Monday, March 31, 2014

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Director: Lowell Sherman                                  Writers: Harvey F. Thew & John Bright
Music: John Leipold                                         Cinematography: Charles Lang
Starring: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore and Gilbert Roland

The Great Depression was a brutal awakening for an industry that had been awash in cash just a few years earlier. Fortunately most of the studios delivered big hits early on in the decade that saved their studios. For Universal it was their horror pictures Dracula and Frankenstein. For RKO it was the western Cimarron, And for Paramount it was the Mae West comedy She Done Him Wrong. It’s an 1890s musical comedy that began as a Broadway play called Diamond Lil that Mae West had written herself. When Paramount bought the rights, however, the production code office sent a memo saying that there was no way they would let it be made it into a film. So West got together with two writers, Harvey F. Thew and John Bright and managed to turn the racy dialogue into innuendo and double entendre and with a change of title it became one of Paramount’s biggest box office hits ever, and was even nominated for an Oscar. Produced for only two hundred thousand dollars, the film made the studio over two million.

The action revolves around a nightclub owned by Noah Beery. But he’s involved in some illegal activities with Rafaela Ottiano, and David Landau is sniffing around trying to get evidence to have him arrested. In the bargain Landau hopes that Beery’s girlfriend, Mae West, will allow him to become her new protector. Next door to the club is a mission run by Cary Grant whom West has taken a liking to, but she sees little chance that he would be interested in someone like her. To complicate matters, her old boyfriend Owen Moore is in prison, though he still thinks she’s loyal to him, and he goes so wild when she comes to see him that he breaks out to take her on the run with him. Now it’s decision time for West. She knows she doesn’t want to be with Moore, but if she lets him know that he could do something crazy like kill her. And to top it off she knows Beery is in the middle of something illegal but doesn’t know why, and things are coming down around him too. In between there are Can-Can girls on the stage, a singer with a handlebar mustache, and West herself singing “Frankie and Johnny.”

It’s actually difficult for me to figure out why this film was so popular. Of course Mae West has some great lines, but in the context of the film they seem few and far between. Cary Grant has little more than a supporting role, which makes the ending somewhat of a head-scratcher. And the 1890s setting seems so forced that the film almost borders on disappointing. If I had to speculate it would be because at the time, the 1930s, the turn of the century was only forty years away, like the seventies would be now. But even with that there are some great moments in the film. When West goes to see her boyfriend in prison and knows all of the men in the cells before she gets to his cell is priceless. But the high point of black comedy comes when West accidentally kills a woman and she hides her crime by brushing the dead woman’s hair in front of a mirror when people show up. That was absolutely the best moment in the film. She Done Him Wrong is certainly a pre-code film, especially considering that Mae West gets away with murder. But in terms of all the films of that era it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as others for me. Still, West is a great talent and it’s a perfect role for her that could have been better if she’d written it herself . . . because she did.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Robe (1953)

Director: Henry Koster                                      Writers: Philip Dunne & Albert Maltz
Film Score: Alfred Newman                               Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Michael Rennie

Ever since Ben-Hur back in 1925 there has been a desire to make Biblical epics that tie into the Jesus story. This one stars Richard Burton and Victor Mature and deals with the efforts of the Roman Empire to quell the nascent movement of Christianity. The Robe was based on the best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas published in 1942. In fact, it was originally optioned by RKO studios that year, and Mervyn LeRoy was tabbed as director. But wartime restrictions on materials and the requirements for large casts of extras made the estimated costs for the film so prohibitive that it didn’t make sense for a studio facing bankruptcy to go forward with the project. When Douglas died and his heirs wanted to sue RKO to get the rights back they were sold to 20th Century Fox who had tabbed Tyrone Power for the role of Marcellus and Jeff Chandler for the role of Demetrius, and when it went before the cameras with the final cast it was filmed in a new widescreen process called CinemaScope.

The story begins in the Roman slave market, where Roman tribune Richard Burton meets Jean Simmons and she reminds him that they promised to marry when they were children. Enchanted by her, he agrees to honor his promise. Later Burton defies the heir to the empire, Jay Robinson, by outbidding him to buy gladiator Victor Mature. But by humiliating Robinson, Burton has earned himself an assignment to Jerusalem, one of the worst places in the empire. He takes along Mature as his personal servant, and when they arrive and Mature sees Jesus, he defies Burton in order to warn the man of the plot against him. But he’s too late. Simmons, meanwhile, has interceded on Burton’s behalf with the present emperor, Ernest Thesiger, and he is recalled, but not before he is given orders by Richard Boone to crucify Jesus. While Jesus is dying on the cross, Burton plays dice at the base of the cross, and with a roll of the dice wins the man’s red robe. A violent storm rises, however, and when Burton covers himself with the robe his guilt overwhelms him, Mature leaves him, and he goes back to Rome a broken man.

When Burton meets with Thesiger, the emperor gives him an assignment, to find the robe and destroy it in order to end his guilt, and to get the names of the disciples and have them killed. But once he returns to the holy land, he becomes a changed man under the influence of the new religion. Burton feels like an unlikely Biblical hero in the film, which makes sense considering that he hated playing the role, and his dislike resulted in his turning down a contract offer from Fox. Nevertheless, he did a good enough job to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Other nominations went to Leon Shamroy for his cinematography and the film as a whole for best picture. The categories that won the Academy Award make sense, art direction and set design as well as for costume design. The film is also the only Biblical epic to spawn a sequel, when the story continues with Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators the following year.

One of the highlights of the film is definitely the script. In so many places the expectation is that either Burton or Jean Simmons will finally give up on the other and yet they never do. For me, this is one of the reasons that the film works. Though not spectacular as a whole it retains interest because there are no scenes that destroy that interest. In itself it’s not a tremendous compliment, but considering how many films fail to do that it is a plus. Jean Simmons, as Burton’s love interest is suitably infatuated, so much so that the two had an affair during filming. Like so many epics, the extensive cast of supporting actors is fun to watch. Percy Helton makes an appearance as a wine seller, Michael Rennie plays the disciple Peter, and Dean Jagger one of the early converts. Ernest Thesiger, best known for his iconic role as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, is the real treat however. As a Biblical epic The Robe is nothing special, but it is entertaining in a certain way and certainly worth the investment in time to watch.

Dishonored Lady (1947)

Director: Robert Stevenson                                Writers: Edmund H. North & Ben Hecht
Film Score: Carmen Dragon                               Cinematography: Lucien N. Androit
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, Morris Carnovsky and Margaret Hamilton

There’s no denying Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr’s considerable beauty, very much in the Vivian Leigh mold. But her career was far less so. After working in Europe she met Louis B. Mayer in Paris and then came to Hollywood in 1938, her first American film performance coming in the smash hit Algiers. And while she never had roles in any critically acclaimed motion pictures, she did have a successful career and was in some popular films. Dishonored Lady is a low-budget psychological drama released through United Artists, an independent project put together by Hunt Stromberg, former MGM producer. It’s an interesting story that takes a twist for the noir midway through. But in this case it is the woman whose life is turned upside down and with seemingly no way out. And while the film has decided weaknesses, including the acting and the script, it nonetheless is a compelling narrative that impresses in spite of its humble beginnings.

