Saturday, April 13, 2024

Godfather Part II: The Bedroom Curtains

This is going to be a weird post, I know, but I don’t know what else to do with the information. It comes from a video I watched called the Rewatchables on the Godfather II. Great video, by the way, two and a half hours long and I loved every second of it . . . almost. The obvious place to put this information would have been in the comment section, but since I refuse to give my soul over to Google, that isn’t possible. You need not only your own YouTube channel to comment, but also to join Google plus—and I’m not going to do either. But with all the research these guys have done, and not to have a simple answer to this question, I felt compelled to put an answer on the only place I have available to me: my film blog. So, here goes. At one point toward the end of the podcast, the guys go round and round in circles trying to answer the very simply question of why Kay makes the comment to Michael that the curtains are open, right before the attempted assassination. They came up with all sorts of lame guesses and finally decided that it was simply a mistake. Why something with such a simple explanation eluded them is a real puzzler, but it really is a no-brainer. First of all, it’s no surprise that four GUYS couldn’t come up with the painfully obvious reason. So, I’ll lay it out for you like this.

It's the end of a very long day, in which Kay has had to be the hostess for an all-day affair, and it’s well into the night before she finally makes her way into their bedroom to go to bed. Now, at some point she’s going to take off her clothes to put on her nightgown. What is she absolutely going to do at this point—if she hasn’t already done it upon entering the bedroom? She’s going to close the curtains. Especially with armed guards out patrolling the grounds. She wants her privacy. Then she puts on her nightgown, gets ready for bed, and after such a long and exhausting day, she practically falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow. She doesn’t wake up until later when Michael finally comes to bed. She hears him in the room and opens her eyes, and what does she see? The curtains are open, when she had definitely shut them earlier. Given that, it’s the most natural thing in the world to ask why the curtains are open, perhaps even expecting that Michael will say he opened them. It is a definite oddity for her, considering that she closed them earlier, so it’s also quite appropriate that she would comment on it. Not a mistake at all.

Fredo’s part in all of this requires a little more conjecture, but not too much. The key to his participation is that he tells Johnny Ola that he was lied to. My conjecture is as follows. Johnny talked to Fredo earlier and told him that Roth wanted to leave a surprise present for Michael, probably in the house somewhere. So, he asked if Fredo would get him in touch with the housekeeper or live-in maid—which rich people like the Corleone’s would definitely have. Johnny says it would mean a lot to Roth, cementing their friendship, or whatever. You get the idea. So, in that context Fredo would have absolutely no compunction about doing what Johnny said. Johnny’s story to the maid was probably something different, that the surprise was going to be a new car, or something of that sort that they wanted to leave outside the window and would then see upon waking up the next morning. So . . . he wants her to sneak into their bedroom and open the curtains so that they will see the surprise when they wake up. The housekeeper does what they want, her only motivation to be part of the wonderful surprise. She sneaks in while Kay is sleeping, and does as she is asked.

And that’s really it. A very simple explanation for the curtain comment by Kay, as well as what needs to be an extreme difference between what Fredo was asked to do and what actually transpired. That explains why he’s so freaked out about Johnny’s call. Anyway, I don’t suppose the guys will ever see this, but I wanted to make some kind of public comment on the off chance that it might get back to them somehow.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Westfront 1918 (1930)

Director: G.W. Pabst                                         Writer: Ladislaus Vajda
Music: Alexander Laszlo                                   Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Hans-Joachim Moebis, Gustav Diessl, Fritz Kampers, and Claus Clausen

The German film Westfront 1918 is one of the earliest sound films, and may be the first that was ever made in Germany. Based on the novel Four Infantrymen on the Western Front by Ernst Johannsen, it’s by now the standard story of the horrors of trench warfare during World War One, and the humanity of the individual soldiers involved. The film was helmed by the great G.W. Pabst, who along with Fritz Lang, was one of the best pre-Nazi directors in the Weimar era. Though he had planned on immigrating to the U.S., he was trapped in Europe by the Nazis and wound up making a couple of films for Joseph Goebbels, and stayed in Europe after the war. The major drawback of the film is that it suffers from the obvious comparison to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front from a year later. But that’s not necessarily due to the filmmakers themselves, and more to do with the original source material. There’s a reason that Milestone’s film is so much better than Pabst’s, and that’s because Erich Maria Remarque’s story is a vastly superior story than Johannsen’s. Still, there are some nice cinematic touches, and the acting is decent, but the primary draw of the film is more historical than artistic

The story begins in France, at the home of Jackie Monnier where she lives with her grandfather. A platoon of German soldiers has invaded the farm and she tries to make the best of it, fending off the advances of all but one, Hans-Joachim Moebis, who is simply called The Student. The two fall in love just as he is called away to march back to the front. Having returned to the trenches, the lieutenant Claus Clausen needs desperately to communicate with the rear area to tell them their shells are falling short on their own men, and of course Moebis voluteers to be the runner so as to have another opportunity of seeing Monnier again. After he successfully completes his harrowing mission—and meets again with Monnier—he runs into platoon mate Gustav Diessl, a married man who is on his way home on leave, delighted at the prospect of reuniting with his wife after a year and a half of fighting. The last of the four soldiers, the Bavarian, played by Fritz Kampers is the comedy relief, a big, jovial man who tries to take care of the rest of the soldiers in his platoon. But as engaging as the characters are, this is still war, and that very identification with them is designed to jolt the viewer when the war touches all of them in one way or another.

