Monday 31 December 2007

Rope (1948) Alfred Hitchcock

Of the 41 Alfred Hitchcock films I currently have under my belt, this is the one I rated the lowest, one rating point lower in my system than 1931's The Skin Game, the next worst. I saw it early on in my quest for more Hitch and so have often felt that I may just not have got it. I've thus been looking forward to a fresh viewing to reevaluate and see if I still feel that a film that currently has a rating of 8.0 out of 10 at IMDb is really just a minor entry in the master's filmography.

The technical achievements are certainly astounding. We pan towards a shaded window from the street scene background to the opening credits, then cut inside to a murder by strangulation and from then on the entire film appears to be very close to a single take. It isn't, as a reel of film in 1948 only ran to ten minutes, so every eight minutes or so Hitch panned onto something of a solid and consistent colour so as to make the cut unseen and preserve the illusion.

The murderers, for there are two, are Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, as played respectively by John Dall and Farley Granger and based upon the real life murderers Leopold and Loeb. It's all an intellectual exercise, heightened by the pair hosting a dinner party for the victim's family in the very room where the murder was committed and the body still resides, within minutes of the act itself. Shaw is the driving force for the murder, arrogant and supremely confident; Morgan is far more nervous and reticent about the whole thing.

Perhaps this major difference is part of my problem with the film, which certainly goes beyond the atrocious fibreglass backdrop that pretends to be a cityscape with blinking lights in windows but stuningly immobile clouds. Dall plays his part just like Vincent Price would have done and I kept imagining that it was Price I was watching instead of Dall, except that perhaps Price wouldn't have managed the gay subtext quite so well. Granger, who I thought was perfect in Strangers on a Train, is just annoying here and to my mind gives the game away every couple of minutes, if only anyone was paying attention, which of course they are more and more as the evening progresses.

The script is by Hume Cronyn, regular Hitchcock collaborator, based on the Patrick Hamilton play, and of course given the way the film was shot it's very much a play, merely one we have the privilege of watching from the stage itself. I still find it heavyhanded but there are moments of genius and there are so many double meanings that it becomes a game to count them. James Stewart is by far the best thing on the screen, beyond even Joan Chandler and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and he's given dialogue distinctive and memorable enough to be a gift to his acting style. He plays slyly with the dark humour and his timing is absolutely perfect. Simply moving his head sideways is artful and he's a joy to watch here.

Hitch does an awesome job, as he usually did, especially when there were intellectual games to play. He does a clever job of making an eighty minute movie seem like a hundred minutes long through clever speeding up of time, and there are some joyous scenes where he plays with the focus of affairs. My favourite is when the maid cleans up and we watch her going about her business, getting ever closer to opening the chest that contains the body, while all the conversation takes place off screen.

However all his work, admirable as it is, can't make up for a conclusion that still seems completely obvious ad inevitable to me. My conclusion is that I may well have judged it a little harshly on first viewing, but it still seems like a failed experiment. Technically it's a masterpiece but as an intellectual game it's clumsy, mostly through the acting of the pair playing the killers.

Crime School (1938) Lewis Seiler

The Dead End Kids are busy hanging out on the street, talking tough and stealing fig newtons from the corner store. They're also stealing on a larger scale, earning money at Junkie's store bringing in whatever they can carry but Junkie doesn't want to pay the sort of cash they want and the ensuing scuffle brings together a candlestick and Junkie's head and suddenly the boys are on the way to reformatory. Sitting quietly in the background while the judge talks to the boys is Deputy Commissioner Mark Braden and he's much of the point of the film.

The point seems to be to address the common concern that sending kids to reform school only introduces them to a harder criminal element who teach them to be even worse members of society than when they got in to start with. Certainly the reformatory they arrive at initially is brutal, run by the large and imposing Superintendent Morgan with deliberate and violent demonstrations of power. Braden has a very different approach and he discovers plenty at the reformatory.

Frankie Warren, one of the Dead End Kids who has only been at the reformatory for one night has already been hospitalised through being whipped. The food is indigestible slop. The reformatory doctor is a struck off drunk and many of the guards are army deserters or police officers drummed off the force. Sixty per cent of the 'inmates' turn out to be hardened criminals after they leave. Braden takes matters into his own hands and begins to clean the place up, starting by firing all the bad apples including the superintendent himself.

Braden is Humphrey Bogart, and this being 1938 he isn't a star yet but he's getting closer. This may not be the equal of Dead End, the film that gave the kids their original name, but it's a number of steps up over his previous movie, the amazing hillbilly wrestling musical comedy called Swing Your Lady. The story is not particularly surprising generally and certain parts of it are awesomely predictable but Bogart's up to the task, relishing the fact that he's not playing a gangster for a change, and the Dead End Kids were always better early on in their careers. Cy Kendall is also notably excellent as the tough former superintendent. It's worth watching for quite a few reasons, not least to see Bogie laugh.

Sunday 30 December 2007

The Passionate Plumber (1932) Edward Sedgwick

Since I started paying attention to classic movies, 1932 has cropped up more than any other year. This is my 69th film from 1932 and they run the gamut from the godawful Strange Interlude to Freaks, one of my favourite precodes and favourite films from any year. Given that we're a few years into the sound era and everything I read about Buster Keaton's career suggests that it gets worse from the advent of sound onwards, this ought to be further down the quality list than most.

We're in Paris even though almost everyone speaks English except Jimmy Durante. He's Julius J McCracken, though he's as unmistakably Jimmy Durante as every character he's ever played, and he brings Keaton to the house of Patricia Alden, a young lady being pursued by an amorous married man called Tony Lagorce. Keaton is Elmer E Tuttle, the plumber of the title, but as that title would suggest he gets caught up in the whole rigmarole. Before you know it he's fighting duels for the lady's honour and falling for her in the process. To make matters worse she hires him to keep her away from Lagorce, even though she loves him.

There are signs of the career deterioration, but they're in the quality of the material and the filmmaking, not in Keaton's performance. The editing is particularly poor and many of the jokes are worse, but Keaton's stoneface is as great as ever. There are jokes that work and the fast pace of parts of the films plays well to his slapstick talents. The scenes alone with Patricia are generally good ones, as tiring as she gets, and we root for him all along.

At the end of the day though, this film fits into Keaton's career between Sidewalks of New York and Speak Easily, neither of which was particular great. Unfortunately it fits rather nicely. It's better than both but not by a lot. Irene Purcell is fine as Patricia but she's still annoying, and Jimmy Durante can only say things twice so much before he becomes just as annoying. It's a poor film that Keaton elevates to at least the levels of average.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

In 1891 Sherlock Holmes was missing for three years and writer Nicholas Meyer came up with a story to explain it. In this star-studded translation to screen, we first meet him in the throes of cocaine addiction, raving about the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. Robert Duvall plays Watson with a langurous voice that doesn't sound anything like Robert Duvall, and he has to bring Holmes back from the drug. Holmes is Nicol Williamson and Moriarty is no less than Sir Laurence Olivier, who quickly arrives in Watson's office with tales of persecution and hints of mystery.

What seems most surprising is that none of these major stars have either of the two lead credits. Top credited is Alan Arkin, playing a Viennese doctor who Watson consults to aid Holmes's recovery, a doctor called Sigmund Freud. Yes, that Freud. Between the two of them they investigate the kidnapping of Fraulein Lola Deveraux, as played by Vanessa Redgrave, the other name to outcredit the heroes.

Williamson is powerful as Holmes, the incisive and intelligent Holmes we know but a furiously agitated one in the throes of addiction. In comparison Arkin is quiet and subtle as Freud, with his formidable intelligence carrying the day in many scenes, similarly but not the same as that of Holmes. Duvall is fine and I can appreciate the effort he put into his accent but it's hardly a successful one or indeed one of his most memorable roles. Olivier is hardly a minor name to have as the villain of the piece but he gets very little screen time. Redgrave is delightful but again has very little opportunity to make much of a difference to the film as a whole.

The story has plenty to offer, especially as an intellectual exercise, but it ends up a victim of its own cleverness. While much of it fits very well indeed with the canon, there's plenty that makes no sense whatsoever and whole sections are pure Hollywood. Sabre fighting on top of a train, indeed.

Kentucky Kernels (1934) George Stevens

Rich young Jerry Bronson is despondent over his inability to marry the love of his life and so commits suicide by leaping off a bridge into a river. He doesn't end up dead though, he ends instead up in a net thrown out by Wheeler and Woolsey to catch fish. They're out of work magicians lamenting the demise of vaudeville, and they take it upon themselves to help out Jerry by adopting a child from the Children's Welfare League for him to look after. Enter George 'Spanky' McFarland, playing an orphan called Spanky Milford whose idea of a great time is to break any piece of glass he can find.

At the same time, exit Jerry Bronson, who finally manages to elope with his Joan thus leaving young Spanky with the Great Elmer and Company for safekeeping. In case that isn't enough story, Spanky comes into a fortune, inheriting a large Kentucky estate, so off they all run to Banesville unaware that there's a Hatfield and McCoy thing going on with the Milfords and the Wakefields. In fact they're more than unaware, Willie falls for Gloria on the train and Gloria is a Wakefield.

This is my second Wheeler and Woolsey, following Cracked Nuts which played to me like a Marx Brothers movie with only Groucho and Zeppo. This one cements that opinion but at least there are a couple of other talented comedians on board to improve things. Spanky was only six at the time but he already had two years of solid experience behind him as a member of Our Gang and he steals the show with aplomb. He was apparently trained by Stan Laurel but there's obvious influence from both Laurel and Hardy here. He even gets part of a song and it's the best bit.

The other is Willie Best, but given that this is 1934 he's still credited as Sleep 'n' Eat. Like his fellow early African American actor Stepin Fetchit, he always seemed to play a lazy good for nothing janitor or porter or servant, and it's often painful to watch his antics from the perspective of an ostensibly more civilised era. However he was as talented as anyone else in the cast and probably far more so. People who ought to know, like Hal Roach and Bob Hope, saw him as a huge talent.

