Sunday, February 24, 2013

Academy Awards 2013


A few months ago I was really looking forward to the awards, having seen Lincoln and Django Unchained in the space of a few weeks and sure that one of them would take the best picture award home. But once it became clear that there were other contenders like the awful musical version of Les Miserables and the trite Silver Linings Playbook, I began to have my doubts. So, it was with some trepidation, that I began watching the ceremony.

The first award, however, went to Chrisoph Waltz for Django Unchained and I couldn’t have been more delighted. In my review of the film I expressed my disappointment that it would most likely be snubbed at the Oscars and so, whatever happened afterward, Tarantino’s film would be on the books as having one at least one award. After that, Life of Pi won the awards for cinematography and visual effects. Visual effects I can see, but cinematography, for a green-screen movie? Historical films have a tradition of taking home the award for costume design and the field was full of them, but Anna Karenina won the Oscar. The fist big disappointment--a win for Les Miserables--came with makeup and hair design.

During the nearly two hours after the first big award for supporting actor were awards for sound editing, tied between Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall. Best foreign film went to Amour--something that always bothered me when a film could double dip, seeing as how it’s also nominated for best picture. Finally, the award for best supporting actress, which went to Anne Hathaway and thus began what I feared would be a long, slow descent into disappointment. But first, Argo won for film editing, which thus far had been shut out. And then we finally broke the ice when Lincoln won for best production design. After that best film score went to Life of Pi, tying it for the moment with Les Mis with three apiece.

At last, it was time for the big six (seven really, because the screenplay is divided into two). Best adapted screenplay went to Argo and original screenplay to my man Quentin Tarantino for my favorite film of the year, Django Unchained. The Oscar for best director was given to Ang Lee for Life of Pi, making that film one of the big winners of the evening. In the end, however, it was a very democratic night, with no film really dominating. For best actress, Silver Linings Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence won, giving that film its first Oscar of the night. Then it was on to the best actor and the second award of the night for Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis taking home the award. And then, best picture, the one we’d all be waiting for: Argo. Not the storybook ending I had hoped for, but of the options other than Lincoln and Django, I can live with it. All in all, a great night.

The Artist (2011)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius                          Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Film Score: Ludovic Bource                             Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell

Last year’s Academy Award winner for best picture is so densely packed with symbolism as an homage to Hollywood, that it’s easy to see why it won. The Artist can barely contain within its frames the totality of film history that it pays tribute to, not the least of which is the fact that the film is silent. But lest you think this is the only serious effort to take up the silent form in modern film, it’s important to note that this was actually done four years earlier by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society in an absolutely brilliant film called The Call of Cthulhu. And while The Artist is obviously a much more ambitious project, the silent aspect is not treading on virgin territory.

Where to begin? The story opens in 1927 with a film-within-a-film scene at a theater--the idea of which goes back to Shakespeare--with Jean Dujardin as the leading man who by no accident looks like Douglas Fairbanks and who is named George Valentine, as a nod to Rudoph Valentino. He brings his little dog, which begs comparison with Asta from The Thin Man series, out on stage with him after the show in preference to the leading lady, giving the whole thing a feeling of Singing in the Rain. And we’re still only five minutes into the film. The conceit is phenomenal, dealing with the transition from silent films to sound while staying in the silent mode, completely opposite and superior in a powerful way to Singing in the Rain. The love story of the young newcomer, Bérénice Bejo, who dances and acts her way into the heart of the big star, is far more believable too.

It makes sense to me that the two leads are French. It’s clear that they are studied and have a true grasp of the art of pantomime that they are attempting to emulate. And while Bejo is good, Dujardin is masterful, slightly attenuating his performance when he is not working as an actor, and thus his subtle use of pantomime gives the entire film a real grounding that era. This is most noticeable when he is acting alongside the Americans who, while quite good at acting, simply don’t have the understanding of pantomime that, ironically, gives the film a wonderful sense of realism. But that’s also the hinge on which the later half of the story turns because there is a distinct reference to A Star is Born, as Bejo’s career begins to outshine Dujardin’s. And in extending that idea further, the film even manages to touch on aspects of the noir.

The direction is top notch, with Michel Hazanavicius’s camera simultaneously emulating not only the type of shots from the twenties, but the aspect ratio of the screen as well. There is also a scene with sound, though not speech, that is breathtaking in its use. Then there is the music which, so crucial to silent film, becomes almost another character. Ludovic Bource has taken every opportunity to be original and in doing so has wedded the perfect sound to this silent masterpiece. Not only does he refuse to limit himself to a symphonic score, but his emulation of jazz and popular tunes--as well as familiar cues from films like Vertigo--to support the action is stunning. In addition, there are scenes like one that opens on the image of phonograph playing a record, that begin silently, giving the entire film a sense of carefully thought out brilliance. The only diminishment of that brilliance is the use of actual vocals on “Pennies from Heaven” on a montage which would have been much more powerful without them.

This is such a good film that superlatives don’t do it justice. There have been attempts at Hollywood love letters before, but nothing like this. Every facet of the film has been so carefully created that the whole thing shimmers on the screen from start to finish. If you’re any kind of fan of film you’ve already seen it, if not already own it. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a treat. The Artist needs only two words of promotion: get it!

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Director: Rex Ingram                                       Writer: June Mathis
Film Score: Louis F. Gottschalk                       Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: Pomeroy Cannon, Josef Swickard, Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry

Watching The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s easy to see why Rudolph Valentino was the great lover of the silent screen. Though the available prints vary wildly in terms of quality and length, Valentino emerges as supremely confident, darkly mysterious and overtly romantic. The copy of the film I opted for is an inexpensive version that includes a documentary. There is no score but the source music used, while uneven, is ingeniously edited into the film in a way that shows some reverence for the film, unlike some silent films that stick unrelated music on the soundtrack and let it run. This is an edited 134 minute version, and while there is a wonderful 152 minute version with a new score by Carl Davis, it has only been shown on the Turner Classics cable channel and is not available on DVD.

The story comes from the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, published in 1919. It concerns an Argentinian family who has roots in Europe. The father is Spanish and one of his daughters marries a Frenchman, and the other a German. After the father’s death the two husbands decide to go back to Europe. The son of the Frenchman is played by Valentino, and he becomes the talk of Paris for his womanizing and his tango dancing. When World War I breaks out he is torn because, as an Argentinian he cannot be drafted, but he feels the pull of patriotism, and since the married woman he is having an affair with is serving as a nurse he makes the decision to volunteer.

