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Archive for the ‘MUSIC’ Category

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.

 

Whiplash

20 Mar

Whiplash – written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Drama. 106 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: At a New York jazz conservatory, a young drummer is brutalized by his teacher.

~

Whiplash is an essay on teaching. J.K. Simmons is to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it – although it is not a supporting role. It is a leading role as by nature of the material it has to be.

However, setting that aside as a failed fait accomplis, the story succeeds in presenting a tyrannical bastard whose uses his position as teacher to run riot over those in his care. The story fails on another ground, however, which is to make plain that the teacher he plays is insane, wrong, and lying. And that there there is no advantage whatsoever to endure or outlast his tutelage.

J.K. Simmons plays the teacher who bullies and slaps his pupils. They are all males and he revels in homophobic put-downs of them. He calls them faggots and cocksuckers never calls them anything else. “Okay, ladies,” is his greeting when walking in the rehearsal room door. He is capricious in his treatment of them and widely contemptuous. His encouragement of them is to shame them.

We have had enough of this sort of teacher in our lives. The lie they tell us is that they are behaving vilely toward us for our own ultimate betterment, that we may exceed ourselves in high art. They are reducing us to tears and fear and zero self-esteem, they say, so we may surpass ourselves and become names to be reckoned with. It is a complete lie. What they are doing is seeking dominion, and that is all they are seeking.

We have had enough of such teachers. We have enough of such teachers as Madame Sousatzka. We have had enough of the tyrannical behavior of Sanford Meisner, the overbearing queening of Stella Adler, and the brutality of Kim Stanley when she taught in New Mexico. Their purpose was not to liberate their students to the full potential of their talent but to reduce them to an audience merely – an audience which they as actors no longer or never did command.

It is exactly the same as the motive of Adolf Hitler, whom as we know had no strategy whatsoever for what he was doing in Europe, save to dominate it. We see it in his speeches and his acts. And they succeeded. To what good end? None.

Likewise, in Whiplash the virtuoso performance that we see is not that of the drummer who is badgered and nearly killed by the demand for subservience. The virtuoso performance is that of the actor playing the teacher. His domination dominates the show and creates it.

And it must be understood that such a performance can only take place when the actor is given the chance by the script to reduce another human being to ashes. As with Hitler, so with Professor Fletcher. So with Bette Davis in her heyday at Warners. Not only in seizing dominion over the set, but in her actual life, and not only there, but in her big virtuoso fliteing scenes when she tells some male character off in a movie – scenes written especially for her – and thrilling to behold. Thrilling to imagine that we ourselves might tell someone off just like that. Wow.

Better not.

Egomania run rampant. Humans playing God.

Not a good idea.

Not good for whom?

In Whiplash we are not asked to examine the question what effect this might have on the person doing it. The life and art of Bette Davis disappear for the last forty years of her life. What about that? No. What we are asked to behold is the effect on the student. This the film makes clear for a while, but finally does not make clear.

Does the student ultimately benefit by his teacher’s brutality? Or not.

The young man is cast and played admirably by Miles Teller.

His lesson, from all this though, is what?

Does he triumph at the end because he has been browbeaten? We don’t know. All we know is that he takes over the orchestra itself by starting up and setting the beat for a Carnegie Hall number as Professor Fletcher is announcing it to the audience. But what is the action here?

Is the drummer proving the teaching method to have been fortifying to him?

Or is the drummer acting separately, independently, and apart from it?

All we see is the action by the drummer, which is to seize dominion from the conductor, Fletcher. That’s all we see.

So is he doing to Fletcher what Fletcher was doing to him? Is he beating Fletcher up in public?

Of course, the drummer seizes power over the moment, the band, the conductor on anger. And he plays the drums on anger.

For only anger can do this. Only anger can fuel a display of dominance. Only anger can Hitlerize over the pupils of a Sanford Meisner or a Terrence Fletcher or a nation.

The pretense on display before us, which is that Fletcher then recognizes the drummer’s sovereignty and partners up with it, is bushwah. Dominators do not twin. They are solo acts. As the drummer is a solo act.

Is the drummer’s solo also toxic? Also a feat of egomania? An act of ruthless self-indulgence?

Is human anger always toxic?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.

It is useful to set this rendition of teaching next to another presently before us, that of Kevin Costner in Mcfarland USA.

Yes, the coach there makes the boys exert themselves beyond their current level. Of course he does. That is what coaches do. And the coach he plays has been demoted to the outpost of Mcfarland because of an out-of-control anger.

But that is not what we see in the coach now. What we see in him now is steady application of long-distance running drill fueled by encouragement – not by demeaning the team, not by calling the boys faggots, not by reducing them to humiliation, tears, and fear. The actual dominion in that Chicano community is that of the mother serving Costner his food in no uncertain terms. The dominion is family. The moral of the story is that the race is won – in the Carnegie Hall of cross-country running – not by the best runner but the worst runner of all. And everyone benefits.

When pianist Sviatoslav Richter hitchhikes to Moscow at age 19, he has been playing the piano all his life but has never had a piano lesson in his life, but he goes there to play for Russia’s greatest teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. Richter auditions. Neuhaus whispers into the ear of the person next to him. “I believe he is a genius.” Richter stays in Moscow and, being without funds, camps out for a good while by sleeping in Neuhaus’s apartment under the piano. And Neuhaus kindly teaches him the few things Richter has yet to learn. He turns out to be the greatest classical pianist of the last half of the 20th Century.

