­ that made me laugh myself silly. It is Beatrice Kay who does it: she is a high-priestess of camp. So if you ever wondered what camp really is, take a look at her in that number.

All this takes place in the crude backstage of the glamorous Diamond Horseshoe in New York, which we see very little of. The bristling Phil Silvers is around, as a stage manager, of course. The noble Margaret Dumont has a cameo, as does the suave pianist Carmen Cavallaro. In short, the whole affair is a pleasure feast, and, with the country at war, a war relief.

I saw this when it came out. I went to every Betty Grable musical when it came out. Everyone did. She was dessert served once a year, and if you don’t know what war-time rationing was, that’s all right. We were on less food, less gas, less clothing. We had rationing booklets. I still have mine.

And if you don’t know what it was to need wartime morale-boosting, well, good, but Betty Grable was the lady to do it. Why don’t you catch her act and see why?

 

 

Meet Me After The Show

01 Dec

Meet Me After The Show – directed by Richard Sale. Musical 87 minutes Color 1951. ★★★★.

The Story: A Broadway star gets amnesia when she get fed up with her husband’s controlling behavior.

What made Betty Grable the biggest star of them all?

She could two difficult things well which no other musical star could do: she could both sing and dance. Neither Judy Garland nor Rita Hayworth nor Doris Day nor Cyd Charisse could do both. They could all act, and each could do one other thing well, but could not do two things well. Betty Grable could.

She is also a true soubrette (in leading lady disguise) – meaning that she is a master at low comedy shenanigans and comic byplay, particularly in dance. She was always dolled up and presented as The Great Beauty, but most of her musical numbers were comic specialty numbers, and at them she is superb. As instanced by her number with a polar bear or dancing with two sixty year-old twins or with Gwen Verdon as juvenile delinquents or dancing with the beefcake boys (of which Jane Russell’s “Is Anyone Here For Love” from Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” is a reprieve. Russell leads with her pelvis; Grable with her eyes and ready wit). Her timing is impeccable and she understands and gives her own human folly to everything she danced. Her choreographer Jack Cole understood her well.

But the main thing about Betty Grable is that she is the most inherently optimistic human in the world, and anything that happens to contradict that hurts her in a way that hurts us.

This is a woman who is completely trusting. And you love her for it. Watch how she plays right out to the audience. No other musical star did that. Grable is playing to a “theatre” audience, but the effect is darling for the camera. She gives herself so innocently.

She is never hard or troubled. There is no neurotic edge to her. But she can contend. She is not without ways and means. She is never a victim long. She has background and resources. She is hard-working, and she plays hard-working girls. It’s always her ace in the hole. You respect her for it.

The plot of this picture is unusual for a Fox Betty Grable musical, which usually had Betty as an up-and-coming star, involved with two men at the same time. Here she is established and married, The second half, where most musicals fail, actually picks up color and pace, as Betty reverts to her vulgar down-South saloon beginnings and where she smooches on the beach with the dripping Rory Calhoun.

Arthur Arling shot it. Fred Clark and Eddie Albert lend good support. Cary Grant was set to do it, but couldn’t. MacDonald Cary, a really competent actor, does not have the sense of fun required for musical comedy style. But Betty carries the film. But more! When she appeared in Hello, Dolly! later in her life, no star who appeared in that show ever received the ovation she received when she entered. Why was that? Why did people love her? She gave it all she had – yes – but she was so open.

 

Cover Girl

28 Nov

Cover Girl – directed by Charles Vidor. Musical. A hoofer in A Brooklyn nightclub becomes a fashion magazine cover-girl and a Broadway star, much to the chagrin of her buddies. 107 minutes Color 1944.

★★★★★

Rita Hayworth was a true dancer, which is to say she was born to dance, and if one could say she was a great dancer, it would have to be not because of her technical prowess and range. There were things she could not do, had not been trained to do, did not have the body to do.

But on the grounds of musicality, enthusiasm for the dance, and port de bras, she is one of the greatest dancers ever filmed.

By musicality is meant: is she just ahead of the beat? She is. This means that the music is a response to the dance, that the music comes out of the steps, rather than the other way round. That is what makes a dance a musical dance insofar as a dancer is involved. It gives something for the orchestra leader to follow. For it is the dance our attention is primarily on.

Enthusiasm is the sense that the dancer loves to dance. This comes off of Hayworth in every dance she does here. Dancing with Phil Silvers and Gene Kelly in “Make Way For Tomorrow” you see how dance gives her glee and glee her drive. You see she is the one of the three most enjoying herself. She does not intend it to, but this draws focus to her. You want to watch and stay with such happiness.

It also validates her being a dancer at all, for this enthusiasm makes clear that she is a born dancer as well as a trained one. It gives us pleasure in her confidence in her physical strength and in her natural power, as this enthusiasm releases the spectacle of her might to us. Which brings us to the question of port de bras.

By port de bras is meant how the arms, shoulders and upper back are carried – the sheer beauty and propriety of her arm movements, how they are held, where they are held, how they float. But in Rita Hayworth’s case, superb as she is at port de bras, she is also endowed with broad flexible shoulders, a back strengthened by practice, and the most beautiful arms and hands in the world.

Of course, usually Hayworth’s arms are held above her waist, but they work with a grace so rich and natural and skilled, that it constitutes a dance in and of itself. This comes out of nightclub flamenco where she danced as her father’s partner from the time she was twelve. So it is not the difficulty of the execution of steps that makes her dancing great, but the grasp of it with the flamenco fire-carriage of her arms, carried high above her diaphragm. This is flamenco-style; it gives her dancing duende. Watch her as she dances with Gene Kelly in the fashion showroom number. Look at his port de bras. And then look at hers. Gene Kelly was an agile dancer, good looking, and sexy, as was she, but she is the one you look at, and you can easily see why.

Rudolph Maté films her magnificently, as he was often to do. He discovered how shadow revealed her inner visage, and he knew how responsive she was. Watch for those lingering closeups on her subtly changing face.

Cover Girl is probably some kind of ur-musical, in that we get Kelly first doing the sort of work that would change musicals to an earthy, lower-class, non-backstage, jazz/ballet style. We have the first of his famous, midnight, city-street dances, which we find again in Singing In The Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather – dances where he uses trash cans, street lamps, and passing drunks as props; indeed we have two such dances. His dance to his own reflection in “Long Ago And Far Away” is probably the most elaborate and interesting dance he ever did, because he dances the truly neurotic.

Kelly, selfishly, loses the opportunity to properly dance “Long Ago And Far Away” with Hayworth. Is it Kern’s greatest ballad? Most of a musical’s numbers are comic numbers, and Jerome Kern is the least original of all the great composers at them; there are a number of them here; they are serviceable. But no one could write a more rapturous melody than Jerome Kern. “Long Ago And Far Away” is still with us.

Phil Silvers, Eve Arden, and Otto Kruger fortify the tale of a chorus girl from Brooklyn becoming a fashion magazine cover-girl and then a Broadway star. Apart from this, you might notice a certain treatment going on here: you might notice that Hayworth is becoming enshrined.

But never mind: here she is in all her grace and beauty and skill. Ask yourself the question: whom do you care about here and why?

Or don’t ask it. She doesn’t ask for analysis. She’s an entertainer. That’s what makes her happy.

So just treat yourself to her. She is receptive, she is talented, she is ravishing. She gives off sexuality like fire. And she is also that oddly rare thing among actors: she is touching.

 

 

 

Strawberry Blond

21 Nov

Strawberry Blond – directed by Raoul Walsh. Period Comedy. A bad-tempered dentist falls afoul of a beautiful woman and a con man. 97 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

A Whitman’s Sampler of 1910: beer halls, high button shoes, brass bands, barber shop quartets, and Irish wildness.

Perc Westmore did Rita Hayworth’s makeup and discovered that her hair was so abundant that she could never wear a wig. But he dyed it to make her the title character, which she carries off beautifully. This is her second A-film, having just made Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. She is very young. She is flabbergasteringly beautiful. She is perfect as the phony flirt and even better as the rolling-pin wife of Jack Carson.

James Wong Howe upgraded every film he filmed, and you can see it in this one, which otherwise might have been a Fox Betty Grable musical. He colors scenes with shadow, the play of leaves across a face, and this gives them a romantic importance which they actually inherently possess and need.

For as with all of Raoul Walsh’s films, the love story grounds the project. Walsh tells the story imaginatively and crisply, as usual, and his actors are on the mark – free and liberal in their choices. It is entirely without the crass Irish sentimentality you find in Ford and McCrary. Walsh was great with actors. He did not watch their scenes; he only listened to them off-stage. The great stage director George S. Kaufman did the same. If the truth was heard, it would be seen. The result is the actors shine. And this is Walsh’s favorite picture.

It is James Cagney’s film, and he abounds; scarcely a scene he does not appear in. He was after a change of pace, and balked fiercely about doing this, until Hal Wallis and Jack Warner offered him 10% of the profits and brought in the Epstein brothers to rewrite it. It had been a stage play and then Gary Cooper’s only flop. They switched the milieu from the Midwest to New York City, where, of course, Cagney belonged.

