Monday 30 April 2007

The Far Country (1954) Anthony Mann

We kick off in Seattle in 1896 which I know from doing the wonderful Underground Tour there was very different to what you'd see today. Certainly I don't doubt in the slightest Jimmy Stewart driving his herd of cattle right up to the dock, paying off his men who obviously want to kill him and then fighting off those they hire to arrest him instead for murder. Apparently two of the four men he hired turned back and didn't live to talk about it. Getting rescued by half dressed stranger Ruth Roman who saves his bacon by climbing into bed in front of him and hiding him from those running the boat is a little less believable but hey, this is Hollywood.

Stewart is Jeff Webster, who loads his cattle onto a steamer heading north to the Klondyke, via the border town of Skagway, all of which looks great in glorious Technicolor or would if some of the scenes weren't obviously sets with painted backgrounds. The dialogue is just as shaky, with a whole bunch of exchanges that play like tired old stand up comedy routines today, almost as quaint as vaudeville.

Somehow it remains notably fun though, even when John McIntire, playing crooked Skagway Sheriff Gannon, holds court from a gambling table, passing out glasses of whiskey along with his snap judgements which free Webster of murder charges with one hand and steal his cattle with the other. Maybe the problem is that I don't know enough about the genre yet to decide whether this is as cliched a western as there gets or as definitive a one. Did this copy everything else or did everything else copy this?

After a while trying to work out what the real plot is all about, because our expectations of what's happened and what's going to happen keep changing. Initially it seems pretty dumb but the script soon reveals itself to be pretty clever. There are certainly reasons for all those dumb things to happen because clever things follow them, every time and while they start out feeling like salvage work, it soon becomes obvious that they're the product of an astute script by screenwriter Borden Chase, who based the screenplay on his own story.

The film has plenty more than just twists. It has a whole slew of gorgeous landscapes, courtesy of cinematographer William Daniels, who makes the Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta look somewhat reminiscent of the scenery that wowed everyone in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It also has a moral ambiguity that feels very refreshing. Jeff Webster is the hero of the story, I guess, but he's hardly a hero. Just look at the decisions he makes. When an avalanche buries the other half of his party he isn't even going to turn back. When he shoots a man dead he doesn't see why he even needs to look at the body. When the people of Dawson realise that they have one lawman for fifty thousand square miles of territory, he turns them down flat. What makes all this interesting is that he isn't a bad guy, merely not what we're conditioned to know is a good guy. He treats his horses right because they're animals, but expects men to treat themselves right, hardly today's attitudes but understandable ones.

Stewart made eight films for director Anthony Mann, and I'm quickly coming to discover that they're some of his most interesting. Half of them are westerns and this ranks up there above The Naked Spur and Winchester '73 in my estimation on a lot of fronts, however great they are. It tells the truth about so many things we often weren't told in the movies: how the reality of how the law was the man with the fastest gun, corruption was the norm and allegiances shifted with the wind.

The people telling the story are the right ones, not just Stewart but names I'm beginning to know well like Walter Brennan, Jack Elam, John McIntire and perennial villain Robert Wilke and even some of those I knew anyway like Kathleen Brennan and Henry Morgan. There are also a couple of others here who I probably should know: the leading ladies, saloon owner Ruth Roman playing older than her years and lovestruck Corinne Calvet playing younger than hers.

Saturday 28 April 2007

The Big Shot (1942) Lewis Seiler

Title card one: Humphrey Bogart. Title card two: The Big Shot. Warner Brothers were really capitalising on their long overdue discovery of the talent they'd been wasting as second fiddle in otherwise fine Jimmy Cagney and Eddie G Robinson movies. He'd become a name in High Sierra and a star in The Maltese Falcon. At this point he had only one more to go before Casablanca so it's a really interesting time for him. Massively on the way up, after what to him must have seemed like forever, but not quite yet at that point of immortality, Bogie was something to watch indeed.

He gets a decent part too, as Duke Berne, a three time convict trying to go straight. He doesn't have a gang any more, or a girl or much else. The good guys think he's a bad guy and the bad guys think he's nobody any more. 'He used to be a big shot', they say, while trying to hire his talents, but he still has it and he soon gets to use it when hiring up for an armoured car job. It goes badly but he'd backed out at the last minute, at the request of a former girl, now the wife of the attorney calling the shots on the entire job. Unfortunately the elderly lady used as a hostage picks him out under a little pressure from a mugshot. So Berne is hunted for a job that he should have been on but backed out of. How's that for irony?

The film is a strange one. Some of it feels like practiced, tried and true gangster film, the sort of great tense black and white melodrama that made the era such a special one. Bogie is on fire and he damn well knows it, relishing the sort of part he had got used to supporting for so many years instead, so much so that he even grins a few times. His sheer charisma makes this film and he's impossible not to watch, even when he's not doing anything except be on the screen. However some of it feels far more modern than the 1942 release date would warrant, especially in how the armoured car job goes down. There's also some truly great stunt driving on ice towards the end of the movie, which again feels out of time, even if the film is obviously sped up a few times.

The support is fine, most notably from Irene Manning as Duke's love interest if mostly because she's so obvious in the company of everyone else, but also from Chick Chandler as a dancing convict and Stanley Ridges who I find that I've seen a bunch of times before without realising who he was. He's Duke's lawyer here, the husband of Duke's girlfriend, and as a crooked lawyer he's fine. I know other cast members here without realising it: Murray Alper, Minor Watson and Richard Travis, who plays the young man who goes to jail for providing a false alibi for Duke. He's fine here as an innocent in a gangster movie, a lot more impressive than the other credit part I've seen him playing, in the awful B movie Mesa of Lost Women.

As for this one, it's more interesting than great. Bogart is awesome at a really dynamic moment in his personal film history and it's fascinating to watch just for him. There's more but how great it would be had the lead been played by someone else, I really don't know.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) Russ Meyer

Here's the most famous movie from one of the truest film auteurs America ever produced, Russ Meyer. Welcome to violence, the narrator intones, over a unique opening sequence that is a growing number of copies of spectographs of the narrator's voice. And then we see the stars dancing in a go go club: Tura Satana with her exotic catlike looks, Haji the continental vixen with amazing eyes and Lori Williams the all American blonde. There's Meyer's typical fast paced editing, outrageous dialogue and all before even the title credits.

The credits run over the trio racing sports cars into the desert. Before long they're catfighting in water or on sand and then drag racing chicken races against each other. Of course none of them can act, Haji's Italian accent (if that's what it's supposed to be) is terrible, the girls miraculously dry off and their hair miraculously goes back to perfect condition and none of it matters. The laws of physics don't apply here. What matters is what Russ Meyer does with his cast and crew, especially as this is so low budget that the cast was the crew, because this was new in so many ways.

There are overtones of everything you can imagine here, most of which you just didn't see in 1965 in American films under the Production Code: lesbianism, violence, sexuality, powerful women who could outdo men at things that men traditionally believe they own. They run well beyond the obvious things like driving fast to more important things like dominance and they often also run way beyond overtones. These leads aren't just large in the usual Russ Meyer manner, namely the bust size: they're tall and powerful and know karate moves. Tura Satana, especially, simply oozes menace and control and she has no conception of how to hold back on either, but she can turn on the sexuality too, that's for sure.

I don't know which time through this is for me, but I see new things every time through. The attacks here were always so obviously against most American institutions but I didn't know how many of them were cinematic ones. On previous viewings I had no clue who Gidget was, for instance but I sure do now. She figures strongly in the plot, because there really is a plot in here beyond the general subversion and tone of the piece. Tura's character Varla kills Gidget's boyfriend in a fight in the desert, so she kidnaps her and ends up taking her along when she goes gold hunting. The gold belongs to an old man in a desert house that he shares with a brain damaged muscle man of a son, tastefully credited as The Vegetable, and a more savvy son played by Paul Trinka from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Every time I watch this movie I'm amazed at the achievement. Sure, the acting's terrible (Tura Satana shouts most of her lines, Lori Williams whispers most of hers); but there's tension everywhere, sexual and otherwise; more symbolism than most films could ever bear; excellent editing, which was always one of Meyer's best and most distinctive talents, though it's less overt here than usual; superb composition of frame; solid and honest motivations, however unconventional for Production Code Hollywood; an amazing amount of unspoken subtext given how much is actually put on screen; and more moral ambiguity seen on an American film since the heyday of film noir: not one of the good guys is entirely a good guy and not one of the bad girls is entirely a bad girl.

There's also an influence that gets bigger with every year that passes. Russ Meyer spent a mere $45,000 on this, which makes it one of the most influential films of all time, if you're counting per dollar. I'm watching this time on TCM Underground, presented by Rob Zombie, who borrowed more than a little for his own work, and he wasn't the only one. I still can't give it a Classic rating in good faith, but this is one of my favourite films of all time and it amazes and impresses me every time I see it. It's a wonder and there are about a billion reasons why it shouldn't be.

Wednesday 25 April 2007

The Gay Falcon (1941) Irving Reis

After author Leslie Charteris pulled the plug on the Saint novels because he didn't like where RKO was taking the character, they promptly bought the rights to a copycat character from fiction, Michael Arlen's Gay Lawrence, aka the Falcon (though he's Gay Falcon in the stories), and filmed it with the same actors it had made the Saint films with: George Sanders and Wendy Barrie. Backing them up this time are supporting actors of the calibre of Allen Jenkins, Gladys Cooper and Edward Brophy.

Apparently Gay Lawrence is a gentleman sleuth but he's retired. To impress his fiancee Elinor Benford, he became a broker a day before the events of the film. She wants him to settle down to an honest living and attend one of Maxine Wood's parties but he's not particularly interested. However when he gets home and finds a breathless Wendy Barrie in his apartment, playing Maxine's secretary Helen Reed, he gets to reconsider. Apparently someone is stealing valuable jewels from Maxine's parties and the police aren't having much luck investigating.

