Monday, December 31, 2012

The Iron Horse (1924)

Director: John Ford                                    Writer: Charles Kenyon
Film Score: Erno Rapee                             Cinematography: George Schneiderman
Starring: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Will Walling and Gladys Hulette

A genuinely masterful piece of silent film work by director John Ford, the original Iron Horse draws on narrative techniques worked out by D.W. Griffith as early as Birth of a Nation, and of course became the template for westerns from Cimmaron to How the West was Won, most notably, that of working multiple smaller stories into the larger historical canvas. In this case the historical event is the construction of the trans-continental railroad.

The film stars George O’Brien, whose lengthy career in both silent and sound films included numerous westerns. But he could also be effective in straight dramatic roles as he was as the lead in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Madge Bellamy, who also had a long career extending into the mid forties, is the love interest. Jean Arthur has a small, un-credited role. But one fascinating bit of casting is that of George Waggner as Buffalo Bill Cody. Waggner, of course, would go on to become a fairly well-known producer and director, filling both roles on Universal’s The Wolf Man and directing dozens of television series in the fifties and sixties.

The story has the usual cast of characters, the lovers separated when the young boy goes off with his father to scout for passages through the mountains in the west. His girl, who grows up and gets engaged to her father’s engineer. The beginning of the picture is set in Springfield, Illinois, and features Charles Edward Bull as Abraham Lincoln--to whom the picture is dedicated--who eventually signs the bill that begins the railroad project. And of course there is the villain, a large landowner in Wyoming territory who wants the railroad built through his land (and who also has a powerful connection to the hero). In addition to the love story, Indian wars, and a cattle drive, there are deft moments of comedy as well.

Ford’s not big on moving camera shots, but his static set-ups are quite nice and convey a real flair for the dramatic. The tracking shots he does use, usually following men on horseback, are very well done for the time. To be sure, this is very much a silent film, and the pantomime acting is a style all its own, but there is a sense of realism in many scenes that is breathtaking. The title cards are beautifully done, with gorgeous paintings in the background that mirror the action on the screen. The DVD itself has two versions of the film, the U.S. release, and a slightly shortened European release. Both feature a new film score by Christopher Caliendo that is not quite symphonic enough for my taste, but is certainly better than a lot of public domain silent films with random music fused on. The Iron Horse is a great early western from Ford, and recommended highly for fans of silent film.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Street Scene (1931)

Director: King Vidor                                Writer: Elmer Rice
Film Score: Alfred Newman                     Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Beulah Bondi, William Collier, Jr. and Estelle Taylor

Street Scene is a fascinating film in many respects. In the first place it gives lie to the myth that when sound was introduced into films that the camera stopped moving. While the story is simply a filmed version of the Pulitzer Prize winning hit play by Elmer Rice, the film is anything but a “talkie.” With the brilliant opening theme by Alfred Newman, the picture is more like a filmed version of a Gershwin melody. King Vidor’s dolly shots, crane shots, tracking shots and interesting camera angles all help to liven up what, in lesser hands, could have been a static, talking picture.

But it’s not just tracking shots that make the picture so distinctive from much of the talking films of the period. In one shot, pitched up from street level toward the second floor window, the camera is nearly centered on Beulah Bondi’s backside as she surreptitiously grabs at her dress to pull her underwear free. It's a funny shot, but technically it almost prefigures Alfred Hitchcock’s use of angles when he filmed Dial M for Murder. Another aspect that is reminiscent of Hitchcock is the opening of the second scene, where people are seen sleeping, playing, and shaving on their fire escapes in the morning, all versions of which appear later in Rear Window. There is also the murder scene, which could have been something of a blueprint for a similar scene in 42nd Street, especially with its lengthy series of reaction shots. But the film is much more than a template for later movies.

