Friday, February 28, 2014

Cocoon (1985)

Director: Ron Howard                                     Writer: Tom Benedek
Film Score: James Horner                              Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Starring: Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy

Though Ron Howard had his first taste of wider audience success as a director with Night Shift, his real breakout film was Splash two years later. His follow up to that hit was another water-based production, this one more straight out science-fiction. Cocoon is based on a story by writer-director David Saperstein that both he and screenwriter Tom Benedek took in different directions, Saperstein writing a novel that uses the idea but not the specific characters while Benedek went in the familiar direction of the film. There are actually four threads to the film, the first being the group of space aliens who have returned to the planet Earth to rescue some of their people who were left behind. There is also a group of old folks in a retirement community in Florida who are listlessly living out their last years. One of the old couples has a daughter and grandson living nearby. Finally, there is a charter boat captain who has fallen on hard times. By the end of the film all four strands weave together.

The story begins with an alien spacecraft flying mysteriously toward Earth. Down below are a trio of old men, Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn. They go swimming everyday in the pool of a vacant house next door to the retirement community where they live in Florida. At the same time Steve Guttenberg has had a lousy day fishing on his charter boat and his clients only pay him half his money, which the dock owner quickly relieves him of. Desperate, he is saved by a group of people led by Brian Dennehy who want to charter his boat for an entire month. They also rent the house where the old men are using the pool, and while deep sea diving on Guttenberg’s boat they bring up mysterious objects from the ocean floor and deposit them in the pool. The old men wonder briefly what they are, but don’t really care, especially after they begin feeling better than they have in years. They have found, it seems, some sort of fountain of youth. The pool, they soon discover, is energized to bring back the alien friends of Dennehy and when the old men and their wives keep swimming in it they start actually becoming younger, something everyone around them quickly notices.

The film was a real renaissance for many of the older actors in the cast. What’s not commonly realized, however, is that Wilford Brimley was much younger that the rest of the male quartet. He was only fifty when he made the film, while Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Jack Gilford were in their late seventies. Still, with his older look he fit right in, and no doubt had an easier time during the rejuvenation sequences. Don Ameche already began his comeback a couple years earlier with Trading Places, while Hume Cronyn went on to a small part in The Pelican Brief and a revival of 12 Angry Men on television. Easily the biggest beneficiary from this renewed interest in the elder stars was for Jessica Tandy with an Oscar-winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 and another nomination two years later for Fried Green Tomatoes. The only one of the cast actually recognized by the Academy Awards, however, was Don Ameche who won that year for best supporting actor.

But all the members of the ensemble cast are very good. Dennehy is joined by Raquel Welch’s daughter Tahnee Welch in one of her earliest and best performances on film, as well as Tyrone Power Jr. as the aliens. Wilford Brimley’s wife in the picture is Maureen Stapleton, while Don Ameche pursues Gwen Verdon romantically. Ron Howard originally wanted Joan Bennett to play the role but she had been talked out of it by her husband. And of course one of the most well-known couples in Hollywood, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy played the other couple. Tangentially, Jack Gilford and Herta Ware are the fourth couple but they remain at a distance philosophically from the rest of the group about the pool. Linda Harrison makes a rare appearance on film since her Planet of the Apes days as Nova, and Barret Oliver does a tremendous job as the young grandson. This was not a film that was ever destined for critical success, but it is a popular film for a lot of people. The feel good quality of the story, and the wonderful actors, combined with a tantalizing ending of hope is almost perfect cinematic escapism. And Cocoon delivers on all accounts.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Patton (1970)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner                        Writers: Francis Ford Coppola & Edmund H. North
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                           Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Edward Binns and Michael Bates

Patton is one of the most iconic films of the seventies. In fact, it may be the iconic film of that decade. The historical perspective on the film is equally fascinating, made as it was in the midst of the Vietnam War, a war that was being “lost” by the United States and an idea that George C. Scott says in his opening prologue is hateful to Americans. But Vietnam was a very different war, with very different objectives, and a decidedly unclear opponent. World War II, by contrast, was anything but unclear. Still, there’s something of an undercurrent of change that is represented in this war story of General George S. Patton, thought it wasn’t the warfare itself. Politics suddenly played a part in war in a way it had never done before. If a man like Ulysses S. Grant had had to run the gauntlet of reporters and public opinion the way Patton had to, it’s likely he would have suffered the same fate. But Grant went on to become president of the United States while Patton suffered a slow death in Germany after having his spinal column severed in a traffic accident--an event that is foreshadowed at the end of the film but left out of this story.

The film begins with a wonderful prologue written by Francis Ford Coppola, in one of his early assignments as a writer in Hollywood, two years before he made his name with The Godfather. It’s unlike almost any other film at the time, with the giant American flag behind Scott, and yet perfectly sets the tone for what is to come. After the first American operation in North Africa, and a resounding defeat at the Kasserine Pass at the hands of the Nazis, Patton then takes command of the tank corps but his personal aide is killed in the battle. His replacement is the most obsequious, and yet perfectly attuned to his commander, officer on film. After winning in Africa, the next objective is Italy and it’s here that Patton’s rivalry with British General Montgomery. It’s the slapping incident, though, were Patton shames a soldier suffering from “battle fatigue,” that loses his command. He doesn’t get back in the war until after D-Day and has a renaissance, proving his superior leadership and tactical abilities by driving deep into Germany to end the war. But more mistakes with reporters wind up losing him a command in the Asian Theater.

While Patton may have been overshadowed after World War II because of his early death and the rise of Douglas McArthur, this film brought him back into the public consciousness and, some would say, his legend has superseded that of his Asian Theater rival. Many of the men who served under him subsequently talked about their experiences in the war and the respect they had for Patton as a leader and their pride at having served in his command. What’s fascinating about the film is the portrayal of him as a man who drew on everything from a belief in reincarnation to an odd relationship to Christianity if it would help him in battle. There are also a couple of non-diegetic ways of interpreting the film. The first way is the most obvious, the film as positive war propaganda at a time when the country was questioning its involvement in Vietnam. The memories of a just war, soundly won, made for an unambiguous reminder of America’s military prowess. But another interpretation symbolizes the U.S. military in the person of Patton himself, a powerful and precision instrument of warfare that is hampered by politics and politicians who ultimately wind up destroying that military strength and bear responsibly for the botched policy in Southeast Asia.

