Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Republic of Love (2003)

Director: Deepa Mehta                                    Writers: Deepa Mehta & Esta Spalding
Film Score: Talvin Singh                                 Cinematography: Douglas Koch
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Emilia Fox, Edward Fox and Jackie Burroughs

This is an absolutely fascinating film. It certainly didn’t start that way, however, and I was tempted not to keep going. But once Bruce Greenwood and Emilia Fox finally meet, the whole thing takes on an absolutely magical quality that defies conventions and still succeeds in being a tremendously entertaining romance. I hesitate to call The Republic of Love a romantic comedy because the expectations of that genre are definitely very different while this film nearly borders on being a straight drama. At every turn the film does something different than expected, and I attribute that to it being made in Canada rather than Hollywood. In a way it’s almost too simplistic of a story for Hollywood, something that town would claim could never work. But it does. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Canadian writer Carol Shields. It’s a very literary story, with the narrative alternating between the two protagonists, and director Deepa Mehta along with Esta Spalding did a terrific job adapting it for the screen.

The film begins with the one concession to its literary beginnings, with Bruce Greenwood’s character as a baby being mothered by twenty-seven beautiful young women training to be homemakers. The story then shifts to the present day with Greenwood talking to his actual mother on the phone. He’s a late-night radio host, divorced three times and currently single, with no hope of meeting anyone. Meanwhile Emilia Fox is in the middle of a loveless romance with Lloyd Owen who is, literally, putting her to sleep. When he suggests he move in with her, that’s just the impetus she needs to break it off. It’s not until a birthday party at the home of mutual friends that they finally meet and, wow, what a meeting. The two fall for each other hard, the sure sign of disaster in a romcom. But she’s off to Paris the next day and once she’s gone he can’t stop himself from writing her a love letter, quickly becoming convinced that he’s blown it by doing so. But when she returns he’s waiting at the airport and they have the perfect reunion. Another red flag for audiences, and they’re right because the rest of the film is an emotional shocker.

The first thing that stands out to the viewer is the visual style of the film. There is as much an emphasis on setting as there is on character. The subway, the streets and the buildings of Toronto are clean, pristine and present a perfect winter backdrop for the film, again defying conventions by eschewing a spring romance. Director Deepa Mehta is an Indian director based out of Toronto, and she definitely brings the spirit of Bollywood to the film, deemphasizing the humor in the genre and ratcheting up the drama in a skillful way. She also brought in composer Talvin Singh to give the film score an Indian sound as well. But again, it’s not overwhelming and somehow fits with the story. In fact, at the beginning of the film when she’s showing the deterioration of Fox’s relationship, she has Owen bring home a Bollywood film and Fox falls asleep while watching it with him. The blend of cultures works, giving the film an undercurrent of the exotic and the fantastic while dealing with the mundane evolution of relationships.

My favorite aspect of the film is definitely Bruce Greenwood. For much too long he has been working in supporting roles, and it’s great to see him as a lead. After his breakout in the television drama St. Elsewhere he delivered a tour de force performance in the mini series Twist of Fate, but languished in TV after that, only recently returning to the big screen in a series of modern science-fiction films including the new Star Trek series. Mehta wanted him because he’s Canadian, and while he didn’t come onboard right away, he eventually trusted her vision and became one of the film’s producers as well. Emilia Fox is wonderful as his love interest, thirty years old and still scared of never achieving the perfect relationship that he parents have. She also gets to act opposite her real-life father, the great British actor Edward Fox. Greenwood’s mother, the late Jackie Burroughs, is best known for her iconic performance playing Christopher Walken’s mother in The Dead Zone. This is not a standard romantic comedy in any way, but I really think fans of the genre will appreciate it. The Republic of Love is a beautiful film and most definitely a rewarding screen experience.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh                            Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Film Score: Cliff Martinez                                Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Laurence Fishburn, Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard

Superficially, Contagion seems like just another star-studded epidemic disaster film. And yet this one takes a very different turn with an emphasis on realism. This, of course, makes sense coming from Participant Media, which has made dozens of high-quality documentaries over the past ten years. Still, it’s a difficult line to walk between information and entertainment. There’s a discernable difference between plot-driven epidemic films like The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak and something that proposes to be as accurate as possible about what a worldwide pandemic would look like. Gone are the soap opera sub-plots and the mustache-twirling military men, and instead are realistic people who are trying, against the odds, to do the jobs they were trained for. And not everyone makes it out alive in real life. Just because these brave people work with infectious diseases doesn't mean that they have some kind of special immunity. While the disaster-type films can be more entertaining in a way, they can also be exponentially exasperating in watching the contrived situations. On the other hand, the real-life simulation can be a bit boring if it’s not what you’re expecting.

