Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Director: Steven Soderbergh                             Writer: Ted Griffin
Film Score: David Holmes                                 Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia

As bad as the original Ocean’s 11 with the Rat Pack was, that’s how good this remake is. Interestingly, there have been a bunch of these types of turnarounds in the last twenty years, the James Bond film Casino Royale transformed the original Peter Sellers comedy into a terrific action picture, The Italian Job became a tremendous caper film after updating the abysmal attempt at comedy with Michael Caine in the late sixties, and of course, there is the incredibly satisfying Ocean’s Eleven. The screenplay by Ted Griffin, who would go on to pen another magnificent caper film the very next year, Matchstick Men, is nearly flawless. The plot is clever without being cute, the dialogue witty without feeling forced, and the caper complex without cheating the audience. Because of that, it rewards repeat viewings because the clues are there without giving things away. Steven Soderbergh, whose previous two films had been Erin Brockovich and Traffic, was at the peak of his form and the perfect director for the material. To make sure he captured exactly what he wanted on film, he also acted as his own director of photography. Finally, the cast could not have been better chosen. Soderbergh and Griffin both realized that in order to make the ensemble as strong as possible they needed to have a major star in every part. But the end result is more than just a great caper film. There’s the high-stakes game of intellect between the protagonists and antagonist, the camaraderie among the crew, and the love story that doesn’t even know it is one, all of which carries the viewer away on an incredible ride.

The film opens with George Clooney as Danny Ocean up for his parole hearing and being released from a New Jersey prison. Once out he immediately goes to Atlantic City to recruit his inside man, casino blackjack dealer Bernie Mac, then heads out to L.A. to team up with his old partner Brad Pitt. Together, the two of them go to Las Vegas moneyman Elliott Gould, and it doesn’t take much convincing to get him to join them in attempting to steal a hundred and fifty million dollars from his enemy, rival casino owner Andy Garcia. The heist concerns a vault located below the Bellagio hotel and casino, which also holds the money from the two other casinos Garcia owns, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. The rest of the crew consists of brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan who are professional drivers and serve a number of functions during the caper playing various anonymous employees of both the casino and Carl Reiner, their front for the operation. Eddie Jemison is the electronics man, who hacks into the casino’s security system to get access to the surveillance cameras, and Don Cheadle is the British explosives expert who blows the safe. The cinematic unknown of the group is Shabo Qin as the “grease man,” the guy who can get in and out of small places. Finally, they need a good pickpocket and Clooney goes to Chicago to recruit Matt Damon. With the team in place, they head to the Bellagio to set things in motion. The only snag comes when Pitt discovers Julia Roberts, Clooney’s ex-wife and Garcia’s current girlfriend, and questions the leader’s motives.

The caper itself, as in all such films, only works by keeping crucial information from the audience. But the clues are there. One of the first is in explaining the reason for constructing an identical vault to practice on, when Clooney hints that this is only one of the uses it will have. There is also the mysterious pine tree air freshener hanging in one of the vehicles, though that isn’t really a clue. Soderbergh had already directed a far less successful caper film with Clooney and Roberts in Out of Sight a few years earlier, but would earn an Academy Award for Traffic just the year before this film was produced. He worked closely with screenwriter Ted Griffin during production, as the writer stayed on the set to help out with re-writes and script changes. In addition to the intricacy of the plot, the story is also loaded with humor, beginning with the almost elliptical relationship between Clooney and Pitt, to the point where in one scene between them Pitt doesn’t even talk. There’s also a terrifically funny scene early on with Pitt teaching twenty-something actors--all as themselves--how to play poker. Unlike a lot of similar films, there is almost no violence. The only person who gets shot is in a flashback scene showing a thief from the eighties. In some respects this could be seen as a minor flaw in the film, because if feels as if there is very little at stake for the perpetrators other than jail time. But then that’s what makes it so fun. Andy Garcia is perfect as the villain, and in some ways helps distract the audience from focusing too intently on how the Eleven are going to pull off the robbery. Ocean’s Eleven may have a dubious pedigree, but it’s difficult to think of a film from the last twenty years that is more fun and entertaining.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher                                    Writers: Jimmy Sangster & Herford Janes
Film Score: Leonard Salzedo                            Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson and Michael Gwynn

The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of the better sequels in the Hammer series of horror films. Unlike the latter Dracula films, this story picks up right where Curse of Frankenstein left off, with Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein about to face the guillotine and beheaded as punishment for his monster’s crimes. The film is essentially a loose adaptation of a small subplot of Universal’s House of Frankenstein, with a disfigured hunchback falling in love with a beautiful nurse, and his desire to have his brain transplanted into a strong new body in the hopes of winning her love. But unlike Boris Karloff’s lies to J. Carrol Naish, Dr. Frankenstein is true to his word in this film. Interestingly, Michael Gwynn’s monster is the closest ever to Mary Shelley’s original conception, as he’s intelligent and well spoken, quite the opposite of the lumbering beasts in all of the previous Frankenstein movies. And that is the primary distinction between the two series. Where Universal focused on the monster, conveniently revived in every new incarnation by a different mad doctor, Hammer realized that Cushing was the real draw of the original film and made him the through character for their series. The film received mixed reviews, primarily because of the lack of real menace by Cushing, but the film has been consistently praised by fans who enjoy seeing the modulations of the character as he appears in each successive film.

The opening credits are seen over a silhouette of the guillotine, and then shifts to the preparations for the execution. Peter Cushing as Frankenstein is led out of his jail cell to the scaffold by a priest, Alex Gallier. The camera follows the blade up to the top of the mechanism, a brief struggle is heard below, and the blade comes down. The scream heard is then associated with a jump cut to a busy pub. Thief Lionel Jeffries attempts to get reluctant Michael Ripper to join him on a job, but the money is too much to resist and he finally agrees. The work involves digging up the freshly buried body of Cushing, but when they crack open the coffin lid it turns out to be the headless priest. Ripper runs away, but when Cushing his hunchbacked assistant Oscar Quitak show up, Quitak kills Jeffries and they bury him with the priest. Then a time shift brings the anonymous doctor to Carlsbruck where he has been practicing under the name of Stein. He manages to fund his work at a free clinic by taking away nearly all the female patients from the other doctors in town, and earning the enmity of the local medical society in the process. One of the younger doctors there, Francis Matthews, guesses Cushing’s identity and blackmails him into letting him become his student. The two work out of a disguised wine cellar beneath a beer hall along with Quitak, where Cushing is assembling a new monster, Michael Gwynn. Where Cushing believes he failed last time was in attempting to bring to life a dead brain. This time he intends on transplanting the live brain of the deformed Quitak into the body of Gwynn.

The love interest is Eunice Gayson, the new clinic assistant and the daughter of the president of the medical society, while Richard Wordsworth is the nosy janitor who helps her turn the monster loose on the town--with predictable results. The real brilliance of Peter Cushing in the role of Dr. Frankenstein is his incredible arrogance. He’s the greatest medical mind of his time, and he knows it. He refuses to feel sorry for those physicians less gifted than he, or to fell guilt about his amoral behavior. Anything that advances his--and by extension, mankind’s--knowledge is perfectly justified. Unlike Colin Clive’s continual moral hand wringing from the original Universal series, Cushing has ice water in his veins and doesn’t care who knows it. As a result, he’s remarkable to watch onscreen, and it makes the Frankenstein series much more powerful than the seemingly improvised stories of the Dracula films. Terence Fisher acquits himself well in directing the picture, and while the production does miss the demonstrative presence of James Bernard on the soundtrack, Leonard Salzedo’s subdued score is probably more reflective of the monster in this film. The ending, however, is what makes the story so good, so it wouldn’t do to give it away here, but there is a hint of it in the original novel as well as the stage play that was adapted from it before the title character began his movie career. It’s really what makes the picture and sets Jimmy Sangster’s story apart from everything that had gone before it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is a worthy successor to the original and a springboard for the continuation of Hammer’s most successful franchise.

Unforgiven (1992)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                   Writer: David Webb Peoples
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                             Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris

I remember the first time I watched Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven at the theater in 1992. I was absolutely delighted at the way he seemed to defy every western cliché there was, and created the first film in the genre that seemed true to life rather than mythological. For me it was the first true anti-western. Well, decades later I actually began watching real westerns, by John Ford and Anthony Mann, with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart, and I came to the shocking realization that almost all of the great westerns are actually anti-westerns. The film was nominated for a whopping nine Academy Awards and won four, for best picture, Eastwood’s direction, film editing, and for Gene Hackman’s standout supporting performance. Apparently David Webb Peoples’ screenplay had kicked around Hollywood for a decade before Eastwood picked it up, and then he held on to it for another ten years until both he and the movie-going public were ready for it. Unlike so many modern films, in which killing has become meaningless through repetition and overuse, the ideas of the cost of taking a life, and how much a life is worth, are put under a microscope, and the answers are not always simple ones. Eastwood’s character is not a hero, but even the immoral acts he commits in the film seem heroic because they emerge from a place that is so genuine, so real, that it just seems to make sense. As the title implies, no one believes he can ever be redeemed for his past sins, but that is probably the most important lesson of the film: that he may actually live a better life if he can realize that fact for himself.