The film begins with two motorcycle cops talking about a parked car up the road. Lamarr is at the wheel and once she gets her courage up she lights a cigarette, races down the road, and drives full speed into a tree. But she survives, and the tree is in front of the house of psychologist Morris Carnovsky, who tells her to come and see him if she ever feels like killing herself again. The next day we discover that she is the art designer for a big magazine in New York City. She is also the subject of much gossip about her private--read sexual--life and people don’t seem to care if she knows. When she refuses to run an ad with a poor layout for a jeweler, and then winds up in bed with him the next evening, her despair brings her back to Carnovsky, who tells her that her sexual addiction is no different than alcoholism but that she needs to recognize it before he can help. After another crisis she quits her job, leaves Manhattan, and takes a different name to start over.

Living her new life she meets a research scientist, Dennis O’Keefe and does some illustrations for a paper he’s writing. His blissful ignorance about her past is just the tonic Lamar needs to enjoy life the way she never had before. But, as things have a way of doing, the past doesn’t stay hidden for long. One of the inescapable features of this film is just how obvious it is that Lamarr is a star of the first order. She has poise and control and her beauty is captivating. Unlike other European discoveries like Garbo or Dietrich, she has an innocence and believability that are utterly compelling. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t have had the opportunity to star in more prestige pictures. But even this independent production has a lot going for it. Director Robert Stevenson had been working since the advent of sound but would do his greatest work in the sixties. And composer Carmen Dragon had won an Academy Award for his film score of Cover Girl just three years earlier. The cast is relatively good, with Morris Carnovsky, Dennis O’Keefe and the great Margaret Hamilton by far the best. Though not really a thriller or a noir film, Dishonored Lady has elements of both, but seems to be a romance at heart and an absolute must for fans of the underappreciated Hedy Lamarr.

The Nevadan (1950)

Director: Gordon Douglas                                  Writers: George W. George & George F. Slavin
Film Score: Arthur Morton                                 Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Randolph Scott, Dorothy Malone, Forrest Tucker and Frank Faylen

This Randolph Scott western takes a while to get going, and even then it’s a bit lacking in suspense. The plot is reminiscent of an old John Wayne film, Blue Steel from 1934, but a bit more sophisticated. The Nevadan is a low budget feature from Columbia, one of three westerns that Scott made for the studio that year. It was filmed in an inexpensive process known as Cinecolor, an old two-strip process in which both strips of film ran simultaneously through the camera but each recorded a different color. And while the script is fairly undistinguished, the film sports a great cast with Forrest Tucker, Frank Faylen, George Macready and the beautiful Dorothy Malone. The director was Gordon Douglas, who went from this western right into a couple of Errol Flynn knock-offs at the studio working with Macready in both.

Forrest Tucker is a convict being transported east by stagecoach through Nevada. He manages to get away and rides far enough that the posse after him gives up. But there’s another man following him. Randolph Scott in a business suit says he’s lost and just following him to find a town. But Tucker brings him along to get an envelope from the bank in town, and winds up burning the contents. Frank Faylen and his brother stop the two for the envelope, but Scott gets the drop on the brother and sends them walking back to town. Scott doesn’t want to know anything about Tucker, but when the two split and meet back in town Tucker pretends he doesn’t know him. This gets Scott in trouble with the owner of the town, George Macready, who knows what Tucker was arrested for: robbing a quarter of a million dollars in gold. Once Macready feels sure Scott doesn’t know anything he lets him go and heads out after Tucker to get the gold with Faylen and his brother. Scott meanwhile pays a visit to Macready’s daughter at his ranch, Dorothy Malone, to trade for a fresh horse, and heads out himself.

It’s unclear why Scott keeps helping Tucker until deep into the film. The other odd thing is the romance between Scott and Malone, because there really isn’t one. A lot of fans find the presence of George Macready a little out of place. The actor is probably most well know for his appearances in Gilda four years earlier and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory seven years later. He does as good a job, however, as any actor playing the part of the greedy ranch owner could do, if not better. Frank Faylen seems an equally odd choice to play a villain, but going against type also works here. Forrest Tucker, ironically, is the least distinctive member of the cast, while the real standout it Dorothy Malone who was so memorable in her brief appearance opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. She is absolutely radiant here, and Scott is his usual dependable self. The Nevadan is definitely a low-budget western with not a lot to recommend it. Still, fans of Randolph Scott and Dorothy Malone will definitely want to check it out.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Director: Maurice Tourneur                                 Writers: Frances Marion & Eleanor Gates
Producer: Adolph Zukor                                     Cinematography: Lucien N. Androit
Starring: Mary Pickford, Gladys Fairbanks, Frank Andrews and Herbert Prior

One of the common misconceptions surrounding Mary Pickford is that she primarily played juvenile roles. That myth is reinforced by her screen persona with the white dresses and long ringlets, as well as the popularity and longevity of films like Daddy-Long-Legs, Pollyanna and this film, Poor Little Rich Girl. But the fact is she made very few of these films and the rest of her work was mostly in light comedy or drama. She is also one of the most important early female figures in the history of film and of course along with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin created United Artists in 1919 as an independent production and distribution company. At the time she was working in films she was one of the most popular movie stars in the world and with the same exalted star-status as Chaplin.

This film was made after Pickford had signed a new deal with Adolph Zukor that gave her creative control over her pictures, something that was almost unimaginable to most film actors of the day. It was based on the hit play by Eleanor Gates, which actually starred future film star Viola Dana. In the film Pickford plays a little girl whose family is wealthy and because of their concerns with finances and society her mother and father neglect her. She is foisted onto a series of servants who are expected to care for her but they see her as a spoiled brat, and her desire to have friends and play outside or go to public school are ridiculed by the servants. The first half of the film she gets into lots of trouble trying to be like other kids, bringing an organ grinder into the house, or having a mud fight with the boys from the street in the greenhouse. The second half of the film, however, soon turns serious.

On the evening when the servants are going to the theater, Pickford’s nanny decides to give her some drugs to make her sleep so that she can go out to join them. But she doesn’t believe that Pickford took her first dose and gives her another, lethal dose. After she leaves, Pickford begins hallucinating and falls down the stairs. In her drugged state she begins to mix the reality of people and voices she hears with the fantasy going on in her mind. It’s here that the film creates another world, a fantasy that recalls Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, where the servants become the personification of their negative characteristics. The one exception is the friendly butler, Frank Andrews, who helps to guide her through the fantasy world. Meanwhile, the doctor, Herbert Prior, works furiously to save her while her parents by her bedside begin to rethink their way of life and treatment of their little girl.

The film was directed by Maurice Tourneur, a well-known French director who had made the move to Hollywood early in the century and was renowned in his time. Today, however, he is probably best known as the father of noir director Jacques Tourneur. He does exhibit a certain flair at times, the moving camera during Pickford’s hallucination being particularly good. But overall there is little to admire. The camera is mostly stationary, and the special effects, while good, are certainly nothing new. But then Pickford herself is the real draw here, exceptional in one of her few juvenile roles and her onscreen charm is obvious. Poor Little Rich Girl is not really a great film. It has some historical significance and is definitely worth viewing, but lacks a lot of the truly artistic qualities that other directors were bringing to films at the time.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Mummy (1932)

Director: Karl Freund                                        Writers: John L. Balderston
Film Score: James Dietrich                              Cinematography: Charles J. Stumar
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan

After being the de facto director on Dracula the year before, Universal officially handed the reins over to German cinematographer Karl Freund to film their next Karloff thriller, The Mummy. The story was the brainchild of Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer who were asked by studio owner Carl Laemle to find a suitable Egyptian story similar to Dracula and Frankenstein. Unable to come up with an existing tale, the two created their own, inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankamen in 1922 and the apparent curse of the pharaohs that was credited for claiming the lives of people associated with the find over the next ten years. After approval from Laemmle, their story was given to John L. Balderston who had converted stage plays of Dracula and Frankenstein into suitable scripts for the two box-office hits that were credited with keeping the company afloat at the beginning of the depression.