The story is simply that of a single twenty-four our period in the life of an apartment building in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen on a hot day at the beginning of summer. Vidor’s direction is exceptional, and the way that the film was shot still looks very modern. Sylvia Sidney, in a very early role, is quite natural in what would be the beginning of a very long career as an actress. The crane shot that follows her from the elevated train after the shooting is remarkable. Silent star Estelle Taylor is equally magnificent as Sidney’s mother, and manages to be sympathetic without being cloying. The real treat here is seeing Beulah Bondi in her first screen appearance. A Hollywood veteran for years to come, she is best remembered for her dozens of roles playing a mother, most memorably in Our Town and It’s A Wonderful Life. The cast is rounded out by character actors and walk-ons including John Qualen and David Landau.

It’s hard to know exactly how to assess a film like this. It occupies an awkward space between the classic silent films of the late 1920s and the more confident sound pictures of the late 1930s. Though Rice’s original play was a huge hit at the time, most of the ideas have been absorbed into any number of films since. The same could be said of Alfred Newman’s music for the film, a Gershwinesque piece that has been used in countless other films from Kiss of Death to How To Marry a Millionaire. Still, there’s a vibrance and vitality to the film that is lacking in most talkies of the period. Though perhaps not something you’d want to own, it is available for free on the Internet Archive and well worth the viewing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

Director: Quentin Tarantino                           Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Music Supervisor: Mary Ramos                    Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio & Samuel L. Jackson

He’s done it again, folks. Another feel-good movie from Quentin Tarantino. I have to say, as someone who came to Tarantino late, I’m a big admirer. His directorial vision and direction have grown steadily from the brute force of Reservoir Dogs to the much more confident Pulp Fiction, through a low period that included the Kill Bill films and Grindhouse into what can only be called his mature period beginning with Inglourious Basterds. His latest film, Django Unchained, picks right up with his uncompromising directorial vision, this time taking on the western.

The film begins with a great, late-60s style theme song and bold red titles right out of a Clint Eastwood western from the same period. This is important in setting the comic tone early because two things have been happening simultaneously in Tarantino’s recent films. The first is realism. The way that he makes his humor work is that it's almost comedy relief, and the only way THAT works is if the film is very realistic to begin with. The slaves, the old west towns, the plantations and characters, are all so incredibly real that the verisimilitude is almost overwhelming. In doing this, however, the humor injected into the reality is not only welcome, but appreciated that much more. The second thing is the violence. Now, of course Tarantino’s films have always been violent, but he seems to be developing a new sensibility about it. And in the same way he relieves the realism with comedy, the comedy also helps to undercut the extreme violence by going over the top with humor. In the end, this refinement of vision has come together brilliantly in a way that his earlier work didn’t quite achieve.

The story of Django, a freed slave played with masterful restraint by Jamie Foxx, is truly compelling. The film, I’m sure, would have even worked without the humor because Tarantino’s script is that good. Django becomes a bounty hunter and partners with the de facto star of Inglourous Basterds, Christoph Waltz, who never makes a serious threat to steal this show, only because there are just too many other great performances. Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I have never really liked, is the only person I can even imagine doing justice to the role of Calvin Candie, drawing no doubt on his role in The Man in the Iron Mask but vastly improved with age. I think it's his best film work, perhaps ever. Don Johnson is used to great effect in a small part, and his hooded clansmen-ride borders on Mel Brooks territory. In fact, the first time Jamie Foxx is seen in his cowboy garb it brings to mind Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. But this film is light years away from Brooks in terms of sophistication and subtlety. The confidence Tarantino displays is masterful and worthy of a lot more serious critical attention than he'll probably receive.

To understand the greatness of this film you can start with the fact that there are just way too many analytical aspects to the film than can be discussed here. Christoph Waltz’ role as Dr. King Schultz is particularly pivotal. There is an aspect of acting within the motion picture that is actually Shakespearean. There is an aspect of the undercover cop duality as Django allows a slave to be ripped apart to prove his veracity. There is Schultz’s warning to Django that if he kills someone not a criminal that he will become a criminal himself, wanted dead or alive, which also mirrors the ending in which our own need for revenge as an audience is satisfied in a way that makes us all criminals by implication. It’s a magnificent work and one that demands repeated viewings and is deserving of much more critical acclaim than it will no doubt earn.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sideways (2004)