The second half of the film attempts to show the horrors of war, with an emphasis on the Germans as the bad guys. As I’ve said before in writing about war films, while the Germans are usually stereotyped as evil, it’s not like it happened in a vacuum. For the most part they earned their reputation during two world wars and whatever propaganda value they have does not exist without culpability on their part. Some of the Germans in the film would become stars later in the sound era, including Alan Hale and Wallace Beery.

The camerawork is pretty typical for the time. But there are a couple of tracking shots in the early scenes that are particularly arresting, where Valentino and his female partner dance toward the camera. This is replicated once in the Paris section, and with good effect. Valentino doesn’t appear much in the second half, and the film suffers for it. At the same time there’s an odd sense of American Victorian morality overlaid onto the Europeans in the film, that diminishes the impact as well. In the end it’s a fascinating look at the war from the perspective of the time, but it’s not a great film. Though Valentino is impressive here, as with most of his films, he is about the only thing that is. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is definitely worth watching for its historical value alone, and also delivers a fair amount of entertainment in the bargain.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Point Blank (1967)

Director: John Boorman                               Writers: Alexander Jacobs & David Newhouse
Film Score: Johnny Mandel                          Cinematography: Philip A. Lathrop
Starring: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn and Caroll O’Connor

Point Blank is a feverish dream of a film, an urban nightmare. Directed by John Boorman, his first feature film, he would go on to direct Deliverance, Hope and Glory and little else of any significance. But this is a fascinating start to his career and the sixties period suits the film perfectly. Lee Marvin plays the friend of a mobster, John Vernon, who owes the mob money and ropes Marvin into a score so that he can pay back his bosses and get back into their good graces. The film begins with Marvin being shot by Vernon and left for dead in order to get his share of the money. The rest of the film is Marvin trying to get his money. It’s that simple.

The whole thing borders on the comic, and it’s probably to Boorman’s credit that it doesn’t go over the line. But every step of the way there are moments. One fight scene in a “jazz” club with a screaming black vocalist, has Marvin roughing up two henchmen who have been sent to kill him. By the time he gets the first one out of the way he’s had enough and with his gun he punches the other one in the nuts to disable him. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen that obvious method used in a serious way. In another scene, Marvin is sneaking up to the penthouse which is being guarded by two goons. Angie Dickinson is the bait keeping Vernon occupied, and suddenly Boorman makes a direct cut to the henchmen out cold and tied up over the rail. I laughed out loud.

Throughout, Marvin is obsessed, but not in the usual way. He’s ice instead of fire. He plans, he waits, he strikes, never once second guessing himself and always a step ahead of the mob. The scene at the end of the film with Caroll O’Connor, after he's been wreaking havoc for ninety minutes, is priceless: he just wants his money. Johnny Mandel’s score is minimalist, at times atonal and dissonant, at times conventional, but overall used sparingly. The story is from a novel by Donald Westlake, one of his great Richard Stark novels. The camera work is typical of the period, and the San Francisco setting is reminiscent of Dirty Harry or Bullitt. It doesn’t reach the greatness of those two films, but it is worth seeing for the unconventional anti-hero and the great story.

Charles Taylor’s review of the film in The B List is insightful, delving not only into the intricacies of the film itself, but of Boorman as a director. His take on the film is one of mirroring the dissolution of the studio system and Boorman laying it out for all to see. Marvin, as the hero of the piece, is certainly an enigma, ice in his veins while going after his money, no emotion either positive--for the women in the story--or negative--for the villains he claims to be seeking revenge from. In terms of explaining Boorman, he’s far more generous than I am. In the end, however, Point Blank is a juggernaut of a crime drama, stripped bare and built for speed, and well worth taking for a spin.

Stakeout (1987)

Director: John Badham                               Writer: Jim Kouf
Film Score: Arthur B. Rubinstein                 Cinematography: John Seale
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Emilio Estevez, Madeline Stowe and Aidan Quinn

One of the hottest film companies in the eighties was Disney’s Touchstone division. It was the company that single-handedly revived the careers of Nick Nolte, Bette Midler and the star of this film, Richard Dreyfuss. His first film for the company, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, was a major comeback. It was the first he had done in two years, and was only the third film he had done in the previous six years. It was a minor hit and paved the way for some very good leading roles immediately following, including Stand By Me, Tin Men and what is probably the best of his Touchstone films, Stakeout.

Jim Kouf’s script for Stakeout is very cleverly written, not only in terms of plot and subplot, but the dialog as well. Another nice thing about it is the humor is very character driven and matches extremely well with the actors. The story involves the stakeout of Madeline Stowe’s house by the police, Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez, because her former boyfriend, Aidan Quinn, has escaped from prison. Things are fine until Dreyfuss goes undercover inside her house to plant bugs in her phones and the two fall for each other. Dreyfuss attempts to skirt the ethical dilemma as long as possible, but puts not only the investigation in jeopardy, but his job as well. I have my doubts as to whether this film would be made today, the peeping tom aspect along with the improved reputation of police in general doesn’t really resonate now.

It’s sometimes difficult for a film to get the right balance between comedy and drama, but this film does an excellent job. Director John Badham, who had been primarily a TV director, and is best known for Saturday Night Fever and War Games, imbued the film with timeless stylistic elements that don’t seem dated even today. What does date the film is the music, some synthesized pieces in the film score, but mostly from the pop hits of the day. The only really unfortunate decision made by the production was to film in Vancouver, Canada and attempt to pass it off as Seattle. There was no attempt even made to insert second unit shots of Seattle landmarks into the exterior shots and, as a result, there is nothing even remotely like Seattle in the entire film.

The principals all acquit themselves admirably in the film. The relationship between Dreyfuss and Stowe has a nice sense of realism to it, more believable even that his earlier romantic lead in The Goodbye Girl. Emilio Estevez is almost too young for the role, a fact which they are forced to address in the film when he tells Dreyfuss, “I busted my ass to make detective before thirty . . .” What really makes the film, however, is the malevolence of Adian Quinn, a great performance as the escaped murderer that the viewer doesn’t doubt for a minute. In addition, there is a great supporting cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Dan Lauria, Ian Tracey and Earl Billings. For an eighties film, Stakeout delivers on all its promises and is a solid piece of entertainment.