The story begins with a British dig in Egypt in 1921. Arthur Byron is the leader of the expedition, with Edward Van Sloan and Bramwell Fletcher as his assistants. In addition to the mummified body of Boris Karloff, they find a box that contains a scroll. While Byron and Van Sloan are out of the room, Fletcher reads the scroll and inadvertently brings Karloff to life and simultaneously goes mad himself. The film then jumps ten years later to an unsuccessful expedition led by Byron’s son, David Manners. As he and Leonard Mundie are about to give up, a withered Egyptian, Karloff, shows them the entrance to another tomb, of the princess he loved and wants to bring back to life. His efforts prove ineffective however but they do lead him to Zita Johann, who is from the same family line as the princess. This gives Karloff the idea to convince her to allow him to kill her and then raise her from the dead as the princess, thus completing his life’s work that began thousands of years before.

In direct comparison to the two great horror films of 1931, this film seems wanting. This is reinforced by the fact that the sequels degenerated quickly into uninteresting horror/comedy and modern rehashes of the same plot. Still, Karloff’s performance is a good one, and the makeup provided by Jack Pierce is exceptional, both for the opening shot of the mummy and Karloff’s withered face. One of the most tantalizing things about the film is the missing scenes that were created to show Zita Johann’s journey through time as she was reincarnated. The intention was to have Karloff show her these in order for her to see how she had been descended from her Egyptian beginnings. Only still shots and publicity photos remain, and while the scenes were arguably unnecessary to the plot, they would have added another dimension that might have propelled the film beyond the marginal status in occupies in Universal’s horror pantheon today.

Though Karl Freund never had a career as a leading director, and went back to cinematography and camera work for television, he nevertheless has a beautiful style full of tracking shots, panning camera shots and multiple set-ups for scenes that is incredibly effective. He also had a good cast working with him. Both David Manners and Edward Van Sloan returned from Dracula, and this time Manners’ more attenuated performance is much more credible, but at the same time Van Sloan’s role is far less confrontational. Zita Johann’s exotic looks provide a nice contrast to the usual blonde heroines of the horror films, and the artistic production design by Willy Pogany is incredibly impressive and adds an important element to the overall production. While The Mummy may not rank as a first-class horror film, it nevertheless has a lot going for it and was a solid entry in Universal’s unassailable domination of depression era supernatural thrillers.

Sweet and Low-Down (1944)

Director: Archie Mayo                                      Writer: Richard English
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                          Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Benny Goodman, Linda Darnell, Jack Oakie and James Cardwell

Normally these types of films--promos for the artist really, but very lucrative for the studio in playing on their popularity--tend to be incredibly banal or just outright bad. But while Benny Goodman is no actor, he does hold his own in this interesting film, though I could have done without his attempt at singing. The idea here, it would seem, is to convert more young people into fans of the band by centering the first part of the film on kids. Sweet and Low-Down begins with some youngsters spreading the word that “Benny’s back.” It turns out the kids belong to a foster home for boys in Chicago, Benny’s old home town, and he plays a free concert there every year. After the show when one of the boys, Buddy Swan, wants the clarinetist to come and listen to his brother, Benny’s road manager, Jack Oakie, tells him there’s not time, so Swan takes the clarinet and runs for it. Goodman and Oakie chase him right to his brother’s door and when they hear James Cardwell playing the trombone Goodman hires him on the spot.

For Cardwell’s first gig with the band they are playing a military base, or so they think. On the train he meets up with singer Linda Darnell and the two hit it off, but the gig turns out to be at a military boys school run by “General” Dickie Moore, child star during the thirties. To keep his standing up as the main man on campus, Moore enlists his aunt, Lynn Bari who is several years older than him, to dress like a girl and attend the dance as his “girl.” But when she gets one look at Cardwell she’s smitten. The only problem is he thinks she’s a girl and pays her little notice except that she should look him up if she ever gets to New York. Bari also knows Goodman, however, as her family is rich and patrons of the arts. Goodman asks her up to a rehearsal in the city and when she shows up revealing she not a little girl Darnell gets jealous and Cardwell, at her urging, gets bent out of shape. But that won’t be the first time, as Cardwell turns out to be a hothead and burns bridges with everyone.

Of course all of this is leading to a showdown between the girls and an excuse to hear Benny and the boys play some swingin’ tunes. The irony is the tunes written especially for the film are the least interesting. Best are the instrumentals that he and the band play in between, and of those the jam session with Benny and his trio is outstanding. Linda Darnell does a nice job here as the scheming singer whose agent attempts to inflate Cardwell’s ego and lure him away from the band. Lynn Bari, as the wealthy socialite, had been kicking around Hollywood for a decade and never really made it big. This was only James Cardwell’s second appearance in films after an auspicious start in The Fighting Sullivans. But his career gradually deteriorated and within a decade he would commit suicide at the age of 32 because of his inability to find work. Jack Oakie is the comic relief, though it’s a stretch to see him as a musician, but he’s the glue that holds the film together. Other than as a musician, Goodman’s role is minimal. Still, Sweet and Low-Down is a mildly entertaining wartime film and would be very interesting for fans of swing and Benny Goodman.

F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933)

Director: Karl Hartl                                           Writers: Curt Siodmak & Walter Reisch
Music: Allan Gray                                            Cinematography: Otto Baecker
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Leslie Fenton, Jill Esmond and Donald Calthrop

In 1932 Curt Siodmak co-authored the screenplay for the film version of his futuristic novel, F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer. The original German version was produced by Erich Pommer and Eberhard Klagemann, and starred Hans Albers and Sybille Schmitz with a young Peter Lorre in a supporting role. Once the transition had been made to sound, however, films could no longer simply be given new title cards and distributed to another country as they had with silent films, and without the ability to dub new dialogue in those early days an entirely different version had to be created for each foreign market. The most famous case of this was with Universal’s Dracula the previous year where the Spanish language version, despite inferior acting, displays a far superior visual style than the original. For this film Pommer was given the task of also creating a French language version that starred Charles Boyer and an English language version that starred Conrad Veidt. All three were filmed in Germany at the Ufa studios and directed by Karl Hartl.

The film opens with Conrad Veidt at a nightclub. He calls up a newspaper photographer he knows, Donal Calthrop, and tells him that there will be something to shoot at the Lennartz Shipyard. But what he doesn’t know is that he has been overheard by Jill Esmond. He acts as if she misheard him and even tries to pick her up, but when she refuses he leaves in a hurry. Veidt gets to the shipyard and manages to break in and steal the plans to F.P.1. but when Esmond, owner of the yard with her brothers, remembers him she confronts him later only to discover the plans weren’t stolen and that it was all a publicity stunt to try and get the F.P.1 built. The Floating Platform is a mid-Atlantic station that would allow larger planes with heavier cargo to refuel halfway across the ocean. The stunt works, the platform is built, and she begins to fall for him, but Veidt is a famous pilot who is given the opportunity to be the first to fly around the world non-stop and leaves immediately.