Touch the Sound (2004) Thomas Riedelsheimer

I'm a big fan of Evelyn Glennie from a musical standpoint. I'm a fan of pure percussion music and she's a justly word renowned virtuoso artiste and composer. And that's before you factor in the fact that she's effectively deaf and thus 'hears' everything in completely different ways to the rest of us. Add that into the mix and you have someone very special indeed. Because I have some background with Evelyn via CDs and broadcast concerts, this film has less impact for me as it would to someone completely new to her work. She's looking a little older than when I saw her last but she's as delightful as always.

For a film about sound, it's a very visual film. Director and cinematographer Thomas Riedelsheimer conjures up some powerful imagery. However it's the sound that we're here for and it's a varied journey for sure. We learn about how all sound can be music and anything can be an instrument. There are rhythms all around us if only we listen and we see Evelyn translate many of them into a more traditional format. That's not to say that she only plays instruments that look like instruments. We see her play buildings with Fred Frith, manipulate a radio receiver with her hands and even play plates and bottles like drums on stage in Japan.

I was fascinated by much of the film and though I already knew much about Evelyn I still learned more here. The music, as with pretty much all experimental music is variable. Some of it did nothing at all for me, but some was very special indeed. The guitar and marimba piece touched me closest. However the entire thing seemed a little long and meandering to work as a really cohesive whole. There's lots of greatness here but a lot falls well behind that too.

Frisco Jenny (1932) William A Wellman

Just before William Wellman directed Ruth Chatterton in Lilly Turner, they teamed up for this film, another women's precode and they certainly start it off with a bang. Literally: we're in San Francisco in 1906 so it's one of the bigger bangs. More specifically we're on the Barbary Coast where the men are all drunk and the women all live in bars to feed off of them. We see the tricks early on: drink a glass of olive oil every day to protect your gut against the rotgut whiskey, give customers keys so that they'll wait for you and keep drinking all along, watch out for chalk marks on their shoulders to note that they've already been robbed.

Chatterton is the Jenny of the title. As we begin she's pregnant out of wedlock to piano player Dan McAllister, but they want to get married anyway. Her father who owns the bar she works at apparently has the power to stop the marriage and he's ready to do exactly that. And then the big one hits. It doesn't just take out the city, it takes out Jenny's bar, her father and her fiance and she has to start afresh with a new baby.

Chatterton is great for roles like this. She's as believably tough and strong as you'd need a leading lady to be in a women's precode, but she has a melancholy look to her face that works wonderfully. When she sets up in business as a high class madam and gets caught up in a murder scandal, she's forced to give her son up for three years to avoid the decency leagues. When it's time to get her back she finds she can't take him away from privilege and is so forced to watch him grow up from afar.

The catch, and this being a precode there has to be a catch, is that she becomes a major underworld force during prohibition and her son graduates from Stanford as a lawyer and is soon up for district attorney. Jenny makes the difference to get him elected but of course he's one of the good guys and she's a really good target for the good guys.

The great things about this film are mostly what made precodes great generally: the social issues, the irony, the brutal truth, the powerful roles for women. Chatterton is an excellent lead and she's ably supported here by a cast that includes people of the calibre of Louis Calhern and James Murray. The problems are typical ones too. It's too short, for one; Chatterton's character doesn't age enough, for another; and the worst one is that her loyal Chinese servant is about as Chinese as I am. There are real Chinese actors in the film, even speaking Chinese, but as always they aren't given real parts.

The weird thing is that in 1932 Ruth Chatterton was about to marry George Brent, and Brent was up for the part of her son in this movie! I'm sure she was very happy to see Donald Cook take the part instead and Brent become her love interest in her next film, Lilly Turner, instead.

Saturday 29 December 2007

True Grit (1969) Henry Hathaway

Mattie Ross's father goes into town to buy Texas ponies but ends up dead at the hands of Tom Chaney, a man who works for him. No, that's not a spoiler, it's plain and obvious and right there on the screen a few minutes into the movie. Our film isn't a whodunit, it's a whereishe. Chaney escapes onto Indian territory where the local sheriff has no jurisdiction and so stubborn little Mattie enlists a stubborn old US marshal to go in and get him. Naturally the marshal is John Wayne's eye patched drunkard Rooster Cogburn. Add to the mix a Texas Ranger called Le Boeuf who's looking for Chaney for the murder of a Texan senator and you have a intriguing trio running a manhunt.

Mattie Ross is played by young Kim Darby, who was only 22 years old but got to share the top credits with her two far more well known co-stars. She comes off to my eyes as half Molly Ringwald and half Linda Blair, with maybe a little Carrie Fisher, which put together makes her joyously sassy and opinionated. She manages to walk a very fine line and she walks it well: she's very apparently nervous and out of her depth, but sucks it up and manages to meet up with people like John Wayne and Strother Martin and either order them around, insult them or haggle with them. That isn't an easy task but it's one that she's more than up to. She deserved a Oscar nomination for her work.

The Oscar of course went to John Wayne, who apparently wanted not just to act but produce and direct. He only got the lead role but he makes the most of it. It's a real treat of a role and he relished it and it's very likely the most memorable one of his career. Glen Campbell is Le Boeuf and the film's other Oscar nomination went to the title song that he sang. Of course the Oscar honour roll isn't where you go to find good music. This was his first leading role and he had fun with it, though he looks too much like a chipmunk and couldn't compete with Wayne to save his life. He gets a lot of scenes just standing there while Kim Darby and the Duke go at it.

There's a powerful supporting cast to my eyes, though they were mostly still up and coming at the time with major films right behind them. Dennis Hopper is a great victim here, fresh from Easy Rider which garnered him an Oscar nomination of his own as a writer. The bad guy everyone thinks Chaney is riding with is Robert Duvall, fresh from Bullitt. Mattie's laywer that she draws like a gun is John Fiedler, best known for being the voice of Disney's Piglet. The sheriff with the limited jurisdiction is John Doucette, western regular who apparently had the fastest draw in Hollywood.

Chaney himself is played by Jeff Corey, who took advantage of being blacklisted in Hollywood during the communist witchhunts after taking the stand and claiming the fifth to become the premier acting coach in the city. He taught everyone from James Dean to Jack Nicholson to Jane Fonda. He even taught Kirk Douglas in preparation for Spartacus, and it was Douglas's hiring of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus that effectively ended the blacklist. Corey is excellent here, as he was in The Killers but notably wasn't in Bagdad, even though he was about the best thing about that film.

The Falcon in San Francisco (1945) Joseph H Lewis

Tom Lawrence, the Falcon, and Goldie Locke are on the San Franciscan heading to, well, San Francisco, talking about the tax benefits of getting married, when they bump into a young girl called Annie Marshall. Her maid is killed on the train, with a hatpin no less, so the Falcon starts to takes her home but quickly gets caught up in a mystery. Someone calls the cops and suggests a kidnapping, so he gets locked up but then released on already posted bail by a young lady who climbs all over him. Then the police want him back, but he wakes up from a drugged sleep to the lady he was having dinner with and a couple of fake cops with guns. If this wasn't the movies, you wouldn't believe a word of it.

Actually I believe it and for one good reason. While this is yet another film entry in a detective series, film number eleven of an eventual sixteen for the Falcon, the story isn't. It's a hard boiled film noir that would have worked far better for Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe than it ever did for Tom Conway as the Falcon. The story doesn't just unfold, it hits the face of the lead character with an impact and he spends the rest of the movie trying first to work out what is going on and only then to work out whodunit. Conway is fine, but he plays his usual gentleman detective in a story that isn't about gentlemen. He's out of place, or rather the story is out of place as Conway as the Falcon has worked well for seven films.

The cast is solid, but everyone plays second fiddle to the story. Edward Brophy is Goldie Locke this time out, taking a role that originated with his frequent thirties co-star Allen Jenkins, and of course he's there for the comic relief trying to find a wife for tax reasons. Rita Corday is a heroine pleasing to the eye, though she's outshone by her younger sister Annie played by Sharyn Moffett. Fay Helm is an excellent tough woman but Robert Armstrong doesn't get enough screen time to get his teeth into being a former bootlegger turned shipping line manager.

Conan the Barbarian (1982) John Milius

It's been far too long since I last saw this little gem of the early 80s, especially as I'm a big fan of the original stories by Robert E Howard and others. To make it even more special, this time round I got to see it on the big screen in glorious 35mm courtesy of the Midnite Movie Mamacita, and preceded by an intriguing set of trailers of Arnie's entire filmography, including fascinating examples of dubbing into German and what sounded like Dutch.

The story is a simple one of revenge. Conan is a young boy whose parents and entire village are massacred by Thulsa Doom and his henchmen, who unfortunately look more than a little like members of Spinal Tap. In a long introductory segment, he's taken north into slavery, where he grows into the powerhouse of a barbarian we would expect. He learns to fight in a pit, travels east to learn language and the philosophy of the ancients, then comes back home complete, ready to live life as a free man.

The story proper begins when he teams up with a couple of thieves to get rich off the local serpent cult, then is hired by King Osric to rescue his daughter who the cult has corrupted. Of course the cult is run by the very same Thulsa Doom who massacred Conan's village so a well paid mission also becomes a personal vendetta. His cohorts want to get in, get the girl and get out but Conan wants vengeance and the head of Thulsa Doom.

Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly looked the part and his success in this film began a long string of successes in the eighties that saw him rapidly become less of an actor and more of an icon. Thulsa Doom is James Earl Jones, still best known for providing the voice of Darth Vader, but a powerful presence on screen too. He's very believable here as a thousand year old hypnotic snake god though he's saddled with a horrendous haircut that is seriously painful to watch.

The other main part for me is Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, Conan's lover and fellow thief. Bergman had her own career playing barbarians and she always always awesomely believable for me: more so than Arnie or Brigitte Nielsen who played Red Sonja opposite her. She's gorgeous but far from conventionally beautiful; she's athletic and powerful yet no bodybuilder; and she carries off the costumes like she grew up in them.