The King's Speech (2010)

Director: Tom Hooper                                   Writer: David Seidler
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                      Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Guy Pearce

The King’s Speech is one of the best films to come around in a long time, well deserving of the Academy Award for best picture. In addition to stellar performances by the entire cast, the film sports an intelligent and humorous script by David Seidler who had written mostly television scripts up until this point, and at the time was the oldest person to win the Oscar for best original screenplay. And what a screenplay it was. Not only was he able to capture the seriousness of the transfer of power in the English monarchy on the precipice of World War II, but he was also able to inject a tremendous amount of intelligent humor into the script as well.

The story opens on Prince Albert, Duke of York, (Colin Firth) in 1925. Paralyzed with anxiety in front of audiences because of his stutter, he is unable to fulfill his role in speaking engagements. His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks help from an unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The key element, at least at first, is Logue’s insistence that he be put on an equal footing with the Prince, which is of course completely unacceptable to the royals. But when Albert, “Bertie” to his family and what Logue begins calling him, has a breakthrough, both Albert and Elizabeth realize that it would be foolish not to avail themselves of the man’s talents.

The real beauty of the film is in watching the relationship develop between Firth and Rush. Unlike most British citizens of the time, Rush's Logue is not the least bit intimidated by their Royal Highnesses. In fact, when they initially refuse to abide by his insistence on equality, he tells them he can’t help and turns them away--along with the implied payment that would accompany such a client. As Logue, Rush has supreme belief in his skills and refuses to back down and give the royals the obsequious treatment they are used to. Ultimately, his theory is born out, and the relationship ceases to be one of class and gradually becomes one of friendship. Despite a falling out, Logue is there for the Prince all the way through his ascension to becoming King George VI.

Colin Firth has been a British star for decades now. He was nominated for an Oscar the year before in A Single Man, but was justifiably awarded the trophy for The King’s Speech. Geoffrey Rush is easily the best British character actor working today. Since his Academy Award winning performance in Shine in 1996, he has become a fixture on the screen. But the real treasure in the film is Helena Bonham Carter. It’s absolutely wonderful to see her back in a serious role after being mired for so long in dreck like the Tim Burton and Harry Potter films. True, she became a little too serious for a while after her breakout in A Room with a View, and her later roles no doubt helped her become a more rounded performer, but the subtle humor with which she injects her character is absolutely brilliant and one hopes that she continues with more of these kinds of roles. In the end, The King’s Speech is simply one of those films that is so clearly a masterpiece that it is a joy to watch from beginning to end.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dark Victory (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding                            Writer: Casey Robinson
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Travers

For those of us who grew up with television in the sixties, our first exposure to Bette Davis coming in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as well as talk shows and TV guest spots, it’s hard to believe that she was once the same fresh-faced young woman who appeared in early Warner Brothers classics like Dark Victory. But the eyes tell us it must be her. Filmed shortly after her breakout picture, Jezebel, Davis brings the same feisty brand of wealthy entitlement to the role, this time instead of a Southern belle she plays a modern heiress.

The story is a tear-jerking melodrama in which Davis is diagnosed with a brain tumor and, though she resists at first, is smitten by the charm of brain surgeon George Brent. After an operation to determine the extent of the tumor, Brent discovers that it is inoperable and terminal. The rest of the story is fairly routine, at least as far as old movies go. There is romance, betrayal, and a brief moment of happiness before the final end. There is plenty of self-sacrifice to go around, but nothing really revolutionary. The film is simply a set-piece for Davis's acting and though she does a good job--as far as the script will let her--there’s not much else to recommend the picture.

Humphrey Bogart delivers a peculiarly callow performance as the horse trainer with a ridiculous attempt at an Irish accent. It’s difficult to believe that this picture predated by only two years the commanding presence that he would exhibit in The Maltese Falcon. Ronald Regan is also on hand as the the playboy lush who is one of Davis’s friends. Henry Travers would have managed a bit more gravitas in this film than he did later, coming several years before his role as the doddering Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. Geraldine Fitzgerald does her best to support Davis as the adoring personal secretary-cum-best friend, but both she and George Brent come off as rather generic stereotypes.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, for best picture, best actress for Davis, and best score for Max Steiner. But 1939 was one of the all time great years for films and Dark Victory was shut out. How good the film is for audiences today really depends on how much you like Bette Davis. The best bet is to pick the film up as part of a Turner Classics collection featuring four of Davis’s films. If this one doesn’t live up to expectations, there’s bound to be another in the set that does.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Black Swan (2010)

Director: Darren Arnofsky                              Writer: Mark Heyman & Andres Heinz
Film Score: Clint Mansel                               Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey

There hasn’t been a good ballet film since The Turning Point in 1977, but all of the same motifs are still there: the aging ballerina whose dancing days have come to an end, the mother who gave up her dancing career to raise her daughter, the overbearing director, the new ballerina taking her place center stage as the star, and the underling who threatens to outdance her. But The Black Swan has a twist, or should I say the film itself is twisted?

The story is about a veteran ballerina, Natalie Portman, who finally gets her chance to star in the ballet company’s season opening production of Swan Lake. While she is perfect for the role of the white swan, the director, Vincent Cassel, has his doubts about her ability to play the evil black swan. He confronts her, pushes her, and challenges her to find her inner dark side, her temptress within, with unintended results. When Portman begins seeing herself on the subway, walking past herself on the sidewalk, and in mirrors behind her, it’s clear that something other worldly--or more likely inner worldly--is taking place.

Portman won the Academy Award that year for best actress in a fairly weak field. Still, her performance is arresting and she did an outstanding job not only with the dramatic part of the role, but also apparently with the dancing. It must be noted, however, that the bulk of the shots of Portman dancing are fairly close up and don’t show her legs at all, the long shots featuring dance double Sarah Lane. The direction by Darren Arnofsky is unique, to be sure. The camera seems to stalk Portman everywhere throughout the film, and the special effects of the hallucinations are quite eerie. While the film score is credited to Clint Mansel, the bulk of the music comes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It’s taken a bit fast at times, but it is still quite good.