The film begins on Day 2 of the outbreak with Gwyneth Paltrow at the Chicago airport, clearly sick. When she gets home to Minnesota she infects her son, but not husband Matt Damon who is immune. Meanwhile there are outbreaks in Japan, Hong Kong and London. Laurence Fishburn, the head of The Centers for Disease Control, is naturally alerted and he sends out one of his doctors, Kate Winslet, to Minnesota and she makes the connection with the deaths there to the outbreak in Chicago. Once the disease is clearly verging on epidemic proportions the World Health Organization gets involved and sends someone to Hong Kong where Paltrow had been flying home from. Marion Cotillard is the doctor in charge of this investigation and pins down the casino she had been in and all of the people around her there who died as well, but winds up caught up in something unexpected. The doctor doing the lab work at the CDC is Jennifer Ehle and, with the help of Elliot Gould who isolates the virus and is able to grow it, finally comes up with a vaccine.

This is definitely not a thrill-ride disaster film, but it is harrowing in its own way. At the same time that the scientific work is going on the public’s reaction to the news is almost more dangerous. Jude Law is a blogger with a huge audience and he is only interested in manipulated the public in order to make a pile of money off of the epidemic. And, of course, as things progress there is looting and rioting and the worst of human nature that comes out. There are some great twists with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, and the other thing is the incredible realism displayed by Jennifer Ehle in the face of the disaster. Instead of being panicked by the situation she works the problem, tells the truth, and controls the situation rather than letting it control her. The reason, I’m sure, for the all-star cast is no doubt due to director Steven Soderbergh who has the ability to get tons of stars to work for him. He’s done some nice work and this falls into the same category, not brilliant but certainly entertaining. Contagion is a unique story, a different take on the genre that well worth checking out as long as expectations are adjusted accordingly.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Director: Sergio Leone                                     Writers: Victor Andrés Catina & Sergio Leone
Film Score: Ennio Morricone                            Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volonté and Wolfgang Lukschy

Though chronologically set after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this film is actually the first of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood and it set the standard for a new type of western hero. But that innovation was not original with Leone. The film is actually an unacknowledged remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo from three years earlier and the Japanese film company, Toho, won a court case against Leone despite the director’s contention that the story was based just as much on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest and Carlo Goldoni’s play Servant of Two Masters. In A Fistful of Dollars instead of private detective or a mysterious Samurai warrior drifting into town, this time it’s a cowboy with no name wearing a poncho. A unique symbol of the series, the poncho was something Leone and costume designer Carlo Simi put together to make the character distinct, and in the final film of the series, the prequel, Eastwood can be seen putting it on at the end of the film.

When Clint Eastwood stops for water at what looks like a deserted Mexican town, he is accosted by a group of gunmen who shoot to scare his horse. But he hops off and has a drink at José Calvo’s bar and is filled in on the town. Two families run the place, the Rojo’s buy and sell liquor to bootleggers who sell in in Texas, while the Baxter family does the same with guns. Mostly what happens in the town is the men wind up killing each other for being affiliated with one of the two families. As Calvo tells Eastwood, it’s one boss too many. When the Rojo’s kill an entire company of Mexican soldiers for the gold they’re transporting, Eastwood decides to play both of the families against each other, and gets paid by both sides for doing it. First he sends the Rojo’s on a phony hunt for soldiers who survived and tells the Baxters who meet them for a shootout. Later, Eastwood steals back Marianne Koch who had been kidnapped but the Rojos believe it was the Baxters and retaliate, with devastating results. The finale features Eastwood’s now iconic bullet-proof vest.

Eastwood was not the first choice of Sergio Leone. In fact, he was on the second list he had put together after everyone on the short list declined. It was Richard Harrison who suggested him and Eastwood leapt at the chance to shed his good-guy cowboy image from Rawhide and play an anti-hero. Leone’s style of filmmaking is certainly unique. He takes his time and allows events to unfold sometimes with excruciating slowness. Some of this, ironically, is because he had composer Ennio Morricone record parts of the score before the film was completed and in editing Leone liked the music so much that he allowed the scenes to run longer than they might have otherwise. But the most distinctive thing about the film is the violence, particularly in the way that there is no justification for it. Eastwood is there for the money, and killing is the way he earns it. His lack of remorse or morality is what keeps him alive and, unlike many Hollywood westerns, he doesn’t allow himself the luxury of guilt. A Fistful of Dollars is not the best of the trilogy, but it did set the stage for better films to come and really began to shape the path that Clint Eastwood would follow for the rest of his career.