That is a story about how a great teacher deals with talent. A hard home, under a piano, yes, but not a hostile home.

But the great fact about teachers of art, cruel or kind, is that they presently learn that not one student in a million has any talent at all. What students get out such schooling is an immersion in a sport or art which will enrich their lives forever – and better their lives too for the effort and the victory of the effort. And what the students will learn of craft may indeed aid them to become but to become no other than competent amateurs, devoted aficionados.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Not a thing. But to listen to J.K. Simmons as Fletcher talk about his great purpose in battering his students, to hear him compare himself to someone who by throwing a brass cymbal at a player turned that player into Charlie Parker is be asked to swallow a consummate arrogance as a consummate kindness. It is not a kindness. It is the reverse. And it has nothing to do with teaching. It is the reverse.

J.K. Simmons is the virtuoso artist here, not the young man who plays the drums. For Simmons is given the anger scenes to play, and, even when they are not anger scenes, anger is what the character desires to run and will contrive to run given any cue whatsoever. Rage is the touchiness of an absolutist agenda. Rage is the frustration of an inflexible expectation.

Almost all of this the script delivers to us and so does Simmons. All save the writing, playing, and direction of the final lie in the jazz dive toward the end, where Fletcher reveals his holy strategy to the drummer.

This is not played as the hollow hyperbole of an absolutist agenda that it is. It is played as the Greatest Ideal In All Teaching – just as all absolutist agendas are presented. Granted Simmons as an actor must believe Fletcher’s doxology is true, good, and necessary. But what the player and the script and the director have not given us is the empty inhumanity in Fletcher his behavior is meant to supply or disguise. Fletcher weeps at the death of a talented musician he once taught. What he tells his band is that the young man died in a car accident; what actually happened was the young musician committed suicide. Brought on by Fletcher’s hounding of him. What a phony!

We are offered a good many things by this film, however. And it is well worth seeing. Not because of the violence Simmons is able to body forth so well – after all he is a first class actor ripened up by Oz for such roles. Rather it is also well worth seeing for the handling of the material itself in its display before us, the pulse of big band jazz playing, the mis-en-scene of a music school, with its dank corridors and uninviting ambiance – enough of a counterpoint to encouragement without Fletcher’s tyranny present.

Miles Teller is a lovely actor as the drummer. And in his hands and those of the cinemaphotographer we get a full experience of the dynamics of drumming itself.

The movie also tells its larger story well and honestly. It won Academy Awards For Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing. And, of course, Best Supporting Actor. You will not disagree.

 

 
 

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.

 

Broadway Melody Of 1940

19 Jul

Broadway Melody Of 1940 –– directed by Norman Taurog. Backstage Musical. 102 minutes, Black and White, 1939.

★★★★★

What is the critic’s job? Praise or blame? Curse or bless? Give credit or give frowns?

What difference does all that make now?

Perhaps it’s just to notice what is there.

So, in the case of a critic really interested in the craft of acting, when looking at a performer such as Eleanor Powell, what does one do?

Watching her dance is like watching a songbird sing. She does it with a technical zest that has miles to spare. Nothing that even approaches difficulty is what we appreciate while watching her perform the impossible. She would rather dance than eat. She is dance compulsion.

As an actor, is she in line with her costars, George Murphy, Fred Astaire and Ian Hunter?

You bet she is. And she is always in the mode of performance which light musical comedy prescribes, particularly as she is involved with a master of it, director Norman Taurog.

A friend of mine said to me today that Fred Astaire was a terrible actor. So wooden. I suppose that’s a common view, I don’t know, but if you think so, then give yourself the chance to be disabused and watch him, not as he is “acting,” but as he listening to someone else. Watch him in the best-friend relations he creates with George Murphy. What I see in Astaire here is a man virile, alive, and full of fun. He also had the most beautiful eyes.

Astaire was Mr. Finesse. If you imagine he is a bad actor, that may be because there is hardly a moment when he is not dancing when acting, such that his animation might tend to side-line his words and make them, because they are irrelevant, sound forced. But just take a look at what he does after the fatal telephone call, when he blurts out something he ought not to have.

Was Frank Morgan a good actor?  Here he is a staple of the absent-minded old hoodwinker, such as we just saw him be in The Wizard Of Oz. Can you figure out exactly what he is doing? Without imitating him, which would perhaps not be hard, can you do your own version of what he is up to?

Well, perhaps I sound scolding. See it, for the fun of it, as I just did. Astaire has a phenomenal solo – imaginative, acute, down to earth.

Eleanor Powell – she of the pleated skirts and pneumatic smile – dances on point here in a hideously costumed ballet, and she is not at her best. Alas, she was also an acrobatic dancer, which is dance at its most foolish because most contorted to amaze. But, when she and Astaire dance, they have done the choreography together, and she is just grand – never more so than the finale of Begin The Beguine (the whole score is by Cole Porter) – in what is the most astonishing, fun, celebrated and electrifying tapdance duet ever filmed.

Don’t miss it.

