Friday 31 July 2009

Of Mice and Men (1939)

Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney Jr

Somehow it seems surprising every time I find a film from 1939 that I haven't seen, let alone one as renowned as this one, which counted among the nine classics beaten to the Best Picture Oscar by Gone with the Wind. It's a John Steinbeck story, adapted for the screen by Eugene Solow, made by Hal Roach Studios, of all things, and directed by no less a name than Lewis Milestone. It's remembered as being the one great role of Lon Chaney Jr, thankfully still keeping the Jr in his credit at this point. It always seemed somehow wrong that Lon Chaney's son should feel the need to cash in on his father's name, especialy when he could be as good as he is here, all on his own merit.

He's well paired here with Burgess Meredith. Meredith is George Milton, a quick and talkative itinerant farm worker who would do much better for himself if he wasn't forever looking after Lenny Small, Chaney's character. However Lenny, physically a giant but mentally a midget, isn't likely to do very well at anything if he was left to his own devices. The first time we see him, he's running from a lynch mob in the bizarrely named town of Weed, because he touched a little girl's dress and wouldn't let go when she screamed bloody murder.

What makes Chaney's performance so good is that we don't automatically think the worst; we're happy to believe that he's telling the truth and was merely admiring the texture of the thing, without any untoward desires in his tiny mind. In the hands of a lesser actor we'd be biased against him from this point on because we'd see him as a paedophile who just hasn't managed to do anything yet. Of course it helps that Burgess Meredith always looks like he's planning something, those beady little eyes and knowing grin that made him so awesome as the Penguin.

George and Lenny have been moving around, taking work where they can find it during the great depression but often moving on but because Lenny keeps getting into trouble. They end up at No 3 Ranch of the Soledad Land Co where the boss is a man called Jackson but it's his son that really runs the place and his son is a real piece of work. His name is Curley and he's played by Bob Steele, one of the more prolific screen cowboys, hardly surprising given how he handles a horse here. He'd already spent a couple of decades playing cowboys with every name in the book as long as the first one is Bob; he'd soon slip into some regular roles as Tucson Smith and Billy the Kid in B movie westerns.

Now Curley has a wife, a good looking one called Mae in the good looking form of Betty Field, all the more delectable because she's the only woman on the ranch. That makes her trouble even without doing anything, but Curley's a jealous soul, eager to pick a fight with anyone he can and he's happy to use her as an excuse to do so. He's a real wildcard in our story as there's no telling what he'll do and when he'll do it, but he's only one wildcard. Lenny's another, too big and strong for his own good, and he's high on Curley's hit list just for being big. Chaney was only 6'2" but he's made to look a lot bigger here through the use of deliberate camera angles.

The other obvious target among the men is the muleskinner Slim, played by the ever reliable Charles Bickford, only one of the talented actors backing up the leads. He's too bright to mess around with Mae but that doesn't stop him ending up in the same place at the same time quite a bit and thus firmly in Curley's sights. After him, the most recognisable is Noah Beery Jr, best known for his role as Jim Rockford's dad in The Rockford Files. It's a solid cast and many of those further down the credits still get their opportunity to shine in the spotlight, from Roman Bohnen as one handed Candy to Leigh Whipper as Crooks, a black ranchhand, not allowed to stay in the bunkhouse because of his colour.

The script is tight, telling us all about a point in time without ever being dry or preachy. We discover about the depression from the point of view of well defined character, often in how they talk. They're lonely enough that they talk just to hear their own voice and feel jealous of those with a friend strong enough so that they always have someone to talk to. They have hopes and dreams, always the same ones and in the great depression they didn't tend to come to anything. When those hopes become possible, nobody can keep their mouth shut. Hopes in the depression are just too important to keep secret.

It's a powerful story, from an era where Americans were writing American stories. The first great American writers were Englishmen who wrote in very English language. It was the generation of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway who really forged the first really American stories, full of American themes and American characters. The movies added American faces and American voices to the mix. No wonder these literary classics were so popular as screen adaptations, and even people like me who grew up devouring as many books as I could find are still discovering stories like this one through those adaptations.

Saturday 25 July 2009

The Passion of Anna (1969)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson

The Passion of Anna is a hard film to review for a lot of reasons. It's an Ingmar Bergman film with a lot of depth but then which Ingmar Bergman movie doesn't have a lot of depth? The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is easy to look at but offers more the deeper you look, so again nothing surprising there. The actors are a collection of Bergman regulars: we really focus on four of them, all of whom have done so many Bergman films together that they can't help but know him and each other very well indeed to the degree that filming must have felt like a family affair.

And this all feels very much like a cop out. I'm here to the review the film and it's really cheating to throw out something elusive like, 'Hey, it's an Ingmar Bergman movie, so hopefully you know what to expect. If you do, you'll get something roughly in line with what you expected. If you don't, you'll be lost.' It's unfair and more than a little frustrating to say that I really want to watch it again before putting virtual pen to paper, but I really do. I'm just not sure what I think about it, what it's really trying to say to me and where Bergman was trying to go with it.

I've seen a lot of Bergman now, as I try to get take every opportunity I can to watch his work. After all, he's the name that all the great names name as the name that inspired them and that they look up to. I loved many as soon as I saw them, from the acknowledged greats like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Wild Strawberries to lesser known films like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Virgin Spring. I haven't always been knocked out, as The Silence left me dry and Cries and Whispers was less than I expected. Hour of the Wolf is still resonating with me, not a great Bergman but a great memory.

And I know where I stand with each of these. I don't with The Passion of Anna. It feels like one of those films that are probably going to say something different to each viewer because of their own perspectives at the time. It feels like a film to grow with, go back to every few years for a long time until it finally condescends to reveal itself to us. What does it really focus on, beyond say, anguish? It's a film about a theme rather than a plot and those are always hard to review because doing so often gives away what you should find yourself in the material. That's especially true here given one particular focus on truth.

We meet Andreas Wilkelman first. He's 48 but he's up on his roof smoking his pipe and repairing his shingles. Nothing seems to want to play ball with him though. The weather threatens to change and even his bucket won't do what he wants it to do: he puts it on the roof, it tumbles to the ground; he puts it on the ground, it falls over. Unsurprisingly, this mirrors his life. He had been married, to a woman named Anna, but they separated through what seems to be sheer incompatibility. He doesn't expect her back but seems to be waiting anyway.

Enter Anna Fromm, played by Liv Ullmann. She's a girl who needs to use his phone because she obviously has things that won't play ball with her either. She was married too, though she lost her husband and son in a car accident that left her damaged physically and mentally. She's on her fourth operation, walks with a crutch and is still tormented by nightmares. I should add that while Andreas was married to an Anna and Anna to an Andreas, they are new to each other at the beginning of our film. The names match those of their respective former spouses deliberately, of course. And they become a new Andreas and Anna couple, apparently happily but with trauma down the road.

The other couple in the film is Elis and Eva Vergerus, who are going through their own psychological problems are who are played by Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson respectively. Elis is dismissive of everything, including what he does for a living: making lots of money as an architect of international renown. Eva is utterly unsure of anything, at least when her husband is around. Even when she's asked whether she believes in God, she asks her husband. The key is that Eva wants to be someone who matters, but who seems to always end up around people who utterly don't need her, thus depriving her of any means of measuring self worth.

While the title suggests that Anna is the focus, that's just the American title, which makes it sound like a porn film. The original Swedish title is merely En Passion or A Passion, as it was simply translated in the UK. We probably see more of Andreas than anyone else and all four of these characters have enough depth to fill your average movie. Behind them all, periodically popping into the picture to remind us to look at the thematic parallels, is an unseen figure who commits acts of deliberate animal cruelty, from hanging a dachshund puppy to slaughtering sheep and burning horses.

And quite how this fits in I really can't write about, partly because I'm still unsure about a lot of it myself and partly because what I am sure about runs so deep into the realm of spoilers it's unreal. I can't tell you about most of what happens because the end doesn't just explain most of went before, it makes us reevaluate most of what we've seen. I'll be thinking about this one for a while and I'm sure you will be too if you've seen it. It demands a second viewing, from an entirely fresh perspective, if not more than just one more time through it.

Without a clear script, it's left to the actors to instil life in their characters which they do magnificently. It's an especially difficult job for von Sydow, as he explains to us, because he has to express himself through lack of expression. Perhaps this is why Bergman chooses to add narration and also to break the story off at points to effectively ask his stars what they think drives the characters they play. This is how we find out that Max von Sydow sees that Andreas has tried to hide but that his hiding place has become his prison; and that Bibi Andersson suggests that Eva will end up committing suicide.

Perhaps the key is truth. Anna is especially vehement about her direction in life, her passion is for being true to herself and she emotes this at us, as if the most important thing in the world is that we understand what she's trying to tell us. The power of Ullmann's performance is highlighted by Bergman choosing, as he often did, to let his actors run with scenes that play out without cuts, effects or camera movements. Two examples in particular stand out here: Anna telling the story of her car accident and Andreas reading a letter from a local man about to commit suicide. They're both heartfelt scenes full of pure acting that can't help but give us the naked truth of the scene, something that can be extrapolated up in no small way to the film itself.

