Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Sign of Four (1932)

Director: Graham Cutts                                    Writers: W.P. Lipscomb
Music: Ernest Irving                                         Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Hunter, Isla Bevan and Graham Soutten

This British production was one of the earliest sound films to feature Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes. It’s the second film to feature Arthur Wontner as the great detective, and made by Associated Radio Pictures, a European arm of RKO, after The Sleeping Cardinal from the previous year was financed by Warner Brothers. The screenplay is based on the novel of the same name, and has the distinction of Dr. Watson falling in love with his future wife. Like the Universal series later in the decade, featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the producers decided to save on expenses and set the film during the present rather than the 1880s. Production designer on the film was none other than Rowland V. Lee, who would go on to minor immortality at Universal when he directed Son of Frankenstein in 1939. Though director Graham Cutts, is relatively unknown, his cinematographer, Robert De Grasse had a lenthy career. There are a few interesting camera setups, mostly during Wontner’s investigation of a murder, shooting through a ladder and from overhead. There are also some nice overhead shots in the finale. It’s too bad there was more use made of different angles because the bulk of the film is shot as though it is on a stage. Like so many films from the period, there is title music, and some diegetic pieces, but no real film score. And also like other early soundies the film suffers from that lack primarily in the climactic finale.

The film begins with architectural plans laid out on a table. The name on the plans is Jonathan Small, who also happens to be serving a life sentence on the Andaman Island Convict Settlement. An iris transitions to the feet of a man walking with a peg leg, Graham Soutten as Small, telling two soldiers on the island where they can find precious cache of gems hidden within the wall of an old fortress there. The soldiers, Herbert Lomas and Edgar Norfolk, are supposed to split the gems with Soutten who threatens to break out and come after them if they don’t. But when they find the gems, Lomas kills Norfolk so that he can have it all. The scene then shifts to London years later, with Lomas reading about the escape of Soutten and his partner, Roy Emerton. Sure that Soutten is coming after him he calls for his two sons, Kynaston Reeves and Miles Malleson, to confess and to warn them. He tells them that Norfolk had a daughter and to give her the valuable string of pearls, but before he can tell them where the rest of the treasure is, Soutten shows up outside his window and Lomas dies of fright. Norfolk’s daughter, Isla Bevan, receives the pearls at her flower shop with an anonymous note from the sons and then locks them in her safe.

When Soutten and Emerton confront Malleson to get the jewels, he truthfully tells them he doesn’t know where they are, but does tell them Bevan has the pearls. When they break into the safe and can’t find them, they write a note threatening to kill her, and that’s when she goes to Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes and Ian Hunter as Dr. Watson. It’s obvious that Arthur Wontner was chosen to play Holmes because of his physical resemblance to the illustrations of the detective rather than any acting ability, as he possesses very little. In fact, he has a rather high, droning voice that annoys rather than reassures. The film keeps with the tradition of having Holmes disguise himself when he turns himself into an old seadog to get information at a wharf side tavern. Unfortunately, there’s no disguising his voice. Ian Hunter, when he is on the screen as Watson, is easily the best actor in the room and would go on to a distinguished career in Hollywood and London. In this film he has the unfortunate task of having to ask Wontner how he came up with every deduction, and then remarking how astounding it is. Nasty work for a talent like his. The heroine in the film, Isla Bevan, doesn’t add much to proceedings, and neither do any of the other actors, especially the Lestrade stand-in, Gilbert Davis. The Sight of Four isn’t terrible, and if you can get past the bad acting it does manage to keep interest, but it still lags miles behind the Universal series with Rathbone and Bruce.

Two Night Stand (2014)

Director: Max Nichols                                      Writer: Mark Hammer
Film Score: The de Luca Brothers                   Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Starring: Miles Teller, Analeigh Tipton, Jessica Szohr and Scott Mescudi

This is most definitely a low-brow romantic comedy. There is nothing original, nothing clever, nothing that we haven’t seen before a million times. And yet . . . First of all, I was intrigued by the premise. The idea that a one-night stand turns into an enforced, long-terms stay was enough to draw me in. And frankly, I was fully expecting to turn the thing off after a few minutes. What this film has going for it, though, is that it doesn’t make any missteps, though there are land mines aplenty to be found all along the way. The film Better Than Sex, for instance, has a similar set up but is a chore to get through. Two Night Stand, on the other hand, flows along effortlessly, without turning into a Judd Apatow piece of garbage. And that’s a welcome surprise. With audiences today seemingly willing to pay money to see the worst possible excuse for humor, Mark Hammer’s screenplay manages to walk a fine line between commercial and crass and stays on the right side of the line for the entire ninety minutes. At the same time the actors are up for the challenge, not necessarily great, but never lapsing into the kind of exaggeration that something like Bridget Jones’s Diary goes to. While utterly unbelievable as a premise, there’s a suspension of disbelief available to anyone willing to keep watching. And that’s saying something in today’s wretched romantic comedy climate.

The film begins in the apartment of Miles Teller. Analeigh Tipton wakes up in his bed, regretful, and tries to sneak out after pinning a note to his bulletin board. But when the alarm goes of she scurries back to bed before it wakes him up. Flash back twelve hours and Tipton is sitting in her apartment, jobless, filling out an online dating profile. Her roommate Jessica Szohr shows up and tells her that unless she can put her name on the lease Tipton will need to move out so that her boyfriend Scott Mescudi can move in. They all go to a birthday party but when Tipton can’t find her I.D., she winds up back at the apartment trolling for a one-night stand. She connects with Miles Teller, and then it flashes forward to the next morning. Teller turns off the alarm and goes back to sleep-Tipton still in her coat and jeans in bed. When he finally wakes up she tries to leave on a positive note, but the two clearly have contempt for each other and things end badly as she leaves. Or tries to. When she get’s to the front door of the building it’s covered with snow and iced shut. The city had a blizzard the night before and all of the transit systems are down. With nowhere else to go, the two are stuck together in his apartment, grinning and baring it until they can separate. From there, it’s not difficult to guess where the film goes.