Director: Alexander Payne                          Writers: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Film Score: Rolfe Kent                               Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church & Sandra Oh

Alexander Payne is my new favorite director. The guy is brilliant, and not in an Orson Welles, boy-genius, comet-plummeting-to-earth kind of way, but in the way that it’s supposed to work. In looking at his few major films, one can see an incredibly confident director, staying true to his vision, but growing that talent into genius that can be recognized by all. From the juvenile, almost over-the-top stories in Citizen Ruth and Election, to the more mature About Schmidt, to his break-out piece Sideways, and finally his critical masterpiece The Descendants, Payne has kept to his vision as a director, developing a sure-handedness in his distinctive style that assures the auteur theory of film is not going away soon.

But as critically successful as The Descendants is, Sideways will always be my favorite Payne film. (Both won Academy Awards for Payne for best adapted screenplay.) It was the film that finally pulled Paul Giamatti out of the mire of stereotyped character roles and into the actor who would go on to play leads in John Adams, Duplicity, and Barney’s Version. The film also rescued the languishing career of Virginia Madsen, who had been so incredibly stunning in Creator, but then completely wasted in B pictures until her revival in The Rainmaker. Sideways also launched Sandra Oh and landed her the role on Grey’s Anatomy, and gave Thomas Haden Church the cache to do a film like Broken Trail before returning to his previously stultifying career.

The story, about two middle-aged college friends on a prenuptial romp through California’s coastal wine country, was adapted by Payne and Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett, but it’s the visual style and the emphasis on character that catapult this film into greatness. Along the way the failed novelist, played by Giamatti, and the has-been actor, Haden Church, imbibe their way into one outrageous predicament after another. But unlike the overplayed innocence of something like Election, Sideways has a maturity that allows the humor to appear more natural, less forced, and to evolve out of the characters rather than being imposed upon them. Those characters, however, are not very likeable sometimes, but that’s what makes them human. And in the end it’s their humanity that we respond to in the film.

There are a couple of things that I have to take exception with in David Denby’s review in the New Yorker from 2004. When he states, “the jazz score, by Rolfe Kent, plunks along uninterestingly” he couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a brilliant score that is not only a perfect accompaniment to the piece, but stands alone as great music and the soundtrack is well worth acquiring. Denby also complains about the camera setups being “too obvious,” but he’s missing the point. The picture-postcard views of the hotel and restaurants are deliberate and masterful in contrasting the touristy setting with the debauchery of the characters. And it is the characters that are finally the point. The contrast between Giamatti and Madsen, the dynamic characters who shift and change and grow from their experiences are contrast beautifully with Haden Church and Oh, the static characters against which our protagonists are measured.

One more thing in closing. For those who watched the film and didn’t like it because of the characters, I always recommend giving it another try. But this time watch the film with the audio commentary by Giamatti and Haden Church. I can honestly say that it’s one of the only commentary tracks I’ve heard that is just as funny as the film itself. The self-deprecating humor is worth it alone, but they also help the audience understand Payne’s vision and that is invaluable. Sideways is a brilliant film by a brilliant director and it would be a shame to let a misunderstanding get in the way of a powerful cinematic experience.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Legend of the Werewolf (1975)

Director: Freddie Francis                                 Writers: Anthony Hinds
Film Score: Harry Robertson                            Cinematography: John Wilcox
Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, David Rintoul and Lynn Dalby

As I was watching the original Star Wars a few weeks ago, I began to wonder what else Peter Cushing had done in his later years and I stumbled upon Legend of the Werewolf. While deciding which VHS version to purchase on Amazon--there is no DVD release in the US--the one review there stated the film was not very good, but it was a must for Peter Cushing fans. How true. But I would make a small amendment: the film is not great until Cushing appears. When he does, it elevates the film to another level. [As of 2017 the film has been released on DVD in the US by Cheezy Flicks] Legend of the Werewolf was one of three films produced by the British company Tyburn Films in 1975, using mostly talent associated with Hammer Studios. Director Freddie Francis does what he can with the limited production values he has at his disposal.

