Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz                               Writer: Julius & Philip Epstein
Film Score: Max Steiner                              Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains

For me, Casablanca is the greatest film of all time. I like Citizen Kane a lot, but it wouldn’t even make my top ten list. It’s just too self-consciously created, where Casablanca is one of those happy accidents that occasionally materialized in Hollywood and made film history. The picture has it all, romance, mystery, patriotism. It boasts one of the most effective casts ever put together, has a world-class director, some of the most memorable music and a brilliant score, but the most important thing about it--and something that doesn’t get nearly enough credit--is that it has one of the most well-rounded scripts of all time. Put all of those elements together and it’s an unbeatable combination, making it easily my number one pick of cinema greats.

The film began its life as an unproduced left-wing political play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s. Twin screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were given the play to convert and packed it front to back with wit and humor, so much so that it was eventually given to Howard Koch to tone down the humor and beef up the political idealism. Finally Casey Robinson, who asked for no screen credit, added the much-needed romance. For once the committee approach to writing in the studio era produced a masterpiece. The story begins during World War II in Humphrey Bogart’s nightclub in Casablanca. When Ingrid Bergman walks in one night there is immediate tension between the two which, after a memorable flashback, is revealed to be a love affair the two had in Paris. But now Bogart discovers she is married to resistance leader Paul Henreid who has managed to escape thus far before being stopped by Nazi Conrad Veidt. The ringleader of the whole show is the wonderful Claude Rains as the head of the French police.

Though Bogart would make a name along with his future wife Lauren Bacall as a steamy onscreen couple, there is a purity and innocence about his relationship with Bergman that is not only refreshing but seems essential for the roles they play in the film. The rest of the cast is as star-studded an affair as one could wish for. In addition to Rains, Veidt and Henreid, the great Peter Lorre plays a friend of Bogart’s who has killed two Germans for their traveling papers. Sydney Greenstreet is the rival owner of a nightclub and head of the black market. The fantastic Dooley Wilson plays Bogart’s best friend and the singer in his club. “As Time Goes By” is his signature song, and one that would figure prominently in Max Steiner’s incredibly evocative score. The direction by Warner’s star director Michael Curtiz assured the film of a beautiful look and great pacing. Ultimately there’s no way to do the film justice in just a few paragraphs and so I would suggest to everyone picking up Aljean Harmetz’s terrific book on the making of the film.

Unfortunately, in The A List essay on the film by the book’s editor Jay Carr, he feels the need to denigrate the film, saying its popularity is merely based on style over substance and implying something that popular can’t really be good. I suppose he does this lest someone thinks he doesn’t know anything about film as art. But he’s completely missing the point. What is film art? Is it always painfully self-conscious and precious? I sure hope not. The “art” of film, the whole point of the thing, is supposed to be entertainment. Casablanca is not entertaining in spite of a lack of artistry, it is entertaining precisely because it is so artistic. There’s nothing that gets under my skin more than critics who don’t understand that truly great entertainment actually is truly great art. This leads to so many films being touted as “artistic” that are, frankly, pretty boring. It also talks down to an audience that may not be able to articulate and analyze a film, but understands its greatness on a more visceral level. Shame on you, Jay Carr, for trying to make us feel as if we don’t “get it” when clearly you’re the one who doesn’t.

If you love this film as much as I do, don’t let anyone tell you differently. The film won not only the best picture award at the Oscars that year, but best director for Curtiz and, quite appropriately, statuettes for the screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein. In addition, Bogart, Rains and Steiner were all given nominations. Casablanca is a work of artistic genius and a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It is deep, it is profound, it is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century--in any realm. That’s why it’s so popular and that’s why it has stood the test of time. And that’s why I’m not alone in calling it my favorite film of all time.

Dead Men Walk (1943)

Director: Sam Newfield                                Writer: Fred Myton
Film Score: Leo Erdody                               Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh
Starring: George Zucco, Dwight Frye, Mary Carlisle and Nedrick Young

This is an odd little vampire film. Sure, almost everything made by PRC is pretty bad. Cheap sets, inferior actors and stock music make for pretty dismal watching. But Dead Men Walk seems different somehow. It’s kind of like the movie Ed Wood always wanted to make but didn’t have the talent for. It begins with a disembodied head superimposed over a burning book of vampire lore, the head explaining that man cannot possibly know about what he refuses to believe. It’s corny, but in a way Wood would have approved of. Things don’t really get rolling until the funeral, when George Zucco looks into the coffin at his evil twin. That’s right, the dual role is a real showcase for Zucco, though he does make a weird looking vampire.

Dwight Frye is his usual henchman, going by the name of Zolarr in this one. He is responsible for guarding evil Zucco’s grave during the daytime. When the evil Zucco confronts his brother the good Zucco can’t believe what he’s seen, so much so that he ignores the threat against his niece’s life. And even when she begins losing blood through the two small wounds to the throat, nobody even suggests it could be the work of a vampire. It’s a strange script, but almost admirable in a way. Fred Myton, who wrote dozens of low-budget screenplays takes as his premise that vampirism would, literally, not be believed. In that way it is actually far more realistic than most vampire films, it’s just bizarre to watch no one even suggesting the obvious.

In terms of the technical difficulties with the picture there is the lighting during the night scenes. Perhaps it was the print, but in most of them the actors wind up with a dark shadow over their faces that clearly seems like a mistake. And the music is very ill matched with the visuals, as though Leo Erdody’s stock music was simply grafted onto the picture, which in all likelihood was the case. When Dwight Frye is first moving the coffin into the graveyard a highly inappropriately comic music is used. And there are other examples as well. Other than Zucco and Frye, as well as the solid Hal Price, the rest of the cast is hopelessly bad. Mary Carlisle and Nedrick Young are uniformly wooden, and Fern Emmett, who looks a bit like Margaret Hamilton, has terrible delivery of her lines. The one aspect of the film that is particularly well done is the production design, as the sets are fairly realistic. There is also some confident use of special effects that are surprisingly effective.

Though a few of the set ups for Zucco’s vampire attacks are lifted directly from the original Dracula, Zucco himself doesn’t really pull it off. Bald and old, he has little of the evil menace of Lugosi. Still, his dual performance is impressive. Dwight Frye, on the other hand, seems to be going through the motions as yet another hunchbacked helper. The ending of the picture also seems vaguely reminiscent of Son of Dracula. Ultimately this is another case of having to begin any praise with, “given the obvious limitations of the production.” Yes, it’s a bad film, but there is also something intrinsically good about. Unlike a lot of reviews that call it unwatchable, and most poverty row films are, I disagree. It is infinitely watchable, even given its lowly pedigree. Dead Men Walk has a very subtle undercurrent of artistry that gives the viewer a genuine idea what these films were actually trying to achieve, and as long as expectations are set firmly in the lower end of the spectrum it can be a rewarding experience.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Network (1976)

Director: Sidney Lumet                                Writers: Paddy Chayefsky
Film Score: Elliot Lawrence                          Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch and Beatrice Straight

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It’s one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, and it’s appropriate that it should be about the entertainment industry itself. What All About Eve did for Broadway and Sunset Boulevard did for Hollywood, Network does for television. Viewed today, the utterly unethical programming that the fictional UBS network begins to engage in, seems more like basic cable. It’s territory that would be explored seven years later by David Cronenberg in Videodrome, and nine years later in The Mean Season, where the underlying premise is that the show itself has become the news, and the news department is part of the entertainment division. Back in 1976 it was almost unbelievable. Today it’s called The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The late, great Peter Finch plays a news broadcaster who’s had enough. When his ratings go down and he’s been fired, he announces on his news program that he’s going to commit suicide on his final day. Of course the network promptly fires him, but when ratings hound Faye Dunaway suggest to corporate boss Robert Duval that they can get some huge ratings from his continued appearance as an editorial commentator, he jumps at the chance. Telling it like it is, Finch uses curse words and rails at the very system that he’s working within. He derides the audience for watching the very show he’s hosting. Meanwhile, William Holden gets fired, rehired, and fired again. He slips voluntarily into an affair with Dunaway, and when he tells his wife, Beatrice Straight, she delivers her six-minute Oscar winning performance as best supporting actress.