Either way, the film struck a chord with audiences and it became a huge hit. It was also the big winner at the Oscars that year, nominated for ten awards and taking home seven. The film won best picture and director for Franklin Schaffner, as well as best actor for George C. Scott and best screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North for their adaptation of Ladislas Ferago’s biography Patton: Ordeal and Triumph and Omar Bradley’s memoirs A Soldier’s Story. For Scott it was the defining moment in his career. And while he would forever be associated with the role, it certainly didn’t typecast him, and he did many of his best films in the seventies. The other star of the film is Karl Malden, who did some great work in the sixties, but went from this film almost immediately into The Streets of San Francisco. There is a lot to like about this film, from the performances of the actors to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score. Patton is not only one of the great biopics in film history, but a terrific war film and a cinematic tour de force in its own right.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Of Mice and Men (1939, 1992)

Director: Lewis Milestone, Gary Sinise              Writer: John Steinbeck
Film Score: Aaron Copeland, Mark Isham          Cinematography: Norbert Brodine, Kenneth MacMillan
Starring: Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Gary Sinise and John Malcovich

Lewis Milestone’s production of John Steinbeck’s best selling novel Of Mice and Men had the misfortune of being produced in 1939, a year that was so full of great films that there was very little elbow room at the Oscars that year. Had it been made a year earlier it’s likely it would have won several awards, possibly even best picture. Still, it earned four nominations including best picture and best score for Aaron Copeland’s music. The story of two itinerant farm workers during the Depression is one of the greatest works of American literature. It’s a small novel, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but is no less powerful for it’s size. In fact, the characters of Lennie and George have become cultural icons that, though diminished over time, still resonate large in the popular culture of the past and Steinbeck’s novel has inspired four film adaptations and countless stage productions.

The story begins with two men on the run, Burgess Meredith as George, and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie. They make their way to a ranch where they both begin a new job, but the owner’s son, Bob Steele, is a small hothead who likes to fight. He immediately takes a dislike to Lennie, believing he can best him and feel better about himself in the process. One big problem on the ranch, however, is Steele’s wife, Betty Field. Lonely for any kind of company, she hangs out with the farm hands and winds up driving Steele insane with jealousy. Meanwhile Chaney, as the mentally disabled giant, is fond of petting soft things, like the puppy George gets him or the rabbits that they’ll have on their own farm some day. The two befriend an old cripple, Roman Bohnen, who has a lot of money saved up from his disability payments, and together they plan to get their own farm as soon as George can set it up with the owners of some land he knows. But fate is not kind to the plans of ordinary men, and this time there’s nowhere to run to.

The film is most notable for launching the career of Lon Chaney Jr., as well as typecasting him. It is a brilliant performance, one he perfected in the company of the West Coast theater production. He lobbied for the part with director Lewis Milestone and won the role in the film. It’s easy to see why. He elicits pathos for a character that no one has been able to match. Other performers have brought their own interpretation to the role but Chaney had something no other actor could duplicate. But it came with a price, and he found himself mired in cheap horror films for the rest of his career. Burgess Meredith is a perfect partner for Chaney, and though the rest of the cast is average, the aggregate is very good. Milestone was on his downward slide by now, but still does a nice job. And with Aaron Copeland’s quintessential American film score Of Mice and Men deserves its place as a Hollywood classic.

As good as the 1939 version is, however, the quintessential version is easily Gary Sinise’s adaptation from 1992. Though Horton Foote ostensibly “wrote” the screenplay, it is almost word for word from Steinbeck’s novel. And where the ’39 film condensed the first half of the story, this one sticks with Steinbeck’s original staging as well. There was an earlier version with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid from 1981, but it strayed so far from Steinbeck’s text that this is easily the better of the two. Sinese has a subtle touch as a director and makes a perfectly introspective George and makes believable the devotion he demonstrates toward Lennie. Malkovich’s Lennie is ultra realistic and the slower unfolding of the story makes the empathy that much greater. It’s a brilliant performance, but in a different way than Chaney.

The great Ray Walston plays the cripple Candy and adds the kind of extreme confidence that Roman Bohnen can’t even approach. Casey Siemaszko, as Curly the ranch owner’s son, is primarily a television actor but has done quite a few small roles in features in between. The muleskinner Slim is played by John Terry, who is much more appropriate for the role than Charles Bickford in the original. But it’s Sherilyn Fenn who transforms the role of Curly’s wife from the nagging trailer trash blonde of the original to a dark-haired woman-child who is so lonely that she doesn’t realize the kind of danger she is putting the men, and herself, in just by talking to them. The pages of Steinbeck’s novel come alive in the hands of Sinese and company, and make this Of Mice and Men a treasure to match Steinbeck’s novel.

The Phantom of Paris (1931)

Director: John S. Robertson                           Writers: Bess Meredyth & John Meehan
Sound: Douglas Shearer                                Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: John Gilbert, Leila Hyams, Lewis Stone and Ian Keith

After the monstrous success of Universal’s Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, studios began to cast around for similar projects. Since MGM now had Chaney under contract with them, they chose to option another one of Gaston Leroux’s novels, Chéri-Bibi as a vehicle for the great silent star, changing the title to The Phantom of Paris as a shameless attempt to capitalize on the success of the Universal film and Chaney’s role. Unfortunately Chaney had died of throat cancer before filming could begin and the project was quickly retooled for another great silent star, John Gilbert, who had fallen on hard times in the early sound era. His costar was Leila Hyams, who would appear in two of the most famous non-Universal horror films of the early sound eara, Freaks and Island of Lost Souls. Lewis Stone, who would become most famous as Judge Hardy in MGM’s Andy Hardy series plays the police inspector. Also in the cast were the famous British actor C. Aubrey Smith and Danish actor Jean Hersholt.

Gilbert plays Chéri-Bibi, a Houdini-type character who specializes in escape tricks. At the circus in Paris he performs an underwater escape from handcuffs provided by the chief of police, Lewis Stone, who just happens to be in the audience. Sitting in one of the boxes is Leila Hyams, who can’t bear to watch. And while she is with her love interest, Ian Keith, it’s clear that she has an infatuation with Gilbert. It’s only back at her mansion that the audience discovers it was her father, C. Aubrey Smith, who set up Stone to make Gilbert fail in the hopes of ending the infatuation. At the same time he informs Keith that while he had put him in his will because of his relationship with his daughter, he has decided now disinheriting him because it’s clear his daughter no longer loves him. Keith tells his mistress that he’ll do whatever he has to in order to get the money, and when Gilbert argues with Smith about marrying his daughter, Keith kills the old man before he can change his will, and frames Gilbert for the crime.

As a mystery story it’s not very suspenseful. The audience knows who the murderer is from the outset and so does Gilbert. But that’s not where the suspense lies. Gilbert is convicted of the crime and set to hang. Keeping an escape artist locked in a jail cell, however, is problematic. And what will he do if he escapes? That part of the story is very good. There is certainly an element of The Count of Monte Cristo in the revenge aspect, as well as A Tale of Two Cities in the impersonation of characters that takes place later. Gilbert, who had been in some terrible films to open the sound era, had Louis B. Mayer to thank for his fall from grace as the studio head not only assigned him to bad properties but started a rumor campaign against him. Once a great silent screen star rivaled only by Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, Gilbert found himself with a tarnished reputation he could not recover from.

While the film garnered positive reviews, especially for Gilbert, it was not a success at the box office. At this early point in the Depression the attendance for films plummeted, and projects like this, which would have expected to turn a profit two years earlier, were now losing money. It’s possible the film could have done better had Chaney still been alive, but it’s impossible to know. Things coming full circle, as they often do, Universal filmed an obscure mystery story by Edgar Allan Poe called The Mystery of Marie Roget in 1942. The film starred Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya and John Litel, and when it was re-released a decade later it sported the title The Phantom of Paris to play on a double bill with The Werewolf of London. MGM’s original Phantom of Paris, however, is a great vehicle for John Gilbert and gives lie to the myth that somehow he was ill-equipped for sound film. It’s not a great film, but it is great Gilbert, and in this case that’s enough.

