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Archive for the ‘Directed by Richard Brooks’ Category

Blackboard Jungle

21 Apr

Blackboard Jungle directed by Richard Brooks. Drama. 101 minutes Black and White. 1955.
★★★
The Story: A teacher just starting out in his profession faces a rude and dangerous classroom of delinquents and eventually wins their favor.
~
The idea is ridiculous. Students are not in class to bestow favor, as noblesse oblige. And teachers are not there to win favor. Swimming pools are for swimming and schools are for schooling, and everyone who goes to either place knows that. You don’t hold beer parties in church.

This is to say that the film is forced. And the part that’s forced is the cast playing the delinquents. Most of them are a bit old for the parts. But that doesn’t matter so much as that none of the actors see their characters from the characters point of view. This allows them to drift into caricature, and what we see is a bouquet of gutter roses, ala West Side Story.

Exception must be made for Vic Morrow who Methods his character into a maniac. He is never a gutter rose. He is always a stinker. This doesn’t mean one buys his interpretation as real.

Sidney Poitier aged 28 plays the one borderline kid who is 17. This one believes, partly because decency is inherent in Poitier, and partly because, unlike any of the others, he had already played leading roles in several films and knew certain pitfalls, and partly because of his confidence, and partly because his shoulder bones show under his t-shirts because he is so skinny.

He is the only kid whose performance one buys. Oh, it’s nice to see Rafael Campos, still a teenager; he’s lovely in his big scene. But the film belongs to Glenn Ford who apparently can act anything thrown at him. His commitment, balance, focus, and drive in each of the varied scenes casts aside the inauthenticity he is surrounded with. Fortunately he is virtually in every scene. The great Louis Calhern plays the most tired and cynical of these vocational high school teachers; one always sits back in one’s chair in confidence Calhern will give satisfaction, and he does.

Richard Brooks was not a director/writer of finesse, and this is as good an example of his work as any. When the picture came out it caused riots and a scandal, but that was because of the first rock-and-roll sound track in a film, and “Rock Around The Clock” became a million seller in its day. The film made a fortune.

The work of Poitier, Ford, and Calhern is not dated, but the film is long past its shelf-life. I wonder if a film has ever been made about difficult teenagers, as themselves, not as caused by environment or prejudice, but as themselves, as individuals. I have not heard of it. Such kids are called juvenile delinquents, but neither part of that term is helpful; it finishes them off. I’d like to see a film about their seed and core. Their action in their age.

 

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

22 Mar

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – directed by Richard Brooks. Melodrama. The scion of a huge Southern estate is to die, and everyone is out for the take. 108 minutes Color 1958.
★★★
This rattles along like an old flivver, threatening to fall apart any minute. Individual scenes are well played, such as the long ones between Brick and Big Daddy, but the whole lacks a coherence of style and approach directorially and narratively.

One of the great dampeners on the piece is the art direction, which smells freshly painted and pretty in pastels; it sabotages the play’s underlying forces. It does, however, provide a light background for the filming of Elizabeth Taylor by the great William Daniels. Daniels filmed most of Garbo’s films from the silent era on, and you might say his skill at doing this made her the goddess we know her to be. His camera was in love with a beautiful woman. You can just see the stage light up a certain way as it waits to film Elizabeth Taylor. It’s lovely to behold, but, of course, what does it have to do with this material?

Taylor plays a woman whose husband will have nothing to do with her. Now, Elizabeth Taylor made four films of Tennessee Williams’ plays, but as an actress she is not really at home in this milieu; her Southern accent is put-on; she hasn’t studied it to a particularity. She is now early in that stage of her work when she was taking on heavy dramatic roles; such parts were not really suited to her instinct or her gifts. She had been mightily impressed by Montgomery Clift’s acting when she was 18, but she had never troubled to study with Stella Adler or anyone else. Her roles tended to parallel her life as a heavy in her personal life. Cat is an early chapter of her downward spiral as an artist.