The romantic tension in the piece comes from the fact that, while Veidt is away, Esmond develops a mutual affection for the project’s designer Leslie Fenton. In terms of conflict surrounding the platform itself, there has apparently been a systematic campaign to sabotage the construction and implementation and Fenton, onboard the platform once it has been situated in the Atlantic, can’t figure out why. As with all of Siodmak’s work, with the possible exception of The Wolf Man, there is a certain juvenile aspect to his writing that he could never rise above, and this film is no different. Nevertheless, there are some things to admire. Siodmak’s idea did prefigure the aircraft carrier in its ability for planes to land and take off in the middle of the ocean. Siodmak said later, “My conception of a floating platform in the ocean was the prototype of the present airplane carrier . . . where the airplanes land between Europe and America, to refuel. I wrote that in 1931, and there’s radar in it. And the weather stations of today are exactly the same construction.” But another part of the script predicts something more diabolical: sprinklers that emit poison gas instead of water, like the Nazi gassing chambers constructed to look like showers, though clearly that’s not something he could have ever guessed would have happened.

In all, the film is rather banal. But for fans of Siodmak, as I am, it is incredibly fascinating. The connection with horror films of the past, through the use of Conrad Veidt who starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, combined with Siodmak’s participation in the horror films of the future at Universal is a terrific confluence of talent. The English version was created with financial assistance and distribution by Fox in the U.S. and Gaumont in Britain, and while the British actors are decidedly second rate, the presence of Veidt does elevate the proceedings. But it also whets the appetite to see the other two versions. While the only available copy of the German version, with Peter Lorre as the photographer, is a much more complete version than the English, it has no subtitles. The French version with Boyer, unfortunately, is presumed lost. F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer is certainly not a great film, nor is it particularly suspenseful or futuristic. Instead, its claim to fame is in its historic value as one of the last German films made before the Nazi takeover and the participation of Curt Siodmak and Conrad Veidt. And for this viewer, that’s more than enough to recommend it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen                                          Writers: Ethan & Joel Coen
Film Score: Carter Burwell                                Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare

For my money, the Coen Brothers have had a few duds in their career, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and A Serious Man, but then so do most filmmakers. What distinguishes Joel and Ethan Coen from those others, however, is that their hits are absolutely beyond peer. They were finally, and justifiably, rewarded for their efforts in 2007 with Oscars for best screenplay, best director and best picture for No Country for Old Men. But Fargo did not go unnoticed and was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including victories for the brothers for best screenplay and Frances McDormand for her performance in a leading role. It was the start of a string of hits that included such brilliant films as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Peter Travers' essay in The A List is fairly breezy and not worthy of note except to understand that the Coen’s don’t play fair. They lie and deceive and it’s best not to take what they say seriously. Their films, on the other hand, are quite worthy of serious analysis.

The film begins on a lonely highway in the winter. William H. Macy goes into a bar in Fargo and meets Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare to give them a car from his lot and confirms their plan to kidnap his wife. Macy has been embezzling funds from his father in law’s dealership and needs the money to get out from under it. But that’s the last time that anything goes right. When a real estate deal that Macy is attempting to make actually goes through, he can’t contact Buscemi in time and they wind up kidnapping her anyway. Then, on the way out of town Buscemi and Stormare are stopped by a state trooper and, before Buscemi can talk him out of a ticket, Stormare shoots him in the head. But as they are dragging the trooper back to his vehicle a car passes by and the two people inside see them, so Stormare runs them down and kills them both. It’s only then that Minnesota police officer Frances McDormand is called in to investigate the case, and where things really go bad.

Steve Buscemi, who carries most of the first half of the film, is something of a stock player for the Coens and had brief roles in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink before this. Here he plays a sort of Greek chorus in the front seat of the car railing at Stormare for not talking and keeping him company. Stormare is the psychopath of the film, but still manages to keep enough of clarity of mind to keep from getting caught. Buscemi . . . not so much. William H. Macy, who was deservedly nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, threatens to steal the show. His Minnesota car dealer is spot on, and his twisted thought processes are a marvel to watch. The denouement with him is tremendous. But the film belongs to Joel Coen’s wife, Academy Award winner Frances McDormand. Her matter-of-fact Minnesota accent is hilarious and her equally blasé investigation is relentless and successful. Add to that that she’s pregnant during the entire film and it ratchets up the humor even more.

The script is excellent and deserving of the Oscar. It’s the blackest of black comedies and yet works on every level, equally horrifying and humorous. But it’s the actors who sell it, and in addition to the principals are superb supporting character actors. McDormand’s husband is played with precision blandness by John Carroll Lynch. Kristin Rudrüd as Macy’s kidnapped wife also had some great moments. But the actor who is most memorable in support is the late, great Harve Presnell. He’s the perfect curmudgeon and foil for Macy. The rest of the usual suspects are also on the crew, Roger Deakins behind the camera and Carter Burwell penning the film score. The Coen Brothers have had a tremendous trajectory in their career, and this was the breakout film that they needed to finally give them critical as well as popular success. Fargo remains one of their most popular films and for one very good reason. It’s fantastic.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bird of Paradise (1932)

Director: King Vidor                                         Writers: Wells Root & Wanda Tuchock
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Starring: Dolores del Rio, Joel McCrea, John Halliday and Lon Chaney Jr.

Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s first films. Okay, that’s not much of a distinction considering he appears only briefly, but it’s something to Chaney fans. Also, the film was part of an unofficial series that RKO made in the early thirties that featured jungle themes, including The Most Dangerous Game, which also starred Joel McCrea, and King Kong, which even reused some of the village sets. This film emphases the jungle as paradise rather than horror, though the final scenes are somewhat grim. The great King Vidor is at the helm, having just finished work on his classic film, Street Scene, for Sam Goldwyn, and the film was produced by David O. Selznick during his brief tenure at RKO. Like most of the films he made later under his own name, this one eventually slipped into public domain. Fortunately, a beautiful print was found and is now held at the George Eastman House. Kino has released this print and it is the only one worth watching.

The story is simple enough. A group of pleasure sailors are touring the South Seas islands. On one stop Joel McCrea sees a beautiful native woman, Dolores del Rio, and falls in love. After the natives feast and dance one night, all of the women are taken away individually by the men of the island, the purpose being obvious. When del Rio ends her dance in front of McCrea he picks her up but the chief raises a fuss. It turns out she’s his daughter and only fit for an island prince. But that night she comes swimming out to the yacht and McCrea joins her in the water. After teaching her how to kiss, he decides to stay on the island until his friends pick him up on their way back. The following night the whole village goes fishing while del Rio takes McCrea into the jungle to confess her love for him, even though she speaks no English. The only problem is she’s been promised to a prince from another island in an arranged marriage and McCrea’s presence has threatened to disrupt the chief’s plans, something he’s not about to let happen. And there’s even more trouble ahead for McCrea when the volcano begins to erupt.