Incidentally I should add two notes about Swedish. Firstly, the title we see on screen is actually L182, which doesn't seem likely to translate into The Passion of Anna, however efficient a language Swedish might be. Well, we discover the reason later: Elis Vergerus takes photos of people, good ones too, that he stores in categorised boxes, like Stanley Kubrick did in real life. Everyone in the story has posed for him and Anna presumably lives in the L182 box. This fact itself tells us things about the characters that I'm not comfortable in quite believing yet, but you'll have to watch through to the end to know what I'm talking about.

The other note is to explain a word that may mislead viewers who aren't expecting it. Like films from many countries, Swedish films often end with those old two words, 'The End', though obviously in the native language rather than English. However those of us who aren't Swedish don't often see them because they're cut out of international release prints. The reason is because the Swedish for 'The End' is 'Slut'. I was taken rather aback to transition so quickly from Liv Ullman's face to the word 'Slut' as the film ends, as I'm sure others are too. It's hard not to see a connection when there really isn't one or meant to be one. I'll watch for it next time.

The Son of Dr Jekyll (1951)

Director: Seymour Friedman
Stars: Louis Hayward, Jody Lawrance and Alexander Knox

This 1951 Columbia picture starts as it means to go on, with a bunch of guys with torches chasing the monster. This time out it isn't Frankenstein's monster, it's Edward Hyde, who has murdered his wife in their Soho flat and is trying to get home to turn himself back into respectable Dr Henry Jekyll that nobody will suspect. He manages it too, though the mob sets his house on fire in the process so that while he escapes from the mob he doesn't escape their vengeance. He takes a tumble off the roof to his death, dying in front of everyone by the light of their torches.

Now there wouldn't be much of a story if the focus of it dies at the beginning of the film, and with the title is about as obvious as it could be. Sure enough, the moment after Dr Curtis Lanyon pulls the sheet over the corpse of Dr Jekyll, he's summoned back to Hyde's place in Soho to spirit away his son, Edward, out the back way to avoid the mob. Lanyon is Jekyll's best friend and trustee to his estate, but as he's a bachelor he leaves it to his friend John Utterson, a prominent attorney to bring him up, unknowing of his heritage.

And we promptly skip forward 30 years to 1860, the time when young Edward Jekyll inherits his father's estate, after already having been kicked out of the Royal Academy of Science. Lanyon and Utterson, now Sir John, are wary of telling Edward about the history of his father, especially as he's about to marry Sir John's niece, Lynn, but they feel that they must. So Lanyon fills him in and he heads over to take a look at the family house. It doesn't take long for him to get fully back on his father's track. He cleans up his house, equips his lab and restarts his experiments. He even hires his father's butler, who turned up one night and asked to be rehired.

Of course it took less than one night to stir up the first incident and these naturally escalate quickly. The papers smother the front page with stories like 'Mad Doctor's Son at Jekyll House'. Journalists sneak into the house to snap pictures of him trying to throw them out. Little boys throw stones at his windows and old men run away when he says boo. He even meets the Sorelles, a family of actors who know his mother, show him scrapbooks and tell stories about how bad his father was. And while he initially wants to get his father out of his system because, as he says, 'legends don't die, they have to be killed,' the more this idiocy happens, the more he wants to clear his father's name. Given that this is a horror movie, you can't be too surprised that this attempt leads him to court, Lanyon's sanitorium and the danger of being mobbed himself.

Very much in the old Universal vein, this tries to elevate itself above the B picture level and doesn't do a bad job about it. The story is formulaic with a predictable ending and more than a few conveniences, but it still has some interesting takes on the Jekyll & Hyde story and it's shot and acted professionally. There's only one transformation scene and it's a really good one, Jekyll's head moving from side to side as he lies on the floor and becomes Hyde. It isn't the rapid fire genius transformation that I still can't explain from Sh! The Octopus but it's similar in style and very nicely done indeed.

Best and most obvious on the acting front is Louis Hayward, with Rhys Williams and Alexander Knox solid in support. Hayward plays the double role of Jekyll and Hyde, actually a triple role given that he's both Jekylls, father and son both. He's a decent actor and a forceful Jekyll, reminding very much of Patrick MacGoohan with maybe a hint of Orson Welles. He was no strange to the romantic pulp lead, having the first man to play the Saint on film and one who played everyone from Captain Blood to the Count of Monte Cristo, from the Man in the Iron Mask to Dick Turpin. He also played the Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard, but not on film, instead taking the part for a 39 episode TV series in 1954. This may not be the feather in anyone's cap but it's a sold entry in a solid filmography.

Thursday 23 July 2009

The Whole Truth (1958)

Director: John Guillermin
Stars: Stewart Granger, Donna Reed and George Sanders

This is a mystery but it opens like a film noir, effectively claustrophobic even though we're outside. Stewart Granger is obviously a wanted man desperate to find a way out of this noirish maze of narrow streets, but this is the beginning of the film and we need to know why so he finds a clock tower and the hands roll backwards and we find out what's going on. He's Max Poulton, an American film producer making a film somewhere on the continent. Unfortunately he has a rather temperamental leading lady, an Italian primadonna named Gina Bertini.

As producers are wont to do with their leading ladies, he embarks on a affair with her, possibly because he's just a philandering film producer and possibly because it's the best way to keep his attention grabbing actress as close to behaving herself as possible. She's played very believably by Gianna Maria Canale, an Italian actress best known for a long string of sword and sandal movies. Gina isn't the only woman in Poulton's life: as a great contrast to his mistress, he also has a wife, wholesome Carol played by wholesome Donna Reed.

While he's supposed to be picking up lobsters for Carol for a party, instead he gives Gina a lift back to her hotel. Naturally he doesn't just drop her at the door, he heads inside with her and I'm sure we can all guess what they got up to. The film does leave it to our imagination, as we leave the scene with him walking inside, but we soon get to wonder in a lot more detail what went on as Poulton gets a strange visitor at the party to talk to him about it. It's George Sanders, in the form of a Scotland Yard detective called Carliss, with the news that she was murdered, stabbed to death in that hotel room.

Now as suspects go, Poulton is a pretty good one. Before we even meet Carliss, his wife has noticed blood on his shirt cuff and the moment Carliss leaves, he speeds off to their trysting place, a villa in St Paul, to recover his personal property and clean away any inappropriate connection between them. He makes it back to the party just in time for things to get really weird: his murdered leading lady is right there, notably drunk and trying to make an announcement.

He recovers his composure and he whisks away before she says something dumb, but being something of an idiot he takes her to the villa instead of her hotel. And while chasing away the dog that's sitting outside his front door, she's promptly stabbed to death in precisely the way Carliss had suggested she'd been murdered earlier in the evening! What this provides us with is a cat and mouse battle. Carliss swears that Poulton did it and the evidence is all on his side. For his part Poulton swears that Carliss did it in his real role as Gina's husband. He isn't a Scotland Yard detective after all.

This is a fun little picture, made by an English company called Romulus Films who didn't make a lot of pictures but did make some notable ones, from The African Queen to Beat the Devil, from Heavens Above! to Oliver! Sanders is perfectly cast as the oily and manipulative Carliss, believable as the subdued widow and the conniving trickster, often shifting from one to the other and back again during the same conversation. Granger is a decent leading man because he was highly talented without somehow having the undeniable presence of a true star. He's half Cary Grant and half James Stewart and because he isn't all of either, he's far more believable than both as an everyman character. The ladies in the cast are decent too but this is a man's game.

I can't say that it's a seamless story but it rides nicely through, as long as we can accept that these two men can be fiendishly clever when they need to be and unashamedly dumb when they don't. There isn't a lot of middle ground for them: they're always at one extreme or the other. Perhaps in a theoretical four hour mini-series version the writing could become a little more subtle and those extremes could close in a little. Other than that, it's a solid achievement on what appears to be a pretty minor budget.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Capricorn One (1978)

Director: Peter Hyams
Stars: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O J Simpson and Hal Holbrook

Here's a complete genius bit of TV: TCM choose to broadcast Capricorn One, the most famous movie about a fake NASA mission, bring on Buzz Aldrin to introduce it and to do it right now in July 2009. This month we're celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's trip to the moon and while all the conspiracy theorists rise back to the surface to protest the anniversary, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is snapping new photos of all the landing sites and Google have put online a lunar version of the Google Earth app.

One key fact that must drive people like Buzz Aldrin nuts is that while he and his cohorts achieved amazing feats in 1969 with 1969 technology, we can't replicate what they did today. Realistically to do the same thing again, we'd have to start from scratch and reinvent what they invented. The plans are mostly gone and much of the equipment too, so we can't even reverse engineer what we have. So when Peter Hyams made Capricorn One, it wasn't awesomely far fetched, at least to the conspiracy theory nuts in their tin foil hats. The Russians had killed off Yuri Gagarin, after all.

There are caveats. Capricorn One is a manned mission to Mars that was always intended to be real. It was developed for real, it was built for real and it launches for real. The ground control crews are monitoring the real rocket and don't know anything is amiss. The astronauts get onto the rocket for real with every expectation that they're going to Mars, but they don't stay there long, being pulled off the rocket during the countdown to launch during some apparent emergency. And here's where it begins.