Cagney is a curious actor. He acting personality is one who wants to be ahead of the game. This means that he is not actually a responsive actor, since he always has his fear for the possible in mind. His definition of acting was: “Look ‘em in the eye and tell the truth” – which is fine if you are a machine gun. So I find it hard to acknowledge his talent; I do but I find it hard to. His headlong “personality” worked well here, since he plays a man consistently duped. He was high-waisted, long legged, and short, and carried himself  step-dancing tall at all times, which is nice. His scenes with Alan Hale as his Irish blarney drunk father are scrumptious. Hale is just terrific in the part, and Cagney plays along with him almost bursting out laughing at Hale’s inventiveness.

But it is Olivia de Havilland who carries the film. She is full of mischief, sweet, pretty, and real. Raoul Walsh’s acknowledgement of the truth of her love is the waking moment always. James Wong Howe films her like the bonbon she is, full of flavor, rich, molded to a shape, and toothsome. The passage of feeling across her face validates this charming comedy, and carries its value as an entertainment right to this day.

 

Love Affair

18 Nov

Love Affair – directed by Leo McCarey. High Comedy. A career woman and a philanderer meet on an ocean liner and agree to meet again in 6 months time, but their plan is run over by a motorcar. 88 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

Charles Boyer was a lush screen lover. He had wonderful drooping eyelids – bedroom eyes they were called in those days – a sensual mouth, and a deep French accent. Yum! Monsieur Boyer was also a marvelous actor, and you can see behind the surface charms lie even greater charms – innocence, affection, loyalty, and the tact of true fun.

Irene Dunne comes to this from success as the ingénue Magnolia in Showboat, which she had done on the stage, and which she had just completed aged 38. Here she is 41. She is fabulous, and sings Plaisir d’amour and Wishing. She never loses her glad eye. She never forgives because she never blames.

And here we see something the old Hollywood could do nowhere better, which was to star actors of a certain age as though they had no age at all.

So these two over 40 stars come together in a story which will subsequently be re-made, also by McCarey, with Deborah Kerr, aged 36, and Cary Grant, aged 53. And again with Warren Beatty, aged 57, and Annette Bening, aged 36. Each version is worse than the one before, indeed, each one is atrocious, but the first one, this one, which is first class, perhaps because it was written by Donald Ogden Stewart and perhaps, if what David Thomson says is so, because McCarey allowed the two stars to improvise their scenes.

Boyer didn’t like it, but fell in with it. Dunne was excellent at it, and it is her performance which carries the film once it turns solemn, for she does what Cary Grant later did, she plays the entire predicament of her injury as further grace for light comedy. She resists pathos like the plague. Boyer on the other hand has one of the great screen moments when he realizes what has happened to her. Watch for it; watch it happen to him.

This is comedy of faces. This is high comedy. This is comedy of the most life-loving fun. You may call it sophisticated, but it is also the comedy of two people experienced enough to suppose they would neither of them find anyone to be married with, which accounts for the real background of the story and the justification for their age, which Rudolph Maté films understandingly.

The dread, minute Maria Ouspenskaya plays the part of the grandmother, and she is not bad for once. It was finally played by Katharine Hepburn in her last film role. But the grandmother of them all is Catharine Nesbitt in the Grant/Kerr version.

McCarey’s drunken sentimentality over those singing children may give you the dry gripes, but isn’t it strange that material that, in its remakes, would disgust you, you should find in this, its first and original version, such charm, such delight, such perfection.

It’s the actors, of course. Boyer and Dunne. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Salome

17 Nov

Salome – directed by William Dieterle. Biblical Epic. The king of Galilee and his queen are in mortal conflict over the rant of a desert prophet, but whose side will their daughter take? 103 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

What sands, what scimitars, what sanctimoniousness!

John the Baptist on a soapbox in the dessert preaches not salvation but sedition. That is, he defames Queen Herodias because she has married twice — which is hardly prophetic, since she has been married to Herod for twenty-five years.  It seems rather hard of John. And what is worse the poor actor who has to spout this rigmarole is ill equipped for the chore. He plays it with his blue eyes constantly raised to the second balcony. Ya know what it is? It’s a bunch of hooey, that’s what it is. And it’s so aggravating, ah, if only someone would come and behead that actor – and – oh, blessed chance – whadyaknow? – someone does. But I won’t tell you who.

Into this Biblical thingamajig we have four good actors, in major roles, and all at their  professional best.

Judith Anderson with her voice of an old Chevrolet reprises her peculiar-relation–to-daughter-figures number from Rebecca.

Then we have Charles Laughton, one of the most inventive actors ever to draw breath. As he is warned against the prophet. watch him hug the pillars like a baby. Watch him put the make on his step-daughter. Watch him respond to each of Salome’s veils as they drift off of her. Watch how he agrees to Herodias’ request. He is so marvelous, you would suppose him to be playing one of the greatest roles ever written. Well, actually he is playing Herod, so perhaps he is.

Then there is Stewart Granger, who is handsome, sensual, humorous, intelligent, sensitive, and has a delicious speaking voice. Professionalism can do no more. For there again you see an actor completely convinced; the role is of a Roman Centurion, at ease in the role and also in a little white skirt. Every time he is on screen, your morale goes up. With his grey-at-the-temples look, he is well cast opposite superstar Rita Hayworth.

For, oh dear, she is twenty years too old for the part. Salome has to be a fifteen year old girl, and Rita Hayworth was well into her 30s when this was mounted for her. She, of course, is wonderful, as good an actress as you get in movies, you get behind her completely. And her dance of the seven veils (we get to, but not past the seventh) is sensational. Her power to taunt and entice was unequalled. And her dance is all about those kind of illicit, illusory invitations. Worth the price of admission.

Also worth for the costumes, by Jean Louis. They will take your breath away. C.B. DeMille never had things so wonderful on the human form. Nor did he ever, as Dieterle did, shoot 18,000 feet of exteriors in the Holy Land. Nobody had ever done that, and they are very interesting. Indeed, no expense has been spared on the production; beautifully shot by Charles Lang; sumptuous, even dazzling; and, apart from those four performances, another reason for seeing Salome.

 

My Blue Heaven

08 Nov

My Blue Heaven – directed by Henry Koster. Musical Comedy. A famous couple want a baby. 96 minutes Color 1950.

★★★★★

If you are interested in musicals at all, My Blue Heaven is one of the breakthrough ones to see. For it is a Fox musical with the glare amputated. Formerly and for the most part, Betty Grable musicals were set in exotic settings or in The Gilded Age of vaudeville, and Grable would depict an unmarried star on the rise, being two-timed along the way by some handsome cad in a moustache. But here she is already well married and also already well established as half of the Lunt and Fontanne of musical comedy. And the color coding of the musical is no longer loud, vulgar and gaudy, but subdued and natural to its era, which is the ‘50s. The setting is modern, and the story has to do with Grable becoming a mother. Odd.

In 1929 when she was 12, Betty Grable’s mother dyed her hair blond, put her a G-string, and got her in as a chorus girl in the film Happy Days. By the time she made My Blue Heaven she is 33, earning $300,000 a year, Fox’s top star, and for ten years one of the ten top box office attractions in the world. What this has to do with this film is that she had three failures before she made it, and Fox musicals were very expensive to make: $3,000 a minute – partly because of the enormous time rehearsing the numbers. So on the one hand musicals had to succeed and on the other no one quite knew how to make them. But MGM had led the way, so now Betty Grable was made a contemporary American, which made sense, because nobody in the world was more so.

For this one Grable has again her most likeable co-star Dan Daily. He also was her only true co-star, because he was the only one who had big musical comedy chops. He is a gifted dancer, clown, and actor, as was she. Daily has an entertaining face, as did Grable, and they both liked one another enormously, you can see it on the screen. In all four musicals they made together, they are married from the start. But most important, for this film they used a script by Claude Binyon and Lamar Trotti, which is witty, cogent, and surprising, one of the best musical comedy books I have ever seen. Arthur Arling, who had filmed her often and knew now to do it, shot it. It is well-paced, plausible, and bright.

Also on board were oodles of musical numbers written for it by Harold Arlen. These consist of a series of light comedy satires, one of Rogers and Astaire, one of Rogers And Hammerstein’s South Pacific, one of Irving Berlin holliday songs, and the last, also of Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby in Berlin’s Anything GoesDon’t Rock The Boat, Dear, which was a hit in its day and is still a delight. The witty lyrics of this and all these songs were written by Ralph Blane. Mitzie Gaynor, David Wayne, Jane Wyatt, Una Merkel, Louise Beaver lend a happy hand.

Of all the movie stars in the world, Betty Grable is the one most easy to love. If you love loving someone, and I know you do, watch her. She’s a tonic.

 

Prisoners

27 Sep

Prisoners – directed by Denis Valleneuve. Police Procedural Suspense Thriller. Two little girls are abducted and cannot be found. 153 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

This picture trips up over the train of its final complexities. Even the great Melissa Leo cannot render the unnecessary exposition scene at the end. Motiveless malignancy is all you need. Rationales do not have to be given for human nastiness. Nastiness is a gift of God, and we all are capable of it, and that we are unites us with Medea, Richard III, and Iago in a way that excuses and personal history and reasons for villainy keep us away. Alibis don’t make an audience empathetic. They make us dismissive. Don’t tell me why Iago did it. He did it because, no matter what his “reasons,” he had the  means, the will and the bent to do it, just like the rest of us. If you find out his motives you diminish his size. Such is the case here.

