Tuesday, January 3, 2017

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Director: Norman Jewison                                Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Film Score: Quincy Jones                                Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates and Lee Grant

In 1963 Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for best actor for Lilies of the Field. It was the first time a black actor had won an Oscar for anything in twenty-five years. But clearly this was a token, as the Academy wouldn’t see fit to do it again for another twenty years when Lou Gossett Jr. won a supporting actor Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982. In the meantime, however, Poitier continued to star in powerful dramas like In the Heat of the Night that pointedly dealt with the black experience in America and the struggle blacks face every day to be afforded the same respect and dignity that whites give to each other as a matter of course. And looked at in that light it’s not surprising at all that the Academy ignored him during the rest of the sixties. The story began as a novel by John Ball from two years earlier that won an Edgar Award for best first novel. The idea is a brilliant one, a white police officer and a black one working together in the South almost against their wills, especially as it’s set against the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. It’s easy to see why it struck a chord with audiences and went on to be nominated for seven Oscars and won five, including best picture of 1967 and best screenplay for Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation. Of course Sidney Poitier was completely ignored by the Academy. They would let him win for portraying a black man helping nuns to build a church, but not for playing a black man standing up for his rights as a human being in the American South.

The film begins with the unmistakable voice of Ray Charles singing the title song. A train pulls into a sleepy Southern town in Mississippi and deposits Sidney Poitier at the station. At the diner across town police officer Warren Oates is just finishing supper, but when he heads back out in his cruiser he finds Jack Teter dead in a downtown alley. Later a gum-chewing Rod Steiger shows up to take over the crime scene. Oates is sent out to check the train station and when he finds Poitier he arrests him immediately. Of course the cops try to intimidate him, and his refusal to be scared makes Steiger reconsider him ever so slightly. But he’s really taken aback when he learns that Poitier is a police officer in Philadelphia. The first good thing that happens is Steiger chews out Oates for not questioning Poitier, and after a call to his chief everything is straightened out. Except that when Steiger finds out he’s the number one homicide detective in the city, he actually floats the idea that maybe Poitier can help solve their murder for them. Against his better judgment--and since his train doesn’t leave until noon the next day--Poitier decides to do it. But that’s just the beginning of the hostilities. Poitier is used to acting like a cop, not a cowed black man in the Jim Crow South, and Steiger chafes at having to defend him. Even when Steiger wants him to quit the case, Poitier won’t back down.

It’s actually an interesting case that isn’t solved very easily. But the longer Poitier stays around, the more hidden Southern indiscretions he winds up uncovering, and he’s in a place where people are not going to sit still for a black man uncovering their secrets even with Steiger’s protection. There are two standout moments in the film, one obvious and the other less so. The first one is early on when Steiger gets irritated because he has a suspect and Poitier says he’s innocent. So when Steiger tries to make fun of his first name and asks what they call him up in Philadelphia he says, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” The line is so good that it was used for the title of the misguided sequel three years later. The second comes near the end of the film when the two are over at Steiger’s house, and for a moment they forget that they’re enemies, just talking the way cops will. When Steiger talks about being lonely, and Poitier commiserates with him, suddenly Steiger frowns and says, “Don’t get smart, black boy. No pity, thank you.” In a time honored code of the South, blacks are not allowed to feel sorry for whites because it would mean that they are lower than blacks in some way. No matter how poor off a white person is, they still have to be seen in their own minds as better than blacks.

As good as Sidney Poitier is, and he is tremendous, Rod Steiger is magnificent as the redneck police chief who gradually has to concede that Poitier is good at his job and not only the equal but the better of his small police department. As a result, Steiger won an Oscar for his performance. Lee Grant, in a very small role, is the dead man’s wife and she was fortunate to be given such a realistic part instead of the clichéd writing that is usually foisted upon this type of character. William Schallert shows up as the mayor, and an impossibly young Matt Clark makes a surprise appearance later on. In the early seventies there were some incredibly good film scores for crime dramas that utilized soul and jazz music, but this isn’t one of them. Quincy Jones was ahead of the curve, perhaps, but even sixties scores like Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin were much better than this. Had he stayed with the blues sensibility that opened the film it could have been great, but as it stands the pre-Shaft music is lackluster by comparison. The two songs by Ray Charles are the only really memorable tunes. Other Oscars went to the sound design team and to Harold Ashby for his editing of the picture. But In the Heat of the Night will always be remembered best for capturing a particular time in this country’s social history, and offering the promise of hope amid the harsh realities of oppression.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Director: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly             Writers: Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Film Score: Lennie Hayton                               Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen

One of the great shocks of watching Universal’s The Old Dark House from 1932 is when Melvyn Douglas, on the way to said house in a rain storm, starts crooning “Singin’ in the Rain.” But while the film of the same name wasn’t released until twenty years later, the song is originally from the MGM musical, The Hollywood Review of 1929. This makes sense because Singin’ in the Rain is set in the late twenties as Hollywood was converting from silent to sound films. The new musical sends up the whole studio system and--except for a lengthy, self-indulgent dance number by Gene Kelly at the end--it is an absolutely perfect screen musical. The film is the brainchild of MGM producer Arthur Freed who began working on musicals at the studio in 1929, and all of the songs were either written by him, and Nacio Herb Brown, or had been used in one of the many musicals he had worked on over the years. The production also used existing sets where they could, and costumes already in wardrobe, which fit perfectly with the film’s storyline. Nevertheless, as with most of MGM’s musicals there were cost overruns, especially filming the dance numbers. While the film wasn’t a huge hit at the time, it was a success, making a profit for the studio after going half a million dollars over budget in the course of production. All four principals do a tremendous job and while there were discussions about other to work with Kelly during pre-production, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.

The credits open on Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor singing the title song in yellow rain slickers and umbrellas behind the opening credits. The film proper begins at a grand premiere of the new silent film by movie stars Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen. Gossip columnist Madge Blake asks Kelly to tell his story and his studio publicity recitation is a wonderfully ironic counterpoint to the actual visuals. The vaudeville song and dance routine of “Fit as a Fiddle” is particularly good. He and O’Connor come to Hollywood with O’Connor playing piano and Kelly doing stunt work, then the studio head puts him in a leading role opposite Hagen. On stage after the premier one thing becomes clear, Kelly won’t let her get in a word edgewise. The reason: she has a horrible speaking voice. Trying to escape fans after the show, Kelly winds up in the car of Debbie Reynolds and she accidentally insults him by saying he’s not a real actor. But the tables turn at a party he attends when she is one of the dancers that comes out of a giant cake. Later, when studio head Millard Mitchell finds out The Jazz Singer has been a huge hit, he wants to convert Kelly and Hagen’s newest film to sound, but with disastrous consequences because of Jean Hagen’s voice and Kelly’s inability to act. The finished product at the sneak preview is one of the funniest moments in the picture. It’s not until O’Connor comes up with the idea of dubbing Hagen’s footage with Reynolds’ voice that it saves the picture--but also unleashes some unintended consequences.

The film does an excellent job of emulating the style of films of the period, the dress and the studio system in particular--Gene Kelly even looks like John Gilbert with his big grin--and the dancing and musical numbers throughout are impressive. Donald O’Connor’s set piece “Make ‘em Laugh,” Gene Kelly’s solo on the title number, as well as the trio doing “Good Morning” are all classic routines of the cinema musical. And the tap routine by Kelly and O’Connor on “Moses” is also outstanding. The only flaws in the picture are when Kelly tries to be too self-consciously artistic. One example is the song “You Were Meant for Me” when he is trying to tell Reynolds how much he likes her in the empty studio, dancing together with nothing but lights on a wooden floor. But at least that song fits in with the plot. When Kelly and O’Connor cook up an idea in the office of Millard Mitchell to change the new film into a modern musical, the endless dance sequence of “Broadway Melody” with Cyd Charisse is pure torture to watch because it is completely out of context and relates to nothing else in the picture. It’s as much of a non sequitur in the film as it is in the onscreen movie they’re making. That aside, however, there’s nothing to complain about in the film. Like a lot of films recognized as classics today, it wasn’t considered so at the time, and the film was only nominated for two Oscars, one for the performance of Jean Hagen and the other for Lennie Hayton’s film score.