Gladys Cooper is socialite Maxine Wood, Jenkins is Lawrence's right hand man Goldie Locke and Edward Brophy is detective Bates, investigating but not getting very far. There's even Turhan Bey, without his turban for a change. The Falcon quickly realises that he's tied up in the insurance scam that lies behind the thefts but he has to investigate the inevitable murders to get to the bottom of it all. Nina Vale plays Elior Benford like a dynamic early Bette Davis and her love/hate relationship with the Falcon provides an enjoyable background to the story that was conspiciously missing from the Saint movies.

She doesn't want him to keep on with his gentleman sleuthing, getting caught up in all sorts of adventurous shenanigans, usually with women involved, and when he ends up in yet another adventure here with a young and pretty woman very much involved, she doesn't buy his excuses. It's a fluffy background but a fun one and it instils The Gay Falcon with a lot of the charm that the Saint films lacked. I wonder if Leslie Charteris sued because the Falcon was a cheap knockoff of the Saint or because he was more fun in the movies.

Monday 23 April 2007

Pat and Mike (1952) George Cukor

Co-written by noted screenwriter Garson Kanin and actress Ruth Gordon, of all people, who were Oscar nominated for their troubles, this is another Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn comedy and while they're not all as great as they're made out, I don't think there's a bad one in the bunch and I've worked through most of them now. Kate is the Pat of the title, Mrs Patricia Pemberton, and she's a golfer.

She starts out deliberately losing because her boyfriend Collier Weld is trying to impress a potential investor. Of course she soon loses her temper too because Collier Weld is exactly the sort of male chauvinist pig that you'd wish Kate Hepburn on. Soon Charles Barry, played by Jim Backus in a small part, gets her interested in the Women's National Matchplay Tournament, so suddenly Collier Weld disappears from the scene and dubious promoter Mike Conovan appears. He's the Mike of the title and no points for guessing that it's Spencer Tracy.

The tournament goes exactly as you'd expect, but women's golf fans, amidst which number I can't count myself, ought to be enthused that Kate is up against the greats of the day, literally playing themselves, finishing off against Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was so great I've actually heard of her. She's winning all the way through until Collier Weld turns back up and she goes to pieces, heading from bunker to bunker to trees to loss. It looks like Hepburn played at least a good proportion of her shots herself, which is impressive even to someone who doesn't know much about it like me.

What's more impressive is when she goes back to Mike Conovan and it comes out in conversation that she's only been playing golf for a year or so and she really plays tennis. And shoots, and boxes and anything else that he has to deal with as a promoter except race horses. Watching Spencer Tracy's face listening to all this is as much fun as it gets. Tracy is wonderful here, as he always was, especially when playing opposite Katharine Hepburn.

As for Kate, she's fine but it's excruciating to watch her squirm every time Collier is around. Actor William Ching's face is the most magnetic thing in this film, just because I wanted Kate to belt him one every single time he opened his mouth. Every line, every single line he has, invites a cringe because he's digging the biggest hole ever dug. That's what this film is really about, not the inevitable love story and certainly not the embarrassing subplot about Aldo Ray as a moron boxer. It's about what not to say to Kate.

You won't just see half the female athletes of the time, but also Mae Clarke, from The Public Enemy and Frankenstein, as a golfer. Watch carefully towards the end and you'll see Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies, The Rifleman Chuck Connors and even a small looking Charles Bronson, here as Charles Buchinski in only his seventh film. Amazingly enough Kate Hepburn gets to beat him up. Twice. Very cool.

Get Out and Get Under (1920) Hal Roach

Watching Harold Lloyd shorts is almost an education in silent comedy. Just like in A Sailor-Made Man, this two reel short starts with a plot so basic it's detailed on the title card: boy falls in love with girl and things happen. You can see the way it's all thought out. Hey, let's put Harold Lloyd in a studio to get his photo taken. What would be funny? How about a mouse running up his leg while he's trying to hold still. Great. And then he could tell the photographer that he's going to marry this beautiful girl. What if the photographer has another picture to prove that she's going to get married to someone else? And it could be this very morning! Maybe Harold could be too late. Ah but what then? It could all be a dream! And then... and on it goes.

Hal Roach followed this formula in the early days but the comedians weren't funny much of the time and the gags weren't any better. The problem was that he didn't have a Harold Lloyd at the time to make it all look easy. This being 1920 he did have a Harold Lloyd and it just shows up the level of talent he had (or didn't have) in previous years. Here the gags come thick and fast and are mostly tied up with a car that Lloyd (playing The Boy as usual) has almost fully paid for, hence the title which comes from a song of the day about car trouble. The car won't start, won't stop, gets stuck on a train, won't go up a hill, hides in a tent, you name it.

There's also some amateur dramatics subplot about the girl, just in case we forgot about her. She's Mildred Davis, because this is 1920 and the pair of them hadn't got married in real life yet, thus forcing her retirement from film. It feels tacked on though, as if the rest of the story had run away with all the running time and this got thrown back on to tie it all up.

A Sailor-Made Man (1921) Fred Newmeyer

Abington Arms is an ultra fashionable summer resort populated by the ultra rich. One such playboy without a care in the world is Harold Lloyd in a bit of a departure for him, heir to $20m and an attitude to match. He decides to marry Mildred Davis, which of course he would do in real life soon enough, but her father, a steel magnate, wants him to prove himself by getting a job. So he joins the navy, just like that. Six months later his boat is off Khairpura-Bhandanna and so is that of the girl, who's now sailing the world with her foks. Of course she gets kinapped by the Maharajah and carried off to his harem, so it's up to Harold and his new found tough guy sailor buddy to save her.

This was Harold Lloyd's first feature length movie, even though it's only a whisker over three quarters of an hour long. Apparently it started out as just another short like his previous films but the gags kept coming and coming and so the film got longer and longer. Certainly that fits what I saw here because there's no let up at all. It's consistently funny from start to finish yet doesn't even feel like 45 minutes. In fact everything is so natural that it doesn't even feel like Lloyd is trying, he's just naturally funny and that's what every comedian has been aiming at since comedy began. I got to the end of this one, laughing all the way, and wanted to start over from scratch and watch it again. No wonder it made half a million at the box office and turned Harold Lloyd into a feature star.

Sunday 22 April 2007

Murder She Said (1961) George Pollock

In 1960 MGM apparently bought the rights to a wide swathe of works by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, and for some reason they picked the seventh Miss Marple novel to be the first they translated onto film, presumably because it was the most recently published, four years earlier. Originally titled 4.50 from Paddington, MGM obviously didn't believe anyone would go to see a movie with that title, so renamed it. They couldn't use the American title of the book either, What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw!, because they'd cut Mrs McGillicuddy out of the script, so it ended up as the generic and meaningless Murder She Said.

Miss Marple is played by the indomitable Margaret Rutherford who happily stole most films in which she appeared, and she's assisted by Stringer Davis who was her real life husband. Bizarrely the cast also includes Joan Hickson, who would go on to memorably play Miss Marple herself on BBC TV in the eighties. In fact she was a far closer match to the character as written by Christie, Rutherford being highly watchable but hardly small and birdlike.

Jane Marple (Mrs McGillicuddy in the book) is travelling by train when she sees a murder committed in a train passing the other way, a woman strangled by a man. The police investigate but don't find anything at all, so are rather disbelieving of the whole affair, presumably because in the film world she hadn't already solved six other mysteries that baffled the authorities. Miss Marple naturally investigates herself and tracks the body down to Ackenthorpe Hall with its large estate that runs down to the track. She gets herself hired as a maid (instead of a friend in the book) and, while looking around, has to deal with a precocious young child and a curmudgeonly old goat.

They are played by Ronnie Raymond and James Robertson Justice respectively, both wonderful foils in their own way for Rutherford and the best scenes are between them, but they're also fun on their own behalf. There are more people worth watching too. There's five times Oscar nominated American Arthur Kennedy as James Robertson Justice's doctor, English comedy/horror institution Thorley Walters as one of the extended family, and Charles 'Bud' Tingwell as the inspector, who would return for the rest of the series. There's even Carry On regular Peter Butterworth as a ticket collector on the train. I didn't even recognise Richard Briers as the strangely named Mrs Binster, who runs the agency that Miss Marple uses to gain employment.

As for the mystery, which is the whole point after all, it's neatly done. However Agatha Christie wasn't very fond of it herself, probably because of the liberties taken with her story and characters. She would have been even more upset about the rest of the series, given that the next two were Miss Marple films based on Hercule Poirot novels and the fourth wasn't even an Agatha Christie story at all. Regardless of how horrific this movie massacring must seem to Christie purists, Murder She Said is still a rattling good yarn populated by memorable and characterful characters.

This Happy Breed (1944) David Lean

Based not just on a Noel Coward play but also on Noel Coward himself and his early life, between the wars, he handed it over to David Lean with whom he had made In Which We Serve. It's in wonderfully faded technicolor, which seems a little strange for a British film from 1944 and it rattles on at a rate of knots to get its story told in less than two hours. There's an introductory section in 1919 and then it's on to 1924, 1925 and onward like lightning, giving us markers in time but without dwelling on them, from the general strike to Broadway Melody to Hitler's face on the front page, from election results to the king's funeral to Chamberlain holding in his hand a piece of paper. It concentrates instead on a family and how the changing times affect them and how they each change in their own ways. It's told as much in the dialogue that runs between them as in the events that they experience.

The family are the Gibbons: Frank and Ethel, played by heavyweight actors Robert Newton and Celia Johnson, both appearing very different from last time I saw them: Newton in Oliver Twist and Johnson in Brief Encounter, both also David Lean films. Kay Walsh who plays Queenie, one of their three kids, would reunite with Newton in Oliver Twist four years later and have some very different arguments, as Bill Sikes and Nancy. They all grow up together with the Mitchells next door, especially Bob and his son Billy. Bob Mitchell is Stanley Holloway and Billy is no less a name than John Mills, playing a sailor again just as he had for Coward and Lean two years earlier in In Which We Serve.

Having grown up in the southeast of England I remember a lot of this, even though I came along a generation later than the kids in this one. There are memories from the house that I grew up in and the house my mother grew up in, the little things mostly, like the hatch between the kitchen and the dining room, the cherry tree in the back garden and using tea chests to move house. Much of the talk is about class, from the nascent communism that some of the kids get caught up in for a while, trying to make everyone the same, to the airs and graces of one of the others, always trying to improve herself. I suppose class was always present around me when I was young, though I didn't know it was there at the time.