It’s difficult to know how to judge the overall quality of the film, especially the sound, as all of the original negatives have been lost. That said, however, the visual quality of the Criterion edition is pretty good, but the sound suffers from jump-cuts that still exist in the best available print. The explosions and gunfire all sound a bit thin, but again that’s probably due to restrictions of the period. One thing that isn’t restricted, however, is the camera, and that’s probably the most impressive aspect of the film. Pabst and his cinematographer, the great Fritz Arno Wagner, keep their camera moving as if they were working hand-held seventy years later. It’s quite refreshing, and one moment in particular, a nearly three-hundred and sixty degree turn in a music hall, is notable. It doesn’t make up for the deficiencies in the screenplay, however, and so the story never really goes anywhere, though perhaps that’s the point. Viewers at the time were a lot more laudatory in praise of the film, and for good reason. A mere decade removed from the war, it was probably much more realistic that even the silent films on the subject. But nearly a hundred years removed, the film doesn’t have the same impact for modern viewers who have been spoiled by incredibly realistic war films beginning with Saving Private Ryan. As a result, potential viewers need to come to Westfront 1918 warned of its deficiencies so as not to be disappointed.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Crime and Punishment (1935)

Director: Josef von Sternberg                          Writers: S.K. Lauren & Joseph Anthony
Music: Louis Silvers                                         Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Peter Lorre, Edward Arnold, Marian Marsh and Robert Allen

Director Josef von Sternberg is hit-and-miss for me. While I feel his version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is one of the better films of the pre-code era, I also found Morocco to be one of the worst. His version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment falls somewhere in the middle. The biggest issue with the film for me is its adherence to the original material. Rather than try to reimagine it and make it something special, it feels a little claustrophobic in the way it clings so tightly to the well-known story—as if he were afraid of criticism for taking artistic license. The studio sets only add to the feeling of confinement. An American Tragedy benefitted tremendously from the abundance of exterior shots. Crime and Punishment, on the other hand, was shot completely on a sound stage. To be fair, it’s perhaps part of the subtext of the tale that Sternberg was going for, and that to open things up it would necessarily have diluted the feelings of emotional imprisonment he was trying to achieve. It’s a solid argument, but it also might have been better to work into that claustrophobia gradually, rather than impose it on the production right from the start. There’s no escaping the fact that Fritz Lang and Hitchcock were incredibly adept at shooting entirely in the studio, and that Sternberg doesn’t quite have the same facility. Even with all of the cinematic elements, it still feels like a filmed play. Nevertheless, it’s solidly directed, and it has a lot going for it—it’s also an interesting story—but in Sternberg’s hands it’s simply not very gripping.

The film opens at a college graduation with Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov receiving an award for high honors. But those honors don’t translate into a living, and with his clothes wearing out and his rent past due, he decides to sell his dead father’s watch at the pawnbrokers. There Lorre meets prostitute Marian Marsh and he’s moved by her plight, trying to take care of her mother and siblings while her father drinks away their money. At the same time, he feels that the old woman pawnbroker, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, doesn’t deserve to live and should be killed—a service to humanity, he calls it. When his mother and sister, Elisabeth Risdon and Tala Birell, bring Gene Lockhart over to his hovel of an apartment to announce he’s going to marry Birell, Lorre is upset by the news. Despite his poverty, his education has made him something of a snob. He’s sure his sister is marrying the very pompous Lockhart because he has money, but Lorre is also sure that she will not be treated well by him. At the very least, he doesn’t believe she loves him. It begins to tear Lorre apart that people’s very existence is so imprisoned by money, and he’s finally driven to kill the old woman pawnbroker, certain that he’ll never be caught, and take hers. Of course, the murder goes as planned, but a knock on the door sends him into a panic and he leaves without her money.

The conflict in Dostoevsky’s story centers on whether or not Raskolnikov will be able to live with himself. Will he be able to put his criminal act out of his mind and go on with his life, or will his conscience get the better of him and ultimately destroy him? Making matters worse is Edward Albert, playing a sort of jovial Javert to Lorre’s genuinely criminal Jean Valjean. Things get especially bad when an innocent man is arrested for Lorre’s crime, and Albert has no compunction at all about prosecuting him to the fullest extent of the law—meaning execution. Naturally, Albert doesn’t know any better—or does he? Lorre certainly does. And Edward Albert is fantastic, deserving his above the title credit in the film. Lorre is great as well, though he doesn’t come anywhere near the perfection he achieved in M, or for Hitchcock. Sternberg himself demonstrates some definite stylistic touches. For one thing, he’s not afraid of closeups. Rather than fear they would hark back to the silent era, as so many directors were afraid of in his day—and still are—they add a great deal to the cinematic palette and allow the actors to say a lot without dialogue. Louis Silvers’ film score is mostly recycled classical music, but it’s functional, as is the film as a whole. Crime and Punishment is a good film, not great one, of a classic story. And while one wishes it could have been better, it should be a positive experience for most viewers, especially fans of Peter Lorre.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Robin Hood (2010)

Director: Ridley Scott                                      Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld                          Cinematography: John Mathieson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow and Matthew Macfadyen

After scoring such a major success in Gladiator at the turn of the century, it’s no surprise that Ridley Scott would have brought back his star from that film to appear in another historical drama. While it may not have seemed at the time that Robin Hood was a film that needed to be made, it is certainly a welcome palate cleanser after the embarrassment of the Kevin Costner version from 1991 . . . very welcome indeed. I’ve written on numerous occasions about the hit or miss—literally, one or the other—quality of director’s cuts. In most instances, the theatrical release is perfect because of the cuts, and sticking unnecessary scenes back into the film only dilutes what was good about it in the first place. With Scott’s version of the Robin Hood legend, however, the reverse is true. Cutting scenes out in the theatrical version actually served to cripple that film, and were probably a major reason for the mixed reviews it received. So, I’ll go on record here to say that the only version you should ever watch of this film is the director’s cut. It’s a magnificent retelling of the story that rewards repeated viewings, a vision of screenwriter Brian Helgeland that, in conjunction with Ridley Scott’s direction, feels like the definitive version, with twists and turns that make it gripping to view—and much of which is destroyed by the theatrical cut.