In addition to Portman, there are some nice performances. Barbara Hershey is unsettling as the overly controlling stage mother who dominates Portman at the beginning of the film. Vincent Cassel’s character had the potential to come off as stereotypically manipulative, but his character is reigned in enough to allow him some humanity. And Mila Kunis is very good as the new dancer in the company who threatens Portman by her presence. The Black Swan is not a great one, with the exception of Portman’s performance, but it is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless, and deserving of a viewing just to see Arnofsky’s unique vision.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Director: Otto Preminger                              Writer: Wendell Mayes
Film Score: Duke Ellington                           Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott

Anatomy of a Murder is one of those crisply filmed, rerecorded dialogue, sterile sixties films that I tend to dislike . . . almost. Filmed in 1959, it’s bordering on that territory, but has enough to recommend it that I can overlook some of the negative production values and embrace the positive qualities it possesses. The story, at least in the beginning, seems simple enough, based on the novel by Robert Traver about an actual 1952 murder case. Ben Gazzara is accused of killing a man who raped his wife. Jimmy Stewart, a former prosecutor in the upper peninsula of Michigan, is engaged by Lee Remick, the defendant’s wife, to defend her husband and the case goes to trial.

The case itself, seen from our modern perspective, certainly lacks the drama it no doubt had in the day. The focus is on Jimmy Stewart as the quintessential defense lawyer who will use any kind of scheme to get his client acquitted. It’s an odd mix, though, because Stewart had for so long been associated with righteous characters in everything from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Rear Window. Seeing him coercing witnesses, coaching his client, and manipulating the jury in the courtroom rankles a bit, but ultimately that's the point, as the film itself winds up being a treatise on the fallibility of the jury system. What made Preminger’s film so controversial at the time was the frank discussion of rape and the casual use of temporary insanity to excuse a murder.

Preminger uses a lot of familiar bits from earlier movies. From his own film, he names the wife of the murderer Laura. In his defense lawyer James Stewart he cops the gimmick used by Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, never having a match on him and needing someone else to light his cigarette. The older lawyer helping the defense lawyer brings to mind Jack Warden in The Verdict, as does the appearance of the doctor off the train. And the courtroom scenes, which occupy the bulk of the movie, in turn, have inspired everything from Perry Mason to A Few Good Men.

One of the most well known aspects of the film is the score by Duke Ellington. In many ways it’s the precursor to similar scores like that for The Hustler. Earlier jazz scores by composers like Elmer Bernstein in The Sweet Smell of Success were more big band oriented rather than the small group feel of Ellington’s band. More important than the score itself, however, is the use of the score by Preminger. The jazz background is only used outside the courtroom. During the trial there is no score at all. Rounding out the film is a nice supporting cast including Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Orson Bean and Murray Hamilton. Anatomy of a Murder is not the best courtroom drama ever, but it does challenge our reliance on the jury system to render fair and impartial verdicts. In that, the film is disturbing in a way that all good films must finally be.

Les Miserables (1998)

Director: Bille August                                     Writer: Rafael Yglesias
Film Score: Basil Poledouris                           Cinematography: Jörgen Persson
Starring: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes

I’m sorry, but Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe singing? Who would pay good money to see that? Certainly not me. They ought to change the title just to avoid charges of false advertising: More Miserable. If you really want to see the definitive version of Les Miserables, it’s the 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. I’m something of a Les Mis aficionado, but my tastes simply do not run to modern musicals. For example, I’m also a huge fan of Phantom of the Opera, but the Andrew Lloyd Webber travesty is not something I’m interested in watching either. I get that it was a huge Broadway hit, but history shows that few, if any, have translated well to the screen and this is no exception.

The three classic versions of Victor Hugo’s novel begin with the French version from 1934, which is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It is a lengthy production that is available from the Criterion Collection. Admirable for its attempt to convey as much of Hugo’s novel as possible, it also contains a solid film score by composer Arthur Honegger. The real classic, for Americans at least, is the 1935 version starring Frederick March. I remember catching the beginning of this on PBS as a teenage, and being transfixed for the next two hours as the story unfolded. The lesser version, though still not without charm, is the Michael Rennie version from 1952. The two American versions are collected in a wonderful box set from 20th Century Fox. The odd film out is the 1978 British TV version starring Anthony Perkins and Richard Jordan, which suffers from a low budget and the time period. The DVD version has also been edited down by thirty minutes. The only full version available is the VHS.

What the 1998 version brings to the table that is immediately noticeable is an international cast and crew. The production design by the Swedish Anna Asp is the best of any version yet, capturing the time period in a flawless way. The script, by American Rafael Yglesias, is not entirely without humor and the film benefits tremendously from it. The direction by Dane Bille August is fluid and makes some daring choices that he pulls off with aplomb. Of course, the major reason for the film’s success lies with the stellar cast, headed by Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as Jean Valjean and Javert. The two of them are supremely believable and Rush, in particular, has none of the overdone characterization that hindered Charles Laughton’s portrayal in 1935. Neeson is the perfect foil and has both the physical size and intensity of character that were missing from March and Rennie’s performances. The other noteworthy performance is that of Uma Thurman, who showed her true versatility and abilities.

It’s unclear why the film was completely ignored at awards time, not receiving a single nomination by the Academy that year. True, it was up against similar historical dramas, Elizabeth and the eventual Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, but still doesn’t account for the lack of recognition of any kind. The film condenses parts of the novel, but the same is true with every version. There is an energy and a vibrancy to this film that makes it a true masterpiece, bringing to life Victor Hugo’s novel in a way that feels true not only to the author’s work, but real in terms of accurately recreating the time period. So, after the painful singing and dancing of the new film is over, put in the 1998 version of Les Miserables and see the story the way it was meant to be seen.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow                                Writer: Mark Boal
Film Score: Marco Beltrami                             Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty

The winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 2008, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is an intense study of an explosive ordinance disposal team during the Iraq war. From the moment the film begins there’s an obvious emphasis on realism by Bigelow that goes way beyond the cinema verite style of camera work. How does one convey the death of a soldier in its relative importance? In the normal course of a war film where a character who is present in the bulk of the film dies at the end, the audience can’t help but feel the weight of that death. By the same token, if a relative unknown dies in the beginning, the audience has little invested and doesn’t know the character enough to feel much. Bigelow gets around this by using Guy Pearce in the opening, a star we all know and unconsciously look forward to seeing throughout the film. His death, then, in the first ten minutes of the film, allows us as much as possible to feel his death with the same weight as it has in the context of the story. That’s great directing.