 

Powaqqatsi

21 Mar

Powaqqatsi – directed by Godfrey Reggio. Documentary Coffee Table Movie. Striking moving pictures of folks around the world. 99 minutes Color 1988.
★★
Tempted to give this one star, I give it two because the films of people at their work and at their play and at their dance are ravishing. So ravishing are they that their color supplants their content. And two stars because we are allowed to dwell upon them at length, which is rare these days when film-makers shoot as though the skies did not exists but  mayflies in them only.

But this film is a ghastly mess. And the mess is caused not just by Philip Glass’s score, which imposes itself and intrudes itself and pounds itself down on every frame, and is too over-wrought to allow us to keep our patience at all at all. Highly orchestrated, and, of course, formal to a degree, it slathers itself like bleak red paint over everything.

The mess is also and principally caused by the bigotry of the director’s attempt on our consciousnesses to set us up as suckers for its liberal message. We are supposed to feel compassion and guilt, I suppose, for the workers of this world in the various nations in which they wonderfully appear, and at the same time to feel that industry is the enemy, that industry is sucking the life-blood from us all.

Well, I am an old-fashioned liberal, and industry may well be the enemy, but I am so old fashioned a liberal that I do even acknowledge there is such a thing as enemies. And I certainly do not wish to be badgered into that view by a propaganda so gross. Triumph Of The Will slants Hitler up into an exaltation, and this attempts the same for the poor. It is a disgrace that a cause so fine should be shoddied up into an ideology no different in its force and temper than that of the Ku Klux Klan. The energy behind the film is one of ideological dictatorship and it does not matter to me whether that a dictatorship is fascism or liberalism – it is still Dictatorship.

Moreover, one watches the film go by – and it does go by without voice-over – and one is beguiled by the beauty of the humans it shows at the loom of their work. It begins with men covered with mud toiling up a hill in hoards with loads of mineral on their backs, but the men seem so covered in silver and gold by the light the camera has caught that one can only admire the spectacle and wonder how it is they all engage in it. And so it goes, until visions of industry appear, or almost appear, but the filmer prejudices our eye with slurred shots if it, shots in water, shots that make industry out to be something we are not to look at for clear contemplation but only in a certain way.

Big Brother has made this movie in a way that it did not need to be made. It is evidently part of a trio of Quatsi films. The moving pictures are so beautiful that I want to see more of them. If only the film-maker had let me make up my own mind about what I was watching, I should run to rent them. As it is I shall do so, but I am leery. His mentality is that of the most boring, the fundamentalist, the most absolutist of sermons.

 
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Posted in DOCUMENTARY, MUSICAL SCORE BY: Philip Glass

 

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.

 

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.

 

The Quiet Man

11 Nov

The Quiet Man –– directed by John Ford. Romantic Drama. An American returns to Ireland, falls for a beautiful woman and must fight to make her his own. 129 minutes. Color 1952.

★★★★★

We get three fairy tales for the price of one. To exploit them, John Ford loads us with his usual bunk. John Wayne plays the man Ford wished he were, and the movie gives us the Ireland Ford wished it were: instead of the starvation, dirt, and violence of it that drew his own forebears to Maine, we get The Emerald Isle and Ford’s St. Patrick’s Day parade of all its clichés before our eyes. Swathed in “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Danny Boy,” and “The Kerry Dancers,” we drown in the sentimental blarney of The Auld Sod – with one exception: the film was actually taken in Ireland itself and with actors who actually were Irish. For it is of such a green and such a melodiousness of tongue that one’s worst expectations are swerved by.

That’s the Ford’s first fairy tale, sentimental fantasy of Ireland that Shaw, Wilde, O’Casey, and Joyce deplored.

The second one is a real fairy tale, but one in modern dress, and that’s the one in which a wounded prince enters a kingdom and wins the heart of the princess. Naturally, the princess has a wild boar father-figure who won’t let her go. And the princess has a wound as well, which is that she is the immediate relation of that wild boar, and is one too. So it is a taming of the shrew story, to boot.

The fairy tale immediately before us, however, is the fairy tale of a Hollywood movie, which has its own regulations and sentimental holdovers, played out by actors of heroic mold and legendary beauty, force, and charm. And for this purpose Ford has placed his alumni before us. We have Barry Fitzgerald who takes us a long way into believing that alcoholism is cute. Mildred Natwick plays the spinster Goddess of the town. Ward Bond, as the local priest who actually narrates the fairy tale, and actually gives sporadic evidence of what a good actor he really was. George Ford plays the town sage. And Victor McGlaglen plays the dumb galoot Boar-King whom the prince must kill.

What draws us to this gallumfry? It is the fulfillment of the crazy idea that there actually could be before us a romance played by John Wayne in which, when he kissed the girl, we did not desire to crawl under our theatre seats in horror. He is never less masculine than when kissing. But, in fact, he and Maureen O’Hara seem to have something happening between them. He has wonderfully acted scene, for instance, in which a thunderstorm arises to symbolize the wild sexual passion of O’Hara – but instead of taking advantage of her, he takes responsibility for her. He’s just great. And their kisses are shameless and fun.

They are two handsome people to be sure. Maureen O’Hara, as usual, is called upon to play the fiery red-head, but she does not fall, as she often did, into the trap of being not just high spirited but bad tempered. This is partly due to the fact that anything you could scream at the moronic Victor McGlaglen sounds like a lullaby compared to what he really deserves.