42 (2013)

Director: Brian Helgeland                               Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Mark Isham                                Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Baharie and Christopher Meloni

There’s one undeniable fact about Major League Baseball that emerges from Brian Helgeland’s film 42: Jackie Robinson didn’t break the color barrier, Branch Rickey did. That’s not to take anything away from Robinson, who was a gifted baseball player and a hall of famer. The decision, however, was made by Rickey who was the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and had both personal and financial reasons for hiring Robinson. Harrison Ford does an exceptional job at playing the general manager. He asked Helgeland to allow him to use extensive makeup in order to disguise himself and the effect is perfect. Harrison is completely subsumed by the character of Rickey and is one of the most important parts of the film’s success. But apparently that’s not enough these days. Because the film was released early in the year it was completely ignored at Oscar nomination time . . . for anything. It’s actually insulting, and in a twist of irony it’s difficult not to see lingering racism as being partly responsible.

The film opens with Branch Rickey making the decision to hire a black ballplayer. Even his staff tells him he shouldn’t do it, but he is bound and determined and begins looking through the files of the best players in the Negro League. He settles on Jackie Robinson, not because he is necessarily the best ballplayer, but because of his aversion to being treated in a racist manner. Of course Robinson is floored by the vote of confidence. But this is where the film becomes a strange sort of buddy picture. While Branch has done his work of hiring Robinson, it is the player who must become the spearhead in the endeavor. He receives everything from disdain from his own minor league coach to outright racist hostility from the coach of the Phillies, and everything in between from fans, opposing players, and his own teammates. The key, Rickey explains, is that he can’t lose his temper, can’t fight back, or the entire experiment will fail. With Rickey’s help, both on and off the field, Robinson succeeds in brilliant fashion, taking his team to the world series and winning the first ever Rookie of the Year award given in baseball.

Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson and does as good a job as one could hope for. One of the difficult aspects of the story for writer-director Brian Helgeland to get across onscreen is the emotional aspect of Robinson’s character when he was necessarily limited in expressing himself. This is where the character of his wife, played brilliantly by Nicole Baharie, comes into play. She acts as the sounding board for his frustration and rage. Boseman talks about his feelings with Baharie, then goes out to play and we can see his feelings beneath the surface without him having to express them. There is one exception, however, during the Phillies game when the taunts of Alan Tudyk become too much and he goes into the tunnel and has a breakdown. Of course, Harrison Ford comes along just in time to remind him of his obligation and he goes out and wins the game.

What really raises the film above the average is not only the excellence of the principals but the equally talented supporting cast. Brett Cullen is wonderful as the minor league coach who suddenly snaps out of his racist haze when Ford tells him he’ll be fired if he doesn’t. John C. McGinley is terrific as the understated Dodger radio announcer Red Barber, and Andre Holland is solid as the black reporter Wendell Smith who was hired by Ford to watch out for Boseman and write about him from the inside. But by far the best supporting role is played by Chris Meloni as Leo Durocher who is so focused on women and baseball that he, literally, seems not to notice much less care about skin color. It’s a great performance for the former Law and Order: SVU star and one hopes that he gets bigger film roles down the line. As a story it’s one we’re all familiar with and so there’s not a lot of drama here, but Helgeland makes the most of it and does an admirable job telling the story. 42 is an inspirational look at a baseball legend that does well by its subject and deserves a lot more recognition that it received.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                Writer: Richard LaGravenese
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                           Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley and Victor Slezak

Whatever deficiencies there are in Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County, lack of popularity wasn’t one of them. The book was a titanic success, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for over three years. Critically, however, it certainly hasn’t held up over the years. It’s an overly sentimental story that’s overwritten but nevertheless struck a chord with readers. The conceit of the book is that it is the actual diaries of a woman from Iowa whose children only discover them once she has died. Unbeknownst to them, their mother had an affair with a photographer from Seattle who was there shooting the covered bridges in the county. Steven Spielberg’s production company bought the rights to the book before it had even been published. Spielberg originally wanted Sydney Pollack to direct but he dropped out and eventually Clint Eastwood, who had already been signed as the lead, agreed to direct.

The Bridges of Madison County opens with Annie Corley and Victor Slezak coming back to their childhood home, the farm where their parents spent their entire adult lives. While reading the will certain cryptic letters come to their attention, specifically a letter from Eastwood to Streep, and a key that unlocks the chest where she had her diaries that they begin reading. The bulk of the film is told in flashback, beginning with the children leaving with their father for the state fair. Eastwood drives up to the house and asks directions from Streep to one of the covered bridges he’s supposed to photograph for the magazine. When the directions become too convoluted, she goes with him and that leads to dinner. A woman with a family, she’s very intrigued by this man who lives out of his truck, all by himself without anyone to rely on. The more time she spends with him the more she is drawn to his easy manner and his obvious love of life.

After dinner on the second night they both make the decision to pursue a romantic relationship and Streep gives herself up to him completely. She goes with him on his photo shoots, and they spend all of the next two days together. But Eastwood is very realistic about the whole thing, understanding that they only have a couple of days together and gently reminding her about this a couple of times. He’s surprised, then, when she suddenly becomes angry that he’s apparently being so cavalier about the whole thing, all of which leads to a very realistic but unsettling conclusion. Spielberg originally had Isabella Rossellini in mind to play the part of the housewife but Eastwood lobbied for Streep and eventually won out. It was the better choice. Streep transforms herself into the war bride twenty years after, stuck in the kitchen, tired of life, but sacrificing her own happiness for her family. With Eastwood, however, she doesn’t have to. He’s no Lothario, just someone who completely appreciates her and she responds in kind.

Personally, I enjoyed the novel, but then I read it after I’d seen the film. And while the prose is certainly purple, the core story that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese extracted from the book is still there. Eastwood, however, takes it one step further, imbuing the film with his own personal stamp in a number of ways. The most obvious is through his choice of music. Relying on lesser-known works by Dinah Washington and the rich vocals of Johnny Hartman, as well as the score by Lennie Niehaus, he created a unique soundtrack that not only strongly evoked the era but perfectly fit the images on the screen. Eastwood is also incredibly comfortable with silence, allowing his actors to work a realm of European realism that is rarely seen in Hollywood films. The leads are great, as expected and Annie Corley does a nice job as the daughter, but Victor Slezak is a bit too cartoonish to be believable. The Bridges of Madison County is not for everyone, but as a powerful romance it is definitely effective.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Director: John Rawlins                                  Writers: Lynn Riggs & John Bright
Film Score: Frank Skinner                            Cinematography: Elwood Brendell
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Evelyn Ankers and Henry Daniell

This was the third of the Sherlock Holmes series to feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The series would now be filmed at Universal who purchased the rights from 20th Century Fox after finding the series too uninspiring to continue. Universal found away to cut costs by setting the series in the current day and have Holmes and Watson chasing after Nazis rather than murderers, and by doing so they found they had a hit on their hands. The Voice of Terror is a radio announcer from Germany who seems to know all of the sabotage plans going on in England the moment they happen. He can predict dams blowing up, refineries exploding and railroad derailments almost as they occur. The war council in London is, of course, deeply concerned about the morale of the nation were this to continue and, since they have had no luck stopping the anonymous “voice,” one of them has called in Basil Rathbone as Holmes to put his superior intellect to work figuring out how to stop him.