After Pearce’s death, Jeremy Renner takes over, along side Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty as the other two team members of the team. Renner’s style is decidedly different from that of Pearce and it initially creates a good deal of tension in the team because of his apparent lack of caution. In the opening of the film there is a quote that reads in part, “war is a drug,” but, honestly, I really don’t think that’s the driving force behind Renner. In the mini-series Band of Brothers, Matthew Settle plays the lieutenant Ronald Spiers who tells one of his men that the only way he can be a truly effective soldier is if he realizes that he’s already dead. That is my read on Renner. Only by abandoning the illusion that he’s doing a job that he’s going to survive can he give himself and his skills completely over to the task at hand: diffusing bombs. Caution, in wartime, can only be a hindrance.

The Hurt Locker is a film, like the best of war films, that rises beyond jingoism and political patriotism to examine the mortal peril that the soldier lives with every day, every hour, every minute of their existence in the field. This film is especially powerful because of the anonymity of the enemy. Granted, the enemy is Middle Eastern, and the men and women fighting there for the most part weren’t. Still, there is a palpable lack of uniform, of identification, of any way at all to know who the enemy really is. The bombs are just one aspect of this. Another is the battle scene in the desert, shooting at the enemy from eight hundred yards or more, in many cases through a shimmer of heat, in the middle of nowhere. There are no “front lines.” Instead, there is total immersion.

It’s difficult to watch a film about the Iraq war that was make while the war was still in progress. It’s difficult to watch soldiers in harm’s way, who made the sacrifice to participate in a war that had little justification and almost no real impact on the safety of the United States or the world. It’s difficult to watch soldiers die in vain for a war that was begun by a president who, in the long tradition of Republican presidents, lied to the American people and the world in order to justify his own personal agenda. Thankfully, Bigelow’s own bookend to this film is Zero Dark Thirty, in which the end of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks is taken on in similar fashion. There’s little else to say, except that The Hurt Locker was absolutely deserving of the Oscar for best picture.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hitch (2005)

Director: Andy Tennant                                     Writer: Kevin Bisch
Film Score: George Fenton                               Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Starring: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James and Amber Valletta

It’s been a long time since someone turned the romantic comedy on its head like this. Hitch takes all of the standard conventions and turns them inside out in a fantastic way and in turn is one of the most refreshingly original romcoms in recent history. Will Smith’s comedic talents are perfect for the formula, and Eva Mendes in her break out role is stunning. Add to that the expert character of Kevin James and it’s difficult to see how this one could possibly miss.

Will Smith is Alex Hitchens, the incognito “date doctor” who helps men meet the women of their dreams and actually have a chance of getting them to like them in return. At the same time he’s helping Kevin James to find a way to meet Amber Valletta, the Paris Hilton equivalent celebrity in the film, he’s falling in love with Eva Mendes, a gossip columnist at a local New York paper. Instead of the traditional plot line where the two hate each other at the beginning and then come to realize their love, Hitch reverses it. They hit it off right away, but when she learns he what he does for a living, they have a falling out.

The comedy aspects of the film are very well done. Smith is a natural. As the master of dating who has a disastrous couple of dates with Mendes, it’s such a great twist. Then to throw Kevin James into the mix just makes things that much better. A solid supporting cast is on hand as well. Comedy veteran Philip Bosco has a couple of brief scenes as the head of Valletta’s accounting firm, and the great Adam Arkin plays Mendes’ boss at the newspaper. Jeffrey Donovan is excellently cast as the “pig” who hooks up with Mendes’ best friend and promptly dumps her.

Composer George Fenton has had plenty of experience scoring for romantic comedies like White Palace, Groundhog Day and You’ve Got Mail, and does a nice job here of mixing just the right pop tunes--and not too many--with his score to achieve a perfect balance. Andy Tennant hasn’t made many hits, but his direction here is spot on, with great set ups and interesting angles, in addition to the obvious jokes like Donovan’s head in the rear end of the bull on Wall Street. All of it is cemented together perfectly with Kevin Bisch’s intelligent script, a great premise and nicely executed dialogue. Hitch is a wonderfully new twist on the romantic comedy that will be sure to please any fan of the genre.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Wolf Man (1941)

Director: George Waggner                                     Writer: Curt Siodmak
Film Score: Hans Salter & Frank Skinner               Cinematography: Joseph Valentine
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers and Bela Lugosi

The Wolf Man is one of the best films in Universal’s series of monster pictures from the 1930s and 1940s, and one of my favorite films of all time. There is so much to recommend it that it’s difficult to know where to start. Though he would have a long, if marginal, career in films, this is easily one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s best films. There is also the brilliant work of writer Curt Siodmak in creating a cultural icon to rival Dracula and Frankenstein. The music of Hans Salter and Frank Skinner is some of their most inspired work, and would be used to bolster half a dozen other later Universal films. Finally, the tremendous talents of Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, and the unforgettable Maria Ouspenskaya were used to their fullest in a way they never reached again in a horror picture.

The story begins innocently enough, with Chaney returning to his ancestral home in Wales after the death of his brother. Father Claude Rains vows to mend the rift between them that sent Chaney away in the first place. After becoming smitten with Evelyn Ankers she and Chaney, along with Fay Helm as chaperone, go to have their fortunes read by Bela Lugosi. Chaney and Ankers sneak away while Helm’s fortune is being read but when she is heard screaming Chaney rushes to the rescue, battles with a wolf, is bitten in the process, and Helm still dies. The rest of the film is masterful, as Chaney begins to realize he is turning into a wolf and night and killing unsuspecting villagers.

The film benefits tremendously from George Waggner’s considerable abilities as a director. There is a palpable sense of quality in the film that is absent from every other horror film from the period. To get a sense of this one only has to look at Ghost of Frankenstein, which began production immediately after The Wolf Man, and with much of the same cast and crew. Directed by the decidedly pedestrian Erle C. Kenton, Ghost has horrible interiors, cheesy exteriors, bad direction and none of the polish of Waggner’s production. The Wolf Man, however, has gloriously rich exteriors, with fog and glistening tree trunks. And the interiors are even better. Ornately decorated, the mansion, the antique shop, the church, everything is incredibly realistic and beautifully filmed.