Beyond the leads there's Max von Sydow in a wonderful yet short part as King Osric; Mako as a wizard who also provides the narration and many others all the way down to a young lady called Nadiuska who has a memorable but silent role as Conan's mother. Apparently she was a softcore star in Italy during the seventies but whatever naked pics I found when googling her don't hold a candle to her entirely clothed look here while brandishing a sword and losing her head. The final real star is the Almerian countryside so admirably shot by director John Milius and cinematographer Duke Callaghan.

The film stands up today as a barbarian classic, one of the best of the American barbarian films. As much as it doesn't quite match the tone of the original stories, technical advisor and Howard follower L Sprague de Camp made sure that it comes as close as anything else that's been put to film. Certainly it's far less Hollywood than its sequel, Conan the Destroyer and other successors like Red Sonja. It was a pleasure to see on the big screen.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) Gordon Douglas

This time around the Falcon's at the Hollywood Turf Club. He's losing money on the races, but gaining young lady friends right and left. One of them is Peggy Callaghan, played by Barbara Hale who is best known for her work as Della Street opposite Raymond Burr's Perry Mason. Peggy is the girlfriend of Louie Buchanan, who has been a guest of the state for quite some time but who has left early, and she walks off with the bag of Lili D'Allio, a Hollywood actress and amateur numerologist. The Falcon naturally has a field day with them all, but the one who gives us most fun is Billie Atkins.

She's a Yellow Cab driver and aspiring actress, played by the delightfully sassy Veda Ann Borg, and she takes the Falcon to an independent studio called Sunset Pictures where they discover the corpse of Ted Miles, rich playboy ex-husband of the studio's costume designer Roxanna Miles. Borg was married to Victor McLaglen's son Andrew, the director of The Wild Geese, plenty of John Wayne movies and plenty of episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel and Gunsmoke. I've seen her in a few movies and while she never seemed to be a major part of them she was always a memorable addition to the show and she contributed much to the enjoyment side of things. She would have been great playing Torchy Blane and I'm sure she was great fun to be around in real life.

Anyway, Peggy Callahan is working at the studio on The Magic Melody, the same film as the victim and the suspects and everyone else, though nobody knows who she is behind her false stage name. The film seems to be cursed, with someone causing no end of trouble to throw it over budget, behind schedule and on the road to cancellation. The suspects are plenty and it's a solid puzzle working out whodunit. Certainly Mel Brooks was paying attention, because some of this resurfaces in The Producers. As much as Billie Atkins is delightful fluff, there's plenty of substance behind the fluff parts of the plot and it's always good to see a movie filmed on a movie lot. It's just a little hard keeping track of which of the many women is which, and there are more than a few incredibly convenient coincidences.

Sunday 23 December 2007

The Falcon in Mexico (1944) William Berke

The Falcon, Gay Lawrence, has every unlucky thing in the book happens to him in the fist few minutes of the film: walking under ladders, black cats, you name it. He quickly runs into a Dolores Ybarra, a young artist who claims that one of her paintings has been stolen by an art dealer. Breaking into the shop to help her, he discovers two important things: firstly, she posed for rather than painted the picture and secondly, the owner of the gallery is dead on the floor.

What makes it really interesting is that while the painting is of Dolores now, the painter, Humphrey Wade, has apparently been dead for fifteen years. Naturally the Falcon is soon breaking into houses all over the place to investigate. The picture was bought by Lucky Diamond Hughes, who's an expert on Wade's work and he believes it's genuine. Wade's daughter Barbara has an intriguing story that suggests that her father is actually still alive. Therefore it's Mexico City for the Falcon to track down just what's going on.

Unfortunately it wasn't Mexico City for the filmmakers as everything external is stock footage apparently taken from It's All True, the unfinished documentary Orson Welles was making in the early '40s in South America. The way that the story unfolds appears to be very much to do with the details of what Welles had already shot, and it's rather cleverly done. One device is that the Falcon's Mexican driver keeps trading in his cars so that he could always be driving one that matches what could be seen in the appropriate piece of footage.

While the film is a run of the mill Falcon and Tom Conway is fine, there's one major disappointment for me. The leading lady is Martha Vickers, who I've seen precisely once and have been long waiting for an opportunity to see again. She was General Sternwood's other daughter in The Big Sleep, the very suggestive younger sister of Bacall's character who so memorably tried to sit in Bogie's lap while he was standing up. Her part was bigger in the pre-release version and toned down for the final version so as not to divert from the burgeoning and popular Bogie/Bacall chemistry, but to me she was magnetic in both versions and I was hoping that she would be as magnetic in other films, if only I could find them. However while she's perfectly adequate here, that magnetism is notably absent.

The Spoilers (1942) Ray Enright

We're in Nome in 1900 for what promised to be 'Crashing Fists in the Gold-Crazed Alaska of '98!' Because it's the only version of the five filmed to be easily available, it's the one best known today, but then with Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne in the same picture, it's likely to have been the best known one if all five were on TV once a week. Add in Richard Barthelmess, Harry Carey and Margaret Lindsay and how can you go wrong?

What makes this unique is that Randolph Scott, whose mere name elicited hands on hearts and glances to heaven in Blazing Saddles, is the bad guy, Gold Commissioner Alexander McNamara. I can't swear to it but this could well be the only one of his 102 films to see him on the wrong side of the law. In comparison, Dietrich plays the same talented saloon madam that she played in Destry Rides Again. Sure, she's called Cherry Malotte instead of Frenchy, but it's the same character. Wayne is the good guy, of course, and he has plenty of rough edges to colour his character.

It looks good and there's plenty of forties humour on display from moment one. The roads are made of mud, with planks laid down for the ladies, Cherry has more fancy clothes than the entire rest of the town put together and vacant rooms in the hotel are identified by the former owner tumbling down the stairs with a bullet in him. The dialogue doesn't disappoint. Wayne is on the screen for less than two minutes before he calls someone an oldtimer, there's a watermelon joke for Cherry's black maid in her first scene and there's even the classic shot where the camera switches to a bartender for one line: 'Whaddya gonna do about it?'

You could write the script yourself from the generalities above. McNamara is behind a whole bunch of claim jumpers taking over honest folks' stakes. Cherry has been there long enough to know everything about everyone, so she starts investigating. Roy Glennister, the Duke's character, arrives back on the boat with Judge Horace Stillman and his delightful niece Helen Chester, and they all get in on the turmoil too. It all escalates when McNamara, with the force of law (though unjust law) behind him, steals away the Midas, the gold mine that rightfully belongs to Glennister and Dextry, Harry Carey's character.

There's plenty of romantic turmoil as well. Richard Barthelmess is Bronco Kid Farrow, Cherry's right hand man, and he has the hots for her but is well aware he won't get anywhere. Glennister loves Cherry too and she loves him but he infuriates her. Margaret Lindsay as Helen Chester sits right in the middle as a potential rival, even before she actually is. McNamara becomes besotted with Cherry too, so all the fisticuffs work on two levels. Never mind a love triangle, Cherry's the central point for a love vortex.

The stars are on top form: Dietrich smoulders and burns, with her eyes bursting into flame when needed. Her and Lindsay turn scenes to ice. She gets great scenes opposite Scott, Barthelmess, Carey and Wayne, though the Duke steals her thunder in one blisterer with the line, 'You'd look good to me baby, in a burlap bag.' He even gets a blackface scene which leads to exactly what you'd expect. Scott is fine as a villain though it still doesn't seem quite right. Everyone else shows exactly why they were cast, from the Duke's toughness to Lindsay's irresistable voice to Carey's frontier spirit to Barthelmess's depth. Other supporting character actors like Charles Halton and Samuel S Hinds do their job too.

Another plus is the uncredited presence of real Alaskan poet Robert Service, playing himself. The joke is that his one scene involves Cherry Malotte giving him the title for his real poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, the one that Margaret Rutherford so dynamically delivers on stage as Miss Marple in Murder Most Foul. The last plus is the finale, which has one of the longest and most carefully choreographed fight scenes of the era: Wayne and Scott duking it out in Cherry's saloon. It's a peach.

The Hatchet Man (1932) William A Wellman

I grew up reading literature that would go on to get labelled racist and insensitive in later times: not just the Fu Manchu stories but everything by Sax Rohmer I could find. One of my favourite pulp novels of the era is Anthony Rud's The Stuffed Men and I'm still trying to find Rud's other work. Now whether these were racist or not is really a separate argument, but when they were put onto film by Hollywood certain things were made very clear: the main parts tend to be played by white actors with lots of makeup and the actual oriental actors often don't get credits. Then again, given that the source play for this film was cowritten by Achmed Abdullah, is it racist to call it racist?

We start with some really cool camerawork that reminds to a lesser degree of the opening of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. We're in San Francisco's Chinatown watching the funeral procession of Hop Li, of the Lem Sing tong. Much is made of the tong war flag that is prominently displayed and sure enough, the Lem Sings bring in the Sacramento hatchet man Wong Low Get to kill Sun Yat Ming, the man who apparently killed Hop Li. Unfortunately Wong grew up with Sun and they are blood brothers. He therefore tries to refuse the work just as Sun writes his will leaving everything, including his daughter, to Wong, but a hatchet man is a hatchet man.

This is a First National production and the cast comprise some very well known names. Ten of them are shown in the credits, all of which are Chinese characters and all of whom are played by western actors. Wong Low Get is Edward G Robinson, with little additional makeup and no attempt to change his accent. Sun Yat Ming is J Carrol Naish, on whom much more work was done. There are also people like Loretta Young, Tully Marshall and Dudley Digges. However much of the supporting cast are oriental: Willie Fung, who had a long career playing servants, laundrymen and waiters; Miki Morita, who had the same but who managed to get up to the level of Japanese Prime Minister on occasion; and Toshia Mori, the only WAMPAS star who wasn't white.

Fifteen years later Sun's daughter Toya has grown up in Wong's care and he's fallen for her. Now she was promised to him in her father's will but given the changes in custom, Wong wants her consent also which she gives. However the community doesn't seem to be as progressive as he is and soon tong war is back on the agenda and Wong's hatchet must get dug back up again.