This Happy Breed is a major success. It works on the level of entertainment, consistently keeping us interested in what would happen next. Technically it's excellent, not flash in the slightest but subtly clever in the way it's constructed and shot. The acting is universally spot on and everyone ages exactly as they should, not just in makeup but in size, shape and attitude. There are messages and lessons but most of all it's history, not of great events but of ordinary people. It would be interesting to watch it immediately before something like Hope and Glory.

Saturday 21 April 2007

Dead of Winter (1987) Arthur Penn

It's the turn of the old year into the new and rather than partying on down, an unnamed woman is busy chasing down a bag full of cash from locker to locker, getting strangled in a remote car park and having her finger cut off. We don't have any idea who she is or why any of this is happening to her but it's obviously important because it backs up the title credits and keeps us watching. Next thing we know actress Mary Steenburgen, playing actress Katie McGovern, is getting hired as the replacement lead in a feature film after the previous lead, Julia Rose, has gone mysteriously missing. Two guesses as to who the victim was. Anyway, the casting agent is the strangely eager to please Roddy McDowall and the producer of the film is the kindly and wheelchair bound Jan Rubes.

It's not too surprising to find that not all is as it seems. McGovern gradually discovers that there is no film and she's become part of some sort of nefarious real life plotline. Her audition tape is part of a blackmail attempt and her identity is being forced from her. There are a lot of odd little touches that don't seem to have anything to do with anything except help to keep us on edge, but everything is there for a reason. That includes the gas station that gives out goldfish like reward points and the player piano that was made for President McKinley but was delivered the day he was shot.

Mary Steenburgen is excellent in a demanding role, well three roles to be honest that must look alike but not be the same. Roddy McDowall is always a joy to watch and he's wonderfully off kilter here. Jan Rubes, who I only know from Witness, gives a powerful performance in a very Hitchcockian way. There are other Hitchcock touches too, including direct yet subtle references to many of Hitch's films through use of corpses or leg casts. My lass thought that this was far too obvious, but she sees through these things far more often than I do. I thought it was perhaps a little workmanlike, but cleverly subtle. I can see why it was a sleeper hit.

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946) William Castle

Warner Baxter is back again as Dr Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, and once again he's treating a patient who turns up dead. Prospective patients really ought to have paid more attention: either they were likely to end up as corpses or apparent murderers. This one was Philip Armstrong aka John Foster, who before being murdered was experiencing blank spells where he wanders around a particular end of town full of fairground attractions, apparently subconsciously trying to bring back a lost memory. Ordway is there investigating just after he's killed but he can't even produce a body let alone the killers. Soon he has to investigate not just his patient but his patient's murder.

There's really not much to say about the Crime Doctor films that I haven't already said when reviewing the first few, because nothing much is different here. The first film in the series was thoroughly different from the rest because it served entirely as an introduction, but from then on it's consistently the same ol' same ol'. Baxter is fine, if wooden and serious, and he's the only real continuing character. The backgrounds are mildly interesting but never really develop, staying just mildly interesting backgrounds. The script is solid but never really catches fire at any point. The Crime Doctor films seem to be really just there, solid and reliable but never breaking new ground or catching the imagination, just like Dr Robert Ordway himself who never seems to get excited about anything, even when his life is threatened or his patients have been murdered.

Friday 20 April 2007

Oliver Twist (1948) David Lean

Reading arguments about Alec Guinness's greatest film, or even his greatest performance, are unintentiously hilarious, even beyond the seemingly obligatory sideswipes about Obi Wan Kenobi. Nobody can agree on anything, it seems, and there are just too many great roles to choose from. However his perfomance here as Fagin was so impressively dynamic (and stereotypical) that it led to a three year delay Stateside because of anti-Semitic connotations. Here he's partnered with director David Lean who produces some of the most powerful imagery ever seen on film, through the use of cinematic arts like composition, contrast and lighting. Lean is known for his grand epics but he must have been paying attention to quieter silent era pictures to learn how to make films like this.

The opening is stunning. All we're really watching is a young girl trying to get back to the parish workhouse, but what we see is the power of cinematic art. The storm roils, empty branches beckon and the lightning sets the stream alight. Even the clouds recede with menace and set the scene for the entry into the world of Oliver Twist. Fast forward nine years and there's just as much menace in his life. Some of his fellow orphans in the workhouse look more like concentration camp victims and to counter his famed audacity for asking for more, he's apprenticed off to an undertaker, Abel Sowerberry.

Unfortunately his effeminate and melancholy looks make him a perfect mute to walk behind the funeral carriage and that brings resentment from Noah Claypole, an apprentice above him in the scheme of things. However, there's something about him that both he and we don't know, and there's certainly strength in him that others don't see so he escapes and finds his way to the bustling metropolis of London, to meet up with the Artful Dodger and be introduced to the criminal schemes of Fagin and Bill Sikes.

There are quite a few actors in this film who I know well but would have completely failed to recognise without the ability to look them up in IMDb. Diana Dors, the buxom Marilyn wannabe from no end of 'oo 'er, missus' movies from the seventies, is unrecognisable to me in black and white, let alone at the age she is as a maid at the undertaker's. There's also Carry On veteran Hattie Jacques singing away at the Three Cripples inn, a very young Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger, Hammer mainstay Michael Ripper and others. Even Alec Guinness isn't particularly recognisable under the heavy makeup though his voice gives him away on occasion.

He is absolutely superb here, stereotypical or not, and he's the quintessential Fagin, just as young John Howard Davies is the quintessential Oliver. Robert Newton is superb as Bill Sikes, Anthony Newley is an excellent Artful Dodger; and Henry Stephenson, about the only actor who is recognisable here to me, is quietly powerful amongst such company as one of the few characters with goodness in his heart. He looks Victorian, pure and simple, and has the beneficent face to carry the character.

The only catch to the film is the story. I've never been the biggest fan of Charles Dickens, while reserving a heavy respect for his accomplishments in exposing the dark side of Victorian life, and thus haven't read many of his books. I haven't read Oliver Twist, for instance, and so can't speak to how well translated this was to the screen, but I felt that there were a lot of interesting characters here that were glossed over in favour of Oliver himself who really isn't that complex at all. He's just not that interesting, much more someone who things happen to than someone who makes things happen. He's almost a MacGuffin. I'd like to have heard much more about Nancy or the Artful Dodger for instance. Maybe I'd get that from the book but I didn't get it here and it really affects the film to my eyes. What David Lean did is astounding and the actors helped him to achieve that, but still I wasn't enthralled. I wasn't bored either but I certainly wasn't enthralled.

Broken Blossoms (1919) D W Griffith

Here's one I've looked forward to for a long time. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl is an anomaly on a number of fronts. It's a D W Griffith film that isn't an epic, for a start, and it has the audacity to describe a relationship between a fifteen year old white girl and a grown Chinese man. It's exactly the sort of controversial subject that couldn't be addressed at all in the code era but this is 1919 so it's possible, making this a highly daring film even though it apparently still omits much of the controversial subject matter from the source story by Thomas Burke. The leads are Lillian Gish, who I am fast coming to believe is the greatest actress to ever appear in front of a camera and who was 26 at the time; and Richard Barthelmess, one of the names that leapt out at me from the pages of Mick LaSalle's book, Dangerous Men, as someone to watch in the precodes, but who I've only managed to see in a few films since.

He's not entirely believable as a yellow man, as the subtitle would have it in the politically incorrect terminology of the time (though it's better than alternative of The Chink and the Child), and indeed there's a good deal of racial stereotyping going on. However at least Griffith hired orientals to play orientals for the most part. His character, Cheng Huan, shrinks from violence and decides to travel to the west to bring the Buddha's message of peace to what he sees as barbarians. He finds his way to Limehouse, the Chinese area of London, where he becomes a merchant. However in an area that would generally be regarded as a huge den of iniquity, he fails conspicuously to bring the peace he wanted, instead spending his days smoking opium.

Meanwhile Battling Burrows, a strutting and brutish prizefighter, has a daughter called Lucy. The implication given us in the title cards is that she's a bastard child thrust back at him by the mother who doesn't want her either, and being a tiny little thing she's the easiest target, physically and verbally, for her father whenever he wants to let loose. He's played by the surprising choice of Donald Crisp, usually a genteel sort, who ends up appearing far more like someone like Allen Jenkins here. To him she's more like a slave and yet nobody offers her any guidance to the right places, merely not to be like them.

Lillian Gish, as expected, is superb. In an era when everyone overacted to get their message across without the benefit of sound, she often underacted and made her story known with subtle touches. It isn't just how her face looks, though it's amazingly expressive, it's how she moves, what she moves and even where in a room she moves it to. Early on, she's forced to smile twice by her father and it's patently obvious that while she doesn't want to either time, the emotions behind her face are completely different. The first time she's scared stiff and the second time she's quietly happy because he's about to leave.

Later, after she comes to meet Cheng Huan, by the convenient device of collapsing into his store after a whipping, she wants to smile for real and adds the wonderful touch of moving her mouth with her fingers as if she knows no other way to do it. Cheng has been watching her for a long while, aware of the beauty of her that nobody else sees, and his devotion becomes another uncomfortable subtext here given that she's supposed to be fifteen. Already the whipping scene was acutely uncomfortable because Gish is so good at appearing scared beyond all reason to make it painfully believable.

Every time I see Lillian Gish, she's giving masterclass lessons. Maybe she also has to make up for Barthelmess here who presumably found it difficult to move his face much given the way it was stretched and so mostly looks vacant. He is great at the devotional scenes, making his attention seem spiritual and beneficent, but because of the lack of facial mobility he also seems almost retarded, bringing a far more unhealthy tone to the scenes too.

