Friday, October 21, 2022

Crime and Punishment (1935)

Director: Josef von Sternberg                          Writers: S.K. Lauren & Joseph Anthony
Music: Louis Silvers                                         Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Peter Lorre, Edward Arnold, Marian Marsh and Robert Allen

Director Josef von Sternberg is hit-and-miss for me. While I feel his version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is one of the better films of the pre-code era, I also found Morocco to be one of the worst. His version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment falls somewhere in the middle. The biggest issue with the film for me is its adherence to the original material. Rather than try to reimagine it and make it something special, it feels a little claustrophobic in the way it clings so tightly to the well-known story—as if he were afraid of criticism for taking artistic license. The studio sets only add to the feeling of confinement. An American Tragedy benefitted tremendously from the abundance of exterior shots. Crime and Punishment, on the other hand, was shot completely on a sound stage. To be fair, it’s perhaps part of the subtext of the tale that Sternberg was going for, and that to open things up it would necessarily have diluted the feelings of emotional imprisonment he was trying to achieve. It’s a solid argument, but it also might have been better to work into that claustrophobia gradually, rather than impose it on the production right from the start. There’s no escaping the fact that Fritz Lang and Hitchcock were incredibly adept at shooting entirely in the studio, and that Sternberg doesn’t quite have the same facility. Even with all of the cinematic elements, it still feels like a filmed play. Nevertheless, it’s solidly directed, and it has a lot going for it—it’s also an interesting story—but in Sternberg’s hands it’s simply not very gripping.

The film opens at a college graduation with Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov receiving an award for high honors. But those honors don’t translate into a living, and with his clothes wearing out and his rent past due, he decides to sell his dead father’s watch at the pawnbrokers. There Lorre meets prostitute Marian Marsh and he’s moved by her plight, trying to take care of her mother and siblings while her father drinks away their money. At the same time, he feels that the old woman pawnbroker, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, doesn’t deserve to live and should be killed—a service to humanity, he calls it. When his mother and sister, Elisabeth Risdon and Tala Birell, bring Gene Lockhart over to his hovel of an apartment to announce he’s going to marry Birell, Lorre is upset by the news. Despite his poverty, his education has made him something of a snob. He’s sure his sister is marrying the very pompous Lockhart because he has money, but Lorre is also sure that she will not be treated well by him. At the very least, he doesn’t believe she loves him. It begins to tear Lorre apart that people’s very existence is so imprisoned by money, and he’s finally driven to kill the old woman pawnbroker, certain that he’ll never be caught, and take hers. Of course, the murder goes as planned, but a knock on the door sends him into a panic and he leaves without her money.

The conflict in Dostoevsky’s story centers on whether or not Raskolnikov will be able to live with himself. Will he be able to put his criminal act out of his mind and go on with his life, or will his conscience get the better of him and ultimately destroy him? Making matters worse is Edward Albert, playing a sort of jovial Javert to Lorre’s genuinely criminal Jean Valjean. Things get especially bad when an innocent man is arrested for Lorre’s crime, and Albert has no compunction at all about prosecuting him to the fullest extent of the law—meaning execution. Naturally, Albert doesn’t know any better—or does he? Lorre certainly does. And Edward Albert is fantastic, deserving his above the title credit in the film. Lorre is great as well, though he doesn’t come anywhere near the perfection he achieved in M, or for Hitchcock. Sternberg himself demonstrates some definite stylistic touches. For one thing, he’s not afraid of closeups. Rather than fear they would hark back to the silent era, as so many directors were afraid of in his day—and still are—they add a great deal to the cinematic palette and allow the actors to say a lot without dialogue. Louis Silvers’ film score is mostly recycled classical music, but it’s functional, as is the film as a whole. Crime and Punishment is a good film, not great one, of a classic story. And while one wishes it could have been better, it should be a positive experience for most viewers, especially fans of Peter Lorre.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Robin Hood (2010)

Director: Ridley Scott                                      Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld                          Cinematography: John Mathieson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow and Matthew Macfadyen