Eastwood begins poetically, as he loves to do, with a textual prologue about a man on the prairie who has lost his wife. The film is set in Wyoming in 1880. Cowboys in from a nearby ranch visit a brothel in Big Whiskey and, when one of the boys gets drunk, both he and his partner cut up Anna Levine’s face. Outspoken prostitute Frances Fisher is outraged when all sheriff Gene Hackman does is fine them rather than hang them--a fine that goes to the owner anyway rather than doing anything for Levine. So Fisher and the other prostitutes pool their money and put out the word that they will pay a reward for anyone who kills the cowboys. Clint Eastwood is the man who lost his wife, an inept pig farmer with two kids. In his previous life, however, he was a cold-blooded killer. Young braggart Jaimz Woolvett tells Eastwood about the “whores’ gold” and he wants to partner up and collect. At first Eastwood begs off, but before long he shows up at the farm of his former partner Morgan Freeman, and the two set out to catch up with Woolvett. Eastwood and Freeman are middle-aged men now. Eastwood can’t hit anything with his pistols, and can barely mount his horse, and though Freeman is an excellent shot he doesn’t have the stomach for killing anymore. But they both need the money badly enough that they are willing to revert to their old ways to get it. There’s also a brilliant sub-plot that begins at this point, when Richard Harris and Sal Rubinek pull into town on the train, also looking to murder for profit. Rubinek is a writer, working on a biography of the gunman Harris. But there’s bad blood between Harris and Hackman, and when everyone converges on Big Whiskey things slowly grind their way to a conclusion.

Hackman is a likable character with an incredible mean streak. He figures if he goes overboard with his punishments in enforcing the law his reputation will keep troublemakers from coming to town. And it usually works. But he makes a major misstep when he winds up getting on the wrong side of Eastwood, and that’s where the real heart of the conflict in the story lies. As always, the director strives for authenticity, and his West is a raw and dirty place. More than that, however, the emotions are real as well. Woolvett talks tough, but when he finally kills one of the cowboys it just about emotionally cripples him. At the same time, there’s an awful lot of humor in the film, especially when Hackman makes it his mission to set Rubinek straight on the real story of Harris, the “Duck of Death.” Like all great westerns, the film is a character study more than anything else, and underneath the outward behavior of all of the characters flows a genuine current of fear. Eastwood, Hackman, Freeman, the prostitutes, they’re all scared of something. Eastwood elicits a tremendous amount of pathos as the weakly former gunman who is pushed into marshaling his skills of old, but the film really belongs to Hackman, friendly and cruel by turns, and yet incredibly unsettled by the thought of what could happen if he ever loses the upper hand. Rubinek also gives a tremendous performance as the Eastern intellectual with no loyalty to anyone, trying to understand the ways of the west, while the great Rob Campbell, in his first film, has a small role as one of the cowboys. It’s a powerful film that delivers everything one could want in a western, and yet still manages to defy expectations.

The review in The A-List by Kenneth Turan is one of several in the book that suffers from being written contemporaneously with the film. Nevertheless, despite his breezy style--which I don’t really care for--he manages to hit all of the major elements of the film. First is the screenplay, with “the unexpected turns the plot takes, the power of its idiosyncratic characters, [and] the adroit way it mixes modern and traditional elements.” One of those modern elements is the event that the entire plot centers on, the money the prostitutes offer to avenge their own when no one else will, “giving the film a fascinating neo-feminist subtext.” What Turan calls the most “unexpected aspect” of the film is the one that initially drew me in, describing it as “a violent film that is determined to demythologize killing,” and asking about Eastwood and Freeman’s characters, “can they kill the same way and, more crucial, if they can take one step back down the road to perdition, will they be able to turn around and return to their quiet lives?” One argument that doesn’t ring true, at least in the context of Eastwood’s film, is the disappearance of the western frontier, and Turan’s contention that it leaves “considerable frustration in its wake.” Big Whisky seems just as isolated in 1880 as it might have in 1850, and unlike a lot of westerns the incursion of the modern into the lives of the characters is completely absent. This is a pure western drama, but the “shootouts and gunplay” of genre tradition, in this case, have been rendered more realistically as “drunken, thuggish violence.” For all its emphasis on big sky country, Unforgiven is an intimate film, and remains one of Eastwood’s finest, a brilliant final statement in the career of an iconic western film star.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Psycho II (1983)

Director: Richard Franklin                               Writer: Tom Holland
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                            Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia and Vera Miles

I have to admit, I was more than a little dubious when I learned that a sequel was being made to Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film Psycho. After all, what was left to do? In terms of story, Norman Bates was in a mental institution and it was over twenty years later. In terms of film technique, how do you go about trying to top Hitchcock? But after being compelled to go to the theater and watch it back in 1983, I was delighted at what a good film it turned out to be, one that not only stands on its own but was a worthy successor to the original. Psycho II brings back Anthony Perkins to reprise his most famous—or infamous, take your pick—role, along with the great Vera Miles from the first film. Hitchcock even makes his traditional cameo early on. Meg Tilly, fresh from her breakout role in The Big Chill, does a nice job as the young girl who befriends Perkins. Robert Loggia is great as always, and would go on to have a string of memorable performances in eighties films. Dennis Franz makes an early appearance, before his lengthy career in television, and Hugh Gillin shows up as the sheriff. The film was originally intended as a cable-TV movie after Perkins declined the offer to reprise his character, but when he read Tom Holland’s script he signed on and it was turned into a feature. Universal’s motivation for making the film was the release of Robert Bloch’s sequel, which poked fun at Hollywood slasher films, and their concern about what damage it might do to the reputation of Hitchcock’s original.

The film opens in black and white, the neon sign of the Bates’ Motel glowing in the night. When Janet Leigh suddenly appears in her robe, the audience realizes it is about to re-experience the famous shower scene from the 1960 film. And it does. Afterward, as Hitchcock’s camera leaves the bathroom and pans to the window framing the house, the color comes up and the opening credits begin. The film proper opens on the court hearing in which Anthony Perkins is declared sane and the judge releases him. Vera Miles is in the courtroom and is naturally outraged. Robert Loggia is Perkins’ psychiatrist, and is also confronted by Miles, who is convinced he’ll murder again. The next shot has Perkins returning to the motel and the house with a bag of groceries. He’s naturally apprehensive, and it begs the question of why he would return there, but it was apparently Perkins’ idea and Loggia thinks he can handle it. After the doctor leaves, however, he finds a note from his mother under the phone and flashes back to killing her. Later he goes to his new job as a cook’s helper at a diner owned by Robert Alan Browne. Also working there are waitresses Claudia Bryar, an older woman, and the young Meg Tilly. Tilly has just broken up with her boyfriend and has no place to live so Perkins invites her stay at the hotel. When Perkins gets there he’s shocked that the new manager, Dennis Franz, is renting out rooms by the hour, and so he fires him.

Tilly wants to leave, and though Perkins convinces her to stay, she does seem a little too inquisitive about his former life. He eventually tells her about killing his mother, but not about the other murders. When Perkins gets another note from “mother,” this time at work, he’s convinced it’s the work of Franz. Of course Tilly takes a shower that night, and director Richard Franklin replicates the shots from the original--complete with someone spying through a hole in the wallpaper. After Perkins gets a phone call from “mother,” Toomey is murdered in the office with a knife, and the whole thing seems to be starting again. Cinematographer Dean Cundey executes some terrific moving camera shots, especially tracking Perkins from the front going up the stairs. And while Dutch angles have been overused in the decades since, they add a lot of atmosphere to certain scenes and imbue the entire production with an underlying menace that stays with the viewer. One of the brilliant choices by producer Bernard Schwartz and director Richard Franklin was to have Jerry Goldsmith score the film. So many films from the nineteen-eighties have synthesized soundtracks that wind up ruining many otherwise interesting movies from the period. Goldsmith wrote a beautiful symphonic score--and like the film itself, has no interest in competing with the iconic Bernard Herrmann original--that gives the production a timeless quality that makes it just as enjoyable to watch today.