But I go on too long, for otherwise what else but praise can be due to the director and writer for bringing this marvelous picture show to us. And what good fortune to have Roger Deakins film it in dank color. What a pallet he has! What a way of harvesting light.

The performances of all – Leo, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello are terrific. They rise to the writing like the grateful actors they are, recognizing good material at long last.

And to carry the sleigh we have the tandem horses of Jake Gyllenhaal as the investigating detective and Hugh Jackman as the father.

Jake Gyllenhaal is as moody as his sister is merry. He is the knight of doleful countenance, a melancholy Dane for our time. It is always necessary to see any picture he is in. He has that in common with few other actors of his generation – perhaps only Joaquin Phoenix. Gyllenhaal grounds the detective in personal probity – a quality scripted for the character but which he plays without irony opposite Wayne Duvall, cogent as the sloppy captain of the force. But there is something inside Gyllenhaal which animates this probity, a search for gutsy justice against exhaustion, failure, and opposition. He irons everything out.

What mainly needs ironing out is the father played by Hugh Jackman. This is the surprise performance of his career, and he has never to my knowledge demonstrated himself to be an actor of genius. Always good, mind you, always juste in his craft.  Never have you seen Jackman at this pitch. Never have you seen him capture a character particular – not general – and an American particular, but also, never have you seen him go to such extremes as you might only find in a female actor, in Geraldine Page, perhaps, or Anna Magnani. He is something to behold, and I hope you do behold him. He is extraordinary.

The film is thrilling.

And beautiful.

 

The Law Of Desire

17 Sep

The Law Of Desire – written and directed by Pablo Almodóvar. Melodrama. 102 minutes Color 1987.

★★★★★ 

The Story: A beautiful young man becomes disastrously obsessed with a film director.

The link between satire and melodrama has not been this close since the heyday of Dickens. They are really two sides of the same coin. And one of the links here is the notorious color scheme that Almodóvar employs to nest this tale and that brings to one’s eye a humor of disposition which is very hard not to be influenced by. You want to giggle.

If any problem exists in this film, or any other film of Almovódar that wishes us to take it seriously, it is that he has such a big heart that everybody is forgiven for everything in advance. This film comes before the discovery of Penélope Cruz, who embodies all these traits in her nature: big heartedness, drama, and the color scheme. So, while his films are wonderful to watch and be entertained by, we are foolish to ask ourselves to be deeply moved by them. This does not mean they are trivial or to be scanted; not at all; they must be seen, like the mobiles of Alexander Calder, lest we deprive ourselves of an important delight. You wouldn’t spurn Mozart because he is light-minded, would you? Or the films of Lubitsch because he is fun?

This story deals mainly with homosexuality and transsexuality, and is Almovódar’s first film so to do. The parallel plot involves Carmen Maura who was once the director’s brother and is now his sister. And the transsexual Bibí Andersen (not to be confused with Ingmar Bergman’s Bibi Andersson) plays the aunt. All this is very nice and disturbs, just as it is meant to do, our customarily acceptance of things.

The director is played with admirable restraint by Eusebio Poncela, and it is a pleasure to see him engage in passionate kissing scenes with men, for that is just the way men kiss one another when they are at it. His is essentially the Almovódar stand-in role, as you find in Broken Embraces, the man whose calling is more important than his love relations.

Antonio Banderas plays the mad youth. It is very nice to see him with his clothes off, for he is a fine figure of a male, and it makes his insane lust for the director real. And he also kisses back real good. But what’s interesting about Banderas’ performance is that he is playing someone insane as though they were not insane. What the actor does is to excuse nothing. He has that ghastly, religiously-crazed, prude mother to motivate him, and Almovódar needs give us no more than that. The story does the job for him.

What Almovódar does give us is a mountain slide of a finale, with plot heaped upon exposition scene as Pelion on Ossa. It is more rich desserts than we can digest at a sitting. But he does meet all the responsibilities of the genres of melodrama and satire, which he clearly loves, just as he loves nutso love-lust s in Duel In The Sun with its wedding of sex and slaughter as praise for life lived fully in a way that no one really cares to do outside of a movie, including Almovódar. What’s the moral of the opera?

There is no sacrifice one does not make for love – children, gender, life, sex itself. If it aint necessarily so, well then, that’s one reason we go to a movie to begin with, isn’t it?

 

The Grandmaster

11 Sep

The Grandmaster – written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Drama. Two master martial artists are drawn to one another, though they are both sworn to duel. 130 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

See it by all means in a theatre now. For is a film of such resplendent beauty, subtlety, and distinction that you must sit back in the dark of a vast hall and let it play itself out hugely before your amazed eyes. You mustn’t wait until it comes into your mere parlor.

It is not a story about athleticism or about martial art, but about character and martial artists. Their dances are performed to music, and are shown in flashes, not of bodies bashing one another, but of slices of hands, scraps of wrists, flourishes of robes and fur. You would not want to see the actual moves. What you do want to see is the result of them. A body crashing through a window. You do not want to see technique. What you do want to see is the half smile of the executant.

What you want to see is beauty, and this you see in every frame, every face, every costume, every setting, and in every delivery of them to your astonished and gratified eyes. Beauty stirs in the puddles and the reflections of the gates in the puddles, in the waiting snow on the bough in the battle in the blizzard. And why should you see this? Why is this being offered? Because inherent in it is the dignity and discipline inherent in life lived – not necessarily this Chinese way – but inherent in life lived in many ways.

To establish that dignity and that openness, we are given as The Grand Master the face of Tony Leung, one of the most beautiful faces ever to bless the screen. And the face of Zhang Ziyi, whose mouth enchants as once enchanted the mouth of Janice Rule. You cannot but be lost in the beauty of these two faces, for their beauty expands and vibrates into a latitude which only movie faces of this beauty can do, and we are given plenty of opportunity to dwell upon them, for they are filmed close-up, still, often, and well.

Beauty has no moral. It is an arena to itself. Go. Bathe in it. You owe it to yourself. I say you do. I say you deserve it and you have always deserved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Embraces

04 Sep

Broken Embraces – written and directed by Pedro Alomodóvar. Drama. A film director changes his profession after becoming blinded and losing the love of his life. 128 minutes Color 2009.

★★★★★

This is badly titled, isn’t it? Coitus Interruptus would be closer, but the Spanish language has a striking coloration than English cannot translate.

Anyhow the embraces are plural, which coitus interruptus is not. For there are two embraces cracked by the blinding of the director, both of them the loves of his life, one being with the flabbergastering Penélope Cruz and the other with his calling as a director.

The effect of all of this on himself and those around him – his Gal Friday and her son – is momentous. And I’m not going to talk about any of that, for I never tell the story of a film to you, for I will not betray you. I trust your susceptibility to what I have to say to make clear those values I can speak of without undermining your surprise and the human need in you for participation in the deep deed of narration. The story is not mine to tell. It is the director’s to tell it, and yours to open yourself to it, which in this case I urge thoroughly to do. You need, as I do, to be told a story. But you need, as I do, to be told it by the right person. Not I, but Almodóvar is that person.

I can point out the coloration spread before us by the director, particularly marked, wouldn’t you say, in the story of a man who is blind.

I can also mention how the loss of the sight – no, I won’t point that out at all. You will know it for yourself when you see it before you.

Do so. For who is it that does not make a point of seeing any new movie of Pedro Almodóvar? Is there such a ninny breathing God’s air? Don’t you want to be in kindergarten again, playing with poster paints on those big sheets of paper? Don’t you want to hear tales of love and loyalty and princesses lodged in ogre’s castles? Have you no passion? Have you no waking dreams? Have you never seen Penélope Cruz in her home territory even once and not yearned to revisit her there once again?

Almodóvar treats Cruz’s first appearance before the director, Lluis Homar, as Charles Vidor treats Rita Hayworth’s before Glenn Ford in Gilda – as a never-to-be-banished bedazzlement, a sudden looking up at him from amidst the double bed of her fabulous hair – certainly a resource of her talent and beauty and interest – like Anna Magnani’s hair or Clark Gable’s – one of things that hold us to the screen.

The film is beautifully acted and cast, with one exception, which is that of the leading role of the gal Friday. The part is not a tragic role, but a romantic role, that of a woman holding patience in place for many years. We need to see much less of her feeling than of her precious hoarding of it.

Here we are in the house of full scale melodrama, with all of Almodóvar’s variety of humor, to appreciate which, make sure to watch the extra features for one of the funniest actor monologues you will ever have the privileged of witnessing. Go to, my friends, go to. See it and be seen by it.

 

Sylvia Scarlett

16 Jul

Sylvia Scarlett – directed by George Cukor. Grifter Romance. Unruly disguises rule. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

I like all grifter dramas, stories about people gulling other people out of their eyeteeth. Here Cary Grant is the principal con-man, and of course he is first-class at it, and has a lot of fun bringing his good old English carnival shill energy into it.