The film itself is slow and character driven and works almost entirely from the skill of the cast and crew in setting mood. There's very little action and what there little there is is hardly the real story, serving more as the bluster that surrounds life rather than life itself. I'm sure that it would bore most people nowadays to tears. However for anyone looking for depth and subtlety, it's an admirable success, despite too many title cards with too much preachy text, as I'm coming to realise is hardly surprising for D W Griffith. As the Germans would discover over the next decade, silent film should often be left well alone to tell its own story, and a as a perfect example, Lucy's death scene is the most perfect such scene I've ever been privileged enough to watch. The title card that tries to emphasise it is completely unnecessary.

Certainly, however, it's the earliest classic movie I've seen, with the single exception of something like George Melies's A Trip to the Moon, which would be a real apples and oranges comparison any way you look at it. Possibly because I'm still missing a couple of major titles, such as Griffith's own The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, quality cinema starts for me in 1920. This dates to a year earlier, and while it's not perfect and it still contains much inherent to its era, Griffith was busy defining what cinema was to become and this one stands out above everything else around it.

The Saint Takes Over (1940) Jack Hively

Skipping over The Saint's Double Trouble for some reason known only to TCM programmers, The Saint Takes Over is the fourth of five Saint movies that featured George Sanders as Simon Templar and the first to be written directly for the screen. All up until now had been based directly on source novels by Leslie Charteris, but the work here was done by screenwriters Lynn Root and Frank Fenton.

Race fixer Rocky Weldon isn't guilty, the papers say, but Inspector Henry Fernack is. Apparently $50,000 magically appeared in his safe and so he's up on bribery charges. Luckily Simon Templar is on his way back to New York to help him, by cruise liner where he's been busy rescuing and then falling in love with Ruth Summers, played by Wendy Barrie. I don't quite know how the studios worked out how this would be OK but Wendy Barrie is the leading lady in three of the five Sanders Saints but as a different character each time.

This time out she's a mysterious woman, who has come to New York, it seems, to look into the same people as Templar. There are four of them in the race fixing circuit, plus a fifth, Ben Eagen, as their mouthpiece who soon turns up dead with the $90,000 to cover the bribery operation missing from his safe. When the others start getting murdered too, Fernack, Summers and the Saint himself seem to be on the premises at the time each time. Who could it be?

Well, it's pretty obvious from moment one who did it, especially given her surname and everything else, but it's still fun to watch everyone work it out and Templar, who of course knew all along, nab the rest of the gang. Sanders is still excellent, in between Hitchcock films, and Barrie is pretty good. Jonathan Hale is sleepwalking as Inspector Fernack though, and so is Morgan Conway as one of the bad guys five years before he'd become Dick Tracy. Paul Guilfoyle might just be the most notable supporting actor here, and given that he's a dumb second rate mobster that's not a great compliment. He has the sort of part you could expect someone like George E Stone or especially Elisha Cook Jr to play, but he has fun with it.

Thursday 19 April 2007

The Saint in London (1939) John Paddy Carstairs

I don't think anyone has played the Saint better than George Sanders who is the epitome of suave English charm, even though he was born in Russia, lived in the US and died in Spain. He was of English heritage and parentage at least. In his second outing as the Saint, Simon Templar is back in London and finding life dull and uneventful, at least until he attends a party on the advice of a friend in intelligence so as to meet the mysterious Bruno Lang to begin a battle of wits with. He also acquires a couple of partners: the resourceful and adventurous Penny Parker, played by the delightful Sally Gray; and Dugan, a pickpocket trying to go straight who sounds like George Raft, who he hires as his valet.

It's a slowburner, for sure, as we have no clue what the mystery is to start with. Rather than being dragged into it or hired to investigate it, Templar goes looking for it. After cracking Lang's safe he heads out into the country where he finds and rescues a foreign national who has been tortured. The investigation as to who this gentleman is and why such things have been happening to him comprise our plot. Naturally there's plenty of fooling the police, evil masterminds, lesser lights in the organisation who don't really want anything to do with it, all the standard components of such things.

The story works well enough, I suppose, but there's not much to set light to our imaginations. Sanders is excellent without seeming to be, as he always was. He had the most effortless touch that any actor ever brought to bear, breezing through whatever circumstances he found himself in as if they were the most natural thing in the world. It's what made him so great in so many films, but especially as the Saint. Sally Gray is a lively companion and nobody really lets the side down, but there's just not much here to work with, unfortunately.

Häxan (1922) Benjamin Christensen

Made between 1919 and 1921 and released in 1922, Häxan (or The Witch) is a film I've sort of seen. What I've seen is the 1968 version called Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was shrunk, a jazz score was added and worst of all a narration by William S Burroughs was overlaid onto the film. That version is frankly awful and yet there was obviously some joyous substance hiding behind all the awfulness. Now I finally get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen. How much better than its bastard 1968 offspring could it be?

Well it's an astounding film but it's far from consistent. There are seven chapters and the documentary of ancient belief that opens the film, and reappears at points throughout, is quaint but hardly essential. It's like a lecture, complete with pointer, where we can't hear the lecturer and it's very talky, which is a bizarre thing to say about a silent movie! There are still saving graces though, such as the mechanical representation of hell which is fascinating, just as later the torture devices look stunningly authentic.

Fortunately we're soon on to chapter two where the dramatisation of fantastic events begins. We're in the underground lair of a sorceress in 1488, full of the expected accoutrements of witchcraft: a thief's corpse from the gallows, frogs and snakes to put in the pot, hung up skeletons and the like. A woman visits to buy potions to bespell a man of the cloth and we're treated not just to the dramatisation but to wish fulfilment sequences too.

All this is lush and fascinating and it continues on through the chapters, whenever the documentary approach isn't being taken. The costumes are wonderful and sometimes outlandish, the sets superbly designed and constructed, and there's a slew of intriguing optical and cinematic effects, which are quite astounding for the time including film reversals, silhouettes, double exposures and even stop motion animation. There are an assortment of devils, played by director Benjamin Christensen, and a whole host of memorable faces in close up, just like Carl Theodor Dreyer conjured up later in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Some of these sequences play almost like scenes from mediaeval art come to life, which presumably was the intention in the first place. Maria the weaver's fabricated confession plays exactly like how I imagine Hieronymous Bosch would make a movie, for instance.

The documentary sequences really let the film down, from a modern perspective, but the rest is astounding and reading up on how it was done is fascinating. The film was the most expensive made in Scandinavia up to that time and it employed innovative techniques completely new to film. To display witches flying over the town, Christensen built a huge turntable so large that it took twenty men to rotate, built a town in miniature on top of the turntable with houses two feet high, and then superimposed footage of witches using a special optical printer. There are films documenting the making of many movies, which are often pointless; how I'd love to see such a film about the making of Häxan.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

The Kid (1921) Charles Chaplin

'A picture with a smile - and perhaps a tear', it says at the beginning, and it isn't kidding. Edna Purviance, Chaplin's muse of the period, leaves the charity hospital with her newborn baby. She's just 'the mother' and sure enough, there's a father too but he isn't anywhere where he can do any good. So she leaves the baby in an expensive car, hoping that he'll at least go to a good home, but the car belongs to a couple of hoods with very twenties faces and they dump the kid the moment they discover him. Enter the little tramp, out on his morning promenade, and circumstance stands in the way of his every effort to lose the new burden.

This is 1921 and Chaplin's genius is in full flow. The opening credits list just how much this is a Chaplin creation, as writer, producer, director, composer, lead actor, you name it, and this time out he reached perfection with all of them. That's not to say that it's a one man show, as Baby Hathaway (a girl) does her best to steal the few scenes she has, and when we skip a few years on and Baby Hathaway becomes the seven year old Jack Coogan (later to become Jackie Coogan of Uncle Fester fame), he does so.

Simply put, Coogan gives one of the best performances ever seen on film by a child actor, mostly by being a perfect mimic and imitating everything that Chaplin did. Given that almost everyone else in Hollywood was desperately trying to do the same thing and failing, it serves to highlight just how great the achievement was. Chaplin, for his part, seems willing to give young Jack the opportunity to do his stuff, whether it's baking pancakes, fighting a bigger kid or especially backing up Charlie in his schemes to make money breaking windows and then fixing them.

Five years in, Edna Purviance has become a huge star of some description, and without her own son is busy doing charity work among whatever kids she can find. As you can imagine there are some heartrending scenes with mother and son sharing the screen without any knowledge of who they're sharing it with. When the kid falls ill and a doctor discovers that Charlie isn't the real father, in come the officials from the local ophan asylum to take him away, leading to more heartrending scenes as Jackie Coogan pulls on every tearjerking nerve in the book.

I honestly don't know how many moments of sheer genius there are in this film, but I lost count and I can't see a single flaw. The 1971 version is only fifty minutes long, yet it has everything: comedy, action, fights, chases, loss, discovery, reward and every single emotion there is. There's even a dream sequence complete with flying dog. I'm looking forward to The Gold Rush, which I haven't seen in years, but with that possible exception this is undoubtedly Chaplin's masterpiece and very possibly the best silent comedy of them all.

Penthouse (1933) W S Van Dyke

No, the magazine behind the title credits isn't Penthouse, as much as this is 1933 and thus at the heart of the precode era. It's Cosmopolitan but the article is called Penthouse. There are more serious publications in play here too though, the press, who are about to point out that mobster Tony Gazotti has been sentenced to the chair when they discover that lawyer Jack Durant has got him off. The bizarre thing is that we quickly discover that Durant, played by the Crime Doctor himself, Warner Baxter, is an idealist with a terrible moustache. He got Gazotti off because he was innocent of the particular charge that was brought against him, but would happily send him to the chair if other charges were to be brought for which he was guilty.

Of course the people he works for and associates with socially are hardly happy about the people he's been defending, so his firm lets him go and his fiancee Sue does the same. This isn't a good thing because he's bad enough trying to look like Clark Gable without showing us that he's a worse drunk. Luckily Sue's new fiancee gets framed for murder and she comes running straight back to Jack Durant to defend him. That sparks him right up and he uses Gazotti's underworld connections to investigate. Given that Gazotti is played by Nat Pendleton and his underworld connection number one is Myrna Loy, we're in for a treat.