Despite the predictability, Mark Hammer still manages to put in some nice twists at the end that are incredibly refreshing, and the frank discussion of sex between the two principals never becomes an embarrassment. It should also be no surprise that the director of the film, Max Nichols, is the son of director Mike Nichols, and apparently shares the same eye for solid comedy as his father. Nichols recognized something in the screenplay immediately that was more than the usual Hollywood dross. His first casting choice was Analeigh Tipton, which also shows his talent. She has the perfect look and does a terrific job without being overly clichéd in the way so many of these roles can become. Miles Teller is also a great choice, but again, the screenplay has a lot to do with his willingness to go along with Tipton, to not get sullen or angry, and to see in her something that he didn’t at first. He would go on later that year to positive notices in Whiplash. One of the fascinating things about the production is that during shooting Tipton and Teller were staying in an apartment in a New York apartment downtown when Hurricane Sandy hit and were stranded there together without power, replicating their onscreen predicament. It may not be original, or even particularly good, but Two Night Stand has a charm that is undeniable and is well worth taking a look at.

Monday, July 6, 2015

White Palace (1990)

Director: Luis Mandoke                                  Writers: Ted Tally & Alvin Sargent
Film Score: George Fenton                            Cinematography: Lajos Koltai
Stars: Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Jason Alexander and Kathy Bates

As the Rabbi of Temple Emanuel and an adjunct professor in classics at Washington University, as well as the author of numerous books on Judaism, Rabbi Joe Rosenbloom was an institution in St. Louis for decades. But just when his fame was about to go national in 1990, Rabbi Joe’s big scene ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s the scene where Jason Alexander gets married to Rachel Chagall at a Jewish wedding and, though the complete ceremony was filmed, the only shot that remains in the picture is from the front, looking at the couple, Rabbi Joe’s yarmulke the only part of him visible. With the possible exception of Meet Me in St. Louis--which was shot entirely in Hollywood--White Palace is probably the most famous picture filmed there. All of the locations were actually in the St. Louis area, including Sarandon’s house in Dogtown. The story was adapted from the novel by Glenn Savan, and the screenplay sticks fairly close to the original, with the exception of the ending, which is pure Hollywood. Savan wanted to call his novel White Castle, but the company denied him permission to use the name and so both it and film used the pseudonym for the title.

The film begins with James Spader coming home from work, preparing for a night out at his best friend’s bachelor party. He’s been entrusted with picking up the burgers from a chain called White Palace instead of White Castle, a Mid-Western institution. But when he gets to the party some of the boxes are empty, and so he goes back to get a refund. At the counter is Susan Sarandon, who calls him Fred Astaire because of his tux. When he gets back, Jason Alexander tells him to keep his money because he’ll need it for therapy. It turns out Spader’s young wife has died in a car crash and after two years he still grieves. He stops at a bar on the way home and who should he meet but Sarandon. She cons him into giving her a ride home and talks him into spending the night. She wakes him up by having sex with him in the morning and while he initially resists, he is also inexplicably drawn to her. The two could not be more unlike, however. He’s twenty-seven and a neat freak, while she’s nearly forty-four and a total slob. He works in a big advertising agency in St. Louis, while she works at a burger joint. The crux of the conflict comes when Spader is embarrassed by the older woman, and lies to her to keep her away from his circle of upper class friends and family.

The primary theme of the picture is one of class distinction, which is easy to lose sight of with the difference in their ages being so prevalent. Spader is Jewish. He lives in an expensive home. He drives a Volvo and wears a tuxedo to a bachelor party. The first encounter with Sarandon in the burger joint, he with his bow tie and her in her uniform, is pointed. This idea continues when he stops at the country bar on the way home for another drink. Country music plays from the jukebox in the tavern, typically associated with blue-collar workers or farmers, but on the way home he plays opera on his car stereo, defining him as upper class. He calls the opera, “The most beautiful music in the world.” Sarandon, on the other hand, asks, “Got any Oak Ridge Boys?” The class conflict climaxes before the romantic one does when Stephen Hill discusses politics at the dinner table and Sarandon tells him that Merle Haggard could be president and he’d still be rich and she’d still be poor. Beyond this, however, the real subtext of the film, and one that should have been explored further, is something Spader asks near the end, “How do you know who’s right for each other?” This is the key. In his world there are only specific types of people that may be chosen from for romantic partnership. Spader was embarrassed at himself for going outside of those expectations. And with the examples of such polite misery all around him by adhering to them, why not follow his heart instead?

It’s almost difficult to believe that the film came out the same year as Pretty Woman, as that film seems almost juvenile by comparison. Spader and Sarandon are able to generate some real emotional chemistry on the screen and rather than manufactured conflict they grapple with genuine feelings and problems. The best that can be said about Luis Mandoke’s direction is that it’s invisible, which is not a bad thing for this kind of film. It floats along seamlessly, allowing the viewer to identify with the characters rather than marvel at the shot selection. The film score by George Fenton, while serviceable, is not particularly memorable, but again, its contribution to the film as a whole is just right. There is also a great supporting cast. In addition to Alexander and Chagall, Kathy Bates plays Spader’s boss, and Stephen Hill is Alexander’s father. The wonderful Eileen Brennan plays Sarandon’s older sister, and Jeremy Piven appears as an extra at the bachelor party. Susan Sarandon was nominated for a Golden Globe, but otherwise the film was ignored at Oscar time. It’s too bad, because it is such a strong dramatic story, and much better than the highly contrived Ghost, another film released the same year. White Palace is an emotional rollercoaster, but the realism makes it a wonderful film and a highly recommended romantic drama.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Director: John Ford                                          Writers: John Lee Mahin & Martin Rackin
Film Score: David Buttolph                              Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers and Judson Pratt

The Horse Soldiers is a Civil War story about the siege of Vicksburg, based in part on the novel of the same name by Harold Sinclair. In April of 1863 a Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1700 Union cavalry troops from Tennessee down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The goal was a small town called Newton’s Station in Mississippi, a railroad hub that was feeding supplies to Vicksburg and had allowed them to hold out despite a Union siege on the town. The raid was intended to destroy the hub and stop supplies from getting into Vicksburg, and it did just that. But rather than attempt to go back through the enemy territory he had just come through, Grierson decided to continue to head south in the hopes of avoiding as much confrontation with the enemy as possible. Other than that, however, very little of the story in the film is based on true events or people. By all accounts the shoot was a difficult one, with William Holden and director John Ford arguing most of the time, and John Wayne looking ahead to his own production of The Alamo coming up. The end result shows it, and the film is not one of the best for either Ford or Wayne.