The Mad Monster (1942)

Director: Sam Newfield                                   Writer: Fred Myton
Film Score: David Chudnow                            Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh
Starring: George Zucco, Johnny Downs, Anne Nagel and Glenn Strange

After the success of Universal’s The Wolf Man, no company worked faster to copy the film than Sigmund Neufeld’s unit for PRC. B-movie writer Fred Myton was put to work on a wolf-transformation screenplay while special effects man Gene Stone was given the task to re-create the transformation scenes from the Lon Chaney Jr. film. Rather than copy the plot of The Wolf Man screenplay, however, Myton decided to replicate Man Made Monster from the year before. That film also starred Chaney as well as Anne Nagel, and George Zucco was scheduled as the star for their low-budget rip-off. The result was The Mad Monster, distributed by poverty row PRC and hitting the screens a mere five months after Universal revived their horror product with their new monster. Zucco plays his standard, elegant, mad doctor, while Strange does Chaney’s Lennie from Of Mice and Men a year before he would replace Chaney as the Frankenstein monster in the last three Universal monster conclaves.

The film opens with a wolf howling at the moon. George Zucco has taken the blood of another wolf and transfused it into Glenn Strange and a few moments later he turns into a snarling wolf. At this point Zucco has an imaginary discussion with the professors who ran him out of the science department at the college and he vows revenge, that each will die at the hands of his creation. Meanwhile Zucco’s daughter, Anne Nagel, is tired of being cooped up in the country house while her father performs his experiments, but she does develop a simplistic relationship with Strange. When Zucco sets his monster loose the first night and it kills a village child, Strange roams the swamp in his overalls looking confused rather than out for blood, with the sound effects growling independently of his facial movements. The only way to reverse the effects is for Zucco to inject him with the antidote. But, as all things do in the world of horror, Strange begins to transform on his own which causes all kinds of trouble for Zucco.

Here’s the thing. This is certainly a grade-Z movie, there’s no disputing that . . . and yet it’s not. It may have a lowly 3.5 on IMDb, but it is not a bad film. Glenn Strange may be doing the worst Lennie impression ever, but for some reason it’s okay. There’s some bad acting, sure, but the principals are all pretty good. Zucco is dependable as always, and Anne Nagel is all right as well. While reporter Johnny Downs is a little too gee-wiz Johnny Olson, the old professors are actually quite credible. It all comes down to expectations and, in that respect, the film is surprisingly interesting and skillfully done with the paucity of funds at their disposal. It’s not a studio production, and anyone expecting that will undoubtedly be disappointed. But for fans of Universal’s monster pictures, The Mad Monster is definitely an interesting pastiche of Chaney Junior’s first two horror films for the studio

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Director: Paul Leni                                          Writers: Robert F. Hill & Alfred A. Cohn
Film Score: Hugo Riesenfeld                           Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley and Tully Marshall

The opening of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary is a treat for Universal horror film buffs, as it is the same opening used for Son of Dracula sixteen years later, a hand wiping away dust and cobwebs to reveal the main titles of the picture. It is sufficiently eerie and is the real beginning of the great horror film history at Universal. I say this because, at the time, the Chaney films were never considered horror films and so this film, even with the non-supernatural reveal at the end, is much more of an influence on Dracula and Frankenstein four years later than Chaney had been. Director Paul Leni had emerged directly out of the German school of Expressionist cinema having filmed Waxworks for Ufa and then coming to Hollywood for this film as well as The Man Who Laughs for Universal. Unfortunately Leni would not go on to work in the sound era as he unexpectedly died in 1929, but his influence on Universal’s horror films would be felt for the next twenty years.

This film has a wonderful opening montage. After the credits we are told that the wealthy millionaire Cyrus West is dying and that medicine can no longer help him. The visual of a man in a wheelchair surrounded by gigantic bottles is terrific. Then we are told the relatives are waiting like cats around a canary, and then we see giant cats around the bottles and West dying. Two envelopes are left behind after his death, the first is a will that is not to be opened for twenty years, the second only to be opened if the instructions of the will are not followed out. Based on the hit play by John Willard, this is the first of a group of films that would come to constitute their own sub-genre: the old dark house mystery. These are gothic tales in which relatives are gather at an old, usually rumored to be haunted, mansion and told to spend any number of nights there in order to earn the right to inherit the money they have been left.

Martha Mattox is the old crone who has been the caretaker of the house for the last twenty years and Tully Marshall is the lawyer who has come to read the will. But he’s disturbed because someone has recently been in the safe and opened the envelopes. Arthur Edmund Carewe and Forrest Stanley are the first of the heirs to arrive at the house, followed by Flora Finch and Gertrude Astor. Then Creighton Hale shows up as the comedy relief, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd. The last to arrive is Laura La Plante who winds up inheriting the estate. But there’s a condition on the will that the heir be declared sane. And before she can be examined by a psychiatrist there is plenty of time for one or more people to try and drive her mad in the old house so that they can inherit instead. To put even more fear into the guests a guard comes into the house claiming that a lunatic has escaped and is on the property, followed of course by creepy hands coming out of nowhere and disappearing bodies.

