Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Director: Ingmar Bergman                              Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Film Score: Erik Nordgren                              Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Starring: Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand and Bibi Andersson

Ingmar Bergman’s allegory of death in the middle ages has become one of the most well respected films in the history of cinema. Unlike a lot of films, The Seventh Seal has earned its reputation over the years for good reasons. For one thing, it’s a beautiful film to watch, rich black and white that, far from diminishing the scenes of nature, actually seems to enhance it. The acting is wonderful as well. Max von Sydow, in one of his earliest roles, is vibrant and full of life, as is the couple Nils Popi and Bibi Andersson. But in this case the story is the star of the film. Ostensibly about the Black Death in the middle ages, the obvious allegory for all of human existence is undeniable, and the layers of allegory are wonderfully woven together, the knight and his struggle with his inner self, juxtaposed with the squire and his commentary on life as little more than a play, an act, be it comedy or tragedy.

The opening has a knight returning from the Crusades, Max von Sydow going to the water to wash his face while his squire sleeps. When he returns he sees death waiting for him. Unafraid to die, he nevertheless challenges death to a chess match with his life as the prize. They begin to play, but when the squire wakes up it’s as if none of that has happened, the implication being that the match is not part of Sydow’s conscious thoughts, but a struggle within himself to know what is real, if God is real. When the scene shifts to the troupe of players, there is the same scene recreated, with the leader of the troupe playing death and the “fool” playing the human soul. So, in the context of the film the knight playing with death for his life is an allegory of human existence, but only a representation of life, as demonstrated by the troupe’s act. It’s a play-within-a-play worthy of Shakespeare, but going the Bard one better.

The imagery is also incredible. At one point early on the squire enters a church, with the opening of the door from inside the very image of death’s scythe cast in light. Yet another representation of life and death awaits him there in the form of a fresco being painted of the plague. At the church Sydow ponders the existence of God, unknowingly speaking to death the whole time. And in a philosophical end-around I first read in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Sydow asks a condemned woman outside the church if she’s really seen the devil, a way of proving god’s existence by inference. When the flagellators come by, however, it’s simply another allegory of the way religion destroys people rather than helps them, which is also reflected in the way the squire believes their trip to the Holy Land was a complete waste. Once the two groups meet they travel through the forest toward the knight’s castle, implying the path of life, which is in reality a journey that inevitably ends with death.

Peter Keough’s essay in The A List focuses on the black comedy of the piece, death cheating at chess and gleefully cutting down a tree to kill the actor. He also makes a comparison of the film to The Wizard of Oz that is rather thin. What I like best is his emphasis on “life as a game, and death is a player.” But rather than focus on the times he wins, my take on the film is that he can’t win every game. While people take their inevitable journey into the void, life keeps on propagating itself. In the end, death is a very good player but he’s never going to beat the house. This is signified by the escape of the biblical trio of Jof (Joseph) and Mia (Mary) and their son. The blatant religious symbolism is not the takeaway, though, it’s continuation that is the point. Be it life or religion, neither seems to be giving up the ghost any time soon. And in that view The Seventh Seal would seem to be just that, a final unwrapping of layers of meaning that have an infinite variety of interpretation.

Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell                              Writer: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Film Score: David Arnold                               Cinematography: Phil Meheux
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green

When I watch most series I usually like to start and the beginning, but for some reason I’ve never had much interest in the James Bond films. As a result I’ve really only seen some of the recent ones with Daniel Craig and a while back with Pierce Brosnan. Casino Royale is the film that began the Craig era and it’s a good one. Rather than continuing with an entrenched mythology, the producers wisely chose to begin the series anew, with Bond being given “double-0” status by MI-6 and sent on his first mission. One of the most obvious differences between the new series and what had come before is less of a reliance on gadgetry and more on Bond’s physical strength and training. The audience also gets a prolog that shows Bond in action getting is first two kills, the actual double 0s.

Setting the stage for the new series, the film begins with a chase, this one almost all non-mechanized. Bond is leading a team on the hunt for an African with a secret in his backpack. But once his own man has been spotted, it’s up to Daniel Craig himself to run down the courier. Running, jumping, scaling tall buildings and leaping off them in a single bound, the Bond franchise is in good hands with these kinds of Superman heroics. In this era of the kinder and gentler action hero who doesn’t kill--Salt comes to mind, though there are plenty of others--it’s easy to forget that 007 has a license to kill and he does when he storms an African embassy to catch his man and, just before his escape, he kills him. And that sends Judi Dench--the new M--into a tizzy. When she finds him comfortably broken into her home, leisurely perusing her personal computer, their antagonistic but dependent relationship is set.

The caper this time out is a villain who manipulates the stock market for terrorist groups by taking their money, bombing certain targets to bring about predictable fluctuations in stock prices, and taking a cut of the action. It’s the bombs that Craig gets onto first, tracking backward from his initial quarry, it leads to Simon Abkarian who winds up being the guy who hires the bombers for the villain. In an incredible sequence at the Miami airport in which the bomber attempts to use a fuel truck to blow up a plane, Craig is impressive in close quarters combat and humorous in his dispatching of the bad guy. The film’s climactic third act happens when MI-6 figures out who the villain is, Mads Mikkelsen, and that since his failed attempt at the plane he has resorted to a high stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to recoup his losses. Of course Craig wants in and with the help of government accountant Eva Green, he attempts to break him financially.

One of the pleasures of the new series is getting to grow into the part along with Craig. His Bond does all sorts of things that we wouldn’t expect from a more experienced Bond. At one point when he has lost a big hand and asks for a martini, the bartender’s query about shaken or stirred is met with, “Do I look like I care?” Another shocker is when Bond falls in love. At first it’s inconceivable, but by the final scene of the film it all makes sense. Judi Dench is terrific as M and she gets more screen time as the Craig series evolves. The one part that didn’t ring true for me was the torture sequence after Craig has been captured by the villain: I’m sorry, but nobody’s that tough. While the gambling sequences are pretty sedate, there are still plenty of thrills and that makes Casino Royale and great first outing for Daniel Craig and a nice opportunity to see Bond from the beginning.

Lifeboat (1944)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                              Writers: Jo Swerling & John Steinbeck
Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer                           Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Henry Hull and Walter Slezak

Alfred Hitchcock seemed to enjoy the kind of filmmaking challenges that would have driven a lot of other directors crazy. Single takes of ten minutes each in Rope, one-room mysteries like Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, and one of the smallest film sets of all time in Lifeboat. This is a fascinating film, a wartime propaganda drama that doubles as a morality play. After an Allied ship has been sunk while crossing the Atlantic, with the German U-Boat sunk as well, a single lifeboat begins gathering up all of the surviving passengers. Tallulah Bankhead is wonderful as the unconventional career woman, in this case a world-renowned reporter, who is aboard the boat with her luggage, furs, typewriter and camera, one of her few film roles after performing primarily on the stage for most of her career.