After scoring such a major success in Gladiator at the turn of the century, it’s no surprise that Ridley Scott would have brought back his star from that film to appear in another historical drama. While it may not have seemed at the time that Robin Hood was a film that needed to be made, it is certainly a welcome palate cleanser after the embarrassment of the Kevin Costner version from 1991 . . . very welcome indeed. I’ve written on numerous occasions about the hit or miss—literally, one or the other—quality of director’s cuts. In most instances, the theatrical release is perfect because of the cuts, and sticking unnecessary scenes back into the film only dilutes what was good about it in the first place. With Scott’s version of the Robin Hood legend, however, the reverse is true. Cutting scenes out in the theatrical version actually served to cripple that film, and were probably a major reason for the mixed reviews it received. So, I’ll go on record here to say that the only version you should ever watch of this film is the director’s cut. It’s a magnificent retelling of the story that rewards repeated viewings, a vision of screenwriter Brian Helgeland that, in conjunction with Ridley Scott’s direction, feels like the definitive version, with twists and turns that make it gripping to view—and much of which is destroyed by the theatrical cut.

The film begins with England’s King Richard, played superbly by Danny Huston, returning broke from the Crusades, sacking one last castle in France before he finally returns after a decade-long absence. When the king is killed in battle, Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride takes the most dependable of his fellow soldiers, and heads for England ahead of the hoard of soldiers to follow. In the meantime the French king, Jonathan Zaccaï, hires English mercenary Mark Strong to kill Richard. Instead, Strong finds only Sir Richard Loxley, Douglas Hodge, with the king’s crown and kills him and his men anyway. When Crowe and company—Kevin Durand as Little John, Scott Grimes as Will Scarlet, and Alan Doyle as Allan A'Dayle, a small band of merry men—run into the massacre, they take their own vengeance and only Strong is able to escape. But not unscathed as he takes one of Crowe’s arrows to the face. The dying Hodge asks Crowe to return his father’s sword, which Crowe agrees to, and after narrowly escaping the petulant, immature new King John, Oscar Isaac, Crowe heads for the midlands with his men to return the sword. There he meets Max von Sydow as Sir Walter, and Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley. Sydow, however, comes up with a plan. As Blanchett will lose the estate once Sydow dies, he suggests that Crowe take his dead son’s place. Finally, the last of the merry men, Mark Addy as Friar Tuck joins the group.

The central conflict in the story is that King John, frantic to reclaim the money that his brother Richard spent, wants to bleed the nobles in the north dry collecting taxes. To achieve this, he fires the former tax collector, William Hurt, and replaces him with Mark Strong. What the king doesn’t know, however, is that Strong is working both sides to his own benefit, as he is also clearing the way for King Phillip of France to launch an invasion of England. It really is a tremendously satisfying story, though the more international flavor of the plot reduces the local conflict with Matthew Macfadyen as the Sheriff of Nottingham. But then we’ve all seen that a hundred times before. The new version isn’t necessarily better for it, but since all of the other changes by Brian Helgeland are absolutely brilliant, this major shift is a little easier to accept. In addition to the new story, the acting is tremendous across the board. Mark Strong’s sociopathic version of Guy of Gisborne is just right, manipulating the weak Oscar Isaac as King John to the dismay of the queen mother, Eileen Atkins. William Hurt's appearance is a surprise but he is solid as the former aid to the old king. And the merry men are also uniformly excellent. Kevin Durand is just right as the garrulous Little John. Scott Grimes, having acquitted himself admirably in Band of Brothers and E.R. is perfectly cast as the red-haired Will Scarlet, and Mark Addy as Friar Tuck is an absolute natural.