The film begins with England’s King Richard, played superbly by Danny Huston, returning broke from the Crusades, sacking one last castle in France before he finally returns after a decade-long absence. When the king is killed in battle, Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride takes the most dependable of his fellow soldiers, and heads for England ahead of the hoard of soldiers to follow. In the meantime the French king, Jonathan Zaccaï, hires English mercenary Mark Strong to kill Richard. Instead, Strong finds only Sir Richard Loxley, Douglas Hodge, with the king’s crown and kills him and his men anyway. When Crowe and company—Kevin Durand as Little John, Scott Grimes as Will Scarlet, and Alan Doyle as Allan A'Dayle, a small band of merry men—run into the massacre, they take their own vengeance and only Strong is able to escape. But not unscathed as he takes one of Crowe’s arrows to the face. The dying Hodge asks Crowe to return his father’s sword, which Crowe agrees to, and after narrowly escaping the petulant, immature new King John, Oscar Isaac, Crowe heads for the midlands with his men to return the sword. There he meets Max von Sydow as Sir Walter, and Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley. Sydow, however, comes up with a plan. As Blanchett will lose the estate once Sydow dies, he suggests that Crowe take his dead son’s place. Finally, the last of the merry men, Mark Addy as Friar Tuck joins the group.

The central conflict in the story is that King John, frantic to reclaim the money that his brother Richard spent, wants to bleed the nobles in the north dry collecting taxes. To achieve this, he fires the former tax collector, William Hurt, and replaces him with Mark Strong. What the king doesn’t know, however, is that Strong is working both sides to his own benefit, as he is also clearing the way for King Phillip of France to launch an invasion of England. It really is a tremendously satisfying story, though the more international flavor of the plot reduces the local conflict with Matthew Macfadyen as the Sheriff of Nottingham. But then we’ve all seen that a hundred times before. The new version isn’t necessarily better for it, but since all of the other changes by Brian Helgeland are absolutely brilliant, this major shift is a little easier to accept. In addition to the new story, the acting is tremendous across the board. Mark Strong’s sociopathic version of Guy of Gisborne is just right, manipulating the weak Oscar Isaac as King John to the dismay of the queen mother, Eileen Atkins. William Hurt's appearance is a surprise but he is solid as the former aid to the old king. And the merry men are also uniformly excellent. Kevin Durand is just right as the garrulous Little John. Scott Grimes, having acquitted himself admirably in Band of Brothers and E.R. is perfectly cast as the red-haired Will Scarlet, and Mark Addy as Friar Tuck is an absolute natural.

Supporting Crowe, however, are the two actors who really make the film. First is the late Max von Sydow, one of the most commanding figures of the screen for decades. And in the crucial role of Marian is Cate Blanchett, who is as comfortable in historical dramas as anyone in Hollywood. These three working together are so good that it would be impossible to imagine the film without them. The only disappointment as far as the story goes, is that Matthew Macfadyen didn’t have more of a major role to play. Ridley Scott’s vision was carried out to perfection by cinematographer John Mathieson—as well as what looks like teams of second units filming the climax. It’s also the most realistic setting of the tale by far, with incredibly believable sets, both interior and exterior, that feel exactly right. Finally, the film score by Marc Streitenfeld, while not particularly memorable—and to be honest, that may not be a bad thing, as it’s not intrusive either—holds the whole thing together. I’ve enjoyed the Robin Hood saga on film for years, from Douglass Fairbanks in 1922, to the iconic Errol Flynn version from 1938—and yes, on very rare occasions, the 1991 debacle with Kevin Costner. Of course, there are literally dozens of other versions of the story, but for my money this is hands down the most satisfying. Ultimately, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood is wonderfully enjoyable and I give it it—remember, now, only the director’s cut—my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Director: John G. Adolfi                                 Writers: George Arliss & Mary Hamlin
Music: David Mendoza                                  Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: George Arliss, Doris Kenyon, Dudley Digges and Alan Mowbray

Alexander Hamilton was one of the unfortunate founding fathers, as his early death precluded his becoming president. But even with that, he still holds a high place in the country’s history, residing on the ten-dollar bill, almost single handedly given credit for the success of big business through his banking policies, and a different kind of example of the American Dream than the other, more well-off, founders present, as his humble beginnings as the bastard child of a Caribbean merchant were a distinct contrast with the rest of the founding generation—and something conveniently ignored in this film. Warner Brothers’ Alexander Hamilton from 1931, is a decidedly brief and incomplete portrait of Hamilton, but then that is to be expected with early biopics. What the film does well is to humanize the man—to the extent that’s possible in early Hollywood—rather than completely imbue him with mythological greatness. The film stars George Arliss as the title character, and it’s the actor’s play called Hamilton, co-written with Mary Hamlin that is presented on the screen, a play that he had starred in fifteen years earlier on Broadway. (The less said about its execrable modern counterpart, the better.) The play received mostly positive reviews in 1917, but a decade and a half later it hadn’t aged so well.

The film begins after the Revolutionary War, with George Washington saying farewell troops. Arliss, as Hamilton, tells Washington, played by Alan Mowbray, that the general will be needed to run the country as president. Washington says he’ll only agree if his colonel, Hamilton, continues as one of his cabinet. The central conflict of the first half of the film concerns Hamilton’s monetary policy, the assumption of all state war debts by the federal government. Montague Love as Thomas Jefferson sees this as a consolidation of power by the government that will make the states subservient in a way they’ve never been before. Hamilton’s view, however, is global. And without a strong government, the U.S. will never be a great power. Naturally, all of this is painted with the broadest possible brush. The people accuse Hamilton of being an aristocrat, and the film does nothing to dispute that view. Doris Kenyon plays Hamilton’s wife, Betsy, who is more concerned with having him home than fighting to keep the union together. When the southern states demand that the new capital be located in the south, it sets up a way for Hamilton to get a quid pro quo, the passage of his assumption bill for his support of a southern capital. His primary enemy throughout is Dudley Digges as the fictional Senator Reynolds, who takes every opportunity to embroil Hamilton in scandal, and oppose him politically. But of course, our hero rises above it all with aplomb, as any good founding father would do.

