Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top Hat (1935)

Director: Mark Sandrich                        Writers: Dwight Taylor & Allan Scott
Music: Irving Berlin, Max Steiner            Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick

This one’s a puzzler, making The A List probably more to acknowledge the legendary Fred Astaire and his partnership with Ginger Rogers than anything intrinsic in the film itself. Don’t get me wrong, the dancing is great and many of the songs by Irving Berlin have become classics, but the rest of Top Hat . . . not so A list. While there are many films from the thirties which still fascinate--Warner Brothers’ gangster pictures and Universal’s horror films come to mind--this isn’t one of them. The film begins with a close up of, what else, a top hat, on one of the men in front of a London gentleman’s club. Inside Fred Astaire is waiting impatiently for Edward Everett Horton to arrive. Horton is producing a show with Astaire as the star and the two go to his hotel to talk. Horton is also in the middle of an argument with his butler, Eric Blore, and needs Astaire to referee. In his first song, Astaire extols the virtues of bachelorhood in “Fancy Free,” and does an excellent tap routine in the bargain. It just happens to be right above Ginger Rogers’ bedroom and wakes her up and the two meet in the usual fashion, with Rogers being irritated by Astaire’s brash confidence.

Essentially a talkie with tunes, the plot is a simple one of mistaken identity, with Astaire wooing Rogers before she accidentally confuses him for his manager and thinks he’s already married. As a result, the whole thing comes off like a G-rated episode of Three’s Company. But the more modern references don’t stop there. Astaire’s big dance number with his cane and top hat has the unfortunate side effect of bringing to mind Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. And to make matters worse, it ends with him “shooting” every member of the male chorus line in a way that seems in bad taste today. Add to that a set of Venice that looks like the interior of It’s A Small World, and the effect is more jarring for modern audiences than the fantasy it would have evoked for those in the depression era. In looking at the ratings on IMDb, it’s clear that there’s no consensus as to which Astaire-Rogers film is the favorite of fans. The top four are bunched relatively close in the ratings race with Top Hat barely edging out Swing Time, The Gay Divorcee, and Shall We Dance (all four of which are neatly gathered on a Turner Classics DVD collection). So it really comes down to a choice of personal preference for music, plot, and character. My favorite is The Gay Divorcee.

One of the issues with all of the Astaire-Rogers films, including Top Hat, is that the plots never really seem to go anywhere. The same formula is always used and it tends to wear thin fairly quickly into the picture. Astaire’s unflappable arrogance comes off as annoying rather than charming. And Roger’s indignation tends to feel forced and unconvincing. Of course there has to be a rival for Rogers’ affections that Astaire must overcome, typically a bombastic ethnic European, in this case the cartoon-like Erik Rhodes. Even Edward Everett Horton doesn’t get very upset over anything, a sure sign that something is terribly wrong. That said, however, Horton's performance is one of the high points in the film, certainly much better than that of Victor Moore, Astaire’s sidekick in Swing Time from the following year. The other great character actor in the film is the wonderfully sardonic Helen Broderick as Horton’s wife. Eric Blore also does a tremendous job as Horton’s uncooperative manservant.

In her review of Top Hat for The A List, Carrie Rickey acknowledges Astaire’s revolutionary insistence on shooting the couple’s dance sequences in one take, rather than cutting in and out, which is very impressive for the time. She also rightly assesses the importance of Irving Berlin’s songs in the success of the film, as well as conceding the artificiality of the sets and the vibrancy the two leads bring to the story when juxtaposed against them. Then Rickey tries to take a thematic approach to the film, something I normally like. She first attempts to portray the couple as independent entertainers mingling with the rich but not of the rich, but Astaire is as tied down to his manager’s needs as Rogers is to her designer boss. They both threaten to quit, but it never happens. Then she tacks to bring in weather as a metaphor, but with the mostly stage-bound sets, that doesn’t quite ring true, either. Still, Top Hat is, in Rickey’s words, the most iconic of the couple’s nine films together. The dancing of the duo is pretty terrific and worthy of a viewing just to see what all the fuss was about.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Director: Sam Fuller                Writer: Sam Fuller, Dwight Taylor
Film Score: Leigh Harline         Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, and Richard Kiley

Pickup on South Street is a fifties noir that shares its basic setting and construction with many of its big studio contemporaries like The Naked City and On Dangerous Ground, but its visual style in many ways is more akin to independent oddities like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. Most of the reason for that goes to Sam Fuller and his idiosyncratic writing and directorial style. Not to be confused with Raymond Chandler's story, Pickup on Noon Street, it’s an odd film, all the time threatening to spin out of control and fling itself into farce. With argot like “cannon” for pickpockets, “muffins” for women, “tiger,” “the big thumb,” and on and on, the viewer is continuously on the precipice of disbelief, with only Fuller’s thinnest of tethers to keep the audience in suspension. But he does manage to suspend that disbelief and keep viewers riveted to the screen in a way that almost defies analysis. Almost.

While the characters are as one-dimensional as a Mickey Spillane novel, Fuller manages to keep interest in them by not making them cliché. And that is the real beauty of Pickup on South Street. We expect Candy to be a whore and manipulate Skip to get the film. But she really loves him. We expect Joey to wimp out and not go through with it. But he turns out to be a commie with conviction. We expect Skip to do the wrong thing for the wrong reason all the time. But instead he can’t sell out his country and winds up being a stand up guy for Moe. This is not forties noir, and no one would confuse it with that. The fifties had a style all its own. Also, the lack of a femme fatale, emphasis on communism, and the hokey, happy ending all put it well outside of noir territory.

But is it a classic, as The B List contends? Depends on the definition. As a quirky, cult classic, sure. As a gritty film noir, not by a long shot. For me, that distinction would go to fifties films like The Big Heat or Gun Crazy. The essay by Ty Burr in The B List plays on the style of the film, and tries for the same tough-talking, wise-cracking style and falls short. Less informative than stylistic, the tone wears thin before too long and one begins hoping soon for the text to end. Fortunately, no such impatience awaits the viewer of the film itself. Pickup on South Street is a rewarding experience for those not expecting classic noir.

The E List

While writing my most recent book of film analysis, I stumbled upon two books put out by the National Society of Film Critics.  The first is The A List, reviews of the essential hundred films of all time, both U.S. and International.  The second is The B List, the best of low-budget genre pictures exclusively from the U.S.  As I worked my way through the books I began rewatching these titles.  In this blog I wanted to share my commentary, not only of the films themselves, but of the reviews.

And this also inspired me to create my own list of film, The E List, that I feel have been unduly neglected or otherwise deserving of recognition. At the same time I'm going to be watching all of the best picture Oscar winners in order, and so I'll be occasionally commenting on those films as well. Ultimately I hope to have an extensive archive of reviews for some of the great films of all time--and perhaps to steer folks away from some films that may not be worth the time. Anyway, that's the objective. Let me know how I succeed.  Enjoy.

E.B. Neslowe