They're flown in secret to a secret location where they have a secret meeting with Dr James Kelloway, the man in charge, who they know well and trust. He talks up all NASA's previous achievements as real and explains that he's doing what he's doing for the good of the space programme, but he doesn't have a choice. It boils down to this: the public apparently don't care as much about space any more. People bitched about the Apollo 17 broadcast because they couldn't see the I Love Lucy reruns. The president doesn't like the amount of money being spent and he won't forgive a failure. So Capricorn One has to succeed or the space programme is going to die a quick death.

And it won't succeed. Kelloway knows it won't succeed because two months earlier they discovered that the life support system is inherently broken. The three astronauts would be dead in three weeks and he knows it. So he explains the only option he has left. He walks them onto the movie set with the its landing module on a fake Mars background and the conspiracy nuts immediately had orgasms. Hyams had dared to suggest that NASA could conceive of, plan and execute a fake space mission. He was their dreams come true. He even adds in all the little details that they love so much: the gravity is wrong when astronaut Charles Brubaker jumps off the ladder, the studio lights reflect off his helmet and there's a faint shadow on the red background of the landing module. When the astronaut's wives talk to them in the capsule the distance disappears.

Here's where we start wondering about the aim of the film. Is it really playing up to the conspiracy theorists and suggesting that the Apollo mission was a fake? After all, Aldrin points out before the film, all the hardware up there on the screen is Apollo gear. Or is it denying the conspiracy and reinforcing the standard argument against: how could such a scheme ever succeed? How could those involved, however few there are, keep quiet? How could nobody notice?

Here the tech that notices is called Elliot Whitter. He works at ground control where he keeps finding bizarre numbers on his readouts that don't add up. He proves they're nuts by running his own diagnostic programs to troubleshoot, but he gets absolutely nowhere with his bosses. With nobody else listening, he tells a journalist friend of his a little of what he saw only to vanishe from a crowded bar halfway through a game of pool. So the journalist, all journalist senses a-tingling, begins to investigate, especially when he visits Whitter's apartment, which he knows well, only to find it isn't his any more. And of course when people start trying to kill you, you can't help but know you're on to something.

This film had a major cast though it's surprising how many of the names looking back are best known now for TV rather than film. The trio of astronauts are James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson, though we focus very much on Brolin. It's fun watching OJ Simpson with the benefit of hindsight. He goes along with the scheme because he doesn't want his family to get hurt; he doesn't take the knife because he doesn't know how to use it. If only he'd had more screen time he might have got into an SUV and been chased by half of NASA's finest.

Dr Kelloway is a superb Hal Holbrook, believable both as the man with principles and the man who is having to break them in a massive way. Elliott Gould is the journalist, Robert Caulfield, who comes into his own as the film progresses, underplaying the role nicely without ever falling prey to the standard journalist shtick. He gets the top credit. Brenda Vaccaro is a very effective lead astronaut's wife. Backing them all up are people like Karen Black, David Huddleston and a highly memorable Telly Savalas, along with David Doyle (Bosley from Charlie's Angels), and not one but two actors from Hill Street Blues, James B Sikking and Barbara Bosson.

It isn't the actors that resonate though, however good they are at what they do, it's that conspiracy theory material. You just can't get away from it here because its the essence of the piece and it's why it's far better known than it ought to be. It isn't a bad film, but it's not spectacular. It deserves a spot in film history as a decent seventies thriller, but there were a lot of those and many were better than this. Yet none of those tapped into a vein of popular culture that refuses to die.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

The Big Parade (1925)

Director: King Vidor
Stars: John Gilbert and Renée Adorée

Here's one of the great war pictures of all time, according to the history books, but being English I can't help but add a second line to the first we're given in this film. 'In the Spring of 1917, America was a nation occupied in peaceful progression.' Well yeah, but that just means that they hadn't turned up to the fight. The rest of the world had been fighting since 1914, wondering about those isolationists over the pond and whether they'd ever join in to lend a hand in saving the civilised world. This film suggests what the rest of us believed all along: that the Americans really didn't care until war was declared and then they all suddenly got patriotic and caught up in the frenzy to kick the Kaiser's ass.

We're introduced to the main cast right before the declaration of war. They come from all backgrounds as characters and as actors too, but none of them would still be making films a decade later. The longest lasting is Tom O'Brien, who plays a bartender on the Bowery called Michael O'Hara, better known as Bull. This would be the biggest part O'Brien ever got and he stopped making films in 1936, but I'm not sure why given that he lived until 1947. He's a sort of cross between John Belushi and Spencer Tracy but without the character of either.

The star of the film is John Gilbert, one of the biggest idols of them all in the silent era but who would be dead at 38 the same year O'Brien made his last movie. The sound era had not treated him well, even though he had a fine voice. Depending on which you choose to believe, either his voice didn't match his image or Louis B Mayer allegedly sabotaged his career as MGM made the switch to sound. Here, a single year into that MGM contract, he plays a wealthy layabout called Jim Apperson, the son of a mill owner who wants him to follow him into the family business but seems unable to actually get him to.

At the other end of the social scale and status in Hollywood, Karl 'The Great' Dane is Slim Jensen, a rivetter on high rise buildings. He'd appeared in nine films, many of them war films it seems, but This in the film that made him a memorably goofy star. In nine years he would be dead at his own hand, having sunk all the way from starring in MGM films to selling hot dogs at the MGM gate. He couldn't make it in the sound era because of a thick Scandinavian accent. Dane was his nationality not his name, but Karl Dane was easier to say than Rasmus Gottlieb.

And as you can imagine the three of them enlist. Two of them want the fight but Jim Apperson sort of just ends up roped into it. His dad is fed up of seeing him do nothing so finally gives him an ultimatum and his girlfriend Justyn is just thrilled the country's at war and can't wait to see him in his officer's uniform. She doesn't have much of a grip on reality and so to pander to them all, he signs up and heads off to Europe. Dumb little Justyn believes all along that he's the officer in charge of a romantic company. Of course he's just a buck private like the rest.

Unlike most silent war films, we don't see anything of their training. They turn up into a field as rookies and totally look it, but promptly begin marching and keep on marching and marching and marching until as uniformed, equipped and regimented soldiers, they march into Champillon, France. And here we take a break from anything we might remotely expect. The Germans had occupied most of France in 1914 but you wouldn't guess it by watching this bunch in Champillon.

Sure, they muck out stables they've been billeted to, but there isn't much of anything military going on. They get letters from home, they flirt with the locals and they play around having a good time. Our hero, Jim Apperson, is a prize idiot. He walks around with a barrel on his head, calls Melisande, the cute young French farm girl, a froggie and introduces her to chewing gum. Talk about overpaid, oversexed and over there! We could be forgiven at this point for wondering when the war is going to show up because nobody seems to be interested in it. There's no drill or training or watching out for the enemy or anything.

And then, an hour and a quarter into the film, which is a little past halfway, they finally head for the front, and if we wondered where the war was we soon find out. The title cards call it a baptism of fire and they aren't kidding. Even before they get to the front, a German flies over to strafe the newcomers. Being a good old American film though, these rookie soldiers who apparently haven't even looked at a gun since the war begun manage to shoot him down.

Then they finally get orders and march through a wood. They shoot down their first sniper and the next bunch of Germans promptly surrender, but then all hell breaks loose. Suddenly there's smoke everywhere, explosions and people dying all around and finally we have a war in this war film. And it goes hog wild. Ten minutes after these soldiers hear their first shot fired, they're in the middle of a poison gas attack, with tanks rumbling through it and machine gun outposts firing on them from all sides. We get the works.

And what to me played like a pretty poor outing all around suddenly turns into stunning filmmaking that simply cannot be ignored. These soldiers are here to be cannon fodder, the disposable heroes who try to keep the front lineas long as they can, while the machinery of war can move up behind them. And these war scenes are powerful things. There are enough explosions to satisfy the most jaded of modern blockbuster fans but while they're devastating the landscape all around like the biggest fourth of July celebration ever, these soldiers have to march across it to get down and dirty in the enemy trenches, bayonetting or clubbing to death any German they can find.

I can only assume that that this game of two halves was intended to be that way to help highlight just what this trench war was and on that front it succeeds admirably. King Vidor knew what he was doing when it came to spectacle and the second half of this film is about as spectacular as the era got. It's amazing viewing and utterly justifies the status of this film in cinematic history. Unfortunately to get to it you have to get through the first half, which doesn't do anything of the sort. The first half begins as drama, quickly becomes melodrama and then tired comedy. It isn't consistent as any one thing and I'm surprised I made my way through it to the good stuff.

Re-Cycle (2006)

Directors: The Pang Brothers (Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang)
Star: Angelica Lee

In 2002, Malaysian born actress Angelica Lee starred in The Eye, my favourite Pang Brothers film thus far. I've seen quite a few now, both solo Oxide Pang films made in Thailand and Hong Kong collaborations between the pair who strangely take turns on set rather than sharing it. Most of them came to me courtesy of Sundance Channel's Extreme Asia series, though bizarrely not the one that they've just remade in the States, Bangkok Dangerous. This one was Lee's return to working with the Pangs as she didn't appear in the sequels to The Eye.