One of the great features of Joe Stefano’s original screenplay is that after the murder of Janet Leigh the viewer is forced to identify with Anthony Perkins for the rest of the film. Tom Holland’s story strives for something similar right from the outset. Meg Tilly’s character, on the other hand, is far more difficult to read, and it’s only after the film is over and the final reveal happens that her behavior makes sense. The ending is certainly unique, especially the idea of the overlapping storylines that nimbly keep the viewer from guessing what is really going on. Reviews at the time were mixed, as would be expected, with purists decrying the travesty of any kind of Hitchcock sequel, and others impressed with the obvious affection the filmmakers had for their subject. The ending bothered a lot of reviewers who felt that it diminished the original intent of the screenplay, essentially changing the story from what it was. But the next film in the franchise did away with that objection, which in retrospect now leaves this film wide open for viewers to decide the significance of the final scene for themselves. Anthony Perkins does an excellent job of crawling back into Norman’s skin, especially at the close of the film, and even though it wasn’t specifically intended to set up another sequel it’s tailor made for one. It’s also great to see Vera Miles reprising the character of Lila, as well as the brief appearance of Robert Loggia. While Hitchcock pedants may not like the film, Psycho II really is a fascinating attempt to continue a classic story and has a lot to recommend it for more open-minded viewers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz                      Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders and Celeste Holm

All About Eve is a strange film. Released the same year, it’s often mentioned in the same breath as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, as both of the two films deal with ageing actresses. But apart from that they could not be more different. Where Wilder’s movie is all about the movies, bordering on film noir with a dead man narrating his demise at the hands of a femme fatale, Joseph Mankiewicz’s production feels more like a stage play, consciously or unconsciously replicating the theatrical milieu of story itself. If Gloria Swanson’s faded silent film star Norma Desmond is like “the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while,” Bette Davis’s Margot Channing is a set of fingernails being scraped across a chalkboard. The real irony is that Sunset Boulevard has gone on to achieve legendary status as an iconic film, recognized for its genius and greatness, and yet it was All About Eve that took home the Oscar for best picture of 1950. Academy Awards also went to Mankiewicz, for both writing and directing, George Sanders for best supporting actor, and to the costumes and sound recording. Two hours into the film, after learning all there is to know about Eve, one almost wishes they hadn’t. And that’s kind of the feeling one is left with after watching it. It’s a good, well-written and entertaining film, but none of what happens on the surface is what makes it so.

The film opens up at an awards ceremony, with drama critic George Sanders narrating. The recipient of the award is Anne Baxter, as the titular Eve. But her story comes later. Sanders introduces himself and all of the principals sitting around the table at the ceremony. Then the narration shifts to Celeste Holm as she tells how they first met Baxter. She was an obsessed fan who waited by the back stage door to see Bette Davis arrive and leave, and watched every performance of her play. Holm brings her back to the dressing room one night to meet Davis and her gang, playwright Hugh Marlowe, Holm’s husband, director Gary Merrill, Davis’s boyfriend who is heading off to Hollywood, and Thelma Ritter, former vaudeville actress now housekeeper and costume mistress. Of course Baxter gushes over Davis and gives an overly dramatic and flowery account of her life—her local community theater was like a drop of rain on a desert—ugh, and for some reason they buy every word of it. It’s painful to watch Baxter oozing with insincerity but Davis, like Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, can’t resist the flattery. When Baxter is alone with Merrill and he rants to her how phony the theater is, her intense earnestness gives away the fact that he’s preaching to the choir. As Davis takes up the narration Baxter insinuates herself into the actresses life and Davis, like a frog in gradually heated water, doesn’t realize until it’s too late. Unfortunately, she’s the only one who does.

What the film is more than anything else is a female homoerotic version of A Star is Born, with Davis as the self-destructive elder star and Anne Baxter the newcomer on the rise. At one point shortly after Baxter moves into Davis’s house the older actress even says in the narrative, “The honeymoon was on.” Bette Davis was just starting to lose her looks at this point in her career. And even though that’s the role she’s playing in the film, it’s still disconcerting to see her as a younger version of Baby Jane rather than an older version of Jezebel. Both Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe seem oddly cast as the male leads in an Oscar winning film, but it’s only after understanding the subtext of the story that their purpose becomes clear. The real stars are the women, Celeste Holm who is radiant on the screen, Bette Davis, who plays Bette Davis, and of course Anne Baxter. One can see in Baxter’s performance why Cecil B. DeMille cast her in The Ten Commandments, as her cold and calculating, subtle ruthlessness is unlike any other actress working during this period. Thelma Ritter is rock solid, and a bit part by Marilyn Monroe as a ditz is played for laughs--intellectual laughs. The writing is good, with a lot of clever lines, but the actual story is something of a let down as the whole thing is just too much like a filmed play. The real climax of the piece comes on the stage when Davis has her screaming match with everyone . . . and then the thing just keeps going on and on and on, as if it doesn’t know when to stop.

The A-List review by Peter Travers begins with the obvious comparisons between the Mankiewicz and Wilder films at Academy Award time, but quickly moves on to say how enthralled he is by the screenplay and the barrage of words that seem never to stop--even in his review. Travers is compelled to recount scenes from the film, complete with bits of the screenplay to prove his point. But it’s a weak one. The film is somewhat numbing for all the words. As much as Travers wants to praise Davis’s ability to pose for a close up, there’s very little that seems cinematic in the film. This, in stark contrast to Billy Wilder’s film, which bristles with the art of cinema from start to finish, including its actors--especially its actors. Travers claims the party scene is the centerpiece of the film, but in the end nothing really happens there. It’s at the theater when Davis comes undone that is easily the best sequence in the film. Travers also doesn’t care for Davis’s speech in the car about being a woman, but the irony that it dredges up is incredibly interesting, especially considering Davis’s final line of the scene: “I hate men.” The two women, Davis and Holm, are far more a couple than they are with either of the wooden actors playing their mates. Later, Baxter even walks up the stairs of her apartment arm in arm with another woman, Randy Stuart, and the final scene with Barbara Bates brings the simmering female homoeroticism that has informed the entire picture full circle. But Travers misses all of that. All About Eve--and the character’s name is no accident--is certainly a classic film, just not for the reason most people think.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Midway (1976)

Director: Jack Smight                                     Writer: Donald S. Sanford
Film Score: John Williams                              Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Starring: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Webber and Toshirô Mifune

Midway seemed to have learned the lessons that dogged its predecessor, Tora! Tora! Tora! and as a result it made for a much more popular film. While that film, a co-production between Japanese and American companies strove for accuracy, there was little in the way of personal conflict or drama. Donald S. Sanford’s screenplay, on the other hand, does a wonderful job of creating a fictional father-son story full of conflict that also weaves in the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during the war as part of the love story. Why Stanford was chosen to write the film is a mystery, considering that he had written exclusively for television since the fifties. But while this film was only his third feature, his first two from 1969 were both World War Two films. Like the Pearl Harbor story from six years earlier, this film is a star-studded affair, but even more so. Not only do Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston anchor a cast of cinema greats, but the great Toshirô Mifune is the leader of nearly every recognizable Japanese-American--not Chinese--actor in Hollywood. That the film was made in time to be released during America’s bicentennial was no accident, as the film celebrated the first great U.S. victory in the war. In addition, many theaters were equipped with special surround-sound speakers that rumbled and shook as planes took off and battles raged.

The opening credits are tinted in sepia tone, aircraft being launched from a carrier in 1942 on the Doolittle Raid to bomb Tokyo, a symbolic gesture that put Japan on notice that the U.S. was intent on avenging the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The story begins with communications officer Charlton Heston trying to get a bead on where the Japanese are going to attack next. Head of the naval code-breaking staff, Hal Holbrook, confesses that they don’t have a lot of information but there is the hint of something soon. Meanwhile Heston’s pilot son, Edward Albert, is in love with a Japanese-American who has been arrested because her parents are being watched by the CIA. The Japanese navy, led by Toshirô Mifune as Yamamoto, fight to a draw at the Coral Sea and are now planning to attack Midway Island as a way of drawing out the U.S. carriers and destroying the rest of the fleet that was at sea during the Pearl Harbor attack. But Holbrook gets wind of the objective by breaking the Japanese code and, despite warnings from Washington D.C. via James Coburn that the messages might be a decoy, Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz sends his carriers to Midway to surprise Yamamoto. The middle of the film centers on a group of scout planes that are sent out to the west of Midway to see if they can spot the enemy. Once they spot the invasion force, the Japanese send out similar search planes to look for the American carrier force. Unfortunately, the plane that is in the enemy area gets a late start and the Japanese don’t get the location of the U.S. ships until it’s too late.

The battle was the turning point in the war in the Pacific, and the Japanese would never again seriously confront the U.S. with possible defeat during the war, despite tenaciously holding on to their island strongholds for the next three years. Like Tora! Tora! Tora! the film integrates actual color footage taken during the war and, while it’s fairly obvious, the realism it provides is something that would have been impossible to replicate at the time. An actual World War Two aircraft carrier, the Lexington, was used for location shooting and made for impressive scenes at sea. And the film also used footage from the earlier production as well. Like most feature films of the period, the direction by Jack Smight is adequate to the task but little more. For some reason most of the historical films of the seventies seem to be in thrall of the work of television directors, and so they take very few chances and as a result have very few innovations, much less drawing on the unique touches from films of previous decades. But then Smight, like screenwriter Donald Sanford, had primarily worked in television, other than a spate of features in the late sixties. His previous film before this one was Airport 75. One of the more interesting aspects of the production is an early score by the great John Williams, fresh off his Oscar win for the soundtrack to Jaws. One final aspect of the film being made in the seventies that is a huge positive, however, is the slower pace and therefore more realistic unfolding of the plot.