As with all such films, there’s a prodigious amount of bombast and histrionics when it comes to portraying national mythical figures. But because Arliss’s play also centered around the Reynolds’ affair scandal, there’s also a significant attempt to humanize Hamilton in a way not generally done in patriotic pictures. The fact that this is a pre-code film, however, is most likely what made that entire part of the storyline possible. Obviously, nothing was shown onscreen, but Hamilton’s eventual confession makes it clear that something did. But in the end there’s nothing really original about the story, and nothing separates it from dozens of others with similar themes. Unfortunately, the biggest issue with the film is the author and lead actor, George Arliss himself. By the time he made the picture he was already sixty-three, but looked seventy. As such, he was far too old to be playing Hamilton, who was only forty-eight when he died, and only thirty-seven at the time of the events in the film. In addition, John G. Adolfi’s direction is fairly uninspiring. But he had worked with Arliss on many previous films, and the actor’s ownership of the original material undoubtedly resulted in his being given the lead role and attaching Adolfi as director. So, in some sense the production was hampered from the very beginning. It’s difficult to say whether this is worth watching or not. There’s a certain cinematic historical merit to it, but the acting and story are so entirely pedestrian that unless one is simply curious, Alexander Hamilton is probably best avoided.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Son of Dracula (1943)

Director: Robert Siodmak                              Writers: Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                             Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers and Robert Paige

Forget every negative thing you’ve ever read about this film, because it’s decidedly one of the better Universal horror films. And that’s an important qualifier. It’s not Citizen Kane . . . but it’s not The Mad Ghoul, either. Son of Dracula is an impressive piece of classic horror by the Siodmak brothers, director Robert and writer Curt. In style, it’s closer to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man than the studio’s Frankenstein films. Like the former, it is Curt Siodmak’s original story that provides the basis for the film, and is expertly realized by one of RKO’s regular noir director Robert Siodmak, who lends the same kind of touches to a horror story which benefits tremendously from that type of vision. And like The Wolf Man it’s also set in the present day, this time the Deep South, and in that respect could be seen as one of several inspirations for Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. It has a nice cast, too. In addition to Universal stalwarts Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers, Robert Paige turns in an excellent performance as the jilted fiancée, Frank Craven from Our Town is the no-nonsense doctor who combats Dracula, and even Samuel Hinds from It’s a Wonderful Life shows up as the judge. Louise Allbritton does a fine job as well in her only Universal horror film. It’s a top-notch production all the way, again, considering the context, and needs to shed its undeserved reputation as one of the studio’s lesser horror outings.

Those who remember Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary from 1927 will recognize the opening credit sequence as something similar was done here, with a large hand wiping away dust and cobwebs to reveal the main titles of the picture. The story opens with town doctor Frank Craven, along with Robert Paige, waiting at the train station for the visiting Count Alucard. When he doesn’t show up they take a look at his luggage and Craven notices instantly that the name backward spells Dracula. Louise Albritton has arranged a welcome for the count at the family plantation, where she lives with her father, George Irving, and her sister, Evelyn Ankers. When the father is killed by Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula, two spots are noticed on the dead man’s throat, and Craven immediately sets about contacting the regional authority on vampires, the Hungarian professor J. Edward Bromberg. Rather than shying away from the evidence, Craven takes things even further. After the reading of the will, he breaks open Chaney’s trunks and finds them empty. He wants the two sisters to leave at once, in order to keep them out of danger, but then Allbritton shocks everyone by announcing that she’s throwing over her fiancé Robert Paige, and marrying Chaney. Meanwhile, a small boy nearly dies from what Craven is convinced is an attack by the vampire, and calls in Bromberg to assist him in confirming the diagnosis. What seems a rather straightforward story, however—this time with two Van Helsings for the price of one—has a wonderfully satisfying twist halfway through that sets it alongside The Wolf Man, and well above Universal’s other horror offerings of the forties.

This is one of the first horror films I ever watched as a kid on late night television, back in the glory days when TV was a feast of black-and-white films. And the things that impressed me back then still do to this day. For one thing, it’s a smart film, as a direct result of author Curt Siodmak. Unlike the colossally stupid decisions so many horror characters make, Frank Craven and J. Edward Bromberg refuse to dismiss the evidence in front of their eyes. If that means that an actual vampire is roaming the countryside, then so be it. Steps must be taken, and to their credit they do. It’s a wonderfully satisfying conceit that goes a long way toward making up for the more obvious deficiencies that so many critics harp on. Chaney is usually dismissed for being fleshy instead of cadaverous, but in the context of the story there’s no reason for that to matter. Also the special effects by John Fulton and cinematographer George Robinson are absolutely wonderful, with Dracula emerging from smoke, and changing from a bat via animation but shot from behind so it’s not so obvious. And his floating across the water of the swamp is spectacular. Finally, the great Hans Salter’s film score ties the whole thing together, bolstered by his use of cues from Frank Skinner’s scores for Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films. All of the actors acquit themselves well, including Chaney and Allbritton. Evelyn Ankers is a vision, as always, and even if Frank Craven takes a lot of abuse from critics, he’s actually fantastic in the role. Don’t be seduced by the negative criticism of Son of Dracula because in reality it is one of the truly great horror films of the decade.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Director: Dorothy Arzner                               Writer: Edwin Justus Mayer
Film Score: John Leipold                              Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen and Cary Grant

Another early pairing of Fredric March with the positively luminous Sylvia Sidney for Paramount, Merrily We Go to Hell is a pre-code picture focusing on alcoholism and adultery. The film is based on the short story “I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan,” by author Cleo Lucas. If there’s any real merit to the story itself, it is due to the female point of view by Lucas, and the tremendous talents of director Dorothy Arzner, a similar take on the idea as 1930’s The Divorcée at MGM from a novel by Ursula Parrott but with a more traditional ending. The throughline for both is a kind of domestic tragedy that is utterly absent from today’s screen. While the pre-code era is known for sex and violence, one of the aspects of those films that gets little attention is the emotional devastation emerges out of domestic relationships that are doomed from the start. The love that overcomes those warning signs in the early days is then gradually eroded away until one of the partners—primarily the woman—is faced with a choice that is as gut-wrenching as it is real. Modern trauma-dramas not doubt wish they could emulate the kind of intensity of emotion that these stories produced in abundance, but there’s nothing like the original for emotional power that has never really been captured in the same way since.