Pendleton could and probably did play parts like this in his sleep, and I'm sure I've seen later versions of the same act: the gangster who isn't afraid to do anything underhand but who holds a solid respect for the good guy lawyer who got him off. Loy is excellent, as she always was, and in fact she even gets to use her arms here which is one of my pet peeves about her acting. Charles Butterworth is a decent butler even though he's obviously been watching too many Stan Laurel shorts. There's even George E Stone, in his brief moustache period, but he doesn't get a lot of screen time.

As for the film itself, beyond the acting being done, the story is decent without being great but the scripting of character motivations is pretty bad. People fall in love, out of love, in love again at the drop of a hat. Durant, who has an astute sense of who is guilty or innocent jumps to every conclusion in the book when it comes to those closest to him and as I mentioned, Gazotti is a Nat Pendleton cliche. All good fun but not particularly great.

Pandora's Box (1929) G W Pabst

I knew little about Pandora's Box except that it's a highly regarded German silent movie from G W Pabst that launched the career of American actor Louise Brooks and made her the definitive flapper of the jazz age. What I found was that Pabst, like some of the other German greats of the time, was really experimenting with the language of film. Rather than throw title cards at us like confetti, he tells us the story using suggestion, facial expression, body language. There's no need for many words, and in fact the recording I watched from IFC had a broken opening but I still picked up the plot straight away.

Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young lady working as, shall we say, a high class escort or a paid companion. She's a prostitute in all but name, obviously not a cheap one but still one to make the townsfolk talk. She's also a dancer and the famous Rodrigo Quast wants to perform a trapeze act with her, leading her to even more high spirits than usual... and she appears from the outset to be someone in love with life itself, leaping around like a carefree nymph. Regardless of what her work really is, she appears to be the picture of knowing carnality and yet at the same time somehow also naive innocence, a thing of pure emotion. That she can juggle all of that and make it seem completely natural is astounding.

Anyway, one of her regular clients is Dr Peter Schön, a newspaper editor or some such played by Fritz Kortner. He's a serious and important man about to marry into his own class, to the daughter of Dr von Zarnikow, the Minister of the Interior, and of course he must give up Lulu to make that work. Not that things work out like that, of course. Meanwhile, Alwa, his son is also caught up in Lulu's spell, initially as merely a friend, the one person who dosn't want anything from her, but then as a full fledged devotee.

There are scenes of sheer genius here and the entirety of Act III leapt out at me in particular. It's set backstage at the revue that Lulu appears in for the Schöns and it's a ballet of choreography, composition and storytelling, almost entirely without words. There are characters galore, and we understand their backgrounds, their motivations and their interactions, all intuitively because of the sheer skill with which it was put together. Lulu pouts and rebels, Schön seethes and threatens, the theatre director flusters but keeps everything running, a whole string of performers act and interact, the balance of power shifts and reshifts. We're treated to the whole gamut of human emotion and it's masterpiece stuff.

Not all of it is Louise Brooks, though she is truly astonishing as Lulu throughout. Act III has as much to do with people behind the camera as in front of it, and the other actors have more than moments too. In Act IV Fritz Kortner steals a good deal of the spotlight, stalking his mansion on his wedding night like a Teutonic version of a demonic Jimmy Cagney. Carl Goetz as Lulu's dishevelled father does a powerful job too, but it's Kortner who dominates here. Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts and Krafft-Raschig each get their turn in the spotlight too.

The story takes us in a number of directions, from the homes of the rich and famous to the courtrooms of Germany, from gambling boats to London where Lulu and those still with her at the time come across Jack the Ripper, though as the time doesn't match up in the slightest this is presumably a fictional version of Jack a few decades later. It's a very powerful film that stands up well as cinematic art 78 years later, though not all of it is the masterwork that is Act III. It's certainly the greatest film I've seen from 1929, the odd year in the gap between the peak of the silent era in 1927 and 1928 and the coming of age of sound in the precodes really from 1931 onwards.

Frozen Days (2006) Danny Lerner

I was lucky enough to catch this Israeli film on the big screen as part of the Phoenix Film Festival, where it won Best World Director for Danny Lerner. I was really impressed, especially as this was originally made as a student film for the University of Tel Aviv with first time actors, especially the lead, a young lady called Anat Klausner, who is rarely off the screen and carries much of the film on her own shoulders.

She's a small time drug dealer, who lives out of empty apartments that she breaks into and whose life is entirely conducted via mobile phone or chatroom session. In fact we never learn her name, merely her chatroom handle, as befits her lack of real identity. She's also having a really bad day. Her first client persuades her out of a hit without paying for it, her motorbike gets stolen, her supplier won't talk to her and a friend fails to appear at the mall to meet her. Of course, 'friend' in this film means someone who she's only ever met in a chatroom. Finally she goes to his place, but the power dies so their encounter takes place during the anonymity of darkness and when light returns she heads quickly out of there. They are about to meet up again at a club but a suicide bomber hits it and knocks her senseless.

When she comes to, she quickly discovers that her 'friend' is the bandaged and comatose victim in the hospital to whom the nurses can put no name. She identifies him through his mobile phone and visits him every day. In the meantime she moves into his apartment, and through a combination of choice and circumstance begins to take over his identity. His name, Alex Kaplan, is suitably asexual and nobody seems to have met Alex in person. Unfortunately the more time passes the more she begins to lose her grip on her own identity and take on his.

The ending is strange and unexpected, to say the least, and I'm not yet convinced that it makes a huge amount of sense. This is definitely a film to watch more than once. However it's beautifully and powerfully told, through expressionistic and minimalistic black and white visuals (and one colour sequence for an acid trip) that not so much betray the lack of budget that director Danny Lerner had to play with but highlight just how inventive he was without it and how little the ephemera of modern life is really needed when telling a story.

It's also no bad thing that there be more than one way to read a story and its outcome. While I'm not sure that I'm reading things as Lerner intended, it made as much sense to me as something like Donnie Darko, for instance. It's powerful, original and thought provoking and I look forward to seeing it again on the Sundance channel. I'll also watch out for Danny Lerner and Anat Klausner in the future.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

The Mad Miss Manton (1938) Leigh Jason

1938 was the peak of the Thin Man era. Nick and Nora Charles had made two classics, in 1934 and 1936 and the third nearly classic would come a year later in 1939, and at this point everyone else was trying to milk the formula. So here we have Barbara Stanwyck, as an inquisitive heiress important enough to have Hattie McDaniel as her maid, who can't even walk her four yappy little dogs in her Little Bo Peep costume without discovering murdered men in empty houses. Of course given that she's a Park Avenue prankster, the police don't believe a word of it, especially as the body turns up missing, and the press think she's nuts too.

Stanwyck is Melsa Manton, the Mad Miss Manton of the title and being the headstrong type she decides to investigate herself in collaboration with a bunch of her numbskull debutante friends. When they find the second body and the cops believe them so much that they don't even turn up, they decide to leave the body at Henry Fonda's office at the Clarion. He's Peter Ames, a newspaper editor who initially doesn't believe any of it either but ends up helping her investigate. The two of them are awesome together and it's stunning that it took three years to get them back together again for The Lady Eve.

What surprised me was how little the Thin Man formula was actually used here. The influence is there, certainly, but the plot reads far more like what The Thin Man would be if Nora Charles was Nancy Drew and Nick Charles was on holiday. Fonda gets attacked by a bunch of socialites and tied up, not once but twice: hardly a parity in investigation between the pair of them, though enough of a reason for me to star in a movie! Fonda is solid but it's completely Stanwyck's show with her mildly annoying debs in backup. The script is reasonably tight and has a few interesting twists to it. All in all, a success.

Adventure in Manhattan (1936) Edward Ludwig

A valuable ruby is stolen, people die and the police chase the criminals all over the country without any luck whatsoever. And that's just the introductory sequence, because the film is only 73 minutes long. What we're really paying attention to is George Melville, criminologist and crime writer, who gets picked up by Phil Bane, newspaper editor. Bane wants circulation and given that he's played by Thomas Mitchell, he's rather vocal about it. Mitchell was one of Hollywood's most dynamic supporting actors and it stuns me that he never became a star. Joel McCrea was far less dynamic and far more of a star and he's fun here too as Melville, who is a serious expert who keeps predicting the next crime. The thing is that he knows how good he is.

To pull him up by his bootheels, his colleagues set up a complex trap for him involving a beautiful actress played by Jean Arthur. However a painting is stolen from the house next door as the trap is being sprung and there's a ral mystery on. Melville and the actress investigate in what has to be one of the most offbeat mystery movies of the thirties. The setup of it is joyous though the resulting mystery is pretty transparent. Rather than the story, it's the quirkiness that makes it work, that and the performance of Jean Arthur who is far more believable in her role than Joel McCrea is in his. Thomas Mitchell is wonderful but unfortunately he gets very little to do.

A King in New York (1957) Charles Chaplin

Made after his exile to Europe during the Communist paranoia in the US at the time, this was made at Shepperton studios in London and not even released in the States for another sixteen years. It opens with a note, 'One of the minor annoyances of modern life is a revolution,' which while not having a card all to itself demonstrates how rooted Chaplin still was in the silent era, and the cries that the crowd want the head of Shahdov highlight how he was still feeling the sting of exile, of a people turning from love to hate almost at the behest of the powers that be. Soon as King Shahdov, naturally played by Chaplin himself. Soon we discover that he's escaped to New York and the comments about the US while going through immigration are dripping with venomous satire.

Anyway he finds that his funds have been whisked away to South America by his crooked former prime minister, leaving him broke; he's conned into a dinner party given in his honour but which was surreptitiously filmed and broadcast live on TV; and from then on is deluged by advertisers eager to have him as their spokesman. The faults are minor: some creaky sets, some terrible American accents, things like that. Mostly it's a success, both as comedy and as social comment. The sight of Chaplin desperately trying not to laugh at a slapstick routine, obviously inspired by the little tramp, is priceless, and the discussion he has with a young genius (played by his own son Michael) about Communism is powerful.