The dissenting voice in the council is Henry Daniell, who believes that this is a military operation and that a mere amateur sleuth has no business being a part of it. But Reginald Denny has his way and Rathbone and Bruce set off to make England safe again. He starts his investigation down in the Limehouse district by talking to the widow of a recently killed operative, Evelyn Ankers in one of her most famous roles as Kitty. She gives a stirring speech to the criminals of London to help in the pursuit of the country’s enemies rather than continue to see their own government as the enemy. Thomas Gomez is the improbably Nazi agent in London who manages to kidnap Rathbone, Bruce and Daniell while following him. But before he can kill them Holmes calls on his network of criminals who get the drop on the Germans, but not before Gomez makes a quick getaway. After that, Rathbone’s machinations are designed to deceive everyone, including the war council as he becomes convinced one of them is a Nazi mole.

It certainly isn’t one of the most exciting entries in the series, but it does establish a new kind of enemy. Even so the new stories also come from the original Conan Doyle, this one reworked from “His Last Bow,” a First World War story of a double-agent working inside the British government. One of the more positive aspects of the modern setting for the series is the use of noir techniques on the look of the film. The high contrast lighting is particularly effective in director John Rawlins’ close ups, with the use of extremely bright lighting on Rathbone and Ankers in the pub, and Gomez later on. Elsewhere the characters are able to completely disappear into shadows. It’s a great effect. As always Frank Skinner’s distinctive music graces the opening as well as, in this episode, the entire film. What we don’t get, unfortunately, is one or more of Holmes’ patented disguises, which Rathbone loved to don. In fact, the actual part of Holmes in this production is fairly minimal. Still, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror signaled a new start for the detective at Universal and was a harbinger of better things to come.

Uncertain Glory (1944)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                   Writers: László Vadnay & Max Brand
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                          Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Errol Flynn, Paul Lukas, Jean Sullivan and Lucile Watson

An inspirational film about the French Resistance during World War II, but how you make Errol Flynn into a Frenchman is something of a stretch. Once you get past that, however, Uncertain Glory takes a bit of A Tale of Two Cities and mixes it with some Les Miserables to create a strange tale of sacrifice and honor. The film was directed by the incomparable Raoul Walsh who had filmed Flynn in Northern Pursuit the year before and would work with the star in his next war film, Objective, Burma! Flynn had recently formed his own production company, Thomson Productions, and part of his new contract with Warners gave him control over directors and material. The new structure unlikely made him any more money, however, and yet required a lot more from him during production, and so this was the only film he used his company for, preferring to work within Warners’ established system from then on.

The story has Errol Flynn playing Jean Picard, a criminal about to be executed for murder. In confronting his captor, police inspector Paul Lukas, it’s seems that everything about the case hasn’t come out, and that Flynn is hiding something. Fortunately, out in the prison yard as he’s taken to the guillotine, the British begin bombing and he’s able to escape. His first stop is at the home of the great Sheldon Leonard, who gets him a passport and travel papers, then he heads off to Bordeaux with Faye Emerson, Leonard’s girl. It takes Lukas no time at all to recapture him, but they have to stop on the way back as a saboteur has blown up the bridge. It’s here they learn that the Gestapo are going to kill a hundred French prisoners if the saboteur doesn’t give himself up. Flynn, with an unexplained aversion to the guillotine, wants to turn himself in and face the firing squad instead. It also doesn’t hurt that he’ll save a hundred lives in the process.

Flynn is his usual dashing self, though the character he plays is decidedly against type. Part of the tension in the film is waiting for everything to be a misunderstanding and have our faith in Flynn rewarded. Paul Lukas, though Hungarian by birth, is perfectly believable as an actual Frenchman, and is a welcome relief from the decidedly American accents of the rest of the cast. Once in the small town where Flynn and Lukas wait before going back to Paris, our hero falls in love with Jean Sullivan in one of her few roles as an actress. Her performance is a bit stilted and melodramatic. Better is character actress Lucile Watson, whose son is one of the hundred to be executed. In a small role is Douglass Dumbrille, who has always struck me as something of a poor man’s Cedric Hardwicke, as the commissioner of police in Paris. No real distinguished German actors play any of the anonymous Nazis, but then they don’t have a prominent part in the film. The film is really the internal struggles of Flynn and Lukas. Uncertain Glory, I’m sure, had high aspirations, but doesn’t have the same kind of resonance today that a lot of other war period films retain. Still, it’s always good to see Flynn.

Twin Sisters (2002)

Director: Ben Sombogaart                              Writer: Marieke van der Pol
Film Score: Fons Merkies                              Cinematography: Piotr Kukla
Starring: Thelka Reuten, Nadja Uhl, Ellen Vogel and Gudrun Okras

Twin Sisters (De Tweeling) is an interesting Dutch film about World War II and the divisions it created among people. In this case the people are twin sisters who were separated as children. The two were very close, but after their parents died they were split up and forced to live with different relatives. Anna was taken to a German farm where she worked for penniless farmers and became a tough, no-nonsense girl. Lotte, on the other hand, was taken to Holland to live with rich relatives who nursed her through her childhood consumption and gave her all of the advantages their money could buy. What’s most intriguing is that early on in the film, the two are seen as old women at a health spa. Anna walks over to the other woman and strikes up a brief conversation. But when Lotte realizes it’s her twin sister, she simply gets up and walks away without a word. What happened to the two girls who were nearly inseparable as children? The answer lies during the war.

Things become clearer when the girls are next seen in 1936. The poor Anna, desperate for a way out of the poverty she seems forever mired in, is buoyed by the promises of the new leader of Germany. The farmers, he claims, are the first class of people and she wants very much to believe in a destiny that makes her something more than she is. She is smart, tough, confident and is motivated to get ahead. But Lotte, the audience soon realizes, is much more unsure of herself. She longs to reconnect with her sister, but the Germany she remembers is denigrated at every turn by her family because of its treatment of Jews, of which they have many as friends. At last that confrontation in the future seems inevitable. Through no fault of their own, the way in which they were raised and the countries they live in will determine the choices the girls make at a crucial periods in their lives . . . and forever put up a wall between them that the passing years will not be able to destroy.

The opening scenes where the girls are children is just a bit too precious. There’s something too obvious and calculated to allow for suspension of disbelief. Fortunately, it doesn’t last long. What the opening scenes do well, however, is to keep the plot obscure. The film is seen entirely from the girl’s point of view and, since they don’t know their relationship to the family members they are given to, the audience doesn’t know either. What comes out gradually is that their father’s side of the family was from Germany and their mother’s side was from Holland. When the girls get older they look quite different, and even when a young solder asks Anna she says nothing about them being fraternal twins. Anna is played by Nadja Uhl, a German actress with wide eyes and a thin face, while Lotte is played by Dutch actress Thelka Reuten, who has darker hair and a more robust physique. But they have an odd relationship that’s never quite believable onscreen.