You also might question her casting in a role which Barbara Bel Geddes played on Broadway in the Elia Kazan production. By which I mean, isn’t Taylor too beautiful to play Maggie? Too beautiful to have vulnerability as a woman? As a human? —  yes — but as a woman?

It’s true that she does have a number of gentle moments, when our hearts go out to her. But this version, of the many versions of this play, stumbles from its casting. Madeleine Sherwood plays it just as she played it on the Broadway stage and at just the same pitch, which over-carries in a film. Jack Carson quietens her somewhat, and is excellent as Gooper, touching, real, and funny. Burl Ives is much better in the film than he was in the Broadway production, where Kazan simply stationed him stage center and let him hold forth. He brings the required ruralness to the part. Paul Newman is beautiful, reserved, and fine, but he has nothing inherent in him of the South. (Put a hot-blood like Tommy Lee Jones in the part and you’ve got something.) But the Australian actress Judith Anderson has no business at all as Big Mama. Her essential energy is off; indeed she fades out into Mrs Danvers from time to time. She loosens the movie from its moorings. And Big Mama is the play’s moorings, because she is the only one who cares a rap about anyone.

What would have grounded the piece would have been to have Mildred Dunnock who played Big Mama on the stage do it here. She was from the South, she had specificity of the accent, she was coarse, and vulgar. She would have given the production a foundation in the region and the style and the heart which it lacks.

I feel about the film what I felt about the original stage productions and all productions since. The play is cold. It has no heart. There is no one in it and nothing about it to care about at all.

 

The Last Time I Saw Paris

23 Mar

The Last Time I Saw Paris — Directed by Richard Brooks — Drama. A novelist returns to Paris on a mission and relives the beauty and sorrow of his marriage after World War II.  90 minutes Color 1954.

* * * * *

At this moment, Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful woman in the world. She is 22 perhaps, and she is like a ripe plum. Helen Rose, who dressed her, has put her only in primary colors, no prints, realizing that nothing must compete with our rapt attention to her face. I am 77 and grew up with this girl, and with the history of her face as she grew from a child in a Lassie movie, through a horse-loving teenager in National Velvet, through her first kiss, and her teenage marriage, and the birth of her children. What was that face becoming? For the most part, she never played a woman who had a job, and in adult roles she largely played leading women to men who were the focus of the story, as here, with Van Johnson. However, the focus of the story is not always the focus of the camera or the focus of our attention. Here the focus of the camera, whenever it can be, is on her, and besides one cannot one’s eyes off her. Look at the great black and white domino party scene where she is profile. Her profile is fabulous. That is to say, it is the profile of a face which writes the story of the culture of its time. This history has to do with our attention to The Visible Ideal in whatever form it may take. Since, in her face, that ideal exists, our gaze upon it includes the questions: is it immortal, how will it change, what will become of it? There is a spiritual force in such beauty; at least there is in the beholder of it. All culture is the arrival of spiritual force in the plastic forms of art, and this face possessed it, especially in the 1950s when culture in America was at a despicable low. In the place of that mediocrity was this face. But it is not the face alone that is riveting and important, for she is an actress playing a part, and such she must bring into her craft the fabric of her nature. She is that rare thing, a great romantic actress. So what we see is that she is so loving and in such pain about that love; that she is quietly witty and forgiving. Her equipment includes a Voice With Money In It, as Fitzgerald described Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Indeed all these qualities make her the perfect Fitzgerald heroine, and Fitzgerald wrote Babylon Revisited upon which this movie is based, and he also wrote a famous screenplay of it, on which this film may be based, for it certainly has beautiful dialogue, in scene after scene, all played exquisitely by Elizabeth Taylor. Van Johnson has a line in the sardonic and the vexed which does not really carry us into his heart. But Walter Pidgeon is enchanting as the bon viveur father, and Donna Reed is usefully stiff-necked as Taylor’s older, mean sister. This is an essential film for American cultural history. Her beauty and her talent in romantic roles cut through everything at that time. Do not miss it. It is the last romantic role Elizabeth Taylor played and the greatest.

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