Lee plays Tsui Ting-Yin, who as Chu Xun has written three bestselling volumes of a romance series called My Love in three years, one of which has been turned into the Melancholy Romance Film of the Year. At the press conference we learn three critical things. Firstly, she writes primarily from experience, so Yong Lin, the female lead, is effectively her. Secondly, she won't let on who the male lead, Guo Rong by name, is, but she says that he no longer exists. Lastly, and most importantly, she's pissed off with her agent, bizarrely named Abby even though he's male, for announcing her new book before she's even written it.

It's a supernatural story called Recycle. Well, The Recycle say the subtitles, but they're a litle flaky, with lines like 'Could you please not leaving me behind again?' At least it will be, when she writes it, and as she starts to do so things almost immediately take a turn for the weird. She invents Fang Yu-ling, a strange looking, too tall female lead with very long hair, and next thing she walks into the kitchen and finds in her sink... you guessed it, a very long hair. She starts seeing figures in her house, the bath runs itself, she gets strange phone calls, and of course those very long hairs keep turning up. Suddenly the inspiration is palpably all around her, ready for her to write down on the page.

Now, we have no idea what's causing any of this. It could be her imagination starting to kick in after her initial writer's block; it could be her persistent ex-boyfriend who was presumably the inspiration for Guo Rong and who has now got a divorce; or it could be a well meaning fan trying to help her out. After all she did say at her press conference that she wanted to be scared so that she could write better material out of having experienced fear. We even wonder if this is some really strange take on ghost writing, where the ghosts really are doing the writing. And really it easily be any of these things, but then the frights get freakier and we leave reality behind.

She leaves a restaurant only to experience a strange sucking force that pulls her forwards, only to see a red light in the sky blink in disappear, taking the force with it. She pulls her discarded attempts out of the waste paper basket, discovering that they're pointing to a corridor in her apartment block, so she takes the lift down to there only to find an old woman and a girl descending through the floor of the lift. She exits the building into a post apocalyptic city that is very empty until bodies start raining from the sky and ghosts start floating after her.

And these scenes are wonderful because they really are the stuff of nightmare, not just because there are frights here but because it's surreal and bizarre and follows its own scary logic. She ends up in a broken down carnival talking to a man who gives her pages from her own book. It would seem that she's tapped into a place to which the abandoned things go to live on quietly until creators bring them back to life. This is the process of recycling and it's what wipes things out of the world of the forgotten.

It's a dangerous Neverending Story sort of place where things erode and may just take you with them, a live action Miyazaki anime with its little heroine to help guide her to the Transit, a Lord of the Rings world where every turn of the quest is in a different style of landscape, a fairy tale land where people have to follow bizarre rules or else. There are so many fantasy worlds built into this it's hard to keep track of them all, appropriately of course for a story about recycling ideas: a little Silverlock here, a lot of Labyrinth there. Some I don't recognise at all, like the communal womb of aborted foetuses, but put together they're a real trip. And we wonder why we had half an hour of story before we started tripping.

When it comes down to it this is a story about creation and it's a fascinating one, though I'm not sure how we can answer the questions it seems to be asking us. Writers have to create and abandon material all the time and they can't be sentimental about it; however what doesn't fit in one place may be abandoned only to be brought back to life somewhere else. In the end this seems to get caught up a little too much in precisely what it's talking about. How much of this should have been abandoned and how much of what the writers threw away is languishing somewhere waiting for someone to reuse it. Then again how much we can trust an eastern film about creation when it perpetuates the western myth that anyone who writes anything has to use an Apple Mac.

Monday 20 July 2009

The Entertainer (1960)

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Joan Plowright, Roger Livesey, Albert Finney and Alan Bates

Archie Rice, the entertainer of the title, is TV and radio's sauciest comic, or at least so the signs say outside the Alhambra. The passers by don't seem to have heard of him. I'm sure they'd have heard of Sir Laurence Olivier though, who plays him in this adaptation of John Osborne's play, as adapted by Osborne himself with Nigel Kneale. We don't see Archie Rice for a while, working our way through his family instead.

There's granddad, Billy Rice, the head of the family, who Roger Livesey plays in a similar way to how he played Colonel Blimp. He's not very proud of his son, given that he he's just about made it by for years and haves to try harder every single year. Archie's daughter Jean is more proud of him though she doesn't know why he carries on. She's played by Joan Plowright who was 31 to Olivier's 53, though they were married a year later in real life and remained so until his death in 1989. Jean tries to teach lower class kids, something her boyfriend Graham looks down upon.

He looks down on her family too, though he's courteous enough to her brother Mick who's in the forces and leaving for Africa. Maybe it's because he's played by Albert Finney, who disappears from our film surprisingly early. There's also Jean's other brother Frank, in the form of Alan Bates, who works backstage for his dad on his shows. And then, with only Brenda De Banzie as his beleaguered and naysaying wife Phoebe left for us to meet, we finally see Archie, on stage at the Bradford Alhambra, where I saw Metallica and Anthrax and Tangerine Dream, though here it's doubling for some music hall in Morecambe.

They weren't doing what Archie Rice is doing, needless to say. He's an old school vaudeville performer who tells jokes, tap dances and sings saucy songs. He's good at what he does but he's hardly a success. He works hard, he never quits and he has a knack of making anyone he meets laugh. However he's more and more out of date as time goes by and he's fading as a star. Those passers by don't know who he is, remember? Rice is finding it harder and harder to keep his shows together because nobody wants to put them on any more and he can't find the money to pay his cast.

He has just as much trouble trying to keep his family going, not just because of the lack of income but because he's always chasing after another young piece of skirt. And the older he gets, the younger the skirt. Here he pulls the runner up in the Miss England bathing beauties competition that he ends up hosting, presumably for purely carnal reasons but soon to milk her father out of enough money to finance his next show, with pure optimism that it's even going to happen. Where it's all going to end up is open to question, but he plans to marry this young Miss England runner up, even though he's already married.

I really can't say I enjoyed this film, but I don't think that was the point. In keeping with much of kitchen sink drama era, it's a down to earth picture of real people living and working with all the trials and tribulations that real life has to offer. We can like these characters or not but we can't call them anything special and much of the attraction is in way the Rice family bicker, especially the elder generations, but I can watch bickering a lot closer to home. The only advantage this has is that I can hit pause.

What this film has that kept me fascinated is the acting. While I couldn't care much for the characters, the actors playing them were utterly spot on. Olivier especially is awesome here, unsurprisingly as he's Laurence Olivier, but also because Osborne had written the play specifically for him at his request and he'd originated the role of Archie Rice at the Royal Court. He turned down a fortune from Hollywood to do this, so it must have meant something to him. He was paid the equivalent of $126 a week for the part, as against the quarter of a million bucks that Hollywood had offered him for a single film.

He did it because it's a treat of a part for an actor's actor and he know that absolutely. His performance is a textbook on the art of timing that any budding actor should pay close attention to. Everything he does is a front but that front does precisely what it needs to do at any point in time; and what makes it such genius is we see through it to the real Archie while believing utterly that everyone else in the film can't see anything but front. Olivier was Oscar nominated here, which is utterly appropriate. It took Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry to beat him.

And yet he's far from alone at this level of talent. Joan Plowright is world weary beyond her years; no wonder he fell for her. Brenda De Banzie reprised her role on stage also and so managed to instil a huge depth into it. Roger Livesey was only a year older than Olivier but is utterly believable as his father. Albert Finney has far too little to do and Alan Bates doesn't get too much more, but they're as good as their names suggest. Shirley Anne Field, who plays the bathing beauty went on to be Finney's girl in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the same year. There's also Miriam Karlin a year before The Rag Trade and of all people Thora Hird, unlike anything you'd expect if you've only seen her later.

And underpinning everything is John Osborne's writing, which shines and commands respect, even if we aren't entertained. It's clever stuff, well written and well, why not. The angry young men of English literature, whether novelists or playwrights or screenwriters or any combination of the three, wanted to do something very specific and they succeeded. I can respect them for what they did and I can feel privileged for watching many performances like Olivier's here; Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger and Richard Harris in This Sporting Life spring very much to mind. But do I really want to watch them again? A marathon of kitchen sink dramas would probably lead to suicide.

If I'm brutally honest, this one left me a little drier than the others. I cared a little less. I felt less drained, less impacted and, frankly, less entertained. It was solid and the acting was top notch, but it's fading already and the end credits have only just finished running. I'm going to look back at this one with a lot less admiration as a film than other Tony Richardson fims. I relished The Loved One far more. Tom Jones entertained me more. Look Back in Anger gave me far more of a gut punch. This one's going to feel like an also ran in that company, Olivier notwithstanding.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Paroxismus (1969)

Director: Jesus Franco
Stars: James Darren, Barbara McNair and Maria Rohm

I was an avid reader of English horror magazine The Dark Side from its conception in the late eighties, and it introduced me to a lot of names which were as fascinating as they were elusive. We had to read about these people and their films because in the late eighties and early nineties the BBFC still ruled the show in England, requiring cuts to everything and even banning films outright, somehow always the films I wanted to watch most. So many articles I read spoke to what was being cut or to what was being banned. Companies like Redemption tried to release films only to be shot down by the censors. If it got through, it got through cut.