Supporting Crowe, however, are the two actors who really make the film. First is the late Max von Sydow, one of the most commanding figures of the screen for decades. And in the crucial role of Marian is Cate Blanchett, who is as comfortable in historical dramas as anyone in Hollywood. These three working together are so good that it would be impossible to imagine the film without them. The only disappointment as far as the story goes, is that Matthew Macfadyen didn’t have more of a major role to play. Ridley Scott’s vision was carried out to perfection by cinematographer John Mathieson—as well as what looks like teams of second units filming the climax. It’s also the most realistic setting of the tale by far, with incredibly believable sets, both interior and exterior, that feel exactly right. Finally, the film score by Marc Streitenfeld, while not particularly memorable—and to be honest, that may not be a bad thing, as it’s not intrusive either—holds the whole thing together. I’ve enjoyed the Robin Hood saga on film for years, from Douglass Fairbanks in 1922, to the iconic Errol Flynn version from 1938—and yes, on very rare occasions, the 1991 debacle with Kevin Costner. Of course, there are literally dozens of other versions of the story, but for my money this is hands down the most satisfying. Ultimately, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood is wonderfully enjoyable and I give it it—remember, now, only the director’s cut—my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Director: John G. Adolfi                                 Writers: George Arliss & Mary Hamlin
Music: David Mendoza                                  Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: George Arliss, Doris Kenyon, Dudley Digges and Alan Mowbray

Alexander Hamilton was one of the unfortunate founding fathers, as his early death precluded his becoming president. But even with that, he still holds a high place in the country’s history, residing on the ten-dollar bill, almost single handedly given credit for the success of big business through his banking policies, and a different kind of example of the American Dream than the other, more well-off, founders present, as his humble beginnings as the bastard child of a Caribbean merchant were a distinct contrast with the rest of the founding generation—and something conveniently ignored in this film. Warner Brothers’ Alexander Hamilton from 1931, is a decidedly brief and incomplete portrait of Hamilton, but then that is to be expected with early biopics. What the film does well is to humanize the man—to the extent that’s possible in early Hollywood—rather than completely imbue him with mythological greatness. The film stars George Arliss as the title character, and it’s the actor’s play called Hamilton, co-written with Mary Hamlin that is presented on the screen, a play that he had starred in fifteen years earlier on Broadway. (The less said about its execrable modern counterpart, the better.) The play received mostly positive reviews in 1917, but a decade and a half later it hadn’t aged so well.

The film begins after the Revolutionary War, with George Washington saying farewell troops. Arliss, as Hamilton, tells Washington, played by Alan Mowbray, that the general will be needed to run the country as president. Washington says he’ll only agree if his colonel, Hamilton, continues as one of his cabinet. The central conflict of the first half of the film concerns Hamilton’s monetary policy, the assumption of all state war debts by the federal government. Montague Love as Thomas Jefferson sees this as a consolidation of power by the government that will make the states subservient in a way they’ve never been before. Hamilton’s view, however, is global. And without a strong government, the U.S. will never be a great power. Naturally, all of this is painted with the broadest possible brush. The people accuse Hamilton of being an aristocrat, and the film does nothing to dispute that view. Doris Kenyon plays Hamilton’s wife, Betsy, who is more concerned with having him home than fighting to keep the union together. When the southern states demand that the new capital be located in the south, it sets up a way for Hamilton to get a quid pro quo, the passage of his assumption bill for his support of a southern capital. His primary enemy throughout is Dudley Digges as the fictional Senator Reynolds, who takes every opportunity to embroil Hamilton in scandal, and oppose him politically. But of course, our hero rises above it all with aplomb, as any good founding father would do.

As with all such films, there’s a prodigious amount of bombast and histrionics when it comes to portraying national mythical figures. But because Arliss’s play also centered around the Reynolds’ affair scandal, there’s also a significant attempt to humanize Hamilton in a way not generally done in patriotic pictures. The fact that this is a pre-code film, however, is most likely what made that entire part of the storyline possible. Obviously, nothing was shown onscreen, but Hamilton’s eventual confession makes it clear that something did. But in the end there’s nothing really original about the story, and nothing separates it from dozens of others with similar themes. Unfortunately, the biggest issue with the film is the author and lead actor, George Arliss himself. By the time he made the picture he was already sixty-three, but looked seventy. As such, he was far too old to be playing Hamilton, who was only forty-eight when he died, and only thirty-seven at the time of the events in the film. In addition, John G. Adolfi’s direction is fairly uninspiring. But he had worked with Arliss on many previous films, and the actor’s ownership of the original material undoubtedly resulted in his being given the lead role and attaching Adolfi as director. So, in some sense the production was hampered from the very beginning. It’s difficult to say whether this is worth watching or not. There’s a certain cinematic historical merit to it, but the acting and story are so entirely pedestrian that unless one is simply curious, Alexander Hamilton is probably best avoided.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Son of Dracula (1943)