The film begins with Union cavalry colonel John Wayne being asked by Stan Jones as General Grant, to break the stalemate at Vicksburg by cutting off their supply lines. Even if the raid succeeds it would put Wayne and his short brigade three hundred miles behind enemy lines. But Jones is desperate for a victory and okay’s the mission. Unbeknownst to Wayne, however, he’s also been assigned an army doctor, William Holden, and the two butt heads immediately, with Wayne wanting to leave behind the wounded and Holden wanting the opposite. Even before they leave, Holden culls a few men off the roster that he believes won’t make it all the way. When Holden stops to help a slave family deliver a baby, Wayne puts him under officer’s arrest and orders him to confine his work to the soldiers. Along the way they stop at a plantation house, vacant except for the woman of the house, Constance Towers, and her slave Althea Gibson. But when the two women turn spy, Wayne has no choice but to take them along with them on the trip so they don’t give away their battle plans. Of course she hates the Yankees and tries to foil their plans at every opportunity, which in turn annoys Wayne and delights Holden. In fact, Holden seems to take a liking to Miss Towers and becomes her constant companion, even if it’s against her will.

While the principal actors do nothing wrong, there is a real sense that they are going through the motions. John Wayne, especially, has absolutely no subtlety to his performance at all. Constance Towers is probably the best of the bunch and her role, while stock from the perspective of gaining a new respect for her captors, mercifully avoids being a cliché. But the rest of the screenplay is disappointing in the extreme. There is no conflict between Wayne and Holden over Towers, which makes no sense. Wayne simply spends the whole film hating all doctors, until the obligatory explanation he makes to Towers. Wayne’s cinematic morality even seems like a pain in the ass to him during the film. One of the interesting elements of the picture is the presence of the great tennis star Althea Gibson as the slave woman Lukey. The original screenplay had her lines written in slave dialect, which Gibson absolutely refused to do. Fortunately, John Ford allowed her to speak her lines in proper English rather than replace her. By this time John Ford was a grizzled veteran of westerns. Everything, from camera angles to exterior scenery was no accident. He does some nice work but even he can’t save a weak script. Composer David Buttolph wasn’t particularly known for westerns, but he certainly knows his way around the genre, even composing the kind of vocal numbers that Ford liked in his films. The Horse Soldiers has some interesting moments, particularly the battle scenes, but ultimately it is simply too predictable and too pat to even be called a good film. Other than the stars, there’s not a lot here.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Ragtime (1981)

Director: Milos Forman                                   Writer: Michael Weller
Film Score: Randy Newman                           Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Starring: Howard E. Rollins, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif and James Cagney

The novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow is a strange read for the simply fact that it has no dialogue. But that particular literary affectation was no impediment to making this one of the all-time American classics in film history. Never mind that director Milos Forman and his cameraman Miroslav Ondricek were from the former Czechoslovakia, in their filmed version of Ragtime they managed to capture a moment in history that is as American as the Revolutionary period of 1776. The story has several threads that are woven together to create a portrait of turn of the century New York. Each of the storylines revolves around a perceived wrong, and the attempt of the wronged person to get satisfaction that never really materializes. And tying the whole thing together is an absolutely masterful film score composed by Randy Newman. The film is one of the great epics of the eighties that constituted something of a revival after they had virtually disappeared in the late sixties. The film had a strong cast that has since become something of an all-star cast with the number of extras who went on to become stars. Despite winning eight Oscar nominations, the film couldn’t compete against sentiment and fashion in film that year and came away with nothing, a real travesty when seen from the perspective of today.

The credits roll over Elizabeth McGovern dancing with her partner, and then this segues into Howard Rollins playing piano in a movie theater for a newsreel. From there the camera jumps to an expensive black tie banquet held for industrialist Norman Mailer, but the wealthy Robert Joy and some associates crash the party because Joy believes his wife, McGovern, posed nude for the statue Mailer erected at the top of his building. Among the attendees is the police commissioner, James Cagney. Joy leaves, having gained nothing, and the scene then shifts to an unnamed wealthy family headed by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen. Olson’s factory is having its best year yet due to the sales of fireworks designed by Steenburgen’s brother, Brad Dourif. When the maid finds an abandoned black baby in the garden, Steenbergen angers her husband when she wants to provide a place for the baby and the mother, Debbie Allen, in their home. In a large nightclub in the city where Donald O’Connor is performing, Joy comes unglued and shoots Mailer in the head. Dourif sees the whole thing and becomes captivated by McGovern and begins following her. She is paid by Joy’s lawyers to say he was temporarily insane at the time of the murder and then on the way home she meets a poor street artist, Mandy Patinkin.