So like many potential viewers, all I could do was read about it, feel jealous about those zine editors who had connections to get hold of some of this material and try my best to find some of those connections myself. I have a lot of fond memories of trips to obscure fleamarkets to be fleeced by unscrupulous pirates who happened to have got hold of some movie that predated the need for certification by the BBFC or which had been copied and recopied so that it was hardly viewable.

Many of the people I read about were filmmakers rather than actors, most were European and chief among them all seemed to be a man by the name of Jess Franco, born Jesús Franco Manera and who made films under more pseudonyms than could comfortably be imagined. Purely through his prolificity, he seemed to have made something in every exploitation genre there was, often pioneering them. Whatever they were about they almost always included some elements of horror and erotica. Some leaned more to one than the other but these were the omnipresent themes. And now TCM Underground gifts me with one of his most famous films, Paroxismus, released in the States as Venus in Furs.

Our hero is Jimmy Logan, who we first meet digging up his trumpet from the beach on the Black Sea that he'd carefully buried it under, presumably in some quest to find himself. He's James Darren, thirteen years before T J Hooker but six after his last performance as Moondoggie in the Gidget movies. As we meet him he's a lost man trying to find himself. Without his horn, he's not whole. He likens it to a non-musician not having speech, which may explain just how lost he is. He also tells us that he really isn't sure what's real and what isn't. Our task as viewer is to join him in the quest to find out.

It begins with him seeing a woman in the sea as he plays. He chases over in slow motion to pull her out and finds that she's topless with a stab wound in her chest. As he says, she's beautiful even though she's dead, and as he looks somehow he knows her. And so we start leaping around in time because he's confused himself. We meet the rest of the cast of characters at a jetset party where he was playing in the house band. The beautiful dead woman is the mysterious Wanda Reed, played by Maria Rohm. There's Klaus Kinski as a millionaire playboy called Ahmed Kortobawi, Margaret Lee as Olga the fashion photographer and an aging and bloated Dennis Price as an art dealer named Percival Kapp.

And all these people take her from the party, into a bizarre rape scene where she's stripped, molested, whipped and sacrificed. Jimmy has become infatuated with her, so escapes to Rio de Janeiro where he gradually recovers with the aid of a black singer called Rita, played by real life singer Barbara McNair. She helps him back to his music, it's carnival time and life is good. And then in walks Wanda, who he had left dead on the shores of the Black Sea. Immediately he becomes infatuated with her again though he finds that she can't offer any answers to his questions.

And while Jimmy searches for answers and some anchor to focus him into a single place and time, Wanda finds the people from Istanbul, whereupon they promptly end up dead, by natural causes but also the victims of the Venus who visits them in furs. Like Jimmy, we're not sure what's real and what isn't. We don't know if Wanda is really alive or dead, or whether she has a twin or she's a figment of Jimmy's imagination. We don't know if he's sane or not, whether Rio or anything else in the film is a dream. We don't really know anything but we're as hooked as Jimmy in finding out.

This is a fascinating film to watch. It's confusing, to be sure, but it's a hallucinatory mix of editing and hypnotic music that simply can't be ignored. There's hardly a gap in the eclectic soundtrack, which focuses on jazz and world music, making this a collage of imagery with some sort of story behind it rather than a straight forward story being played out on screen. There's a huge amount of editing, making this the sort of film that makes you wonder about technical details like average frame length. Angelo Lotti's camera dances like a snakecharmer and when it stands still the editors take over.

I wondered how James Darren would do in a Jess Franco movie, but he does fine. He's utterly confused about the whole thing but that's precisely the point. Maria Rohm is a gorgeous avatar for the camera, believably hypnotic in the various styles she runs through. Barbara McNair does a fine job as Rita, though she seems a little out of place in a piece of exploitation cinema. Kinski is amazingly controlled, though apparently this temperamental icon who despised directors never had any problems with Franco. Margaret Lee is magnetic to watch and even Price still commands us to watch him.

He always had presence and power but he started the descent into cinematic obscurity early through alcoholism. By the time of his greatest performance in Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949, he was beginning that slide and in the twenty years between that film and this he aged double that, becoming something akin to a bloated cross between Alfred Hitchcock and the aliens in Bad Taste. He looks terrible here and some of the sadness in his eyes is probably because he knows we know it. There's a lot in those eyes.

Really though the actors are secondary here to the imagery, though they're perfect for their parts. This is a hypnotic exploitation joy, perhaps what I've expected from Franco all along but have failed until now to find. I've seen a few here and there, but the last was a triptych of early seventies Francos with Soledad Miranda that I've read so much praise about: Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, which left me dry, and The Devil Came from Akasava, which I was highly disappointed with. Miranda and Ewa Strömberg were highly watchable but as films they lacked plenty. This delivered what those didn't, to my eyes.

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Director: Dalton Trumbo
Stars: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland

Here's one that I've been wating to see for a long, long time. I first came across it as a Metallica fan because their song One was based on it. Actually I should retract that. The story as I remember it is that they apparently wrote it out of their own imaginations, then when it came time to put their debut video together were told about the film, so they got hold of a copy and integrated material from the film with footage of them jamming the song in the studio. It's a great song, a great video and a great story. How believable Metallica's version of how they came to it is utterly open to question.

So I worked backwards as I do. It turned out that I found Dalton Trumbo's novel pretty easily but the film remained elusive until now. I devoured the book in a single sitting. It's a raw and powerful thing, with all the impact of a shot in the gut; a lot of readers have had their opinions shaped merely by reading it, which of course was always Trumbo's intention. Trumbo was a novelist who was a staunch pacifist and Johnny Got His Gun is not his only work that speaks to the concept. He also wrote a novel called The Remarkable Andrew, in which the ghost of Andrew Jackson cautions the US not to get involved in World War II.

He was also a screenwriter, one of the most prominent in Hollywood, but who was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for being a member of the Communist party. For not cooperating with Congress, he served eleven months in a federal penitentiary, and then moved to Mexico with his wife, who had also been blacklisted. However like many he continued to work through fronts and pseudonyms, thus utterly circumventing the whole point of the thing in the first place.

I've always found it fascinating that the US hated what these people stood for so much that they had to banish them from their country, only to then reward them for their work without even realising it. Trumbo won two Oscars during his exile without the Academy knowing it: for The Brave One under a pseudonym and for Roman Holiday through a front. Only years later was acknowledgement given and names corrected. Before he was blacklisted he'd only been nominated, for Kitty Foyle. So the country was so desperate to stop Trumbo speaking that it locked him up and exiled him yet it apparently agreed with what he had to say. Stunning.

He didn't win anything in the States for this film, needless to say, but it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. It's a pretty simple story, as all the best are, and once we've got past all the overt militarism of the credits with their drum rolls and stock footage of wartime leaders, charges and marches, we're treated to the huge explosion that is the direct cause of the point of our film. Joe Banham, played by Timothy Bottoms in his film debut, the same year as The Last Picture Show, is a US soldier, who huddled in a foxhole during World War I, is hit by an incoming shell.

The US Medical Corps retrieve him but can't do anything more than keep him alive because there isn't much of him left. He has no arms and no legs. He has no eyes, no ears, no mouth. Most of his brain is damaged except the medulla oblongata that keeps the blood pumping through his veins. He has become what they term a decerebrated individual and the medics see him 'as unthinking, as unfeeling as the dead until the day he joins them.' They wheel him into a utility closet to keep him away from the gawkers and because he can't tell the difference anyway. But we wouldn't have a story if that was the case.

Our boy Joe wakes up. He can think and he can reason, but he can't communicate. He spends his time analysing what he can feel and trying to turn that sensory feedback into an understanding of his surroundings and give him a virtual picture of his world. When not doing that, he lives in flashbacks and imaginations. The flashbacks revisit the important moments in his life and fill in his back story to us; the imaginations involve him trying to find his place in the world and fathom what he means to it. The two merge on occasion, with surreal effect, probably through the use of sedatives and other drugs, and it isn't surprising to find that Luis Buñuel was involved.

And it's the questions that Joe asks himself that the film asks us too. This is very much a film that deliberately aims to ask us the sort of hard questions that we normally ignore because we don't see them as important as those that we deal with every day. Most obviously, it asks us about war, of course, and pacifism. Trumbo's idealistic views of pacifism can easily be seen in the fact as a kid in Colorado, Joe keeps a number of pets and the cat, rat and baby chicks all live together peacefully, but not all of it is quite so overt. Joe dreams of freakshows and speaks to the difference between freaks created by God and those created by man.

Religion is a central theme, to the degree that Jesus Christ himself appears a few times in Joe's imaginings, in the able form of Donald Sutherland, already a huge star, as one of a number of means that he tries to use to find a direction. The implication, of course is that Jesus is a fictional construct that the rest of us use to find our own way but serves no deeper purpose. It isn't surprising to find that these are the scenes written by Buñuel.