The first person she hauls out of the water is engine-room sailor John Hodiak. He was a tremendous acting talent whose career was cut short by his unexpected death in 1955 at the age of 41. Next aboard is the venerable Hume Cronyn in one of his earliest roles. The rest of the survivors include the great British actor Henry Hull, Americans Mary Anderson as a nurse and William Bendix as a sailor, the British Heather Angel, and African American Canada Lee in a stereotypical servant role. What really changes the dynamic onboard the lifeboat, however, is when they pull a German sailor out of the water. Hodiak is all for tossing the guy overboard and dancing a jig while he drowns. Cooler heads prevail, however, mainly Hull, who seems to be the appeaser aboard. But things unravel fast when Angel’s baby dies and she follows him into the water in the middle of the night, and when Bendix’s wounded leg can only be fixed by the German amputating it.

Hitchcock was the master of suspense, but there’s not very much of that here. It’s a fascinating character study of all aboard, especially when it becomes clear that Walter Slezak as the German is not exactly who they think he is, and there are moral issues aplenty when they try to figure out exactly what to do with him. Hodiak says that since they’re at war, he is an enemy combatant and may be killed. Cronyn, however, says that he falls into the category of prisoner of war and they should treat him accordingly. The ending would have been a fascinating ethical dilemma all on it’s own, and I would like to believe that without the war Hitchcock would have left it morally ambiguous. But it becomes a blatant propaganda film in the last few minutes when they pull yet another German out of the water. Still, there’s little to quibble with. The story, by John Steinbeck, is a solid one and the Hitchcock touch makes it transcend genre distinctions.

Because of the unique nature of the set, Hitchcock had to make his cameo appearance in an equally unique way. He does it by appearing in a weight-loss advertisement in the newspaper that Bendix is reading. As was Hitchcock’s preference, the film was shot entirely on the studio with rear-screen projection of the water behind the actors and stagehands tossing real water into the boat. And while Hugo Friedhofer wrote the dramatic opening title sequence, in key with the continuous whistle of the sinking ship, that was the only music used in the film. There was no score used in order to replicate the dramatic effect of being lost at sea. Lifeboat remains a very successful propaganda film from World War Two, as well as being yet another of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces.

Friday, November 29, 2013

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone                               Writers: George Abbott & Maxwell Anderson
Music: Heinz Roemheld                                 Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Ben Alexander and Slim Summerville

While Universal produced mainly small, inexpensive pictures during the Laemmle era, they did produce a few big-budget films every year. One of those was Lewis Milestone’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which brought Universal much needed publicity and artistic cache by winning the Academy Award for best picture that year. Of course the film was based on the very successful anti-war novel from German writer Erich Maria Remarque, about several high school students who were inspired by their teacher to enlist and fight in the war for the Fatherland. What happens to the boys is a swift transformation from young innocents to men who have seen death close up and can’t imagine going home to a pedestrian life. They also realize they were duped by their teacher into believing in the glory of war and dying on the battlefield.

The film begins on the eve of World War One, with soldiers marching through the town, the people celebrating and ecstatic over the coming conflict. In the schoolhouse the students can see the soldiers pass, and at the front of the room is their professor, telling them about their duty to their country and their responsibility to defend it. In a flurry of patriotism they all enlist, and go off to be trained. There they meet Himmelstoss, a postman for whom they have no respect, but he is their drill sergeant and he takes great pleasure in sadistically training them. Before they leave for the front, however, they exact their own punishment. Once at the line they meet their guardian angel, “Kat” Katczinski, an older soldier who teaches them what they need to know to survive. What he can’t do, however, is show them how to heal their emotional wounds. Death, destruction, the end of all they have known, made especially poignant upon returning home on leave, makes them want to stay at the front where things seem more “real.”

One can sense the artistic merits of the film immediately. Milestone uses some very interesting camera angles, especially those placed on the ground, and he also makes wonderful use of tracking shots, most notably in the trench warfare scenes. What is quite remarkable, however, are the framing devices he comes up with. The celebration of German soldiers going off to war can be seen outside through the windows of the schoolroom. When the students go off to the training academy the inside is only visible through the front arch. And when the young men are coming and going from their first billet, the rain outside is seen only through the doorway. It’s a very successful visual leitmotif that works beautifully in the context of the film. The battle scenes are uniformly excellent as well. The first prolonged battle, in which the French attack the German positions is extremely well done. The shots of the German machine guns mowing down the French troops wouldn’t really be replicated with the same emotion until Saving Private Ryan.

Lew Ayres plays the protagonist of the piece, Paul Baumer, from whose point of the view the story is told. He does a nice job at conveying the innocence of the boys going off to war, and his speech in the classroom when he goes back to his old school is done with exactly the right amount of reluctance and hesitancy. The other star of the piece is Louis Wolheim as Kat, with that distinctive Roman nose and his compassion for the boys he is certainly the sympathetic center of the piece. Slim Summerville is the other distinctive character, a sad sack who would seem tailor made to be the butt of the men’s jokes and yet somehow always speaks the truth and is respected for it. The film was a terrific success and still holds up well today. Not only did the film win the best picture Oscar, but Milestone won for his direction. All Quiet on the Western Front remains a classic war film and a classic epic of the early sound era.

The Beguiled (1971)

Director: Don Siegel                                       Writers: Albert Maltz & Irene Kamp
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                                Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman and Jo Ann Harris

At first glance this is a curious film in Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre, very intimate and quiet, but in the end it’s still the kind of story with a nasty edge that he likes. Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan entitled A Painted Devil about a Union Civil War soldier who is wounded and taken in by a school for girls, it’s a Southern Gothic tale that is reminiscent of something by Ambrose Bierce or William Faulkner. The Beguiled begins with Pamelyn Ferdin in the woods collecting mushrooms. When she sees the Union soldier with blood on his boot she screams, but he does little more than fall to the ground. Initially she stands over him saying that he could have been the one that killed her father and she hopes he dies the same way, but then she takes pity on him and helps him to the girl’s school where she lives.

When the little girl arrives with Clint Eastwood the head mistress of the school, Geraldine Page, wants to leave him in the road to be picked up by one of the many Confederate patrols that frequently ride by. But the girls convince her not to let him die, and they take him into one of the downstairs rooms of their Southern mansion. There, Page takes the lead from his leg, the slave Peggy Drier cleans him up, and they dress him in one of Page’s brother’s nightshirts. It’s here we learn of one of the first Gothic secrets, that Page and her brother had a sexual relationship. As Eastwood recovers, his plan is to seduce the women into hiding him until he can either make it back to Union lines or until the war ends. The student teacher in the bunch, Elizabeth Hartman, is a virgin and falls for him at once. The “hussy,” Jo Ann Harris, tells him she’s more experienced than most girls her age, and eventually even Page comes around and leaves his door unlocked so that he may visit her during the night. But in making implied promises to all of them, he quickly learns why “hell hath no fury . . .”

The exteriors of the production were done in Louisiana, at one of the largest standing plantation houses in the South. The majority of the interiors, however, were filmed in the studio at Universal. One of the things the film does will is let the audience in on the background of the characters. While Eastwood is telling Page that he is a Quaker and carrying bandages to the wounded, we see flashbacks of him killing Confederate soldiers from behind a tree. Similarly, when he is speaking to her about the beauty of the land, flashbacks show him torching farms. This is an absolute necessity because it’s too easy for the audience to see him initially in the role of the protagonist. Once the audience knows that he is manipulating the women, however, it sets the tone and direction for the Gothic ending that was a must if it was to be a satisfying experience overall.