Chicago newspaper man and unproduced playwright Fredric March is a lush, drinking to forget having his heart broken by actress Adrianne Allen. At a party he meets manufacturing heiress Sylvia Sidney, and his frankness and undisguised genuine attraction to her causes her to fall in love. March is honest about his past, but she agrees to marry him anyway, though he likes to spend most of his free time at swanky speakeasys. Many of his co-workers, especially Charles Coleman, believe he’s not over Allen and only marrying Sidney for the money. Sidney’s father, George Irving, agrees and invites March over before the wedding to offer him fifty thousand dollars to walk away. March refuses, of course, and this endears Sidney to him even more. Nevertheless, Irving provides the couple with a living so that March can write his plays, but they are uniformly rejected and with little hope that they will ever be produced, and his failed career gnaws at him. Then the unexpected happens, when a producer expresses interest in his play and invites him to New York. But of course, March is still a drunk, and much more interesting to Allen than he was before, especially when she’s tabbed to star in the play. And it’s then the gears of pre-code tragedy gradually begin to grind up Sidney and take the audience along on the brutal journey with her.

March is solid, and while he’s a bit artificial onscreen it was not something he ever developed out of even later in his career. Which is not to say he’s necessarily bad, as he’s obviously talented, is just that he always seems to be playing to the back of the house. Sylvia Sidney, on the other hand, is a tremendous talent, capable of projecting a wealth of emotion through simple gestures of her face, and without raising her voice—though she’s undercut in that respect by the needs of the early sound film mechanics. The real stars of the picture, however, are director Dorothy Arzner and cinematographer David Abel. Arzner uses some truly impressive moving camera work from Abel, and together they create a style that gives a convincing precursor to what the hand-held camera was able to do decades later. Many of the shots are beautifully composed, and while they don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves, are incredibly advanced for the period. It’s a testament to female directors like Arzner, that their male counterparts for the most part were not nearly as creative and artistic behind the camera. Other actors of note are Richard Gallagher and Esther Howard as March’s best friends, and a brief appearance by Paramount contract player Cary Grant. Though the story is typical fare for domestic pre-code tragedy, director Dorothy Arzner and the talents of March and Sidney combine to make Merrily We Go to Hell a rewarding viewing experience.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Presumed Innocent (1990)

Director: Alan J. Pakula                                 Writers: Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula
Film Score: John Williams                             Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Harrison Ford, Greta Scacchi, Raul Julia and Brian Dennehy

I hate Scott Turrow’s writing—present tense is always pretentious, period, and I can’t stand reading it—but he does come up with some great stories, and this is one of them. Based on the author’s first novel, Presumed Innocent is a fascinating courtroom drama, intricately plotted and perfectly executed by director Alan J. Pakula. It’s no surprise that the film is as good as it is when the producing credits come up and Sydney Pollack’s name appears. The actor-director-producer had the golden touch right up until his death in 2008, and this film is a case in point. Not only did he assemble an all-star cast that included Harrison Ford, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Scacchi, Raul Julia, Brian Dennehy, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Paul Winfield, but a superior behind-the-camera crew as well. Alan J. Pakula had directed some powerful political films in the seventies, The Parallax View and All the President's Men, and worked with writer Frank Pierson on the adaptation of Turrow’s novel. Cinematographer Gordon Willis had worked with Woody Allen and Pakula, as well as Francis Ford Coppola on the Godfather films. Finally, the incomparable John Williams was brought in to score the picture. What’s so great about the film is that while the court case is a complex one, the exposition very easily allows the viewer to understand everything that’s going on and the implications, and yet still has plenty of surprises along the way.

The film opens with a brilliant voice over by Harrison Ford that is only really brilliant in retrospect--the first of many reasons this film demands repeat viewings. This cuts to a heartwarming family scene in the kitchen as Ford, along with wife Bonnie Bedelia and son Jesse Bradford have breakfast together before work and school. They seem like a happy family. Once at the office, assistant district attorney Ford interacts with a few of his lawyers before meeting with D.A. Brian Dennehy and learning that one of their attorneys, Greta Scacchi, has been brutally murdered. Dennehy gives Ford the case, as he’s running for reelection against Tom Mardirosian and needs to find Scacchi’s killer or he will lose the election. Ford brings in his favorite homicide detective, John Spencer to help, goes through Scacchi’s office and discovers a missing file, then goes home late, where the viewer learns from a devastated Bedelia--who’s trying to keep it together--that Ford had an affair with Scacchi. Understandably, Bedelia finds it difficult to hide the fact that she’s delighted by Scacchi’s death. The murder, however, is a real puzzler because there are absolutely no clues as to who the murderer is, despite fingerprints and DNA. At the same time Ford is trying to keep the office going while Dennehy is pressuring him to forget everything else and find the killer. It’s not until after Dennehy loses the election that Mardirosian discovers Ford’s fingerprints at the murder scene and has him arrested as the killer.