The A List essay by Judy Gerstel begins on exactly the right note: “Only a curmudgeonly wet blanket couldn’t love Singin’ in the Rain.” She also goes on to say that there is something “slyly subversive” about the picture, which also rings true. Critic Jacqueline T. Lynch has gone so far as to connect the film with Sunset Boulevard from two years earlier in the way that they both deal with the end of the silent era though in very different ways, while Gertsel also sees it as a negative image of All About Eve from the same year. Gerstel begins with a bit of the historical background before getting to the real reason for the film’s success: Gene Kelly. He not only starred and choreographed the picture; he received co-director credit along with Stanley Donen. But she also accurately assesses the impact that Donald O’Connor has, saying that he nearly steals the show, and how perfect Debbie Reynolds is as an opposite type to the glamorous “movie star” Gene Hagen. Thematically, Gertsel sees the film as pulling the veil back on the illusion that is Hollywood, everything from the wardrobe of the stars at the premiere, to Kelly’s fabrication of his background, to the dubbing of Hagen’s voice by Reynolds, and yet at the same time being able to “still seduce us with that very artifice.” It’s a nice summation of what makes Singin’ in the Rain such an enduring classic and for many--myself included--the quintessential Hollywood musical.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                       Writers: Lester Cole & John Wexley
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                      Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Ralph Bellamy and Alan Hale

A welcome bit of whimsy from Warner Brothers and their star swashbuckler Errol Flynn, Footsteps in the Dark is a comedic murder mystery that tries to capture something of the success of The Thin Man. Of course it fails miserably, but it is still an entertaining frolic. The story is a complicated mix of clues and gags without any real suspects, which is probably its biggest weakness. It began as a German play entitled Kazenzugen by Lazlo Fodor, which was then translated into English by Bernard Merivale and had various titles, including Blondie White as well as the title of the film. Warner Brothers purchased the rights in 1937 and it was originally going to feature Edward G. Robinson, as the star had recently made a couple of comedies like A Slight Case of Murder that were similar in spirit to this. But by the time the film was ready to go before the cameras Robinson was already committed to doing The Sea Wolf. At the same time Errol Flynn, who had appeared in seven historical dramas in a row, wanted desperately to do something different and so he was assigned to the film. Flynn was happy about the change, and there was even talk of a sequel, but the audience wasn’t and the film failed at the box office. The reviews at the time were mixed, though most critics clearly understood that while it was not great cinema that there was plenty to enjoy about the film if the viewer doesn’t take it too seriously.

The film begins with Errol Flynn sneaking into a house late one night. But it turns out it’s his own house and he climbs in bed next to sleeping wife Brenda Marshall. The next morning at breakfast the papers are advertising a bestselling murder mystery called, what else, Footsteps in the Dark. Flynn’s mother-in-law, Lucile Watson, think’s the book is a scandal. The family lawyer, Grant Mitchell, comes over and it turns out Watson is suing the publisher of the novel for slander because the characters are all thinly veiled versions of all the people in their social circle. Flynn wholeheartedly agrees, but on the way to work at his job as a wealthy investment counselor he tells Mitchell to stop the suit while extolling the virtues of deception. He puts in a perfunctory appearance at his office then has his driver, Allen Jenkins, swap cars at a garage and take him to a suburban house where he sets to work writing about the society people he lives and works among. Clearly, he is the author of Footsteps in the Dark. But then Noel Madison comes to his office one day, subtly implying that he wants Flynn to fence stolen diamonds for him under the cover of his work, and also suggesting that he knows about Flynn’s writing as a way to coerce him. At the same time the captain of the homicide squad, Alan Hale, who is a friend but knows Flynn only as the writer, goes on the radio at the behest of Watson to knock the book, which might cut into sales.

Hale’s point is that real detective work is much more scientific, and when a report comes in about a dead man found on a yacht, detective William Frawley dares Flynn to come and see them at work. The coroner thinks the man drank himself to death, but once Flynn confirms the victim is Noel Madison he knows it’s murder. Now all he has to do is prove it. His only clues are Madison’s secretive servant, Turhan Bey, and a blonde burlesque performer, Lee Patrick. Ralph Bellamy plays the dentist who gives Patrick her alibi. At the same time his mother-in-law hires private detective Roscoe Karns to spy on him. The film is a rather awkward attempt at comedy, though in the end it seems to work and one wishes Flynn had had the opportunity to make more films in the series and become more comfortable in the role. In this outing Flynn is too urbane to play the character in the way someone like William Powell would have. But when looked at in another way the film is almost better because of it. There’s something charming about Flynn’s awkward attempt to pretend he’s a Texas oilman, and the lies he tells to his wife and mother-in-law. The amateurishness actually makes his performance seem more realistic. In addition to the rest of the tremendous character work by all of the above, Gary Owen also appears as a witness in the case, and Frank Faylen plays a taxi driver, no doubt a warm-up for his role in It’s a Wonderful Life. For fans of Flynn the film is essential, for everyone else Footsteps in the Dark is flawed but fun.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle                                  Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Heinz Herald
Film Score: Max Steiner                                   Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Henry O’Neill and Joseph Schildkraut

The winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 1937 went to The Life of Emile Zola, another in a string of films that attempted to deal with the increasing restriction of freedom in Nazi Germany. The second half of the film deals with the Dreyfuss Affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century, in which a Jewish officer was convicted on treason simply because of his religion. Thus, the criticisms that the title character wields in the name of freedom could just as easily be transferred to Germany in the years before World War Two. Nevertheless, the episode was an embarrassment to the French and so the film was not seen in that country until the early fifties. The complicated writing credits are due to the fact that everyone who had written anything on the Dreyfuss Affair at the time came out of the woodwork to accuse Warner Brothers of plagiarism, and the studio responded by purchasing the rights to all of those works by three authors. As a result, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg earned Oscars, along with screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine, for their play about Dreyfuss. Apparently Bette Davis expressed interest in playing the character of Nana, but since the part was so small the studio turned her down. Paul Muni was fresh off of his success in The Story of Louis Pasteur and so the part was a natural. Interestingly, while Joseph Schildkraut has a very small part as Dreyfuss he was given the Academy Award for best supporting actor, though this would be his last film at Warners.

The film begins in Paris, in 1862. Paul Muni as Zola and Vladimir Sokoloff as the painter Cezanne are starving artists sharing a flat together, and Gloria Holden is Muni’s fiancée. After he gets a job at a book publisher, he gets married and begins publishing his novels. But almost immediately the government wants to ban them as being offensive and he gets fired. Soon he begins writing about the injustices he sees all around him, police corruption, lack of protection for poor citizens, rampant crime. Then he meets prostitute Erin O’Brien-Moore and uses her life story as the basis for his novel Nana, which becomes a huge bestseller, and his publisher John Litel is pleased to give him a royalty check that gets the writer out of poverty. Then the Franco-Prussuan war impoverishes all of France, the author writes the book Downfall to expose the truth about the war. The general staff demands he be punished in retaliation, but Muni continues to write book after book criticizing the flaws in French society, and becomes a rich man in the process. When a letter is sent to the German attaché in Paris from the home of Robert Barrat as Count Esterhazy, it is stolen and shown to the French high command. The letter appears to be a list of secret military documents and it works its way up the chain of command beginning with Louis Calhern and finally the Minister of war Gilbert Emery who suddenly decides that since Joseph Schildkraut, as Alfred Dreyfus, is a Jew, he must be the traitor.

At first Muni, fat and happy as a bestselling author, is completely uninterested in the case. The court-martial finds Schildkraut guilty, and he is exiled to Devil’s Island after a public humiliation. Later, French intelligence officer Henry O’Neill uncovers the truth, but the general staff insist on covering the whole thing up to hide their mistake. Schildkraut’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, won’t rest until her husband has been exonerated and she finally gets Muni back to his old form and he puts his reputation on the line for justice. Muni does a solid job, but it’s not really the part itself that makes the film great but the story. Nevertheless, he delivers an impressive closing speech during his trial. This was Gloria Holden’s first film after the successful Dracula’s Daughter at Universal the year before, playing one of the many wife characters that would populate the bulk of her career. Donald Crisp plays Muni’s lawyer to good effect, while Ralph Morgan appears as the commander of Paris. And Henry O’Neill does a splendid job as the one officer who tries to be honest. The film is directed well by William Dieterle, one of Warner’s stable of great directors, and he was nominated for an Oscar, as was Max Steiner for his film score--though in those days the award would have gone to the head of department instead of the actual composer. The film was nominated for nine Oscars and won three. The Life of Emile Zola contains a wealth of great character acting and is an uplifting story of social activism that still resonates with audiences today.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir                                        Writers: Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir
Film Score: Joseph Kosma                               Cinematography: Christian Matras
Starring: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio and Erich von Stroheim