In terms of influence, the story itself has been copied over the years with numerous variations. Leni’s gothic sensibilities, however, are what make their way into the horror films of the thirties almost intact. The camera angles, many times shooting up from the floor, are brilliant, and the moving camera work is astounding. When Marshall takes the letters from the safe at the beginning of the film and whisks them over to the table the camera not only follows him, but the way it simultaneously zooms in on the letters is breathtaking. The lighting is terrific, with lots of shadow-play, and he also makes good use of superimposition. Even the titles, in the German tradition, are animated on occasion for effect. The acting, however, is decidedly second rate. There are no real stars here, and many of the comedic moments from Hale and Finch wear thin before too long. Nevertheless, The Cat and the Canary is a great film from a directorial viewpoint and, while interesting for fans of silent films, is essential for students of Universal’s horror legacy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles                                     Writer: Herman Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                          Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore and Agnes Moorehead

While I completely understand and respect Orson Welles’ prodigious talents, I’ve never really enjoyed watching him on screen. The most telling example of this is that my favorite film of his is Touch of Evil, where he is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps that’s why I don’t particularly enjoy Citizen Kane more. While I’m incredibly appreciative of the film as a work of art, I don’t really find it entertaining. It’s an incredible cinematic experience, but it’s not something that I return to for repeat viewings. It is then, as so many critics say, the greatest film of all time? Not for me. Nevertheless, Welles’ thinly-veiled biography of Randolph Hearst is something unique in film history and, while not very influential, that creative difference has set it apart, earning it accolades down through the decades that have made it a perennial number one on the all-time lists of films both in the United States and around the world.

The film opens with a wonderful montage that begins on a No Trespassing sign, a perfect encapsulation of the character. After dissolves that reveal the broken down ruins of the estate called Xanadu, the camera stops on a window and the light goes out symbolizing the death of Charles Foster Kane. From there the scene shifts to inside and the final words of Welles’ character: Rosebud. Next a newsreel tells the story in a few short minutes of the life of Kane, and when it finishes the men watching it in the screening room are given orders by their boss to find out what Rosebud means. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks, remembrances of the men and women who knew the man, piecing together the inside story of the media mogul. From the lawyer who was in charge of his millions until he came of age, to his manager, to his best friend and finally his ex-wife, emerges a portrait of a man who didn’t know who he was and yet insisted on exerting his undefined will on everyone around him until he drove them all away.

The first thing one is struck by is the photography. The whole film is highly stylized, at times with thoroughly composed shots giving an almost static quality to the scene, and others with chiaroscuro lighting that is extremely gothic. The deep focus lenses and low-angle shots, while not exactly new, were used in a new way to emphasize the foreground while maintaining focus on the background as well, allowing for more new and interesting compositions. The next thing that draws attention is the idiosyncratic film score by Bernard Herrmann that, while not intrusive, captures the same fragmented quality of the visuals. Finally, there is the overlapping dialogue, realistic in sound if not substance. For the substance of the text is deceptive, like Kane himself, pompous and important sounding but with little actual meaning. And the through story, the search for Rosebud, while providing a great reveal at the end, in retrospect seems almost too simplistic. But then that would seem to be the whole point. For the reminiscences of a man’s life are not the man himself. They are a dream, a fantasy that seems real at the time but in reality is nothing more than a memory or a nightmare.

The A List essay by Godfrey Cheshire is very good on this point. He first explains that the film is really two films, the Hollywood picture distributed by RKO which is separate from its enormous reputation. He goes on to say that the reputation has nearly subsumed the actual picture. I was happy to see him tell first-timers to dial back their expectations because all of the techniques that seemed so innovative at the time have subsequently been co-opted even by television. But his best point, one that I’m not sure is articulated all that well, is to view the film from the perspective of radio, the medium that Welles came from. The way I read this is that the film is our imagination of what the story, if told on radio, would look like in our minds, very much like a dream or a memory. His final, well though out point, is that Citizen Kane’s reputation actually comes from the fact that it, more than any other Hollywood film, is a work of art created almost wholly by its author, Orson Welles, and thus cannot be viewed the same as the other art by committee creations of the golden age of cinema. And in that respect, at least, it is one of the greatest films of all time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beast of the City (1932)