Meanwhile, Howard Rollins has moved up to playing with a band at a black nightclub, and so he comes over to Steenbergen’s house to see his child. At the same time Dourif begins dating McGovern and wants to bring her over to the house for dinner, but she doesn’t show up. It’s over an hour into the film before the primary conflicts begin after Rollins asks Allen to marry him and is befriended by Dourif. When the local firemen put horse manure in his new car, he demands legal restitution . . . and he’s not going to get it. Soon this becomes an obsession with Rollins, to the point of madness. And when Dourif becomes just as frustrated by McGovern’s lack of attention to him, he joins Rollins’ crusade. It’s a truly American story set at the beginning of a new century, full of life and possibility for whites, and nothing but abject tragedy for blacks. This was the first feature film for Howard Rollins, and he gives a strong performance that led to several big roles afterward. Elizabeth McGovern is maddening as the ditzy chorus girl who makes good, but again, it’s a very American tale. She was certainly convincing in the role, even performing an entire scene topless. Both of them earned Oscar nominations for their supporting work. Brad Dourif does a great job too, as he was still at a place in his career where he was making good on the promise he displayed on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The real star, however, is James Cagney in his final feature. He was in a lot of pain during the shooting, but is still commanding onscreen and a pleasure to watch. His character defies expectations to the end before finally conforming. What is so absolutely fascinating about this film is the portrayal of racism in the North, and the way that good people react to it. At first they do nothing, but the shock on their faces is clear. The systemic tide of hatred toward blacks cannot be overcome on an individual basis, however, and after a while the frustration becomes overwhelming. Milos Forman does as good a job as was possible with the material in 1981, but there’s a real sense that even with the massive length of the film there is still a lot missing from the story. His real masterpiece was yet to come in Amadeus three years later. While George Roy Hill’s insistence on using ragtime music in The Sting was genius, and brought new popularity to the style, it would take Randy Newman’s score of original work to put the music into its proper historical context and the soundtrack is tremendous. Ragtime is one of the great works of the twentieth century and one of the best historical dramas of all time. It gets my highest recommendation.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                 Writers: Robert Buckner & Edmund Joseph
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                         Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Richard Whorf

As much as Yankee Doodle Dandy is a testament to James Cagney’s greatness as a song and dance man, it is even more of a testament to arguably the greatest director of the golden age, Michael Curtiz. As the breadth of his Academy Award nominations demonstrate, he could direct almost any kind of picture and make it great. From film noir and swashbucklers, to war films and musicals, Curtiz could do it all. What’s fascinating about Curtiz’s style in this picture is that the framing of many of the musical numbers seems utterly prosaic, though he does make the attempt to film occasionally from the side or from above. But then, when the scenes outside of the theater happen, he manages to transform them into something utterly cinematic, with unique angles and terrific setups. It’s significant that Cagney, who had his choice of directors, personally chose Curtiz, who was not only the best director at Warner Brothers but one of the best in Hollywood at the time. Though the picture itself was nominated for an Oscar, as well as Curtiz for his direction, the only winners were James Cagney for best actor, best sound recording, and best musical score, shared jointly by Heinz Roemheld and Ray Heindorf.

The film begins with Cagney as George M. Cohan, in his latest Broadway show where he impersonates FDR. A request from the president to come to the White House, however, makes him nervous that he’s gone too far. But Roosevelt welcomes him and expresses his enthusiasm for Cohen’s work, and the two of them reminisce about his career, beginning with a July 4th celebration in Rhode Island an his birth in 1878. He was in show business right from the start, going out on the road with his parents and becoming part of The 4 Cohans as a child. When the youngster has his first hit his father, Walter Huston, and mother, Rosemary DeCamp, try to instill some humility into him, and unfortunately it doesn’t take and loses them an opportunity. So, it was back on the road and on into adulthood. He meets Joan Leslie at a show when she comes back stage to audition for him. Later, she helps Cagney try to get his music and plays produced, but they find it tough going. It’s not until a chance encounter with producer S.Z. Skall and would-be playwright Richard Whorf at a bar that Cagney finagles his way into getting a show produced and comes up with the smash hit, Little Johnny Jones in 1904.

For the next decade and a half Cohan had almost nothing but success. Still, there were problems in certain theaters with shows losing money. Then in 1917 he made an attempt at a straight drama that flopped. But with the entrance of the U.S. into World War One he wrote his biggest hit to date, Over There, and was back on top again writing sentimental and patriotic shows that continued to be popular into the 1940s. It was Cohan himself who was behind the making of the picture. He produced a play about his life called The Yankee Doodle Boy and the success of that piece prompted him to ask his friend Samuel Goldwyn to produce the picture at MGM, but when Fred Astaire backed out so did Goldwyn. Finally Cohan was able to secure a deal with Jack Warner and the film went forward with James Cagney in the lead. Cohan, of course, wanted control over various aspects of the film, especially when it came to the portrayal of his family and his wife. Robert Buckner had done the first draft of the screenplay as a straight drama. Then the script was passed to the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who no doubt added much of the humor in the form of one-liners that Cagney delivered during the film.

While Cagney’s dancing style seems completely unique to him, and it is, in looking at the first of Cohan’s only two sound films from Hollywood, there are a lot of similarities in the way that the two danced. The way that Cagney delivered his songs in the film, mostly talking, was also a trait of Cohan’s. In the end it’s difficult to think of another actor who could have emulated the great composer better. Both Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp as his parents, and the wonderful Jeanne Cagney as his sister, were cast on the insistence of Cagney himself, who had earned those rights with the help of his brother William, one of the producers on the film. It’s a very respectful film, to be sure which is something that Cohan himself made sure of, unlike a lot of biopics that were filmed at the time. Behind the camera was one of the legends in Hollywood, James Wong Howe, who gave Curtiz the tremendous movement and perfect lighting that achieved all that Curtiz required. The film, of course, was the perfect kind of entertainment for Americans as they entered World War Two and became part of the war effort despite its egotistic beginnings. As a result, Yankee Doodle Dandy remains an indelible part of the American experience.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

Director: Martin Ritt                                     Writer: Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr.
Film Score: Alex North                                Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles and Lee Remick

The Long, Hot Summer is a combination of several of William Faulkner’s Snopes’ tales. And while the story works as a film, those who are familiar with the source material will find themselves bewildered at times by Paul Newman, who inhabits no less than three separate Faulkner characters in the course of the film. 20th Century Fox had purchased the rights to two of Faulkner’s novels, and when Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank were given the task of adapting The Hamlet, they added parts of other stories in creating their screenplay. The cast was made up primarily of hot young actors from New York, the exception being Orson Welles. In his first appearance onscreen the veteran actor in his heavy makeup looks remarkably like Broderick Crawford, and the more one watches the film the more apparent it is that Crawford would have made a far better patriarch for the story. Welles mumbled his words so thoroughly during his scenes that director Martin Ritt had to go in afterward and loop almost all of his dialogue--which is still unintelligible much of the time. But Ritt had to make it work because he was attempting to resuscitate his career after being blackballed by the communist witch-hunts of the early fifties.