The other aspect of the girl’s lives revolve around their romantic relationships. Uhl winds up falling in love with an Austrian soldier who eventually joins the SS. German actor Roman Knizka looks every bit the part of the Arian superman, though his loyalty to Hitler is one of appearances rather than conviction. In Holland Reuten is drawn toward pianist Jeroen Spitzenberger who tells her at one point that he looks like three Jews put together. As far as the production goes, it’s typical of an earlier period before the kind of digital color manipulation that has been seen for a long time in Hollywood. It would have benefitted from that greatly, but was undoubtedly not part of the budget. The modern sequences with the old women are also not as haunting as they might have been, but it is suspenseful to the end wondering what the outcome will be. Twin Sisters is not a great film and is disappointing on a number of levels. Still, there is a certain amount of interest to it and it’s not entirely a failure.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Director: Anthony Mann                                Writers: Ben Barzman & Basillo Franchina
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                           Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Starring: Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer and Sophia Loren

Among gigantic Hollywood epics of the golden age, this is not one that is typically mentioned along with Ben-Hur and Spartacus. The Fall of the Roman Empire was Anthony Mann’s follow up to the successful El Cid three years earlier. Like so many epics, it is a film that moves at a luxurious pace, unhurried and reveling in the grandeur of the outdoor settings and opulence of the interior sets. The first half of the picture takes place in the northern frontier of the empire, in what is now Germany. The second half then moves to Rome itself, and to the eastern provinces as the Roman armies fight the Persians. Though it is a good-looking film, as far as epics go it’s a little tepid. And I would probably place the blame for that on the use of Will Durant as technical advisor. While he was certainly a first rate historian, accurate history does not always make for gripping drama. Even the central love story fails to be all that compelling. The motion picture academy apparently felt the same way as the film was only nominated for a single Oscar.

Anyone familiar with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator will recognize the opening scenes of this film. The aging Caesar, Alec Guinness, is in the north fighting the Barbarians who threaten the frontier. His wish is to create a new, peaceful Roman state and to carry out this legacy he has decided to pass over his son, Christopher Plummer, and make his most trusted soldier and step-son, Stephen Boyd, the new emperor. But there the stories diverge. In Mann’s story it is Plummer’s men, gladiators, who engineer the death of the emperor in order to keep themselves in power. At the same time Boyd, who is in love with Caesar’s daughter, Sophia Loren, is feuding with Plummer, unaware that Guinness has promised his daughter to the king of Armenia in order to solidify defensive alliances on the eastern border of the empire. But the feud ends when, knowing Guinness made no written account of his preference, Boyd acknowledges Plummer as the new Caesar.

Once back in Rome, Plummer sets about dismantling everything Guinness tried to create, and in doing so he begins the destruction of the very empire that he is attempting to rule. Plummer is sufficient as the crazed king, but no more. He lacks the kind of almost sadistic personality that would create some real drama. In fact, no one in the piece is really bad, but they all lack the kind of spark that would elevate it into something special. Guinness, Boyd, Loren, even James Mason are unable to transcend the pedestrian nature of the material. But this wasn’t the original plan. Both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were offered Boyd’s role but turned it down. Richard Harris was the first choice for Plummer’s role, but he declined as well. And Sara Montiel was offered the role that eventually went to Loren. Had this cast been filmed things might have been different, but as it was the film was a box-office failure.

The one Oscar nomination the film received was for Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, but it isn’t any better than the acting. Of the big five composers of the golden age he’s decidedly my least favorite. I’m convinced--and if you close you eyes and just listen to the music you will too--that everything he ever wrote was a western. To my ears, Miklós Rózsa was the absolute best at scores for epic films, but he had gone into semi-retirement five years earlier after Ben-Hur. As far as Mann’s production goes, this was one of those literal casts of thousands. The final battle scene has over eight thousand extras and the Roman Forum was the largest outdoor set ever built. And while Mann went on to helm two more films before his death, the movie's failure broke producer Samuel Bronston who had to declare bankruptcy. The Fall of the Roman Empire is certainly not a terrible film, but in the end it lacks almost everything that makes a great epic great.

Sunrise (1927)

Director: F.W. Murnau                                  Writer: Carl Mayer
Film Score: Hugo Riesenfeld                         Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Starring: Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston and Bodil Rosing

For me, this picture is by far the greatest film of the silent era. And though Sunrise was the winner of the first ever Academy Award for best picture of the year, you won’t find it on many lists. That’s because that first year the best picture award was divided into two categories, most popular picture which was given to William Wellman’s Wings, and the most artistic picture given to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s masterpiece. From then on the there was only one award for the film of the year and so the Academy made the boneheaded decision that only one of those two films should be retroactively named best picture and decided popularity was more important. Boy, were they wrong. Sunrise is one of the most satisfying and complete cinematic experiences on film, silent or sound. It is the apotheosis of what filmmaking art could be. It may very well be the greatest film of all time.

Murnau subtitled his film, A Song of Two Humans. And even that bit of synesthesia says a lot about what is to come. Murnau has distilled human experience into the most basic of emotions, love and hate, and plays them out on the screen like a concert pianist improvising variations on a theme. The film opens on a montage of summertime, of vacations, a ferryboat bringing happy people ashore. But in that bucolic rural community is a man and a wife who are unhappy. George O’Brien’s farm is being sold off bit by bit to pay his debts, and he seeks solace in the arms of a woman from the city, leaving Janet Gaynor alone with their child. The city woman wants him to sell his farm and move to the city with her, suggesting that he drown his wife in order to get rid of her. Compelled to find a way out of his unhappiness he goes ahead with the plan, in spite of his obvious inner turmoil over it. Once faced with the deed itself, however, O’Brien can’t go through with it and Gaynor leaps from the boat and dashes away from him the moment they are ashore.

He, of course, follows her, first on a trolley that takes the characters from the rural waterfront to the bustling city in one long take where the audience can see the change in scenery outside as the train moves. Of course Gaynor is terrified of this man she once thought of as her husband, and this conflict will not be an easy one to overcome. But as unforgettable as the city scenes are, the film eventually comes full circle in an almost magical way. There’s an interesting parallel between the boat scene in Murnau’s film, which was inspired by the short story “Die Reise nach Tilsit” by the German author Hermann Sudermann, and a similar scene--though one with a very different outcome--by Theodore Dryser in his novel An American Tragedy. But this also mirrors the production as a whole, with William Fox hiring Murnau specifically to make a German Expressionist film in Hollywood for him.

The first thing one notices is the fluidity of the camera, tracking and zooming effortlessly. One way Murnau did this was to mount the camera on tracks above the sets rather than on the floor and it makes a huge difference in the freedom of the camera. The production design is also uniformly excellent, with a very Expressionistic darkness in the rural scenes and a frenetic brightness in the city scenes. Even the titles become part of the film, mirroring the ideas that they convey, and Rochus Gliese was nominated that year for best art direction at the Oscars. The imagery is absolutely stunning. Double exposures move in and out of the scenes, conveying information and setting moods. Lighting, especially the use of shadow, is incredibly advanced and the symbolism, while blunt, is beautifully effective. Foreshortening of the sets gives added length to rooms as well as exteriors, emphasizing the Expressionist effect. And gauze placed over the camera lens gives the entire production a dreamlike quality. Murnau’s cameramen Charles Rosher and Karl Struss were rightly given the Oscar that year for best cinematography.