Director: Charles Brabin                                   Writers: W.R. Burnett & Ben Hecht
Sound: Douglas Shearer                                  Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Walter Huston, Jean Harlow, Wallace Ford and Jean Hersholt

This is another crime story from the popular writer W.R. Burnett, the author of Little Caesar and Public Enemy. MGM wanted to show that a film about police, rather than the criminals, could be just as exciting and just as violent and just as big at the box office. But rather than showing the success of the police, the film deals more with their frustrations and inability to put known criminals, especially those in organized crime, behind bars. Beast of the City is also something of a curiosity when considering its place amid the other pre-code films of the era. Though it has very little violence throughout most of the film, it saves it all for the end where the final bloodbath packs in as much as most gangster pictures. And yet because the shootings are precipitated by the police and the criminals all get what was coming to them, the Legion of Decency actually endorsed the picture.

The film begins by showing the inner workings of the police radio center in New York City, with a dispatcher sending radio signals out to all of the cars. When a call comes in that four men have been found murdered the homicide squad, led by Walter Huston, takes a look and determines that Jean Hersholt and his henchman J. Carrol Naish are responsible and take them in for questioning. But without hard evidence they’re turned loose, infuriating Huston so much that he tells the police chief he may have to resort to “hot lead” to stop them. Prophetic words. Huston’s brother, Wallace Ford, is also a cop on the vice squad. He takes a more practical approach to the murders, and if Hersholt is killing other criminals he’s not going to get too upset about it. He agrees to help Huston by questioning Hersholt’s girlfriend, Jean Harlow, but winds up falling for her instead. Meanwhile Huston gets promoted to chief of police but won’t give his brother a promotion. So when Ford gets an offer from Hersholt that he can’t refuse . . . he doesn’t.

As a story it has some interest, but pales in comparison to Warner Brother’s gangster films of the same period. While all the elements pitting the police against the mob are there it lacks anything close to suspense. But that seems to be the whole point. The most infamous scene in the picture is the finale where the Huston and his intimates on the force, though dubious in its legality, make martyrs of themselves. But where the story is weak the production itself is very good, with director Charles Brabin doing a tremendous job. Like so many films from this period, the camera work is excellent, with long tracking shots of the police chasing down criminals though an alley and gliding along the jury stand in the courtroom, or crane shots moving up the stairs with Huston and his wife at home. By the same token, however, the early sound systems left much to be desired and it’s difficult to make out the dialogue at times.

Huston does a solid job with his usual sober characterization, and fortunately Ford hadn’t yet reached the stage in his career where he was doing a faux Lou Costello. Jean Harlow has a couple of interesting scenes, the most compelling of which his her dance for Ford, but nothing else really to speak of. J. Carrol Naish’s small role also gives him very little room to demonstrate his talents, but he is memorable in the finale. And though he had done dozens of shorts under the name Mickey McGuire going back to the silent era, this was actually Mickey Rooney’s first feature film playing Huston’s young son. Beast of the City is certainly an interesting film, but it lacks a lot of the personality that made Warner Brother’s gangster pictures so popular. It does have its bright spots, however, and is worth checking out for the ending alone.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Creator (1985)

Director: Ivan Passer                                       Writer: Jeremy Leven
Film Score: Sylvester Levay                             Cinematography: Robbie Greenberg
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Mariel Hemingway, Vincent Spano and Virginia Madsen

This is a forgotten romantic comedy gem. Few people know about it because it came and went in the theaters with little fanfare, but it is a wonderful film. Creator is based on the novel by Jeremy Leven, who also wrote the screenplay, and while the novel is very different in some respects and delivers another lesson altogether, this Hollywood version has its own special message to impart. Czech director Ivan Passer is not a well-known name today but he made some very interesting small films during his career, peaking after this with Haunted Summer before doing mostly television films afterward. This is an easy film to be cynical about because there are so many trite and overly-precious moments in the story. However, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As audience members we suspend disbelief all the time for superheroes and space aliens, why not then for something genuinely romantic and heart felt?

Peter O’Toole is an eccentric scientist who lost his wife thirty years before. He saved her blood cells, however, and froze them with liquid nitrogen. Now, with the advent of modern technology, he is attempting to clone her and bring back the woman he loved so deeply. At the same time biology graduate student Vincent Spano follows Virginia Madsen into O’Toole’s lab and winds up becoming his personal assistant. Spano is affected deeply by O’Toole’s philosophy of life and becomes even more attached to him after his father dies. He’s inspired to seek out Madsen and, after a misunderstanding, they go to the beach with O’Toole to spend the weekend and fall in love. It’s cute and predictable and yet exactly the way falling in love should be. When O’Toole goes looking for a human egg to complete his experiment, he meets nineteen-year-old Mariel Hemingway and she gives him everything he needs. It’s only her egg at first but, though he doesn’t realize it, he needs much more than that from her to find a new kind of love.