Director: Robert Siodmak                              Writers: Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                             Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers and Robert Paige

Forget every negative thing you’ve ever read about this film, because it’s decidedly one of the better Universal horror films. And that’s an important qualifier. It’s not Citizen Kane . . . but it’s not The Mad Ghoul, either. Son of Dracula is an impressive piece of classic horror by the Siodmak brothers, director Robert and writer Curt. In style, it’s closer to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man than the studio’s Frankenstein films. Like the former, it is Curt Siodmak’s original story that provides the basis for the film, and is expertly realized by one of RKO’s regular noir director Robert Siodmak, who lends the same kind of touches to a horror story which benefits tremendously from that type of vision. And like The Wolf Man it’s also set in the present day, this time the Deep South, and in that respect could be seen as one of several inspirations for Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. It has a nice cast, too. In addition to Universal stalwarts Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers, Robert Paige turns in an excellent performance as the jilted fiancée, Frank Craven from Our Town is the no-nonsense doctor who combats Dracula, and even Samuel Hinds from It’s a Wonderful Life shows up as the judge. Louise Allbritton does a fine job as well in her only Universal horror film. It’s a top-notch production all the way, again, considering the context, and needs to shed its undeserved reputation as one of the studio’s lesser horror outings.

Those who remember Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary from 1927 will recognize the opening credit sequence as something similar was done here, with a large hand wiping away dust and cobwebs to reveal the main titles of the picture. The story opens with town doctor Frank Craven, along with Robert Paige, waiting at the train station for the visiting Count Alucard. When he doesn’t show up they take a look at his luggage and Craven notices instantly that the name backward spells Dracula. Louise Albritton has arranged a welcome for the count at the family plantation, where she lives with her father, George Irving, and her sister, Evelyn Ankers. When the father is killed by Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula, two spots are noticed on the dead man’s throat, and Craven immediately sets about contacting the regional authority on vampires, the Hungarian professor J. Edward Bromberg. Rather than shying away from the evidence, Craven takes things even further. After the reading of the will, he breaks open Chaney’s trunks and finds them empty. He wants the two sisters to leave at once, in order to keep them out of danger, but then Allbritton shocks everyone by announcing that she’s throwing over her fiancé Robert Paige, and marrying Chaney. Meanwhile, a small boy nearly dies from what Craven is convinced is an attack by the vampire, and calls in Bromberg to assist him in confirming the diagnosis. What seems a rather straightforward story, however—this time with two Van Helsings for the price of one—has a wonderfully satisfying twist halfway through that sets it alongside The Wolf Man, and well above Universal’s other horror offerings of the forties.

This is one of the first horror films I ever watched as a kid on late night television, back in the glory days when TV was a feast of black-and-white films. And the things that impressed me back then still do to this day. For one thing, it’s a smart film, as a direct result of author Curt Siodmak. Unlike the colossally stupid decisions so many horror characters make, Frank Craven and J. Edward Bromberg refuse to dismiss the evidence in front of their eyes. If that means that an actual vampire is roaming the countryside, then so be it. Steps must be taken, and to their credit they do. It’s a wonderfully satisfying conceit that goes a long way toward making up for the more obvious deficiencies that so many critics harp on. Chaney is usually dismissed for being fleshy instead of cadaverous, but in the context of the story there’s no reason for that to matter. Also the special effects by John Fulton and cinematographer George Robinson are absolutely wonderful, with Dracula emerging from smoke, and changing from a bat via animation but shot from behind so it’s not so obvious. And his floating across the water of the swamp is spectacular. Finally, the great Hans Salter’s film score ties the whole thing together, bolstered by his use of cues from Frank Skinner’s scores for Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films. All of the actors acquit themselves well, including Chaney and Allbritton. Evelyn Ankers is a vision, as always, and even if Frank Craven takes a lot of abuse from critics, he’s actually fantastic in the role. Don’t be seduced by the negative criticism of Son of Dracula because in reality it is one of the truly great horror films of the decade.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Director: Dorothy Arzner                               Writer: Edwin Justus Mayer
Film Score: John Leipold                              Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen and Cary Grant