Robinson is good here, though he really doesn't look or sound particularly Chinese. He looks a lot better though than Dudley Digges, whose immobile makeup makes him seem constipated, and leading lady Loretta Young, who looks about as Chinese as I do. She's about as believable as Renée Adorée in the Lon Chaney movie Mr Wu and for precisely the same reasons. Englishman Leslie Fenton is terrible as a Chinese bodyguard and just as bad as as a romantic interest. More believable is the way that Wong takes care of arbitration. Putting some random American gangster in the same room as Eddie G is really not a good idea.

The story is good though, and the ending is a peach. Robinson is as magnetic as ever and I'm really beginning to notice how skilful a director William A Wellman was, especially back in the precodes. Much of the problem with the film boils down to the rest of the cast. Why couldn't Anna May Wong have played Toya? Why couldn't other oriental actors have taken major roles? Why did it take Hollywood so long to open up that concept? Then again, Hollywood continues down racist lines even to this day. I'm not talking about Intolerance or Charlie Chan or all the usual arguments, I'm talking about how the English are always the villains and the serial killers. Maybe someone should start arguing that case!

Saturday 22 December 2007

Mr Winkle Goes to War (1944) Alfred E Green

This would seem to be a dream part for Edward G Robinson and one that almost nobody else could play. He's a mild mannered banker called Wilbert Winkle and as the film opens he's finally built up enough courage to point out to his boss that he wants to quit and he isn't even taken seriously. But quit he does and he goes into business fixing things, using a brand new $270 lathe with sixteen cutting attachments and a young kid from a local orphanage. Then he tells his wife, who doesn't give a monkey's about what Wilbert actually wants to do and tells everyone that it's all a malicious rumour and he'll be back at the bank shortly.

Unfortunately for Mr Winkle, just as he's getting started up he gets drafted into the US Army for service in World War II. He looks as confused and uncomfortable as only Eddie G could look and is as surprised as everyone else when he passes all the examinations and goes into basic training. He's completely out of shape and takes pills before and after everything, so is soon reassigned to a desk job, apparently the most suitable thing for him given his civilian background. However that's the last thing he wants and he pushes to get back into training so that he can be a mechanic and work with his hands.

Soon he's doing well, getting into shape, ignoring the pills and learning the various trades, and fitting in nicely alongside his compatriots like Sergeant Alphabet (really Czeidrowski) and Private Tinker, played by Richard Lane and Robert Armstrong. When the army changes the rules so that people over 38 can leave on an honourable discharge and work in a war trade, he chooses to stay in and get shipped out to the Pacific. Before you know it he's trapped behind enemy lines taking out the Japs with a bulldozer and comes home a hero.

Every time I review an Edward G Robinson I end up saying the same thing over and over again. I don't think there is such a thing as a bad Eddie G performance. The man was never even nominated for an Academy Award over a 57 year film career and yet every one of his performances is at least great and often stunning. He's the only actor of the era that I know who could be so meek and mild and have everyone and everything run roughshod over him and yet also be so tough and powerful and dominant. The two styles are entirely opposite and wouldn't seem to be compatible but he's awesome at both.

The film itself doesn't live up to his performance, as is often the case, but it's not a bad one. Armstrong is good but his little subplot doesn't get to go too far. The sergeant and the girls and the fix-it shop don't get a lot of time either and there are characters who doesn't ever seem to get explained. It's all about Winkle and how he can find a way to get along with his wife and that story's pretty good. I watched out for Robert Mitchum as an uncredited corporal but couldn't find him.

Blood Rage (1987) John Grissmer

Oh my goodness Blood Rage was bad, and I don't just mean bad I mean really truly beyond all reason bad. This now occupies the dubious position of 'Worst Film of the 1980s' in my ratings and it may just stay there for a long while. Everything about it is bad: the direction, the writing, the dialogue, the acting, the concept, you name it. And for a film in which almost all the female characters get naked to be this bad is almost unheard of. The best part of it is a short appearance by Ted Raimi as a condom salesman and it's over in about five seconds. He's outcredited by a baby.

The lead character Maddy is a mother of twins and we start the film with her cuddling and kissing with her boyfriend in a car parked at the drive through. The twins wake up and sneak out of the car but one of them, Terry, is rather unhappy about what his mum is getting up to, so kills a rutting couple in another car with an axe and blames his brother Todd. Yes, the axe is just hanging around somewhere. No, his brother doesn't say anything to contradict Terry's statement. No, nobody notices that Terry is covered in blood and Todd just has some on his cheek. It's all taken as read and off Todd goes to the looney bin.

Ten years later and Maddy announces that she's going to get married again. Terry isn't happy and is able to hack and slash his way through it given the convenient coincidence of Todd escaping from the asylum. Coincidences are everywhere in this movie and the lead character seems to be one of them. Maddy is played by Louise Lasser of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and I'm not convinced that she really knew there was a film being made.

It's like she sleepwalked through it and spoke a few words here and there. She looks stunningly awful, like one of those billboards warning against meth addiction, and she acts as if she was drugged out on something. She only seems to be in the film for about ten minutes, has very little interaction with anyone and doesn't seem to be on the same conversations even when she is. Worst of all there are a bunch of small scenes of Maddy walking around a corner, Maddy leaning against a wall looking zoned, Maddy answering the phone, Maddy doing nothing whatsoever. It's all very confusing.

The rest of the cast are mostly young actors and while they're not quite as bad as Lasser they're really not good. Mark Soper is the Todd/Terry double act and while he's not too bad as Todd he's awful as Terry. He struts around like he's the best thing since sliced bread but can't do anything. When a gorgeous young slut half strips and wants him he can't reciprocate and has to watch TV, yet when he's alone with his girlfriend he attempts to rape her and fails at that too. He's like the guy who can do anything who can't do anything and how much sense does that make? His dialogue is truly scary, as he keeps repeating lines like 'That's not cranberry sauce' as if practicing them. Was I watching a film or a rehearsal tape?

Some of the girls look great naked, even though the scenes are as gratuitous as they get. There's not even any attempt to explain why this point of the film suddenly needed a shower scene, for instance. It's just one scene of something else, a little bit of a naked girl in a shower and then off to something else entirely unrelated. Ted Raimi was funny for the five seconds he was in the movie. Other than that the only humour was in trying to work out exactly how inept the filmmakers were.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Tim Burton

This was always going to be an interesting one and I was very happy to get a free advance screening pass courtesy of the delightful Midnite Movie Mamacita. I'm a big Tim Burton fan and have been for years, having seen films like Batman and Beetlejuice in the theatre on initial release. I've seen all his films except the animated features (Vincent rocked!) and I have Corpse Bride ready to go as soon as I can find The Nightmare Before Christmas. I'm also a big Johnny Depp fan though not of as long a standing as my wife. I go back to A Nightmare on Elm Street though I discovered him in Edward Scissorhands, but my wife used to watch him in 21 Jump Street.

However, I am not generally a fan of musicals. Anyone paying attention to my reviews knows that I'm still trying to quantify what I like and what I don't like. I like the sheer insanity of Busby Berkeley, the style of early Fred Astaire and the storytelling of Singin' in the Rain. However I really don't understand the appeal of many acknowledged classics, like Gigi or An American in Paris. I seem to not like Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly or musicals after colour arrived. I also don't like Helena Bonham Carter, having truly loathed her in Fight Club but I'm well aware that it may just be a personal subconscious bias that I need to get over, given that it's the character I loathe not her acting.

So what to think of Sweeney Todd, Burton's big screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical? Well I enjoyed it but there was much that left me dry. Most of what I didn't like were the songs, but that's not surprising given my general tastes. More surprising was that I really enjoyed a few of them, like 'A Little Priest' which is clever, jaunty and darkly hilarious. This film is a lot funnier than I expected it to be. I don't know how faithful this is to the Broadway production, but it would seem Tim Burton kept the soundtrack pretty much intact.

Otherwise he may just have made it his own. The colours are wonderful, with scenes shot in very limited palettes. The production quality look amazing, being a highly believable London much better than the city in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He also is presumably the main thrust behind the very gruesome gore, done in true grand guignol style. The film is also a lot gorier than I expected it to be, with very explicit throat slicings and great spurting gouts of blood often aimed straight at the camera. Normally I'd be all for it (hey, I love Brain Dead with a passion) but it seems far too gratuitous.

Johnny Depp is superb, as he always was. The part can't help of remind of Edward Scissorhands with the fancy handwork and glistening steel, but the voice is far more akin to a controlled Jack Sparrow and there's a little white streak too like the Bride of Frankenstein. I kept waiting for Depp to mouth a 'hmm' like Bogart's character in The Return of Dr X who copied the white streak first. The part is mostly posing though as there's not much depth to any of it.

Sweeney Todd was transported by a wicked judge who had the hots for his wife, the judge being Alan Rickman who was probably grinning a deliciously wicked grin while being born. Now he's back, with a new name and a thirst for revenge. Of course his wife has killed herself, Judge Turpin took their daughter as his ward and he plans to marry her. Todd must team up with Mrs Lovett who sells the worst pies in London to enact a fitting revenge. She's Helena Bonham Carter and she's gradually allowing me to forget her character in Fight Club, amazingly overdone mascara or no.

There's also Timothy Spall as a corrupt beadle, who really hasn't changed much since Auf Wiedersehn, Pet and Ali G himself, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is an outrageous but believable Signor Adolfo Pirelli. The non-outrageous characters are new actors: Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener and young Ed Sanders, who impressed me no end. He has a major future in front of him and he gets a few really killer scenes here. Still at the end of the day, I may have enjoyed this more than most musicals but, like most musicals, it would be hard for me to come back to it, even with such magnetic gruesomeness going on.