He is aided and abetted by the great Joe August who filmed it and by the brilliant trick-writer John Collier who was one of the three adapters of Compton MacKenzie’s novel, and it runs well as we hook into Edmund Gwenn and his daughter disguised as his son, as escapees from consequences in France to the luckier shores of England where they fall under the tricky Grant and the dubious spell of a musical hall chanteuse sexpot Dennie Moore. To earn a quick buck they become travelling vaudevillians. Then Brian Aherne turns up to derail the scams by becoming the object of the love interest of Katharine Hepburn, who up until this time is disguised as a boy. Her competition with Aherne is played by The Countess Natalia Pavlovna Von Hohenfelsen (whose biography would make your hair curl or uncurl, depending.)

Well!!! – as Jack Benny so eloquently put it.

The conglomeration travels on unexpected tracks at the start, and this is welcome – but, when romance insists on elbowing in, the movie looses it fascination, energy, imagination, and fun, and turns routine.

What is not routine is Katharine Hepburn as a hobbledehoy! For as a boy she is quite different than what she appears to be as a girl. As a boy she is quite convincing. As a girl she is quite unconvincing. As a boy she is swift, daring, direct, and true. And you really believe she is a boy. As a girl she is arch, sentimental, coy, extravagant, and meretriciously phony. You never believe in her at all. As a boy uninterested in romance, you swallow her whole. As a girl making goo-goo eyes she is a wretched fraud.

So when is she acting?

And when is she just playacting?

And why?

As a boy, Sylvester Scarlett, she delivers one of the greatest acting performances ever laid down on screen.

As a girl, Sylvia Scarlett, she gives one of the worst.

Don’t miss it. Hepburn was one of the great personalities of The Twentieth Century and one of the great things. The movie has a bunch of rewards and the biggest one is Hepburn acting more naturally as a male than any other male in the movie.

 

Undercurrent

13 Jul

Undercurrent –­– directed by Vincente Minnelli. Turgid Melodrama. A confirmed spinster marries a handsome tycoon and finds things about him no one would want to find. 116 minutes Black and White 1946.

★★

Does the idea of Katharine Hepburn becoming the lover of Robert Mitchum seem seemly to you? Well, that’s what happens here.

Actually one must ask whether the idea of Katharine Hepburn becoming the lover of anyone seems natural. She played many spinster roles and in what you get, for the most part and with one exception, Woman Of The Year, you never sense her as a sexually attracted woman.

This is not to say she is not sexually attractive. Men are attracted to her. But what attraction is in her for any sex at all is bodied forth here in her preposterous performance opposite Robert Taylor, who certain knew his way around sex.

It’s a fascinating performance. She is moment by moment touching and completely phony, coy and actually frightened, arch and straightforwardly honest. As an actress she does not seem to have any sense at all of when she is being just terrible, just false, just fabricated, just artificial, and when she is true blue.

She is an actress first of all devoted to The Noble. And it is also probably true that she had no real attraction to males – or let us say, felt it so rarely that she could not summon it at will. So what we get is an actress pretending to love. And her means to that are to woe the audience into sympathizing with her. And the means to that are to make her characters gauche and gawky and full of lollypop sentiment and glassy-eyed idealism. So, being devoted to The Noble, she is well within her ambition to make sexual attraction seem adolescent – or her idea of adolescent – for no adolescent would carry on with such Golly-Gee gyrations and such brutal bashfulness. You cannot believe her for a minute. She is just play-acting.

She is an actress who produced herself. All actors do that. They make something up in the shower, and that is what you get. It is a true strand of their nature. But Hepburn wants something more; she wants to be fascinating to those who watch what she does, and everything she does is subordinated to that questionable ambition. Noble and Fascinating.

No wonder she was box office poison. She is so because as a show-off she is irritating.

But she is also, the next second, brilliant, unusual, and lovable. Such a curious flower not suitable for every occasion, our Kate. Our Kate with the blinders on.

 

 

Tell It To The Judge

06 Jul

Tell It To The Judge –­– directed by Norman Foster. Romantic Comedy. A to-be judge tries to escape from her embarrassing husband who adores her. 87 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★

Did this lame comedy even look good on paper? You have three of the most consummate high comedians of our era, Rosalind Russell, Gig Young, and Robert Cummings, all asked to rise to the high humor of hitting their heads repeatedly on beams. They do all they can, but they are gravely miscast. Proper casting? Moe, Larry, and Curly. How could they have missed this opportunity!

So it’s interesting to see how actors this skilled can use their big gifts to serve such small potatoes. Russell does her usual haughty lady, and we love her for it, because of the humor lying in wait like a panda to spring. She is gowned by Jean Louis and the truth is she looks a lot better than she ought, although it’s wonderful to see her in such capes, such furs, such evening clothes, out of which she is never, even upon rising. Russell was once a fashion model, has a superb figure, and knows how to go about things.

Gig Young plays the louche roué of dubious provenance, as usual, and he is funny, quick, and sexy. You can see how skilled the actors are when they mix it up with ancient Harry Davenport whose up to the good old actor rapid fire monkey-shines, equal to Russell and Cummings, no quicker draws in all the West.

Robert Cummings is exactly in his right milieu, light comedy, and his usually sissy affect is nowhere in view here, for his playing is strong, real, and imaginative.

Werner R. Heymann wrote the musical score and it is far better than the movie. It lends punch and charm to a film which needs it like an oasis. It bounces and comments and tickles and burbles, and is a perfect example of a score telling you what to feel and being absolutely right to do so. It is a model for film composers, at least for films of this order.

Joe Walker, who had filmed many top films (The Lady From Shanghai, It Happened One Night, Born Yesterday), was Frank Capra’s favorite photographer, and had filmed many of Russell’s films, is in sad demerit because of the awkward way the film is directed. Directorially nothing works. Crispness fizzles. Mots fall flat.

Loved them; hated it. The story is awkward. It takes improbability off new heights of cliff. Nothing works, nothing is funny, except that (given the talent) nothing is funny.

 

 

 

 

 

The Guilt Of Janet Ames

09 Jun

The Guilt Of Janet Ames –– directed by Henry Levin. Drama. A WW II widow searches out the five men her husband’s death valiantly saved and learns the truth about herself from one of them. 83 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★

Casting a movie. How do they do it?

For instance, of the great stars of the Golden Age of Film from 1930 to 1950, how many could actually portray intelligent women? Judy Garland? No. She was an intelligence and a rich one, but she was not intelligent. Paulette Goddard? No. She was a delightful minx, but you would never put her at the head of a finishing school. Barbara Stanwyck? She could play a shrewd woman, but an intelligent one? Ginger Rogers? Maybe. Irene Dunne? Absolutely. Katharine Hepburn? Why not. Claudette Colbert? Positively.

Casting has something to do with acting ability. But has first to do with an actor’s essence. It has to do with something inherent in them. Intelligence has something to do with IQ, perhaps, but has more to do with an inherent approach to life. Rosalind Russell was certainly one who could play an intelligent woman.

And did so, and does so here, opposite Melvyn Douglas, who has some sort of corner on authority rare to be found in leading men nowadays. The two are well sorted. For they are both intelligent and their talents match in scale. Douglas is earnest and focused and sensitive to what’s coming towards him. And Russell structures her performance to a certain order which it will be Douglas’s task to break down. For that’s the story.

It’s a quite interesting film, because it is the ur type for the Film Noir. That is to say, there is something wrong with each of the characters and it manifests as a disconnect to and hangover from the War. Shell shock is what PTSD was then called, and women on the home front experienced it too. They grew bitter and loveless, and quite right too, and then, as now, the men drank too much and went under. The film is not Film Noir but it is what Film Noir is about.

The picture is remarkable in the scheme of its story, but also in the use of schematic sets. This is the first film I have ever seen them used to such an extent. Later you find them in Red Garters and Dogville. And it was frequently used in Golden Age TV, and may have first found prominence in the sets for Our Town. Here they are used in hypnosis sequences in which Russell visits the survivors, Nina Foch, Betsy Blair, and Sid Caesar.

Another remarkable ingredient, making the film a really memorable visit, is the long and hysterically funny monologue Sid Caesar does as a nightclub act, an astonishing and delightful display of comic genius. As you watch him, you will not believe what is happening before your eyes.

But it is happening. And, surrounding it, the film and the story provide solid and unexpected satisfaction. Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas and Guilt. What a combo!

 

Lust, Caution

28 May

Lust, Caution – directed by Ang Lee. Spy Drama. In the Japanese occupation of Japan a group of students become resistance workers determined to assassinate a high ranking collaborator. 157 minutes Color 2007.
★★★★★
After making Brokeback Mountain, the angel director Ang Lee returned to China to film this account of the late 30s occupation of Hong Kong and Shanghai. He avows it was to honor the history of the period, which was his parents’ time, and which would he feared be lost if some record of it was not made. But the movie is far more than ancestor worship.

As with all his films (The Life of Pi, et al.), it is an exposure of human nature under huge pressure, danger, and duress. I am loath to recount even the beginning of this story, because each episode is precious and unusual.

Rather let me speak for a minute about the cast, which, along with Joan Chen, boasts the highest ranking Chinese actors of our day.