Ford hires Raul Julia to defend him, and the court case occupies the second half of the film, with Joe Grifasi assisting Mardirosian with the prosecution, Bradley Whitford assisting Julia with the defense, and Paul Winfield on the bench adjudicating. The final great supporting role is Sab Shimono as the medical examiner. The cast is simply superb. Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances on film, right up there with Regarding Henry and The Mosquito Coast. Gretta Scacchi is perfect as the femme fatale, and Turrow gives a nice twist to the trope when she’s the one who winds up dead. Brian Dennehy and John Spencer are two of my favorite character actors of all time, and I absolutely love Bonnie Bedelia in everything she’s done--her work in this film is far better than that in Die Hard. But the performance that absolutely leaps off the screen is that of Raul Julia, the high-priced defense lawyer who is so cool and collected and exudes so much confidence that it almost dampens some of the suspense about how the trial will conclude. It makes it that much more cruel that he died so young. Another actor giving one of his best performances is Paul Winfield, whose character craftily allows his disadvantaged upbringing to disguise a razor-sharp intellect, and he winds up being the key element in the entire film. When it comes to the acting--and everything else for that matter--the film doesn’t make a wrong move.

One of the interesting aspects of Greta Scacchi’s role is that it’s easy to forget that she’s actually dead throughout the entire story, much like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard but without the first-person narration. It’s only through Ford’s memories shown in flashback that she is seen, which is a nice cinematic conceit, because it’s Ford’s continuing obsession with her even after her death that keeps her alive for the viewer, replicating his character’s behavior in the film. Another remarkable thing is that even though it was released in 1990, the film has a genuine timeless quality to it, with no pop culture references, and very little in the way of exteriors or costumes that date the visuals. I absolutely love this kind of story as well, where everything doesn’t fall into place until the very end. All of the confusion, and the way certain scenes play out are designed to get the audience thinking one way, before the conclusion turns it all around to reveal the hidden truth. What this means is that the film rewards repeat viewings because the second and third time around--I think I’m easily in the twenties range--allow the viewer to see the true motivations of the characters and thus makes it just as entertaining but in a completely different way. I can’t say enough good things about Presumed Innocent. It’s not only one of my favorite courtroom dramas, but one of my favorite films of all time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

D-Day the Sixth of June (1956)

Director: Henry Koster                                      Writers: Ivan Moffat and Harry Brown
Film Score: Lyn Murray                                     Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Starring: Robert Taylor, Dana Wynter, Richard Todd and John Williams

Though Robert Taylor was a big Hollywood star, I’ve never seen many of his films, and so he tends to be a fairly generic presence for me onscreen. As a result, when I first watched D-Day the Sixth of June, other than Edmond O’Brien and the great John Williams, Jerry Paris was the only actor I really recognized, and that was from another World War Two film from two years earlier, The Caine Mutiny. In some respects, however, the two films have a lot in common. Much of the first half of the films focus on a romance as much as on the war, and it’s not until the second half of the film that the real drama begins. Where Stanley Kramer’s film was a big-budget feature, however, that was done with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, this film feels like a B-picture that couldn’t really afford to recreate the war . . . so it didn’t try. The cast, on the other hand, is pretty solid. The Brits and Taylor acquit themselves well, but Edmond O’Brien is a little over the top and unbelievable at times. Dana Wynter is radiant onscreen and instantly recognizable from Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the year before. The only other familiar face for me is Dabbs Greer, who had a long career in Hollywood, primarily on television, but is probably best remembered by modern audiences as the old Tom Hanks in The Green Mile. He does a nice job as O’Brien’s driver.

The film begins onboard a ship taking an elite unit across the English Channel on D-Day. But before long two of the men have flashbacks about the previous two years. First is a short one, British soldier Richard Todd visiting his girlfriend, Dana Wynter, and her father John Williams, to say goodbye before he joins a special squad to help reinforce Tobruk in 1942. Then it’s the turn of American Robert Taylor as he meets Wynter shortly after and falls in love with her--despite the fact that he’s married. At first Wynter thinks she’s safe with a married man, but then she falls for him too and so has to ask him to stop seeing her. At the same time Taylor is working for a hardboiled colonel, Edmond O’Brien, and living with fellow officer Jerry Paris. It’s a long winded flashback that takes up the majority of the film and, while nominally interesting, it doesn’t really fulfill the expectations of the title in the same way as something like The Longest Day, which was made early in the next decade. It’s essentially a wartime soap opera, with Taylor cheating on his wife with Wynter, and Wynter cheating on Todd, and Taylor jealous of Todd because he’s out fighting the war while Taylor is stuck commanding a desk. Eventually Taylor’s office is disbanded and he’s sent to Algiers for a year. But the stars align when O’Brien is put in charge of a special force--one that Todd eventually commands--and not only does it get Taylor back to England and Wynter, it puts him in the fight as well, as the members of the squad are going to be the first ground troops in Normandy on D-Day.

It’s a fairly low-budget film, as it contains just the one battle scene, and lots of rear projection in the exterior shots. It was also filmed on the Fox back lot instead of England. Finally, with the romance taking up more than half of the film it’s only nominally a war picture, and those coming to the film with expectations of watching a fictionalized unfolding of Operation Overlord on June 6th 1944 are going to be severely disappointed, as D-Day itself seems almost beside the point. While the single battle scene is well done, the aftermath strains credulity. The assault was modeled on an actual American mission against Pointe du Hoc prior to the invasion landing. After the raid on one of the big German guns, the soldiers casually wait on the beach for the main invasion to arrive and yet no other Germans show up to wipe them out. It’s actually incredibly strange to watch. The screenplay was based on a novel by Canadian author Lionel Shapiro, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette who was attached to the Canadian troops for nearly the whole of their participation in the war. And while the novel was awarded the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, it’s not really a war novel. Other than the single battle scene at the end, little else stands out as exceptional. D-Day the Sixth of June, while certainly nowhere near qualifying as a bad movie, is merely adequate throughout and on the whole can’t help being a little disappointing because of it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson                                    Writers: Scott Derrickson & Paul Boardman
Film Score: Christopher Young                             Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter and Mary Beth Hurt

I remember this film receiving a lot of publicity when it was first released, enough so that I purchased the DVD shortly after it came out. Watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose alone, on a winter’s night, in the dark, was a fairly creepy experience. But watching it now, a decade and a half later, in the daytime during the summer, it wasn’t really frightening at all . . . or even very interesting for that matter. Director Scott Derrickson called the film a cross between a courtroom drama and a horror film and he’s exactly right, but in the process it embraces neither genre fully and because of that it lacks the major impact of films like The Exorcist or A Few Good Men. The screenplay is based on the true story of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel who died in the same way in the mid nineteen seventies. But this is just another aspect of the film that undermines it’s potential. True stories in Hollywood have the tendency to short circuit the creative process and enslave the story to the “facts.” Derrickson and co-writer Paul Boardman seemed to have avoided the worst of these pitfalls--Anneliese Michel underwent sixty-seven exorcisms, while Emily Rose endures only one--but there’s still a strong sense that their creativity was inhibited to a great degree by a desire to conform to other aspects of the true story.