But there was more Oscar gold to be won. Finch, of course, was given the best actor award but tragically died before he could receive his award and most people don’t even recognize him today. Faye Dunaway won for best actress and Paddy Chayefsky won for best screenplay. And there are some brilliant moments in the script. The scene where the left-wing revolutionaries are arguing about their contract for a television show is priceless. Another thing the film has going for it is a wealth of character actors. William Price is the chairman of the board, Wesley Addy is the president of the network, and Ned Beatty the head of the controlling corporation who delivers his famous multi-national corporation speech, as well as Lane Smith and a very young Conchata Ferrell. Seen now, the whole thing seems sort of naive. The most sensational programing today has been marginalized on cable, and the networks are just one among many. Terrorism as entertainment in a post-9/11 society would seem to have little draw, or tolerance, today.

I’m also curious about how effective the film is today. The brilliant Sidney Lumet had a very deliberate style that focused on the actors rather than the plot. As a result he has long takes that allow the actors to emote and get across their feelings and message in as much time as it takes. The second half of the film, then, probably lags for modern audiences used to quick cuts and fast paced climaxes. In this case the climax is almost a foregone conclusion and the metaphor “killed in the ratings” becomes reality. Still, it’s an impressive piece of work. William Holden is magnificent as the old school executive who reaches for something more, but is incredibly realistic when it doesn’t pan out, this in stark contrast to Peter Finch’s character who seems to have had a complete mental breakdown. Network is a great film, if something of a period piece, and still has the power to provoke and entertain even in our era of cynical and jaded entertainment. And that is the definition of classic cinema.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kings Row (1942)

Director: Sam Wood                                     Writer: Casey Robinson
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold             Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Claude Rains

There are so many films that try, with varying degrees of success, to capture the small town, turn of the century magic of being a child. The opening scenes of Kings Row are about the best I’ve ever seen. The dialogue crackles, the sets are realistic, and the child actors are very good. Unlike most films of this sort, where the audience gets impatient for the stars to come onstage, here it’s almost disappointing to leave the idyllic world of childhood for adult responsibilities and intrigue. The film opens with the regal fanfare of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s sparkling score, and while the majestic strains at first seem incongruous with the rural images on the screen, it becomes more and more appropriate as the film goes on, until eventually one can’t imagine anything else that could possibly match the greatness of the film.

The plot is almost Southern Gothic in construction, with Claude Rains as a reclusive doctor in town. His wife stays shut up in the top room of the house and, when his daughter, Betty Field, is old enough he keeps her at home as well. Robert Cummings is the only one who befriended her as a child and now he is studying medicine with Rains but is still prevented from seeing Field. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan is the wild child, though not in a destructive way, he just likes to have more fun than was considered appropriate at the time. He’s also the only real friend that Cummings has. Ultimately the plot with Rains and Field resolves in a strange way, with Cummings going off to Vienna to study the then new field of psychology. Reagan stays at home with Ann Sheridan and tries to plan a future with her, but life cruelly intervenes.

It’s strange from our modern perspective to watch about the birth of psychiatry when today we take it as such a given. The second half of the film is primarily concerned with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan and they’re both great on screen, Reagan in particular. And that’s another thing that’s difficult to imagine, Reagan before he was political, just another young actor at Warner Brothers who does a very credible job here. In many way, Cummings comes off as far more callow and isn’t nearly as polished in his performance as the future president. Perhaps it was the stellar supporting cast that brought out the best in the younger actors. Maria Ouspenskaya plays Cummings’ grandmother and his only living relative. Claude Rains is commanding as always. Charles Coburn and Judith Anderson are the stern, unforgiving parents of Nancy Coleman, and Harry Davenport plays the old lawyer Colonel Skeffington.

This is a very good, very entertaining picture that should be far more popular today than it is. Unlike a lot of these generational pictures this one is quite interesting, has solid performances and a plot that moves along without flagging. It was a tough year at the Oscars, however, with nine other pictures nominated, and so many great films that weren’t nominated that Kings Row only managed three. An embarrassment of riches, perhaps, but too many beautiful films like this fall through the cracks as a result and don’t get the recognition they deserve. From James Wong Howe’s gorgeous photography to Korngold’s brilliant score, and a bunch of young actors who were performing above themselves, this is one of the all time great movies from the golden era and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Swimming Upstream (2003)

Director: Russell Mulcahy                             Writer: Anthony Fingleton
Film Score: Reinhold Heil                              Cinematography: Martin McGrath
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer and Tim Draxl

Swimming Upstream is an amazingly wonderful film from Australia. It’s the autobiographical story of swimmer Tony Fingleton, a nationally ranked swimmer who was heading for the 1964 Olympics but accepted a scholarship to Harvard instead in order to escape the grip of a domineering father and the poverty he had grown up in. It’s a story that we’ve all seen before, the drunken father who abuses his wife and children, at the same time pushing his kids to be what he had never achieved, and stingy with praise when they do succeed. In this case Fingleton had the misfortune of being his father’s least favorite child and pushed all of his other children to compete with and be better than Tony.

The film begins in the mid-fifties with Geoffrey Rush as Harold Fingleton, a father of five, four boys and a girl. He works as a longshoreman on the docks in Brisbane when work is available. When it’s not he drinks. Judy Davis plays his longsuffering wife, Dora. Fingleton is also obsessed with sports, so much so that he forces his children into playing football, boxing, anything to test their toughness. His favorite is initially Harold Jr., primarily because as the oldest he can dominate the rest of the children, especially the second oldest, Tony, who prefers playing piano and reading Shakespeare. To escape the summer heat, and their father’s obsession, they take to the neighborhood pool and spend the day swimming. One day when Fingleton happens to go to the pool he sees Tony actually pulling ahead of his younger brother John’s freestyle while doing the backstroke. He immediately takes off his watch and begins timing the two, convinced that they have the makings of champion swimmers.