There is also an amazing script by Curt Siodmak that not only creates a new werewolf mythos, but was so convincing that for decades many of his inventions were taken as actual mythology. The film score by Hans Salter and Frank Skinner is instantly recognizable and, though cranked out by the composers in a frenzy of writing music for dozens of films a year, is still tremendously evocative and easily the best horror score after Franz Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein. Jack Pierce’s makeup for Chaney was also inspired, his best since the James Whale directed Frankenstein. Finally, the supporting cast is extremely good. Lugosi has only a bit part, but a crucial one, and he is great. Forrester Harvey’s Twiddle is really the only character that harkens back to the earlier Universal films. The Wolf Man is a film whose reputation has grown tremendously the past twenty years, and with good reason. For me, it’s the best horror film ever made.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Edge of Darkness (1943)

Director: Lewis Milestone                              Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: Franz Waxman                           Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Houston and Ruth Gordon

Edge of Darkness is a story of the Norwegian resistance movement during World War II during the Nazi occupation. It concerns a small village on the west coast that has been waiting for arms in order to stage an uprising against their occupiers. Errol Flynn, in one of his earlier war films, is teamed with Ann Sheridan and solid cast of European emigres for this classic Warner Brothers propaganda piece. Lewis Milestone, who had achieved one of Universal’s biggest successes, the Oscar winning All Quiet on the Western Front, was given the directing chores and does an admirable job.

As a mid-war film it does it’s usual job, painting the Nazis as inhuman killing machines who have no compassion for their own, let alone the people they have taken over. In one scene the commander coming into the village after the uprising, goes into the communications office with one of his underlings. There, a dead Nazi is sitting dead at the desk. The commander chides his underling for exhibiting the slightest emotion and so the underling proceeds to push his fallen comrade unceremoniously out of the chair in order to type out the commander’s report. Sure, it’s propaganda, but just barely, and a fairly easy job to accomplish considering how close to reality it really was.

Flynn plays the leader of the underground movement in a small fishing village. After two years of occupation he is about to let out for England, but that night he hears that the British will be delivering arms up and down the coast. So he stays put, waiting, like the rest of the village, to strike. One of the interesting aspects of the picture is the way in which people react to the occupation. The pressure of wanting to do the right thing, coupled with the knowledge that the Nazis will kill first and ask questions later, works on the psyche of many of the villagers. Some are angry and willing to die, while others urge pacifism in the hopes that the tidal wave will eventually recede. It makes for a lot of tension, wondering which villagers will crack under the pressure and give away the plot.

The film is part of a wonderfully done box set of Flynn war pictures that also includes Desperate Journey, Northern Pursuit, Uncertain Glory and Objective, Burma! along with the usual Warner extras, newsreels, trailers, cartoons and short subjects. The black and white print is quite good, the cinematography and lighting crisp and clean, especially in the night scenes. A great secondary cast includes Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, Roman Bohnen and Charles Dingle. The use of the Norwegians to inspire Americans to support the war effort was transparent even then. Still, Edge of Darkness is a great example of the war films from the period that is unique for not being about France or England, and can still raise patriotic pride even today.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Going My Way (1944)

Director: Leo McCarey                                 Writers: Frank Butler and Frank Cavett
Film Score: Robert Dolan                             Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh and Jean Heather

I’m not sure I really understand Going My Way. It’s obviously a Bing Crosby vehicle, although there’s precious little singing in it until the final twenty minutes. The script is all over the place, with juvenile delinquents, a runaway girl singer, grouchy neighbors, the bank managers trying to foreclose on the church, the old flame opera singer, and the replacement of the venerable priest with the young upstart. Then there’s also the fact that Bing Crosby looks no more like a priest than Montgomery Clift in I Confess. Now there are a lot of old films where priests figure prominently, some of them with great success, but this one keeps me at a distance.

Gary Giddins, in his book of reviews, Natural Selection, calls the film a “neglected masterpiece.” He praises Crosby for his natural acting, but for me it's like a lot of acting. In this case it’s the way Bing always acted . . . like Bing. Another aspect of the film that underwhelms is the mix of comedy and pathos. Again, Giddins likes this: “the tears it elicits are hard-won” and claims it “generates much empathic laughter in a theater.” But for me the two seem to cancel each other out and leave me unable to really enjoy either.

The story has Crosby as a priest coming to his new parish, currently run by the irascible Barry Fitzgerald who doesn’t like the young father’s progressive ways. Crosby proceeds to ingratiate himself in the community, turn the delinquents into a boys’ choir, and seemingly solve the problems of everyone who comes in the church door. While the eventual replacement of Fitzgerald with Crosby is the apparent conflict, it really doesn’t play out that way, and eventually the conflict becomes getting money to save the church. As far as the music, the songs aren't integrated into the plot in any way either. It puts me in the mind of another Academy Award winner that left me equally as cold, How Green was My Valley.

All of which brings me back to my mystification that it won the Oscar that year, especially given that it was going up against Double Indemnity and Gaslight. The film practically swept the Academy Awards in 1945, not only winning for best picture, but for Crosby in the lead, Fitzgerald for supporting, director, screenplay and the song “Swinging on a Star.” It’s not the first time the Academy has made some bizarre selections, and I’m sure there are lots of folks like Giddins who love the film. For me, however, I’m going to have to say Going My Way is not a great film.

Videodrome (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg                                Writer: David Cronenberg
Film Score: Howard Shore                                 Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits and Peter Dvorsky

I was of two minds when I re-watched Videodrome recently. The first is that it is, in fact, a cult classic. But if you really stop to think about it, all of David Cronenberg’s films are cult classics. Only his remake of The Fly in 1986 comes close to something that is completely mainstream. All the rest of his films, even the big budget ones, bear the taint of the low-budget auteur in him. The second thing is, never have sexuality and horror been combined in such a prolonged and overt manner as in Cronenberg’s films, and this is the real stamp of his filmmaking style that sets him apart from all other horror directors in the last thirty years.