Trumbo also ties religion to politics: not which party to vote for but what structures they should support: things like capitalism and democracy. Trumbo also ties religion and politics together, pointing out in the words of Joe's father, 'for democracy any man would give his only begotten son.' Jason Robards plays his father, in a bizarre role given that he spends the entire film in flashbacks or imaginings, made still more bizarre because even in those flashbacks he spends most of it dead. He's a ghost who helps provide better direction to Joe because he has a stronger connection to his father than to Jesus.

It asks about humanity and what it means. By stripping the central character of everything that we would recognise as human, but then spending the entire film demonstrating his humanity, we can't fail to think about that question too. So it asks us about humanity, about the sanctity of life and death. What makes someone human? Can it be quantified? All those topical ethical issues about the right to live and the right to die are at the heart of this story, written as far back as 1939. There are points here with the utmost poignancy that simply cannot be ignored.

The most fascinating question of all may be the one that Dalton Trumbo never wrote about because of the time he wrote. The source novel aimed to encapsulate all the horror he could imagine of war into a single man, based on a real life incident. Apparently early in the thirties he read an article about the Prince of Wales visiting a man like Joe Bonham in a Canadian hospital for military veterans.

And It's certainly a horrific story, one that only becomes more horrific in memory: it sticks with us and resonates within our minds, helping to shape our own questions of life as we progress through it. Yet what's missing is the horror that the second great war brought us, the one that began two days before Trumbo's novel was first published. If Trumbo saw so much horror in World War I that he felt drawn to write this novel, what must World War II have shown him?

Dick Tracy (1990)

Director: Warren Beatty
Stars: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna

Fifteen years before Sin City, Warren Beatty played with vivid colours to mimic the printed page with his version of Dick Tracy. It isn't as stylish, by a long shot, but it sure looked like it in 1990. Beyond bringing back the old Dick Tracy character to film for the first time since 1947, it did so with the closest anyone had ever seen to the Chester Gould's original six colour comic strip (plus black and white). There's some Tim Burton in here (not just the score by Danny Elfman) but most of it is pretty innovative stuff that people just weren't ready for at the time. If this had been released fifteen years later it would have sparked a franchise. Happily though Beatty threw enough in for it to stand definitively on its own.

In case you didn't know, Dick Tracy is a cop, an effective police detective who is the only thing between the civilised folks and the menagerie of colourful villains with imaginative prosthetics that populate his city. Unfortunately they're still there because he's the only effective police detective on the force and there are a lot of them. At the end of the last film, 43 years earlier, Tracy faced up against Gruesome, played by the most iconic villain of the era, Karloff the Uncanny. Here the chief villain is Big Boy Caprice, but he's only one of 21, count 'em, 21 villains from the comic strip.

He's played by no less a name than Al Pacino, though you wouldn't know it if you had the sound turned down because while he sounds just like Pacino he doesn't look anything like him. He looks more like a demonic version of Crispin Glover. Warren Beatty, the man behind this in a whole slew of ways, hired an unparalleled cast and then slapped more than a little prosthetic makeup on them so they look utterly unlike themselves. As the opening credits run in order of appearance Pacino doesn't show up until page five. Dustin Hoffman makes page six but James Caan and Dick Van Dyke have to wait for seven. Madonna gets lucky and beats all of them, turning on page four with Mandy Patinkin and Paul Sorvino.

Sure enough this is a cast to kill for, and plenty of them get it soon enough. The first thing we see beyond Beatty putting on his yellow trenchcoat and hat is a kid stumbling onto a gangland poker game, and you won't be surprised to find that someone ends up with aces and eights right before Big Boy Caprice drives through the wall and shoots up the place. He even leaves 'Eat Lead Tracy' on the wall in bulletholes. Dick Tracy is at the opera but he has his handy wristphone on so gets to check it all out and still make it back before the fat lady sings.

The style is most of the point here and it does trump the substance. Beatty made sure that everything in the film was made in one of the six colours of the comic strip and those colours are work in blocks all the way down. The hats match the coats, sometimes even the hair, meaning that everyone can be distinguished by their colour, all green, all red, all orange. The cars match, when they're not all black, and so do the buildings and the furnishings and everything else. It all works so well that we just get used to it and we just watch the stars.

And there are so many stars that people as important as Dustin Hoffman get next to nothing to do because there are just too many people sharing the running time. They get a single memorable scene and then they're gone, and that's if they're lucky. Hoffman is certainly memorable as Mumbles because he does precisely that throughout an entire interrogation scene, so unintelligible that Kathy Bates can't type any of it up. He gets a second scene too, which is more than people like Seymour Cassel, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Sorvino, James Caan or Estelle Parsons get.

Really there are five people that get screen time, though I wonder how much more others got in the director's cut, as yet unreleased but a full thirty minutes longer. Glenne Headly is a memorable Tess Trueheart, as true as her name, and she deserves a lot better films than she's been given. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may be the best she's had a decent part in, though I have a soft spot for What's the Worst That Could Happen? Even the kid is a star, of sorts. He's Charlie Korsmo, most recognisable from his next film, What About Bob? but also a presence in Hook and here.

Al Pacino is awesome as Big Boy Caprice, utterly dynamic because he knows he can't act with his face under such heavy makeup so he acts with his voice and body instead, even though he's hunchbacked. He was Oscar nominated for his work, surprising for this type of work but appropriate. Madonna is all over the screen as Breathless Mahoney, even though she often looks more like Jean Harlow playing Edward Scissorhands. She sounds better than I've heard her anywhere else though: If only she'd sung Stephen Sondheim songs like this normally I might have become a fan.

And that leaves Warren Beatty himself, one of the more interesting characters in cinema history who has a habit of doing precisely what he wants or nothing at all. This one is very much his show, as star, producer and director, and he's a good portion of its success. As an actor he's a solid Dick Tracy, able to be the tough guy but willing to look like an idiot when it's appropriate. He's a two dimensional character, but so is almost everyone in the film. This isn't about depth, it's about putting a comic book on screen, and in that Beatty succeeds admirably.

Now I'm watching this because TCM showed it as part of a five film set of Dick Tracy films. They show the four forties films all the time and it gets really frustrating that they don't show the bookends: the original 1937 Dick Tracy, starring Ralph Byrd who returned to the part in 1946 after Morgan Conway took over for a couple of films, and this one. Now they've shown the last Dick Tracy film, hopefully they'll get round to showing the first. Here's to hoping.

Incidentally Dick Tracy is back in the news. Beatty has owned the movie and TV rights since 1985 but has only made this film thus far, even though it was the highest grossing movie of his career. Tribune Media Services has him in court because, as they claim, he has made no productive use of his rights for over a decade thus they should, with their multi-million dollar potential, revert back to them. The case is ongoing and Beatty will be in court within the week. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out, but it looks like it'll begin with him producing and directing a TV special. Maybe there will be a sequel after all.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Dirk Bogarde, Marius Goring and David Oxley

This one was always going to be an interesting one for me. Beyond being a Powell & Pressburger film, it's based on the wartime diaries of W Stanley Moss, and so set in Greece during the Greek fight against Nazi occupation. My grandfather fought in this war, as a major in the Raiding Support Regiment, working behind enemy lines to harrass the enemy in every way possible and drive them out of Greece. The Raiding Support Regiment was a special forces unit only in existence during the war and which has been kept pretty secret ever since, so it's good to see something on film that ties to what he did.

It's not especially close, as my grandfather commanded the RSR in the northern third of Greece and this is set in Crete, off the south of Greece, but it may be about as close as I'll ever get on film to seeing some of the day to day life he lived when he was over there. An early scene rings very true, as Capt W Stanley Moss MC, known as Bill, arrives in Crete and spends an interesting first night amongst his comrades and locals. He doesn't speak Greek so needs everything translating, he's given food but discovers that sheep's eyeballs are a local delicacy and that some soldiers have gone without baths for six months to fit in. Even the goats don't want to sleep with them.

He's here for a mission, of course, and it's a pretty daring one as missions go. Moss is there to work with Maj Patrick Leigh Fermor DSO OBE, a British officer who as we discover from the opening credits, is known to the Cretans and the German Secret Police as Philedem. He knows the terrain, he knows his job and he has the sheer cojones to pull of a job this big: to kidnap Maj-Gen Kreipe, the divisional commander-in-chief of 30,000 Nazi paratroopers stationed on Crete and spirit him away to Cairo to embarrass the Germans.

Moss, the writer of this account, is played by David Oxley, who got his start in a Powell & Pressburger film, albeit a lesser one called The Elusive Pimpernel. A regular of theirs, Marius Goring, is Gen Kreipe, after three highly prominent roles in some of their best pictures, including A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. The only newcomer is Dirk Bogarde as Maj Fermor. It's surprising to realise that this was the only film he made for them, but perhaps he just came along a little late. It's the last Powell & Pressburger movie of them all; Pressburger never directed again and two films later for Powell was Peeping Tom, a film of genius that was seen as something very different at the time.

We're not here for the actors though, as much as they're decent in their roles. Bogarde is most obvious, but the mostly British cast do well as Cretans. Other names you may know include Cyril Cusack, Michael Gough and even, in a small role that calls only for the German language, Christopher Lee. The locations are stunning but they're very much France and Italy rather than Greece. There's no sparkling dialogue, no iconic performances, nothing to really stand out in the memory. It looks good and it sounds OK (with foreign languages admirably spoken as needed without subtitles), but really it's just another film, except for one thing.