What had become a summer respite is now an intensive training ground with Fingleton pushing his kids daily while he is out of work. The sessions are only interrupted when he goes on his binge drinking and creates havoc in the household, physically abusing both his wife and children. The eldest, Harold Jr., with a lack of sports skills decides to follow in his father’s footsteps by drinking. Tony, played by Jesse Spencer, is clearly the better swimmer, but Fingleton doesn’t like him. When John doesn’t make the cut in one of the freestyle competitions, he secretly begins training him in the backstroke and the next year he actually comes in first ahead of Tony. But Tony is far more disciplined because of Fingleton’s dislike of him, and trains all the harder, eventually winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1962. But the closer he gets to Olympic success the more his father seems to hate him. Fingleton’s destructive behavior finally gets him tossed out of the house by Dora.

As stated earlier it’s not an original story, unfortunately, but he real power in the film comes from the performances. Geoffrey Rush as Fingleton is, of course, brilliant, an enigmatic man who can’t bear his own failures. Judy Davis, whom we all know is an incredible actress, gives one of the performances of her life as the abused Dora who keeps the family together despite overwhelming poverty and degradation. Jesse Spencer is most famous to American audiences from his years on House, M.D., but he had been a regular on the popular Australian TV series Neighbours. He really makes Tony Fingleton come alive with his refusal to give up, and his successful attempt to maintain a cheerful demeanor in spite of the chaos around him. The sports aspect of the film is not quite as inspiring as the eventual achievement of Tony’s academic dreams. Great performances all the way around make Swimming Upstream a fascinating, if not original, film that’s well worth checking out.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Fly (1958)

Director: Kurt Neumann                                Writer: James Clavell
Film Score: Paul Sawtell                              Cinematography: Karl Struss
Starring: David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall

The Fly is one of the all time classics of science-fiction, and even though it was effectively remade in the eighties with Jeff Goldblum it retains all of the power to thrill audiences as it did in the fifties. Whether it actually does today is another matter, as it’s a very talkative film. Based on the short story by Geroge Langelaan, it is very much an epistolary film, told in flashback by Patricia Owens after being arrested for killing her husband. Add to that the bravura performance of David Hedison, superb supporting roles by Vincent Price and the venerable Herbert Marshall, a convincing performance by child actor Charles Herbert, the big, Technicolor widescreen visuals, and it’s no wonder it has retained it’s popularity through the decades.

When Owens is ready to give her confession she begins with Hedison’s invention a matter disintegrator-integrator machine than can transport matter. But when he demonstrates transporting a dish it integrates backward. After working out the kinks he sends himself with perfect results as well. But then he gets lazy and doesn’t realize when a fly gets into the machine with him. The results, while physically impossible, are cinematically brilliant. His human sized head and arm are turned into a fly head and arm. Meanwhile, the counterpart fly with the small human head and arm flies away. Much of the second half of the film is the desperate attempt by Owens and young Charles Herbert to catch the fly so that he can transport himself with it again and reverse the process. Soon the hopelessness of the quest becomes obvious, however, and he asks his wife to help him kill himself.

Though Vincent Price is in the film, it’s not really his movie. Hedison is the mad scientist, obsessed with his new invention and of course the victim of its failure. The lab is just updated Frankenstein gear, with computers and circuit boards and neon lights. The impossibilities are charming rather than ruinous. The cat that disappears in a lab accident and meows in the void is ridiculous, and the large fly head and arm is ludicrous but the reveal is great . . . it all works so brilliantly. It’s a beautiful looking fifties film and the incongruity of the setting with the subject matter is also part of what makes it so wonderful. It’s great seeing Marshall at the end of his career, and in a small part is veteran character actress Kathleen Freeman. Future novelist James Clavell wrote the screenplay, his first in Hollywood before going on to pen The Great Escape and To Sir, With Love. Director Kurt Neumann had made B pictures in Hollywood for years, but died shortly after the film premiered and never knew how successful it was.

The essay in The B List by Chris Fujiwara identifies the juxtaposition of the banal fifties setting with the monstrous subject matter as the real impetus for the film’s success, a destruction of the fifties perfection. Kind of like a fly in the punchbowl. There is also a subversive element that associates Hedison’s machine with television, subliminally telling the audience that TV is evil and destroying the perfection of cinema. Another association Fujiwara makes is to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” But that has never worked for me as an allegory because of the high regard society has for scientists, especially in the fifties. Also, the idea that the film is some sort of comment on the destruction of humanity rings false for me as well. The real dehumanization in the fifties isn’t the atomic monster, it’s the banality of the everyday world, the neatly apportioned house, the wife in pearls, the Technicolor perfection of life. That, was the real horror. The Fly just makes it visible.

The Matrix (1999)

Director: Andy & Lana Wachowski                 Writer: Andy & Lana Wachowski
Film Score: Don Davis                                  Cinematography: Bill Pope
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss & Hugo Weaving

The Matrix is one of those films that seem to come along once in a generation. It taps into the cultural psyche, surpassing mere popularity, and becoming a phenomenon that demands to be continued beyond the creators’ wildest expectations. It’s an allegory that works on a couple of levels, the more pedestrian being Christianity with Neo as the Christ figure. The more interesting is the allegory of Plato’s cave. The premise is genius: the world is controlled by machines that use humans for energy. The control mechanism is a computer program called The Matrix that simulates the “real world” humans generally assume to be the reality of their daily existence. But like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall, they are just an illusion. The reality is too much for their minds to comprehend so, even when they see the truth, they retreat back to the comfort of their illusions.

Keanu Reeves is the computer hacker searching for the truth. He finds it in the form of a man named Morpheus, Laurence Fishburne, who sets him free from his life as an energy source and brings him into the charred, post-apocalyptic reality of planet earth. Unfortunately the machines don’t like humans being free and put controls in the computer matrix called agents, who kill rogue humans on sight. But there are ways to subvert the matrix and, just like changing a computer program, change the rules of the matrix. Defying gravity, dodging bullets, even flying is possible as long as people have the will and the belief. Unlike the dream world from Inception, however, when someone dies in the matrix they also die in real life. What the crew of Fishburne’s ship don’t know is that there’s a traitor in their midst who has given the agents the location of Fishburne and the crew. Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss are the only two who escape, and the challenge is going to be getting Fishburne back out of the matrix before he’s killed.

Obviously Keanu Reeves is not the greatest actor in the world, but he was born for this part. His character drags his feet until it’s almost too late, and Reeves makes his own self-doubt really work, even with everyone around him believing that he’s “the one,” the one who will save the human race. Fishburne is so forceful, so dominating on the screen that he carries the film on his shoulders. Carrie-Ann Moss’s performance is just as iconic as Reeves. She’s worked steadily in obscure productions but she will forever be Trinity. The ubiquitous Joe Pantoliano is onboard as Cypher, the name signifying his ambivalence about what they are doing. The wonderful Gloria Foster is riveting as the Oracle, who gives information to the humans seeking answers about what’s in their future. And, of course, Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving is the perfect villain.