She also comes up against and matches the force of John Wayne’s patience, which is a force of nature never to be overthrown. He also carries the fastest grin in the west. It’s fast because it’s perpetually internal. It presents him before us with a ready philosophy of life, one which is quizzical, kind, long suffering, and gentlemanly. His sense of humor and his patience are one single thing. He is sedate of movement and of speech, a peaceable person, slow to punch. He is an actor who does not fare well with longer than three sentences in a row. So he stands for a taciturnity and much else that we might admire in ourselves did we possess it to any degree worth taking credit for.

This grin and this patience and this deliberation of movement move this actor into scenes like a ploughshare – which is to say they give him genuine authority. And, while Wayne may be biased and stubborn, he is no fool. He weighs matters well. He was a quick study as an actor – and what did he do between takes? He played chess. From all this we made him a great movie star, and no one was more justified to be one.

So he and O’Hara well satisfy our curiosity and our desire for their romantic connection. They are neither of them in their first youth when they play this, but Wayne still has his fine figure and O’Hara is sufficiently messy to convince you that they are not too long in the tooth for such romance, but just at the right age after all.

The movie is less offensive than other Ford pieces. One looks for Ford’s famous eye, but that search is challenged by the brilliant green of the countryside and by the authenticity of the village itself, which was built on the Republic lot and the old Gene Autry ranch in the hills. You believe they are all in one place.

Ford blocks the movie like a musical without songs. His sense of comedy is from the silent film, and does not work in sound, for it is stagy, always forcing us to find it funny, but we never do. His notion that affection between males emerges only after fisticuffs is at once homoerotic and ridiculous. His sense of small group shots gives us his infallible tableaux, although his sense of crowds is non-existent, for he handles them as just a gaggle of people waiting to react when the stars ride by. And he uses eager Irish town folk as extras, a strategy by a director that invariably produces sudden shyness in them. But the narrative is brisk, and the fairy tale of the prince and princess moves along at a fine trot.

Wayne is set an impossible task –– to get the gold from the dragon, Victor McGlaglen. McGlaglen’s hold on it is as crazy as O’Hara’s refusal to relinquish her dream for it. So there are two crazinesses whose stories must be beaten to death here, since logic will not make them sound. It ends in a donnybrook, of course. Classically comedy ends with a marriage and a dance, but here the dance is between two males, which is odd, don’t you think?

Anyhow, as usual with Ford, whatever he does badly he does well, and we ourselves complete the film by putting down the greeting card it takes the form of as the expression of a black-hearted man pretending to a heart of gold, and our forgiveness that it is human after all for him to have wished that he had one.

 