Monday 17 December 2007

The Falcon Out West (1944) William Clemens

When the word 'west' is in the title of a series film from the forties, you just know that it's going to manifest itself in the form of a loud rich Texan in a stetson, and sure enough there's one right off the bat. He's even called Tex and ably portrayed by Lyle Talbot even though he's as stereotypical as you could get. He's about to get married, apparently to someone who's only after his money, and his ex-wife wants the Falcon to persuade him out of it. Naturally, he's quickly killed by a rattlesnake bite, at the Flamingo Club no less and with $3,000 in $100 bills missing from his wallet, so the Falcon gets to a lot less persuasion and a lot more investigation.

This film works in two directions. The first is a good one. I've long been a George Sanders fan, but he always seemed bored as the Falcon (and the Saint too, to be honest), and I don't think I'm just letting his last words resonate a little too far. His brother Tom Conway was just as good in their shared Falcon movie, The Falcon's Brother, and seems to get better with each successive solo film. He seems intrigued rather than bored and while their voices are very similar the intonation is very different. The twinkle of mischief in his eye seems real.

The second is not so good. The stereotypes get even worse with the locale shift to Tex's ranch in Texas and they include all those you'd expect to see in a badly stereotyped entry in a movie series. Runaway carriage, check. Game of poker, check. Bucking bronco riding, check. Even singing cowboys, check! At least the Indians aren't the butt of racist jokes: they're the punchlines instead and Detective Bates is the butt. 'How' he says to the first Indian he meets and the Indian replies very politely, 'Very well, thank you.' When they repeated the same joke later without a deliberate setup I laughed aloud.

The comic relief is fun and that makes a very pleasant change. The story isn't particularly surprising but there's some clever dialogue and the mystery isn't awesomely obvious. Bates is dumb but believably dumb, and as a counter the Falcon is believably clever. There's even some solid southwestern history, which I certainly wasn't expecting. A host of surprises and Tom Conway's mischievous twinkle outweigh the cowardly rush into stereotypes in my book.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Murder By Contract (1958) Irvin Lerner

Now this is a little curiosity. It looks like it was filmed on a budget of about a hundred bucks with people I don't know at all. The only real star is Vince Edwards, who would become famous on TV as Dr Ben Casey, and I've only seen him early in Kubrick's The Killing and late in things like Space Raiders or the Knight Rider movie. Here he's a cool headed young man called Claude who wants to buy a particular house and he goes into the contract killing business to raise the money.

The opening scenes are real hooks. Claude passes the test to become a contractor and then carries out his first few hits, the third of which is the man who hired him. Then it's off into the big time: $5,000 for a hit instead of $500, long distance travel, the works. Regardless of the budget, the acting is coarse but great even though Phillip Pine is desperately trying to be Ernest Borgnine, the dialogue by Ben Simcoe and an uncredited Ben Maddow is great, the music by Perry Botkin is great if not plentiful enough so too often repeated and everything is both cool and intelligent at the same time. Add some histrionics and a plethora of obscenities and you're in Tarantino territory.

The intelligence is a real plus. Everything here is calculated even when it initially doesn't seem that way, with all sorts of lines and plot twists that impress. Much of the plot talks about the importance of planning in Claude's job and the film script feels exactly the same way. The other plus is the sparseness of the film. Everything feels focused because there's very little in the film except the main characters. There's no messing around with subsidiary nonsense, there aren't many locations and there aren't even many people in it. The dialogue is what keeps all that from making it look like an Ed Wood picture, because it makes everything alive instead and every character well defined.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) Federico Fellini

Of all the great world directors that I'm discovering of late, Federico Fellini may be the one that I most enjoy without really understanding why. My first Fellini was La Strada, which introduced me to both the director and his wife, the delightful Giuletta Masina. I enjoyed the film on the first viewing but didn't appreciate it fully or really understand what it was truly about until the second. I'm fully aware that the same may well apply to Fellini's other films and that even further viewings may assist also.

We begin here with a small party to celebrate the wedding anniversary of the Boldrinis: the Giuletta of the title and her husband Giorgio, played by Masina and Mario Pisu. The guests are a bizarre bunch including a young mystic lady called Valentina who sets up a seance. Here's where we first realise that the spirits of the title don't have anything to do with the next life, they're more like guides through what Giuletta sees either in visions or dreams or reminiscences; and they're set up exactly how I'd expect from Fellini, with outrageous costumes, outrageous sets and wonderfully lush hallucinatory images.

The school play is particularly memorable for many reasons, not least the faceless nuns and angel wings. It made me really wish I'd been there for a showing of that play, or even better to have acted in it. This is just now of many scenes though worthy of note: the beach scene, the visit with the man/woman mystic Bishma, the forest. Fellini is truly awesome at fashioning surreal beauty. Merely visiting the neighbour to return a cat turns into a magical journey that ends in the treetops. And everything is joyously colourful as Fellini was experimenting with colour for the first time.

There is a story here amongst the fancies. We learn at the beginning of the film that Giuletta is a loving wife, but she gradually learns that her husband must be having an affair. He mutters the name Gabriella in his sleep but evades all questions in the morning. From there everything seems to point towards an affair and this is confirmed by private investigation. However while this may be the central plotline, the film hardly works in such a linear or straightforward manner. What it's really about is Giuletta living in a world of imagination and having to work out which parts of her world are real and which imaginary and to come to terms with everything.

Giuletta Masina is awesome, as always, but while she's the central character she projects everything outwards so that it appears that the film is happening to her. Thus she really doesn't get to do anywhere near as much as anyone else in the film, it seems, and there's definitely a distance between her and the rest of the film. She gets to do plenty with her face and she could do more than anyone with that, as she has the most expressive eyes I think I've ever seen. The really overt acting, or deliberate overacting in some cases, goes to the rest of the cast: Sandra Milo, Valentina Cortese and others. Mostly they're women as the men don't get much to do.

And like any other Fellini movie, I'm going to have to follow the trend I started with La Strada: experience it once then come back at a later point in time to revisit and hopefully understand more. Right now Juliet of the Spirits is a gorgeous visual feast, accompanied by a memorable score by Nina Rota using an old instrument called a novachord. It doesn't seem to do what it presumably intends, as it apparently has much meaning when applied to the Fellini's own marriage. It purports to be a film about Giuletta, but really is a film about Fellini himself. At least that's what I'm seeing now, but I'll reserve judgement until at least the next viewing.

Love is a Racket (1932) William A Wellman

Jimmy Russell writes a gossip column called Up and Down Broadway for the New York Globe, and he's played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Lee Tracy is in the picture too, but amazingly the best screen reporter of all time doesn't do a lot of reporting. Mostly he's just Stanley Fiske who hangs out with Jimmy Russell. The other key name here is Frances Dee, who plays a young Broadway actress wannabe called Mary Wodehouse. Jimmy Russell has the hots for her but so does local crime boss Eddie Shaw, played with relish by Lyle Talbot.

The problem is that Mary has run up a sizeable debt writing bogus cheques and Eddie seizes the opportunity to take on the debt so as to have something over her. Jimmy has already proved that he'll play the game and not rock the boat because he helps squelch a milk racket story that would put Shaw into a scandal, but he'll go the extra mile when Mary is in trouble and there's some admirable attention to detail (though deliberately not quite enough) in that extra mile.

Fairbanks is good here, though he sleepwalks through some of the film and looks notably static next to Lee Tracy who doesn't have a huge part but gets plenty of opportunity to shine. He gets two very different facets to his role and runs through no end of facial expressions. He's always a joy to watch, even when his mouth isn't running nineteen to the dozen. Beyond Frances Dee and Lyle Talbot, there's plenty of other able support in Ann Dvorak as a lady waiting patiently for Russell, Warren Hymer as a henchman and Cecil Cunningham as Mary's protective Aunt Hattie.

The biggest star of all though, or at least the one to whom most time and attention was devoted, seems to be the rain. It would be an understatement to point out that there's a lot of rain in his film, so much that I now doubt whether there was a scene without any. Maybe this is an early influence on Se7en which also used rain as a character device. It's also very much a precode, in that there's a murder but not only the killer gets away with it but the character who covers up for the killer gets away with it and the character who covers up for the character who covers up for the killer gets away with it too. Under the code that half of the film would have been gone for a start.

Bad Guy (2001) Kim Ki-Duk

This is my first Kim Ki-Duk film and I wasn't really sure what to expect. The only time I've really seen his name was attached to a film that's reached the IMDB Top 250 with the clumsy title of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. I have two further films of his on my DVR, all courtesy of the Sundance Channel's Extreme Asia series, and they're going to be fascinating viewing after this. It's no Asian horror film, but it fits the extreme tag nicely.

We open with someone who looks like a tough guy peoplewatching in the street. He fixates on a young lady sitting on a bench and even though her boyfriend quickly appears, he seizes her head and plants a long kiss on her lips, not stopping even while a crowd gathers and her boyfriend attacks him with a nearby rubbish bin. When she demands an apology he refuses and ends up in a fight with some soldiers instead. He's the bad guy of the title, Han-ki and even though he's Korean he looks unfortunately like Eminem, or some Oriental/Mexican version.

She's Kim Sun-hwa and her slapping his face and spitting in it as he's forced to apologise by the soldiers comes back to bite her on the ass big time. He's someone of authority in the criminal underground, though I have no clue how the pimp hierarchy works, and he quickly engineers a scheme to manoeuvre her into the red light district. What seems weirdest is that he doesn't do this to have her for himself, at least physically. It's rather so that he can watch her through a one way mirror and simply be around her. Whether it's a sexual thing on his part or a control thing or a sadistic thing is open to question.

Kim Ki-Duk, who was the writer as well as the director, doesn't leave it particularly clear cut. Han-ki is very clearly a dangerous and manipulative man and while he's the chief protagonist, he's far from the hero. However he appears to have genuine feelings for Sun-hwa, often finds it painful to watch her and while he's violent to everyone else around him refuses to get violent with her, even when she attacks him or vomits down him. It's a very strange relationship, that's for sure, and the only time he can get remotely close is when he's blind drunk and even then he's not looking for sex.