The Wachowski’s invented a radical science-fiction landscape that became so popular probably because it could be our very own. And when the inevitable sequels came along it was as though they had them in mind all along. Everything in the first film, even throwaway lines like underground city called Zion come to fruition in a seamless way. There is so much to like about the film, but especially the allegory of human belief in oneself and human potential that is demonstrated by Reeves. Romance, violence, action, adventure, suspense, spaceships and monsters, The Matrix can be anything to anyone and that’s just one of the reasons it remains a powerful film and has become a hugely successful franchise.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Safety Last (1923)

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer                          Writer: Hal Roach & Sam Taylor
Film Score: Carl Davis (1990)                        Cinematography: Walter Lundin
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother and Noah Young

Often called the third great silent comedian, after Keaton and Chaplin, Harold Lloyd had a distinctive style that relied on personality more than character. While Keaton had his great stone face, and Chaplin the tramp, Lloyd relied on a sort of everyman persona to appeal to audiences, happy to see the regular guy come out on top for a change. In Safety Last Lloyd plays, as he often does, a young boy from the Midwest going to the city to make it big. In this case he has a girl waiting for him back home. He’ll marry her once he makes a success of himself at the department store where he has been able to get a job. As a clerk he makes very little money, but buys jewelry to send home to his girl, bragging about his big business deals.

The gags are very good, for the most part realistic and without the special effects that can make some silent comedies cartoonish. When he and his roommate, Bill Strother, hide in their coats and hang themselves on the coatrack to avoid detection by the landlady it’s priceless. Another nice extended gag comes when Lloyd has to get to work on time and goes from streetcars to automobiles and finally fakes his way into an ambulance to get there. But things ratchet up when his girl, Mildred Davis, concerned that a man with all that money will be led astray, goes to the city herself to be with him. Lloyd makes good use of the department store setting to deliver some fine comedic moments, especially when Davis shows up and believes he’s the store manager. Lloyd’s foil in those scenes is Westcott Clarke, who does a nice job as the stuffy floorwalker who is always getting Lloyd into trouble.

Of course the big set piece is the climb to the top of the building, a publicity stunt that will earn him a thousand dollars. Lloyd starts the climb, expecting Strother to be on the second floor so that they can exchange clothes and Strother can go the rest of the way to the top. Once Lloyd reaches the clock, the gags are breathtaking. There’s nothing like it in all of silent comedy. Harold Lloyd is not my favorite of the silent comedians, but I can see the attraction. He’s very genuine onscreen, unlike a lot of comedians, and the way he strings his gags together is very logical and makes sense in the overall construction of the plot. He has a good crew of supporting characters who don’t outshine him but still hold up their end of the story. Safety Last is one of Lloyd’s best films and, with good reason, one of the all time great classic silent comedies.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Scandal (1950)

Director: Akira Kurosawa                             Writers: Ryûzô Kikushima & Akira Kurosawa
Film Score: Fumio Hayasaka                       Cinematography: Toshio Ubukata
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Shirley Yamaguchi, Yôko Katsuragi and Takashi Shimura

Early in his life Akira Kurosawa trained as a painter, so it’s natural that his protagonist in this story would be one too. In Scandal Toshirô Mifune, in one of his early roles, plays a painter who drives around on a motorcycle. While up in the mountains working he meets famous singer Shirley Yamaguchi and the two strike up a casual friendship. But the next morning when the two are out on her balcony photographers from a tabloid take their picture and create a fictional romance out of it. The made-up story is a sensationalized and the magazine is sells tens of thousands of copies. Imagine Mifune’s surprise when he gets back into town and sees his picture plastered on every billboard. He goes to the magazine and takes a swing at the editor, then decides to take him to court.

Thus begins a war of words in the press, with each side calling the other a liar. But if both Mifune and Yamaguchi sue, it would be pretty clear who is telling the truth. Unfortunately Yamaguchi’s mother is old fashioned and refuses to let her daughter participate in the court case and so Mifune must go it alone. When attorney Takashi Shimura shows up at his door he offers to take on the case for free. Mifune then goes to Shimura’s house to see what he’s like and finds his daughter there, Yôko Katsuragi, in bed with tuberculosis. He is charmed by her and gives the case to Shimura, but fails to understand that Shimura has problems of his own, gambling among them, and that he winds up falling under the control of the publisher rather than working for his client.

Like all of Kurosawa’s films this is a character study. Shimura believes himself to be a bad person with no moral center, and so has little motivation to change. Even his beautiful daughter can’t help him. Mifune simply winds up being the catalyst for the other characters. Yamaguchi must find her own way, despite what her parents think. And the publisher of the tabloid needs Mifune in an ironic way, to show him that he can’t simply get away with anything he wants to. I haven’t watched a lot of Japanese films and I always assumed that Toshirô Mifune’s head scratching was part of his samurai character, but apparently it’s simply part of his acting style because he does it here too. The guy is just a delight to watch. In the midst of simpering toadies or cowardly cheats, he is a pillar of strength. It’s easy to see why he was so popular. But a large part of that also has to do with Kurosawa’s screenplays.

This might not be one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, but all of his films are uniformly excellent. The set-ups, the shot selection, the composition, the editing, even the use of music demonstrates a cinematically skillful hand. In one scene Mifune brings a Christmas tree to Katsuragi on the back of his motorcycle, driving through town with “Jingle Bells” blaring in the background. His veritable stock company of actors are tremendously talented and it’s no wonder that his influence--not only in Japan--was so profound. Scandal is ultimately a tale of redemption, bittersweet, but redemption nonetheless. It’s a quiet film in many ways, and yet another example of Kurosawa’s genius as a filmmaker.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Director: Jonathan Lynn                              Writer: Dale Launer
Film Score: Randy Edelman                        Cinematography: Peter Deming
Starring: Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio and Fred Gwynne

I am definitely not a fan of Joe Pesci, and I don’t really care for Ralph Macchio either. My Cousin Vinny, however, is one of those rare instances when the greatness of the film as a whole outweighs any nitpicking about the stars. But I think there’s more at work here, too. As with other comic actors who have a tendency to go overboard it takes a strong director to reign them in and Jonathan Lynn was able to keep Pesci on a short leash, still allowing his powerful sarcasm to shine through but within an overall dramatic performance than never devolves into spoof or lampoon. Add to that the considerable talents of Marisa Tomei--she won an Academy Award for her performance--and solid character acting, and it makes this is one of the great comic films of the nineties or of any decade.

The story begins with Ralph Macchio taking a road trip through the South with his friend, Mitchell Whitfield. Stopping at a convenience store, they stock up on food and go on their way. Stopped a few miles later by the sheriff, they are promptly arrested for murder of the store clerk and put in jail. Macchio remembers his cousin, Joe Pesci, is a lawyer and sends for him. When he and his girlfriend, Marisa Tomei, roll into town it’s clear they’re fish out of water, New Yorkers in the Alabama. But things get worse when the defendants learn that it’s Pesci’s first case. He makes mistakes, gets arrested for contempt of court, but once he finally gets his stride he really does surprisingly well.

There is so much to like about this film. The comedic aspects that arise from the culture clash between the New Yorkers and the Southerners from Alabama are great, especially in the courtroom. Fred Gwynn plays the judge and does a terrific job of taking Pesci to task for his inexperience. Their antagonistic relationship is hilarious to watch. At the same time Tomei wants to help with the case but Pesci won’t let her, even though whenever she does it’s a major help. There’s also a lot of comedy that comes out of the running gag when noise at each place the couple stays the night wakes them up early in the morning. The relationship between Pesci and Tomei is the core of the film, though, because no matter how much they argue there is never any meanness to it and it always resolves into something tender and genuine.