Despite Charlton Heston’s headline billing, this film really belongs to Robert Webber as Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, as it’s easily his finest performance. Webber, who had been mired in television guest spots for most of the decade, hadn’t really done anything memorable since his riveting performance in The Dirty Dozen. This role, however, was far more realistic, and a great antidote to the normally overconfident portrayal of military heroes in Hollywood films. Robert Mitchum was originally offered the role of Nimitz in the film, but he suggested Fonda instead. He was then asked if he would play Admiral Spruance, but turned down that as well, and it went to Glenn Ford. Eventually he agreed to play Admiral Halsey because it only required one day of shooting as Halsey was in the hospital at the time of the attack. Charlton Heston and Edward Albert are perfect as the father-son Navy pilots. Other members of the all-star cast include Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, Monte Markham, Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Tom Selleck, and John Shuck. On the Japanese side in addition to Mifune, are James Shigeta, Pat Morita, John Fujioka, Clyde Kusatsu, Sab Shimono, and Robert Ito. The story is a good one, and there’s a lot of tension even though the audience already knows what the outcome is. The one unfortunate aspect of the film was that Toshirô Mifune’s dialogue was dubbed by Disney voice actor Paul Frees, which apparently drew laughs from some audience members because his voice was so distinctive. Nevertheless, Midway is one of the great World Wart Two films, and one of the great films of the seventies, and comes highly recommended.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill                              Writer: Bertram Millhauser
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                              Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Arthur Margetson and Hillary Brooke

The sixth of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films for Universal--though the first two in the series were made at Fox--is once again a contemporary story but this time the crime-solving pair are not out to foil the Nazis during World War Two. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is an adaptation of the Conan Doyle short story “Sherlock Holmes and the Musgrave Ritual.” The plot is essentially an old dark house mystery in which Holmes is charged with finding the murderer among the people living there. Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser was no stranger to the detective, having also written an earlier British Sherlock Holmes film in 1932 starring Clive Brook as the famous detective. Director Roy William Neill had directed the previous two films in the series, and does a solid job of creating interesting camera angles and movement without the effect being intrusive. Though the story has nothing to do with the war, Rathbone’s unfortunate epilogue to the film calls for people to end their greed and think of the needy and the oppressed, a rather too obvious plea to the audience to keep up their support for the war. But it was part and parcel of the times, and in a way more true to the original character than in the last few films where he and Bruce were involved directly in the battle against German espionage.

The film opens in a pub, the Rat and the Raven. An old man tells some sailors to stay away from Musgrave Manor, which he paints as sort of a British version of the House of Usher. Frederick Worlock is the patriarch of the family, Gavin Muir the rather cheeky brother, and Hillary Brooke their younger sister who is in love with American pilot Milburn Stone, much to the disapproval of Worlock. The tremendously talented Halliwell Hobbes is the butler who eavesdrops on everyone and knows all. Inexplicably, Nigel Bruce is downstairs in the study, and later another doctor, Arthur Margetson stumbles in after being stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant. Everything becomes clear when Worlock enters the room and it comes out that he has opened up his home for use as a convalescent center for officers, one of whom is Stone, while Bruce and Margetson are the doctors overseeing their care. Margetson says there’s no need to try and find the man who assaulted him, but Worlock insists, and who better than Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The first thing Rathbone finds when he gets there, however, is the body of Worlock hidden under a pile of leaves. The second thing he finds is a confident Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, convinced he knows what happened to Margetson but oblivious to the actual murder that has taken place. There are plenty of suspects among the motley assortment of battle fatigue victims at the hospital, Hoey has his sights set on Stone, but the murders continue.

Hillary Brooke--a poor man’s Evelyn Ankers--had already appeared with Rathbone and Bruce in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, which actually starred Ankers, the previous year. Universal’s stock company of B-list (British List) actors also include the creepy housekeeper Minna Philips and Norma Varden as the pub barmaid. The lone American, Milburn Stone, who would go on to play the grizzled Doc Adams on the Gunsmoke series, doesn’t have much to do and has very little screen time. The British cast is capable, but little more, though the acting is hardly the point. The key to the murders is the poem that the surviving heir must recite over the body of the most recently deceased member of the family. Basil Rathbone is brilliant as always, his Holmes high-strung and delivering his lines in rapid fire, moving about just as quickly and pulling everyone else along in his wake. And this is necessary in a stage-bound drama like this, all of which takes place within the confines of the old house. More than in previous films, Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson is used to good effect, and winds up not nearly as bumbling as he appears. But the film as a whole is also fairly adept at undermining audience expectations to keep the mystery just that, especially in the climax that gives the film its name. While Charles Van Enger’s lighting is terrific, the music by the great Hans Salter is fairly undistinguished, probably made up of little more than his own stock cues. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, while not the best in the series is far from the worst, and certainly not to be missed by fans of the Rathbone-Bruce duo.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns (1933-35)

Director: Robert N. Bradbury                         Writers: Robert N. Bradbury & Lindsley Parsons
Film Score: William Barber (1985)                 Cinematography: Archie Stout
Starring: John Wayne, Gabby Hayes, Yakima Canutt and Eleanor Hunt

The Lone Star series of westerns that John Wayne made for producer Paul Malvern are an incredible piece of cinematic history. As films they are poor at best, distributed by poverty row studio Monogram and made with no other objective than to fill the bottom half of the newly devised double features that many theater chains were showing. They were cheaply made, with existing sets, minimal budgets, shot in less than a week, and using many of the same actors. They don’t even run an hour, so they can hardly be called features, but they’re twice as long as a serial chapter. And also unlike serials, which were made the same way and served the same function, this was more like a stock company that would make different stories with different characters every time while using the same actors. For fans of John Wayne, it’s an absolutely fascinating look at a young actor who wanted to work and kept at it until the industry caught up to him and made him a star. The screenplays are minimal affairs and sometimes make little sense, though some really shine, but that is hardly the point. It’s watching Wayne’s growth that is the real draw, and despite so many detractors of the films--including Wayne himself--the actor has a certain magic at times that is undeniable. With a few exceptions, the films were written and directed by Robert N. Bradbury and, in almost all of the plots, in order to manufacture suspense, crucial elements of the story would simply be left out and not revealed until later, especially when it comes to Wayne’s true identity.

The first in the series is Riders of Destiny from October 1933, with Wayne playing Singin’ Sandy Saunders, Malvern’s attempt to capitalize on the singing cowboy craze of the time. Since the actor couldn’t sing or play guitar, he was shot from slightly behind, lip synching the words and barely pretending to play the instrument. Wayne helps a woman, Cecilia Parker, and her father, Gabby Hayes, to fight the machinations of wealthy landowner Forrest Taylor who wants to gouge all of the farmers for the water that comes from his land. Two months later the crew released Sagebrush Trail, directed by Armand Schaefer. In this one Wayne plays an escaped murderer who is saved by Lane Chandler and goes to work for his outlaw boss, Yakima Canutt. But it turns out that Chandler is the real murderer and Wayne doesn’t know it. Wayne looks a lot more comfortable acting in this one, though the story isn’t nearly as interesting as the previous film, especially concerning love interest Nancy Shubert. The third film in the series is The Luck Texan, released at the end of January 1934. Wayne rides into the ranch of Gabby Hayes, only to find his old mentor has lost his cattle. So they set up a blacksmith shop and when they take a chunk of gold out of a horse’s hoof, begin mining the creek where it was found. But soon greedy Lloyd Whitlock and his partner Yakima Canutt try to steal everything from Hayes and his daughter, Barbara Sheldon, unless Wayne can stop them. Canutt’s bit with the mule is funnier than most of the attempts at manufactured humor in the series.

West of the Divide was released in February, this time with Virginia Browne Faire as the love interest. Wayne and Gabby Hayes are trying to track down the man who killed Wayne’s father and left Wayne for dead. The only one who escaped was his kid brother, but he’s disappeared, so Wayne poses as a killer in order to expose the plot by Lloyd Whitlock and Yakima Canutt to take over the ranch owned by Faire and her father, Lafe McKee. It would be three months before the low-budget cowboy hit the screens again, this time in Blue Steel. Wayne discovers a hotel safe that has been broken into by Yakima Canutt, and sheriff Gabby Hayes thinks that he’s the thief. But Canutt is really part of a gang that has Edward Peil and Earl Dwire sending them inside information about what to rob from inside the town. Eleanor Hunt is back as the girl Wayne helps out and falls for. The exteriors of the snow-topped Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California are particularly striking, the farthest afield the company had travelled yet and no doubt the reason for the delayed release date. Filmed in the same location and released the same month, Man from Utah begins with Wayne singing again, as he had in the first film. Gabby Hayes is the sheriff, and Wayne helps him stop a bank robbery. Lindsley Parsons’ screenplay mixes things up this time, by including a femme fatale in Anita Campillo. She’s part of Edward Peil and Yakima Canutt’s gang who kill cowboys so they can win rodeo purses. Hayes wants Wayne to win the rodeo so he can put an end to their murdering ways. And he wins the hand of Polly Ann Young in the bargain. This is one of the weakest films in the series because it relies so heavily on documentary footage from an actual rodeo.