The original screenplay was written by Albert Maltz, a veteran screenwriter who was active in the forties but was blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings in the fifties. The Beguiled was his first script in fifteen years. Unfortunately he decided to put a happy ending on the story, a hint of which can still be seen in the final dinner scene of the film. But Eastwood and director Don Siegel wanted to restore the Gothic flavor of the original novel and hired Irene Kamp to make the changes. In the end it was associate producer Claude Traverse who cobbled the two scripts together to make the final version that was filmed. Without the shooting and horse riding of his westerns, Eastwood thought this was a particularly good vehicle for him to be able to show off his acting skills, especially playing opposite stage and screen veteran Geraldine Page. But the studio, selling it as if it was one of his westerns, inadvertently undermined its popularity and the project was not a success at the box office. Still, The Beguiled is a very good film that has achieved positive recognition through the years and stands on its own as a classic Southern Gothic story.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Director: Lewis Milestone                                Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                               Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott

For some reason Paramount allowed their ownership of this film to lapse in the seventies and it has since become fodder for innumerable cheap film noir DVD sets. But don’t think that diminishes the value of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It’s most obvious claim to fame is that it’s the motion picture premier of Kirk Douglas and was only Lizabeth Scott’s second film, but it also boasts solid performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. At the helm is director Lewis Milestone who is probably most famous for his Academy Award winning All Quiet on the Western Front as well as the classic Of Mice and Men. This film is about a love triangle that begins in childhood with the cover-up of two murders. The young Stanwyck character kills her rich aunt and the young Douglas character, along with his father, allows a homeless criminal to be executed for the murder.

The modern portion of the film begins with Van Heflin driving through his old hometown and getting in an accident. Though he had been a delinquent as a kid, he had since served in World War II. Walking through town he meets Lizabeth Scott, a newly released convict and, when she decides to stay with Heflin, winds up breaking her parole and is arrested. Meanwhile Douglas is the district attorney with a guilty conscience, put there with the influence of his rich wife, Barbara Stanwyck. Heflin stops by Douglas’s office and brings up the old days, intimating that if he doesn’t spring Scott that the world might find out about their cover up. Heflin and Stanwyck had been close as kids and she still thinks of him as hers, while it’s clear than Douglas’s marriage to her is a loveless one. Heflin plans on leaving town as soon as Scott is out, but Stanwyck has other plans that wind up tearing their lives apart.

The thing that makes the film so good is the story. It’s a very original idea, the twists are incredibly satisfying, and it has an absolutely operatic climax. The film is based on a short story entitled “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, but was written for the screen by the great Robert Rossen. Rossen’s screenplay is not brilliant, but it does have its moments of poetry and is infinitely serviceable. It’s hard to believe that this is Douglas’s first film, as he’s a natural onscreen. Heflin was already a screen veteran at this point in his career, and of course Stanwyck had been a star before either of them began acting. All three work well together and make the triangle crackle on screen. There is also some nice supporting work, beginning with the iconic Judith Anderson as Stanwyck’s “wicked” aunt. The distinctive Roman Bohnen makes an appearance as Douglas’s father, and the one other recognizable actor is Tom Fadden as a cab driver.

And as great as the acting is, there’s also Miklós Rózsa’s memorable score to add to the mix. His theme song is tremendous and he would subtly rework it for his final film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Most of the criticism against the film is its lack of directorial artistry. This is certainly true. Milestone has little of the artistic flair of directors working in the same period like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak or Anthony Mann. The lighting, camera angles, and staging are actually very pedestrian. Even when Milestone has his subjects in a single shot, his camera is too far away and actually draws attention to itself . . . and not in a good way. In the end, however, the film succeeds in spite of that. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is not great cinema but it is great entertainment, and for me that’s always been the hallmark of a great movie.

Jewel Robbery (1932)

Director: William Dieterle                                 Writer: Erwin S. Gelsey
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                              Cinematography: Robert Kurrie
Starring: William Powell, Kay Francis, Helen Vinson and Henry Kolker

Long before William Powell lit up the screen with Myrna Loy for their successful Thin Man series, as well as numerous other films, the star was teamed with the spectacular Kay Francis and formed a well-known duo of their own in the early thirties. Jewel Robbery is the fifth of the team’s six outings together. Francis plays a wealthy baroness in Vienna who is bored with her husband, bored with her lover, and bored with life. When she is at the jewelry story having her husband, Henry Kolker, buy her a large diamond ring, gentleman thief William Powell comes in with his gang and proceeds to steal the entire inventory of the store, including Francis’s new ring as well as her heart.

It’s an attempt at screwball comedy before the genre began in earnest, and they make a real go of it. When Francis gets home she discovers a giant bouquet of roses on the dressing table and her ring back in her safe. When girlfriend Helen Vinson gets the creeps knowing someone has been in the room she leaves, and that’s when Powell emerges. The romance is a cute idea, where Francis has the perfect affair at hand, as long as she can say she was forced into it rather than making the choice herself. But Powell frequently forgets, professing his love and “inviting” her to bed. But she refuses, saying that if she were “forced,” however, that would be a different story. And speaking of story, there’s very little of it to be had. The emphasis of the picture resides on the two leads and their banter with each other.

All of the pre-code trappings are in place. In the opening Kay Francis is seen in her bathtub, then her beautiful legs stretch out to put on her undergarments, and finally she slips into her dress. Of course, she doesn’t reveal as much skin as other actresses at the time, but that makes sense considering the role was originally written for Barbara Stanwyck. In her conversation with Vinson she makes it clear that she could take a lover at any time, but is simply bored with that. Best of all, however, is Powell’s use of marijuana cigarettes during the robbery to make the owner more amenable. He gives the rest to the security guard and he winds up sharing them with the police captain. It’s all quite charming and humorously done, five years before the over-the-top antics of Reefer Madness.

Critics at the time weren’t sure exactly how to take the film, as it wasn’t the kind of thing typically associates with director William Dieterle or his star. In many way’s they were right. For a madcap comedy it really does feel a bit forced. Powell is good, as always, but Kay Francis seems to be so flippant in her line delivery and apparently taking the whole thing as a joke that it does diminish the final product somewhat, but then she tended to do that in many of her comedies. Even so, there is an undeniable charm to the whole thing that leaves the viewer happy to have participated, especially when Francis looks into the camera and winks at us in the final shot. Jewel Robbery may not be the best example of production code flaunting, or screwball comedy, but it is an entertaining way to spend time with a terrific cast of characters who clearly have a sense of humor.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Run Lola Run (1998)

Director: Tom Tykwer                                     Writer: Tom Tykwer
Music: Tom Tykwer                                       Cinematography: Frank Griebe
Starring: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup and Armin Rohde

Lola rennt is a highly stylized German film from the late nineties. American audiences will best remember the star, Franka Potente, as Matt Damon’s girlfriend from The Borne Identity a few years later, or from falling in love with Hugh Laurie when House was in the mental hospital in the premier of season six. Run Lola Run is the English title and it’s an apt translation. The story is fairly simple. Potente is Lola, at home when she receives a phone call from her boyfriend Moritz Bleibtreu. She was supposed to pick him up on her moped after he fenced some diamonds and collected the money, so they could deliver it to the criminals he is working for, but her moped was stolen and she wasn’t there. While he was on the subway some police came into his car and, spooked, he left without the money and a bum picked it up. But all of that is just the set-up for the real plot to come.