Communism is of course everywhere, as it's a very deliberate film, consistently funny and highly astute in its satire, but very deliberate. Pay attention to any critic on any film and they're reading something or other into it: some are incisive and others have to stretch, but usually they see stuff we the viewers don't. Here it's almost impossible not to read Chaplin's real life at the time into it. Whole sections are obviously tailored around his experiences and bitterness at what the United States had become and what it did to him.

The more I learn about the US the more I realise that it went completely nuts in the fifties and hasn't recovered yet. It wasn't just McCarthyism and the whole red scare thing that caught Chaplin up in its paranoia. It ran far deeper than that: somehow the ideal of American manhood changed from being an engineer capable of anything to an advertising executive capable only of selling things to people who didn't want them in the first place. Chaplin saw this in the fifties: the hate without understanding, the switch from substance to surface, the importance of appearance over decency. No wonder they couldn't release it Stateside for sixteen years!

Monday 16 April 2007

Robocop (1987) Paul Verhoeven

The nuclear paranoia on hand in the opening news segment may be a little dated now but the rest of it rings as true today as it did in 1987. The plastic newscaster grins and advertising spin is clever and astute but the outsourcing of everything under the sun to global corporations is even better. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is omnipresent in Detroit which it is about to rebuild as Delta City. It's already running the Detroit Metro Police Department but crime is still running rampant, so it brings in the next level: a robotic police officer called ED-209 that has machine reflexes, no possibility for corruption and far less downtime than a human being. Of course it doesn't quite work as planned and wipes out a board member during its initial demonstration.

Up and coming corporate wiener Bob Morton is on hand to take advantage of the situation with his Robocop program, a cyborg cop that has all the benefits of ED-209 but with a human side to counter its drawbacks. All he needs is a real cop to use as a guinea pig and Officer Alex Murphy fits the bill. Legally dead following his first Metro City assignment trying to catch a gang of bank robbers, OCP under the direction of Morton put him back together and turn him into the first Robocop. However there's just a little bit of Murphy left in there after the memory wipe and the bioarmour and the rest of it.

I'd forgotten just how many names were in this movie, before they were ever names. Peter Weller and Nancy Allen I remembered as Murphy and his partner Office Anne Lewis respectively, both of whom are as superb as you'd expect from their work since, but there are many others. I had no clue who Kurtwood Smith was when I saw him as the nasty little bad guy here, but now I've seen him in a whole slew of movies and as Red from That 70s Show. Bob Morton is Miguel Ferrer of all people, hardly the first choice for a corporate weasel but a damn fine one. I've seen Robert DoQui recently in Nashville, and Ronny Cox in Deliverance and a whole bunch of others.

What I hadn't forgotten was how masterful it was put together. Sure, it's supposedly dumb pulp scifi but it's far more astute than that and I loved all the little touches that make it real, from the 'Go Robo!' to the way Peter Weller moved in the suit to the drunken young lady falling on her ass at the corporate New Year party. Of course Directive Four is about as real as you could imagine, as are the TV clips and commercials that pop up every now and again. There's a kick ass theme courtesy of Basil Poledouris, there's some awesome dialogue (though the great lines do break the raelity on more than a few occasions) and the sex, violence and bad language is entirely appropriate, which makes a real change. The special effects are superb without ever falling prey to the George Lucas shiny new syndrome, the Robocop design in the hands of Rob Bottin being nigh on perfect. All in all, it's about as great as science fiction action films ever got and it stands up amazingly well for an effects film from 1987.

Ever Since Eve (1934) Lloyd Bacon

Everything's OK says the cop and someone throws The History of Peace through the Peace and Purity League window. That someone is Marion Davies, in her last film role at the ripe old age of forty, as Marge Winton, a secretary whose talent is overlooked because of her beauty. That's hardly a leap for someone who through the power of Citizen Kane has sadly gone down in history for being the no talent mistress of William Randolph Kane, when in reality she was a natural comedian whose talents are all but forgotten today.

The story here has her being made love to (in the thirties meaning of the phrase) by everyone she works for, thus leading to a serious amount of unemployment. The only way she can get work and not get hassled is to go the other way on a Before/After makeover session, and it works a treat. Looking as frumpy as can be, she lands a gig at a publishing house working for author Freddy Matthews, played with comedic charm by the underrated Robert Montgomery. Of course the work doesn't quite go as expected and you can imagine where it ends up.

The comedy isn't bad but it's hardly the peak of either of their careers, both being perfectly adequate but frequently better elsewhere. There are comedies of errors galore with everyone apparently playing someone else, and that works its way down to the supporting cast too, with Frank McHugh playing Mike McGillicuddy playing Mabel DeCraven, romance author. McHugh is far from the only name here, with what seems like half the Warner Brothers supporting cast in backup.

The best scenes are those between the always reliable Patsy Kelly as her housemate Sadie and Allen Jenkins as Sadie's beleaguered boyfriend Jake. There's also Barton MacLane as a plumber and even Louise Fazenda, as Freddy Matthews's publisher. Unfortunately she had a much better part in the last Marion Davies I saw, The Red Mill. Here she's Freddy Matthews's publisher. In fact most of these had better parts elsewhere, leaving this a fun timewaster and little more. That's hardly a fitting finale to a varied career that hit some high highs and some low lows for Marion Davies.

Sunday 15 April 2007

Finishing School (1934) Wanda Tuchock & George Nichols Jr

Crockett Hall is a school for only the highest bred young ladies and the sort of young ladies it turns out are aptly demonstrated by Billie Burke, a former student who is now the mother of a new one. She's Mrs Helen Crawford Radcliff, she's a complete flake and she's hilarious. Young Virginia Radcliff is as grounded in reality as her mother isn't so she soon clashes with her peers, who are far more interested in smoking, drinking and breaking any other rules they can discover. However that is just as quickly repaired and Virginia learns about real life through association with them.

Virginia is played by Frances Dee, a year after both playing Katharine Hepburn's sister in Little Women and an even bigger role marrying actor Joel McCrea. She's as excellent as I'm discovering she usually was. When she retired in the fifties, she always said that she never missed the movies but she certainly made an impression, especially as well over half her 53 films were precodes, though her most notable may well be I Walked with a Zombie for Val Lewton in 1943, a role she took so she could buy a car for her mother with the salary.

Her roommate is Cecilia 'Pony' Ferris, played by the excellent Ginger Rogers, who was always a natural comedian but who is joyfully unsteady on her feet here. I rant often about how I don't enjoy musicals, but I've become a huge fan of both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who often proved they were as great out of them as they were in them. Ginger Rogers was especially good in precodes because she was believable as a good girl and just as believable as a complete rebel, getting up to no end of mischief. Marjorie Lytell and Adalyn Doyle are also fun but get very little screen time. If the film had been the length of most modern movies they'd have had plenty of opportunity to shine.

Bruce Cabot didn't impress me much in Ann Vickers, as Ann's first unfortunate love, but he was superb the same year as the hero in King Kong. Here a year later, he's excellent again as Virginia's love interest, leaving me to wonder how he ended up in later years, mostly as a supporting actor to John Wayne. Here he's Ralph McFarland who meets Virginia at a hotel, where he's working as a waiter to pay his way through an internship at a children's hospital. If that wasn't enough to paint him as a saint, he introduces himself to her by rescuing her from a drunken paramour bent on forcing his attentions on her equally drunken self. He knocks out the All American and takes her back home to Crockett Hall.

Needless to say Miss Van Alstyne, who runs the school, won't allow him in, even on official receiving days, and her mother won't tolerate the possibility of a waiter coming into the family. As an expose of the double standards of the privileged classes, it isn't the success it could have been. However as a vehicle for many of the actors it's most certainly a success: Frances Dee, Ginger Rogers, Billie Burke, Beulah Bondi and as almost the sole representative of the male sex, Bruce Cabot. It may not be a great film but it's a fun one, though I missed the very ending because the movie overran the recording. Grrr.

Ann Vickers (1933) John Cromwell

Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, which isn't the recommendation to me now that it was to audiences in 1933, it also stars two of the biggest serious actors of the era, Irene Dunne and Walter Huston. Now while not all his films are great and I don't buy all into the characters he had to play, Walter Huston has become something of a favourite of mine. He had a power to his performances that was always dynamically present, especially in the precodes, and was always enjoyable too. However Irene Dunne rubbed me up the wrong way from her first film, whichever one that was, and she kept on doing that in all the other ones I've seen. Sure enough, she's already overacting by her first scene proclaiming that she's not ready for love very theatrically indeed, and being outshone a couple of minutes later by Edna May Oliver who was always so effortlessly great that she really shouldn't have been put in the movie if the focus was supposed to stay on Irene Dunne.

Dunne is the social worker of the title, working at the Corlears Hook Settlement, and while she isn't ready for love she soon falls for Captain Lafayette Resnick, played in the classic Hollywood chiselled leading man tradition by Bruce Cabot, almost exactly as someone like Burt Lancaster would play a couple of decades later. The two of them spark a romance even though Resnick is about to head out to fight, and she promises to marry him if he comes back, but I had to fight from falling asleep. Of course he finds another girl and she apparently gets pregnant, which throws a real spanner into the works, even though it's surprisingly glossed over for 1933, solidly in the precode era.

Soon there's another man in her life, Lindsey Atwell, underplayed by Conrad Nagel who still outacts her even while trying not to, but she avoids him neatly and heads off to work at Copperhead Gap, a prison where Mitchell Lewis as Captain Waldo extols the virtues of the old school methods and Murray Kinnell as the weak warden. Melodrama quickly ensues, as Ann watches the harsh life at Copperhead Gap but gets blackmailed into keeping her mouth shut. The result is a book, Ninety-nine Days and Nights in Prison, which soon reaches its 20th edition, garners her an honorary degree and the chance to experiment in prison reform as Superintendent of the Stuyvesant Institute. All this makes sense yet at the same time makes no sense at all, because the brutal prison ordeals are treated with too much subtlety but the progression of the plot is bludgeoned home painfully and stereotypically.