The first part of the film is rather dismal, wherein Hugh Griffith as Maestro Pamponi stumbles across a wolf-boy and uses him to attract customers to his feeble sideshow. The boy grows up and moves to the city, and is given a job at the zoo owned by Ron Moody. But it’s not until he meets the prostitute Lynn Dalby that his jealousy turns him fully into a werewolf during the full moon. When the murder victims are brought to the morgue, Peter Cushing’s Professor Paul at first believes it’s a wolf and suspicion naturally falls on the zookeeper’s wolves. Though he was 63 at the time, Cushing is magnificent as the French pathologist. His knowing and fearless character that graced so many Hammer films is present in abundance, and with the paucity of acting around him, he completely dominates the proceedings. His skull-like face was even more accentuated later in his career, but rather than making him look weak, it does quite the opposite.

For real fans of Hammer and associated horror films, the British Film Institute--for some reason--published a book called Making Legend of the Werewolf by Edward Buscombe to coincide with the release of the film. There was also a novelization of the film from the same year, by author Robert Black, but much of the screenplay is lifted by Anthony Hinds from his script for Curse of the Werewolf, using the name John Elder. The makeup is similar to that worn by Oliver Reed in the earlier film as well. But David Rintoul is far inferior to Reed, and Ron Moody’s characterization suffers from a lack of direction and pales in comparison to his work on Oliver!. The real draw, though, is Peter Cushing. Again, it’s not a great film and so no one should go into it expecting that. But for anyone who loves Cushing’s work, I would say, it’s a must have.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Where the Sidwalk Ends (1950)

Director: Otto Preminger                                 Writers: Ben Hecht & Victor Trivas
Film Score: Alfred Newman                             Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Karl Malden and Gary Merrill

Something of a Laura reunion, Where the Sidewalk Ends reunites director Otto Preminger with stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney for another film noir outing, this time with somewhat milder results. That said, however, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a good, solid period piece that holds up well against similar films. It certainly doesn’t pack the power of a film like The Big Heat, but then it’s not really meant to. Preminger’s films are more low key overall, like Sidney Lumet of a few decades later.

While it’s difficult to call this an ensemble film, it sort of works that way, the sum of the individual parts actually being greater than the whole. To start with, the leads are perhaps even better than in Laura. Dana Andrews trades in his obsession for rage against criminals, similar to that of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground and with great success. Gene Tierney puts in arguably the finest performance of her career, precisely because of the understated performance. Her beauty is radiant, and without the sinister undercurrent of something like Leave Her to Heaven it’s a role that she can really be appreciated in. The photography by Joseph LaShelle is wonderful, deep, dark, and crystal clear black and white, and the script by Ben Hecht is lean and taut. The only oddity on the credits is the film score. Though apparently Cyril J. Mockridge added connecting passages, the main theme and leitmotif of the entire film is lifted directly from Alfred Newman’s "Street Scene."

The story concerns Andrews as police detective Mark Dixon who is regularly disciplined for police brutality, and as the film opens we see him being demoted to detective second grade. The story is fairly generic, from there. A murder happens at a traveling crap game, in which Gene Tierney was in attendance. Unable to pin the murder on the mobster who is obviously responsible, sends Dixon into a rage. When he visits the apartment of the patsy and accidently kills him, Dixon doesn’t think the brass will believe him and so he tries to cover up the murder . . . with predictable noir consequences. But again, what makes the film work is not so much the plot as the characters.