What Kim Ki-Duk was trying to tell us, I really don't know. Maybe he's trying to show us that bad guys have good sides (Han-ki does other good deeds that don't seem to bring him any reward), or that when they discover something positive in their life they really have no clue how to cope with such a thing. The other really intriguing thing is that while Han-ki is certainly the focus of the story, he doesn't speak until the very end of the movie. The film isn't silent, just him, but there's no explanation to why he has no voice: whether he's really dumb or there was some accident or it was a product of violence, or whether he simply chooses not to speak. He doesn't seem to be retarded, except emotionally. There is a scar on his throat but it's never explained.

At the same time he doesn't give us Sun-hwa the clear cut victim. It's patently obvious that she doesn't deserve what she's forced into and that she's far more virtuous than anyone else we see in the film, but it's also notable that Han-ki's scheme to get her into prostitution only works because of her own dark side, reliant on her being an opportunist and a thief. At the end of the day, this is a fascinating, powerful and visually magnetic film. It's thought-provoking for sure, but I still don't know what it's really about. If Kim Ki-Duk was just trying to set us up for all sorts of interpretations then to shoot down each and every one of them, he did a bang up job of it.

Friday 14 December 2007

Virtue (1932) Edward Buzzell

Carole Lombard and Pat O'Brien would seem to be a decent screen partnership, and there are great scenes even though the whole thing doesn't spark as well as it could. As we begin Lombard is being packed onto a train to get her sent out of New York, which she completely fails to do, and O'Brien is teaching his roommate Ward Bond about the realities of women. They meet soon enough. Lombard's character, a streetwise girl called Mae, catches a ride in Jimmy Doyle's cab and does a runner to avoid paying the fare. She pays him back the next day and through a great argument end up a memorable item.

He has a one track mind, keeping on about how marriage is a death sentence for a man and how as soon as a woman has you under her thumb you're lost, and the rest of it. Naturally Mae and Jimmy soon become Mr & Mrs Doyle, but after a quick honeymoon at Coney Island her past comes back to haunt her. They patch up but till have hurdles ahead of them to get past that knowledge. We soon get plenty of specific hurdles, with a con artist, a couple of hundred bucks and a murder leaping into the fray.

Pat O'Brien is a little loud and obnoxious here, but then he's playing a New York City cab driver so we really can't complain. Ward Bond is a slightly dumb but decent friend, which he could play in his sleep. Carole Lombard is good but not great and I think she'd be better just a few years later. Jack La Rue is a low life hood, as he pretty much always was during the thirties, and Mayo Methot shows some depth as his moll. The direction is good and the writing is better, but somehow it doesn't seem to shine. It's a pre-code after all, and there was so much potential to make more mileage out of the title and the subplots that involve it.

Cracked Nuts (1931) Edward Cline

We're at the Venus de Milo Arms where Bert Wheeler is trying to get in. He was half of the Wheeler and Woolsey double act from the early sound era who I read about at the excellent Booze Movies blog. Here, Wheeler is a rich idler called Wendell Graham who wants to propose to young but dumb society girl Betty Harrington, but he has to reckon with her aunt first. As her aunt is played by the inimitable Edna May Oliver you can imagine how well that goes. Betty and her aunt head abroad to the country of Eldorania, where Aunt Minnie owns more land than anyone else.

As I came to the film because of Wheeler and Woolsey, seeing her name in the opening credits was the first of two pleasant surprises for me. The other was the presence of Boris Karloff and he's how the plot progresses. He's a Eldoranian revolutionary plotting to get rid of King Oscar and he persuades Wendell Graham to put up $100,000 for the crown. He deserves more screen time but then this was still pre-Frankenstein.

Of course by the time he gets to Eldorania, the other half of the double act has already won it in a craps game by impersonating Groucho Marx and playing with the King's own loaded dice. The king wants to lose the crown honestly and thus avoid assassination, which doesn't work, leaving Zander Ulysses Parkhurst, or ZUP, as the only monarch. That is until his former roommate Wendell arrives to claim his purchased throne.

The Groucho comparison is a good one and not just because of ZUP's snappy dialogue and cigar. Cracked Nuts plays out like Duck Soup as played by only Groucho and Zeppo, complete with musical interludes and quips too quick to count. The differences are in the details: the lack of Chico and Harpo, inferior writing and the lack of any musical virtuosity at all. Edna May Oliver steals every scene she's in (best line: 'Don't speak while I'm interrupting!') and all the others would have been better for the presence of at least one Marx brother.

This induced so many groans that I feel guilty to have enjoyed it. It's really bad stuff, but in and amongst the barrage of jokes, some of them stick. How many is up to you, the viewer.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) John Ford

Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz weren't the only films in 1939 to get the Technicolor treatment. Another example is Drums Along the Mohawk, which suffers mostly from something as unfair as its year of release. After all, it's a period John Ford western, with stars of the calibre of Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, not to mention Edna May Oliver. It merely came out the same year as Stagecoach, another Ford and one of the greatest westerns ever made, and so gets overlooked in comparison, Technicolor or no.

Fonda and Colbert play a young couple, Gil and Lana Martin, who get married at the beginning of the film and then immediately pack their wagon, hitch up a cow and head on out to Mohawk Valley, to a place called Deerfield. I have no idea where Mohawk Valley is except that it's certainly out west where there be Indians. Given that they start in Albany and don't travel for too long, I'm guessing that it's somewhere in upstate New York.

The first Indian we meet is a friend, and a Christian too, but Lana goes into hysterics at the sight. Frontier life is not quite what she expected, but she gradually gets used to it. For a while everything looks good and the future rosy, but we're at the beginning of the American War of Independence. The Tories are apparently working with the Indians and soon the Martin place is burned out in an Indian attack and Lana loses her baby.

After that the Martins go to work for an elderly widow, Mrs McKlennar. As much as both top billed Colbert and Fonda (who was Ford's chief star at the time, the previous film for both of them being Young Mr Lincoln and the next one being The Grapes of Wrath) are excellent in their roles, they're both completely upstaged by Edna May Oliver as Mrs McKlennar. In fact this was so regular an occurrence that it's become something of a treat for me to watch Edna May upstage someone new. I ought to make a checklist of all the great actors of the era and cross them off one at a time as they get themselves upstaged by her.

She won a highly justified Oscar nomination for her performance here, late in her career, but she lost like so many worthy candidates in 1939 and did well to even get as far as a nomination. The winner of the Best Supporting Actress award was Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind, the only win for that film that actually makes sense to me. The only other nomination this film obtained was for its cinematography, and it lost out in the colour category to, you guessed it, Gone with the Wind, but one of the two cinematographers was the same for both films anyway: Ray Rennahan.

This is a John Ford film and I've learned enough by now to have recognised it as such even had I not seen the credits. It seems that every John Ford western has three things: Ward Bond, a horizon that moves around depending on what we should be focusing on and a preponderence of ritual. We begin here with a marriage and quickly finds its way to military drills, frontier custom and church services, and eventually on to the expected dances. Ford could find ritual anywhere, and that makes him one of the best chroniclers of American history on film.

Unfortunately the story doesn't quite live up to the people involved in it. The Americans living on the frontier are fleshed out nicely, but the enemy are not. You'll have to watch carefully to see any of the British beyond the horrendously stereotypical John Carradine, who even has an eyepatch. The Indians are far more frequent but they're as badly stereotyped. All but one are heathen savages with no redeeming anything, and the sole exception is an idiot. There's also a blatantly jingoistic scene at the end with the Stars and Stripes which is embarrassing to watch. That's at least a little more forgiveable, as this was 1939 and war was on the horizon (though still not that close for Americans).

Thursday 13 December 2007

Travellers and Magicians (2003) Khyentse Norbu

Never having seen a Bhutanese film before, I wasn't sure what to expect. I certainly wasn't expecting to see a bunch of old men competing in archery to the accompaniment of whooping and leaping about akin to a Maori war dance, but that's what I got as the film started. We're in a small village called Khumbar in the gorgeous mountainous countryside of Bhutan and everything seems slow, peaceful and quiet except at the home of one government official, apparently recently hired.

He dreams of getting out of the village and emigrating to the States. Certainly he seems to fit the stereotype: he has long hair, smokes, plays loud rock music, has pictures of mostly naked women all over his walls and can't seem to sit still for more than about five minutes at a time. He's only been back in the village for a month, but is already heading out to Thimpu to visit the American embassy. He's Dondup, played with a restless edge by Tsewang Dandup. After missing the bus, he ends up waiting for a ride with other travellers, chief among them a Buddhist monk called Sonam, played by Sonam Kinga with a powerfully knowing visage.

The differences are obvious and go far beyond basic appearances. Much of it boils down to the differences between traditional and modern. Sonam wears traditional Buddhist robes and Dandup wears an I Heart NY T-shirt. Sonam plays the dramyin, but Dandup has a radio cassette recorder with dead batteries. Sonam tells long stories to pass the time, while Dandup keeps quiet and just wants to get to where he's going. Given that the writer/director is a Buddhist monk, I'm sure there's a lot more that could be read into the film too that I'm just not seeing yet, and I'm seeing plenty in Sonam's story.

And yes, you read that right. Writer/director Khyentse Norbu is a Buddhist monk and this is his second film, apparently the first feature film to be shot entirely in Bhutan. I'm not sure where the first, Phörpa (or The Cup), was shot, but it was made in Hindi and Tibetan instead of Dzongkha, the native language of Bhutan. All the actors look like amateurs, quite possibly because there may not be such a thing as a professional film actor in the whole of Bhutan, but some have appeared elsewhere and reading up on them suggests that Khyentse Norbu has a sense of humour.

Tsewang Dandup appeared in The Cup, but nothing else. However he, like many of the actors play characters exactly or closely matching their own names. Lhakpa Dorji, who plays Tashi, the lead in the story Sonam the monk tells, has problems following his old rescuer down a mountainside, yet it seems that his one other film credit was as himself, a sherpa in a short film about climbing Mount Everest. Irony is alive and well and living in Bhutan, of all places.