What happens in the rest of the film is essentially three separate renderings of the same events. Bleibtreu has twenty minutes to raise the hundred thousand dollars that he lost and give it to the criminals before they kill him. From the phone booth he can see a grocery story and tells Potente that he’ll have to rob it. She tells him to wait and then begins the first of her journeys to get him the money. This is where Potente starts running. Her first thought is to go and see her father, who is the president of a bank. But each time she sets out different things happen that either speed up her run or slow her down. And within each separate timeline the people she interacts with along the way make different choices in their lives, not only that day but in a series of rapid still shots the audience learns how their entire lives are different as a result, something similar to The Butterfly Effect.

Franka Potente is simply a tremendous actress. She has a powerful screen presence and is incredibly convincing in everything she has been in. Moritz Bleibtreu has also done some nice work in films like Munich and most recently in World War Z. The rest of the cast is fairly anonymous, but that’s not really a negative. The main focus of the film is on the leads. There are a number of interpretations of the film, the most interesting one to me being the film as video game. This is reinforced by the animated opening credits, and another animated sequence at the beginning of each run. In this interpretation each of the timelines represents a new attempt at completing the “level” by using information that has been learned on the previous attempt. In the end, it’s a very specific effect and the difference between the attempts is really the primary emphasis of the film. Run Lola Run is more of an experience film rather than something with plot and character. As such, it manages to be successful and I enjoyed it for what it was. Just don’t look for anything more.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Crucible (1996)

Director: Nicholas Hytner                                Writer: Arthur Miller
Film Score: George Fenton                             Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen and Paul Scofield

Arthur Miller was a genius. His plays are not just great, they are works of art. Drawing on the social currents at work in his day they are timeless looks into American life that have become transcendent over the years and will always have something relevant to say to future generations of Americans. Given that, one would think that he couldn’t do any better, but a few years before his death he topped himself with The Crucible. When someone is adapting a play for the screen there are only two ways of being successful. The first is to make the action so compelling that the viewer doesn’t realize it’s all taking place in one room. This is what Hitchcock did with Dial M for Murder. The other is to break the play out of the stage and make it more real, a difficult thing to do, especially for the playwright himself. But Miller did it spectacularly and the results only served to make his work even more iconic.

The Crucible is the story of the Salem Witch Trials, which Miller was compelled to write as the events of the late sixteen hundreds so eerily mirrored the witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee in its misguided attempt to rid Hollywood of communism. The story begins with a group of girls led by Winona Ryder going out into the woods, dancing and attempting to cast spells over the men they have crushes on. When they are caught by the minister, Bruce Davidson, his daughter attempts to avoid getting him into trouble by pretending to be bewitched and Davidson calls in Rob Campbell to assure the community that this isn’t the case. The problem is that Ryder, under pressure to reveal what they were doing in the woods, blames the black slave, Charlayne Woodard, and when Campbell offers her a way out of the hangman’s noose by naming others as witches, Ryder picks up on the idea and begins naming names as well and is soon joined by the rest of the girls.

At the center of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis, who had an affair with Ryder and knows that the girls are faking. But reluctant to ruin himself and his family by risking exposure, he does nothing until it’s too late. There are some great performances in the film, which is also responsible for elevating it to another level. Day-Lewis’s agony at knowing the truth and withholding it is riveting. Joan Allen is fantastic as his wife, proudly Puritan at the beginning and fully embracing her imperfections by the end, and nominated for an Oscar for her effort. The venerable Paul Scofield, in one of his final roles, is incredibly impressive as the head judge at the trial, and Jeffrey Jones is solid as the vindictive rich man in the village. I really dislike Ryder as an actress and so, for me, she is perfect for the almost sociopathic girl who started it all.

Part of the genius of the film is in its pacing. Things unfold quickly and it puts the viewer in a position of not really being able to understand everything that is going on as it happens. In a way, this gives the viewer some sense of the reality of the situation, wanting desperately to stop and figure out why these things are happening but unable to as they are being swept away in the tide of events. The climax comes as the trial ends and one character has the chance to end it all by simply telling the truth. It is one of the great moments in literature. Miller was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay and in retrospect was robbed, as was the film in general. Director Nicholas Hytner is, appropriately, also an award-winning Broadway director. All of which makes The Crucible one of those rare occurrences when a brilliant piece of literature is translated to an equally brilliant film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Director: Alexander Korda                              Writer: Miles Malleson
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                              Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin and Rex Ingram

There’s an undeniable connection between Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz from the previous year. And while this was an acknowledged remake of the 1924 classic of the same name with Douglas Fairbanks, the Technicolor Oz is clearly the most influential on Korda’s production. Everything from the set design to the special effects is reminiscent as well as the film quality and the style of direction makes it a nice companion piece. Korda actually began is production in England, but with the beginning of the war he had to give up the studio to the government and move the production to Hollywood. In the end, it was probably a good move and makes the final product a real showpiece.

The story begins with Conrad Veidt arriving with his ship in port. A blind beggar, John Justin, who has an incredibly smart dog is taken by one of Veidt’s servants to his home. There he tells the story of how he became blind. He was actually a king, whose advisor was Veidt, and when he went among the people dressed as a peasant in order to better understand them he was arrested by Veidt so that he could take over his kingdom. He meets a young thief in prison, Sabu, and when the two of them escape Justin sees a princess, June Duprez, and falls in love with her. The only problem is Veidt is in love with her too, so he blinds Justin and turns Sabu into a dog. When the princess learns of this she asks Veidt to release them from their curse in exchange for being with him. But Justin is just beginning his quest to find Duprez and break the hold that Veidt has over his people.

The source material for the film, by way of the silent version, is One Thousand and One Nights, Middle Eastern fairy tales that have been around since the middle ages inspiring Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba and numerous others. But Korda’s film also drew on the writings of Robert Howard. The visuals are stunning, in the rich, Technicolor look of the day and they were rewarded with Academy Awards, for cinematography, art direction, and special effects. Another aspect of the film that raises the artistic bar is the film score by Miklós Rózsa. It’s one of his most distinctive and earned him one of his thirteen Oscar nominations. Conrad Veidt gives a terrific performance, but the rest of the cast is fairly average. Indian actor Sabu does well enough but the ostensible lead, John Justin, is not very good at all. One bright spot is Rex Ingram as the genie who gives Sabu three wishes. There’s nothing here that’s all that exciting for modern audiences, but it is fun in a way. The Thief of Bagdad is a classic film from the golden era that fans of fantasy films from the era should love.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The King of Jazz (1930)

Director: John Murray Anderson                       Writers: Harry Ruskin & Charles MacArthur
Music: George Gershwin                                 Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Starring: Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Laura La Plante and Bing Crosby

If you can overcome the racism of the almost complete and total dismissal of African Americans as the creators, and finest purveyors, of jazz--and I’m not even suggesting that you should--then this is an absolutely fascinating film. The King of Jazz is a two-strip Technicolor talking picture from Universal, which was a small company in those days that primarily produced low-budget and genre films. Every year, however, they would make a “Super Jewel” picture, a big-budget extravaganza, like their Academy Award winning version of All Quiet on the Western Front. This film has no story, instead it’s a review of music, comedy and cartoons, a sort of summation of all that could be done with film at that point in time. What makes it so fascinating, aside from the technical aspect, is how it can be so utterly dismissive of blacks with a straight face. It’s said that Disney’s Song of the South is racist. This film makes the Disney film look like it was produced by the NAACP.