Though the story is fairly pedestrian, this really is a wonderful little picture. McCrea does a terrific job as the white man who has “gone native.” At first he wants to take del Rio back to civilization with him, but it's not until the end of the film that we learn why, that his intention had simply been to use her as a dalliance. By the climax, however, he realizes that what he feels for her is love. But the real star of the film is del Rio, who is captivating onscreen, and her performance in every aspect is wholly believable and sympathetic. The film is beautifully shot and the lighting is perfect. In many ways this prefigures other films that have similar themes, from Mutiny on the Bounty to Son of Fury to the 1949 version of The Blue Lagoon. As with many of the films during that period, the superb black and white images do nothing to diminish the beauty of the backgrounds, and the effect is enhanced even more by the music.

RKO was incredibly fortunate in the early thirties to have Max Steiner at the studio, and this film benefits tremendously from Steiner’s film score. Most studios didn’t have the talent or the inclination to write scores for films this early on and in comparison they are sorely missed. But the main thing the film has going for it is the presence of Dolores del Rio. Unlike Son of Fury, which tries to pass off Gene Tierney as a native woman, del Rio’s Hispanic background makes her much more believable in the role. The dance sequences are extremely good, again, with the addition of Steiner’s music. There is also a fascinating nude underwater swimming sequence that appeared two years before the more famous scene in MGM’s Tarzan and his Mate and makes this easily identifiable as a pre-code gem. Unfortunately the film lost a ton of money, close to a quarter of a million dollars, and so plans for a sequel were scrapped before they could really begin. Though many might dismiss the film for its overly-sentimental story, Bird of Paradise is a wonderful picture and comes highly recommended.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Between Us Girls (1942)

Director: Henry Koster                                    Writer: Myles Connolly & True Boardman
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Starring: Diana Barrymore, Kay Francis, Robert Cummings and John Boles

Kay Francis as the mother of a grown woman? After watching so many of her thirties films, that was not something I was prepared for. She still looks absolutely gorgeous, as well she should, considering she was only 37 at the time. But twenty minutes into the film it becomes clear that that’s the whole point. Between Us Girls is Universal’s attempt at screwball comedy, and though it’s not quite at the level of those kinds of films put out by the bigger studios it does have its charms. It has a great cast as well. In addition to Kay Francis is the young Diana Barrymore in just her third film. Robert Cummings is there as comedy relief and does a tremendous job opposite Barrymore, and the great John Boles plays the straight man who is dating Francis. Finally, the comedic Andy Devine has a brief role as Barrymore’s manager and the fantastic Ethel Griffies plays the family maid.

Diana Barrymore is introduced as an actress on the rise, playing Queen Victoria on the stage and fending off the advances of a young actor smitten with her. She’s on her way to begin rehearsing a production of Rain, but stops off for a couple of days to see her mother, Kay Francis, at the house she has purchased for her. After she discovers her mother is dating a man who doesn’t realize how old her daughter is, she becomes worried for her. So when John Boles, as the boyfriend, comes over to the house with his friend Robert Cummings, Barrymore dresses up like a little girl and puts on an act that fools them both. At first Francis is reluctant to go along with the ruse, but at Barrymore’s insistence she relents. The next day Cummings comes over to visit with the little “girl” and Barrymore lays it on thick, telling him how abused she’s been and at the same time keeping him from going on a date so she can have him for herself.

The film is enjoyable enough, but what makes me cringe is knowing that the part was written with Diana Barrymore in mind, having her put on a “performance” for the other characters in the film to prove what a great actress she was. It’s obvious they were attempting to pander to her and her family as she was the daughter of the great John Barrymore and so her role seems very forced most of the time. And there was a lot going on for the tragic Barrymore daughter around this time. Though the film premiered in September, it had undoubtedly been filmed a few months before. In May of that year her father died, and in July she married the British actor Bramwell Fletcher who had worked with her father in the film Svengali. Nevertheless, she does a decent job. The script is very clever and provides some genuine laughs in many places. Perfectly cast is Robert Cummings as the hapless love interest of Barrymore. He had just come off of filming Saboteur for Alfred Hitchcock at Universal and, prior to that, Kings Row at Warner Brothers.

Though Universal wasn’t able to compete with the bigger studios on most occasions, they did have some talented people on the roster. Director Henry Koster displays a lot of confidence here, and he went on to make some solid films after this, most notably The Bishop’s Wife and Harvey. He does a nice job with the limited, wartime budget he had to work with. The quality of the script is no surprise considering it was adapted from a popular French play, Le Fruit Vert, that had already been filmed in Italy and Germany in the early thirties. Composter Frank Skinner provides the music and the great Joseph A. Valentine is the cinematographer. Between Us Girls may have an unassuming pedigree, and stretches credulity incredibly thin in places, but overall it is a successful screwball comedy and is well worth seeking out.

The Cheat (1931)

Director: George Abbott                                  Writer: Harry Hervey
Sound: Ernest Zatorsky                                  Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Pichel, Harvey Stephens and Porter Hall

Tallulah Bankhead didn’t have a lot of luck in Hollywood, though it seems curious why not. She’s radiant onscreen, not only in her few early thirties pictures but even later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. She made only seven films between 1928 and 1932, and then nothing until Stage Door Canteen in 1943. Clearly she’s not a classic Hollywood beauty, but her determined manner and assertive personality could have been a template for Katherine Hepburn. Still, she had a very prolific career on Broadway and travelling in touring companies, and managed to define success on her own terms. The Cheat is an early sound film for Paramount that teams her with the great Irving Pichel, fresh from one of his earliest acting roles in An American Tragedy for Josef von Sternberg and just prior to his directorial debut in The Most Dangerous Game at RKO.

The story has Pichel playing a world explorer by the name of Livingstone. He is the featured guest at a party in a gambling club. Bankhead is in attendance, waiting for her workaholic husband, Harvey Stephens. When Stephens arrives he has a lengthy chat with Porter Hall, telling him that even after four years he’s still deeply in love with his wife. Meanwhile Bankhead has lost ten thousand dollars at the card table and, feeling down, goes with Pichel to his house to drink some sake. She accepts, but knows exactly what he’s up to, refuses his advances, and goes home still despondent about where to come up with the money. Though her husband won’t have it until his big deal comes through, she is holding fourteen thousand for her women’s charity fundraiser and uses it for a bad investment, which eventually drives her to Pichel and his offer to give her the money. Ironically, Stephens closes his deal but, rather than solving all her problems it only manages to make everything worse, much worse.

The film is a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film of the same name from 1914. That film had a much different slant, however, as the wife, played by Fannie Ward, was selfish and greedy and had no qualms about investing the charity’s funds. But the man she goes to in her desperation to avoid a scandal is Sessue Hayakawa, a non-white, which makes the threat to her virtue even more perilous in the public’s eye. And in that sense, the original is perhaps more scandalous than the pre-code remake. For director George Abbott, who had a much more successful career as a writer, this was one of his last directing jobs, and with good reason. There’s little in the way of interesting camerawork, other than some moving shots on the dock at night. Tallulah Bankhead does a nice job, but is saddled with a less than interesting part as a “silly” housewife who makes bad financial decisions. Ultimately The Cheat is great for fans of Bankhead and Pichel, but has little else to recommend it.