The film opens with a scene out of Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” Paul Newman is in a country store being tried for burning his employer’s barn. The owner can’t prove it and so Newman goes free, but must leave town. He heads down the Mississippi on a tug boat behind the opening credits, and when he reaches land he hitches a ride with Joanne Woodward and Lee Remick, daughter and daughter-in-law respectively, of the richest man in town, Orson Welles. The bulk of the story is from the Faulkner novel The Hamlet, with Newman’s character being a combination of the stranger in town named Quick, and the barn burner named Snopes. Remick is a flibbertigibbet and married to Welles’ son Tony Franciosa, while Woodward is an unmarried schoolteacher in love with the last remaining gentry in the village, Richard Anderson. Newman begins by renting a plot of land to sharecrop, but when Welles comes out to confront him about his criminal past he tells him the best fire insurance would be to give him a good job so that he wouldn’t want to leave. Welles agrees and begins by having him sell some horses, in a scene from a lengthy short story called “Spotted Horses” that Faulkner would incorporate into The Hamlet. After Newman’s success, Welles gives him a job at his store, which upsets Franciosa who feels threatened by the newcomer.

The real conflict in the plot comes when Welles begins feeling his mortality and wants to have grandchildren immediately. His answer is to marry off Woodward either to Anderson or Newman; he’s not particular. The choice that Woodward has to make is not an easy one, temporary sexual fulfillment with Newman accompanied by a life of misery and uncertainty, or solid home and future with Anderson along with complete boredom and physical neglect. It’s clear that she wants neither, and at the same time it’s just as clear there are no other offers on the horizon. Though the film is sexually suggestive, it’s not very explicit at all. The real moral angst comes from Welles’ willingness to sell his daughter like a slave to Newman, when she clearly hates the man. While Newman’s character began as a composite of two characters from Faulkner’s works, at the end of the film he also becomes a third, Snopes’ son Sarty from the end of “Barn Burning.” And then Hollywood jumps to the fore to pull the whole Southern morass into Middle America and end the thing just like a TV show. It’s difficult to watch because, as conflicting as the Southern lack of morality is to watch, it’s just as disconcerting to see Faulkner’s vision completely undermined at the end.

Alex North’s jazz-influenced score is fairly unremarkable, though the use of an actual theme song with lyrics sung by Jimmie Rogers during the title credits is definitely a low point on the soundtrack. While the film was considered a hit at the time because it made money, it was not a significant box-office draw, and was only the sixth-highest grossing film for Fox that year. The other notable aspect of the film is that it is the first pairing of Newman and Woodward on film and following principal photography the two were married in Las Vegas. None of the acting in the film, however, is necessarily great, even that of the two principals. Newman is Newman and Woodward is Woodward and there is a stylization to the Southern stereotypes that lacks originality and interest overall. Even a small role by the great Angela Landsbury doesn’t even manage to resonate. The film itself is also heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which Newman had starred in shortly after this production in order to capitalize on its modest success. Newman managed to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival for best actor, but the film was ignored at Oscar time. The Long, Hot Summer is certainly interesting for the actors involved, and worth a viewing, but ultimately it is a disappointing Faulkner adaptation.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Satan in High Heels (1962)

Director: Jerald Intrator                                    Writer: John T. Chapman
Film Score: Mundell Lowe                                Cinematography: Bernard Hirschenson
Starring: Meg Myles, Grayson Hall, Mike Keene and Robert Yuro

One of my all-time favorite stories about the cinema has to do with this film. A writer who was working on a piece about jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe wanted to interview a musicologist about his 1962 film score for Satan in High Heels, so he screened it for him in preparation for their discussion. After it was over the musicologist asked to watch it again, and the writer thought he was going to get some great stuff about the music in the film. When they had finished the second viewing the writer asked the musicologist, “So, what did you think of the film score?” The musicologist then gave him a puzzled look and said, “There was a film score?” One can hardly blame him, and not just for the obvious reasons. The film is impressive in the way that it emulates the French New Wave, and could almost be considered on par with Bresson or Truffaut--in its own twisted American way. While the film falls into the category of sixties sexploitation, there isn’t any real nudity in the picture, and minimal titillation in general. Instead it fits in far better with that European style of relationship film.

The film opens on a carnival, a Ferris wheel and a carousel, organ music in the background. The well-endowed Meg Myles plays a stripper at a burlesque show, underappreciated and underpaid, and none too happy about it. She’s thinking of leaving and taking a bus to New York. Then Earl Hammond shows up in her dressing room, desperate, but Myles is clearly not interesting in him anymore. That is, until he flashes the nine hundred dollars he earned, then she pretends that she’ll go to New York with him and takes off with the cash for the airport. The title sequence is shot over a rousing jazz number that shows her getting on a plane and flying into the city. She meets Ben Stone on the plane and he offers to share his hotel room. After he gets her an audition at a nightclub, she accepts. The club is run by Grayson Hall and she calls the owner, Mike Keene, to come over and hear her. Myles’ sultry delivery of a jazz tune wins everyone over and she is given a spot in the club’s upcoming show. At first Myles rooms with Hall, but it’s not too long before she’s living with Keene. That is, until she meets Keene’s son, Robert Yuro. She takes Yuro on a whirlwind twenty-four hours of sexual fulfillment, and when they return to the city he wants to take Myles away from his father.