It starts with a Walter Lantz cartoon showing how Whiteman got his label of the “King of Jazz,” in Africa, no less. And while it concerns his cartoon-self running from a lion, the implications are clear, either he took what was to be had from Africa and turned it into jazz, or there was nothing there to begin with. From there we proceed to see miniature band members crawling out of his bag in an impressive display of special effects. The band members are also impressive in their ability to play their instruments--they’re just not playing jazz. This is followed by dancing girls that sit on chairs in a fairly impressive pre-Busby Berkeley display, and then ghostly images of women who have worn a particular wedding dress down through the generations. The singing is dated, to be sure, but in a sense this film is a summation of the twenties. And when Bing Crosby makes an appearance as one of the “Rhythm Boys” it becomes just as clear where the future lies.

There are a number of comedy skits to break up the musical numbers. The only thing they really have going for them is that they’re incredibly short. The real centerpiece of the program is “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin, which Whiteman claims was first performed by his orchestra in 1924. Now, while Gershwin’s famous number is certainly jazz influenced, it can hardly be called actual jazz, and this is the big difference between jazz and what Whiteman was playing. He does make one backhanded reference to blacks by saying that jazz was born in the African jungle, but only in terms of the drums, and there is a one minute dance number by an apparently black dancer on a giant drum where, ironically, the “music” consists of a single beat that gradually speeds up until the end of the dance.

The finale, in which it is implied that jazz came from Europe, is perhaps the most insulting of all to blacks. Dance numbers from all over Europe are featured and, in the end, Whiteman is seen stirring a boiling cauldron of “music” with his baton and emerging with this new musical form. I can’t even imagine what blacks thought who watched this in theaters at the time. As a spectacle of what film art could do at the time, the film is quite a feat. As a time capsule of dominant white culture in the twenties, a filmic representation of the end of vaudeville, The King of Jazz is an incredible experience. But as far as Jazz goes . . . it is nowhere to be found.

Desperate Journey (1942)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                        Writer: Arthur T. Horman
Film Score: Max Steiner                                    Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale and Arthur Kennedy

In the early days of World War II the only way Americans could get into the war fighting the Germans was with the Royal Air Force. This was also the route for eager Canadians and Australians as well. Desperate Journey a very nice war film that manages to capture a lot of the danger and suspense in the bombing missions carried out prior to the full onslaught of the Allied Forces. One of the interesting aspects of the film early on is the way it lets the viewer inside the operations of a bomber, seeing exactly how many men each plane needed to carry out it’s objective, and the need to make those bombing runs over enemy territory without air support from fighter planes. There’s an extreme vulnerability and the high number of planes shot down accounts for the numbers of RAF personnel imprisoned in POW camps that wound up generating stories like Stalag 17 and The Great Escape.

The story begins with a railroad crossing in Northern Germany being bombed by a Polish saboteur. To keep the rail line from being repaired too quickly, however, the RAF makes the decision to send a bomber over to destroy more of the rail yard. Errol Flynn plays the gung ho bomber pilot, an Australian, while his bomb sighter is American Ronald Reagan. Arthur Kennedy, as the navigator of the plane, is playing a Canadian, and Alan Hale, with his hair darkened to make him less Germanic, is onboard as comedy relief. While the crew achieves their objective, the plane is hit and forced to land, and it’s there that the “desperate journey” really begins. The objective was near the Polish border, east of Berlin, and with information on secret German munitions plants they discovered, it’s imperative that they make it back to England. But it’s not going to be easy, especially with attempting as much sabotage as they can along the way.

One of the things I really like about this film is that, throughout, the Germans speak German. Flynn is the only one of the five who survived the crash who knows the language and he winds up interpreting for the rest--as well as for the audience. If there’s one misstep it’s in casting Raymond Massey as the German Major. With all of the great German émigrés in Hollywood at the time, like Conrad Veidt, it would have been nice to see a German in the role. The special effects during the flying sequence are also not very realistic, but in this case it doesn’t diminish the final product and works rather well, so much so that they were nominated for an Oscar. Actual war footage is also used when appropriate and this adds a nice touch of verisimilitude. Max Steiner’s score is magnificent, as always, and is reminiscent of what he would do in places for Casablanca a few months later.

Director Raoul Walsh was one of the greats, and in this film he shows why. There is a supreme confidence in his style, at times intimate but always moving forward. The pacing is nice, the parallel narratives work well together, and he has some terrific shots, such as the overhead shot of the train as the plane with Massey is flying overhead. Flynn and Reagan are teamed after Reagan's magnificent performance in King’s Row. As good as Patric Knowles was with Flynn, I think Reagan was even better. He makes a great foil for Flynn and both of them are a joy to watch. Unfortunately, that puts Hale as the odd man out. Still, it’s an ensemble piece and the five men do a terrific job. The humor in the piece is not for everyone, but at that early stage in the war it was felt that audiences needed something to lift their spirits, not only the invulnerability of the Allied cause, but a few laughs as well. Desperate Journey is a classic forties war picture and one of the great ones at that.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jackie Brown (1997)

Director: Quentin Tarantino                                 Writers: Quentin Tarantino & Elmore Leonard
Music Coordinator: Ann Kline                              Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Starring: Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro

Like many people, I would imagine, I had certain expectations when this film came out as to what it would be like. I naturally assumed this would be Quentin Tarantino’s take on the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s. Fortunately I had discovered, prior to watching, that it was actually based on one of the novels of the great crime writer, Elmore Leonard. As such, Jackie Brown is a very different film. Though Tarantino had optioned three Leonard novels prior to making Pulp Fiction, including Rum Punch on which this film was based, he had not necessarily decided it would be his next film. But with the success of the filmed adaptation of Leonard’s Get Shorty, which had come on the heels of Pulp Fiction’s success, he made the decision to go right into Jackie Brown.

The title is name of the main character in the story, played by Pam Grier, who had made a positive impression on Tarantino from her seventies films like Foxy Brown and Coffy. But unlike those films, in which she played a larger-than-life action hero, here she’s a middle-aged airline stewardess who has fallen to the bottom rung of her profession working for a small, Mexican airline. To augment her income she has agreed to smuggle money into the country for small-time arms dealer Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is breaking in a new man, Robert De Niro, who has just been released from prison. First, however, Jackson has to deal with his former employee, Chris Tucker, by putting a couple of bullets into him in a vacant lot. When Grier is stopped by ATF agent Michael Keaton she has a choice to make, inform on Jackson and go the way of Tucker, or go to prison and lose what little life she has left.