Giant

24 Sep

Giant –­ produced and directed by George Stevens. An upper class girl from Maryland moves to her Texas husband’s huge ranch and confronts his way of thinking. 3 hours and 21 minutes Color 1956.
★★★★
Two elements destroy the picture. The first is that Rock Hudson as Jordan Benedict is miscast. He has no heterosexual energy coming off of him and the role needs it. Internally Hudson is limp, both in his craft and as a male temperament. Although externally he has presence and looks, if you like them, and he is well directed scene by scene, which carries him through the picture, and although he does as good a job as he can, there is nothing sexual coming off of him towards Elizabeth Taylor who plays his mate, and insofar as the picture is the story of this relationship, the picture fails. Hudson in real life had a sense of humor but as an actor, seems to have none, which is why Tony Randall was brought into his comedies. This means that he is never able to see his character as funny, peculiar, ridiculous, to be taken with a grain of salt at certain times, the sort of humorous self-knowledge that Cagney brought to a character. Hudson’s Benedict has no point-of-view, only a bias. All this means that the part remains a role and never becomes a character. And it also means that the relationship must be created by Taylor alone, who, of course, has considerable humor, a mischief, a sense of fun, a knowing flirtatiousness, a firmness of mind and principle, generosity, will, kindness, grace, a confident bad temper, and tact. Although the most beautiful woman in the world, as she does in other films, she also goes after her man and lands him. She loves animals and feels strongly for the underdog. She has both the allure of sexual gusto and motherliness to offer. She has all this naturally, which is to say she has everything to make her part work, and she is simply perfectly endowed for the role. And she has one other gift, for she is that rare thing, a true Romantic Actress. (Think of young Vivien Leigh as another.) She is so good in the part, she forces you simply by loyalty to her vantage point on him to believe in the marriage itself. But in fact because of Hudson it is hollow. And, at any rate, it is not her story that is being told, but his. He is one whose challenge it is to change both in his marriage and in his life. Much as we admire the Taylor character throughout, our focus must be on that. The change involves Hudson’s character eventually coming to accept three stranger Mexican-Americans as human beings. Until that becomes evident, we are treated to what may be the best performance Elizabeth Taylor ever gave on film – by which I mean the performance most ideally, fully, and completely suited to her instrument as a mature actress – just watch her carefully in the doorway scene at the marriage of her sister. Of course, the difficulty with watching Elizabeth Taylor as an actress is that her beauty is a spotlight so blinding that it hypnotizes us out of realizing what a marvelous actress she is. In both halves of the movie, it is clear at every moment that the picture is unthinkable without her. For if you think of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly who were both considered ahead of her for the role, you can see that they could never have played the second half of the film, because they would not know how to allow Leslie be older. Maturity was never their line. It is also easy to overlook Elizabeth Taylor’s talent because she is physically so composed. She is not an eccentric actress, she is a concentric one, so much so that when she gestures she appears to gesticulate. In her stillness of composure and her certainty of her effects, it is also easy to overlook her talent when placed against actors trained by the Method into physical volatility, such as Carroll Baker and James Dean, who are always moving, stewing, twitching, fingering a prop. In this way Taylor herself is marginalized. They are wonderful actors. Baker, who was older than Taylor who played her mother, is unerring as a defiant, saucy teen-ager. But in the second half, one senses one is being presented with the structure of a false front and that we have gone around the back of the facade of Riata itself and are looking at the bare framework of a put-up-job. The script becomes too spare and obvious, defying Stevens’ renown for letting the audience rise to the occasion and do its own work. Mercedes McCambridge with her voice like an automobile accident plays Hudson’s jealous sister, and dies early, but generally everyone but Hudson is marginalized. All the Mexican-Americans are wallpapered. Other actors emerge from adjoining rooms, say a few lines, and return. Chill Wills is missing a scene between himself and Jane Withers, who creates a wonderful arc from a shy plump girl with a crush on Hudson to a loud Texan matron taking over a ballroom by shaking her white fox fur stole. She is also never given a scene. The wife of Dennis Hopper is sadly miscast and sets one’s teeth on edge by being allowed to play a Goodness Madonna, and Sal Mineo appears without our opportunity to understand him as a character at all, and the same is certainly true of Alexander Scourby who plays his Mexican-American grandfather. All these remain unexamined, unexamined not in terms of exposition (which they do not need) but in dramatic scenes sufficient to give them and the story life. Yes, in the second half, it becomes grievously apparent that there is a problem with the script, when even the character of Jett Rink is marginalized, given insufficient screen time. In the first half, Jett Rink, played to a fair-thee-well by James Dean, gives you a picture of the character work he might have done had he lived. For he ruthlessly creates a piece of prison-trash – mean-spirited, resentful, disloyal, cowardly, vicious, and whining. But Dean’s performance, in the second half of the film, as he knew, does not stand up. A bum in vicuna, a dull, sly, nasty drunk, consumed with self-pity in a ceaseless tirade against those who have more than he has and whom he claims have wronged him and wrested him of his rights, he is just the same as he was when he was 20. So he is also best in his pre-intermission scenes, particularly because the make-up is bad after that, when the three stars simply add radiator paint to their hair to be fifty. Actually as the younger Jett, he seems older than the older one, but what Dean needed was not to repeat his physicalization of the younger Jett, which he does, but to give the character polish, take away the slouch, the slyness, the shy little boy, the weasel. After all, we know this is a man bent on self-improvement, on losing his Texas accent, on night-school. Dean needed to give Tycoon Rink a suavity with no loopholes but one, his continued envy of the Benedict family. Anyhow, Dean didn’t think of it and maybe couldn’t have played it if he had thought of it. So his babyish playing of the scene between him and Carroll Baker doesn’t quite come alive on his part, for he plays it as a toddler tugging a female’s skirts to be cute. So, as with the others, the Dean character is set aside as well. For after the intermission, the film’s aesthetic collapses into polemic. This means that each character now Stands For Something, that Something being A Predictable Outcome. The dialogue exchanges become formulaic to that end. They lack personal flavor, and the comedy with which the second half begins doesn’t play, well directed filmicly as it is, because, although Taylor can remain in the moment with these scenes and make her character fully funny, Hudson does not have the talent to give the character the intelligence that would have made him attractive to us or the humor that would have made him see Jordan Benedict as maybe dumb or even silly in such scenes. Nothing really works richly, even though pretty much everything is convincingly played. The idea that Jordan Junior, played by Dennis Hopper, would have sought out Jett Rink in the middle of a banquet to sock him in the kisser for a racial insult to his wife is preposterous. He wouldn’t have done it there. He wouldn’t have done it at all, because he had never met Jett Rink and would have known him only in terms of his father’s prejudice against him. He also would have known not to let his wife go to the hotel beauty parlor to begin with, since by this time, he and she would have expected this prejudice to exist in public places in Texas. This leads to a fistfight in a wine cellar between Rink, who is flaccidly drunk, and Hudson, who is too flaccid inside himself to hit Rink, who in any case is too small for his weight class. The whole thing ends up with a theatrical gesticulation of some wine shelves being knocked over. Fistfights and failed comedy and polemic is the deterioration of the second half of Giant. Everything is sidelined for a preachment. And, yet, for a three-and-a-half hour film to come out at the end to be a polemic against prejudice is meritorious and had a great effect at the time, for sure. That it should be a prejudice against Mexican-Americans gave it, at the time, a force greater because more general than a specific prejudice against Jews or Negros. But I don’t think it is honest. For what Stevens felt in Dachau in 1945 when he saw and filmed the corpses was not “prejudice.” What he felt was horror. But the horror of prejudice we are never given in Giant. We see only a man, Benedict, being prejudiced. We never see prejudice from the vantage point of those who are victims of it. We never see inside a single Mexican-American. We never see the bodies pile up in their souls as they are dismissed and marginalized. For, of course, Stevens himself has marginalized them in his film. Even the fight in the café is not about the three old helpless Mexican people. It is only and always about Benedict, and even Taylor’s coda about him being her hero, and that it being all he ever really wanted to be, has nothing to do with prejudice. Taylor is so marvelous doing the scene that you cannot but go for it, but the final image of the black calf and the white sheep and the dark toddler and the gringo toddler in the floor crib is so crude as to be self-cancelling. Yes, you believe Taylor’s maturity in marriage, and her evenhandedness. It’s in the tone of her voice because it’s in her nature. But in Giant we are told to concern ourselves not where tolerance is, but where it is not, and its theme peters out in the over-broad gesture of it script, becomes lost in spaciousness, breadth of land, spectacle of vulgar riches, and the length of the film itself. Apart from Carroll Baker, no one but Taylor seems absolutely right for their roles – and the film is not about her. She is essentially a leading woman here, in a Myrna Loy part. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score lumbers along as the film lumbers along. William Mellor filmed it beautifully. But it is as empty as the ‘50s. It seems that Stevens has abandoned depth of character and dramatic situation for vastness of morality play on the one hand and for the minutiae of preparation before and the minutiae of editing afterwards on the other. There is not enough filling in the sandwich. It is as though actors and drama were now mere tools of his vision. But actors are not tools. Indeed, they are not even movie stars, even when they are Elizabeth Taylor. No. Inside a movie they are characters, or they’d better be and they’d better be kept so. The film was enormously popular, the top grossing film in the history of Warner Brothers. The public loved it and still does. The ‘50s were a spendthrift age, an age of tasteless excess. Giant is the fins on its Cadillac. But Stevens did direct it. So it also is a Cadillac.