The Scar of Shame (1927)

Director: Frank Peregini                                    Writer: David Starkman
Film Score: Philip Carli                                     Cinematography: Al Liguori
Starring: Harry Henderson, Norman Johnstone, Ann Kennedy and Lucia Lynn Moses

I had known of the existence of all-black films made in the early thirties, but hadn’t been cognizant of those made during the silent era. The Scar of Shame was produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation, which was based in Philadelphia and had been founded by screenwriter David Starkman. It deals with the theme of bigotry among blacks themselves, a subject that could never have been explored by a white film company. But what emerges forcefully from this well-done production, as one views it, is how little difference the final result would have been had the actors been white. Rather than dealing with skin color, of which there was certainly bigotry in the black community, it simply deals with social status, which transcends culture. It’s ultimately a strange story, though, and difficult to see what the moral is at the end but it is no less compelling for it.

The film begins at the dinner table of the boarding house of Ann Kennedy, with a typical cross section of borders that include Norman Johnstone as a sort of well-dressed criminal who runs a bar in town, and from the educated part of society Harry Henderson who is studying to be a pianist and composer. One night Henderson hears screaming from out is window and sees William E. Pettus beating his daughter Lucia Lynn Moses and runs out to protect her, fighting off Pettus and bringing Moses into the boarding house where Kennedy agrees to put her up. But Johnstone knows Pettus and tries to get Moses out of the house to work at his bar, raising Henderson’s ire and getting himself kicked out instead. When Henderson proposes to Moses and marries her, Johnstone and Pettus hatch a plot to get her back by sending a telegram from Henderson’s mother saying she is sick and kidnapping her. They know he won’t take his wife with him because she is from a lower social class than his family, and they are right.

It’s here that the story takes a turn for the melodramatic and a major misunderstanding causes the happy couple to go in very different directions. The first thing one notes is that the idea in the script comes from a decade earlier, like a D.W. Griffith drama with Lillian Gish. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a interesting story and well acted. The principals are very good. Henderson is appropriately brooding, though it’s puzzling how good he is with his fists for a pianist, not only beating up William E. Pettus but frightening away Johnstone as well. As for Johnstone, he’s equally jovial and manipulative and believable as the instigator of the plot. Lucia Lynn Moses is great as the young abused woman and is a nice surprise when she makes the transition of character halfway through the film. She also went to a lot of effort making the film as shooting took place in Philadelphia and she had to commute back to Harlem every night to work as a dancer at The Cotton Club.

One of the most obvious examples of the artistry of the picture is the direction of Frank Peregini, whose use of close-ups is tremendous. He’s incredibly effective at conveying information though them, such as when he shows Henderson’s hand on Moses’s shoulder squeezing ever so slightly to show his affection for her, or when he shows her feet shuffling on the floor when her father comes to kidnap her and seeing Henderson’s reaction to the sound from the floor below. Though it was not on the cutting edge of film production at the time, the Colored Players Film Corporation did an admirable job of maintaining solid production values and hiring good actors to come up with a quality product. Unfortunately the audience just wasn’t there, and attempting to compete with the majors ultimately broke them. The Scar of Shame was the last film the company made, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in artistry.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Director: Edward Zwick                                      Writer: Susan Shilliday & William Wittliff
Film Score: James Horner                                  Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond

As bad as the acting is in this film, I still enjoyed the story. And I can’t say the acting was intrinsically bad. I have a feeling that it was the direction rather than the actors themselves. Though Edward Zwick has been known for some exceptional modern epics like Glory, The Last Samurai and Defiance, it really felt to me like Legends of the Fall was a lesser effort, despite the obvious effort that went into the production. The film was based on the novella by Jim Harrison, a third person story that is spare in its details and leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination, and which was filled in amply by screenwriters Susan Shilliday and William Wittliff. What the novella perhaps does better, is give much more insight into the characters thoughts rather than relying simply on what they say or the rather ponderous first-person dialogue of the narrator in the film.

The story concerns Anthony Hopkins, an American army colonel who had emigrated from Cornwall in England. During the Indian wars he became so disenchanted with his American experience that he moved out to the remote wilds of Montana with his wife, Christina Pickles, and Native American companion Gordon Tootoosis to build a ranch. The couple have three sons who grow up in the wilderness, the eldest Aidan Quinn, the middle child Brad Pitt, and the youngest Henry Thomas. After Pickles decides she can’t stand the hard winters, she moves back East and Thomas is the only one who goes to visit her. On one trip he falls in love with Julia Ormond, who has no family and is more likely captivated by his tales of the wilderness than anything intrinsic in him. She agrees to marry him and when he brings her home two things happen instantly, Quinn falls in love with her and she falls in love with Pitt.

Meanwhile Thomas, clearly out of his league with Ormond, is so bent on defending democracy when World War One breaks out that he never marries her and in essence forces his other two brothers to go along with him in order to protect him. The hell of The Great War, as it was for nearly all who fought in it, was nothing like what they imagined it to be and it not only forces them to lose the innocence they grew up with out in the West, but tears them apart as brothers. When seen in this way their competition for Ormond is merely the visual representation of the struggle they all suffer with, to break free of the childhood bonds that kept them together in the past and become their own people as adults. Brad Pitt is the most strongly effected, and his story is really the centerpiece of the film. He grew up being tutored by Tootoosis and is mercifully free of the prejudice of the white man. But he is a changed man after the war, and what he saw and did there haunts him until he has to leave everything behind, including Ormond.

First off, it’s not a bad film. But there are things about it that don’t allow it to rise to the level of greatness. The fight that the young Pitt has with a bear is too contrived and lacking in suspense to be believed. And while the emotion in the adult Pitt seems genuine, there is no feeling for his struggle in the way that the first person narrative of something like Dances with Wolves lets us into the though process of Kevin Costner. Likewise, the other characters parade across the screen emoting, but are unable to engage the audience with only Tootoosis to provide a minimum of narration. As a result Hopkins seems too distant, Quinn too petulant, Thomas too simple, and Pitt too perfect to allow any investment in them as characters. Ormand is perhaps the best of the bunch because she tells the men how she feels, but she’s not enough to carry the picture by herself. Legends of the Fall is a good story, with some genuine surprises along with the predictable twists, but it’s not the masterpiece it could have been in different hands.

The Conformist (1970)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci                              Writer: Bernardo Bertolucci
Film Score: Georges Delerue                              Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin and Dominique Sanda

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist is a strangely compelling tale of a thirty-three year old man who has had a bizarre life and wants nothing more than to be “normal.” It’s not a conventional story and it’s not told in a conventional way. One of the things I like most about European films is that they don’t try to compete with Hollywood. It doesn’t just give directors a license to be different, it is almost expected. As such, it gives the viewer an alternative to the product in the United States and adds an incredibly rich experience to the viewer who wants to be challenged rather than pandered to. This film is a wonderful exploration of the dehumanization of Fascism, especially in its expectation that the individual will subsume his individual will within the whole. In the beginning of the film, when Gastone Moschin says he has sacrificed everything for family and country, Jean-Louis Trintignant reminds him that he is supposed to sacrifice for country first.