Fortunately, she has a third option that comes in the form of bail bondsman Robert Forster. When he picks her up from jail after Jackson bails her out, he falls for her hard and winds up becoming her partner. Of course, the story is told in Tarantino’s inimitable style, with music from the late sixties and early seventies reminiscent of Grier’s early films. While Tarantino has been acknowledged by the Motion Picture Academy for his screenplays, the films themselves and his directing have been ignored. His actors usually fare better. Robert Forster was nominated for an Oscar which, as far as Forster’s career is concerned, seems almost as good as a win. Tarantino has a knack for finding actors who are perfect for the roles in his films, regardless of where they are in their career trajectory. Forster is a tremendous talent and it’s criminal that it took Tarantino to show producers and directors what audiences already knew.

As far as the artistic merits of the film go, it certainly isn’t on par with Pulp Fiction in terms of originality. In this case, Leonard’s story is more of a caper film and, mixed with Tarantino’s cinematic sensibilities it becomes something of a hybrid. It’s still incredibly entertaining, but lacks the all-out originality of Tarantino’s own scripts. That said, however, it’s clear that Leonard’s books in the hands of lesser filmmakers don’t fare as well and that in Tarantino’s hands the story had the greatest chance of success it could possibly have. In the end, these kinds of qualifications are just splitting hairs, but it’s hard not to given the magnificence of Tarantino’s later works. I’m a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino, and so I would not hesitate to recommend the film to anyone. Jackie Brown is a great film, a beautiful collaboration of crime novelist and crime auteur, and a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Bigamist (1953)

Director: Ida Lupino                                       Writer: Collier Young
Film Score: Leith Stevens                              Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmond O’Brien and Edmund Gwenn

It’s nice to see that Ida Lupino is slowly beginning to be recognized as a great talent from the golden era of film. Not only was she a fine actress who starred in some tremendous films, but she was also one of the very few women in Hollywood who had a strong career as a director as well as writing a few screenplays of her own. I saw The Bigamist on the Olympia Film Festival’s closing night and it was a terrifically entertaining film. This was an independent production financed by the screenwriter Collier Young, but I have a feeling it was hiring Lupino as the director than enabled him to get the likes of Joan Fontaine, Edmond O’Brien and Edmund Gwenn onboard to make it a legitimate mainstream film.

The film begins with O’Brien and Fontaine in the office of Gwenn, who heads the state adoption agency in San Francisco. Fontaine is obviously excited, while O’Brien seems worried, especially after he hears he must agree to a background investigation. After a little digging, Gwenn tracks down an address in L.A. that belongs to a man with a similar name, and when he knocks on the door O’Brien answers. After the baby in the other room begins crying Gwenn walks in and O’Brien spills the whole story. A year earlier, while alone during one of his trips to L.A. as a traveling salesman, O’Brien met Ida Lupino and fell in love. When he came back to San Francisco to get a divorce from Fontaine, she tells him that they have been accepted by the adoption agency. So, on his next trip to L.A. he decides to break things off with Lupino instead but discovers she’s pregnant with his child. Before he knows it, he simply decides to keep both women.

If the film has a downside, it’s definitely Young’s script. As the producer there was undoubtedly no one to tell when he was going over the line. In one scene in L.A., with O’Brien and Lupino on a bus tour of homes of the stars, the driver announces they are going by the home of Edmund Gwenn. In another scene when O’Brien and Lupino are drinking champagne, he says “Here’s looking at you,” in obvious reference to Casablanca. It’s all just a bit too precious. One of the best aspects of the film, however, is Lupino’s direction. Though the film is from 1953, it still has a forties sensibility, and she gives many of the shots a film noir styling. In one scene, after O’Brien has come back from a trip to L.A. he walks into the darkened living room and a shadow from outside covers his face. The music by Leith Stevens adds to this effect. Lupino has some nice moving camera shots, and frames her actors very well. It’s a nice film to look at.

Edmond O’Brien, who is probably best known by today’s audiences for his performance in the noir classic D.O.A. from 1950, was a hard-working actor who appeared in close to a hundred films. He had worked for Lupino in the original The Hitch-Hiker the year before, which she wrote and directed, and would win an Oscar for best supporting actor in The Barefoot Contessa the following year. But where O’Brien’s career was on the rise, Joan Fontaine’s best films were already behind her. Still, she’s a tremendous actress who does a wonderful job in the role of the San Francisco wife. Other great supporting roles are filled by Kenneth Tobey as O’Brien’s lawyer, John Maxwell as the judge, and in a bit part as a cleaning woman is the great Jane Darwell. The Bigamist is certainly not a brilliant film, but Idal Lupino is definitely a brilliant talent and it shows in this film.

North to the Klondike (1942)

Director: Erle C. Kenton                                  Writer: Clarence Upson Young
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                              Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Evelyn Ankers, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Andy Devine

This is a typical low-budget adventure yarn from Universal, based on Jack London's essay “Gold Hunters of the North.” North to the Klondike is notable for featuring the nascent film duo of Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr., who had first teamed together in their previous film The Wolf Man. Also onboard are Broderick Crawford and Andy Devine, two of Chaney’s drinking buddies. But what it lacks in artistry, it more than makes up for in brash and joie de vivre. It’s a familiar story of homesteaders trying to carve out a life in the wilderness, living next to miners who want to extract the gold. The miners need the farmers to leave so that they can stake a legitimate claim to the land, but of course the landowners don’t want to leave and the ensuing conflict is predictable.

The film begins with a short prologue, Andy Devine as an old man telling the story of the town of Haven as the ship he’s on takes refugees from the Dust Bowl up to Alaska to make a new start. Forty years earlier Broderick Crawford had gone up as an engineer to work a mine owned by Lon Chaney Jr. The only problem is, at the same time Crawford arrives so does a letter from the land office saying that the homesteaders have first claim to the land where the mine is located. Evelyn Ankers and her brother are two of the farmers, waiting for a shipment of supplies that will get them through the winter. Chaney tells Crawford to go home, saying that the mine’s a bust, but he sticks around while Chaney begins his campaign to get the landowners to leave. The first step is to burn the supply ship, the next is to kill the man who goes for more supplies. Crawford, his dander up now, decides to stay and fight, with Ankers as the reward.

The story has been used before, tangentially in something like Ride the High Country, but it is almost identical to the story that Clint Eastwood would use decades later when he filmed Pale Rider, his remake of Shane. This script, however, is difficult to take at times, as Andy Devine’s comic relief wears thin pretty fast. The star, Broderick Crawford does a nice job, however. For a man who never really had a major film career, he was a solid actor and managed to earn an Academy Award at the end of the decade for All The King’s Men. Ankers and Chaney definitely have supporting roles and so their characters really never have time to develop. There are some nice character parts, though. Lloyd Corrigan has a nice turn as the doctor, but it’s Keye Luke, one of the most recognizable Asian actors in Hollywood, who has a nifty little role as a stereotype but manages to give it an element of respectability.