There is a substantive supporting cast and they do a nice job. The defense attorney is played by Lane Smith, and his expert witness is James Rebhorn. The sheriff is the great Bruce McGill and the public defender is Austin Pendleton. Other small parts include Maury Chaykin as a witness, Chris Ellis as a redneck, and Bob Penny as a juror. There are times, of course, when the characterizations are a little forced, but that is part of the overall charm of the film. It exists in a world of its own, a fantasy of the South that begins as a stereotype but evolves into something much more forgiving. The humor is broad at times, but the writing is very good also. My Cousin Vinny has certainly attained the status of classic, which can be measured by its frequent broadcasts on cable TV. The real reason it’s a classic, however, is the genuine quality of the performances and wealth of humor inherent in the script. It’s definitely one of my favorite comedies, and I’m not alone.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman                               Writers: Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Film Score: Jack Nitzsche                          Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif and Will Sampson

Artistically, this is what I would call the greatest film of the seventies, right up there with The Godfather, Chinatown and Taxi Driver. Even among those great films, however, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the only one to run the table of the top five awards at the Oscars, for best actor, actress, screenplay, director and picture. It deserved every one of them. It’s near to being a perfect motion picture. It’s appropriate that the psychological game of cat and mouse between Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher takes place in a mental hospital. The story, the cast, the direction, they’re all brilliant and it all makes for one of the great cinematic experiences of all time.

Nicholson plays a prison work farm inmate in Oregon looking to spend his last few months taking it easy in the mental hospital. He convinced enough people in the prison that he was crazy, but the doctor at the hospital isn’t so sure. He meets the other men on the ward, a bizarre looking gang of unknowns at the time who are now all famous. Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, Michael Berryman and Vincent Schiavelli are all familiar faces to film buffs. Nicholson decides to go after Fletcher and see if he can work his same magic by disruption and instigation, but he’s met his match. She knows exactly what he’s doing and uses that information into trapping him in the hospital so that he can’t ever leave. Both of them are master characterizations by master actors.

The story is based on the powerful novel by Ken Keasey, which in turn was based on his own experience working as an orderly in a mental hospital. The novel, while telling the same story, is quite different because it is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden, Will Sampson in the film. But the heart of the film is the gradual development of relationships between Nicholson and the rest of the characters. His antagonistic relationship with Fletcher is obvious. His primary achievement, however, is the relationship he develops with the other patients, whom he is always admonishing to not think of themselves as crazy. The most moving of these is with Brad Dourif in his first film. The manipulation of Dourif by Fletcher is central to the climax in the film, and the most heart-wrenching part of the entire story. The conclusion with Nicholson is almost anti-climactic in comparison.

In addition to the patients, there are some other great supporting actors. Nathan George is one of my favorite actors and has had a criminally short career that includes a memorable performance in Brubaker. Scatman Crothers also does a great job as the night watchman. Milos Forman is one of the all time great directors, winning another Oscar for Amadeus as well as helming the fascinating Ragtime. His use of muted tones in the film stock along with lengthy close-ups and an obsessive attention to detail in the production design make all of his films beautiful to look at. One of the interesting facts about the production is that Michael Douglas was the money-man on the project, his first film as a producer and his first Academy Award when it won best picture. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is simply a classic of American cinema, easily the greatest film of the decade, and one of the best films of all time.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Don Juan (1926)

Director: Alan Crosland                               Writer: Bess Meredyth
Film Score: William Axt                              Cinematography: Byron Haskin
Starring: John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Warner Oland and Myrna Loy

Before The Jazz Singer changed everything, film companies were already experimenting with synchronized sound. Though it is a “silent” picture, Don Juan is traditionally considered the first film with a pre-recorded, synchronized soundtrack of music and sound effects. Along with John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, the great John Barrymore is one of the triumvirate of successful leading men in the silent era. The tale of the great womanizer begins with Don Juan as a child. Barrymore plays his father as well in these scenes. Don Jose is leaving to take taxes to the king, and says goodbye to his wife. But as soon as he is gone her lover sneaks into the castle. A small, troll-like servant, however, alerts Jose before he has gone too far and he returns. With the lover hiding behind a partially finished wall, Jose calls in his men and they wall him in alive, similar to an old D.W. Griffith short called The Sealed Room from 1909.

After his father banishes his mother, the young Juan learns to use and abuse women from his father. The bulk of the story takes place in Rome when the Borgias were in power. Unlike the serious dramatic tone of the prologue, the first scenes with Barrymore juggling three women are rather humorous. Williard Louis does a nice job as Barrymore’s secretary, though he is a bit effeminate. Estelle Taylor, as Lucrezia, has heard the rumors that Barrymore gives his love to no woman and she takes it as a challenge to see if she can be the one he never leaves. Meanwhile the clan decide to poison a count, Josef Swickard, so that one of the Borgias can marry his daughter, Mary Astor, and take over her father’s estates. But when Barrymore sees her he falls in love and pursues her, with predicable results when Taylor and the rest of the Borgias find out.

The great Warner Oland plays the head of the Borgia family, and the fabulous Myrna Loy plays Taylor’s lady in waiting. Barrymore isn’t quite as animated as Gilbert or Fairbanks, but that’s probably for the better, especially since the first two have a tendency to overplay in comedic situations. He does love his profile, though. At the end, he uses the skills he demonstrated on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to transform his face as he impersonates the evil alchemist Neri, who makes all of the famous Borgia poison. Certainly not a classic, and definitely an average story, the direction is good and the use of the camera by Alan Crosland is very inventive and holds interest. Crosland went on to film The Jazz Singer the next year, as well as another adventure film with Barrymore, The Beloved Rogue.

Though the Vitaphone film score is, in fact, synchronized it is not especially interesting musically. And the sound effects are used sparingly, which is a little disappointing. The only real sound effects used at all are a couple of places where someone knocks on a door, and a few clanks of the swords during a fight. In the end the real reason for watching the film is all of the great stars, especially since most of them would go on to have reasonably successful careers in the sound era. The film has just the right amount of humor and intrigue and romance that it keeps the proceedings moving apace. In spite of its flaws, Don Juan is actually a quite enjoyable silent film.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Director: Oliver Stone                                  Writers: Allan Loeb & Stephen Schiff
Film Score: Craig Armstrong                        Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Starring: Michael Douglas, Carey Mulligan, Shia LeBeouf and Frank Langella

It was a great idea to bring back Gordon Gekko. Unfortunately, the screenplay didn’t quite pull off what fans had hoped for and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps winds up being a pale imitation of a sequel. It’s a little painful watching Michael Douglas as an old man. His character, even when he gets his power back at the end of the film, still looks fragile. The idea of the film seems interesting at first, but quickly devolves in the same type of story as the original Wall Street, with the eager apprentice being schooled by the master, “Gekko the Great.” In some ways it seems that Oliver Stone waited just a bit too long to come back to the character and the whole film seems like it suffers from a massive case of jet lag.