The value this film has is in the story that it tells, not the plot but the real story, that speaks to the war in a very matter of fact manner. This isn't a grand star-studded spectacle like The Eagle Has Landed or The Dirty Dozen. It isn't even a patriotic piece of propaganda, though it's very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. There are no heroes or villains. These are simply men doing what they need to do in a time of need, distinguished amateurs as they describe themselves.

For much of the film, we see the English officers and their German prisoner treating each other with respect, though they have precisely nothing else in common at all. It feels like an attempt to portray a wartime mission without delusions of grandeur or sensationalism and that's an admirable aim. It feels utterly English and realistic in tone, as compared to the stylishness of the German films and the grandeur of the American. More modern war films tend to become polemics against the horror of war or simply use it as the backdrop for something else entirely. This one's simply its own thing.

The White Sister (1923)

Director: Henry King
Stars: Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman

I've seen The White Sister before, though not this version. In 1933, Helen Hayes and Clark Gable played the leads and Victor Fleming directed. It wasn't a great choice for Gable and the film reached the heights of mediocrity. Luckily for fans of F Marion Crawford's 1909 novel, it wasn't the first version to be filmed. It first reached the screen in 1915 with Viola Allen and Richard Travers, names that don't resonate down the years to us today. This second version is a much more important affair for a number of reasons.

It was made in 1923 by director Henry King, riding high after Tol'able David two years earlier. It's an independent Inspiration Picture, distributed by Metro, shortly before the studio merger that would create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. It was also shot on location in Italy, two years after the coup that brought Mussolini to power, with desert scenes in Algeria. It stars no less a name than Lillian Gish and introduces a future star by the name of Ronald Colman in his first starring role in the States. He had made eight films in England from The Live Wire in 1917 to 1920's The Black Spider, but all are presumed lost in the Blitz. The only American film he made before this was Handcuffs or Kisses in 1921, but he didn't have a major role.

Lillian Gish is Donna Angela Chiaromonte, second daughter of the Prince Chiaromonte by his second marriage. Her mother is dead and she seems to be her father's favourite, but as we discover later her elder sister, the Marchesa di Mola, born of the Prince's first marriage, hates her with a smouldering passion. It doesn't help that Angela has fallen in love with a soldier by the name of Giovanni Severi and he with her, because he is the only man the Marchesa has ever loved. Soon Giovanni will speak to the Prince and officially ask for her hand in marriage.

Angela is a popular girl. The son of the Count del Ferice is already promised to her and a painter by the name of Filmore Durand is hopelessly in love with her too, so much so that he paints a portrait of her as an unattainable beauty. She looks so shrouded in holiness, as it's suggested by those viewing it, that the title soon becomes obvious: The White Sister, the description of a nun. This is prophetic because before Giovanni can speak with him, the Prince dies in a fall during a hunt and Angela's life is turned upside down.

While Angela mourns over her father's body, the Marchesa burns the will and that simple act is enough to make all the difference. In the absence of a will, the entire estate falls to her, of course, as the eldest child, but it's worse than that for Angela. As the Prince's second marriage was never registered in a civil court, Italian law won't recognise her as a legal child. So her sister destroys her utterly: denying her her name and family and unceremoniously orders her out of her home. In the space of a single day she goes have having everything to having nothing.

Well almost nothing, that is, because the Marchesa can't quite control everything. Angela has two things left to her: the aid of Madame Bernard who takes her into her house and the love of her Giovanni, but he doesn't know where she is. He finds her with only a day remaining before he departs for Africa to lead an army expedition into the desert. She promises to wait for him forever and the day he returns will be their wedding day, but his expedition only gets as far as an oasis where they're promptly massacred by Arab bandits.

And so the final nail is hammered into the coffin of Angela's life. First she goes insane, only to come out of it through the assistance of another of Durand's paintings. Then she visits the memorial erected to Giovanni's doomed expedition, proclaims that 'Death was jealous of me' and promptly becomes a nun. And it's here at the hospital where she works as one of the White Sisters of Santa Giovanna d'Aza, who had nursed her during her illness, and at which his brother is being treated, that Giovanni rediscovers her, having survived the massacre, escaped imprisonment by the bandits and found his way back to Italy.

This is a long melodrama, 2 hours and 23 minutes long, but it's never boring, not least because of an excellent new score by Garth Neustadter, presumably commissioned by TCM. Melodrama is always enhanced by music, and it works especially well in silent film where the music is all we hear, except for the voices we conjure into our minds the way we would when reading a book. The film merely has to put us in a place, literally setting the scene and letting us do the rest. The locations here help immensely, and the players play us like a violin.

Visually, silent film is perfect for the depiction of anguish, as long as the actors are up to the task, and here they're perfect. Lillian Gish was arguably the predominant silent film actress, able to emote through her movements like nobody else. She could shake and convulse and ache so effectively that we could feel her through the screen, and she does so here, which can't have surprised anyone. What's more surprising is that Ronald Colman is able to emote along with her, palpably frustrated and torn. We get nothing less than an eruption of Vesuvius to highlight externally the internal torment going on but we don't need it with Gish and Colman doing their jobs wonderfully.

They're not the only people in the film, of course, though sometimes it's hard to realise that they aren't. Many of them are Italians, who all look the part, but the most notable has to be Gail Kane as the Marchesa di Mola. She can't approach Gish when it comes to the externalisation of internal feelings, and she's not a patch on her co-star when it comes to physical movement under extreme pressure either. Kane overacts when the world kicks her in the teeth, Gish is thrown asunder by the winds of turmoil. Yet somehow Kane is utterly right in earlier scenes where she smoulders under the shadow of her sister. Her mouth seems to be in the wrong place, somehow contorted up to her cheek in her hate.

At the end of the day though, it's Crawford's melodrama, Colman's passion and Gish's anguish that win through this, aided to no small degree by the spectacle that Henry King's production conjures up. This version plays fast and loose with some parts of the novel, which I haven't read, most notably the ending apparently, which goes against the usual Hollywood trend of Hollywood to throw a happy ending onto everything it possibly can. The new material, however much of it there is, works well though and fits the rest of the material. I haven't seen Tol'able David yet, one of Richard Barthelmess's early triumphs, having seen only one Henry King before this: his much later The Song of Bernadette. Having now seen what he can do with a silent picture, I need to seek it out all the more.

Three Wise Girls (1932)

Director: William Beaudine
Stars: Jean Harlow, Mae Clarke and Marie Prevost

When a classic film is based on a story called Blonde Baby, whether you picture Marilyn Monroe or Jean Harlow in the lead depends only on your generation. This one is a 1932 precode, so that answers that question: Marilyn was only six years old so we're watching the original blonde bombshell, not her more famous successor. More importantly it's a rare Jean Harlow that fills another gap for me: I've seen the fifteen films she made after this one so now I'm down to only one post-Platinum Blonde to go. I wonder how many years I'll have to wait for that one.

Here she's playing Cassie Barnes, a small town girl who's struggling with all the usual problems that small town girls suffer with. She lives with her mother, where they get to share the same bed and make do on her meagre earnings, and she keeps losing jobs because her bosses think they can take liberties. However she has an old friend called Gladys, who pulls in $200 a week as a model at Andre's Gowns in New York and sends lots of cool gifts back home to the folks. So naturally off goes Cassie to join her and life is good with Gladys landing her job at Andre's too.

Well life is mostly good. There's one big problem: our heroines have a habit of falling in love with the wrong men. Gladys is besotted with a wrong man called Arthur Phelps. It's bad enough that his wife won't let him get divorced, but what's even worse is that we don't believe a word he says because the first time we meet him he tries it on with Cassie while Gladys is getting ready in another room. And while Gladys warns her against following suit, naturally she promptly follows suit, falling for a wrong man called Jerry Wilson (Jerry Dexter in IMDb, for some reason).

Now Jerry is in precisely the same spot, but it's not quite as simple as the situation that Gladys is in. She says that when they're rich and handsome and you're in love with them, they're always married, and it's true here, but unlike her wrong man Cassie's wrong man can get a divorce. He does too but this wasn't ever meant to be a simple love story, so we get a whole bunch of misconceptions, shouting matches and turned backs before we get to our finale, and being a precode it isn't going to be a happy ending for everyone.

It's obvious that the script was written by a woman because of all the little touches, which gifts the third name in the film most. Marie Prevost always plays a bubbly character that underpins the leads and she was great at it. Here she's even better than usual because she's given little gems of dialogue that mean nothing on their own but add up to a real treat when put together. The second name is Mae Clarke, playing Gladys Kane, who acts circles round Jean Harlow but is still not as interesting to watch.

There was something about Jean Harlow and it's hard to describe what it is. In the earliest film of hers that I've seen, 1930's Hell's Angels, she was frankly terrible, but she progressed up through The Secret Six and The Public Enemy to Platinum Blonde, where she utterly caught the moment. By the time she got to Red Dust in 1932 she ruled the screen, but it took her much of her career to really learn how to act. Her best films are really the last ones, films like Libeled Lady and Saratoga where she was up to the standard of her co-stars.