Brilliant as the mobster is Gary Merrill, who has as his noir-bad-guy-tic the use of a nasal inhaler that would be funny if Merrill himself weren’t so palpably dangerous. Karl Malden is the newly appointed police lieutenant, not quite as dominating as he is in his performance in Hitchock’s I Confess a year later, but close. The film also features a wonderful character actor by the name of Tom Tully, who is best know for his role as Captain DeVriess in The Caine Mutiny, playing Tiernney’s father. Not the greatest noir ever made, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is very watchable and enjoyable nonetheless.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Director: Ridley Scott                                 Writers: Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld                     Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender

One of the interesting things about a prequel to a popular film series are the anachronisms that necessarily sneak in. With the Alien franchise having begun in 1979, that’s difficult not to do. As wonderfully steampunk as the Nostromo is, it lacks technology as simple as the computer pads and holographic scanners that are taken as a given on the Prometheus. And even though the Prometheus predates the Nostromo by thirty years--in the story chronology--the earlier ship has far more modern technology. Ok, so the Nostromo was just a mining ship, the space equivalent of a pickup truck, but there still could have been a bit more homage paid to the original in the same way as the remake/prequel to The Thing. But that’s really nitpicking. Prometheus is a great film.

Both a prequel and a genesis story, the film begins with the very von Daniken-like search for the original aliens that populated the earth and evidently communed with ancient civilizations. Like the original series this flight is also financed by a private corporation with ulterior motives, this time for a somewhat misguided search for the fountain of youth for the company’s aging founder; unfortunately these aren’t the aliens from Cocoon. The investigation of a mound on a moon of a Saturn-like planet circling a distant star reveals a race of large humanoid beings that are the descendants of the space jockey from the first Alien. The ingenious way that Ridley Scott is able to spend the remainder of the film before finally bringing forth the first proto-alien is what really makes the film a pleasure to watch. Unlike The Thing prequel, in which the Norwegian scientists essentially deal with alien in a similar fashion as the original, Prometheus attempts to be original to the point of almost being obtuse. Ironically, it seems to work because of that.

Other than a couple of big names, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce, the cast is made up of relative newcomers. Swedish actress Noomi Rapace is the new Ripley, and she does a tremendous job; the scene in which she operates on herself to remove the alien in her uterus is incredibly tense. Logan Marshall-Green plays her scientist boyfriend and does a great job as the first one infected. And the opening scene, with German actor Michael Fassbender as the robot David, is like something straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And there are nods, perhaps unintentional, to other science-fiction films as well. Either that, or they’re all beginning to blend together. Special effects are good, seamless CGI and believable makeup, though the score by Marc Streitenfeld is rather generic, not quite up to his work on Robin Hood or The Grey. It’s certainly possible that on first viewing the film will fail to meet expectations: how could it not? The Alien series is a powerful set of films and spin-offs. But given time and repeated viewing, I think Prometheus will become one of the great films in the series.

Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier                         Writer: William Shakespeare
Film Score: William Walton                      Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Basil Sydney and Terence Morgan

It seems pretty clear that the Best Picture Oscar award of 1948 for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet marked a subtle turning point for the awards, from simply a popularity contest to one that rewarded real artistry in filmmaking. Prior to this it was mostly box office smashes that won the award, films like Gone With the Wind, or Mutiny on the Bounty. And while plenty of hits won the award after 1948, there were lots of unique winners like On the Waterfront, or All About Eve that were more stylistically or narratively artistic. Hamlet was also the first non-American film to ever win the best picture award. Granted, it was a weak field that year, but for a staged Shakespearean production to win the Oscar at all is something of a feat.

As with many Shakespearean films of the day, it is a shortened production, eliminating certain scenes in order to streamline the action and keep the audience’s attention on Hamlet himself throughout the two and a half hour running time. Production values are good for a British production made so soon after the war, but not quite on par with other Hollywood Shakespearian productions during that era, like John Houseman’s Julius Caesar or Orson Welles’ Macbeth. There’s a stage bound quality to Olivier’s Hamlet that even some fluid camera work can’t overcome. Olivier’s work in the title role is very good, however, and the climax is arresting. There are some quirky readings of the lines, in the “to be or not to be” speech for example, where he suddenly shouts, and the antic “the play’s the thing” even when no one else is there for him to keep up his phony craziness, but overall the interpretation is excellent.