Another early pairing of Fredric March with the positively luminous Sylvia Sidney for Paramount, Merrily We Go to Hell is a pre-code picture focusing on alcoholism and adultery. The film is based on the short story “I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan,” by author Cleo Lucas. If there’s any real merit to the story itself, it is due to the female point of view by Lucas, and the tremendous talents of director Dorothy Arzner, a similar take on the idea as 1930’s The Divorcée at MGM from a novel by Ursula Parrott but with a more traditional ending. The throughline for both is a kind of domestic tragedy that is utterly absent from today’s screen. While the pre-code era is known for sex and violence, one of the aspects of those films that gets little attention is the emotional devastation emerges out of domestic relationships that are doomed from the start. The love that overcomes those warning signs in the early days is then gradually eroded away until one of the partners—primarily the woman—is faced with a choice that is as gut-wrenching as it is real. Modern trauma-dramas not doubt wish they could emulate the kind of intensity of emotion that these stories produced in abundance, but there’s nothing like the original for emotional power that has never really been captured in the same way since.

Chicago newspaper man and unproduced playwright Fredric March is a lush, drinking to forget having his heart broken by actress Adrianne Allen. At a party he meets manufacturing heiress Sylvia Sidney, and his frankness and undisguised genuine attraction to her causes her to fall in love. March is honest about his past, but she agrees to marry him anyway, though he likes to spend most of his free time at swanky speakeasys. Many of his co-workers, especially Charles Coleman, believe he’s not over Allen and only marrying Sidney for the money. Sidney’s father, George Irving, agrees and invites March over before the wedding to offer him fifty thousand dollars to walk away. March refuses, of course, and this endears Sidney to him even more. Nevertheless, Irving provides the couple with a living so that March can write his plays, but they are uniformly rejected and with little hope that they will ever be produced, and his failed career gnaws at him. Then the unexpected happens, when a producer expresses interest in his play and invites him to New York. But of course, March is still a drunk, and much more interesting to Allen than he was before, especially when she’s tabbed to star in the play. And it’s then the gears of pre-code tragedy gradually begin to grind up Sidney and take the audience along on the brutal journey with her.

March is solid, and while he’s a bit artificial onscreen it was not something he ever developed out of even later in his career. Which is not to say he’s necessarily bad, as he’s obviously talented, is just that he always seems to be playing to the back of the house. Sylvia Sidney, on the other hand, is a tremendous talent, capable of projecting a wealth of emotion through simple gestures of her face, and without raising her voice—though she’s undercut in that respect by the needs of the early sound film mechanics. The real stars of the picture, however, are director Dorothy Arzner and cinematographer David Abel. Arzner uses some truly impressive moving camera work from Abel, and together they create a style that gives a convincing precursor to what the hand-held camera was able to do decades later. Many of the shots are beautifully composed, and while they don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves, are incredibly advanced for the period. It’s a testament to female directors like Arzner, that their male counterparts for the most part were not nearly as creative and artistic behind the camera. Other actors of note are Richard Gallagher and Esther Howard as March’s best friends, and a brief appearance by Paramount contract player Cary Grant. Though the story is typical fare for domestic pre-code tragedy, director Dorothy Arzner and the talents of March and Sidney combine to make Merrily We Go to Hell a rewarding viewing experience.