Of course, this sets up all kinds of conflict, not only between Myles and her men, but between her and the other star of the show, the British entertainer Sabrina. But the ending, just like the rest of the film, defies expectations and is that much better for it. It’s actually fantastic. The story itself, and most of the screenplay, is straightforward enough and there are some nice lines in the script. In some ways the main character is a reflection of the Barbara Stanwyck character in Babyface in the way that she manipulates the men using sex to get what she wants. And the way that they beg pathetically for her not to leave her definitely earns her the name in the title. The acting in the beginning of the film seems a big shaky, almost no-budget, but when it moves to New York City, the skill of the actors really comes through. Again, there’s a definite European style at work, an amateur actor feeling. As good as Myles is, however, Grayson Hall steals every scene she’s in. It’s as though she’s straight out of Cabaret. Mike Keene and Robert Yuro make a great father and son team, but the weakest actor of the bunch is Sabrina. All the women, with the exception of Hall, have over-exaggerated hourglass figures with huge breasts, tiny waists, and big hips. Pat Harner is the one actress who actually strips, but it’s kept hidden from the viewer.

The thing that brings the whole film together is the soundtrack by Mundell Lowe. He assembled an exceptional big band with terrific soloists, and wrote some swinging charts. One of the odd things about the film, however, is that none of the musicians appear in the movie itself. The conceit is that they are all just out of camera range on the stage behind the singers, but it’s clear director Jerald Intrator didn’t want to try to match the playing with the soundtrack and opted not to hire them for the shoot as well. The soundtrack was released on the short-lived Charlie Parker records--which produced a ton of great LPs that haven’t been reissued on CD yet--and was well-received by jazz critics at the time. The film was shot in a crisp black and white, with all of the sound looped in afterward as was the practice with many films of that era. The cinematography is uniformly excellent and the camera angles are well-chosen, again, with that European influence. Satan in High Heels is a remarkably good film, and certainly defies it’s sixties sexploitation tag and deserves to be judged on its own merits rather than any lowbrow expectations one might have going in. It comes highly recommended.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean                                        Writers: Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson
Film Score: Maurice Jarre                                Cinematography: Freddie Young
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Claude Rains

There’s a fascinating parallel between the lives of T.H. Lawrence and George S. Patton. Both were military men who fought in world wars and both died in traffic accidents when the war was over. Patton was paralyzed at the end of World War Two when he jeep was riding in was hit, and he died a few days later in Germany. Lawrence of Arabia begins with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in England fifteen years after the end of World War One. At the funeral reporters ask those who served with him about the man, but no one really has an answer. Thus the film proceeds to document the last years of his life fighting in the Middle East during The Great War. And the choice of director for the project was as inspired as the story he was telling. David Lean was certainly one of the most confident of directors in the medium of the epic. Having already won an Oscar for the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, he went on to earn another in Lawrence of Arabia as well as being nominated for both Doctor Zhivago in 1965 and A Passage to India in 1984. The scope of the story and visuals on the screen are impressive for the time and have continued to enthrall audiences and critics alike since it was first released, winning the Academy Award for best picture, one of seven the film would win overall.

When the story flashes back it is to Cairo, with Peter O’Toole as Lawrence making maps. He’s a problem soldier, as he doesn’t work well with others, especially officers. Even though the general in Egypt, Donald Wolfit, hates him, when the head of the Arab Bureau, Claude Rains, wants him sent to Arabia Wolfit balks on principal. Certain Arab tribes have mounted a revolt against their Turkish occupiers, and the British have no interest in it thinking any expenditure of manpower and money will be a waste as the Bedouin tribes hate the Turks only marginally more than they hate each other. But Rains wins the day and O’Toole is sent east. Omar Sharif takes him to the general in Arabia, Anthony Quayle, who tells him to simply meet with Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and report back. What he does instead is to attempt to unite the Arab tribes against the Turks and take the seaport of Aqaba, a major advantage to the British in the region. The first challenge is the desert, which they miraculously are able to cross. The next obstacle is an enemy tribe run by Anthony Quinn, who is only convinced to go along with the attack with the promise of keeping all the money he can find in Aqaba. The surprise attack works, though there is not money, but O’Toole promises to get it for him, as well as munitions for the rest of the Arabs, but must get back before the coalition falls apart.

After the intermission it’s four months later and O’Toole and the Arab confederation are winning victories all over the peninsula, destroying railroads and looting. American newspaper reporter Edward Kennedy attaches himself to O’Toole to gains support for the Allies. But once the military victories are over, the real conflict begins, with the Arabs among themselves. The film is certainly long, at over three hours, but the lengthy scenes of crossing the desert need that kind of time to accurately convey the action on the screen. It takes more than beautiful scenery to make a classic, though. Peter O’Toole gives a highly stylized performance as Lawrence, but in retrospect he’s simply being himself and to a certain degree all of his performances carry the burden of his own personality. The real surprise is the presence of an aging Claude Rains. But while he makes a real go of it, he’s a shell of his former, commanding presence onscreen, and would die just a few years later. Jack Hawkins, as the head of the entire Middle East theater, also looks quite frail, especially after his bravura performance in River Kwai five years earlier. José Ferrer has only one brief scene and is effectively wasted--though to be fair, much of that scene was cut in the original release. Alec Guinness is difficult to swallow as the Arab leader, as is Anthony Quinn, but their casting is part and parcel of the time that even a solid performance by Omar Sharif can’t overcome.

Michael Wilmington’s essay in The A List is surprisingly refreshing. He’s states right at the beginning something I’ve been saying for a long time. To those who criticize the historical inaccuracy of the events and of Lawrence, he says, “if we want history, we can always read Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the rest of the source material. Lean's film gives us something different: high adventure wedded to stunning visual beauty, esthetic excitement married to bloody danger, suave irony coupled with chaos and futility.” And the rest of the review emphasizes those images, whether close-ups of O’Toole, or the landscape, as well as the futility experienced by all involved in attempting to forge an Arab state. He also makes a fascinating observation about Lean’s vision, that in the middle of the desert the audience doesn’t feel the heat. “Lean’s chilly precision cools the desert off, kisses some of the blood off Lawrence’s hands.” But he also wants to focus on the idea of male bonding. And there is that to be sure, but it’s not the kind that easily fits the buddy-picture trope. If it’s there--and I would argue that it’s not a certainly--it’s extremely subtle, as O’Toole has much more on his mind than relationships. Though Lawrence of Arabia is not one of my favorite films, it certainly deserves respect for the immense effort by David Lean as well as the artistry of the end result.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dial M for Murder (1953)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                  Writer: Frederick Knot
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                                Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings and Anthony Dawson