It's fascinating to watch her learn and progress and build her skills. Here she still can't act but her voice is mostly there. It's like she'd learned how to speak her lines with the right intonation and the right inflection but was concentrating so much that she couldn't make her face act at the same time. But even while she learns she was magnetic to the eye. It's hard to look at anyone else in a Jean Harlow film, because there's something that commands you to watch her. Perhaps it's her unpredictability, perhaps her charisma. Whatever it is it was there from the beginning and it never left her, even as she learned to act.

The film itself is not that bad but it's not that great. Jean Harlow struts her stuff while Mae Clarke anchors her and Marie Prevost makes us laugh. The men aren't much to write home about: Jameson Thomas is suitably sleazy as Arthur Phelps and Walter Byron does a fair job at decency as Jerry Wilson. Andy Devine is almost unrecognisable as Wilson's chauffeur until he opens his mouth and then, of course, it couldn't be anyone else. The story is there to let them do their thing and little more, and it's a little confusing at points. I must have blinked when Cassie moved to New York and it took me a little while to work out that she was there. It looks OK, it sounds OK and well, it's just OK.

Friday 17 July 2009

Final Edition (1932)

Director: Howard Higgin
Stars: Pat O'Brien and Mae Clarke

The Front Page was the definitive newspaper film for the sound era and Pat O'Brien and Mae Clarke both contributed in no small part to its success. So it's no surprise to find them both, among others like James Donlan and Phil Tead, back a year later for Final Edition. O'Brien as Sam Bradshaw, the editor of the Daily Bulletin, and Clarke a sassy reporter he's hot for called Anne Woodman. And while the pair of them obviously have a history that we don't know too much about, up to and including a proposal of marriage and the inevitable firing first time we meet her, they have bigger fish to fry. There's a really big story to report on.

There's a new police commissioner in town, Jim Conroy by name, and he's an honest man with a mission. He know who's running the underworld and he has them promptly brought into his office to calmly and politely hurl accusations at them. He's confident he has proof that could put prominent lawyer Neil Selby behind bars for being the kingpin, and his lieutenants too, Sid Malvern and Patsy King. The catch is that he's so confident in what he has and the crooks are so confident in his confidence that they promptly rub him out.

And so the the Daily Bulletin gets to investigate, with our intrepid reporter Anne (or Ann when she signs telegrams) doing the top notch job nobody else seems able to do. Naturally she lands her stories with a deceptive ease, not just keeping on the trail of the elusive Sid Malvern but ingratiating herself into his company. And of course she infuriates her boss like nobody's business. You can't have a good newspaper story without the ace reporter getting fired every five minutes and threatening to go to the Record instead!

Last time I watched a Mae Clarke movie I wondered if she could ever be the memorable thing about a movie because she has a knack of being in great ones but also being outshone by her co-stars, whether they be Karloff the Uncanny or Edna May Oliver or even Jimmy Cagney and a grapefruit. Here she shines brighter than she did in the others and does a good job of keeping up with Pat O'Brien who is a better reporter than an editor, though he could do anything remotely fast paced without even blinking. She's still not the dynamic attention getter that she should be but she's fun to watch.

While Mary Doran has fun here as what really works out to be the precode equivalent of a crack whore, the real third name here is Bradley Page, who plays Sid Malvern. I saw him recently in another precode, 1932's Attorney for the Defense, and he was a decent weasel of a petty crook made good. Here, in his first credited role after a bit part in the Gable movie Sporting Blood, he's even better. He's a crook working for someone else but he's not petty in the slightest and he seems far more capable and competent, not to mention romantically sleazy, than his boss, the kingpin, played woodenly by Morgan Wallace.

I've seen a few of Page's precodes without realising it, such as The Wet Parade and Central Airport, in which he shared an uncredited status with no less a name than John Wayne. He continued in Hollywood until 1943 in a string of obvious B movies, from Shadows of Sing Sing to Hell Bent for Love, from Red Hot Tires to Chinatown Squad, from The Outcasts of Poker Flat to The Law West of Tombstone. It will be interesting to see how he developed over the years.

The film itself is a fun romp but it's totally inconsequential, just another watered down newspaper yarn. The best ones are the fastest ones, where the talk never stops and there's a dynamic lead to blitz his or her way through the big story. O'Brien was a great reporter, and so were Cagney and Gable and best of all, Lee Tracy, who was unbeatable as the fast talking newspaperman. Mae Clarke is fun to watch here partly because she's Mae Clarke and partly because she's a girl so brings something different to the formula. Bonita Granville was better in the Torchy Blane movies but I guess Clarke was there first.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Sophie's Choice (1982)

Director: Alan J Pakula
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol

This one was always going to seem a little weird. It has the reputation of being a serious film: after all, it's about a concentration camp survivor. How frivolous could it be? I've been watching early Meryl Streep movies lately, working my way through Kramer vs Kramer and The French Lieutenant's Woman, so this is a logical next step. Yet while she's the title character and who everyone talks about with regards to this film, she's only one of three names to appear before the title. The other two, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol, just don't seem to fit, though perhaps that's mostly because I watched A Fish Called Wanda last night.

Kline was hardly new in 1982, as he'd already won two Tony awards but this was the first time that anyone had seen him on screen. Technically he made the screen adaptation of his Broadway hit The Pirates of Penzance first but that wasn't released until after this film. What surprised me most was just how similar his role is here, at least initially, to Otto the psychopath from A Fish Called Wanda six years later. Nathan Landau, Sophie's boyfriend, doesn't eat fish, collect weapons or stick chips up people's noses, but he's crazy in many of the same ways. The difference, of course, is that Nathan isn't crazy all the time.

From an initial scene that marks him as an angry and volatile boyfriend, he rapidly gains our sympathy because as we soon discover, he's the salvation of our heroine, Sophie Zawistowski. He isn't her first salvation, given that she's already survived Auschwitz, the murder of her husband and her father by the Nazis and a suicide attempt to boot, while dealing with survivor guilt; but six months after she finds her way to the States and collapses in a public library, he saves her from anaemia and becomes her very close friend. He seems to be very good for her indeed but there's depth and complexity to their relationship.

He definitely has a dark side, a highly abusive and dangerous dark side. He's a Jew, though Sophie is not; she was apparently sent to the camps for being a Polish Catholic. He seems to love her for who she is, but he hates her for surviving when six million of his race didn't. He has mood swings that are palpable. He and Sophie both are characters with many layers, that we gradually unpeel as the film goes on but which they don't unpeel to each other. There are things that they just do not speak of and there are things that they cloak in lies and silence.

And into our film comes a third character, played by Peter MacNicol in his second film. He's Stingo, a writer from the South who wanders his way north to New York where he ends up in a pink apartment in Brooklyn right under Sophie's room, quickly becoming a huge part of her life and, by extension, of Nathan's. Soon the three of them do everything together, but as we discover, this is but the surface and there's a lot going on unseen beneath it. Eventually it's to Stingo that their stories are related, Sophie's by herself and Nathan's by his brother. They are both broken people living as much as they can, and it's through Stingo, the writer, that we discover who they really are.

This is some seriously powerful material to throw at actors new to the game. Meryl Streep was the veteran, appearing in only her eighth film, but with ability well beyond her years. She'd made something of an impact in her few years in the industry, with one Academy Award and two further nominations. Here she consolidated her reputation as the great actress of the modern day by giving what many call the greatest performance of her career. It's a dream part for an actress, spanning decades, two countries and a notable change in weight. It also required not just the ability to speak English with a Polish accent but also to speak Polish and German. There are a slew of scenes in Auschwitz where we don't hear a single word of English.

Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol take a little getting used to, because I know them so much from films so utterly unlike this one. While there's a lot of Otto from A Fish Called Wanda in Nathan Landau, there's nothing in Stingo that I recognise from Janosz in Ghostbusters II or Dr Larry Fleinhart from Numb3rs. MacNicol is from Dallas, TX, which surprised me given what I'm used to him sounding like, but he manages a decent southern accent. Kline sounds like what I expect him to sound like. But they were new to film, untried talents who had yet to prove themselves. That wasn't something that could be said after people saw this film, however much Meryl Streep's towering performance overshadows everything else in it.

It really is a gem of the modern cinema, something not easily forgotten and something worthy of whatever accolades it receives. The Oscars are full of winners whose wins are easily argued, some more than others and some are difficult to justify, from Cimarron to Titanic. But when someone wins and nobody complains, like Meryl Streep for Kramer vs Kramer and then she promptly turns in a performance that dwarfs it, we can't help but realise how great it is. There is no comparison between her work here and anything else I've seen her in.

This isn't quite what I expected, but I was stunned. The story is a multi-layered creature that we gradually unpeel as the film goes on, each layer of which poses serious questions, not just about where the film is going but where its taking its characters and where it has already taken them. Some of the story unfolds with a light heart but when the weight kicks in, it's a heavy and palpable thing. It can't be ignored. The acting is universally excellent, anchored by Meryl Streep's performance, and the filmmaking is up to backing them up.