The play itself is one of Shakespeare’s best, probably for the fact that the main character is so enigmatic, so resistant to analysis, so . . . human. The inability to easily categorize Hamlet’s behavior, for the other characters in the play as well as the audience, is one of its great attributes, even amid a body of work as brilliant as Shakespeare’s. And of course there are the dozens of lines that have made their way into the vernacular of everyday speech. In my review of Annie Hall I mentioned how much of Woody Allen’s innovation in that film had been absorbed by modern culture; the same is true for Shakespeare’s writing in Hamlet where, more than any of his other plays, the poetry of his writing has be co-opted by the culture at large for hundreds of years.

Naturally, Hamlet has been remade numerous times, another testament to its genius, as well as being the inspiration for films as diverse as Strange Brew and The Lion King. The remake that has been the most dramatically satisfying is probably the 1996 version by Kenneth Branagh. In not only restored all of the text from Shakespeare’s play, but the amazing cast as well as more modern staging and use of exteriors makes it something of the definitive Hamlet. Still, the best line from Laurence Olivier’s version is one that the director added himself to the introduction and really sums up the genius of the play: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas                         Writer: George Lucas
Film Score: John Williams                    Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Alec Guinness

Dare I say it, but the more I think about the Star Wars franchise, the more I think that Star Wars actually ruined George Lucas’s film career. Oh, he’s made tons of money and all, but if you think about it, the last non-Star Wars film he actually directed was American Graffiti, almost forty years ago. If you make the analogy to other arts, it seems almost ludicrous. Famous musicians complain all the time about having to recreate their “hits” when performing live, but it’s actually more like an author who keeps writing the same book over and over or asking DaVinci to paint the Mona Lisa again. Star Wars, ironically, turned Lucas from a director into a money-making machine and as a result we’ll never really know what kind of a director, or what masterpieces of modern cinema, he would have made.

What’s fascinating about Matt Zoller Seitz’ review in The A List, is that he has almost nothing good to say about the film itself. Aside from an unsubstantiated claim that although “the story and mood were willfully primitive, it’s conception was sophisticated.” In fact, immediately after making that statement Seitz goes on to tell how the film was actually derivative. There’s no denying that the film, in its day, struck a chord with American audiences that has never really been equaled by any other film series, but seen today the cracks in conception really show. While touted as something bold that embraced the ideas of the Western, the war film, the swashbuckler, the adventure serials, and the epic at the time, it now seems more like a 70s TV mini-series than something worthy of being an all-time essential film.

I recently had the opportunity to see the entire series last weekend, when they ran them on the Spike Network in order (of story, not production). But I could only make it halfway through The Phantom Menace before dragging out my DVDs to avoid the commercials. What struck me more than anything else was the simplistic nature of the story, and by the time I had reached episodes four through six it became maddening. Not so much for the films themselves, but for the stunted nature of Lucas’s idea. Seitz brings up the far more successful (artistically in comparison) directors who came up at the same time as Lucas: Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and others who have managed to balance money-making features with more artistic successes, and it’s a telling comparison.

There’s little need to recount the plot or characters in this review, as even Seitz’ own single paragraph summary was tedious. Alec Guinness was already a star at the end of his career, and even though Hamill and Fisher would work steadily thereafter, it was really only Harrison Ford who would go on to superstardom in a way that matched the original success of the films. And that leads to my biggest problem with The A List: the criteria. In my review for 2001: A Space Odyssey I questioned whether technical innovation alone was requisite for greatness, and Start Wars begs the question of whether box-office receipts are as well. My contention, in both cases, would be a resounding no.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                         Writer: Robert E. Sherwood
Film Score: Franz Waxman                       Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders and Reginald Denny

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is a fascinating film, considering its position in the Hitchcock cannon. His first American film, it occupies the space right between his great British films, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage, and the more powerful early American films that came directly after, Suspicion, Saboteur, and Shadow of a Doubt. And it is exactly that, a perfect bridge between the two major periods of his career. In addition, Rebecca was also given the Academy Award for best picture, though not for Hitchcock’s directing. Hitch’s only Oscar was an honorary award given to him in 1968.