For Randy Rides Alone the gang is back home filming in Santa Clarita. Wayne walks into a saloon where everyone is dead, and when sheriff Earl Dwire and mute witness Gabby Hayes arrive he’s arrested. But this time Hayes turns out to be the leader of the gang, and Yakima Canutt and the boys were trying to get a pile of money from Alberta Vaughn’s uncle when they killed him. The Star Packer, which was released in July of 1934, contains the first Native American character in the series and it turns out to be Yakima Canutt. He and Wayne have something of a Lone Ranger and Tonto relationship, with “Yak” gathering information and Wayne capturing the criminals. Verna Hillie is the niece of cattleman Gabby Hayes, and when she arrives the sheriff is shot in broad daylight in town by a killer known only as The Shadow. Wayne takes the job. But after what happened in the previous film, it’s not too difficult to figure out who The Shadow really is. The only question is what he is trying to achieve by his subterfuge. The Trail Beyond didn’t appear in theaters until three months later in October. It’s the first of Malvern’s films to be based on an existing work, James Oliver Curwood’s novel The Wolf Hunters from 1908. But where that story was set in the Canadian tundra, Wayne and company are in Kings Canyon National Monument and Rainbow Falls at Mammoth Lakes. Verna Hillie is back as the love interest, but this film is notable not only for the presence of Noah Beery and his son Noah Beery Jr., but the absence of Gabby Hayes. Wayne is hired to find the orphaned niece of a cattle rancher, and the story and setting are a nice change of pace, though Wayne looks distinctly out of place tromping around the Canadian woods in his cowboy duds.

The regular gang is back together shooing out at Kernville for The Lawless Frontier, released in late November. Half-breed Indian Earl Dwire, posing as a Mexican bandit, kills Wayne’s parents and the Duke finally runs into him while helping out Gabby Hayes and his granddaughter Sheila Terry to escape from his clutches. While this is one of the lesser films in the series--and that’s saying something--it nevertheless contains an impressive sequence in which Wayne chases Dwire on foot through the desert, with Dwire exhausted but frantic to get away and Wayne marching slowly but steadily forward after him. ’Neath the Arizona Skies followed a month later with the same cast. Wayne is trying to find the father of a half-breed Indian girl so that she can claim the money she’s owed from the oil leasing on tribal land. The only problem is Yakima Canutt and his gang want the money for themselves. Harry Fraser directs this one, with Dwire playing a good guy for once and Gabby Hayes going uncredited for some reason. The first of the series to be released in 1935, in early February, is Texas Terror. Wayne is the sheriff in town and when his friend Dan Matthews is killed by holdup men, and they make it look like he was killed by Wayne, the sheriff quits and gives the job to Gabby Hayes. The presence of John Ince in the film, as well as some more realistic Native Americans raises the quality considerably.

In the next film, released in March of 1935, Wayne rides to Rainbow Valley and spots mailman Gabby Hayes--his last appearance in the series--looking for water for his car. When LeRoy Mason’s gang start chasing him, Duke comes to the rescue, but it turns out the bandits are harassing the entire valley because there’s no road for the marshal to get there from the other side of the mountain. Hayes’ niece, Lucile Brown, doesn’t like Wayne at first, but after he saves the town she changes her tune. The Desert Trail, released a month later with Lewis Collins directing, is a very different film from the rest: a comedy. Duke is a rodeo cowboy traveling with confidence man Eddy Chandler. When the prize money is robbed from the rodeo office, the criminals blame Wayne and Chandler, who play their relationship for laughs. Former Our Gang member Mary Kornman is the love interest as Wayne is on the hunt for Al Ferguson and his partner, the great Paul Fix of The Rifleman fame, in order to get his prize money back. Two more months would elapse before The Dawn Rider hit the screens in June, with Yakima Canutt returning as a saloonkeeper and Bradbury in the director’s chair. Wayne rides into town to visit his father, Joseph De Grasse, and gets into a fight with Reed Howes but the two become friends. Meanwhile Dennis Moore is the head of a gang who robs the Express office with help from Canutt. When De Grasse is killed, Wayne makes it his only mission to find the killer, but also gets caught up in a misunderstanding with Howes over Marion Burns. The screenplay, by Lloyd Nosler, has one of the better plots in the series.

Paradise Canyon uses most of the cast from the previous film, this time with Carl Pierson directing, and was released in late July 1935. Wayne plays a U.S. Marshal who goes undercover to capture counterfeiters working near the Mexican border in a medicine show run by Earle Hodgins and his daughter Marion Burns. Reed Howes plays the bad guy this time, working for head man Yakima Canutt. Unfortunately, also along for comedy relief are Perry Murdoch and Gordon Clifford as Ike and Mike, who offer neither comedy nor relief. Paradise Canyon was the last of Paul Malvern’s Lone Star Westerns, released through Monogram, when that company merged with Consolidated film processing, and later Mascot, to become Republic Pictures. Both Malvern and John Wayne would continue make pictures for Republic for the remainder of 1935. Their next production, Westward Ho, was released in August and is slightly longer than the Lone Star’s at just over an hour. Yakima Canutt has been demoted to a henchman by now, and Sheila Bromley was the love interest. The New Frontier followed in October with Carl Pierson in the director’s chair. Finally, Duke’s last film in 1935 was The Lawless Range released in December. The old gang is back with Bradbury directing, Parsons handling the screenplay, and Canutt back as the villain. Wayne would go on to make five more westerns for Republic before finally moving to Universal in late 1936. The biggest difference in the Republic pictures is that they have marginally better actors, much higher production values, and most of them survive in beautiful prints that are far more enjoyable to watch.

Of course the acting is wooden in all the Lone Star productions, especially when comparing Wayne to his later films, and the D-list supporting cast doesn’t make things any better. There isn’t nearly as much racial stereotyping as one might expect, but then there are no black cast members. The one black actor in Rainbow Valley is never commented on, and the Mexicans in Paradise Canyon are actually impressive. Yakama Cannut’s lone portrayal of an Indian isn’t too bad, but when Earl Dwire tries to speak with a French accent in The Trail Beyond or, even worse, a Spanish accent in The Lawless Frontier, it’s incredibly bad. Exteriors for the films were mostly shot at a couple of locations, Kernville, California, on the north short of Isabella Lake, about forty miles northeast of Bakersfield on the southern end of the Sequoia National Park, and at a couple of ranches around Newhall California just north of the San Fernando Valley. Other locations north of Los Angeles were used for specific films as well. They are all beautiful areas and Malvern’s crew make the most of the locations in each film, especially in the chase scenes. The stunt work is pretty good, if repetitive, and Wayne does a nice job of jumping on his horse in a variety of ways. The majority of the stunts were probably performed by Yakima Canutt, who had been an expert stunt man since the silent era and specialized in many of the high-risk stunts seen in this series.

One of the effects that director Robert Bradbury likes to use is the quick pan, which not only avoided the need for cuts in medium shots, but also provided transitional devices that work well when the actors are traveling from one location to another. The tracking shots of the riders on horseback are also well done, probably from train tracks beside the road. One of the oddities of the series is the twentieth century anachronisms that are built into the plots, automobiles and telephones, and especially the telephone poles that dot the roadways. There are no film scores for the pictures, as Malvern couldn’t afford them, and barely any sound effects. In 1985 musician and composer William Barber added music to some of the films. Mercifully, only The Man from Utah and Randy Rides Alone have the new music on this set. The synthesized score doesn’t really add much, and most of the time it’s an unnecessary distraction as it obviously isn’t from the same time period and simply feels intrusive rather than supportive. John Wayne would return to Republic Pictures after his contract with Universal was up, and eventually made thirty-three movies for the company. His Monogram Pictures certainly pale in comparison, and in the absence of Wayne it’s doubtful anyone would watch them today. Whatever charm the Lone Star westerns have is due to their star, and while in no way essential, their historical window on the career of John Wayne is rewarding for adventurous souls.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gorgon (1964)

Director: Terence Fisher                                 Writer: John Gilling
Film Score: James Bernard                            Cinematography: Michael Reed
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Richard Pasco and Barbara Shelley

There’s almost no complaint whenever Hammer Studios put Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together. Almost. The Gorgon is one of those rare films in which the teaming of the duo can do nothing to overcome a weak screenplay and an even weaker monster. The two horror legends have only one brief scene together and somehow both of them come off as completely miscast. What’s so bizarre is how many of the people involved in the film thought it was great. Sure, the first half of the film is fairly atmospheric, but it never really delivers on its promise. The original story, by J. Llewellyn Devine, went back to Greek mythology in reviving a sister of Medusa who could inhabit the body of a human with her spirit and turn those who looked upon her into stone. The story was adapted for the screen by John Gilling, but while the film is touted as presenting the first female monster in Hammer’s horror films the result is so underwhelming, from the makeup to the practical effects, that it’s difficult to understand why anyone would think the film was good. The tag line for the film is “Terror Beyond Belief,” but the only thing beyond belief is that the monster isn’t terrifying at all. In the end, Christopher Lee had the best summation of the film: “The only thing wrong with The Gorgon, is the gorgon.”