 

Shane

20 Sep

Shane –– produced and directed by George Stevens. Western. A stranger pitches in to help some homesteaders in Montana and finds himself caught up in their struggle and destiny. 118 minutes Color.

★★★★★

Sam Peckenpaugh said it is the greatest Western ever made, and it probably is, for this reason: Westerns both begin and end with it. For it is a movie about how we see Westerns. It is told through the eyes of an eight year-old boy. He sees the Western hero as we as all have seen him and desired him to be, gone to Westerns to contemplate, desire, and idolize him. What’s important is that the boy is eight; he is at that stage where his pheromones are open to drink in what he must become as a male, what is inherent in the gender, where the gentleness of a gentleman is housed and demonstrated. As Alan Ladd plays it, he is nothing if not a gentleman. For him guns are the last resort, and Stevens, who had seen World War II and its guns and the criminality that war is, uses a cannon when guns go off to shock the audience into the knowledge that a gun is dreadful. And by hooking Elijah Cook Junior up to a jerk line that knocks him backward off his feet violently when he is shot, shows that when a man is shot a life dies in a crude, sudden, ugly way. Stevens sets it under the mountains of The Grand Tetons, which he films with a telephoto lens to bring them forward as cold, distant Gods sitting in their tremendous chairs watching the little doings down there in the vast valley, and he mats his adversarial faces as beautiful against a scripture of clouds scrawling across a huge blue sky. Never in a film has spectacle and intimacy been so strikingly joined. Jean Arthur brings to a close her great film career playing the pacifist wife laboring in dirty shirts to make a home for her husband and boy. She is so naturally plaintive that you cannot but respect her decency in that and in her attraction to Shane himself. Van Heflin as her homesteader husband fills the role with full value. He is one of those actors, like Charles Coburn, who satisfies a part by never slacking and never overloading it. He is a lesson to all actors of how modesty of technique can achieve the role of moral authority that a certain role requires. When Shane takes down Jack Palance (in his first screen role), it is Brandon DeWilde as the boy spying agog who stands in for us as we have always been spying, adoring the Western hero in films, prizing the gun-skills, justifying the slaughter because of its elegance and daring and aim. We have watched Westerns all our lives as DeWilde’s Joey watches Shane. We call ourselves into question because of the habit. How real are these heroes in us and to us? Westerns changed forever after Shane. Cowboys could no longer sing once this song was sung.

 

A Place In The Sun

13 Sep

A Place In The Sun – produced and directed by George Stevens. Romantic Tragedy. A young man aspires to love and success and is waylaid. 122 minutes Black and White 1951.