Wang Leehom, the international Asian singer superstar, plays the young leader of the troupe. A beautiful young man, he captures the intensity of the boy, including his fatal lack of humor linked to a sexual restraint such as to make of them a plot device in and of themselves.

The great Chinese superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays the collaborationist magistrate who is the target of the troupe. You would suppose you would respond to him as a villain. But the intensity, pain, love, perspicacity, fear, cruelty, and desire he evinces forbids any such condemnation as the full human being arises before our eyes.

The power and delicacy and sensuality of his playing take the story to excruciations of lust and fear – to a point almost inhuman where neither of them obtain. And with him rides Wei Tang as the femme fatale of the troupe, out to seduce and betray him. She is an entrancing female, subtle, lovely to behold, true, believable, and interesting in and of herself.

I say no more. I have said too much.

It is beautifully filmed by Rodrigo Prieto and has an infallible sense of period.

I saw it on DVD, which offers an uncensored version, It seems to me that the film would make no sense without the full bore sex scenes. Or at least insufficient sense. After all, the film is not a candy apple.

Highly recommended for grown-up viewing.

 

The Street With No Name

20 May

The Street With No Name –­– directed by William Keighley. Police Procedural. An FBI agent imbeds himself in a bank robber gang and almost doesn’t make it. 91 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★★

This good film is listed as a Noir, which it is not. It is not, because in Noir the protagonist much have something wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong with Mark Stevens at all. He is a good-looking honest-John male period.

The person who has something wrong with him is Richard Widmark who once again plays the psycho thug, which he began his career with by pushing Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in Kiss Of Death while snickering. He did this sort of thing in a number of pictures in the ‘40s until he put his cloven-hoof down – but, in fact, he is much better as psychopaths than as a leading man. Here, thank goodness, he is a violent closeted homosexual.

Mark Stevens plays the agent who infiltrates Widmark’s gang, and to say he is too straight to be the hero of a Noir is not to diminish his gifts, for his playing is smart. He makes the character blithe, as though he didn’t have a care or worry in the world. He flirts with Widmark and sails into the harbor of the gang without a glance to the left or right. It’s a shrewd acting move, and Stevens is good at it. He laughs his way through peril. At least that is what he does while others are around and until the thrills start.

A word about such actors. Nice-guy actors form a blank which audiences fill in with themselves. The actor just stands there in his masculinity and his decency, and you do the rest. You find this all the way through literature, from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince Of Tyre to Dickens’ David Copperfield to almost everything Gregory Peck ever did. These good-guy actors sometimes seem to almost have no temperament as actors, no human imagination, although lots of moral imagination, which is why they crowd together as leading players in Westerns. There are too many of them to list. They provide an empty upright outline which it is the audience’s mission to flesh and fill, a job the audience readily adopts because such actors are always in heroic roles.

A word about Noir style. It’s easy to mistake such a picture as this as Noir because of the way it looks. This one looks terrific, and that is because it was filmed by Joe MacDonald, a master of city streets at night. He would film Sam Fuller’s remake of it, House Of Bamboo, and Kazan’s Panic In The Streets. You might say that the story is really told by the way Joe MacDonald lights and films and moves it, that the narration is really in his hands, rather than the director’s, although the direction is good. The astonishing shoot-out in the immense factory at the end is an example of Joe MacDonald’s extraordinary ability to make a story happen. Someone should fo a study about the narrative power of such photographers as William Daniels, Ernest Haller, Joe MacDonald and other master photographers – although it’s probably already been written, ignoramus as I am.

The film is an A level crime film, with Lloyd Nolan, John McIntyre, and a teen-age Barbara Lawrence, in a gorgeous performance as Widmark’s beard-wife.

 

The Company

07 Apr

The Company –– directed by Robert Altman. Docudrama. The backstage and onstage life of the dancers of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. 112 Minutes Color 2004.

★★★★★

A hybrid tea rose. Gorgeously filmed by Pierre Mignot, who took many of Altman’s later films.

This is Altman’s penultimate work, a small masterpiece, which offers the current of a story not spelled out but floating along in the stream of the life of the dancers in which Neve Campbell, the actress who wrote it, produced it, and does (unlike that other young woman who won an Oscar) actually dance it.

She was trained in ballet long before going into acting, and she worked for three years with another writer to grant the Joffrey their story. And then, as no professional athlete could train, for months she trained to get back into ballet condition.

Nothing is filmed in documentary style; everything is filmed in dramatic film style. All of this is quite fascinating if one can step back and realize that only five actors are actually used and only three of them have principal roles, and only one of them says much. The dancers are beautiful actors, doing what they would do anyhow, which is dancing and being humans preparing to dance. All the more interesting if one knows that The Joffrey is a ballet company without stars: anyone may dance major roles. This gives the film narrative a level playing field.

And it also means that all of the relationships are worked out as pas de deux, or pas de trois, or pas de howevermany. And so we get a view of how the dancers actually live. On the stage they are accoutered gorgeously and lit like angels. Off stage they waiter in saloons to make ends meet and sleep on friends’ floors because they are not paid a living wage.

But that is not so much of what we get as it is that we see the ambiance versus the mechanics of a great dance company in counterpoint. Malcolm Macdowell is devastating as the domineering head of the Joffrey, and Neve Campbell and James Franco sweetly play the young lovers, two youths separated and united by their skills. We see the business arrangements and we see the dance arrangements, and we see that, like the lovers, the two arrangements do not meet except in hiding. For what see on stage is glorious is its riches.

We witness about six astonishing ballets of the Joffrey, with the full company engaged in them and preparing for them by their choreographers and dance masters.

Will you sit back in delight as I did to watch these highly entertaining dances? Will you send out for this film better than sending out for a pizza and far more digestible, you may be sure? Will you remember me and thank me that you read this and acted, as the saying goes, accordingly? Will you enjoy yourself so deliciously?

I hope so.

What gifts Altman had to give when his heart was in his work!

 

The Gingerbread Man

02 Apr

The Gingerbread  Man – directed by Robert Altman. Noir. A lawyer leaps to the rescue and finds himself trapped. 113 minutes Color 1998.

★★★

The key ingredient in Noir is casting the female, and this one fails on the basis of its being so badly miscast as to wreck the movie. The female in noir, one way or another, must hypnotize us, or cause us to be desirous of being hypnotized. She should baffle and enchant and fascinate us, against our will if we profess to have a will in such matters. Lauren Bacall appears, and which of us is not helpless to know anything rational ever again? Who is there who can figure out the beauteous Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy? Not I.

In this case we get an actress playing for sympathy or pity or innocence, but the wanness she aims at to achieve this sympathy emerges as a frailty verging on the tubercular. Sympathy is a dull aim for an actor to strive for in a performance. It just won’t do.

And what really won’t do is to have cast an Australian actress in a part which she plays as though her father, brilliantly realized as a mean mountain man by Robert Duvall, had not produced an equally unpredictable cracker in his daughter. Instead the actress in question makes no attempt at a hill-billy accent. Instead of someone peppery and full of tang and fun, we get a droop.

In Noir, the female is more important than the male lead in the sense that our entrancement with her paradox is the element which carries us away from any attention whatsoever with the mad mazes of the plot, which we are not expected to follow and indeed which her presence is there to discourage us from following. So it goes that the plot of this film shoots itself in the foot with all the subtlety of a flare gun, as our attention wanes from the actress in question to the scowl emerging in our brains at the unnecessary and far-fetched plot twists to which we are finding our credulity to be subject.

What did it need? It is obvious that it needed Tuesday Weld.

What it does have is Duvall with oh-such-dirty feet, and the excellent Daryl Hannah as the gal Friday, and Tom Berenger perfectly cast as a lower caste barge captain, and the quirky and inventive genius of Robert Downey Junior as a private eye.

Pierre Mignot shot it gorgeously in Savannah, Georgia, a place which does not register as Savannah but registers like all get out anyhow. The lead is played with mighty dispatch and address by Kenneth Branagh, who evinces all the technical chops needed to play a Southern attorney of great muster and confidence. So the film has that. What it has not is a femme fatale. And without that, we are bereft of our sense of our own potential for self-corruption which Noir is intended to trigger and for us to harmlessly enjoy.

 

The Magic Bullet Of Dr. Ehrlich

18 Mar

The Magic Bullet of Dr. Ehrlich – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. A German/Jewish doctor revolutionizes hematology and immunology. 103 minutes Black and White 1940.
★★★★★
Why I adore to watch Edward G. Robinson I simply do not know. Richard Burton said of him that if the most beautiful man in world and Edward G. Robinson were on the same stage together, no one would look at the beautiful man. He is my favorite actor. And he was one of the superstars of his era and his studio, Warners, along with a couple of other odd-looking blokes, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Robinson’s presence and authority, his ability to focus deeply, his ability to instantly switch course, his waking eyes which wake you up, his distinctive voice. Yes, all of that. But perhaps it is the simplicity and directness and immediacy of everything that he does. There is also his courageous heart, his kindness, his humor, his ability to take-it-in.

I don’t know. There is just something about him.

You would have thought he would be, like Charles Coburn, a hugely popular principal supporting actor. But no. He plays the lead always. The story is always about him. It is never about Coburn.