And if you're wondering what happened to Walter Huston, he does turn up eventually. He's the leading man of the film but the first time we see him it's in name only as the author of the blurb on the back of her book. He doesn't actually appear until well over half the way into the film and it's a shame, not just because he's so good but because Irene Dunne improves no end when he turns up. Of course he's paramour number three or four or whatever number we've got up to, which is believable only through the suspension of disbelief that comes with realising that the popular ideal of womanhood today is not going to be the popular ideal of womanhood ten years ago or ten years from now. I'm not a big fan of the popular ideal of womanhood today but it's scary to believe that it was once Irene Dunne.

As always Huston is superb and he gets a much more interesting character to play than Dunne. She's a woman unafraid to make something of herself through valid means, and that's refreshing, but as unusual in the precodes as it would be a year later once the code hit. He, however, is a controversial Supreme Court judge, whose wife is on a perpetual tour of Europe with a gigolo, who plays cards with the criminal element, who embarks on a passionate affair with Ann which includes a son and who is soon indicted for receiving bribes. The film would have been far better had it been about him instead of her.

Gasoloons (1936) Arthur Ripley

TCM shows a lot of one reel shorts under the banner of 1 Reel Wonders, and I tend to miss most of them on the basis that they're what appear between films and I watch films that I've specificall recorded. This one is an Edgar Kennedy vehicle, not that I've ever heard of Edgar Kennedy. He plays himself, it seems, or at least a character carrying his name, in the tradition of the old silent comedians. He's on vacation with his talkative wife and complaining mother and the rest of the family, but he's got the bunch of them completely lost. They stop at a gas station which is for sale and so end up buying it, running it and getting up to the sort of antics you'd expect. This is a comedy short, after all.

The only name I recognise is that of Dickie Jones, a child actor who was omnipresent in films of the late thirties but whose most memorable hour was probably as the voice of Pinocchio for Walt Disney. He's a little brat here, though a likeable one, playing the son of the customer. Other supporting actors here include Florence Lake, the talkative wife who regularly played Mrs Kennedy in shorts, and others that I've never heard of before.

Kennedy himself turns out to be a fine lead for 1936. While he isn't the most obvious comedian, he has a solid sense of timing and I was amused all the way through this one. What surprised me when I looked him up was that I've seen Edgar Kennedy before, many times in all, some of which were even last week! However this is the second half of the thirties, well into the sound era, whereas I've been watching him in the early teens, as a policeman in his Keystone Cops era, in Bangville Police, Fatty Joins the Force and so on. He was also present in many of the early Chaplin movies from 1914, up to and including Tillie's Punctured Romance, the first feature length comedy. Into the sound era, with a couple of hundred movies already behind him, he was in Penguin Pool Murder, as a cop no less and a memorable one too. Now I know his background I can see the resemblance.

Wednesday 11 April 2007

The Red Mill (1927) William Goodrich

Apparently a world television premiere on TCM, in a wonderful restored print and with a new score by Michael Picton, this is something of a curiosity. It's a Marion Davies slapstick comedy, always something to look forward to, with the bizarre choice of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle as director, under the pseudonym of William Goodrich because his career was in the toilet after his trial for rape and murder only a couple of years before. Yet here he is working for William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the newspapers that shrieked the loudest for his conviction.

Marion Davies is Tina, the drudge working at the Red Mill tavern somewhere in Holland. You can tell that she's important not just because she's the lead but because her pet mouse, who lives in her shoe, gets a credit of his own: Ignatz as himself. Then again, he gets plenty of opportunity to shine, running around causing trouble for the mean landlord, demonstrating that Fatty Arbuckle had learned plenty about slapstick in the fourteen years since some of the early shorts of his that I've seen. Marion Davies was a great and expressive slapstick comedian, as evidenced in more than a few movies. In fact it was one of her greatest talents and she gets the opportunity to demonstrate it wonderfully here.

She's joined by a few other regular names from the silent era here. Owen Moore, whose 279 film career dates back to 1908 and who had another notable credit as Mary Pickford's first husband, plays a visiting playboy called Dennis Wheat who all the ladies immediately fall for. Tina wins an ice skating race with the fortuitous help of a dog that carries her most of the way but doesn't get to collect the kiss he owes her as a prize. Louise Fazenda had 277 films to her name, going as far back as 1913 though I remember her most from the bizarre musical wrestling comedy Swing Your Lady almost at the very end of her career. Here she's Gretchen, the burgomaster's daughter who is being saved up to marry the governor but who instead loves Captain Jacob Edam.

Edam is Karl Dane, one of the most prominent silent stars to completely fail to make the transition to sound. He's a star here in 1927, not a huge one but a star nonetheless, but by 1934 he had descended to selling hot dogs outside the MGM studio, the same studio for which he had been a star. He couldn't take the irony and so shot himself in the head instead. The mean landlord Willem is played by George Siegmann, with a mere 123 movie credits, almost nothing for the 1909-1928 timespan when movies were often churned out within a week and supporting actors could generate that in a couple of years.

Of course there's a comedy of errors in here. Tina swaps places with Gretchen to help her out and naturally that's when the callers come calling. Now Dennis Wheat is head over heels in love with Tina, who he thinks is Gretchen, and Tina is still head over heels in love with Dennis. Meanwhile Jacop comes to visit Gretchen and you can imagine the rest. It is stagemanaged very well indeed though and I'm happy to see Fatty Arbuckle up to the task to this degree. It had been done before, even at this point in time, and some of this is a little hokey but it's a good laugh nonetheless.

It's also great to see Marion Davies playing comedy this early. The only film of hers I've seen that dates to earlier than this is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in which she was just an extra. The earliest featured role I've seen her play was a year later in The Patsy and her performance here is well up to that level. In fact of nine films so far, including a few excellent movies, I think only Show People outclasses this one.

Her Painted Hero (1915) F Richard Jones

Hale Hamilton plays a matinee idol called Hale Hamilton, which I'm sure is wishful thinking on his part. A 'stage struck maiden' played by Polly Maron meets him underneath his bill poster and is as daffy as you'd expect from the credit. She goes home to find a letter from Uncle Oswald who apparently has but a week to live, and sure enough the next thing we know she inherits his fortune and moves into his castle. Such is life in Hollywood, it seems. The humour here is apparently entirely confined to her father drinking out of the saucer in front of the help. Shame! Either that, or I'm missing something and when it comes to the humour of the teens that's not too unlikely.

Now that 'stage struck maiden' is rich, she gets to ring her matinee idol to invite him to her wedding, because his phone number presumably came with the inheritance. However there follows an interminable number of people hitting each other and kicking each other's asses, literally. Apparently the wedding is now off but I completely lost track of the plot somewhere in the ass kicking section so i really couldn't say.

In the end she foots the bill for her matinee idol's next play on the promise that she becomes the leading lady. Needless to say she destroys everything through sheer ineptitude, though the audience love it regardless, and this part is the only bit that actually raises laughs. It's been done plenty of times and often better, but this is 1915 so I'll cut them some slack. It's funny and that's after the first two thirds of the picture were far more likely to sour me to whatever happened in the third. It seems strange to suggest that a 21 minute picture is a quarter of an hour too long but this one fits the bill.

Love, Speed and Thrills (1915) Mack Sennett

Mr Walrus has the outstanding moustache that you'd expect given his name. He goes hunting but gets chased by the first cat he shoots at. Then he shoots his buddy Ambrose who knocks him off a cliff in retaliation. Like you do. Anyway, Mr Walrus doesn't die in what is obviously a horrendously fatal fall and amazingly enough doesn't even end up with any obvious cuts or scratches. However he is obviously dazed, so Ambrose kindly takes him home to recuperate. Unfortunately he also catches him relentlessly trying it on with his wife.

At this point it becomes apparent that Mr Walrus isn't Ambrose's buddy at all, he's some sort of serial villain who literally carries off Ambrose's wife while Ambrose gets to work through his stock of leaps and wild gesticulations. Soon he gives chase though: on horseback, chasing Mr Walrus's stolen motorbike and mail sidecar. Enter the Keystone Cops to add to the chase.

There are a few really good stunts here, especially by the female stuntwoman/stuntman in drag. She falls out of the sidecar at speed a few times and even gets picked up at speed once. She even gets lassooed halfway from a bridge to the water beneath: very impressive indeed.

Unfortunately nothing else is.

Bangville Police (1913) Henry Lehrman

A 'Farce Comedy', it says on the title card, as if we wouldn't have been able to work that out anyway. A young girl apparently lives on a farm and wants a little calf to go with their cow. She doesn't have a name because it's 1913, but most of the young girls without names in 1913 were Mabel Normand and this time is no exception. Anyway, she overhears a couple of bad guys plotting in her barn, so naturally she calls the Keystone Cops. Laughter hopefully ensues.

The name of the Keystone Cops has become something of a stereotype, so it's interesting to see what they were actually like. Hopefully they got better than this. They have an outrageous car to go with their outrageous facial hair and they run around with their outrageous guts and fall over a lot. They aren't particularly funny, especially as the few laughs come from Mabel Normand rather than the Cops anyway.

The biggest problem with the film though is the lack of any consistency whatsoever. The burglars vanish and everyone's happy to have a calf. The end. Huh? I honestly thought that my copy must have been missing a few minutes of running time but apparently not: it's only a one reeler. Maybe 1913 audiences just didn't care.

The Saint Strikes Back (1939) John Farrow

The novel is Angels of Doom but the film is called The Saint Strikes Back because the character name was almost always in the title in films like this. It's New Year in San Francisco and Tommy Voss gets shot and killed in the Colony Club while they're still playing Auld Lang Syne. The Saint is watching and is quietly and politely persuasive to Val Travers, who he whisks away from the scene. Apparently she's the daughter of a disgraced police officer who had been making decent headway in his war against the gangs until he got implicated and commited suicide. Now Inspector Fernack is asked down from New York to help investigate, as he knows Simon Templar better than any other policeman in the States.