As far as the technical aspects of the film go, it’s fairly underwhelming. Lots of rear screen projection, studio exteriors and cheesy costumes give the picture the look of an early thirties serial. The one nice set is on the homestead of Ankers’ brother, boasting a beautiful looking waterfall. The direction by Erle C. Kenton, one of the studio’s journeyman directors, is as pedestrian here as it is on the studio’s horror pictures. Speaking of which, the film score is simply the monster music composed by the great Hans Salter and grafted on to the film. Ultimately, it’s Broderick Crawford, not even his character, that’s the reason for watching the film. He’s calm and confident and a pleasure to watch. North to the Klondike may not be a good film, but it does deliver a modicum of entertainment and for that it’s worth a look.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Director: Archie Mayo                                     Writer: Charles Kenyon & Delmer Daves
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                             Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Porter Hall

Humphrey Bogart had been to Hollywood before 1936 to play some bit parts in several films, but it wasn’t until his good fortune to be in a hit play with Leslie Howard that he came out to California for good. His performance in the filmed version of The Petrified Forest secured him a contract with Warner Brother, but it would still be another five years before he made a name for himself in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon and achieved stardom. It’s a very talkative film that shows its beginnings as a play, especially in the first third when Leslie Howard is waxing philosophical about life and his past. He is an Englishman who has been hitchhiking across the United States. In Arizona he stops at a small gas station diner and meets Bette Davis, all doe-eyed and naïve. She’s stuck in the desert working for her father and grandfather, and being pursued by a dim-witted gas jockey whose only glory had been on the college football field.

The first third of the film is rather dull, and it’s not until Humphrey Bogart arrives that things really improve. Still, there’s an awful lot of talking. Bogart and his gang have carjacked a rich couple who were giving Howard a lift and take the car back to the gas station. Howard immediately sets out on foot for the station. When he arrives Bogart places everyone at tables and sits on a raised part of the restaurant as overlord. It soon appears that that Howard, who professes to want to die, is actually attempting to psychologically influence Bogart. The reality, however, is actually much more unpredictable and therefore satisfying. The characterizations are a bit thin, even for the thirties, but the film was a critical success and allowed Bogart to sign a long-term contract with Warners that eventually made him a star.

The real star of the film is Leslie Howard, and its great to seem in a more forceful role than I’ve seen him up util now. Bette Davis is good, as far as that goes, but it’s a fairly generic role and one that could have been played by any number of young stars at Warner Brothers. One wishes that Bogart could have played this role a decade later, bringing to it the character that he would eventually develop into. Ironically, the film he was in later that most resembles this picture is Key Largo, but Bogart plays the Howard role in that one. Archie Mayo, a second-tier director, was probably not the best choice for the project. He lacked the ability to elevate the film into anything more than a staged play, and the one-room set along with predictable setups reinforces the idea. At one point he has the bison horns mounted on the wall behind Bogart appear to stick out of his head, like the horns of the devil. It’s pretty blunt symbolism, especially with the fairly one-dimensional performance of Bogart.

Still, there’s something energetic about the production, and Leslie Howard’s ebullience carries the day. Warner Brothers’ stalwart Sol Polito is behind the camera, and the early sound composer Bernhard Kaun provides the music for the opening credits. There are also some very good supporting players in the picture. Charley Grapewin does a nice turn as the grandfather, and the distinctive Porter Hall plays Davis’s father. The other great performance in the film, one that actually merits its placement in the credits, is Genevieve Tobin. She’s the wife in the wealthy couple who has their car stolen. She is radiant onscreen and has a nice, impassioned speech she gives to Davis. In the end, The Petrified Forest is a classic Depression-era film, and delivers some solid performances that manage to rise above the lackluster direction, an interesting early Bogart and Davis pairing with a great performance by Leslie Howard.

Friday, November 15, 2013

An Evening with Carl Gottlieb

Last Wednesday night I had the pleasure of sitting across the table from the screenwriter of Jaws, Carl Gottlieb, as he entertained a small group of film lovers in the back room of a local Italian restaurant in Olympia. I had a tremendous time. Gottlieb is a soft-spoken, genial man who was not shy about answering all of our questions. The first question he was asked was about unproduced screenplays he had written. And he had two great ones.

The first was something called “The Wolf and the Blood” about a male and female team of police detectives, one a werewolf and one a vampire. But neither knows about the other’s secret. When a malevolent killer from the past is accidentally unleashed on L.A. they wind up revealing their powers to each other and have to decide if they’re going to use them to catch the killer. Not only was it a great premise, but the specifics of the story really showed Gottlieb to be a tremendous talent. His other screenplay about modern piracy was written long before Captain Philips. Instead of a straight drama, like the Tom Hanks film, it was more of an espionage action film with a U.S. senator, Middle East terrorists, and mercenaries all trying to reclaim the ship.

When the discussion turned to Jaws I discovered that Gottlieb had not seen Peter Benchley’s original script, or Spielberg’s own attempt. Instead, he worked off the Howard Sackler script, one that Spielberg didn’t really like, and had to hammer out pages just ahead of the shooting. Benchley’s screen credit was simply contractual. Gottlieb also had some great stories about the sequels where he was offered scale in the beginning, turned them down, and when both projects tanked early on in filming they came begging and he was able to gouge the studio for the money he should have been offered in the first place. The end of the evening found him talking about a couple of his more popular directing projects, Caveman with Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach, and Amazon Women on the Moon.

The evening was put together by the Olympia Film Society as part of a screening of Jaws 3. I didn’t attend the film as it is my least favorite in the franchise, but he did sign my first edition copy of The Jaws Log, a fantastic look behind the scenes of making the original film. Carl Gottlieb has had a small but important career in Hollywood. He’s a terrifically approachable man and has a flair for telling a story, not only in person but obviously on paper. It was a fantastic evening and a memory I’ll always cherish.

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg                              Writers: Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb
Film Score: John Williams                              Cinematography: Bill Butler
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary

Like so many great Hollywood blockbusters, you could never recreate this one in a million years. Everything had to be just right, a best-selling novel, a young director, a unique cast, a distinctive film score, the right time, and a mechanical shark that wouldn’t work. That’s right, probably the best thing about this film is the suspense that Spielberg was forced to create because he couldn’t film his mechanical shark. As a result, Jaws is one of the all-time great films in any genre. Sure, it was a summer scare movie, a popular success, and became part of the cultural consciousness, but it’s also an incredible artistic success as well. It boasts tremendous acting, a script that makes sense, a director who knows what he’s doing, and is just a great movie.

I can remember vividly reading Peter Benchley’s novel after I saw the film. It was impressive, especially for a first novel. There was so much backstory, and a relationship between Hooper and Ellen Brody that was both shocking and understandable. Benchley was given the opportunity to write the screenplay and did so, handing it off to Spielberg, who wrote his own version and then worked with playwright Howard Sackler and actor Carl Gottlieb to create the filmed version. Streamlining the whole thing down to a straight-ahead action picture was just as impressive. It begins with the death of a swimmer on Amity Island, a thinly-veiled Martha’s Vineyard where the shooting took place. The new chief of police, Roy Scheider, immediately wants to close the beaches down, but is manipulated into keeping them open by the mayor, Murray Hamilton. When there are more deaths he calls in shark expert Richard Dreyfuss, but still the mayor pushes back.