The opening credits focus on Jean-Louis Trintignant as he sits in a hotel room chair, the bright red light from the sign outside going on an off, alternately bathing him in red and plunging him into darkness until the sun comes up. He leaves the woman in his room and goes out to meet his partner, Gastone Moschin, and they drive in a hurry to catch someone. In flashbacks the audience sees Trintignant as he goes to a radio studio recording a forties program to meet a friend who has put him in contact with colonel Fosco Giachetti with promises of a position in the secret police. The time is just prior to World War Two. Then it’s off to the house of his fiancé, Stefania Sandrelli, where someone has given her an anonymous note about his father in the lunatic asylum. From there he goes to his boyhood home where his drug addicted mother waits for her lover. The two briefly visit the father in the institution before Trintignant goes to confession at the request of the priest who is going to marry him. There’s no real story, per se, as we simply witness incidents in his quest to conform alternating with flashbacks from his strange past.

It eventually becomes clear that the mission he’s on is to kill his former professor from college who has now moved to France to escape the Fascism in Italy. Trintignant is drawn to Fascism because he fits in. He is in line with the government’s position and he feels that by eliminating subversives and rebels that he will guarantee himself the normalcy he craves. But Trintignant is anything but normal. In the novel the film is based on, by Alberto Moravia, it’s clear that from childhood he has been a sociopath, killing animals and even a chauffeur while still a boy. He’s not horrified by the actions, however, what disturbs him is the feeling that he is somehow different from everyone else. When Mussolini comes to power, this is the kind of government where he can become appreciated for what he is. It’s a twisted tale that doesn’t really become clear in Bertolucci’s version until the end of the film.

For Betrolucci, this film was a breakthrough. He had begun working with editor Franco Arcalli who introduced him to the use of free association of scenes and also with the idea of presenting the bulk of the film in flashback. But the director also has a unique visual style, relying heavily on the use of light in the beginning and the end, especially the light divided into bars, whether through blinds or through the trees in a forest. In addition, there are also unusual angles for certain shots, in particular when Trintignant goes back to his childhood home and the camera tilts as he makes his way there. The film was also influential for American directors. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, used both the leaves all over the driveway at the house as well as actor Gastone Moschin in The Godfather II. Though it is a critical darling, the film doesn’t really resonate with me. It’s very interesting but not exactly essential, and the coldness of the main character tends to keep me at a distance emotionally. Still, The Conformist has a lot going for it as a powerful piece of European filmmaking.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Director: Stanley Kubrick                                  Writers: Stanley Kubrick & Terry Southern
Film Score: Laurie Johnson                               Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens

Stanley Kubrick’s satiric take on the Cold War has become, for many, one of the greatest comedies of all time. Anchored as it is by Peter Sellers’ bravura performance in three roles, Dr. Strangelove takes the idea of an accidental initiation of a nuclear attack on Russia to extreme proportions and plays the whole thing for serious laughs. In fact, the opening titles are brilliant in and of themselves. Long before the idea of “food porn” was born, Kubrick indulges in what could only be termed “military porn” as a plane during flight is refueled by another from a long hose extending from the rear of the fuselage, all accompanied to the sounds of romantic string music. And the longer the music and credits continue to roll, the more suggestive the images become. It’s a harbinger of the brilliance of the film as a whole and a vision of full-on satire that Kubrick, regrettably, never attempted again.

Sterling Hayden is the impetus for the attack. As the commander of an air force base he takes it upon himself to use a safety plan in the system and gives the orders himself for launching nuclear strikes against Russia. Sellers, as a British captain on the base, pleads for sanity, but Hayden locks him in his office, shuts off all communications to the base and orders his troops to fire on anyone who tries to enter. Meanwhile, back at the war room in the Pentagon the president, also Peter Sellers, is wonderfully outraged in a perfectly intellectually subdued manner. His argument is with George C. Scott as a general who, while paying lip service to this unfortunate mistake, is clearly itching to attack and suggests that they launch eighty percent of the U.S. capability to ensure a successful first strike against the Russians assuring that the U.S. will only suffer twenty million or so casualties. Scott is wonderful in his role of the crazed military leader, a quality he would bring later, though much more subtly, to his role in Patton.

The conversation that the president has with the Russian premier over the phone is as good as anything Bob Newhart ever wrote. And finally the president calls in his expert, Dr. Strangelove, also played by Sellers, to explain the Russian premier’s mention of a doomsday bomb that will wipe out all life on the earth. Sellers’ performance as Strangelove brings to mind that of Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein as Inspector Krogh with his leather gloved artificial hand. The bomber crew in the air, captained by Slim Pickens, and including James Earl Jones, calmly goes through their final routine of reading the top secret orders and issuing survival kits in readiness to carry out their mission, all of which ends in the iconic scene with Pickens riding the bomb and waving his cowboy hat. Keenan Wynn also puts in a memorable appearance at the end of the picture as Colonel “Bat” Guano, whose men have been charged with getting to Hayden but don’t know why.

One of the most impressive things about the film is that it was made right in the middle of the Cold War itself, just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis would have made it a documentary. In fact, Kubrick had originally intended to make a serious thriller, but found he had to leave so much out that was incongruous or ridiculous that gradually the idea of the black comedy seemed all the more appropriate, not to mention easier to accomplish. The combination of Kubrick’s brilliant touch behind the camera--the scenes of the army attacking the air force base actually do resemble documentary footage--and the considerable abilities of Peter Sellers have made this film a masterpiece of Cold War and military satire that is as effective today as it was the day it was released. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was nominated for four Oscars and, though it didn’t win, remains an all-time classic.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Director: Buster Keaton                                     Writer: Jean Havez & Joe Mitchell
Producer: Buster Keaton                                   Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton and Ward Crane

Buster Keaton was like most of the great silent comedians, even when they began making features they still would produce the occasional short. Keaton had made two features the year before, Three Ages and Our Hospitality, and his only film in 1924 was this release, one of his greatest shorts, Sherlock Jr. The idea came about because once Keaton went into features he had wisely decided to give up on what he called “impossible” gags, or cartoon gags that had no basis in reality. Instead he wanted his gags to evolve naturally from the story. But he and his writers, by the time they had finished with those two features, had a backlog of great gag ideas that they couldn’t use. So Keaton came up with the idea of having a projectionist fall asleep and his spirit come to life to act in a film up on the screen, thus justifying the use of the unrealistic gags. This, then, is the genesis for one of the greatest screen comedies of the silent screen.

The story begins with Keaton working at a small movie theater, but at the same time studying to be a detective. There’s a great sequence at the beginning of the film where he wants to get Kathryn McGuire some chocolates but only has two dollars instead of three. He finds a dollar in the trash he’s sweeping but before he can go, two women and a man come along who have lost money and he almost winds up with nothing. At McGuire’s house, while Keaton is courting her, rival Ward Crane comes in and steals her father’s pocket watch and frames Keaton for it. So, that night at the theater when he falls asleep in the projection room, he imagines Crane, McGuire and her father, Keaton’s own father Joe, on screen and he becomes the great Sherlock Jr. who is brought in to solve the case of the missing pearls. The most well-known sequence in the film is when Keaton jumps directly into the movie screen and has to deal with all of the scene changes. Trick photography at its silent era finest was provided by Elgin Lessley who used surveyor’s instruments to make sure the scenes matched.