This is Hitchcock in his prime, mid-fifties period. While Dial M for Murder may lack the sheer artistry of Rear Window, it is still one of the director’s best works in a career full of great films, and is certainly more satisfying than his last collaboration with Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief. The story comes from a hit play by Frederick Knot, and his primary task in adapting it for the screen was trimming it down from its more substantial stage length. The play itself takes place in the main room of the apartment and Hitchcock does little to open things up. There are a couple of shots on the street, and a montage that is supposed to take place in the courtroom, but primarily he stays in the one room. The way he heightens interest, however, is through his camera angles, whether from over head during Milland’s seduction of Dawson, or from doorknob level looking into the bedroom, and moving the camera around the room. And it all works beautifully. Fortunately the film has emerged from the incomprehensible critical purgatory it endured for decades to earn the respect it rightly deserves as a taught thriller in which a suave protagonist attempts to commit the perfect crime.

The film opens on a kiss, Ray Milland and Grace Kelly in their apartment, not perfunctory exactly, but close. This is followed by the arrival of Robert Cummings and another kiss, in the same apartment, but this one full of passion. Milland is a former tennis pro, married to the wealthy Kelly. A year before she nearly left him for Cummings and since then he’s devoted himself to her in order to regain her trust. Milland begs off a concert that night and calls Anthony Dawson, pretending to be interesting in buying his car. The two of them had gone to college together, and since Dawson has a sketchy past Milland uses this to blackmail him into murdering Kelly so that he can get her money before she leaves him for good. Milland sets up the murder for the next night, while he’s out with Cummings. He has given Dawson instructions, makes a phone call from the party he’s attending, and when Kelly answers the phone Dawson is already in the room and attempts to kill her. Unfortunately for Dawson--and Milland--she manages to grab a pair of scissors and stabs Dawson in the back, killing him. When Milland gets home he has to do some quick thinking to engineer the scene and make it look like Kelly killed him on purpose, because he knew about the affair and threatened to expose her. And it almost works.

The real investigative work is undertaken by police detective John Williams, who becomes something of a proto-Columbo as he continually thinks of one more question to ask and continues to make Milland think they’re on the same side until he’s ready to spring his trap. Ray Milland is the centerpiece of the film and it is one of his finest performances. It’s doubtful that even Cary Grant could have pulled of the malevolence beneath his smiling exterior. And watching him think through problems when they arise is masterful. This was the first of Grace Kelly’s films for Hitchcock and while she has nowhere near the personality she would exhibit in their next film together, it can hardly be seen as her fault when the screenplay has her hemmed in on all sides by all the men in the film. Even so, she is ravishing onscreen and her mere presence elevates the production. If there’s a weakness to the cast it’s probably Robert Cummings as the boyfriend. A writer, where Milland is a tennis pro, he seems ineffectual and certainly not Kelly’s type. The other brilliant bit of casting, however, is Anthony Dawson as the killer. His angular face and dark countenance make him the perfect criminal to take Milland’s bait in order to get himself out of debt.

The film was shot in 3-D, and Hitchcock certainly makes some concessions to the gimmick, most notably when Milland moves behind Williams while Kelly is answering questions, or when Williams holds the apartment key out in front of him. But the other, more subtle, uses of the effect meld seamlessly into the rest of the film. The real point on which all analysis of this film must begin is the idea of the murderer as the protagonist. Hitchcock enjoyed this perversion of audience identification and would take it to its furthest extreme in Psycho. Here the audience sees Milland as the protagonist, the hero of the picture. Hitchcock builds tension in the scene when Milland needs to call home so that Dawson can murder Kelly. But his watch has stopped and Dawson looks as though he’s going to leave. The audience, however, wants Dawson to say. In effect, they’re on Milland’s side and they want Kelly to be murdered. The shock when Kelly gets the upper hand and kills him with the scissors is similar to the moment in Psycho when Janet Leigh is murdered in the shower. Finally, there’s a terrific score. While Dimitri Tiomkin is not my favorite of the classic composers, he wrote a memorable score here that holds up well alongside some of Hitchcock’s more talented collaborators. Dial M for Murder is, to put it simply, vintage Hitchcock and an exemplar of his mid-fifties greatness.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Director: Terence Fisher                                    Writer: Anthony Hinds
Film Score: Benjamin Frankel                            Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Starring: Oliver Reed, Anthony Dawson, Catherine Feller and Clifford Evans

Though the studio made dozens of Dracula and Frankenstein films, it seems hard to believe that Curse of the Werewolf was Hammer Studio’s only werewolf film. When Universal gave Hammer the rights to remake their films in England, the one stipulation was that they could not remake The Wolf Man, their classic 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr. Since Universal owned the rights to Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris, they asked them to film that instead. The reason probably has to do with the fact that Curt Siodmak’s screenplay to the Chaney vehicle was an original story rather than an adaptation of a public domain work like their earlier classics. Anthony Hinds wrote the adaptation of Endore’s novel, setting it in Spain in order to use the sets constructed for the uproduced film The Inquisitor, and truncating much of the historical research of the first half of the novel. Oliver Reed, despite his bad-boy reputation he would earn later, was patient and no doubt appreciative of the opportunity to appear on film in a leading role. He also helped that he had a good relationship with director Terrence Fisher and a healthy respect for producer Anthony Nelson Keys.