The humor in Leven’s screenplay is delightful and manages to work both sides of the comedy/drama spectrum with equal skill. The cast is also first rate. Of course Peter O’Toole is one of the great British actors of all time, nominated for eight Academy Awards including one for My Favorite Year just a few years prior to this film. Mariel Hemingway had rocked the screen as a young girl in Lipstick, her first film with her sister Margaux, and made a real impression with Kurt Russell in The Mean Season just prior to this film. Though early in his career, Vincent Spano had already been cast in small roles in a dozen feature and television films by the time he appeared here. Though this wasn’t the breakout film for him that it should have been, he’s been steadily working ever since. Virginia Madson is simply radiant here, youthful and beautiful in only her fourth feature film. Like Spano, she worked steadily if unmemorably until her reemergence in Coppola’s The Rainmaker from 1997 and her subsequent stardom in Alexander Payne’s Sideways in 2003.

This is also a film that benefits tremendously from a very good supporting cast. The iconic Major Charles Emerson Winchester from the TV show M*A*S*H, David Ogden Stiers, plays the other famous scientist at the college. He’s a physician, an egomaniac, and driven to succeed in the traditional way. Of course he continually comes into conflict with O’Toole because the eccentric genius holds all of the research monies for the science center. John Dehner does a tremendous job as the department chair at the college, playing O’Toole’s good friend in a comically understated manner. And in an absolutely memorable small role as O’Toole’s secretary is Lee Kessler. Other recognizable bit part actors include Ian Wolfe, Jeff Corey, Kenneth Tigar and Rance Howard. Creator is a beautiful film that is not meant for cynics. But if you love a good love story, a warm and tender rather than laugh out loud romcom, this is one you’ll enjoy.

A Star is Born (1937)

Director: William A. Wellman                            Writers: Dorothy Parker & Robert Carson
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: W. Howard Greene
Starring: Frederic March, Janet Gaynor, Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine

Though it’s painful to read about the blood, sweat and tears that David O. Selznick put into his pet projects, there’s no denying that the results are pretty good. The producer with the golden touch at MGM, he finally launched out on his own after an altercation with Irving Thalberg and decided to form his own production company, producing them on the RKO lot and releasing through United Artists. A Star is Born was based on George Cukor’s film from 1932 What Price Hollywood? Both Frederic March and Janet Gaynor had been stars in Hollywood for a decade and the name recognition alone was enough to be fairly certain of box-office success. The film was nominated for all the major awards at the Oscars that year, but only won for in the category of best original story. The film also has the distinction of being given a special award for color photography that year, a new medium that hadn’t been given its own category yet.

The film begins in about the most clichéd manner possible. Small town girl Janet Gaynor goes to the movies and dreams of one day being an actress and, while her aunt ridicules her, grandmother tells the story of coming out west in a covered wagon. So she gives her all the money she’s saved and sends her on her way. Out in California things aren’t as easy as she imagined. She’s staying at a hotel with Andy Devine, an assistant director who’s also out of work and he eventually gets her a job as a waitress at a party where she meets movie star and drunkard Frederic March. March falls for her and before long he gets her a screen test at his studio and a co-starring role opposite him in his next big picture and she becomes an overnight sensation. The two fall in love and marry, but where Gaynor’s star is on the rise March’s is falling, and he is soon dismissed by audiences and critics alike, which causes him to resort to drinking again and cause one scene after another. It’s then that Gaynor has the difficult decision of choosing between her career and her husband.

Probably the most distinctive feature of the film is the wonderful script. While William Wellman and Robert Carson were given the Oscar for the original story, which they had worked on with Selznick, it was the great Dorothy Parker along with Carson and Alan Campbell who wrote the wonderfully witty dialogue that makes the film so great. Max Steiner, who normally writes very distinctive music, wound up with a fairly generic score for the film, but it doesn’t seem to suffer from it. March and Gaynor both do dependable work and are assisted by support from Adolphe Menjou as the studio head, and Lionel Stander as the head of publicity. And while the story seems trite, even then, its enduring popularity is borne out by the fact that it was remade twice, once in 1954 as a musical with James Mason and Judy Garland, and again in 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as pop musicians instead of actors. It’s not a classic film in the artistic sense, but it is a popular film with audiences and is easily the better of the three versions. Despite David O. Selznick’s obsessive control, A Star is Born remained light and frothy, an entertaining take on a familiar theme and a cinematic icon.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder                                        Writers: Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson

Most critics are generally reluctant to classify Sunset Boulevard as film noir. Perhaps it’s because it lacks the element of crime. But then that’s never been the exclusive definition of noir. What it does have is a man’s seduction that leads to self-loathing, a femme fatale who ensnares him, and his ultimate demise at her hands. Wilder’s film came at the end of the studio’s hold over talent and this led to a willingness for filmmakers to be more critical of their industry, and was the same year Joseph Mankiewicz directed exposé about actors in the Broadway theater, All About Eve. The result was more films of this kind, like The Bad and the Beautiful. But somehow Wilder’s film stands apart, not only because of the brilliant writing, but because the story encompasses so much more than just Hollywood. Ultimately it’s about human nature at its most elemental, and that has always been the place where film noir has been its most effective.