James Woods plays the studio executive of a small cable network in Toronto, who gets ratings (and, one would assume, advertising dollars) by serving up the kind of sex and violence to his audience that was new at the time (HBO had only been operating a few years) but is ubiquitous now on the internet. Debbie Harry is a talk radio host who is drawn to Woods, but even more drawn to his latest acquisition, an S&M program called Videodrome. When he finds out Harry wants to be on the program he is alarmed, but when he discovers through one of his producers that it is a snuff program, he becomes panicked. Seeking out the real producers of Videodrome he finds more than he bargained for: the program is a form of mind control that has already begun to work on him.

Cronenberg is a gross-out director, to be sure, but he never seems to have been interested in the slasher genre. He is an intellectual who delves into people’s psyches and hits them where they live. The simple fear of external monsters are far too pedestrian. He wants instead to explore the fear generated in a person’s own mind, the fear of sex, the fear of pain, the fear of our own evil natures being turned loose. In this case the fear is reality itself, and what constitutes reality. One of the characters in the film philosophically suggests that reality is whatever our senses tell us. Whether we choose to call it a dream, a hallucination or a delusion, if we experience it as real then it is real.

Dennis Lim’s essay in The B List focuses instead on the virus- or cancer-like aspect of Videodrome’s signal, likening it to various other films in which the mutant organism infects the body, taking over the nervous system, altering the shape and form of the body, and eventually killing the host. He also notes its connection to films that merge technology with human flesh, and the way the film itself has been the inspiration for several modern films as well as the impetus for numerous video games.

Of course the idea of alternative realities has been explored in dozens of ways recently, from the simple mental illness of films like The Fight Club and Shutter Island, to chemical induced state of Jacob’s Ladder, or death itself in The Sixth Sense, to the ultimate in alternate reality, The Matrix. Seen today, Cronenberg’s premise is far too simplistic. Television has been replaced as the new mind control evil with the internet and especially video games. Still, it its own way, Videodrome is cultural icon, a potent warning of the addictive nature of mass media, though now hopelessly dated, one of the first of its kind and still a powerful reminder of dangers yet unknown.

42nd Street (1933)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                 Writers: Rian James & James Seymour
Film Score: Harry Warren                            Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell

It’s easy to see the appeal of 42nd Street, even from today’s vantage point: the Great Depression was so grim it could suck the joy out of putting on a Broadway musical. Today the film is mostly known for being the breakout film for choreographer Busby Berkeley who, after staging individual dance scenes in several earlier films, began a series of musicals for Warner Brothers that made him an overnight celebrity. His work uses all of the techniques of cinema to create dance numbers that could never be duplicated in the same way and with the same effect on the stage. And because of the often minimal, or pedestrian nature of the story lines, he is the real reason for the lasting impact of these films. 42nd Street was good enough to earn an Oscar nomination, but lost out to Cavalcade.

Warner Baxter is a big-time Broadway director who has lost it all in the stock market crash. He’s desperate for a hit and that desperation, mirroring many of those in the audience, is palpable throughout the film. It’s what set’s 42nd Street apart from the dozens of similar vehicles at the time. Silent star Bebe Daniels is the big name who has been lured into headlining the production. Ruby Keeler, a curiously awkward dancer, plays the small town unknown who saves the show. Guy Kibbee is the moneyman behind the show, financing the production to gain the affection of Daniels. Dick Powell is the male lead of the show, and Ginger Rogers is the experienced chorus dancer who finally gets Keeler in front of Baxter. This was Powell’s first big film after being in Hollywood for less than a year. It was also Keeler’s first film ever as well as being one of Daniels’ last.

One of the first thing one notices is the fluid camerawork by Sol Polito, nice tracking shots down the theater and across the stage. And, of course, during the musical numbers. Unfortunately, most of the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin are rather forgettable, unlike the dozens of songs that would become standards from the RKO musicals of the same period. “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me,” is the only enduring number from the film. Berkeley’s numbers don’t appear until the last twenty minutes of the show, but only the last two are really memorable, “Young and Healthy” which is still a bit stage-bound and the completely cinematic finale “42nd Street.”

Emanuel Levy’s A List review does a nice job of filling in the background history of the picture, the director, the stars, and Berkeley. He admits that the film has definite flaws, and that it certainly isn’t an integrated musical as those films would come to be defined in the forties and fifties. But there are a few quibbles. He calls Warren and Dubin’s score “glorious,” which I would argue against. He also never really hits upon the main strength of the film, the Depression era ethos, until the final couple of paragraphs, but in the end Levy’s analysis is fairly accurate and definitely informative. Though it certainly doesn’t hold up to some of the classic RKO musicals of the time, 42nd Street is one of the best Warner Brothers’ entries, and a great representative backstage story of the 1930s.

Michael Clayton (2007)

Director: Tony Gilroy                                      Writer: Tony Gilroy
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack

Michael Clayton is a very good film. But it’s not a great film, which is probably what kept it from winning an Academy Award in 2007, even though the field that year was fairly weak. One of the great aspects of the film, however, is the character development of George Clooney who has intensified his portrayals by eliminating much of the comedy element. In terms of character, this film can be seen as the precursor to The American and The Descendants, and one hopes that this will eventually lead to Oscar success for Clooney.

Tony Gilroy’s career as a writer in Hollywood since 1992 has been fruitful, writing many thrillers, including all of the Bourne franchise. But his three turns as a director have been brilliant. Michael Clayton was his first, no doubt thanks to Clooney, and since then he has gone on to direct the wonderful Duplicity, as well as the latest Bourne film, The Bourne Legacy. He has a unique style that still adheres to expectations of the genre, and at the same time is able evoke a realism that is absent in similar stories like The Firm. The film also benefits tremendously by the interesting editing by his brother, John Gilroy. This is one of Clooney’s projects, as he now has the clout to chose his own scripts and produce the films that he wants to make and star in.

In many ways Michael Clayton can be seen as a typical corporate thriller, but it’s anything but typical. It begins with the voice-over of Tom Wilkinson representing the moral conscience of the film--and of course, who is then painted by the corporate world as insane. Clooney plays the fixer for a huge law firm who needs their lead council, Wilkinson, to stop before they lose a huge case. What’s brilliant about the script is Clooney’s utter impotence when he comes up against people who act like people--that is to say, unpredictably--instead of the robot-like corporate drones he used to dealing with. The new head of the corporation being sued, Tilda Swinton, takes matters into her own hands, hires a team of hit men, and proceeds to kill everyone standing in her way. But she misses Clooney and, Bourne-like, he begins to exact retribution for a life of commitment to an corporate world that has absolutely no loyalty to him.