Of course there is another death and once it’s clear that Hamilton is the “mayor of shark city” they hire the old sea dog Robert Shaw to catch it, with Scheider and Dreyfuss aboard. This is where the brilliance of the broken shark kicks in. Without a visual, Spielberg needed another way to suggest the shark’s presence without it being seen. This was accomplished by the harpoons shot into the shark and the yellow barrels that followed the ship around. Not being able to see the shark, but knowing where he was and that he apparently had some intelligence was incredibly suspenseful. Spielberg also wisely chose to shoot the scenes on the boat as if they were far out to see, beyond the sight of land. This made the threat of the shark that much more dramatic.

Scheider had been seen by Spielberg in The French Connection and The Seven Ups, and he did a nice job here conveying fear of the water, but also an underlying strength in dealing with the city fathers and onboard the boat. He has some of the funniest lines as well. Dreyfuss was probably best known for American Graffiti before this, but this was a good film for him as it lead to more leading roles. Robert Shaw, who had been tremendous in The Sting the year before, was nearing the end of his career. It’s difficult to imagine anyone better to deliver the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech. Spielberg, young and brave, took on a colossal challenge and managed to make a tremendous film in the process. Jaws became the highest grossing picture ever at that time and remains one of the most iconic films in American Cinema, underrated artistically, but absolutely deserving of all its popularity.

Monday, November 11, 2013

College (1927)

Director: James W. Horne                              Writer: Carl Harbaugh & Bryan Foy
Film Score: John Muri (1992)                          Cinematography: Bert Haines
Starring: Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Flora Bramley and Harold Goodwin

I’m not a big comedy fan. Most of what passes for comedy today I find pretty juvenile and not particularly amusing. My favorite comedic actor is Albert Brooks, a cerebral comedian who comes out of the Buster Keaton school. And as far as silent comedians go, Keaton is my favorite by a wide margin. He was the master of sight gags, and College begins with a great one. The title card tells about the “sunkist” shores of California where the water meets the land, then the camera shows the outside of a high school being soaked in a rainstorm. The film is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the success of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman from two years earlier, but Keaton does his own take on the format and makes it a very different film, more like one of Disney's Goofy cartoons of the forties with the hero trying out all kinds of sports with comic results.

When Keaton graduates from high school he gives a speech saying how bad sports were for academics. Harold Goodwin is the jock at the school and is making the moves on Anne Cornwall, who Keaton happens to be in love with. Keaton follows her to college and immediately begins to find out a sport that he could succeed in and win the affections of Cornwall who wants to be with a strong man. It’s the same idea that Grease would co-opt some fifty years later. He begins with baseball which, ironically, Keaton loved and was very good at. When that doesn’t work he tries track and field and goes through all of the events with comic effect. At last the dean of the school intervenes and forces the coach of the crew team to put Keaton in as coxswain. In true silent comedy tradition, he helps the team with the race and they win. To avoid direct comparisons with Lloyd he wisely avoids football. All of which leads, quite naturally, to the obligatory happy ending.

There’s also another subplot in the film in which Keaton has to pay for college by getting a part time job. The first one is at a soda fountain and, with his boss expecting him to put on a show like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, it makes for some great gags. The difficult scene for modern audiences to watch is when he gets a job as a “colored” waiter. Of course it’s racist, but there is also a physicality that Keaton has that astounds the audience in much the way his chimpanzee impersonation does in The Play House. Keaton was never really a storyteller, and his best films succeeded in spite of that fact. This is definitely a lesser Keaton, more a string of gags than a story. Still, there are some very funny moments and sight gags that few comedians of his day, or any other, could come up with. College is not great Keaton, but it is Keaton, and in my mind that will always be great.

That Touch of Mink (1962)

Director: Delbert Mann                                   Writers: Stanley Shapiro & Nate Monaster
Film Score: George Dunning                          Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Doris Day, Cary Grant, Audrey Meadows and Gig Young

There are romantic comedies and then there are sex comedies, and while I love a good romcom, something about the sex comedy seems awfully tedious. That Touch of Mink is definitely in the later camp. It’s a one-note film that tries to milk as much humor as it can out of whether or not Doris Day will give it up for Cary Grant before they’re married. While there are some funny scenes and some inspired moments, there’s no way to maintain that kind of comedy for over an hour and a half. The film begins, in typical romcom fashion, with everywoman Day on her way to a job interview and the wealthy Grant splashing her with his Rolls Royce on the way to his office. Naturally she’s upset, and goes into the automat where her roommate, Audrey Meadows, works. When Gig Young, Grant’s assistant, hears of her plight he’s delighted to take her to his office so that Grant can finally get what he deserves.

Of course it doesn’t work out that way. The minute Day sets eyes on Grant she falls for him and he wastes no time getting her out of her dress . . . so it can be cleaned by the valet. Grant brings her in on a business meeting and she manages to help them make the deal he’s been working on, and so he asks her out for dinner, which she gladly accepts. He takes her to a Yankees game, where she manages to get Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Barra kicked out of the game. Delighted at her small town ways, Grant wants to see more of her, literally, and invites her on a trip to Bermuda. There she imagines everyone knows she’s sleeping with Grant, even though she manages to avoid it by breaking out in a rash. Grant, sitting by the pool, meets a number of newly married men who are nervous and avoiding their wedding night, the opposite problem for Grant. After she recovers in New York they try again, but this time she gets drunk and falls off the balcony.

Like the best of romcoms, it is the sidekicks who generate the most laughs. Audrey Meadows, who had worked exclusively in television to this point, is tremendous as the wisecracking roommate who warns Day off of Grant at first. Apparently Grant, who was a big fan of The Honeymooners, was able to get her the part and one wishes she had been able to do a lot more film work. Gig Young is the tortured soul who feels responsible for leading Day right into Grant’s clutches. One of his funniest bits is whenever he goes back to the automat. Meadows, agreeing that he is responsible, comes up with a number of ways to show her displeasure from slapping him with a hand that shoots out of the machine to throwing salad in his face. They are extremely well filmed gags that are some of the funniest moments in the film. In addition there are some nice cameo appearances by Dick Sergeant, John Fiedler, and John Astin, whom Day goes out with to get Grant jealous at the end.

Doris Day, of course, had been in a bunch of these films in the late fifties and early sixties, with the likes of Rock Hudson and James Garner. The teaming with Cary Grant was a natural after he had done An Affair to Remember with Deborah Kerr and Indiscreet with Ingrid Bergman, and he would go on to film Charade with Audrey Hepburn shortly after. This would be one of Grant’s last films, as he felt he didn’t need the money and wanted to go out remembered as a leading man rather than a grandfatherly Spencer Tracy type. That Touch of Mink follows a predictable formula, with the kind of early sixties sensibilities that would soon be dropped wholesale after the death of President Kennedy. It reflects an earlier, innocent time in our history and for that it’s an interesting period piece. If you like this sort of thing, it does hold interest. If not, it could be a long one hundred minutes.