The Saint is now being played by George Sanders, so there's a lot more charm on display than in the previous film with Louis Hayward, even when he's stealing a kiss from a lady. Wendy Barrie is a strong Val Travers, Jonathan Hale returns as Inspector Fernack and the supporting cast includes no less a name than Barry Fitzgerald as the colourful Zipper Dyson, one of the group of crooks Travers has built to annoy the police. He even offers to become the Saint's assistant and that would have been an awesome sight: four more George Sanders Saint movies with Barry Fitzgerald backing him up!

It isn't just charm that's present here that was missing in the first film. There's also a lot more consistency and a lot more mystery, and after all this is a crime movie: it's supposed to have mystery in it and plenty of it too. The first review I saw at IMDb suggested that this was the poorest entry in the entire series. If that's the case I'm in for a treat with the next three! Sanders is superb, Fitzgerald is excellent and Barrie is spot on. Even the police inspector, often one of the weakest characters in crime B-movies is less stereotypical and painful than in other series.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

The Speed Kings (1913) Wilfred Lucas

It's Keystone again and it's Earl Cooper and Teddy Tetzlaft who are credited on the title card. They are two real life racecar drivers, obviously famous enough for Tetzlaff's name to be spelled incorrectly, and they feature goodheartedly in a pretty dumb plot. Mabel Normand's father, played by Keystone Cop Ford Sterling, is a the type of villain you'd see in the serials with his grimace and his goatee. He picks Earl, #8, and Mabel picks Teddy, #44. Quite what they're picking them for or why they should be picking anyone at all is not made clear but villainous dad is out to sabotage things.

When the race comes it runs exactly as you'd expect, except Fatty Arbuckle is there to kick both Mabel and Ford off the track. Villainous father carries on grimacing and being generally villainous. Mabel keeps running away. Teddy's car breaks but they fix it. You can tell how impressed I am with this, can't you?

The early car race footage looks good and there are in car cameras of various descriptions: mounted on the car in front looking back or on the car itself looking back, but never looking forward. I'm no car nut but this looks like great footage for anyone who's into early car racing or even just early cars. Unfortunately there's not really anything else here at all that isn't embarrassing to watch.

Fatty's Suitless Day (1914) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

Also known as Fatty's Magic Pants, of all things, this one seems to have done the copyright rounds. It's a WH Productions Company film, a Keystone film and a Mack Sennett Comedies film, overlaid on the title card, so presumably all the modern corporate takeover shenanigans aren't anything new.

There's a Grand Benefit Dance at Lady Bottany's city home, strictly full dress only. Fatty's friends are going but he doesn't have a dress suit, so he acquires one by dubious means. In other words, he pinches it from his next door neighbour's washing line, but it gets stolen back from right off his peron during the dance, leaving the comedy to be Fatty being chased around in his striped underwear. Oh dear.

Fatty's Spooning Day (1915) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

Fatty is apparently a kid here, merely a really huge one, who gets beaten up all the time by his mom played by the omnipresent Mabel Normand. At least that's what I initially thought. It turns out that Mabel is really his wife, though why she would marry an oversize kid I really don't know. Anyway the two of them head off to the park where the spooning of the title is not allowed, according to the prominent signs next to the benches. Presumably this isn't what I know as spooning, such is the impact of ninety intervening years. Apparently it has something to do with keeping company with a member of the opposite sex, as the cops are hiding around, up trees and behind bushes, to nab anyone who tries anything so indecent.

Obviously they didn't have real crooks in 1915 as the sentence for walking aound eating ice cream with someone is thirty dollars or thirty days in jail. That's what happens to Fatty and another lady that he accidentally hooks up with, even though nothing untoward seems to be happening, so Fatty's wife and the other lady's husband have to come and get them out. The end. Very confusing.

Fatty Joins the Force (1913) George Nichols

From my experiences so far, the state of comedy in the first half of the teens seems really poor and the earlier I go the worse it gets. This short dates back as far as 1913 when Charlie Chaplin himself hadn't appeared on film yet, though his frequent early collaborator Mabel Normand had. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was one of the biggest stars in the world of comedy, along with other mainstays of the Keystone studio like the Keystone Cops. Bear in mind that even Chaplin, a comedic genius, made over half his output of films in his debut year of 1914 and he wasn't funny in most of them. The other silent comedians of note that we know today hadn't even arrived in Hollywood yet.

Here Fatty Arbuckle rescues the police commissioner's daughter from being drowned and is rewarded for his act by a job on the fore. Just as he's getting used to his shiny new uniform, he gets picked on by a bunch of kids who hit him in the face with a pie and then steal his clothes when he takes a dip to clean off. At this point Fatty gets mistaken for someone else and is arrested and locked up. Yes, film comedy wasn't particularly sophisticated at this point. It's still mostly falling over and being misidentified. Women are for standing around wringing their hands, and cops, especially in films made for Keystone, are for chasing people and hitting them with truncheons.

What surprised me most though, given what I know of the progression of comedy through Chaplin's debut year of 1914, is that this, one year earlier, demonstrates a solid understanding of storyline. As rough as it is, there's a discernable plot structure with a beginning, a middle and an end. It isn't great by any means but it's far better than I was expecting.

Monday 9 April 2007

The Saint in New York (1938) Ben Holmes

A police lieutenant has been bombed and they have the killer, but Inspector Henry Fernack is sure he's going to be back out on the streets in no time flat, like the other important killers that they arrest. The police and the Citizen's Committee for Crime Prevention decide to bring in a Robin Hood to tackle the issue: the notorious Saint. It takes a while to follow his trail of cards to the man himself but they find him in South America and invite him back to New York with a shopping list of villains to catch.

To kick off RKO's series of films featuring suave English detective Simon Templar, aka the Saint, they brought in South African actor Louis Hayward. He's a happy sort of chap, with a knowing smile on his face throughout that helps remind me of Patrick McGoohan. He's the good guy and he's the hero of the film and the series, but he hammers home his point with a bullet very quickly after arriving in New York. Gang leader Jake Irball released through lack of evidence caused by witness intimidation, but next thing we know Irball is dead with a card next to him. The Saint is on the hunt and he isn't restricting his methods to the legal ones.

Hayward is by far the best thing about this film, even with people like Jack Carson propping up the cast as one of the villains on Simon's Templar's hitlist. The problem is that while we learn a little about Simon Templar, we learn next to nothing about anything else. There's no real detective work going on. The Saint just moves from one to the next and does a minor level of playing each against the other. Mostly he just kills and moves on. He's a decent anti-hero but he's going to need to develop a lot more in future films and the films themselves will need to keep up to his standards.

Sunday 8 April 2007

Nashville (1975) Robert Altman

I can't name another movie that displays its credit sequence in the form of a K-Tel album compilation, then after a brief political speech broadcast out of the loudspeakers of a campaign truck segues straight into Henry Gibson singing a country folk song. I love Henry Gibson's work and it seems that he never plays anywhere near the same character twice. I first knew him as a neo-Nazi leader in The Blues Brothers, then a psycho doctor in The 'Burbs, then in films as diverse as The Last Remake of Beau Geste, The Long Goodbye and Innerspace. Here he's Haven Hamilton, bad natured Nashville recording star, and he's only one of many major names to watch out for.

In fact while the only Oscar the film won went to, of all people, Keith Carradine, there was talk at the time of all five nominees in a single category being from the same film: this one for Best Supporting Actress. In the end there were only two, Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley, both in their debut films, as a gospel singer and a respectively. For the Golden Globes though, there were four and all lost.

I think the film warrants more than one viewing. It breathes Americana and could be watched just on a cultural level: everyone is either involved in a political machine, the music industry or nothing worth talking about. Some of them are part of all three. You can tell who is who from their vehicles, whether it be the flower adorned VW Beetles, the huge American cast iron cars or Jeff Goldblum's spectacular motor trike.

Everything else demonstrably American is here too, as depicted perfectly in a highway pileup. While waiting for it to be cleared, people carry on with their political speechmaking, take advantage of the occasion to sell turtle stools, or sit back and grant interviews, sign autographs, you name it. The only person not American is a BBC reporter called Opal, Geraldine Chaplin's character, and she's the only one freaking out. Sure enough, it's not long before we get to confederate flags, bad spelling, fake breasts, bar fights, guns, drugs, NASCAR, the Kennedys and everything and everyone else iconic you can think of.

There's also a serious deluge of both talent and dialogue, so much that it's nigh on impossible to keep up with either. Everywhere you look there's somebody you know, like Shelley Duvall, Ned Beatty or Keenan Wynn half of which are people we don't even know the names of but have seen many times before. They all flow together like they're all being carried along an inexorable stream, so that whatever catches our eye disappears again only to catch our eye again further on. There are plots here, quite a few of them, but they all blur together, though that blur adds up somehow to a coherent whole.

Maybe it's because all the little stories keep overlapping, with characters weaving in and out of of one and into the next in every imaginable direction. Maybe by the third or fourth viewing I'd be able to focus on details. Right now I'm rivetted but it plays like listening to the radio with the station changing every ten seconds. It doesn't help when it's obvious that many characters are loosely based on real people (Tommy Brown is Charley Pride, Barbara Jean is Loretta Lynn and Haven Hamilton is presumably Porter Waggoner or some such), but then real people like Elliott Gould, Julie Christie and Vassar Clements pop in as themselves.

Some of the focal points are never even seen, like Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker whose van is everywhere and whose political broadcasts are omnipresent, or Keenan Wynn's terminally ill wife, though he's always either in the hospital or talking about her. Others don't speak, like Jeff Goldblum's character who is completely out of place yet who never shows the slightest knowledge of the fact, just turning up everywhere like a little cog in the machine.
At the end of the day, it's the truest non-documentary I think I've ever seen, all the way down to the tiny details, like country music audiences who always wait until halfway through the first line of a song before applauding en masse. I never could understand that and it isn't explained here but it's there for us to experience just like in real life. Oh, and the real country and western crowd hated it with a passion, precisely because it's so true. Talk about opening closets!

There are also so many layered ironies at the end that not only do a whole slew of little plots get wrapped up together, but the whole thing wraps up nicely along with it. Half the people I see reviewing this love it to death and the other half don't get it at all. I have a feeling I'm going to be a lot closer to the former than the latter but it's going to need further viewings. One time through this certainly isn't enough.