There is so much to say about this film that it’s hardly possible to scratch the surface here. One way to explore it more thoroughly is through the terrific series of books put out by the British Film Institute. Their volume on Sunrise, though brief, is an excellent introduction to the depth and complexity of the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay in The A List is also appropriately reverential. In addition to best picture and cinematography, Janet Gaynor was also awarded an Oscar for her work that year that also included Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven. Murnau is, of course, probably best know for his horror film Nosferatu which, though certainly artistically satisfying, pales in comparison to the confidence and cinematic mastery displayed here. Murnau’s next film, 4 Devils is now lost, and he made only two more pictures before an auto accident cut short a career that would have been incredible to see unfold in sound films. Even so, many people consider Murnau one of the greatest directors of all time, myself included, and Sunrise is the supreme example of his genius.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Working Girl (1988)

Director: Mike Nichols                                  Writer: Kevin Wade
Film Score: Rob Mounsey                            Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack

Once you get past the big hair, the shoulder pads, the outsized glasses and synthesized music, Working Girl is a great film. Sure it’s dated, but Mike Nichols has had a great track record directing comedic films from The Graduate up through Charlie Wilson’s War. This one really works because of the intelligent script by Kevin Wade writing his first solo screenplay. The film doesn’t get enough credit for jumpstarting the romantic comedy revival that began in the late eighties with hits like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Because of its genre the film never had a chance at any victories, but nevertheless was nominated for a slew of Oscars, best picture and director and, fittingly, all of the women in the major roles, Griffith, Weaver and Cusack. Of course the one Oscar that the film was awarded was for best song, Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” fitting for an eighties movie.

Melanie Griffith plays a hard-working secretary who dreams of bigger things. She lives on Staten Island and works in Manhattan for a large financial firm. But she’s bounced around from job to job because she doesn’t want to be sexually harassed and taken for granted. Her last chance is with Sigourney Weaver, a high-powered executive who promises that she’ll help Griffith move up. But when Weaver’s away on a skiing trip Griffith finds out she’s stolen one of her ideas for a merger. So, with Weaver temporarily out of the way, she sets up a meeting with Harrison Ford and the two of them move forward on a deal that will help both of them be successful, not to mention romantically entangled. Along the way Griffith is assisted by another secretary and personal friend, Joan Cusack, but her move into the fast lane is resented by boyfriend Alec Baldwin. When Weaver comes back from the trip early, things really hit the fan.

Melanie Griffith, who began her film career in Robbie Benson’s One on One, carved out a weird niche for herself in films. The daughter of Tippi Hedren, she has the same kind of odd vocal delivery as her mother. The real glue that holds the film together, though, is Harrison Ford in one of his best roles. He’s a terrific force in the plot, eager to move forward on the deal, wanting to step outside of the corporate crud and have a genuine relationship, and at the same time terrific at his job. Sigourney Weaver is also tremendous as the ruthless executive, using her feminine wiles to rig the system in her favor. And there are a few small supporting roles with big names. Oliver Platt plays a broker in the firm who plays a few too many jokes on Griffith and gets his comeuppance from her, and Kevin Spacey plays a coked-out M&A executive that she has to abandon in his limo. The owner of the merger company is the great Philip Bosco, and Nora Dunn from SNL and Olympia Dukakis also have bit parts.

Ultimately this is a smart film, very much of it’s time, but not talking down to audiences the way that so many modern films treat viewers as if they’re idiots. But then that’s the type of script that Mike Nichols is drawn to. The idea was made into a television series in 1990 and starring Sandra Bullock but only lasted one season. There’s enough of an edge to the original, though, that it’s not surprising it didn’t last on the small screen. The thing that’s not typically discussed is the term “working girl” as prostitute, and how that idea translates in the film. As a secretary there is a sense that women are at the mercy of their superiors because of their position wherein they need their jobs and therefore feel helpless to stand up to abuse. Working Girl is a terrific romcom and one that I always enjoy watching for its intelligence and charm.

Stagecoach (1939)

Director: John Ford                                       Writer: Dudley Nichols & Ben Hecht
Film Score: Richard Hageman                        Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell and John Carradine

Throughout the thirties, John Wayne had made dozens of low-budget westerns for poverty row companies like Republic and programmers for small studios like Universal. But appearing in Stagecoach, for John Ford, was his big break and he never looked back. It was a great part for him, too. Ostensibly a criminal as the film opens, he is actually the moral center of the piece. But the film contains a host of great stars and is really an ensemble piece. The story is based on an Ernest Haycox short story called “The Stage to Lordsberg” and was the first of so many Ford westerns that would be filmed in Monument Valley on the Arizona Utah border. In fact, it was Ford’s first western during the sound period and launched his career as a specialist in that genre as well. His belief in the material was rewarded when the film was a huge hit in a year that saw so many other great Hollywood films.

The film begins with a military fort being told to look out for Apache war raids. From there the scene shifts to a small western town in Arizona as the stagecoach arrives. Andy Devine is the driver and is told by the sheriff that John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, has escaped prison. Meanwhile prostitute Claire Trevor is being run out of town by the ladies of the Law and Order League and drunken doctor Thomas Mitchell has been kicked out of his rooming house for not paying his rent. They all board the coach with whiskey salesman Donald Meek, gambler John Carradine, a woman going to see her soldier husband, and the banker who’s running away from his wife. The group heads into Indian country with no cavalry escort and picks up Wayne along the way. Some of the passengers are running away, and some are heading to Lordsberg for very specific reasons, Wayne in particular to avenge the deaths of his father and brother.

The first shot of John Wayne is tremendous, a beautiful tracking shot pushing in on his youthful face. It was a great way of introducing him to the world of high quality feature films, though it almost didn’t happen. Ford hadn’t directed a western since the silent era and the studios felt that big-budget westerns were out. He had taken the film to David O. Selznick but the mogul didn’t have enough control over Ford and eventually dropped the project. Ford finally found financing from Walter Wanger, but the producer wanted to replace Ford’s stars with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. Ford flatly refused and still wound up getting half the money he needed and went ahead with filming. Even in an artistically rich year for feature films, Stagecoach garnered seven Academy Award nominations with wins for the distinctive score and for Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful supporting performance.

The two stars, Claire Trevor and John Wayne are the focal point of the piece. But while the audience knows that Trevor is a prostitute there is the possibility that Wayne, who has been in prison for several years, doesn’t have a clue. After Louise Platt’s baby is born and Trevor is holding the child, Wayne’s expression is positively breathless with desire. It’s a beautiful scene. But what makes Wayne’s part so great is the idea that, even though Trevor is afraid to tell him what she really is and doesn’t answer his proposal because of it . . . he already knows. This makes all of the references to her as a lady earlier in the film take on so much more meaning and deepens the moral center that Wayne’s character provides. Of course it can be interpreted the other way, where he simply doesn’t care at the end, but I think it makes a much more powerful film if he does. Stagecoach, the first major western for John Ford and John Wayne is simply a classic.