All in all, there's nothing really to fault here. The direction, writing, editing, acting, you name it, are all superb, and surprisingly so. There's even a small amount of special effects, which again are surprisingly excellent, combined with some very cool cinematography. It certainly doesn't hurt that the landscapes this little road movie's travellers move through are all gorgeous. Definitely a success and a surprising one that I'll have to revisit.

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) Louis Malle

I've now seen over a third of Louis Malle's films, this being the twelfth of 33, and it seems to be regarded as his best. What I've seen so far has been massively variable, from what seemed to be stunningly average films like Crackers and A Very Private Affair, to say nothing of reality documentaries that didn't seem to gel like Place de la république, up to true classics like Lacombe Lucien and especially Elevator to the Gallows.

As you'd expect from the title, it's a story about children, which is promising given the penchant for child characterisation that Malle showed in Zazie dans le métro, Lacombe Lucien and especially Murmur of the Heart. It's also semi-autobiographical, which adds even more depth. The character based on Malle himself is the lead, Julien Quentin, who is packed off at the beginning of the film to a convent school, St John of the Cross. We're in war time so maybe a convent school is the best place to be, but the air raids apply here too.

Much of the film centres around the relationship of Julien Quentin to a new arrival in school, Jean Bonnet. Initially it's antagonistic on the level of any reaction to a new arrival, but gradually they become closer. Part of it has to do with things they have in common, like reading and being smart and though shared adventures, but much of it is through a shared secret after Julien discovers Jean's real name and the fact that he's really Jewish.

Mostly though, this isn't about plot. The details of it are there not as entities in themselves but as points in the development of the characters and it's the characters that matter. The bigger story is one that isn't really told, at least not specifically. It's the bigger story of the war, and has one angle that seemed a little surprising to me. The Germans are certainly the enemy generally, with the heroes happy to give them bad directions, hide Jews and work for the resistance, but Malle often depicts German soldiers as good guys individually. His true vitriol is reserved for French collaborators, either those deliberately working for the Germans or those who do so in moments of weakness.

As much as this film is about the big picture, there are some truly blistering scenes that can't help but hit very hard indeed. The first is a happy one, watching the faces of the entire school watch Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant. The second is when they come for Jean, which is heartbreaking. The third is the finale, which is as inevitable as it is full of suspense. All three really pull at the heartstrings. No wonder that Louis Malle himself was in tears at the film's premiere in 1987.

Midnight Mary (1933) William A Wellman

Midnight Mary is Mary Martin, she's played by Loretta Young, and as our film starts she's up for murder and not likely to get away with it either. While waiting for the verdict, we're treated to the back story that brought her to such a state of affairs, which is as sordid as you'd expect for a William Wellman precode. Mary starts out as a kid rummaging on a city dump, in a surprisingly believable scene that has Young and co-star Una Merkel play their younger selves through nothing but camera perspective and no makeup. There's three years in a house of correction and a gradual slide into crime including hinted prostitution.

She's not entirely indecent though. When she finds herself an unwitting accomplice in armed robbery and lands fifty bucks for her 'work', she promptly gives it to the Salvation Army. It's the depression though so honest work is hard to find and she soon ends up back with the old gang, and in a properly orchestrated job too. Now my schooling in thirties movies, precodes or not, tells me that any time the criminal mastermind says 'I got it all figured out, see,' you know something's going to go spectacularly wrong and needless to say it does. Ricardo Cortez and his gang try to rob a club, which they succeed in doing but they kill a cop in the process and everything goes rapidly pear shaped.

Luckily Mary has caught the eye of millionaire playboy Tom Mannering, Jr, played with relish by Franchot Tone having a ball with his part, and he gives her a way out, not just of the urgent situation at hand but out of her situation in general by giving her a job. As you'd expect, he falls head over heels for her in the process and also as you'd expect, complications ensue and Mary doesn't stay with him for long, jumping back on that downward slide.

Loretta Young is very good here indeed, and I'm slowly starting to appreciate her talent. I don't know why it took me so long to do so, given that this is my tenth of her films. Maybe it was just that I was watching other people in those films ahead of her. I've never been much of a fan of Ricardo Cortez either, but he's much better here than he was in Transgression. He was a fine Latin lover in the silents but I couldn't buy it in the sound era. He's a much better gangster though, here playing one like a junior version of George Raft. His final scene is a great one.

Franchot Tone is superb, though he doesn't have anywhere near the size or scope of part that Loretta Young does. As always, Una Merkel gets nowhere near the screen time she deserves and Andy Devine has only a tiny role also. There's also a small but memorable part from Halliwell Hobbes. A good deal of the credit here though should go to screenwriter Anita Loos, best known for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and to director William A Wellman, who I'm discovering was a prolific worker in the precode era with a whole slew of decent titles to his credit. The volume and scope of them says plenty on its own, beyond their individual merits.

Lilly Turner (1933) William A Wellman

Lilly Turner marries carnival magician Rex Durkee as the film opens but things aren't going to last. Maybe the signs are in the first words spoken after the ceremony, when Rex Durkee tells everyone he's the happiest man in the world but she's only the sweetest girl in Buffalo. Maybe it comes when he has to borrow the fare for their honeymoon from her or maybe it come when he lets her know on the train that they aren't actually going to have a honeymoon after all. Whenever it comes, it's very obvious that he's no class act. He cheats on his wife, does a runner when he finds out she's pregnant and then it turns out that he's a bigamist and wasn't legally married to her anyway. All in six months.

So she reacts by marrying the act's barker. She loses the baby and he's a drunk (a happy and decent one, but still a drunk), so life's just one bundle of laughs. They leave the carnival and join up with a medicine show, hawking snake oil, while everyone and his dog seem to be trying it on with Lilly. And don't take that quite literally: this is certainly a precode but they weren't quite that enlightened back then. Lilly hasn't been entirely true to her drunken husband, given that their marriage was really a favour to a pregnant woman, but eventually she falls for a cab driver who she gets hired into the show as the replacement strongman when the original goes insane.

Of all the actors here, the one I know least is the lead. She's Ruth Chatterton and was a big star in her day, her day primarily being the precodes. She only made 26 films, from 1928 to 1938, and this is my third. The big one was Dodsworth, in which she played the memorably bitchy wife of Walter Huston's lead character, but she was also excellent in The Lady of Scandal opposite Basil Rathbone. She does a fine job here, going from enthusiastic young bride to be to wronged woman to straight faced con artist to fresh faced lover to drunk. It's not a flashy performance but it carries all that's needed and more. Her one line when she runs into her sort of first husband is delivered perfectly and she has a great talent for sarcasm.

The cab driver, really an engineer working a cab, is George Brent, who was Chatterton's husband at the time, though their marriage only lasted two years. There's plenty of talented backup for them. The drunken barker husband is Frank McHugh, who does seem a little strange with a five o'clock shadow; the fake doctor at the medicine show is Guy Kibbee who was born to play such a part and the insane strongman is Robert Barrat, who was the communist turned capitalist in Heroes for Sale. He overacts shamelessly here but everyone else is solid. There's also a brief part for Ruth Donnelly and another for Grant Mitchell as a real doctor.

Lilly Turner is a very precode character in a very precode film. She starts out with all the best intentions and does nothing wrong, only to find herself in a highly unfortunate situation that society of the time couldn't approve of: an unmarried mother to be. She then gets out of it through the kindness of another, becoming half of an open marriage, very progressive for the times. In defining just what makes a precode, I often look at a film from the perspective of whether it could have been remade under the code: either as is, with changes or however it could be done. This is one of those films that simply could not have been remade, as the aberrations from the code are the entire point.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

The Women in His Life (1933) George B Seitz

The jury is still out in the Benton case, as our film begins. The always villainous Otto Kruger is the defence counsel, Kent Barringer, and he's a self satisfied slimeball of an attorney who manages to get his client off, even though he knows he was guilty. We're soon given plenty more evidence that he's a peach of a lawyer but he's not much of a human being. In court he's as slick as you could get, winning freedom for the guilty, but he can't do the right things by the right people. The only hint of humanity we get is when he likens himself to the rabbit at the dog track: he always wins but can't ever get out of his little cage.

Luckily for Doris Worthing, whose father is accused of murder, he has a junior partner called Roger McKane, who is as decent as Barringer isn't. Even though Doris helps Barringer win another case, he doesn't want to take hers because it's ordinary, far preferring to head off to Florida with nightclub girl Cathy Watson. Eventually though he gets to look at the details and finds that the victim is the only girl he ever loved and who he's tried to remember through no end of other soulless relationships.

Otto Kruger is in blistering form here, making it hard to really notice anyone else. Ben Lyon is solid but forgettable as Roger McKane, and other supporting actors like Irene Hervey, Isabel Jewell and Una Merkel just don't get enough screen time to really get the opportunity to shine. It's entirely Kruger's show. He goes through a stunning cinematic decline after discovering that the love of his life is dead and goes to truly stunning lengths to avenge her and find redemption. It's hard to talk abot the story or the film though, because it's nigh on impossible to see past Kruger.

Age of Consent (1969) Michael Powell

After the controversial subject matter of Peeping Tom, Michael Powell (half of the awesome Powell and Pressburger double act) had a good deal of trouble making further movies. He made Age of Consent in 1969 in Australia, directing and co-producing with James Mason, who also plays the lead. He's an Australian painter, Bradley Morahan, apparently in it for the right reasons but now strongly feeling that he's past it: out of touch, sleepwalking through life and tired of the whole commercial side of things in New York City.

He heads back to his home country, to a quiet island on the Great Barrier Reef to rekindle his artistic spirit, but discovers instead a very young and nubile Helen Mirren, wild and free spirited, making this seem like a revisit to Mason's work in Lolita, but it isn't really. She was 24 at the time but playing an underage girl here. She's Cora, one of only a few resident islanders, and she works to pay for her alcoholic grandmother's gin and to get off the island once and for all. Given that all the money she manages to keep is through surreptiousness and thievery, he ends up paying her to pose for him, leading naturally to no end of temptation.