I’ll tell you right now, I absolutely love Tilda Swinton. I think she’s one of the greatest actresses of our time. But how she won the Oscar for best supporting actress with such minimal screen time and a one-dimensional character is a mystery right up there with Beatrice Straight in Network, who won after being in the film for less than six minutes. As I said before, Clooney, ditching the humor, has a lot to offer. His intensity is impressive and, though it might take a few more years, he’s definitely going to do some Oscar winning work in the near future. Tom Wilkinson is his usual wonderful self, and Sydney Pollack, in his swan song, is incredibly moving. Michael Clayton is not fast paced, or full of action. It is simply a tension filled thriller that delivers drama and mystery in equal doses and is incredibly impressive in nearly every aspect of the film.

Hidalgo (2004)

Director: Joe Johnston                                   Writer: John Fusco
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: Shelly Johnson
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard and J.K. Simmons

This is not something I expected to like. I don’t typically enjoy animal films, and after a supremely disappointing screening of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, I was not enthused. But Hidalgo delivers on a number of scores, not the least of which is its overall entertainment value. Part Indiana Jones, part Lawrence of Arabia, part The Last Samurai, and part Dances with Wolves, despite the title it’s not so much the story of a horse--which is just one of the areas where War Horse went terribly wrong--it’s the story of a man, Frank Hopkins, who is driven to race down his own demons and come out on the other side a better man.

The story begins on a cross-country horse race that Hopkins’ horse Hidalgo wins going away. Mortensen, who really hasn’t had a chance to take his career to the upper echelon where he deservingly belongs, despite being nominated for an Academy Award for Eastern Promises, does a tremendous job of conveying the world weary aspects of Hopkins that result after first-hand experience of watching the slaughter of Native American at Wounded Knee, but without the melodrama of something like The Last Samurai. Months later, Hopkins winds up a drunk at Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show and accepts the challenge from an Arab sheik to prove that Hidalgo is the greatest long distance horse in the world. It’s not bravado that makes him accept, more a need for a change of scenery and perhaps an unconscious death wish.

The Arabian long distance challenge consumes the bulk of the film, taking on the intrigue and double-dealing that is reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films, but again, without the cartoonish elements. Hidalgo has humor in it, but it’s not played for laughs. Omar Sharif is tremendous as the sheik, outwardly repulsed by Mortensen’s infidel ways, but secretly fascinated with cowboys and the American West. Louise Lombard is the obligatory femme fatale, but that aspect of the film is almost unnecessary, while Zuleikha Robinson as the daughter of the sheik is splendid conveying the limitations imposed on women in Arab society.

There’s nothing terribly interesting about Joe Johnston’s direction, but it does manage to stay out of the way of the story, and for a lot of directors that not an easy feat so that is a net positive. James Newton Howard provides a typically reliable score that supports the action and yet doesn’t yield to the temptation to go “Middle-Eastern.” It’s not a film that was destined to win any awards, and for many it isn’t very good at all. But it’s a solid, historical action/adventure film that is worth the experience. Patience is the key to understanding it, and letting it unfold in it’s own way and in it’s own time. And going into it with that attitude, Hidalgo delivers a lot of good entertainment.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Raw Edge (1956) Gun for a Coward (1957)

Director: John Sherwood/Abner Biberman           Writer: Harry Essex/R. Wright Campbell
Film Score: Hans Salter/Frank Skinner               Cinematography: Maury Gertzman/George Robinson
Starring: Rory Calhoun, Yvonne DeCarlo, Fred MacMurray and Jeffrey Hunter

I keep reading about “offbeat” Westerns, but the more I watch the more I’m convinced that they’re all offbeat. This pair of Universal Westerns from the mid-fifties are a case in point. Raw Edge is a strange tale of the lawless West out in the Oregon Territory. Herbert Rudley plays a ranch owner who has declared his own laws, one of which is that a woman without a man is fair game for any man who can claim her. When his wife, Yvonne DeCarlo is attacked in the barn, he’s convinced that John Gavin is the culprit and has him hung. The next day the dead man's brother shows up in the form of gunslinger Rory Calhoun, and pretty soon the men on the ranch start eyeing DeCarlo in anticipation of Rudley’s death.

The direction by John Sherwood is pedestrian, like a good episode of Bonanza, and the same kind of color saturation by Technicolor. The music, typical Western themes woven into a generic film score, punctuated by the odd Indian theme is pulled from the Universal archives from music composed by Hans Salter and William Lava. There is some good character work by Neville Brand and Rex Reason. Mara Corday is along as the wife of Gavin, abandoned to Rudley’s gang when her husband dies. There’s nothing spectacular about the film, but it’s definitely not a bad film. There are some nice moments of tension and a descent story that holds interest, even if it gets corny at times. Raw Edge is just a solid, B-movie Western from the fifties, if not memorable, definitely watchable.

Gun for a Coward from the following year is out of the same mold, but this time it’s a family drama anchored by Fred MacMurray. Three different threads run through the story, the first being that MacMurray, the oldest of three sons, finds himself in the position of raising his two brothers and taking care of his mother while running the family ranch. One of the brothers, Jeffrey Hunter, is the coward of the title, having been implicit in his father's death because he couldn't shoot a snake. His mother babies him and is determined to take him back east to St. Louis. Janice Rule, from a neighboring ranch, is gently fending off the advances of MacMurray who doesn’t realize her affections have shifted, and in the meantime, the family is trying to fight off squatters who are trying to encroach on the family’s land.

Abner Biberman was tabbed to direct, with similar results as Sherwood. Stock music this time is provided by Frank Skinner and Irving Gertz and, if unimaginative, is certainly unobtrusive. Another good character cast livens up the proceedings, with Dean Stockwell as the wild younger brother and the great Chill Wills as the happy-go-lucky ranch hand, John Larch as the bitter Stringer who’s losing his land and Iron Eyes Cody as the Indian extortionist. The ending of Gun for a Coward is a bit of surprise, reminiscent of Red River. Sometimes I think the Western is less a genre than a setting, and as such open for infinite variations. In the end, however, there’s something comforting about the setting that enables the story to take prominence in a way that gets lost in other settings. Again, these Westerns are nothing great, but they are solid entertainment.