Keaton is terrific as Sherlock Jr., first making his appearance like his character in The Saphead with an elegant suit and top hat. One of the finest aspects of the film, however, is the unsung work of Ford West. He’s tremendous as Keaton’s sidekick, always showing up in great disguises to get him out of a jam, especially the sequence when he’s dressed as a motorcycle cop and pulls Keaton over for running too fast. One wishes that the idea could have been explored in more depth in other films. Keaton always loved trains and they are featured in this production as well. In one scene, where he jumps from the top of the moving train onto the water tower and is splashed onto the tracks below, he didn’t find out until a dozen years later that he had actually fractured his neck during the stunt. One of the things that probably makes the film so good is that it was never intended to be a short subject, but during previews Keaton was unsatisfied with certain sequences that tended to make the film drag. Ruthlessly, he cut the film down and by the time he was satisfied it was simply too short to play as a feature. Nevertheless, Sherlock Jr. is one of the all-time great films from one of the all-time greatest comedians of the twenties.

The Player (1992)

Director: Robert Altman                                     Writer: Michael Tolkin
Film Score: Thomas Newman                            Cinematography: Jean Lépine
Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward and Vincent D’Onofrio

The Player is one of those films that was critically acclaimed upon its release, but hasn’t worn well over the years. Much of what was exciting and new about the film is rather blasé now. Robert Altman, who has a huge reputation among fans and critics, has usually left me cold. Other than M*A*S*H, most of his films have a certain sterility that, while the actors seem to be trying incredibly hard, doesn’t seem to bring any real life to his stories. This film seems to be something of a throwback to the pre-code era of the early nineteen thirties where the killer gets away with it. The clever part of it, however, is the fact that the killer is a movie executive, the conceit of the film being that Hollywood is a world unto itself and that those people can get away with anything. As always in Altman’s world, it’s a strange mixture of regular people and bizarre eccentrics.

The film begins with Tim Robbins as a cutthroat executive who hears thousands of proposals a year for films and must select only a few to greenlight. He’s dating story editor Cynthia Stevenson and they have a busy but predictable relationship, living the L.A. lifestyle but hardly seeming to enjoy it. Two things are happening, though, that are disturbing Robbins’ concentration. The first is that hot shot Peter Gallagher is seemingly aiming for his position and turning the head of studio boss Brion James. The second is that he is receiving anonymous death threats from a writer that he assumes is Vincent D’Onofrio. He goes to the writer’s house and calls him up but winds up talking to his girlfriend, Greta Scacchi, while watching her through the window as she tells Robbins that he’s at the movies. So he goes to the theater and after an altercation in the parking lot of a bar next door, Robbins kills D’Onofrio. He has seemingly gotten away with it and begins to relax, that is until he receives another note saying he killed the wrong writer.

Though Altman is trying for a bit of neo-noir here, and to give him credit he did direct a seventies version of The Long Goodbye, he doesn’t manage to pull it off. For one thing the L.A. setting, which is obviously meant to be ironic, diminishes the impact of the danger that Robbins feels himself under. He’s questioned by the cops, an incongruous team of Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett, and while they are a minor menace they lack the kind of threat that it seems Altman was going for. By far the most tedious part of the film, however, is the relationship of Scacchi and Robbins. She’s an unconventional artist who seems no more concerned that her boyfriend is dead than if she’d received a parking ticket. And the way Robbins becomes obsessed with her is, while mildly ironic, not very interesting. What is good is the ending, or rather the lead up to the ending. Here Robbins figures out a way to derail not only Gallagher but James in the process. It’s also the funniest moment in the film as well.

The film was a critical and commercial success, receiving Academy Awards nominations for best director and best screenplay for Michael Tolkin’s adaptation of his novel. Altman was undoubtedly drawn to Tolkin’s novel because of the negative way that it portrayed the Hollywood studio system of the day. He had butted heads with studio executives ever since the early seventies and wound up working out side the system for the rest of his career. Portraying studio types as being able to get away with murder must have seemed more like non-fiction to him. The film also features loads of cameo appearances by everyone that Altman could muster for party and restaurant scenes, from Sydney Pollack to Anjelica Huston. It’s not a bad film, per se, and there are some nice touches, particularly the eight-minute opening sequence without a cut. But in the grand scheme of things, like the eighties films that preceded it by only a couple of years, The Player feels dated now and something of a disappointment because of it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder                     Writers: Pea Fröhlich & Peter Märthesheimer
Music: Peer Raben                                            Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Densy and Gisela Uhlen

Though this is the first film I’ve ever seen by Ranier Fassbinder, for some reason I read a biography of him while an undergraduate that came out shortly after his death of a drug overdose in 1982. To this day I can’t remember why I read the book, but I do remember the story of his life being fascinating. The Marriage of Maria Braun, at least for me, is less so. Made toward the end of his career, the film was unarguably his most commercially successful in terms of audience and critical acceptance. The film is certainly well constructed, consisting of three marriages, really, and the circular nature of the plot is quite admirable and one of the most enjoyable things for me in the film. Unlike many critics at the time, the ending makes perfect sense to me. Hanna Schygulla does a great job as Maria, a woman who attempts to hold on to her love for her husband but at the price of losing her own soul. Some have seen an allegory for post-war Germany in her character, and Fassbinder himself ends the film with the portraits of all the West German Chancellors up to that time in negative images.

The title of the film is actually where the story begins, the credits superimposed over buildings being bombed with Schygulla and Klaus Löwitsch being married as they lie on the ground amid the shelling. The film proper begins after he has disappeared at the end of World War II, and with no more German military infrastructure she has no way to know if he’s dead or alive. Meanwhile, allied soldiers are everywhere and she keeps going to the train station to see if he comes back and scrounging food for her and her mother. When she finally learns of his death she makes the decision to become a prostitute, but not the pejorative streetwalker that word brings to mind. She gets a job in a dance hall for lonely G.I.s and first begins a romance with George Eagles, a black American who wants to marry her. She says no and claims to still be married to her husband, but there’s a sense that this is an easy way out of a long-term entanglement with him. He buys her gifts and food and visits her at her mother’s house, and she survives. But then her husband returns.

At this point the film takes a turn for the noir, sort of. In his A List essay on the film, Kevin Thomas likens Hanna Schygulla’s Maria with a Joan Crawford heroine clawing her way to the top, and while the comparison brings up images of Mildred Pierce, the overt sexual nature of the film begs comparison with the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet more than the film noir that earned Crawford her Oscar. And speaking of Winslet, unlike the overt criticism of Nazi Germany made in a film like The Reader, the criticism is much more oblique here. The title, for one thing, bringing to mind Eva Braun, Hitler’s wife, and making the subtle point that Germans all married Hitler to some degree and that he was responsible for the destruction of their country during the war and their abject poverty in its aftermath. The one other reference is when Ivan Densy, not talking directly about Germany, says he lives in a country called Insanity.

In another disappointing A List essay, Kevin Thomas’s comments came primarily from a review written at the time of the film’s release in the United States and so it has no real context in which to place the film. As such, I decided to take a look at Roger Ebert’s much more thoughtful response in his list of The Great Movies. For Ebert, the film takes a definite post-war stance, that the German people were so broken by the war, the sacrifice they made so great, and the cause for which they suppressed their individual desires so infamous that their reaction was to demand everything from everyone, even at the ultimate cost of themselves. In this way the film also reflects its maker, as Fassbinder was known to be as cruel and heartless with those who loved him as his title character. The Marriage of Maria Braun is definitely a good film. Whether it is essential, however, is not something I’m really convinced of yet.