There’s a certain filmic quality to the picture that is very reminiscent of Hitchcock’s British period. The microphones of the day muffle the dialog a bit, and coupled with the fast-paced dialog (though not quite Howard Hawks speed) it makes it somewhat of a challenge to keep up with. But there are also very specific Hitchcock touches like the car scenes, Fontaine riding in the car with Olivier, that became trademarks of Hitch’s work from Suspicion and Notorious, on through North by Northwest and Family Plot. And, of course, midway through the film it becomes the classic innocent man accused of murder that really fits into Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

The story concerns Laurence Oliver as the wealthy Max de Winter who contemplates suicide in Monte Carlo after the death of his wife. He’s saved by Joan Fontaine and she becomes the second Mrs. de Winter. As the circumstances surrounding the first Mrs. de Winter’s death come to light, it becomes clear that her husband may be charged for the murder of his first wife. At the same time, the lowly born second wife has to adjust to life at Manderley where the servants, especially Mrs. Danvers, do not appreciate their former mistress’s place being usurped by a commoner.

Of course, Hitchcock’s film was based on the gothic romance novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and that’s probably one of the factors that helped it win the Oscar that year, that and the influence of David O. Selznick, for whose company Hitch made the film, especially since it was going up against films like The Grapes of Wrath and Kitty Foyle. The film also has a great score by Franz Waxman. Suspicion, with Cary Grant, is probably the better Hitchcock film during this period, but with the later firmly in the suspense/mystery category, a genre Hitch would be connected with all his life, he was never again seriously considered for an Academy Award. Still, it’s a great transitional film, and one that would presage Hitchcock’s masterful career in the U.S. for many years to come.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Son of Fury (1942)

Director: John Cromwell                         Writer: Philip Dunne
Film Score: Alfred Newman                    Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Starring: Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, George Sanders and Roddy McDowall

Through sheer happenstance, I happened to have recently watched three early films of Roddy McDowall: How Green Was My Valley, Man Hunt, (both of which starred Walter Pidgeon) and most recently, Son of Fury. Of course I had known of him through his later work, most notably the Planet of the Apes series, The Poseidon Adventure, and a great later film, Fright Night. It is fascinating to see him not as people of the time did, as a child actor, but as the boy who would eventually become Roddy McDowall as an adult. In this film, however, he only plays the young Benjamin Blake for twenty minutes or so, until the adult role is taken over by Tyrone Power.

Rather than a swashbuckler like the Erroll Flynn films for Warner Brothers, the emphasis in Son of Fury was on fist fighting, beginning with Roddy McDowell brawling in the dirt with a stable boy. The opening scene for George Sanders has him bare knuckle boxing, and twice he and Tyrone Power tangle, including the climactic battle in the mansion. One of the more bizarre bits of casting was Gene Tierney as the exotic island girl. Arguably her best scene in the film is a nighttime dancing scene that was choreographed very well. But for the most part her role is difficult to endure.

The story begins as a Dickensian British family drama, the young Benjamin being discovered to be the illegitimate child of Sir Godfrey Blake, cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle, played by George Sanders. After falling in love with Sanders’ daughter, Frances Farmer, he vows to go to sea to find his fortune and return for her. But once in the South Pacific to hunt pearls he falls for the native girl, Gene Tierney, as he and his partner, John Carradine, await the arrival of a ship to take them home so that Power can reclaim his estate. On returning to England, Power enlists the help of an influential lawyer to buy out his home from under his Uncle.

It’s not a particularly riveting story, and much of it is derivative of any number of similar British dramas, as well as a bit of Mutiny on the Bounty thrown in. In addition, composer Alfred Newman seems to have copied Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Captain Blood, especially in its central theme. Still . . . there’s something interesting in the way the story plays out and though the ending is also fairly predictable, it’s no less satisfying for it. Son of Fury has a great cast that also includes Elsa Lanchester, Mae Marsh, and Halliwell Hobbes, and is certainly worth a viewing even it it’s not worth owning.