The film opens on a desolate patch of farmland, dead corn stalks, pumpkins in the garden, and a timid Terence Kelly knocking on the front door of a house that would give Norman Bates the creeps. Turns out Kelly is the medical examiner called by the police, and after his examination he declares that the dead girl upstairs did not die of natural causes. Then the police arrest priest Tom Wilkinson. The case is a tough one for D.A. Julian Christopher because they’re trying to convict a holy man of murder, and he finally selects the super religious super lawyer Campbell Scott to prosecute. Meanwhile the law firm representing the church opts for Laura Linney, who demands a partnership for taking on the case. Wilkinson, as expected, refuses to plead guilty, claiming his only desire is to tell Emily’s story. At the same time, Linney wants a free hand to use whatever tactics it takes to get him an acquittal--and her partnership. As a result, the story of Emily, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is told in flashback throughout the film, beginning with the mother, Marilyn Norry, telling about Carpenter going away to college. The story emerges of a young girl who had grown up in an ultra conservative Catholic home and, once on her own at college, begins to experience the type of supernatural horrors described by her religion. The prosecution’s case is a simple one: the doctor at the university, Kenneth Welsh, tested Carpenter for epilepsy and found positive results, but Carpenter refused the treatment on the advice of Wilkinson. Then his exorcism went wrong and killed her.

The case for Linney is a lot more complicated because of who her client is. One of the interesting dichotomies the film sets up is that the man prosecuting Wilkinson is a devout Christian, and yet Campbell Scott wants to see the priest behind bars for what he sees as an abuse of power and a disregard for human life. Laura Linney, on the other hand, is an admitted agnostic who is tasked with defending a man of the cloth. She has real trouble when he begins warning her that evil forces are at work in the trial and she fears her client might be mentally unbalanced, but couched in religious terms his delusions have essentially been condoned by society. Nevertheless, because the medical evidence is so strong, Linney ultimately decides that the only way to win the case is to double down on possession as a legitimate cause for Carpenter’s condition, therefore absolving Wilkinson of any negligence or responsibility for her death. Linney and Wilkinson are film veterans and acquit themselves as one would expect. Campbell Scott is probably best known for his appearance two years later as the pretentious professor in Music and Lyrics and doesn’t bring a lot to the proceedings, but he’s not bad either. Jennifer Carpenter had only made a few films before being cast in this one, and was a solid if unexceptional choice. Finally, the great Mary Beth Hurt as the presiding judge at the trial rounds out the main cast.

If there’s one place where the film excels it is in the direction of the actors by Scott Derrickson. Both Linney and Wilkinson have a tendency to overact in their films, but since they’re so good it sort of works. But here, Derrickson has them both on a very short leash, limiting their range in the service of the film as a whole. There are no big emotional scenes and no histrionics--even the scenes where the two are visited by evil spirits are underplayed to an impressive degree. The rationale seems to be to provide a distinct contrast between the horrors that Carpenter undergoes and the rest of the film. And it’s a great strategy, as Linney delivers arguably her best performance on film. The tinting of the visuals washed out any vibrant colors and gives the film a terrific wintertime feel. And the special effects are quite good, seamlessly transforming normal faces into horrifying apparitions with black, bleeding eyes and hissing, gaping mouths. But the most impressive aspect of the film is that it doesn’t take sides. The argument made in the courtroom is left for the viewer to decide, and the validity of neither view is pushed to the fore as the “right” one. Ironically, it’s probably one of the things that audiences found lacking in the film, but for me it was a perfect way to go. The Hollywood expectation is that either Linney will find religion or Wilkinson will lose his faith. But neither happens, and it’s quite a pleasant surprise and ultimately what makes The Exorcism of Emily Rose worth watching.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Director: Richard Fleischer                             Writer: Earl Felton
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Starring: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White and Paul Maxey

One of RKO’s lesser noir outings, The Narrow Margin has a relatively undistinguished cast but a fairly interesting story that makes up for it. There’s something about it that sort of crackles on the screen. Not a lot, but enough to make it interesting in its own way. Watching the film, I couldn’t help wonder what it would have been like if it had been a Fox property and starred Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. With both of those stars playing the scenes at a lower boil it might have worked even better. In fact, Howard Hughes was reportedly so impressed with the film that he wanted to remake it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and Hughes decided instead to bring him in to reshoot some of the scenes in His Kind of Woman with the two stars, for which Earl Fenton also wrote new dialogue. He does a terrific job here, especially working within the tight confines of a passenger train for most of the picture. Felton’s screenplay was based on a short story called “Target,” by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, and it has some clever lines of dialogue, though perhaps a bit over the top with Charles McGraw’s hard-boiled attitude. It’s certainly a B picture for the studio, but it holds its own in a field crowded with similar pictures in the late forties and early fifties.