The film has an interesting beginning. Instead of a prologue before the credits, the credits begin immediately over the eyes of Oliver Reed as the werewolf. In many ways the entire first act of the film could be considered a prologue, establishing first the backstory without any real information about what all of this has to do with lycanthropy. The film is set in Spain and begins with a curious beggar, Richard Wordsworth, wondering why the church bells are ringing on a weekday. It’s because Anthony Dawson, the Marques, is getting married. Looking for charity Wordsworth heads to the banquet. Once there Dawson humiliates him before giving him food and then has him thrown into the dungeon and forgets about him. Decades later, after the little mute girl who has helped take care of him has grown up, Dawson takes a fancy to Yvonne Romain and when she doesn’t reciprocate she is thrown into the cell with Wordsworth and raped by him. After she is released she kills Dawson and runs away, discovered near death by Clifford Evans. Romain is pregnant and ready to deliver near Christmas, a curse in some cultures for a child born out of wedlock. But Romain dies giving birth, and the child is raised by Evans and his housekeeper Hira Talfrey.

A few years later a wolf is suspected of killing animals in and around the village, and when Evans figures out it’s the young Leon, Justin Walters, he erects bars on the bedroom window and manage to keep his “bad dreams” from happening again. Finally, when the boy has grown into Oliver Reed, he sets out on his own to make his way in the world beginning his working life at a winery. He’s befriended by the other worker, Martin Matthews, and falls in love with the vintner’s daughter, Catherine Feller. But one Saturday night, as the full moon comes out, Reed turns into a werewolf and not only kills a prostitute, but Matthews as well before heading back to his home village and killing another man. This is the beginning of the long third act--an extended finale--when the secret comes out and the town grapples with what to do about it. Oliver Reed does a solid job as the tortured youth, though some might say it’s a bit too tortured. In the context of the film, however, it works. It’s a different kind of story for Hammer and so there’s no clearly defined villain, and no Peter Cushing-type hero, though it’s still difficult to know why the studio never returned to that monster again since the film made back five times its production costs.

Other than Reed, Anthony Dawson is the main draw for film buffs. Best known as the blackmailed villain in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, he is perfectly sadistic in the film and dominates the screen in the few scenes he has. There is little special effects work in the film, other than one transformation scene near the end of the film when Reed’s--rather artificial looking--hands transform into paws. The full werewolf makeup was saved until the finale, a grey wolf with a lot of white hair rather than the traditional brown. The stunt work in the finale is also pretty terrific, with Reed’s double climbing up and down nearly the entire set before arriving at the bell tower of the church. And behind it all is the magnificent score by Benjamin Frankel. The studio’s house composer, and the man responsible for the most memorable scores in the Hammer catalogue was James Bernard. Frankel, in addition to scoring films, was also a working composer and conductor in London. He had first worked with the studio in their pre-gothic days and his score for the film is, above all other composers who worked with the studio, second only to Bernard. Curse of the Werewolf may not one of the finest examples of Hammer’s output, but it does occupy a beloved space in the hearts of fans as the only werewolf film essayed by studio.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blücher (1988)

Director: Oddvar Bull Tuhus                              Writer: Sverre Årnes
Film Score: Lillebjørn Nilsen                              Cinematography: Harald Gunnar Paalgard
Starring: Helge Jordal, Frank Krog, Hege Schøyen and Geir Børresen

Before there was Titanic, and even before Leviathan, the idea of underwater salvage had been explored in this Norwegian thriller entitled Blücher, after the name of a German warship that the protagonists are after. The film is one of industrial espionage, which can run the gamut from high drama like The Formula from 1980 or hokey like Duplicity from 2009. This one falls in the former camp. Blücher, though a financial success, was also the last feature film from director Oddvar Bull Tuhus who had achieved a good deal of critical success in the seventies. In 1973 he was awarded the Norwegian Film Critic’s Prize for his film Maria Marusjka, and two years later his documentary drama Streik! was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. After this film the writer-director-producer went into feature film production as well as television work for Norwegian television primarily in the area of drama. His work here is solid and while not necessarily a gripping thriller in the American sense, it has its moments. The underwater photography is terrific as well, and the real high point of the film as whole, especially as many of the underwater scenes take place at night.

The film opens in front of a diving salvage business, with Helge Jordal telling his partner that they need to get going of they’re going to get to the dive on time. From there the credits roll on a calm ocean in the dark, at water level, with Jordal and Frank Krog in a rowboat. They’re diving at night to salvage a German cruiser that they want to get to because they have been blackballed for illegal salvaging in the past. At the same time a German industrialist, Edwin Christie, arrives in Oslo amid protests because Norwegians believe he was a Nazi during the war, and the only thing that can prove his past affiliations are the documents aboard the ship. Several people have attempted to get into the ship, which is lying upside down on the bottom of the Oslofjord, but all have died trying. Norwegian government officials, meanwhile, are angry because they can only make the deal if the demonstrations stop. The police discover Jordal and Krog the next morning, still in their boat, but they keep their success at finding a way in a secret, and when the police report appears in the papers the next day newspaper photographer Hege Schøyen shows up at their door wanting to take pictures of the wreckage. She turns out to be the daughter of Jack Fjeldstad, head of the Norwegian company doing the deal, attempting to get ahold of the documents before the divers can bring them up from the bottom.

Things get complicated when the two men fall for Schøyen and she works them against each other. Meanwhile a real news reporter, Geir Børresen, wants the story as well and is willing to blackmail Krog about a scandal from his past to get him to comply, all while the government’s strong-arm man in the form of police chief Bjorn Fløberg, is pressuring Fjeldstad to get the deal finalized. Throughout the film, Jordal and Krog manage to stay one step ahead of everyone, the police, Fjeldstad, and even Schøyen. That is, until Fløberg hires a hit man to take the divers out. The plot is convoluted one, especially because the interests of the government and Fjeldstad are the same and yet Fjeldstad is under the gun to keep the documents from falling into the hands of the media. Lillebjørn Nilsen and Arlis Andersen’s score for the film make effective use of acoustic blues guitar and some nice slide work, a welcome relief from the synthesizer-driven scores at the time in the U.S., or even in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot from three years earlier. The other notable aspect is the cinematography itself, under the direction of Oddvar Bull Tuhus. It is also very European in the late eighties style, again, much different from the American films from this time. The acting by the principals might be below what Hollywood has to offer, but there are enough other positive aspects of the production to make Blücher recommended viewing for fans of European films.