Age of Consent was filmed on the Great Barrier Reef with underwater photography by Ron Taylor, but there's as much to see on land as on the water, even discounting the delectable young Helen. As befitting a film about a painter, the colours are vivid and seemingly omnipresent: the blue of the ocean, the sand of the beach and the greenery of the jungle. Powell finds more than just colour though, as you'd expect from the man who made such films as Black Narcissus: showing us some gorgeous settings shot through with bats and birds and sun.

Mason is solid, though hardly tormented by devils, and there's comic relief from Neva Carr-Glynn and from Jack MacGowran as a womaniser called Nat Kelly who gets his comeuppance in a highly ironic manner. He's an Irish actor but completely believable as an Aussie, far more than Mason, so much so that it surprised me to find that I've seen him before in non-Aussie roles: as Professor Abronsius in The Fearless Vampire Killers and as the drunken producer Burke Dennings in The Exorcist. Best of all though is Helen Mirren, early in her career but demonstrating a talent that wouldn't take long to blossom into no end of awards for every format of acting: an Oscar, four BAFTAs, four Emmys, two Golden Globes and two awards for Best Actress at Cannes, just for starters.

The only problem with the film has nothing to do with the film itself. My recording from TCM lost the ending, so I have no clue how everything wrapped up. Beyond the gorgeous cinematography, the delectable female nudity and the comic relief, there's a story in there too. It's a simple one really, but a good one, and the Australian setting fits the story wonderfully, being full of the sort of down to earth honest filmmaking and characterisation that makes me love Aussie cinema so much. I just wish I knew how it ended.

Heroes for Sale (1933) William A Wellman

Any new Richard Barthelmess film I can find is a good one and a precode Barthelmess is even better. Here he's Tom Holmes, a soldier fighting in the trenches in World War I, and he accomplishes a difficult mission when his superior officer freezes with fear, bringing back an enemy officer as a prisoner. Unfortunately he gets shot in the process and so his boss Roger Winston gets the credit, and plenty of credit too: a distinguished service cross and a promotion to Major. Winston takes the credit even though he feels terrible about it, through fear.

And then back comes Tom. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a POW in a German hospital to be freed after the armistice on a prisoner exchange with steel splinters in his spinal column and an addiction to morphine to kill the pain. What makes it worse is that he bumps into Winston on the boat back and once he gets out of an American hospital he goes back to work for Winston's father's bank, but loses his job pretty quickly through his addiction amidst some heat of the moment mudslinging.

His life changes once he gets out of the state narcotic farm, cured and discharged. He meets Mary Dennis, who puts him up at her boarding house and fellow boarder Ruth Loring who gets him a job at the laundry she works at. Before long he's climbing the ranks and he and Ruth are married, with a kid on the way. Life is pretty good, but as quickly as things can get better they can get worse and the plot takes us down a number of turns that are as believable as they are surprising.

Beyond great performances from Richard Barthelmess and Aline MacMahon, what makes this film such a powerful precode are the issues it addresses, most of which wouldn't have stood a chance under the code. Beyond the drug issues early on, there's a political angle too involving communism, that great pariah of Americans. It's no red propaganda picture, with the first radical we meet converting to purest capitalism as soon as he has money and the first red mob being simply people bitter at losing their jobs. It's not propaganda the other way either though, exposing the injustice of the red squads and demonstrating how once you get onto a blacklist you stay there, even when you didn't deserve to be there in the first place.

It's easy to interpret this as just the middle ground of common sense, especially from a perspective of hindsight, but it's really an astonishing approach. Tom Holmes is depicted as the real American here: hard working, and courageous, yet decent enough to share what he has with those less fortunate than himself. That's a Christian outlook, not an un-American one. Yet he still becomes an easy victim of the red squads, who a couple of decades later would be the very people defining what counted as 'un-American activities', making this a polemic against the hypocrisy of a name that hadn't been created yet. Fascinating.

The director is William A Wellman, who I really need to start paying more attention to. He seems to be one of the key precode directors, making some interesting and influential films. He made The Public Enemy, for one. What seems surprising to me is that as a confirmed precode fan, I prefer his later work. This is my twelfth Wellman, two thirds of which are precodes, but it's Nothing Sacred, Track of the Cat and especially The Ox-Bow Incident that have impressed me so far.

This is the best of the precodes I've seen, beating out The Public Enemy and Barbara Stanwyck's So Big!, and it's packed with issues. It's only just over 70 minutes long but covers drug addiction, the plight of returning servicemen, communism, the rise of automation, red squads, blacklisting, the Depression, food lines, soup kitchens and the sweep of men across the nation. What amazes most is that none of it seems rushed, at least until the end which like many Warner Brothers movies of the era comes very quickly indeed, as if the filmmakers ran out of film and had to wrap things up quickly.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Huddle (1932) Sam Wood

Ramon Novarro was one of the great silent screen heroes though his career slowly vanished in the sound era, quite possibly through the influence of studio boss Louis B Mayer because he was gay and refused the lavender marriage option. Unlike someone like William Haines, Novarro could get away with playing tough manly roles but his voice was a litle high pitched to keep that going as sound took over. Here though he starts out playing someone that would nowadays be played by someone like Sylvester Stallone, which does seem a little strange.

He's Antonio 'Tony' Amatto, a working class Italian boy from Gary, IN, who leaves the ironworks on a company scholarship to go to Yale. Naturally he doesn't fit in right off the bat and ends up breeding an animosity to a character called Tom Stone, who happens to be the football captain, the college's prize boxer and the son of the ironworks chairman. Just as naturally the girl he falls for is Tom Stone's sister Rosalie, and the girl that falls for him is Tom Stone's girlfriend Barbara. Needless to say, he quickly turns into about the most unpopular student on campus.

Luckily when it comes to the sophomore year he makes one good friend and makes an impression on the football team, but he's still a pain in the ass. He has a knack of upsetting the wrong people at the wrong moments, getting drunk exactly when he shouldn't and playing dirty when there's really no need. He's definitely the hero but he's a hothead and an idiot and it's easy to understand why he's so unpopular. There's a lot of work done to point the reasons at the difference in class background, but that's a little unfair. Tony is just an ass, pure and simple, at least until he starts a fight with his football coach and sees the light. Even when the class thing becomes very apparent through Rosalie's father's influence, but even he wasn't born to riches.

The cast is good. Novarro always impresses, and just about gets by as a Yale student even though he was 33 at the time. He looks a lot younger than football coach Ralph Graves, who was only 32. It's good to see him in something that doesn't involve planes: I only know him from The Flying Fleet, Flight and Dirigible, which belies whatever diversity the man could bring to film. Una Merkel is always solid and Madge Evans is a fetching love interest. In supporting roles, Kane Richmond is just there as Tom Stone, but John Arledge and Frank Albertson get some good scenes. Henry Armetta and Ferike Boros are fine stereotypical Italian parents, as annoying as that makes them.

The story though is clumsy and doesn't do its players justice. The passing of time is terrible, the whole class thing is woefully mismanaged and the various subplots don't satisfy. The whole rivalry between Tony and Tom Stone is completely wasted. At the end of the day this is little more than an opportunity to watch Ramon Novarro in the sound era before his MGM contract was not renewed in 1935. For some people, there's opportunity to see a lot of Yale customs, with traditional songs all over the place, and even some stock footage of historic American football games. I really don't care about either so they don't add anything to my enjoyment of the film but they could be valuable to some.

Monday 10 December 2007

Up the River (1930) John Ford

Now this was always going to be an interesting one. It's an early sound John Ford movie and it's the feature film debut of two future heavyweights: Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Both had appeared in films before but not features: Tracy in three shorts earlier the same year and Bogart in a bit part in a 1920 silent movie called Life. For both to debut in the same film seems astounding, but then there must be other coincidences like this one around 1930, when the old guard of the silents was quickly vanishing with the advent of sound and a whole new slew of stars. It's also amazing that they never appeared together again after this, but they were bound to different studios throughout the contract era and once they could go freelance in the fifties, they could never agree on who would get top billing.

We're in a south state prison and two prisoners are climbing over the wall in a jumpy yet stylishly shot escape. One is a character called Saint Louis, played by Spencer Tracy, and the other one, Dannemora Dan, gets left behind. They quickly meet up again in Kansas City, where Dan is preaching for the Brotherhood of Hope and Saint Louis is all dolled up, flanked by girlfriends and driving a expensive car. Needless to say they're very quickly back inside again, with a whole host of other characters including Humphrey Bogart and an uncredited Ward Bond.

Bogart plays Steve, an inmate whose family thinks he's in China, and soon he's sharing the same cell as Saint Louis and Dannemora Dan. He gets hooked up with a young lady who's only in prison herself because she took the fall for someone else, and they get engaged. Later in the movie, he's released for time served and ends up being blackmailed over the fact that his rich family don't know he's been in jail. It's up to Saint Louis and Dannemora Dan to escape again and get him out of the jam.

Spencer Tracy looks exactly like Spencer Tracy, as you'd expect because he hardly changed over the next couple of decades until he suddenly got really old for the films he made in the sixties. Humphrey Bogart though is scarily young. This is the 52nd out of 75 Bogie movies for me, but this is two years younger than I've seen him in anything else and Three on a Match is the only other time I've seen him before 1936.

There are other interesting characters here too. There's a smart little girl who wanders around the prison, which is more than a little strange but apparently she's related to the warden. In real life she was the daughter of Warden Lawes of Sing Sing. The next Spencer Tracy I've seen was another prison movie actually shot in Sing Sing, fittingly given the title: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. It seems strange that young Joan Marie Lawes appeared in this one but not that one, especially as memory tells me that this was shot somewhere else.

The film itself stands up as both a drama and a comedy, which is an achievement for 1930. The comparison has to be to The Big House, which had what in 1930 was a far more powerful cast: well established silent legends Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone, along with a couple of relatively new actors, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery, who only beat Tracy and Bogart onto film by a year but back in those days it wasn't uncommon for actors to make ten films a year, so one year could make all the difference.