The credits roll over a beautiful painting of an abandoned castle somewhere in Eastern Europe. In a nearby village painter Jeremy Longhurst is sketching a nude portrait of his girlfriend, Toni Gilpin. When she tells him she’s pregnant, he storms off to see her father. The old man already hates him, but now Longhurst knows he has to consent to their marriage. As Gilpin chases Longhurst through the woods, she suddenly sees something that makes her scream in terror, and the next day the constable brings her dead body in to be examined by Peter Cushing. Like a series of murders during the last few years, the body has turned to stone. After finding Longhurst’s body hanging from a tree, Longhurst’s father, Michael Goodliffe, comes to the village to attend the coroner’s inquest. But his son is not only blamed for the murder of Gilpin, he’s made the scapegoat for the other murders as well. This is something Goodliffe will not stand for, and he stays in the village to clear his son’s name, despite the villagers trying to run him out. That night he hears a voice coming from the castle and is compelled to investigate. But when he looks upon the Gorgon he is able to tear his eyes away soon enough to make it back to the house. He’s gradually turning to stone but has enough time to write a letter to his other son, Richard Pasco, telling him what happened. When same thing happens to Pasco, he’s fortunate enough only to have seen the Gorgon’s reflection in the water and it doesn’t kill him. Because he is in the hospital for several days, however, his mentor, Christopher Lee, comes to look for him and together they vow to uncover the truth about the Gorgon.

The film begins promisingly enough, as Terence Fisher makes some interesting directorial choices, specifically the murder and its aftermath. As always, Peter Cushing plays the cool, rational doctor, only this time with mutton chops, and is quiet intensity is effective. Michael Goodliffe is every bit his equal in his determination to clear his son’s name. Christopher Lee doesn’t fare as well as the professor with a full beard who is absorbed in his work. The main problem is with Prudence Hyman as the Gorgon. She just isn’t menacing enough. Sure, she has the power to turn mortals into stone, but she’s stuck haunting the nearby castle and the woods, and her victims pretty much have to stumble on her by accident in order to die. And the phony snakes in her hair are pretty laughable. The other issue that seems to undermine the film is with Cushing’s character. As Frankenstein he certainly acted in an immoral manner, but it was always in the quest for the truth. Here, he seems to be deliberately concealing the truth, lying to the family members of the victims as if he’s part of the conspiracy of silence, just as fearful as the villagers, and that seems a betrayal of the kind of character he usually played. Lee doesn’t come into the picture until late, and the film might have been better had he exchanged roles with Cushing. Even James Bernard’s score is fairly subdued for a Hammer film. The whole thing bogs down in the middle and never recovers, and the ending is so devoid of fear and artistry that it winds up being incredibly anticlimactic. The Gorgon is enjoyable to a point, but definitely falls well short of Hammer’s late fifties masterpieces.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard                           Writer: William Anthony McGuire
Film Score: Arthur Lange                               Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan and Myrna Loy

Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. had only been dead three years before MGM decided to film this celebration of his life. The Great Ziegfeld was not only a box office success, but went on to win the Academy Award for best picture of 1936. The film was nominated for seven Oscars winning three, not only for best picture but Luise Rainer for best actress and Semour Felix for best dance direction. Like a lot of Oscar winning films from the nineteen thirties, it hasn’t aged well over the years. At just over three hours long, much of what was seen as lavish during the middle of the Depression now seems a bit self indulgent and slow. The story primarily revolves around Ziegfeld’s difficulties with money. He was always behind, borrowing money in the present to pay for shows that had long since closed. In fact, the film actually began as a way for Billie Burke to pay off Ziegfeld’s debts after his death. She sold the rights to his story to Universal in 1933, and William McGuire’s screenplay went into production the following year with William Powell playing the great producer. But financial problems at Universal forced them to sell the property to MGM, including the sets that had been built for the production numbers. There was no attempt, however, to be accurate with Ziegfeld’s story, and McGuire’s screenplay was considered more of a fantasy version of his life.

The film begins with fireworks announcing the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld and Frank Morgan are competing sideshow barkers, and Powell’s strong man is losing out badly to Morgan’s hoochie coochie girls. In desperation, Powell turns his strong man into a sex idol and brings in women in the same numbers as the men who came to see Morgan’s dancers. He also manages to attract Morgan’s girlfriend, Suzanne Kaaren, away from him. From the fair the scene then shifts to Ziegfeld’s father, Joseph Cawthorn, as a teacher at a music conservatory where Powell argues with him that he doesn’t want to go into music, but instead continue producing spectacles, after which he takes the strong man on the road. When that fizzles out, he follows Morgan to Europe looking for talent--actually, looking for Morgan’s talent: Luise Rainer as the French actress and singer Anna Held. Powell’s honesty wins her over and she decides to go with him to New York. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t like her. But he stays loyal to Rainer and makes her a star, while continuing to spend money he doesn’t have. His next big idea is the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s these review shows, full of beautiful girls beautifully dressed surrounded by elaborate settings, that made the producer a household name.

While the performances at the Follies are interesting enough, they suffer from the same defect that most showbiz biopics suffer from, lesser actors attempting to replicate stars. Buddy Doyle tries to play Eddie Cantor with disappointing results. A.A. Trimble does a passable Will Rogers, but little more. There are a few original actors that help, Ray Bolger and Fannie Brice, for instance, but it’s not enough to capture the genuine excitement of a show like Ziegfeld was famous for. What is impressive, however, is the giant movable sets on the stage--though one has the feeling that the lack of color also diminishes the effect. They are so huge and opulent, often times moving out beyond the proscenium or climbing to the sky in a way that Busby Berkeley never thought of using space. The music, too, is from a generation gone by and, while interesting, doesn’t have the same effect as it no doubt had in the day. And the same goes with much of the static posing onstage that seems more for effect that true entertainment. The supporting cast is solid, with Virginia Bruce playing one of Ziegfeld’s stars who has a drinking problem. Reginald Owen is his uptight accountant, William Demarest one of his writers, and Ernest Cossart as his valet. Finally, Myrna Loy, Powell’s screen partner in the Thin Man films, makes an appearance as Billie Burke who becomes the second Mrs. Ziegfeld.

William Powell considered this one of his best performances, and was pleased when he saw the final cut of the film. He is good, but he’s still just playing William Powell. What’s different really, is the part itself. In this fantasy version of Ziegfeld the producer is something of a saint, first devoted to Anna Held even though they were never officially married, and then after marrying Billie Burke becoming a loving husband and father to the end of his life. The film was also the first of two Oscar wins in a row for Luise Rainer, the first actor to accomplish that feat, going on the following year to win the Academy Award for her role in The Good Earth. Burke initially wanted to play herself in the film, even though she was much older by then, and wisely producer Hunt Stromberg said no. Frank Morgan does an adequate job as Powell’s competitor and friend, and the running gag throughout the film is that Powell winds up stealing away from Morgan every girl he tries to date. Myrna Loy, on the other hand, doesn’t really get enough screen time to do much with the part of Billie Burke. Of course, two years later Morgan, Bolger and the real Billie Burke would appear in The Wizard of Oz for MGM. The Great Ziegfeld probably won the Oscar because Academy members wanted to honor the memory of the producer. It’s not a great film by today’s standards, but certainly worth seeing at some point.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

Director: Rowland V. Lee                              Writers: Philip Dunne & Dan Totheroh
Film Score: Alfred Newman                          Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Starring: Robert Donat, Elissa Landi, Louis Calhern and Sidney Blackmer

This is one of the early versions of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Several versions of the novel had been filmed during the silent era, the most famous with John Gilbert in 1922. This independent production by Edward Small for his company Reliant Pictures was the first sound version made of the story. Fredric March was Small’s original choice for the title role, but it turned out Robert Donat’s services were easier to acquire. Interestingly, March would go on to appear in another 19th century French story, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the very next year. Robert Donat did not enjoy making films--especially in Hollywood--and thus appeared in only twenty throughout his career. His most famous picture was produced the following year, The 39 Steps for Alfred Hitchcock, though he later won his Academy Award for Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1940. While Dan Totheroh had worked on the original treatment with director Rowland V. Lee, he had to leave California and Philip Dunne was hired to write the dialogue. In the end the novel was severely truncated in order to fit into the allotted running time for the film, and some major changes were made to the plot in order to make it more viewer friendly for American audiences. These changes to the story, especially the happy ending that Lee tacked on, were responsible for making the film a major success when it was released.