This is one of those biopics the era specialized in and that informed us, if not educated us, about Madame Curie (Greer Garson), Sister Kenny (Rosalind Russell), Gentleman Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) et al. Dieterle directed some of them, and directs this one well.

The story of this remarkable laboratory scientist – who advanced microbe-dyeing so that a specific disease, such as tuberculosis, could actually be diagnosed by an ordinary physician; who pioneered the vaccine for diphtheria, who discovered the first specific for syphilis – is fairly accurate, and at all points riveting.

What makes it so is the photography of James Wong Howe. Every angle, every scene, every movement by the actors is held in narrative coherence and importance by his camera. He makes the picture exciting and he, in fact, tells its story. And he never intrudes.

Max Steiner did the score. The film was co-written by John Huston and boasts a list of supporting players so deep no modern film could equal it: Otto Kruger who is quite touching as Ehrlich’s best friend, Donald Crisp, Sig Ruman, Donald Meek, Henry O’Neill, Harry Davenport, Louis Calhern. Maria Ouspenskaya, a really bad actress from the Moscow Art Theatre, performs her usual portentous teeny grand dame, and Ruth Gordon doesn’t seem to know what to do as the housewife and mother of Ehrlich’s children. But, if you really want to know what great acting is in all its magnitude take in the great German Shakespearean Albert Bassermann in the role of an early unbeliever in Ehrlich.

Anyhow, I found all three acts of this picture thrilling. For me it didn’t date, because I am of that date. If this picture were made today, it couldn’t be half as good. Like Steinbeck, it was of its time, and has not lost its value for all that.

 

Minority Report

07 Mar

Minority Report – directed by Steven Spielberg. SciFi Action Adventure. A police chief gets caught up in the net he has set to catch murderers. 124 minutes Color 2002.
★★★★
Once again Spielberg fouls up the ending of a movie. Of all his films I have seen none have honest endings. Lincoln and Amistad have weak but workable endings, but all the other endings I have seen throw us into the boiling pot of hackwork. Is he sucking up to public sentiment? This is especially distressing since all that I have ever seen has been, up until then, work of strength, imagination, scenic power, and high craft.

In this case we have triple surprise endings to do the damage.

Now the difficulty with even one surprise ending is that we the audience feel betrayed and made fools of by it. Our trust in the narrative and the commitment we have invested in it are tossed out the window for a screwy twist. While the difficulty of any move is, having set the predicament, to find a way out of it, surprise endings pull the rug out from under, not just us, but the characters before us. Spielberg is a professional person; why doesn’t he know this?

Tom Cruise gives his all to this, over 2-hour, material, and his all amounts to a good deal. For no actor presently before us enjoys acting more, throws his will, and his energy so thoroughly into it as he. His complete investment is why we keep watching him, and he never disappoints.

The story concerns three zombie bodies who can foresee future crimes. And, as the principal talent among them, Samantha Morton is super. You thoroughly believe her half-drowned soul. The excellent Colin Farrell presents Cruise with a rivalry — a rivalry of cute guys, for one thing — but a rivalry set to prove Cruise’s crime prevention methods are flawed. Whatever is the reverse of effervescence would define Max von Sydow — gravitas incarnate; if he were any more grave he’d be in the grave. He is wonderful as the senior operative. But particularly brilliant and richly funny is — worth the entire price of admission — Lois Smith as the inventor of the crime prevention zombies. Her scene with Cruise is priceless. How did Spielberg’s people know to hire her?

The present film is fortified by Spielberg’s old reliables John Williams’ score, and it is filmed as usual by Janusz Kaminski so brilliantly, so beautifully, so imaginatively, that you feel the whole movie is taking place inside a cube of ice. The spectacular action sequences and special effects alone are worth watching the film for, for they are rare and strange and fun.

What a marvelous movie to collapse in on its own excessive final complications.

 

That Certain Woman

07 Feb

That Certain Woman – directed by Edmund Goulding. Women’s Pulp. A widow raises her baby while men two-time their wives for her favors. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Claptrap. Edmund Goulding wrote and directed it, and it shows. The plot is ruthlessly confined to coincidence. No sooner does one melodramatic catastrophe befall than the telephone rings to report another. No sooner does Henry Fonda resolve to run off with Bette Davis than Fonda’s wife appears in a wheelchair in Bette’s apartment. Get it?

Davis acknowledged this falseness, but she also liked Goulding’s treatment of her as a star, rather than a prominent member of a cast. She also liked the glamor close-ups of her, executed by the great Ernest Haller, who filmed her many times in the years to come.

Bette is in her late 20s when this film is made, and it did establish her as a star in the sense that her stories were now to be all about her: which means that when the camera was not on her, everyone was talking about her. She is also housed in an apartment and gowned by Orry-Kelly in clothes of a glory which as a private secretary she could never have afforded. Still, it is nice to see her in them, isn’t it? And all, and I do mean all, of the male sexual attention is directed at her, and the entire story hangs upon this supposition. Whether you find Bette Davis sexy is not the point; she is always, always highly sexual.

And she is for one of the few times in her life given a co-star, in Henry Fonda, equal to herself – for Bette Davis was the only female star of her era seldom to act opposite a man equal to herself in power. You could strike a match on George Bent, and he  wouldn’t notice it. Whether this was an economy on the part of Warners, or a recognition that she was making movies only for women, or whether it was thought she was masculine enough in her power already, she is asked from now on to carry virtually all of her films alone – a precarious burden for a female in those days. Nevertheless, from this point on until she left Warners, she made a fortune for them carrying it.

As usual she is given great support and a high class production. Max Steiner does an undistinguished score, but at least he does it. Donald Crisp plays the stiff-necked tycoon in his usual righteous manner, that is to say, in a manner fit to bore the toenails off of you. Henry Fonda, in an unusual display of aliveness for him, plays the playboy son like a happy monkey. It’s a great way to play it, and worth seeing, since Fonda’s usual manner as an actor is steady/withdrawn. Fonda’s character is a weakling, which is unavoidable, but at least Fonda is having fun being one. He is also heartbreakingly beautiful at this stage of his life. With Fonda as the volatile one, Davis plays the quiet one, and, actually, this suits her. Until the plot goes melodramatically berserk, her responsiveness, particularly to Ian Hunter, as her doting boss, is a model of fine, quiet, spontaneity. Hunter is really good in his role, and is perhaps the only one one cares about at all in all this.

Davis as an actress is an interesting presence and always entertaining, but, in a picture like this, which is over-written, which is plot-heavy, the space for the actors to react is reduced to a nubbin. Here we have The Noble Style Of The Thirties, which consists of the actors “giving speeches,” always in a high pitched voice, with a rapid delivery stained with the red, white, and blue of pained self-sacrifice. You will recognize the trick. It is no longer employed by actors. But that is because there are, thanks goodness, in movies now, no more Noble Roles.

 

Lilies Of The Field

24 Dec

Lilies Of The Field – written and directed by Ralph Nelson. Drama Lite. An itinerant handyman finds himself inveigled to build a chapel in the desert by a sharp-tongued German nun. 94 minutes Black and White. 1963.

★★★★★

Sidney Poitier created in the middle of The United States a lake larger than Superior. It was and is a lake that has its shores in every state in the Union.
What was he?

The first black movie star. It wasn’t like Ella Fitzgerald coming in over the airwaves; you actually had to go see Sidney Poitier. The public was part of it, and was ready for it. We all went to see a black man. It was easy.

But Sidney Poitier was, after all, only an actor.

As such, what did he bring?

Always the same: dignity, innocence, wariness. Also reserve. And, as an actor, he was always game. Also, he was a good-looking man of good figure with a marvelous smile and a distinctive speaking voice.

Whom would I be describing here, if I were not describing Sydney Poitier, but Barrack Obama?

Poitier paved the way and continues to pave the way for Obama, and there is no distinction between them in that way. Obama exists because the Poitier Lake exists. Obama swims in and exists in that Lake.

They have another point in common which accounts for their preeminence, their success, their possibility – and that is that both were born on far offshore islands, and neither of them were of American origin. Poitier is from Jamaica and returned to it as his home base. Obama’s father was from Kenya; neither was reared in the black male diminution of the mainland: Obama lived a significant portion of his childhood in Southeast Asia. Both men appeared to be U.S. citizens, not from charlatanism but by common public error, but they were not. Poitier is a naturalized citizen; Obama is first-generation. They are Americans once remove. Their appearance is African-American, but the truth is they are African-sports, Maverick-Americans. They are travellers. Their true home is not America but in themselves alone. America is a congeries of fifty-two nation-states. To have a home in the joy and jingoism of none of them is for both of them, naturally, to make a home of all of them. Distance is their intimacy.

Poitier made the Lake, Obama deepens its color.

And what is that color?

That color is the undeniable truth that this country is unthinkable without African American people.

Poitier gave gills to every black actor after him. Few resembled him, for Poitier was a leading actor always of limited but commanding presence. But his existence permitted the actors who followed him to play characters who were not innocent, reserved, dignified, wary, game, or even leading-man-good-looking. Wesley Snipes, Danny Glover, Matthew Perry got their license to act because the Poitier Lake already existed for them.