The film begins in 2001 with Douglas being released from prison. Oddly, he walks out expecting someone to be waiting for him. Uh . . . who would that be? This is just one of the many miscues in the film. Fast forward to 2008, just before the crash. Douglas has written a new book and is out on tour. In the audience is Shia LeBeouf, who just happens to be dating Douglas’s daughter—his son Rudy, from the original film, has apparently died of a drug overdose. LeBeouf is also a stockbroker, his company helping to finance a new green energy project in California. His mentor is Frank Langella, whose bank is the first one to go under, just as fellow banker Josh Brolin engineered it. LeBeouf pulls the same scam on Brolin that Charlie Sheen pulled on Douglas in the first film as a payback. But Brolin, impressed, offers to hire LeBeouf and he accepts.

And that’s just the beginning. It’s a complex story that doesn’t really seem to gel into a plot. Douglas has left his daughter, Carey Mulligan, with a trust fund worth a hundred million. In the guise of attempting to repair his relationship with his daughter he manipulates LeBeouf in the same way he manipulated Sheen in order to get his hands on the money. Speaking of which, one of the most enjoyable parts of the story is when Douglass is at a party and Charlie Sheen shows up with a woman on each arm--more like the actor himself than Bud Fox, but still a satisfying cameo. Douglas winds up driving a wedge between LeBeouf and Mulligan but, in another of those miscues, LeBeouf shows up in England to offer Douglas a “deal” to make everything right, but it isn’t really a deal at all.

Frank Langella, though he’s not in the second half of the film, gives a powerful performance that makes one wish he had been a bigger star. He dominates the screen whether he’s alone or at a table with a roomful of men. Douglas, again, looks frail and in many ways he’s difficult to watch. Brolin gives a nice performance, but I think is more effective in rural roles like No Country for Old Men. The rest of the cast, however, is pretty forgettable. There are some interesting plot twists and so it’s not completely devoid of entertainment, but not enough to recommend it. Ultimately Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps winds up being nothing more than a convoluted version of the original.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder                                   Writer: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                           Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Jean Heather

Double Indemnity is not only the best film noir ever produced, it is one of the greatest films of all time. It has so much going for it that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The original novel by James M. Cain is not so much copied as it is used as a springboard for Wilder and Raymond Chandler who took the framework and built a much more cinematic version out of it. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, though not the first choices by Wilder, turned out to be a perfect combination of smart guy sap in the case of MacMurray and femme fatale in the case of Stanwyck. Add to that Edward G. Robinson in his first supporting role, and the music of the brilliant Miklós Rózsa, and the result is pure cinematic magic, frequently copied but never equaled.

The story is a simple one, insurance man Fred MacMurray comes calling on a client to renew an auto policy but the wife, Barbara Stanwyck, is there instead. When she decides to have an affair with MacMurray the subject of life insurance comes up, with her giving him the idea that if they bumped off the husband not only would he get Stanwyck but a bundle of cash too. MacMurray comes up with a plan and the two carry it out but, as with all crimes, there are mistakes made and clues left that insurance investigator Edward G. Robinson discovers and holds on to. In the middle of all that is Stanwyck’s bratty step-daughter and her lover, a kid that Stanwyck seems interested in seducing as well, and the pressure begins to mount on MacMurray to an extent that seems impossible for anyone to handle.

MacMurray’s character is the lynchpin that holds the film together, and his considerable skills as an actor were exercised on only a few other occasions, most notably in The Caine Mutiny, as they were in this film. When he first hears Stanwyck talk about life insurance and not wanting her husband to know about it, his brow darkens and he knows exactly what she’s doing. When he’s caught in the room with Robinson interviewing the only witness to the crime his fear is palpable, and when he finally realizes he’s been double-crossed by Stanwyck his humiliation is painful to watch. Stanwyck, virtually reprising the role she created in Baby Face, is about as perfect a femme fatale as they come, with her platinum blonde hair and tough exterior she’s more frightening than beautiful. Robinson and his investigation is the real impetus for driving the plot forward and he is great as always.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s essay in The A List is a little light for a film as important as this, but he does highlight some important aspects. The first is the voice-over narration by MacMurray, which emulates the hard-boiled fiction that inspired it by revealing the character’s thoughts and feelings. He also looks at the principal characters as a sort of love triangle, with Stanwyck as the bad girl and Robinson as the virginal good girl. Seitz is very insightful when he discusses these characters as types, and the almost knowing acknowledgement of that by the actors, especially in delivering the incredible dialogue provided them, which elevates the film to another level. Finally, his remark that the sex in the film is almost beside the point rings true as well. Rather than having the girl and also getting the money, MacMurray’s primary motivation seems to be outsmarting Robinson with getting Stanwyck merely as a bonus. It’s a film that crackles with excitement and suspense just as much today as it did when it was released, and it’s one of the many reasons that Double Indemnity has remained an enduring classic.

Thru Different Eyes (1929)

Director: John G. Blystone                           Writers: Tom Barry & Edna Sherry
Music: William Kernell                                 Cinematography: Al Brick & Ernest Palmer
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Mary Duncan and Sylvia Sidney

Before there was Vantage Point, before there was Rashomon, there was Thru Different Eyes, a silent film by Fox that deals with the idea of different perspectives on a single incident. I’d like to think that Milton Herbert Gropper’s play had something to do with exposing the wrongs done in the Sacco and Vansetti trial, but I can’t find any research to back that up. The film begins in the newsroom of the court, a big murder trial taking place. To set the tone for the film one female reporter is seen on the phone with her paper, telling how brave and steadfast the wife of the murderer is. At the opposite table a man is telling his paper that the wife is cold and indifferent to her husband’s fate. The difference of perspective is what the film is all about.

Edmund Lowe is on trial for murdering Warner Baxter. The defense attorney tells the story of a couple very much in love, Lowe and Mary Duncan. When Baxter falls in love with Duncan and can’t bear to be without her, he comes over to her house, takes a gun out of her hand, shoots Duncan and then kills himself. Earlier in the story Lowe had told Duncan that the first shell in his gun was a blank, and so Duncan is safe but Baxter is dead. The prosecution, however, tells a very different story, of a couple who are libertines, drinking and smoking and implications of wife-swapping. In this version Duncan is going to run away with Baxter to Italy, and Lowe kills him in a jealous rage. Once the verdict comes in Sylvia Sidney, who has been sitting in the gallery the whole time, can’t take it and tells the real version to the courtroom.

Though she only has a small part, Silvia Sydney is wonderful to watch. This was her first film before going on to a long and successful acting career, mostly in television, though she did some nice films in the thirties like Sabotage for Alfred Hitchcock and Fury with Spencer Tracy. Warner Baxter gets a lot of screen time for a dead man, with very different portrayals in each of the three versions. He was, of course, the star of the Oscar nominated 42nd Street, and won his own statuette for best actor in 1930 for In Old Arizona. Mary Duncan also does a nice job, with different characterizations in all three versions, though her vamp bit in the second one went a little overboard. Edmund Lowe, the murder suspect, has a smaller amount of screen time.

It’s difficult to assess the artistic merits of this film because the only version that exists is not the one intended for most audiences. This is an early sound film that, unfortunately, has been lost. In those transitional days, however, most films were also printed as silents with intertitles so that theaters without the proper equipment could still run them. This is the only print that still remains and much has been lost in the translation. The minimal titles do the job of conveying the basic plot, but it’s also clear there is a lot that is being missed without the dialogue, and that music and sound effects were meant to be an integral part of the production. In addition, most silent films from this era used the new technology to put music soundtracks on the film but because this wasn’t technically a silent picture there is also no music, and so it really is silent.