The story begins in flashback with William Holden as a struggling writer. The repo men come to take away his car and he tells them it’s in the shop, then heads over to the studio to make one last desperate attempt to sell his most recent script to producer Fred Clark. But reader Nancy Olson brings it in and tells him it’s no good. On his way home the repo men spot Holden and he manages to elude them, but when he gets a flat he’s forced to duck into the nearest driveway and hide the car in the garage. The house, however, is owned by former silent film star Gloria Swanson, and it’s here that his descent begins. She’s writing a script and he thinks he’s conning her into letting him help her. But before he knows it she’s had her butler, Erich von Stroheim, move all of his things from his apartment to her house. He chafes at first, but he has nowhere else to go and finally relents. It’s then that things evolve from just a working relationship to a sexual one. He tries to get away, at one point running into Olson who wants to be a writer herself, and the two embark on their own screenplay. Now Holden is leading a double life, but one that Swanson won’t put up with for long.

The opening of the film begins in true noir fashion, a gunshot and a death and a voiceover by Holden telling how all of it happened. Holden and Swanson and von Stroheim are the perfect love triangle. Her obsession with making a comeback--as much as Holden berates von Stroheim for deluding her--is just as much fueled by Holden’s deception. The real irony is that it’s his own greed that has really trapped Holden and once he realizes it, it’s too late. But a mere recounting of the plot does nothing to convey the magnificence of the film. First there is Wilder and Brackett’s incredible wit. The humor that comes out of the grimmest of situations is fantastic. The production design at the old house is the perfect setting for conveying the decay of Hollywood and its façade of its faux royalty. The deep, rich black and white photography is incredible when Swanson stands up in the light from the projector or when Holden is walking at night in the rain, all of them classic noir set-ups. The crowning touch is a magnificent score by Franz Waxman that is every bit as dramatic as the images on the screen.

In Morris Dickstein’s essay for The A List he begins by citing the eclectic nature of Wilder’s films that leaves the auteur theory in shambles. He also graciously acknowledges the film’s obvious noir affinity, but then takes it one better, tying it into Wilder’s German roots and the gothic sensibilities that informed the Weimar films of the twenties. In that way Swanson becomes much more than just a femme fatale of noir, more akin to the vampires of the gothic horror films than noir she-devils, more like the living dead of Nosferatu than a human being, a sleepwalker Holden calls her. Dickstein also makes comparisons to Citizen Kane that are far less convincing, especially when he accuses Wilder of imitation. He then, inexplicably, attempts to find an auteurist link between this film, Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole but never really drives the point home. Still, it’s one of the best essays in the book, well deserved for one of the best films of the fifties, or of any period. Because Sunset Boulevard is that rarest of films, a truly creative and artistic masterpiece that delivers just as much entertainment as art.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Humoresque (1946)

Director: Jean Negulesco                                 Writer: Clifford Odets & Zachary Gold
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: John Garfield, Joan Crawford, Oscar Levant and J. Carrol Naish

There’s a fascinating moment in Humoresque when a girl at a party keeps telling John Garfield that he looks like a boxer, even though this was filmed a year before his boxing picture Body and Soul. There’s so much to this film that makes it great, that it can hardly keep from spilling off the screen. But by far the most magnificent music made in the film is the words by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold. It’s one of the most witty screenplays I’ve ever experienced and it keeps rewarding on repeat viewings. And the delivery of most of the great lines comes courtesy of the brilliant pianist and composer Oscar Levant. Throw in John Garfield and Joan Crawford, and top it off with some incredible music performed by Isaac Stern and conducted by Franz Waxman and this is one of the all time great productions in Hollywood history. And it’s not even that interesting of a plot. But the personalities and the humor make it something exceptional.