~ ~ ~

Lilies Of The Field is essentially a TV play of the kind that was done in the ‘60s live, and as such it has its satisfactions. To describe its predicament of a roving handyman asked to stand still and build a church is to say enough about it. It’s filmed by the great Ernest Haller. Poitier is good in it, although he overplays the first scene in the greasy-spoon. However, Poitier never does blackface, as Sammy Davis Junior sometimes lost himself in doing. Poitier’s another thing entirely, a black actor who never heard of blackface. He won the Oscar for it. It’s a good family film, worth a visit, if only to witness how astutely it ends.

 
 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

08 Dec

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. WWII Drama. Four months after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Dootlittle’s B-25 squadron mounts the daring bomb attack for which the airmen know they do not have sufficient return fuel. 138 minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★★
What you have is a script by Dalton Trumbo who hypothesizes every scene into what he ideologically wishes it to be, so the script always floats slightly above the actors’ heads. They have to reach back into their Sunday School pageants to play it. But it does give Trumbo leeway for the scene where two men discuss whether they actually hate the Japanese and what it feels like to kill civilians. It’s good the scene is there at all, since it would have been a matter of discussion among troops. So “Anti-American” though; so Dalton Trumbo; so HUAC. After all a War is on! Loose lips sink ships! As usual with Trumbo, it feels at once startling and pat. An honestly acted liberal rant.

Not to be missed are terribly acted romantic scenes of Phyllis Thaxter who grinds every scene to a halt by her sparkle; she narrows her eyes and just glimmers away. You want to slap her. It’s a wonder Van Johnson can perform opposite her at all. You look at him being convincing and crown him with a halo: that he could act opposite Phyllis Thaxter and not gnashed his teeth once.

Spencer Tracy walks through the Doolittle role with his commanding presence merely. When you see him in the cockpit of his bomber in leather flight jacket, you want to laugh, and put him back in his suburban easy chair where he belongs and never left, not once, to do a little research about how it feels being a pilot.

But he has little to do, save deliver a few gritty speeches, and the film is well worth watching for the actual bomber training of these men, at the actual airdrome they did it in, and the tiny practice runs they performed of those huge wretched bombers in preparation for taking off from the minute flight deck of the U.S.S. Hornet. So quickly after Pearl Harbor too!

And we see the actual takeoffs on that day, for it was filmed at the time. They’d been spotted by a fishing boat and had to leave many hours too soon and farther from their targets, thus reducing the return gas in their tanks. We see the actual approach to Japan. We see them see Fujiyama. We see them skim low over the paddies. We see the actual bombing raid. All of this is thrilling and valid. For we are seeing the actual footage of it

Then we see how they had to fly to a base in China, which only one of them actually made. China was Japanese occupied at the time, so when the bombers landed or crashed, their crews were either taken by the Japs or hidden by the Chinese and spirited away to secret airfields where lovely and ever-resourceful DC3s flew them off in the nick of time.

The story focuses mainly on Van Johnson’s crew, among whom we find the refreshing face of Robert Walker, a terrific actor here and elsewhere. A big team of Oriental and American actors ably acts it, including Don DeFore, Robert Mitchum, Leon Ames, Benson Fong, Hsin Kung, Ching Wah Lee, Ann Shoemaker, Stephen McNally, Bill Williams, Scott McKay, Selena Royle, Alan Napier. Most of these appear in the adventure and escape in China. Harold Rosson and the great Robert Surtees filmed it. It is action/adventure as its most documentarian and thrilling.

 

Deception — The Bette Davis Series 6

04 Dec

Deception – directed by Irving Rapper. Drama. The reunion of two musicians after separation by The War leads to big prevarications by the woman about her sugar daddy.
110 minutes Black and White 1946.
★★★★★
Twice I saw Bette Davis on the stage: once in Tennessee Williams’ Night Of The Iguana and once in a musical review, Two’s Company. Mildred Dunnock, who liked Bette and had made The Corn Is Green with her, said she didn’t believe Davis for a minute: “When she looks out over the audience for that ship, she doesn’t see a thing.” What I saw in the Williams was a performer throwing herself about the stage in a way that had nothing really to do with the motivation of the character at all. And as a vaudeville player she was, to be kind, misplaced. It wasn’t because Bette Davis had no stage experience, for she had plenty. It was that her craft, through her misuse of it, her distortion of it, her misprision of it, her exaggeration of its tics, her creation of a star-persona for it, had deteriorated it to the level of the amateur – and I use the word in its pejorative sense –– to the level of community theatre. This is not to say she was not professional. She had simply lost her basic craft. This was largely the case with her after All About Eve. It is sad to think of this happening to a human being, and especially through their own contrivance.

When you consider her next to the big female stars of her era, it is startling. Bette Davis could do comedy, though not often did she do so. Joan Crawford could not. Stanwyck and Hepburn and Colbert could. Davis could appear convincingly in costume drama, by which I mean costume drama in eras before the living memory of anyone involved in presenting it. Hepburn could not, neither could Crawford, and Stanwyck was barely acceptable. Davis was better at drama than Hepburn, whose specialty was high comedy.

And when you consider Hepburn’s career with that of Davis, you see Hepburn going on to essay the classic roles in her middle-age. The Madwoman Of Chaillot, The Trojan Women, Suddenly Last Summer, The Glass Menagerie. Hepburn was to act with the big classic actors of her era, Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier. Davis was never to appear with such powerful costars. Hepburn took on Shakespeare: The Merchant Of Venice, Taming Of The Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Othello, and even, if you will, Anthony and Cleopatra. Davis never tried anything along those lines. Hepburn did it to stretch her instrument, and she succeeded. Mildred Dunnock said of her that she was one of the few actresses of her era who had grown, and she was saying this about an actress who had played parts she herself had played. (Mildred Dunnock was the greatest Mary Tyrone of her era.) But Millie also said of Bette Davis that, when Millie was in Hollywood to make a movie, “You called Bette. She didn’t call you.”

And that seems typical of the petrified ego we see displayed in Bette Davis’ work for the last 40 years of her life. What we see is an actress who isn’t really calling you. What she is addressing is always her position.

This was not in full force with Deception. It is one of her best pieces because of her most restrained.

That is because she is playing a liar. She does it rather melodramatically, rolling her eyes at the audience from time to time to telegraph to us a different story than the one unfolding on stage. But she is generally sweetened under the role because she has to play a once in a lifetime love for Paul Henreid, an actor she liked. But, as we know, she is an actress who can play only one thing at a time.

This means that she has no subtext. She was an actress of big effects, and they are often enjoyable. So the reason she deceives Paul Henried about being a kept woman by Claude Rains is never because she is ashamed of it, but rather to spare Henreid’s feelings, at least that is the it-wont-wash reason given. Yet, she plays it well on the only level she knows how to play, which is physically. She is blithe about deceiving Henreid, and that would work were she consistent in not letting us know that she is deceiving him, improbable as the deceptions are. She switches from one thing to another like courses in a meal, but each with one vegetable only. To deliver subtext, behind Henreid’s back, she blares her eyes at us; Bette Davis’s eyes were no match for subtlety; subtlety was not within her range. Subtext is a subtlety.

She’s good, because so willing, but the pleasures of the film also lie in adjacent areas: in the decor, which is executed by George James Hopkins and art director Anton Grot. Two massive interiors appear before us as plot elements, and their impressive presence is a treat to see. Nothing rich was spared. For it, Korngold himself wrote the cello concerto Paul Henried plays, a concerto performed to this day around the world. And John Collier wrote the brilliant dialogue. If you like talking films to talk, this is one of the best. And the spaces of non-talk are equally eloquent, for Ernest Haller photographed it, as he was to do with seven of her films, wonderfully. He took care not to look at Davis too closely, for she at 38 was a bit long in the tooth for the role and looked it. She did not age well. Indeed, she was pregnant with her first child as it was made, so she is a little thick in the waist. He shoots her in three-quarter shots, and spares the close-ups. “Oh, Ernest how come you can’t make me look like you did in Jezebel?” she cried. “Well, Bette,” he said, “I was eight years younger then.” Bernard Newman costumes her powerfully.

It’s a four-character piece, not camp and played seriously by everyone. John Abbott plays the cellist understudy perfectly, and Paul Henreid is fine as the cellist. But if you want a good time rollicking in guilty pleasures, Claude Rains gives the performance of his career as the richly-spoken composer Hollenius who desires to drive everyone crazy and succeeds. You must not deny yourself the indulgence of this display of acting genius. The pictures was her first box office failure. But along with The Corn Is Green, The Little Foxes, The Letter, In This Our Life, and The Man Who Came To Dinner, it is one of her best.

 

The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Nov

The Diary Of Anne Frank – produced and directed by George Stevens. Tragedy. Eight people hide in an attic while vicious enemies roam the streets to find them. 180 minutes Black and White 1959.

★★★★

As a film it has lost nothing to time; indeed it takes on power by its set decoration and photography, for both of which it won Oscars. And these are the important Oscars for such a film, since they give to it the feel of documentary. Shelly Winters also won one, and Joseph Schildkraut, who had won one in 1937, who is marvelous, was not even nominated. Lou Jacobi and Gusti Huber, as Mrs Frank, had done it with him on Broadway, and their performances are fresh and strong. Diane Baker and Richard Beymer play modest characters with modesty; every moment tells; we never lose them; we never stop caring about them. With Winters, as an actress, her uncertainty tends to push her art. This makes her always intrusive, and so she is often cast as a pushy woman falling apart.