This would have been a fun piece for actors to do on stage, playing the same scene three different ways. And while the ending strains credulity, it is still an enjoyable exercise. The film is probably best appreciated as a subject of study, for while it is technically a lost film we still have the silent version to give us at least some idea of what the completed project would have been like. A New York Times review from 1929, however, lets us know how very much of Thru Different Eyes we’re still missing.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Director: Terence Fisher                              Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Film Score: James Bernard                         Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Urquhart and Hazel Court

This was the opening salvo in what would become Hammer’s domination of screen horrors throughout the sixties. The Curse of Frankenstein and its attendant sequels made such an impact on audiences because they shifted the emphasis from the monsters to the man who created them: Dr. Frankenstein himself. Add to that the change of character from a man who was morally tortured by his own creations to one who was ruthless and assured of the rightness of his experiments, and the series became box-office gold. Equally important, however, is the man who played the character, Peter Cushing, whose incredibly riveting performances enlivened even the poorest of productions and the weakest of scripts. His presence alone made Hammer’s Frankenstein series the most artistically satisfying in the entire Hammer oeuvre.

Mary Shelley’s familiar story is told in flashback from Cushing as he sits in jail. Sangster begins by killing off all of the Frankenstein family, thereby relieving him of any threats against them by the monster, and allowing his free movement without familial ties. His arrogance is immediate from the start as he hires a tutor, Robert Urquhart, to educate him. In a few years the student surpasses the teacher, but keeps him on as they both work toward the reanimation of dead tissue. When the experiments turn toward human subjects, however, Urquhart balks. At the same time Cushing’s cousin, Hazel Court, comes to be his wife after the death of her mother. Cushing, however, is already having an affair with Valerie Gaunt. Meanwhile, he keeps assembling the perfect body in his laboratory, with the usual results.

The first thing one notes is the powerful, gothic score by the great James Bernard, percussive and dominating throughout the proceedings. That, along with the saturated Eastmancolor, are the distinctive traits that set Hammer apart from its mostly black and white competition in the United States. But Peter Cushing is the real draw. His anti-hero doesn’t have a second of remorse, or the slightest doubt in himself. He is the real monster and he’s a pleasure to watch. The blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein is revived in the form of an old blind man walking through the woods, and combined with the child scene from Universal’s original Frankenstein. Ultimately Cushing, like all of his predecessors, fails to control the monster, played by Christopher Lee, and he is captured by the villagers and sentenced to death.

Hammer’s genius did to Mary Shelley’s story what the jolts of electricity did to the monster, and brought Baron Victor Frankenstein to life. The emphasis on Frankenstein turns it into a riveting story and that makes for an incredible film. The pacing, like all of Hammer’s productions, is swift but without the over-the-top frenetic energy of something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which feels like it’s on speed. The sequel, Revenge of Frankenstein, picks up right where this one leaves off, with Frankenstein heading to the scaffold to be guillotined for his crimes. Hammer didn’t look back after this success, quickly putting Horror of Dracula into production as well as numerous other horror and thriller films. Of all their series, however, this one is easily the best, and The Curse of Frankenstein was the film that began it all.

Above Suspicion (1943)

Director: Richard Thorpe                            Writers: Keith Winter & Patricia Coleman
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                       Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Starring: Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray, Conrad Veidt and Basil Rathbone

Above Suspicion is another wartime effort from MGM about the beginnings of World War II. Though they wouldn’t have seemed like the studio to do it, they were the most critical about Hitler and came into some criticism from the government for being out ahead of policy with films like The Mortal Storm before the U.S. had entered the war. What makes this one so interesting is the tremendous cast, as well as a unique teaming of Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray. Set in 1939, MacMurray plays a recently married Oxford graduate student on his honeymoon. But before he and his wife, Crawford, can get to the continent, the foreign office asks them to act as spies and bring back information from a scientist about the new German magnetic mines, hoping that their honeymoon will be enough of a cover to allow them to avoid detection.

While MacMurray and his friend, Richard Ainley, attempt to downplay the danger, Crawford’s eyes light up at the thought of being a real spy. While their time in Paris is exciting gathering clues, once the couple go to Bavaria, things get more intense. During a concert the couple attend--and copying Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much--a shot is fired at a point where the music is loudest, killing a German officer. The comparison with Hitchcock is appropriate. Even with their skulking around and the presence of the Gestapo, there never seems to be a real element of danger. Where Hitch’s chase films are nail-biting to the end, this one just doesn’t seem to have a lot of suspense, and certainly nothing like the fear that MacMurray exhibited in Double Indemnity. For a spy thriller, the whole thing is just a little too light and breezy, like Charade with Nazis, which doesn’t really work.

There’s a terrific supporting cast, though, that includes the wonderful Felix Bressart as a book shop owner, and Frank Reicher as a Nazi Colonel. The great Conrad Veidt plays against type as an Austrian who helps the couple find their objective. This would be Veidt’s last film, after completing Casablanca the year before, and his unexpected death was a great loss to film. Basil Rathbone plays a German count, and former classmate of MacMurray. Bruce Lester is the British agent already in Germany who is on a separate mission of his own, but winds up helping the couple. The backdrops are nice, and the studio exterior sets are well done. As far as the crew goes, it’s a solid job all the way around. Director Richard Thorpe had experience at MGM filming just about anything, from westerns, musicals and Tarzan pictures, to Thin Man episodes, and later in his career would direct Ivanhoe and the Elvis Presley film Jailhouse Rock.

It’s not the best spy film in the world, perhaps it’s not even good. But there is just too much to recommend to say it’s bad. It’s great seeing MacMurray and Crawford together, and while there isn’t any chemistry between them, there doesn’t need to be, as that wasn’t the point of the film. Add to that Connie Veidt and Basil Rathbone, and in the end Above Suspicion makes for a satisfying cinematic experience.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939)

Director: Richard Thorpe                           Writers: Hugo Butler & Waldo Salt
Film Score: Franz Waxman                       Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: Mickey Rooney, Rex Ingram, William Frawley and Walter Connolly

There’s a major irony about MGM’s production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that can’t be escaped. Every other version of the classic Mark Twain tale has failed miserably because of their misunderstanding of the text, and the subversion of Twain’s characters which either destroys his intended meaning or, worse, conveys completely the opposite meaning. This film, on the other hand, keeps the characters but does away with the original story almost completely and thereby makes it more successful as a film than any of the others. It still has nothing to do with Twain’s book, but at least it doesn’t pretend that it does.

This story begins at the fishing hole, with the boys talking to Huck about not being promoted to the next grade in school. After dinner with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, he reads a letter to Jim from his wife who, along with his son, are already free. When Pap shows up and demands eight hundred dollars from the women for Huck, this and Huck’s embarrassment over flunking school are what make him leave. All of the early set pieces are there but severely truncated, and the completely different dialogue changes things considerably. Floating down the Mississippi the duo encounter the King and the Duke when they’re tossed overboard from a steamboat, though this is the only early version that approximates the characters as they are in the book. And then they all go to the Wilkes’ house to fleece the girls--only two of them--out of their inheritance. And, like almost all filmed versions, the last third of the book with Tom Sawyer is omitted. The King and the Duke don’t even have to face the real brothers the way they do in most productions.