Jean Renoir’s incredible anti-war film The Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) was thought to be lost in its original form, taken back to Germany by the Nazis and leaving the world with only butchered copies that were unable to convey the magic that the great director had originally captured on film. Fortunately the original negative was discovered in Munich in the late fifties and the film is now considered one of the greatest in cinematic history. Because the film is set during World War One, there is a natural impetus to compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front. But they are very different films and ultimately have very different messages. The story by Erich Maria Remarque is one of disillusionment, and while there is certainly some of that in Renoir’s film there is far more emphasis on relationships in all forms, whether they be between races, citizens of one country, or citizens of the world. In the earlier film the illusion is that of the glory of war. In the French film it is the illusion of separation between people. At the end of the film Marcel Dalio says to Jean Gabin that borders are all man-made. The implication is clear, so are all of humanity’s attempts to separate people and make them enemies. The only problem is we act on that illusion because we believe it is real.

The film begins with pilot Jean Gabin listening to a phonograph in a bar and planning on meeting his girlfriend later. But he’s told he needs to take an officer, Pierre Fresnay, to the front immediately. Fresnay want to check out some ambiguous images on an aerial recognizance photograph. In the very next scene, German pilot Erich von Stroheim comes in from just having shot down a plane and sends someone to go after the pilot to invite him to lunch. The pilot turns out to be Gabin, with Fresnay in tow. They sit down to eat with the German staff officers and the civility is incredibly comical. Later the two are transferred to a prisoner of war camp for officers, and the comedy continues inside the camp. While the Germans have no compunction about taking valuables from the prisoners, the French officers receive regular packages of food from France while the Germans are forced to eat what they can scrounge. Marcel Dalio gets the best parcels of all because his family is wealthy. Julien Carette was a comedic actor as a civilian, but the snobbish Fresnay doesn’t appreciate his humor. Later, Georges Péclet wants to know from Gabin if they can trust Frenay, because they are digging a tunnel.

One meaning of the title comes from the fact that this is 1914 and the war has barely begun. When Gabin tells Péclet that the war will be over before they get the tunnel finished, Péclet tells him he’s deluding himself. The bigger illusion, however, may be that they’ll ever escape at all. But by the end of the film it’s clear that it is the illusion of aristocracy that is really the subject of the film. As a war film, the story is tremendously influential. The film is the precursor to any number of serio-comic prison-break films, from The Great Escape and Stalag 17 in the 1950s, to Victory thirty years later. The men also insist on putting on a show, complete with costumes and men in drag, which prefigures Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as the singing of “La Marseillaise,” which infuriates the Germans just a it would in Casablanca. For announcing the news that the French had retaken one of their forts and inspiring the French officers to sing the anthem, Gabin finds himself in solitary confinement until it nearly drives him mad. But that’s nothing after he and the other officers find out that they have to move camps before the tunnel is done. As the war drags on they change camps several times. The last camp they are assigned to has, as its commandant, none other than Erich von Stroheim, and the parallels with The Great Escape become even more numerous. It’s a mountain fortress with thick, stone walls that defy escape. And still, they keep trying.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the film for American audiences is the class distinctions that are made throughout the film. Von Stroheim treats Frenay with great deference because of their shared nobility, the same thing that keeps Gabin from entirely trusting Frenay. For von Stroheim’s part, he understands that the old monarchical system will certainly be over when the war ends, but this doesn’t seem to bother Frenay. The production is outstanding, and the restored negative certainly makes it the equal of anything produced in Hollywood at the time. Director Jean Renoir likes to zoom in on his actors on occasion without cutting, and it is one of the few individual touches that can be noticed immediately. Of course the acting is magnificent. Jean Gabin is a force on the screen, natural and magnetic at the same time. Pierre Fresnay, while inspiring disdain, nevertheless acquits himself as a character with a moral center. And it’s always a pleasure to see the great Erich von Stroheim onscreen. Dita Parlo doesn’t appear until near the end of the film, but she is an important part of the story and she does a terrific job as well. The Grand Illusion certainly earns its reputation as one of the great films of all time, an influential and artistic film that is as compelling as it is beautiful to look at.