In noir fashion the film begins at the end, with John Garfield canceling his concert performances and his agent berating him for quitting. The rest of the film is told in flashback, beginning with his childhood. A young Robert Blake wants a violin for his birthday but father J. Carrol Naish believes it’s just a phase and won’t buy it. His mother, Ruth Nelson, defies him, though, and buys it anyway. When the kid is driven to practice by some inner fire, he becomes great, excelling in music school and finally burns to perform concerts. His best friend is the pianist Oscar Levant, whose playing seems so effortless it’s difficult to believe. Levant gets him into the home of Joan Crawford, a patron of the arts, for a party and he sufficiently impresses that she takes him on as a project. But Garfield, in his usual characterization, is resentful and hates to be beholden to her. So it takes a while for the two to fall in love, the biggest snag being the fact that she’s married to Paul Cavanaugh . . . that and the fact that he loves his music more.

Director Jean Negulesco was primarily associated with musical productions, which is probably why he was chose for this picture. Music plays a major role in the film, not only as background for the action going on but for the impetus of the plot as Garfield pursues a career as a concert violinist. Crawford was riding high at this point in her career, after being cut loose from MGM and then going on to win an Academy Award at Warner Brothers for Mildred Pierce. Garfield, however, was at the tail end of his contract with Warners and would soon go on to do some great work for MGM in The Postman Always Rings Twice and 20th Century Fox in Gentleman’s Agreement. And ethnic chameleon J. Carrol Naish does another one of his absolutely rock solid performances as a neighborhood grocer who had discouraged his son at first but eventually becomes his biggest fan.

The most obvious centerpiece of the film is the music. The incredible Franz Waxman outdid himself on this one. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had done something similar at Warner Brothers on the Bette Davis film Deception, with Paul Henried as a cellist. But it was much more limited in scope musically, though Korngold did write a cello concerto for the film. Waxman used existing classical pieces, rescoring them as concertos, his most famous being the “Carmen Fantasie” that can be heard with the masterful Jascha Heifetz recorded he same year as the film’s release. Waxman had wanted Heifetz to be in the film but Jack Warner, ever the cheapskate, wouldn’t pay what he wanted and Waxman wound up with the stellar Isaac Stern. As good as the music is, however, the script by Odet’s and Gold is a virtuoso work in and of itself and will always be the reason for watching the film for me. Humoresque is not all that original, but the film is done with such brio that has been captivating audiences for decades, and will continue to do so for many more.

Ladies of the Big House (1931)

Director: Marion Gering                                   Writer: Ernest Booth
Music: John Leipold                                       Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Gene Raymond, Wynne Gibson and Earle Foxe

This is another one of the great discoveries for me when I first began studying film history. The first was the incomparable Kay Francis. The second was the compelling screen persona of Sylvia Sidney. Even though she had a lengthy career first in films and then in television I had never really been conscious of her as an actress. Ladies of the Big House was the film that followed her two great performances in An American Tragedy directed by Josef von Sternberg and Street Scene by King Vidor. This Paramount feature is a decided step down from those two, with Russian born Marion Gering at the helm who worked for the studio for several years but couldn’t get any work after his contract expired. He did a few more films with Sidney but none of them were as good as her previous films. Sidney’s career, however, would pick up again when she worked with Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock a few years later.

The story begins as a standard thirties crime drama. A new district attorney, George Irving, has vowed to rid the town of organized crime and his first order of business is to bring in the known killer Earle Foxe. But Irving has a mole in his organization, Purnell Pratt, and he has warned Foxe to get out of town for a while, but the gangster, head over heels in love, won’t budge until he sees Sylvia Sidney first. The problem is that once Sidney knows who he is she won’t have anything to do with him. Soon she falls in love with Gene Raymond and the two get married. Packing to go with him the next day, she almost gets away with her husband when Foxe shows up and, out for revenge, shoots a police detective in their apartment and frames the couple for murder. The trial is almost perfunctory, being as she was briefly a known associate of Foxe, and since Pratt is doing the prosecuting it isn’t long before she gets sent to prison and he gets sentenced to death.

Though the title makes it seem like a picture about women in prison, the story is really about the couple. Louise Beavers takes Sidney under her wing to protect her from Wynne Gibson, who used to be Foxe’s girl but was framed as well to get her out of the way so he could see Sidney. On the surface, there really is little to the story that seems original, even down to the ending. But what sets this prison drama apart is the acting of the principals. Sylvia Sidney and Gene Raymond are completely convincing as the innocent couple being punished for someone else’s crime. And it’s a testament to the considerable skills of both actors that their relationship seems utterly genuine. The one other supporting actor who deserves mention is Jane Darwell as one of the prison matrons. Paulette Goddard apparently has a bit part as an extra in the prison crowd scene but making her out would be some feat. Essentially a filmed version of the play by Ernest Booth, Ladies of the Big House is pedestrian drama even by the standards of the day, but moving performances definitely make it something above the ordinary and well worth checking out.