The use of the Cinemascope camera here in cooperation with a three-storey set, divided by verticals like bars, and the use of full eight-person ensemble scenes bring great strength to what is a director’s movie, which it had to be, since it had no stars and since the material is plotless and storyless, which it had to be, since it actually is a diary. So the direction is purely presentational and as such brilliant beyond expectation. We are never aware of “the direction;” nothing is showy; everything in honored that ought to be.

The difficulty is that one cannot identify with the actor playing Anne. She’s inhumanly pretty and she’s too old. She is never thirteen. In fact the actor was twenty, which is an entire time-zone away from thirteen. And there is something else wrong in that she looks like what she was, a young fashion model. Anne Frank was not a cover girl, but this young woman is a glamor-puss. (To see the part perfectly cast, see the television version.)

I don’t know what Stevens had in mind – a combination of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn? Did Stevens think to draw focus to her because of her looks? Did he see her as a great new discovery? The problem is you don’t know what you’re getting when you hire an unknown inexperienced actor. Anyhow, the problem is not that she is a fashion model, but that that she relates to a camera in a fashion model way, a way quite different from a movie camera relationship. She knows exactly how to present herself “beautifully,” but that talent is irrelevant to Anne and disconsonnant with her as well. She is so pretty that she has long known how to use the charm of her looks to get what she wants and to get away with behaving as she wishes. Anne Frank was always “behaving” but to do so she had to summon something deep within her defiant nature quite different from the easy victories of a fashion model. Anne Frank was not “pretty,” and the scene where this beauty-actress has to fish for a compliment about her looks is preposterous.

Besides, Anne Frank was a truly funny person; this actress is not. Mind you, the young woman who plays Anne does everything well; she has a right to be proud of her contribution and her work, but, through no real fault of her own, the result of having her in it at all, is that, instead of what we do with the Anne Frank of the book, we have no one to get behind as a human, no one to identify with.

Tremendous vitality pressing outward from inside a difficult girl is the inner truth of the outer truth of the vitality of these eight people caged just because they are Jews inside that loft. Inside a tiny diary is hidden away, as are hidden these eight, the right to live! The injustice of the closet is the mark of this story’s greatness; the movie captures it and us. It is the greatest movie about being closeted ever made. It has not dated. It will never date.

 

Dead Ringer

20 Nov

Dead Ringer – – directed by Paul Henreid. Murder Melodrama. Twin sisters have at one another in an impersonation slay-fest. 118 minutes Black and White 1964.
★★
The Bette Davis’ pictures still worth seeing all have a good story, a good cinemaphotographer, a good cast, a good director, and a part she was meant to play. They would include All About Eve, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life, and The Letter. But even when the entire crew is on board, Bette Davis can still steer the vessel in direction it was never intended to go. This she does here.

In the case of Dead Ringer, she also does not have a good director.

In a movie the key ingredient is the story, and the director’s job is to tell the story, and just as Faulkner does not tell a story the same way as Erskine Caldwell does, John Huston does not tell a story the same way as George Stevens does, for each director has a way of releasing the material to the eye that is a force in itself, a style in itself, a value in itself. The job also is to bring out what is best and right in the actor. In the case of Dead Ringer, Davis has her old friend Paul Henreid, but he is not a director of merit in these matters.

So you will see, for instance, that the power and influence of the great Doheny Mansion is never used as a narrative character. Its interiors are simply filmed well, but they never tell a story, because the director does not have a narrative imagination, and this exhausts the audience. Nor does he have the ability to bring out what is best and right in the actor.

The great Ernest Haller films her (as he had many times before) one final time before he died, and the movie even has a fine score by André Previn. It has the great Jean Hagen (her last film), Estelle Winwood, and George Macready. It has Karl Malden as a love interest, and an exquisite performance by Cyril Delevanti as the butler. But Davis is allowed to perform these sisters in a way that discourages her best work with them, and that is because of her makeup.

She uses star-persona makeup for both characters and in all situations. To youthen herself (she’s 56), she masks both faces almost in clown white, the neck a quite different tone. She uses heavy false eyelashes for both sisters, with too much upper lid mascara, curling the corners with it, so that, when her eyes are fully open, she is a Cupie Doll. Her mouth is painted a down-turned bow in a rictus of contempt and distaste. The corners extend slightly and the dip in the middle of the upper lip is painted over to make the arc of the bow unbroken — a mouth meant to emit arrows of vitriol — a demolition mouth. None of this makeup has anything to do with either character. It has only to do with the star who is playing either character. The result is that she very much resembles Joan Crawford and never resembles either character one bit.

So, whether she can actually play either character we never really know. She can wear different hairdos and costumes, but that’s it. There she stands, a tiny woman barely over five feet tall, Niagara Falls in a teacup. And from All About Eve on, this makeup is what she called acting. It is touching because it is so lost.

A star is someone who, once called that, is never able to act again?

 

In This Our Life

18 Nov

In This Our Life –– directed by John Huston. Drama. A young Southern woman runs over the lives and loves of everyone in town. 97 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

I saw it when it came out and remember it well –– because of its closing scene in which Bette tells off Charles Coburn and then drives her convertible over a cliff. The scene was actually directed by Raoul Walsh, but what was impressive about it was the intensity and rashness of Davis’s ability to tell the truth. The question is not whether she is mean, selfish, immoral, or even sociopathic, but her daring to find in her guts and let loose the emotional truth. I never forgot it, and neither did anyone else who saw it. It was what I could not do at the time, nor for years to come. There was no major film star of Bette Davis’ era who was not a full embodiment of Women’s Liberation. This was Davis’ version.

Davis deplored the picture, which is incorrect, for she chews scenery already there for her digestion. She is never bigger than the part. And she is certainly never smaller than the part. Her costumes, by Orry-Kelly, are superb in their careful want of subtlety: she is always tricked out for game. Perc Westmore executed the makeup, which gives her a bee-stung upper lip and mascara flounces at the outside corners of her eyes. Her hair is free curling just above the shoulder with a disgraceful bang on her brow.

Bette Davis is the most kinetic of all major female stars. Her body is always engaged or about to spring. More than any other actress of her time, she brings to the screen the quality of someone no one has ever loved, and this gives her sexual seething. One way or another she is hot.

This picture is made in her heyday, between The Man Who Came To Dinner, which is her best screen performance, and Now Voyager, which is one of her most iconic. Once again she plays the brat. She had played it for years. And she played it successfully until All About Eve, after which she played it unsuccessfully, because, once over forty, it became barbaric, immature, and neurotic. After Eve, Bette Davis ceased to be an actress and became a persona, which is to say she became a statue in a public park forty years premature to her death.

But here she is giving vent to what all of us, males and females, only wish we could give vent to –– the suppressed life we’ve had to sit on, now released, fuelled, nasty or not, with the rage of our resentment at having had to sit on it so long.

This is John Huston’s second picture, and it is very well told. Ernest Haller who filmed Gone With The Wind makes beautiful light arrangements, and Ed Koch who will write Casablanca does a sound and economical script, particularly since the Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Ellen Glasgow it comes from hinges on the Davis character’s attempt to incriminate a negro boy for a crime she herself committed. In a memorable jailhouse scene, Davis attempts to cajole and manipulate this boy to confess to it – a scene she plays well, as does the boy. Davis had found the actor, Ernest Anderson, as a waiter in the Warner’s commissary, saw his quality, and got Huston to use him; Anderson went on to have a long acting career. The handling of the negro truth has a moving first-time ever quality that rings true still.

His mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, and it is interesting to see her well-matched in a key scene opposite Olivia de Havilland. Both women were up for supporting Oscars for Gone With The Wind, and when McDaniel won it, de Havilland fled to the ladies’ room in a weeping rage. A friend shook her and said to her that McDaniel would never have another chance to win an Oscar and that de Havilland would, and it brought her to her senses. And here the two women are, face to face, filmed by Ernest Haller once again, while a score by that same Max Steiner strums by.

Olivia de Havilland gives a subtle, strong reading of Davis’ sister. Never in competition with Davis, because her instrument is essentially lyrical, the small telling registrations of her face bring this good woman to life fully. She’s wonderful to watch. She presents a formidable antagonist to Davis. It is one of de Havilland’s most fully realized characterizations.

But it is Davis’s film. Her leading men, Dennis Morgan and the penguin actor George Brent form part of a strong supporting cast which includes Lee Patrick as the care-free friend, and Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the parents. But it is Davis’ scenes with Charles Coburn that are exemplary of Davis acting at her best. Davis had more brass than a doorknocker and she and Coburn come alive to one another whenever they are together, because Coburn has brass too. Their incest scene on the couch is one for the books.

Bette Davis played The Brat for years: Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Dark Victory, Mr. Skeffingon, Elizabeth And Essex, The Little Foxes, and this is her quintessential take on it, and not to be missed. The title comes from the last line of a poem of George Meredith from Modern Love, a book inspired by his wife’s running off with another man. In In This Our Life, Bette runs off with another man. She also runs off with the picture.

 
 
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