Capote (2005)

Director: Bennett Miller                                  Writer: Dan Futterman
Film Score: Mychael Danna                           Cinematography: Adam Kimmel
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper and Bruce Greenwood

After the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman I wanted to revisit his Oscar-winning performance in Capote. This was the film that, for me, really brought him back to my consciousness after a memorable performance in Scent of a Woman. From then on, he became an actor of the first order for me and it’s still sad to think about what might have been. This is certainly an iconic performance, and it’s difficult to think of any other actor who could have pulled it off with the restraint that Hoffman did. But then this is a film full of brilliant actors, and that is another thing that makes it a powerful experience. Finally, the directing and, especially the production design, set it apart from almost anything I have seen in the last twenty years in the way in which the look of the film mirrors the story on the screen. It’s incredibly impressive on many levels.

As Hoffman said repeatedly, this is not a biopic. It’s six years in the life of Truman Capote as he worked on the research and writing of his most famous work, In Cold Blood. This was the story of the murder of a family of four out in the Kansas prairie. Something about the story compelled Capote to travel to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, and he brought along his closest friend, Nell Harper Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird was picked up for publishing while he was there. Though his presence in the town was at first resisted, he had a way of ingratiating himself to people and became part of all their lives. But something changed when he met the murderers. In attempting to make his book something unique he spent time with them, especially Perry Smith, and before long Capote himself became as much a part of the story as the people he was writing about. Unfortunately, it changed him in ways he could have never imagined.

Of course Hoffman was brilliant in the role, and this was acknowledged by the Academy. In addition, one of my favorite actresses, Catherine Keener, gives a powerfully subtle performance as Harper Lee and was nominated as best supporting actress herself. She supports Capote, but always tells him the truth, even when he doesn’t want to hear it. The tremendous Chris Cooper plays the state investigator, a straight-laced lawman who dislikes Capote at first but eventually succumbs to his charms. And of course, one of my favorite actors of all time, Bruce Greenwood, plays the writer Jack Dunphy with whom Capote had a relationship with to the end of his life. Lesser known are the murderers themselves. Mark Pellegrino had been primarily a television actor for years, but his role here propelled him into more film work, and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith has benefitted in the same way.

The film earned five Academy Award nominations. In addition to Keener’s nomination and Hoffman’s win, the film was nominated for best picture and best director for Bennett Miller. Also recognized was writer-actor Dan Futterman for his screenplay. Disappointing to me, however, was the lack of recognition for art direction by Gord Peterson. Most of those nominations go to costume dramas because of the extensive work needed to create realistic sets. But this is an historical drama as well, and to my mind it’s every bit as difficult recreating the early sixties atmosphere not only in the rural Kansas neighborhoods, but the New York salons as well. The film score by Mychael Danna, while not particularly memorable, is nevertheless haunting and adds to the atmosphere of the piece. It’s a beautiful looking film and creates an atmosphere that not only mirrors the seriousness of the crimes, but the inner life of the protagonist. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote is, quite simply, brilliant.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Marty (1955)

Director: Delbert Mann                                  Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti and Joe Mantell

The winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 1955, Marty is terrific story of New York and the life of a regular guy who just wants to be happy. It’s easy to see why it won the Oscar because it’s delightful. There’s such an honesty about the film that doesn’t have anything to do with high drama or exaggerated story lines. In many ways it feels like a European film. The whole story takes place over the course of two days, and it is solely about the relationship between Ernest Borgnine and the people in his life, including one very special Saturday night when he meets Betsy Blair and they fall in love. That’s it. Of course it’s set in New York City and that gives the film a particularly American slant, but the story itself, by the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky, is transcendent and also earned him one of this three Oscars that year.

Borgnine plays a mild-mannered butcher, Marty, who lives with his mother and hangs out at the local bar watching baseball. But he’s thirty-five and everyone keeps pestering him about why he isn’t married yet. Well, it’s not for lack of trying, but he keep getting the brush off from girls and has given up trying. When Esther Minciotti, his mother, pushes him to go to a ballroom one Saturday night he meets a fellow sufferer, Betsy Blair, and their shared experiences immediately pull them together. At the same time his mother’s sister, Augusta Ciolli, is driving her daughter in law crazy and so she has to move in with Borgnine and Minciotti. Now, just as Borgnine starts to think of actually getting married, everyone who was pushing him before realizes how their lives and relationships with him will change and suddenly they want him to put on the brakes.

Ernest Borgnine is perfect for the role. He’s big and sweet, and took home the Oscar for his performance. Betsy Blair is painfully shy, but she certainly lights up around Borgnine and earned a nomination herself. The two old women, Minciotti and Ciolli are spot on as the ethnic mothers with nothing else in their lives but the children. As with all older films there are players in bit parts who now stand out because of their subsequent fame. One of the patrons of the bar in the opening of the film is none other than Frank Sutton who will forever be associated with his role of Sergeant Carter in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Jerry Paris, whose best-known role was probably that of Ensign Harding in The Caine Mutiny, plays Borgnine’s cousin. And in the ballroom scene a little later on is the great Jerry Orbach cutting a rug as one of the dancers, right after Borgnine and Blair go out for coffee.

The film began its life as an hour-long television drama in 1953 starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand in one of her earliest roles. Delbert Mann was the director and he was brought onboard for the expanded film version where he was awarded an Oscar for his work. Chayefsky says he set out to write the most ordinary love story in the world and he certainly succeeded. But in creating his “ordinary” world he struck a chord with audiences. Minciotti and Ciolli as well as Joe Mantell as Borgnine’s best friend reprised their roles in the film version, and the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards altogether, taking home four. Marty is a delightful film that is very much a snapshot of the time, and is all the more endearing because of it. It defies the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking and was rightly rewarded because of it.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Director: Jack Starrett                                     Writers: Max Julien & Sheldon Keller
Film Score: J.J. Johnson                                 Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Starring: Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Shelley Winters and Albert Popwell

I freely admit that I have a bias toward seventies films. Having grown up at the time, they instantly transport me back to my childhood and make me feel great. But it’s not just childhood associations that make them so fun, as even films I never saw back then are equally enjoyable. Blaxploitation is a case in point. Having grown up in a small rural town out west they didn’t show black films in the local theater, and as a result of this racism I didn’t have the opportunity to watch these films until much later in life. Shaft, Superfly, and Coffey were all wonderful discoveries for me. In watching later entries, however, I soon realized that it didn’t take long for the genre to devolve into camp. Cleopatra Jones is just one example. Shelley Winters’ over the top performance as Mama, complete with red--and I’m not talking carrot-colored here but fire engine red--wig is a scenery chewing delight.

Tamara Dobson plays the title character, a United States special agent working overseas to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the urban centers. Shelley Winters is the drug kingpin who is suffering from the embargo and wants Dobson stopped. To get her back, Winters engineers a bust on a halfway house that Dobson runs with Bernie Casey, planting drugs on residents and destroying the property. Dobson hops the next plane home, takes out two of the assassins at the airport and begins throwing down the gauntlet to stop Winter’s campaign against her. But first she must dodge several more assassination attempts, including a chase along the concrete banks of the L.A. river before it became a cliché in films. Working as she must, within the law, her investigation leads slowly and inexorably toward the exposure of the police mole as well as a wonderful showdown with Winters.