The film begins as a train is pulling into the station in Chicago. Two cops, Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe are on their way to pick up a witness and take her to a trial in Los Angeles. She’s the widow of a mobster and McGraw doesn’t like it one bit. The easygoing Beddoe is older and wiser and doesn’t complain. They have to catch their train in an hour and head to the apartment of Marie Windsor—who isn’t very happy about the whole thing either. On the way out Beddoe is gunned down, and that makes McGraw hate Windsor even more. But he has a job to do, however distasteful, and he intends to see it through. Though the gunman knows what he looks like, nobody knows what Windsor looks like, so he uses that to his advantage and they make it onto the train without anyone spotting her. Nevertheless, McGraw has been tailed by a couple of guys who do everything they can to find her. David Clarke is about as subtle as a sock in the jaw, and doesn’t care a bit that McGraw knows who he is and what he’s looking for. His partner, on the other hand, the smarmy Peter Brocco, tries bribery and guilt to see if he has more luck. Both strike out initially, but it’s a long trip to L.A. with plenty of time for McGraw to make a mistake. And yet he still manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys without strangling Windsor in the process. For the audience, the longer the trip goes on, the more suspicious the regulars on the train becom--especially fat man Paul Maxey--and the more the tension mounts.

The film is vaguely reminiscent of elements of the atrocious Detour from 1945, in that Windsor is a real bitch and McGraw doesn’t like her one bit. And yet they’re stuck on a nightmare trip together. At the same time, it seems there are recognizable elements that would show up a few years later in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, namely the mysterious blonde, Jacqueline White, who winds up running into McGraw on a regular basis, and a case of mistaken identity. And speaking of Hitchcock, this film has an annoying brat of a kid in Gordon Gebert who essentially screams his lines all through the movie, something Hitch would never have allowed--not just because it’s less grating on the ears but because a polite child is simply much more interesting. One of the more impressive aspects of the film is the cinematography by George Diskant. He does some fine work with a moving camera onboard the train, and especially during the fight scene between McGraw and Clarke. On the flip side, however, is the lack of a real film score. While I’ve cited Roy Webb as composer, the score--when there is one on the soundtrack--was cobbled together from existing cues by various composers including Webb. There’s an attempt to compensate by surprising train noises that sound like gunshots, but it still leaves the film without a melodic center and it suffers for it. While not a great film, The Narrow Margin is an entertaining story working at the edges of film noir and well worth taking a look at.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Albuquerque (1948)

Director: Ray Enright                                    Writers: Gene Lewis & Clarence Young
Film Score: Darrell Calker                             Cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.
Starring: Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton, Gabby Hayes and Lon Chaney Jr.

Another of Randolph Scott’s great westerns from his middle period--this one directed by Ray Enright at Paramount--Albuquerque is a Cinecolor production from the novel of the same name by Luke Short. Enright, who had been directing films since the late twenties, helmed a string of westerns in the forties, a few of them with Scott, and so he was an old hand at this stuff by now. The credits roll over Darrell Calker’s rousing music, with a stagecoach in the distance growing ever nearer. The color is gorgeous, a lot less garish than Technicolor, and the red of the soil, the snow on the mountains, and the green of the trees is a wonder to behold. The opening scene, however, with Gabby Hayes as the driver and Lee White providing a little comedy, is disappointingly done with rear projection. When the scene shifts to the interior of the coach, Randolph Scott is entertaining Karolyn Grimes with a Señor Wences talking-hand bit. Also onboard are Catherine Craig and Lorin Raker. Naturally, bandits force the coach to stop to rob it. But when guns fire and Raker is killed, the coach takes off with Grimes inside and Scott hops on one of the bandit’s horses and saves the day. But the chase is a little disorienting to watch. Every time the natural exteriors are onscreen it’s breathtaking, and then the rear screen ruins the effect. The other issue with the photography later on is the rather obvious day-for-night shooting, which is also unfortunate.

Once the group makes it to town Gabby alerts the sheriff, Grimes is reunited with her father, and Craig gives the bad news to her brother that all their money was stolen. Then Scott finds out he’s not welcome there because he’s related to George Cleveland, the man who runs the town and everyone hates. Turns out Sheriff Bernard Nedell works for Cleveland, and so do the bandits that robbed Craig’s money. Cleveland’s head honcho is none other than a tired looking Lon Chaney Jr. Cleveland wants Scott to run his hauling operation for the mines in the hills and pass the business on to him. At first Scott is flattered. But at the local saloon he spies the bandits, and sees Chaney running them out, sort of friendly like. Scott is also suspicious of the sheriff. Then everything becomes clear when he learns that Cleveland’s primary competitors hauling freight for the mines are Craig and her brother, Russell Hayden. And it takes even less time for Scott to get their money back from Cleveland and offer his services to the two of them. So the film sets itself up as a conflict between Scott and his new friends, against his evil uncle and his corrupt business. Scott naturally takes a liking to Craig, but unfortunately Hayden falls all over himself for Barbara Britton when she turns up in town.

It’s a solid film, sitting squarely in the tradition, and it doesn’t disappoint. Scott is dependable as the white hat, and his supporting cast does a nice job as well. Catherine Craig is lovely as the love interest, tough and patient, while Gaby Hayes plays the exact same salty sidekick he’d been playing since the early thirties. Barbara Britton was new to me, but she gives a great performance as well. The only disappointment is that Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t used more, or at least to better effect, as he was capable of giving a tremendous performance when given the chance. Of course Karolyn Grimes is most familiar to film audiences as little Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. And another recognizable face from the same film is Dick Elliott who shows up as a cook. But George Cleveland is no Lionel Barrymore, and he’s a little too tame as the wheel-chaired villain. The most notable thing about the picture, though, is how fantastic the photography is. Not only the exteriors and the color print, but the long focus work and the moving camera close ups by cinematographer Fred Jackman Jr. are outstanding. The issues with rear projection and day-for-night aside, it’s a fantastic looking film. The score by Calker is more than serviceable, if fairly generic, though the set design goes a little overboard trying to stress the New Mexico locale. It’s a familiar story, especially some seventy years later, but it does have some unique plot points that might even have been better had they not been telegraphed to the audience ahead of time. Albuquerque is nothing out of the ordinary, but is a fun film that delivers on all genre expectations.