The story begins in France, after the exile of Napoleon. The Emperor sends out a secret letter from Elba but a storm threatens to sink the ship it’s on. First mate Robert Donat is then given the letter by the dying captain, and told to deliver it to a man in Marseilles, but he doesn’t know anything about the contents. Raymond Walburn, however, hears everything. In Marseilles soldiers are busy rounding up men loyal to Napoleon to be executed. As the ship comes into port two people are anxious for its arrival, Lawrence Grant, the man who is to receive the letter, and Elissa Landi, the fiancée of Donat. But Landi’s mother, Georgia Cane, wants the relationship ended and goes to Sidney Blackmer, who is in love with Landi, to get his help in stopping it. Then Donat is given command of the ship and meets with Landi to declare his love. Blackmer tries to reason with her, but fails. When he receives word from Walburn about the letter he takes it to the head of the police, Louis Calhern. So not only are Grant’s men following Donat, but the police are as well. Donat, however, has no idea of the danger the letter poses to him. When he gives the letter to Grant, both of them are arrested immediately. The first twist comes when the viewer learns that Calhern is Grant’s son. Calhern naturally can’t let it be know where his father’s loyalties lie, so he is then forced to imprison the innocent Donat for the crime, in the worst prison imaginable, the Château d’If.

When Napoleon escapes from Elba, Blackmer goes quickly to the Château d’If to have Donat declared dead so that no matter what happens politically no one will look for him, including Landi. Meanwhile, Landi honors her mother’s dying request and marries Blackmer. For eight years Donat is kept in solitary confinement in the island prison with no hope of parole, and even less of escape. Then he hears tapping from the other side of the wall and digs out one of the stones only to meet O.P. Heggie on the other side. Heggie is rich, and offers Donat half his fortune when they escape. Meanwhile, Landi is living the life of luxury, though less than passionate about being married to Blackmer. It’s not until Heggie dies, and Donat hides in the body bag, that he is taken out of the prison and thrown into the sea. And thus begins his long awaited, carefully planned revenge against Calhern, Walburn, and especially Blackmer, by posing as the Count of Monte Cristo. Director Rowland V. Lee is probably best know by horror fans for helming the third of Universal’s Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein, as well as Tower of London, while O.P. Heggie is equally famous for his role as the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein. The horror connection to the film would also continue much later, when Sidney Backmer appeared in Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. The story is a classic one, and well done for the time period, spawning a much less popular sequel, Son of Monte Cristo six years later. The original Count of Monte Cristo, however, remains a classic tale of adventure and revenge that has delighted audiences for nearly two centuries.

Bird (1988)

Director: Clint Eastwood                              Writer: Joel Oliansky
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                        Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker and Samuel E. Wright

My initial viewing of Clint Eastwood’s film Bird, about the life of Charlie Parker, was a lot like being introduced to bebop for the first time--while I couldn’t say I fully enjoyed it, I knew it was good. It just took me a while to understand why. For many people the flashbacks within flashbacks of Joel Oliansky’s screenplay can be a little confusing, like a narrative full of Russian nesting dolls. But in the thirty years since it first appeared, the film has taken on the same level of profound greatness for me that bebop eventually did. Oliansky had wanted to make the film as early as 1970, but it wouldn’t be until Eastwood came onboard that the project could gain enough traction to actually get made. He does a magnificent job of conveying the essence of Parker’s life without resorting to a chronologic telling, circling around and around in time like a great jazz solo. The film is dark, literally and figuratively, a challenge successfully taken up by cinematographer Jack Green, reflecting the milieu of the jazz world and also the tragedy that was Parker’s life. As a musician he was one of America’s musical geniuses, dying at the age of thirty-four, almost the same age as Mozart when the great composer died. Fortunately it was Clint Eastwood who finally put that life on film in a way that is as much an homage to the music as it is the man.

Like a novel, the film opens with the famous quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Then Charlie Parker is seen as young boy playing a wooden flute while riding on the back of a small pony being led to the shack where he lives with his family. The flute continues over the opening credits until a saxophone takes over, and now Parker is a teenager, Forest Whitaker’s younger brother Damon, playing on the porch of the same shack. During the rest of the credits Parker is heard playing “Lester Leaps In” with a jazz combo for an enthusiastic audience. And suddenly the camera pans right and the audience is in the club with Forest Whitaker onstage, as Parker in his prime. The group is Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet, with Samuel E. Wright as the trumpeter. And then suddenly a flying cymbal fades in and takes over the scene, and as it crashes to the floor the scene changes to Whitaker coming home a decade later to the apartment where he lives with his common law wife Chan, played by Diane Venora, and their two children. It’s an awkward scene, with Venora low key and resolute, while Whitaker is in a manic phase--having just walked out on his latest job. Of course she winds up crying, which seems to be Venora’s specialty as an actress. And Whitaker ends the night by drinking iodine and going to the hospital in an ambulance.

Lying in bed the next day, Whitaker flashes back to when he was a teenager, with Bill Cobbs as a doctor showing him a man who died from a drug overdose, saying that’s him if he doesn’t quit. Later his agent, Michael McGuire, pays a visit, and Whitaker has another flashback, this time of a jam session hosted by swing saxophonist Keith David, and again the cymbal flies through the air. When the doctor wants to give Whitaker electro shock, it’s Venora who flashes back to meeting Whitaker for the first time. Production designer Edward C. Carfagno does an excellent job re-creating 52nd Street in New York City circa 1945. When Keith David shows up he talks to Hamilton Camp about Whitaker, then David has a flashback about the jam session, where Damon Whitaker tried out his new stuff and the drummer wound up throwing the cymbal to the floor and humiliating him. When David returns from the flashback he goes inside to see Whitaker finishing “Lester Leaps In” from the opening of the film and his jaw drops because Whitaker is so far and away better than he’ll ever be. David eventually winds up on a bridge, despondent that the music has seemingly left him behind, and throws his saxophone in the water in disgust. Then Venora comes back from her flashback, tells the doctor no, and takes Whitaker home. And it’s still not even a half hour into the film.

Far from being confusing, the flashbacks are actually brilliantly conceived and executed. Forest Whitaker is not entirely convincing pretending to play the saxophone, but his slightly more animated version of Parker is incredibly enjoyable to watch. Diane Venora is an acquired taste, though Eastwood seems to love her, but then all of the actors, with the exception of Wright, probably played their characters a little broader than they really were. Despite the deficiencies of their individual performances, Whitaker and Venora work really well together, especially in bringing to life the slightly strange relationship between Parker and Chan. Samuel E. Wright does a nice job as Gillespie, and one of the set pieces of the film is the extended trip Whitaker takes to California as part of Dizzy’s group. The haunting series of telegrams that he sends back home to Venora after hearing of his daughter’s death is incredibly well done. But in terms of Parker’s front line partners it is Michael Zelniker as trumpet player Red Rodney who excels in a lengthy section of the film from a little later in Parker’s career, and their trip through the Deep South is particularly memorable. When all is said and done, Whitaker does finally deliver a solid performance as Charlie Parker, playing a man, in Stanley Crouch’s words, who couldn’t outrun his appetites.

The supporting cast is also great. In addition to Cobbs and David, are Jason Bernard as an expatriate trumpet player living in Paris, James Handy as the narcotics officer who is obsessed with putting Parker behind bars, Diane Salinger as the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a patron of sorts for the saxophonist, and Lou Cutell as an Hasidic Jewish father at a wedding reception. The screenplay by Oliansky, in addition to having a unique structure, is also incredibly well written. There are great lines throughout and the dialogue replicating the musician’s argot is believable. And one of the absolute delights about the screenplay for me personally is that Oliansky completely ignored the Miles Davis period altogether. Eastwood is masterful behind the camera, in his subtle way, letting the story tell itself rather than trying to be “artistic.” The director also made an important decision to use Parker’s real solos in the film, getting Lennie Niehaus to pull his music off the original records electronically and re-recording them with the best jazz musicians of the day--many of whom, like Ray Brown and Red Rodney, had actually played with Parker. As a result, the crew who did the sound design won the only Oscar awarded the film. Eastwood did take home the Golden Globe for best director, but then it’s no surprise that the foreign press certainly understands jazz and the kind of film Eastwood was making better than Americans. In the end, Charlie Parker will always be my favorite saxophonist, and Bird my favorite jazz film.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Of Mice and Men (1992)

Director: Gary Sinise                                   Writer: John Steinbeck
Film Score: Mark Isham                              Cinematography: Kenneth MacMillan
Starring: Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Ray Walston and Sherilyn Fenn

After an admirable attempt at filming John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice And Men with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid in 1981, it was at first a curiosity why Gary Sinise decided to remake Of Mice and Men again just a decade later. In retrospect, however, it was a brilliant move by an actor who was only beginning to make a name for himself at the time--he hadn’t even done Forest Gump or Apollo 13 yet. The problem with the earlier film is that it was made for television, and while that doesn’t necessarily make a film inherently bad, in certain respects it did in this case. The TV version simply strayed too far from Steinbeck’s original story in places when it didn’t need to, and diluted the overall impact of the tale in the process. The tremendous irony in all of this is that Sinise’s adaptation was done by Horton Foote, who had absolutely destroyed Harper Lee’s novel when he adapted To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. Because of that it was a pleasant surprise that he made the absolutely right move in translating Steinbeck’s dialogue and settings to the screen almost completely intact. The film was not hugely successful at the box office when it was released, no doubt do to the familiarity of the story and the disappointing nature of the previous version, but it was a critical success and has come to be recognized over the last twenty-five years as the masterpiece it is.