★★★★★

Seeing Elizabeth Taylor aged 17, as Angela Vickers sail into a mansion, you know she belongs there and you want to belong there with her. For Angela Vickers takes it all for granted. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, she has money in her voice. She has the silver chinks. She has everything and she gives everything, so the film naturally and inevitably slants towards her. Shelly Winters as the working class trull is given the opposite: neither sex appeal nor charm nor sympathy. She is brought into performance from beginning to end like the melted ice cream she serves and seems to be enduring morning sickness from the start. A self-pitying, sulky, nauseous look distorts her visage, a quart bottle of platitudes ready to pour. Washed around by his mother, Anne Revere and the two young women with whom he becomes involved, Montgomery Clift as George Eastman is a piece of driftwood shoved by every eddy. His body is flaccid and stooped. His face stares at us and reveals nothing but the hurt he might feel for a passing dog. His beauty registers as great but uneventful. One can read anything into his beautiful eyes, or nothing. For he cannot seem to summon any temperament. But the story is his, and so one reads, not George, but what happens to him. He stands there while it happens, not a character but a circumstance. His entire story, that is, points to Angela Vickers, as the only visible point of life, and the picture aims at what she promises to us all by her very existence on earth. Eastman is a character fostered by a magnate uncle who recognizes his resourcefulness; nepotism aside, George clearly could have succeeded in business on his own merits. And finding work he can do well and rise by is enhanced by his relations to Angela Vickers who has the sureness of her effect on men to go out for what she wants, as she does from their first big scene. We see her willfulness and her will,. We would call her spoiled, but she isn’t because she’s so kind, so happy to be alive, so generous, so gravely honest, so bright, and above all so loving. All the fun in life is lodged with her, all the beauty, all the romance. And never before or since on the screen have these qualities been so resplendently visible. Our hearts go out not to Clift or Winters, but to this wonderful girl, and to her baffled sadness and the life-long love that like a melody sings through it right to the end and beyond. Taylor’s performance throughout is gloriously right, natural, spontaneous, and her final scene is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever filmed, the finest piece of acting she ever did, and the most lyrical. Indeed, the whole film plays like something sung. It brings into being a beauty wider than either of the two beautiful faces of its leads or their romance. Did he kill her? Is he guilty. The priests says yes, of course. But the film says that the question is irrelevant. For it says that his love was a life experience so great that death is not in competition with it at all. Guilt, death, they are not even the same frame. Life has an inherent celebration in it, despite everything. Revealing this to us makes A Place In The Sun the most deeply life-loving film ever made. And the most beautiful.

 

Objective, Burma!

06 May

Objective, Burma! – directed by Raoul Walsh. Action/Adventure World War II Drama. A company of soldiers after completing its demolition mission must walk two hundred miles through the Burmese jungle while tracked by Japanese intent on killing them. 142 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★★

Nominated for three Oscars, George Amy for editing, Alvah Bessie for writing, and Franz Waxman for the score, any one of them deserved it, but, apart from Raoul Walsh, the key genius in all this is James Wong Howe who filmed it. One of the great film artists, he brings a raw look to every shot, and every shot tells. Particularly in light of the fact that we always believe we are in a jungle in Burma, when, in fact, it was shot at the arboretum in Los Angeles and at a California ranch. The uniforms and equipment are authentic, not props and costumes, and the combat footage is actual footage from the China-Burma-India Theatre. So we get real parachute jumps and actual glider landing operations of that period, with tanks and trucks and troops pouring out of them in Burma, and takeoffs, too, which Howe’s footage and Amy’s editing match perfectly. Again Errol Flynn is Walsh’s star, and, with all the guns going off, and the peril of the jungle, the sweat, the hunger, the polluted water, he plays the leader of the slogging men quietly, modestly. The subtle shift in his eyes as he sees the dismembered bodies of his men is so great a film moment that we never have to see the bodies at all. Of course, while the other men grow beards during the long arduous trek, Flynn’s jaw remains shaved – but at least it is dirty, sweaty, and drawn. Walsh made many war films, and this is one of the most commanding World War II films by anyone. His supporting cast is admirable, with George Tobias as the company clown, Mark Stevens as the rescue pilot who cannot rescue them, Richard Erdman aged 19 playing a 19 year old, Warner Anderson as the young Colonel who must abandon them to their fate, James Brown as a doughty sergeant, William Prince in his first film, Frank Tang marvelous as the translator, and Henry Hull who speechifies his lines grandiosely, alas. (“All right, boys, no Hamlets in the jungle,” Walsh told them, but Hull didn’t listen. He was always that way, though; after all, he’d acted with Barrymore.) If you like action/adventure films, Walsh was the top director in his day of them. This is one of his best.

 

 

Dark Command

22 Apr

Dark Command — directed by Raoul Walsh. Western. All Kansas is saved from the dread Will Cantrell by an illiterate con man. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

★★★★

Shall we consider the matter of John Wayne? Here he is ae. 32, handsome as all get out, slender of hip and tummy, tall in the saddle and looking good there, and with that brow even out-furrowing Gable’s. This director, Raoul Walsh, discovered him in 1930, changed his name from Marion to John and from Morrison to Wayne, and in his early 20s put him, in white buckskins, as the hero of one of the greatest Western ever made, The Big Trail. Now The Big Trail was shot in Cinemascope, or a thirty-years-too-soon wide screen version like it, but movie theatres refused to install the screens, so the film, although popular never remade its nut, and Wayne was relegated to B Western for ten years — until Stagecoach, after which he was an A-list star. Another ten years would go by until Red River when John Ford recognized that Wayne could actually act. But with Dark Command in 1940 he is re-united for the first time since The Big Trail with Walsh, and he is also reunited with Claire Trevor his costar in that hugely popular movie. She plays a lady of property, and Wayne plays the grifter sidekick of George Hayes who runs an itinerate dentistry. Wayne’ voice sidles through the film so unobtrusively that he steals every scene he is in. He really knows his business by this time, and is no longer the callow youth in buckskins. He has not yet become the taxidermied version of himself he sometimes arranged to be later nor has he developed that walk of a pigeon-toed panther. He is an extremely passive actor and a very good one. You can still see how beautiful his mouth is. He is sexy because he is sexually innocent. He’s a young man and a happy actor. Opposite him Walter Pidgeon, of all people, has been brought in to play the sociopath Will Cantrell. In a way it’s smart casting, because no one in town suspects that mousy schoolmaster is the dread raider. However, a vigilante is still not a part Pidgeon can craft, but fortunately the story takes care of him. It’s a role that succeeds by the reputation of what people say about him. His mother is movingly played by Marjorie Main, and Walsh gives full value to her. And the wonderful Claire Trevor, fresh from her success in Stagecoach, plays the mettlesome and sharp society girl who is the love interest of both men, another of Walsh’s terrific independent women. A young Roy Rogers with his beautiful mobile face plays her brother, and it’s fascinating to watch him at this boy-stage, although he is 29. Porter Hall plays the dithering foof who fouls up the denouement beautifully. Watch what happens when an actor simply lets his mouth hang open. Anyhow, it’s Wayne’s movie and an interesting one from the hand of Walsh, who knows exactly how to set up a shot, how to direct scenes of panic and mayhem so you think people are really going to get hurt, and how to ravish you with the sight of midnight horses.