As with all filmed versions the understanding that Huck gains about slavery is taught to him by others instead of learning it himself as it is in the book, but at least it’s not taught to him by Jim directly the way it is in other films. The character of Jim is subverted to make him devious, but that is simply the racism of the day rearing it’s head and showing viewers what they expect about blacks. Instead of Huck being ashamed of his behavior toward Jim in the book, the racist expectations of the day demand that Huck be justifiably angry at Jim and the only way Jim can redeem himself is to save Huck’s life. Again, however, there is so much of Twain’s book that is missing, it is actually possible to see the film on it’s own and, despite the racism, to accept it on its own terms as worthy of watching.

Mickey Rooney has to be the most contrite Huck Finn in film history. Even at his angriest he still a very nice kid. Other than the destruction of his character in the script, Rex Ingram is probably the best of all the Jim’s on film. He stays consistent, and while Huck doesn’t have the opportunity to see his worth on his own, the audience can see it. William Frawley and Walter Connolly do a good job as the Duke and the King and don’t go over the top the way the characters do in most productions. The film score by Franz Waxman is not one of his most memorable, but it is quite serviceable and appropriate, though it would have been nice if there were more of it. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Mickey Rooney is a fine film if nothing like the book and, as a film entirely separate from the book, is something that can be appreciated on its own merits. Just don’t go in expecting Twain, because he is nowhere in sight.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)

Director: Martin Davidson                        Writers: Martin & Arlene Davidson
Music: John Cafferty                               Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Starring: Michael Paré, Tom Berenger, Ellen Barkin and Joe Pantoliano

Almost from the moment, it seems, that The Buddy Holly Story hit the screens, rock ‘n’ roll movies and biopics flooded into production. Eddie and the Cruisers is definitely one of the more successful, though not at the time of its release. One of the reasons its ultimate success is that the screenplay, based on a novel by P.F. Kluge, draws on dozens of threads in rock history to come up with a pastiche of a band and a music that seems timeless. There’s an element of The Beatles with the transition from a teen music to something more sophisticated, The Doors with the poetic lyrics and the demise of the lead singer, Elvis with the hope that fans had he was still alive, and of course the most obvious being Bruce Springsteen with the black saxophonist, the singing of John Cafferty, and the whole New Jersey milieu.

The story centers on the search for the missing tapes of the Season in Hell sessions, named after the poem by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In the novel it was the more prosaic, but probably more appropriate given the American genesis of rock ‘n’ roll, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Ellen Barkin is a TV reporter looking into the death of Eddie Wilson, lead singer of Eddie and the Cruisers, after the renewed popularity of his music from the one album the band produced. Tom Berenger is the focal point of the narrative, as it is his remembrances that constitute the flashback sequences to the early sixties and his adoption into the band once the lead singer discovered his proclivity for lyrics and ability to play the piano. Berenger is currently an English teacher who found his home ransacked, the culprits apparently looking for the lost tapes.

Michael Paré plays the lead singer and does a credible job, putting the appropriate level of energy into his performance--something Elvis never did on film. Of course director Martin Davidson had the good sense to avoid filming him playing the guitar, which Paré was not very credible doing. But the film isn’t about the musical performance in the same way as something like That Thing You Do. Joe Pantoliano makes yet another appearance in a rock ‘n’ roll film, along with turns in both The Idolmaker and La Bamba, this time playing the manager of the group and the impetus for getting the band back together in the present. But Berenger isn’t having any of it and wants to let the past remain the past. But events seems to be heading in a different direction, which parallels the disintegration of the group in the flashbacks.

A very young Tom Berenger does a nice job of playing both the young “Word Man” and well as the disillusioned public school teacher. The plot, however, doesn’t really go anywhere, but it wasn’t meant to. The novel is a bit of a confessional, first person from the point of view of Berenger’s character. But the film is told more as an exposé with Barkin interviewing all of the surviving members and presenting it all as a history of the group. The music is good, with John Cafferty and Beaver Brown Band providing originals, obvious influenced by Springsteen, that are fairly timeless tunes. One or two have a bit much of an eighties sensibility, but overall it really works for the film. Eddie and the Cruisers, though not a hit at the time, has become a cult classic, a fictional rock film that delivers great music and an engaging story.

Marked Woman (1937)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                              Writers: Robert Rossen & Albern Finkel
Film Score: Bernard Kaun                        Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Eduardo Ciannelli and John Litel

Half crime drama, half women’s picture, Marked Woman is another of Warner’s teaming of Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. At the time, however, Bogart was far from being a star at this point, and was simply the only male lead they really had in their stable fit for a crime drama. He wouldn’t break out and make a name for himself until three years later in High Sierra. Davis, of course, was already being groomed for stardom and would break out the following year in Jezebel. Director Lloyd Bacon, who was incredibly prolific, was given the chores on this project and does a workmanlike job. The first half of the film is predictable and slow going, but in the second half things pick up and it becomes quite satisfying.

Eduardo Ciannelli is a mob boss who is taking over the Club Intime and is going to institute a few changes. The girls working for the club receive new instructions that they must kick back part of the money they get from the patrons to the boss for protection. Bette Davis refuses to go back to Ciannellis’s his apartment saying now she’s an employee, and saves long-in-the-tooth Mayo Methot--soon to be Mrs. Humphrey Bogart in real life--from being fired. When an apparently rich client comes in and runs up a huge bill, he pays with a check and on the way home admits to Davis that he doesn’t have a dime. She tells him to get out of town as soon as possible, but it’s too late. He’s murdered by the mob and Davis is arrested because she was the last one seen with him. Bogart plays the D.A who only wants Ciannelli, but will use Davis to get him, and veteran character actor John Litel plays Ciannelli’s lawyer who is going to try a few tricks of his own.

There’s something about the thirties Bette Davis that’s unpleasant for me to watch. She’s far too animated and most of the time exceeds her emotional justification in the film to an extent that she seems to be going way overboard. In the forties she had either mellowed or managed to be reigned in by directors and delivered much more even performances. During the second half of the film, however, her histrionics are justified and she gives a nice performance. Bogart is obviously feeling his way still, but does a much better part in a straight role than he did as his cartoon-like gangsters from the thirties. Jane Bryan is Davis’s kid sister, who doesn’t know what her big sister does for a living. The rest of the girls include Lola Lane, Isabel Jewell and Rosalind Marquis. And poor Frank Faylen has another bit part as a taxi driver.

In certain respects, one wishes this film were darker, literally and figuratively. The sets are bright and glittering and the juxtaposition with the plot is a bit incongruous. Five or six years later this would have been a terrific noir film. Even so, there are some shocking moments in the film and implied violence that harks back to the pre-code days, the most famous being Bette Davis’s bruised and beaten face. Ultimately, while this is an interesting story--based on the sensational trial of Lucky Luciano the previous year--it’s definitely a lesser Warner Brothers outing. Marked Woman has second-tier crew and principals who were not yet major movie stars. But for all that, the film has held up over the years and is definitely worth watching.