The film opens in a darkened boxcar, as the camera pans slowly over to the face of Gary Sinise, chin in his hands, and haunted look in his eyes. Then the camera cuts to a shot of a woman in a torn red dress running across a field--Sinise’s wife Moira--the only sound Mark Isham’s subdued score to accompany it. Running in the opposite direction after another cut is Gary Sinise as George Milton and John Malkovich as Lennie Small. They escape by hiding in the river under the overgrowth, and eventually make their way south to another ranch and another job. Sinise decides to spend the night near a small creek so that Malkovich can remember the place in case he gets in trouble again. The boss, played by Noble Willingham, is suspicious at first because he thinks Sinise is taking Malkovich’s money, but he sends the two to the bunkhouse anyway. There they meet an old man, Ray Walson, who lost his hand at the ranch and works cleaning the place up. When the boss’s son, Casey Siemaszko, shows up he takes an instant dislike to Malkovich--which he will pay for later. Part of Siemaszko’s belligerence comes from his small stature, the other is his raging jealousy over his wife, Sherilyn Fenn, who he thinks is cheating on him with one of the other farm hands. The one man who takes a genuine interest in the pair is a kindly muleskinner played by John Terry.

Things get tricky for Sinise as he tries to keep Malkovich out of harm’s way. Siemaszko is looking for any reason to take a swing at either of them, while at the same time Malkovich is oblivious to the inherent danger in talking to the lovely Fenn. The ultimate goal for both of them is to save enough money to get their own place someday, where Sinise can keep Lennie out of trouble and the two can be their own boss. Things look up when Walston wants to join them, and has enough money saved already that they can put the wheels in motion. But the best laid plans, as Robert Burns poem goes, are not enough to avert tragedy in the end. Sinise had been obsessed with the story ever since he had first seen it performed on stage while in high school, and that reverence certainly paid off. In the end it is Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film that gets right to the heart of what made Sinise’s achievement so great. “The most sincere compliment I can pay them is to say that all of them--writer and actors--have taken every unnecessary gesture, every possible gratuitous note, out of these characters. The story is as pure and lean as the original fable which formed in Steinbeck’s mind. And because they don’t try to do anything fancy—don’t try to make it anything other than exactly what it is--they have a quiet triumph.”

Sinise has a subtle touch as a director and is a perfectly introspective George, which makes far more credible the devotion he demonstrates toward Lennie throughout the film. Malkovich’s Lennie is ultra realistic and the slower unfolding of the story makes the viewer’s empathy for him that much greater. It’s a brilliant performance, but in a very different way than Lon Chaney Jr.’s in the 1939 Of Mice and Men. The great Ray Walston plays the cripple Candy and adds the kind of extreme confidence that Roman Bohnen can’t even approach in the classic version. Casey Siemaszko, as Curly the ranch owner’s son, is primarily a television actor but has done quite a few small roles in features in between. The muleskinner Slim, played by John Terry, is much more appropriate for the role than Charles Bickford in the original. But it’s Sherilyn Fenn who transforms the role of Curly’s wife from the nagging trailer trash blonde of the original to a dark-haired woman-child who is so lonely that she doesn’t realize the kind of danger she is putting the men, and herself, in just by talking to them. Finally, the great Joe Morton puts in an appearance as Crooks, the stable hand. The pages of Steinbeck’s novel come alive in the hands of Sinise and company, and make this Of Mice and Men not only a treasure to match Steinbeck’s novel, but the only film version of the story one ever need watch.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

North by Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                Writer: Ernest Lehman
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                       Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau

North by Northwest is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. Personally, I feel it’s really a tossup between this and Rear Window, and for me the Jimmy Stewart film gets the edge. But there’s really little to choose from between them. They’re both classics. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman had originally planned on making a film called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, which never made it past the planning stages. Michael Anderson was then handed the project, which starred Gary Cooper, and it was released the same year. Lehman’s eventual screenplay is a rare one in Hitchcock’s cannon, a story made up completely from scratch. Hitch had always imagined some kind of chase across Mt. Rushmore, and after bouncing ideas off each other the story gradually coalesced. But there’s also an argument to be made that the story originated with Otis C. Guernsey who had sold Hitchcock something similar nine years earlier. Regardless, it’s really the ultimate Hitchcock thriller. A case of mistaken identity robs a man of his own and sends him racing across the country, simultaneously chasing the villains and being chased himself by the police. The blonde in this film is one of the most dangerous in all of Hitchcock’s films, and underpinning the entire story is the sort of muted patriotism that Hitch liked as well.

The opening titles are quite unique, a green screen gradually filled in with a series of lines that turns into the windows of a New York skyscraper. Hitch gets his cameo out of the way early by missing a bus, and then Cary Grant comes out of the building with his secretary, Doreen Lang. They take a cab to the Oak Room where Grant, an advertising executive, is meeting with clients. When he realizes he forgot to tell his secretary something, he decides to send her a telegram. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman creates a wonderful bit of business here when two suspicious men, Robert Ellenstein and Adam Williams, looking for a man named George Kaplan, send a boy into the bar saying he has a telegram for him. Grant, oblivious to this, turns around and calls the boy over. The men think Grant is Kaplan and promptly kidnap him, taking him out to Glen Cove where he meets James Mason and his right hand man Martin Landau. When Grant figures out what has happened he tries to tell them that he’s not Kaplan, but Mason simply assumes he’s lying. When he refuses to tell them what he doesn’t know, Landau gets him drunk and the two henchmen put him in a car and send it toward the ocean cliff. But Grant marshals all his senses and avoids the cliff, taking the men on a chase until Grant runs into a police car. Of course, when the police go with him to the house the next day, nothing is as it was, and the only thing Grant is left with is the name of the owner of the estate.

Grant pays his fine, which should have been the end of things, but he can’t let it go. First he goes to Kaplan’s hotel room in the city, and before long figures out no one has ever seen this Kaplan. Then he goes to look for Mason, who is supposedly addressing the United Nations. But the owner of the estate turns out to be someone completely different, and to make matters worse he is killed by Williams who throws a knife in his back making it look like Grant has killed him. Now Grant is on the run from the police as well as the killers . . . and still has absolutely no idea why. After managing to elude the police getting out of the U.N., Grant heads for the train station and hops a train for Chicago, the next stop on Kaplan’s itinerary. There he meets Eva Marie Saint, who helps him out by stowing him in her room, but she only makes things more confusing by the way she seems to be throwing herself at him. Hitchcock has lots of great character actors populating the film. Edward Platt plays Grant’s lawyer, Edward Bins one of the county detectives, and Les Tremayne the art auctioneer. Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor, is the CIA head of operations and finally tells the audience what’s going on: there is no George Kaplan. Also on Carroll’s CIA team are Lawrence Dobkin and the wonderful Madge Kennedy. Unfortunately for Grant, he nearly gets killed a couple more times before he finally learns the truth.

The film is almost too brimming with excellence to be able to describe in a just a few paragraphs. The story itself is incredibly complex, and yet the way it plays out it is very easy to follow. Cary Grant, in his fourth film for Hitch, seems as bold and confident as the director himself, while James Mason and Martin Landau are unforgettable. The picture is filled with iconic scenes, from the United Nations building, to the train ride to Chicago, to the meeting in the woods. But the two most memorable scenes are, first, Cary Grant’s cat and mouse game in a cornfield with a crop duster that’s trying to kill him. The second is the race across the faces of Mr. Rushmore. The dialogue is full of the kind of wit that Hitchcock enjoyed. There’s even a nice allusion to the Whittaker Chambers / Alger Hiss trials when Grant asks Saint, “Have you got the pumpkin?” In broad terms the story is a Cold War spy thriller, but the reality is it’s much more intimate than that sounds. The quintessential fifties color saturation of the print is beautiful, and it was one of the few features the director filmed in widescreen. Finally, one of the most important pieces of the film is the truly inspired score by Bernard Herrmann. Along with the frenetic main theme that returns repeatedly, is also a memorable love theme. North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock at the peak of his powers, at a time in his career when he could seemingly do no wrong. Is it his greatest film? Perhaps not, but it’s close.