 

 

Gunga Din

12 Apr

Gunga Din — produced and directed by George Stevens. Comic Action Adventure. 117 minutes Color 1939.
★★★★★
George Stevens was 17 when he jumped over the wall of the Hall Roach Studios. What he found on the other side was a Western, Rex, King Of The Wild Horses, and its sequels. As assistant cameraman he went off into the rugged mountains and made up movies, and ever after he said that the Western was his preferred genre. What this gave us is, of course, Shane but it also produced The Greatest Story Ever Told, shot in those settings and Gunga Din a sort of Eastern Western, situated in spectacular mountains and in a frontier fort and a remote town, and with a host of bloodthirsty savages.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of His Gal Friday, wrote the story, which, naturally therefore, has one of a trio of soldiers of the Raj wanting to get married and the other two sabotaging his immanent retirement by engaging all of them in putting down the Thugees, a tribe of native killers – read The Taliban.

To say there is a plot to this were to rearrange the meaning of that word, for the movie is one thing after another, a comic scene at the fort, followed by a big battle scene, comic scenes back at the fort, another battle scene, another comic scene back at the fort, and so forth.

The battle scenes are as funny as the comic scenes, for Stevens had learned gag comedy at The Roach Studios so the movie resembles Indiana Jones, or rather Indiana Jones resembles Gunga Din, for Jones kept up with Din by aping it in scene after scene. Stevens’ visual imagination in devising interesting and entertaining slaughters was unequalled. They involved thousands of actors and, to insure no one was hurt, they had to be carefully imagined, very slowly rehearsed, then repeated a bit faster, then faster still, then shot at full speed.

But Stevens also knew what to look at with his fort scenes, where the comedy depends not on gags but on the expressions on actors’ faces. Each of the sergeants – Douglas Fairbanks Junior is Scottish, Victor McLaglen is Irish, and Cary Grant is Cockney – has rich comic scenes to play, and from the start they are all involved in comical branagans. Grant has his lust for booty, McLaglen a darling elephant, and Fairbanks the milksop Joan Fontaine.

Stevens knows exactly what to look at with his camera, which is manned by the great Joe August, who even gives us an in-tight Place-In-The-Sun closeup of Fontaine. Abner Biberman and Eduardo Ciannelli play the outright villains outrightly. And Sam Jaffe is just lovely as the waterboy, Gunga Din, a middle-aged man who saves the day and who is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s poem from which the picture is loosely derived. They originally wanted the great child actor Sabu, so Jaffe said he played it exactly as Sabu would have, and he’s just marvelous.

Alfred Newman’s music is rousing, and the thousands of troops on the parade grounds and threading through huge mountains is spectacular. Cary Grant is especially gratifying in, for him an unusual, lower class part and also a dopey one. There are comic effects on his face you will never see from him in any other film. All you need do is sit back and look at him to be entertained. He was lower class in origins, and it shines through with a warm, particular and special wit.

Stevens seldom moves his camera so the adventure takes place without intrusion, and he seldom used reaction shots, so the energy between actors is never broken. It is one of the most “complete” films ever made, and remained a George Stevens’ favorite.

The film has never been out of circulation since its immensely popular first showing in the year of the movie miracles, 1939.

 

Rififi

03 Aug

Rififi – Written and Directed by Jules Dassin. Heist Thriller. A quartet of experts sets to lift 250 million dollars of gems from a jewelry store. 122 minutes Black and White 1955.

*****

A full half hour at the dead center of this masterpiece is given over to the silent execution of the caper, a passage that has never been preceded, equaled, or surpassed in film.  It was made for $200,000, a penny. Expense forbad the use of Jean Gabin, say, in the lead, and so they hired actors virtually unknown to the public, which suits the material right down to the ground. For we have Jean Servais, with his huge, sad, John McIntyre eyes, in the part, and he is riveting. They all are. What the actors lacked in experience, the crew made up for in brilliance, An A- class cinema-photographer, Phillip Agostini, filmed it, an A-class editor, Robert Dwyer, cut it, and the music is by Georges Auric. What luck! Dassin, a lovable man if there ever was one, had been exiled as one of the Hollywood 10. And in an interview in the Bonus Material he talks about those times and the making of this film. It’s all fascinating. And it is the greatest film of its kind ever made.

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