The statuesque Dobson had to be selected for the roll partially because of her height, six foot two without heels, and she towers over her costars. All but Bernie Casey, that is. He’s the perfect man for her, strong and intense and angry. Some great character actors from the time are also present. Bill McKinney plays a redneck cop who is in the pay of Winters, and the distinctive Joe Tornatore is one of her hit men. Antonio Fargas is one of Winter’s dealers in the city who decides to leave her and go on his own, while Teddy Wilson is his right hand man. Michael Warren has a small part as a mechanic. The great Esther Rolle runs a restaurant in the old neighborhood and, one of my favorite actors Albert Popwell, has a bit part as one of her sons. The acting is average for the time meaning a bit overlarge, and while Dobson’s hand to hand combat skills pale next to someone like Pam Grier, it’s good enough. The L.A. setting is strange, however, seeing as most films of this type typically play in New York, but it was no doubt cheaper to do it near the studio and for the most part that works too.

Director Jack Starrett was mostly known as an actor, but also directed several low budget film and numerous episodes for television series. And it does feel a bit like a television show, but so did a lot of films in the seventies. And he does a nice job here, providing all of the set pieces for a film of this type, sex, violence and car chases. One of the terrific aspects of the film is the locations. They all work really well and help the film rise above the standard fare of the day. Jazz great J.J. Johnson wrote the soundtrack and, while it’s a bit anonymous, it’s still better than his work on Across 110th Street or Willie Dynamite. All in all, Cleopatra Jones is a solid Blaxploitation film and what it lacks in originality it makes up for in studio polish and pure seventies fun.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Between Two Worlds (1944)

Director: Edward A. Blatt                                   Writer: Daniel Fuchs
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold                  Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Starring: John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Edmund Gwen and Sydney Greenstreet

A group of passengers being ferried across the River Styx, all to the accompaniment of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s piano music. That’s the premise for Warner Brothers’ Between Two Worlds. In this case the boat is an ocean liner, and the passengers are on their way from England to America . . . or at least they were. Their steward on the passage is the venerable Edmund Gwen. It’s an odd choice for a war film, to consciously consider the journey of the dead, sort of a cross between Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Our Town. But the implications are much more serious with all of the deaths that happened during the war. Based on the play Outward Bound, it’s something of a remake of the 1930 film of the same name. The setting has been updated to wartime and some significant changes made to the earlier film.

The film begins with a group of people waiting to board a liner to New York. John Garfield is a hot-headed reporter who’s just been fired, with his girlfriend actress Faye Emerson in tow. Also along for the ride are merchant seaman George Tobias and a poor Irish woman Sara Allgood. Rounding out the group is a priest, a wealthy industrialist, and a snooty aristocratic couple. But before they can board there is an air raid and all of them are killed by a bomb in the transportation car. Concert pianist Paul Henreid, desperate to get on the ship, is told he must wait and so he goes home to commit suicide. He’s joined there by his wife, Eleanor Parker, who won’t leave his side. Suddenly all of them are onboard the steamer for America, but the only two who know they’re dead are the suicide victims. Edmund Gwen is there to keep things calm, but even he can’t prevent Garfield from spilling the beans, or angel Sydney Greenstreet from meting out the afterlife they’ve earned.

It’s certainly an odd film, especially the screenplay by Daniel Fuchs. It’s full of stilted dialogue, melodrama, and bizarre behaviors. Henreid, for once, is the leading man he always imagined himself to be, but even here he has to share the spotlight with an ensemble cast. Garfield’s character wears thin, lashing out not only at his girlfriend but industrialist George Coulouris for getting him fired. The worst acting of the bunch, however, has to be Paul Henreid. The part is incredibly bland right from the start and he doesn’t seem to have a real reason for wanting to leave his wife, or committing suicide for that matter. The film doesn’t really come alive--no pun intended--until Sydney Greenstreet shows up. The other obvious positive is the lush, orchestral score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which includes the distinctive piano piece. Edward Blatt was given a couple of other assignments after this, but he never became a director of note. In the end, Between Two Worlds is a decidedly average film with a great score.

Murder! (1930)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                  Writers: Alfred Hitchcock & Walter Mycroft
Music Dir: John Reynders                                  Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Starring: Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman

It’s the original 12 Angry Men . . . except that there are three women on the jury, and all of the jurors are extremely civilized. But the later film that most closely resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! is Suspect from 1987, where a jury member conducts his own investigation when he believes the wrong person is on trial. In this film things are a bit more difficult as the trial is over and the sentence has already been pronounced. This is one of Hitchcock’s earliest sound films and was Herbert Marshall’s very first sound film, and its success assured long and fruitful careers for both of them. This is also the beginning of one of Hitch’s favorite ideas in his films, the blurred lines between playing a part, pretending, and reality. And there are some fine connections in the beginning of the film that give hints to the murderer, but subtle enough that they make a nice reveal.

The story begins with screams in the middle of the night. A touring troupe of actors staying in a small English village is the center of a murder. One of the actresses is dead on the floor while another, Norah Baring, is sitting nearby, the bloody fireplace poker at her feet, claiming she can remember nothing about the murder. At the trial all of the jurors come around to a guilty verdict except one, Herbert Marshall. Unfortunately he can’t put his finger on the exact reason he believes she didn’t do it, and so he eventually gives in to the will of the majority, and Baring is sentenced to death. But Marshall can’t let it go and, even after the trial is over, begins his own investigation. He is a famous actor in London, and since the murder involves actors he finds it relatively easy to get them to talk to him, especially when the questions come with the tacit possibility of working for him.

Hitchcock’s trademark humor is in evidence even at this early stage in his career. On the jury it’s the women who appear to be in command of the situation and not the other way around, especially Violet Fairbrother who happens to be an expert in psychology. Hitch even indulges in a rare sight gag, when Edward Chapman walks into Marshall’s office and we see his feet nearly sinking into the plush carpet. The play that the actors are in at the beginning of the film is called “Nothing But the Truth” and is a subtle condemnation of a legal system that purports to seek the truth but is often satisfied with coincidence. Hitchcock’s cameo appears about midway through the film when Marshall, along with Chapman and Phyllis Konstam are talking in front of the house where the murder took place. Una O’Connor also puts in a brief appearance as a landlady.

There are plenty of nice directorial touches to the film, and the connections to silent era filmmaking are strong. The use of shadows is particularly good, the bars of the prison being cast over a table, and the gibbet slowly climbing the wall. But Hitch also uses framing devices, the one where Norah Baring’s face is framed in the door of her cell being particularly good. The opening credits begin with the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth, and later is the famous scene were Wagner is supposedly playing over the radio while Marshall and his secretary are speaking. The music almost drowns out the voices, but the reason why is simple. With no way to dub music in post-production, Hitchcock had to have the musicians on the soundstage and there was no way to adjust the microphones. Murder!, despite its creakiness, is a nice little mystery, and recommended for fans of Marshall as well as the director.