Wednesday 30 September 2009

Mama Behave (1926)

Director: Leo McCarey
Star: Charley Chase
I have no idea how to dance the Charleston, which if this film is anything to go by would have made me a worthless husband in 1926. Charley Chase would appear to be one too, because he can't dance the Charleston without falling over, but he's just fooling to get away from taking his wife out every night of the week, a demand she'd be happy to impose if she thought it would be worth it. In reality he's positively as light as the breeze on his feet, because the successful silent comedian just had to be. Fortunately he has a twin brother, distinguishable to the eye only by the addition of a fancy suit and the removal of a pair of glasses, and brother Jim can dance!

So after Charley's butler overhears a comment his wife lets slip to her friend Miss D'Arcy while he's within earshot, Charley dresses himself up as his brother Jim to sneak her out for an evening of dancing at the Cafe Riskae. What a great opportunity to surreptitiously find out whatever he can about his dear wife. Of course, being a silent comedy, this doesn't quite go as well as he might have hoped. There are some genuinely funny scenes as Charley, in the guise of Jim, tries his utmost to seduce 'his brother's wife', scenes that turn into overblown spoofs of silent horror movies.

Mildred Harris, who plays Charley's wife, has an aptly named character. She's Lolita Chase, apt because she's possibly best known as the first Mrs Charlie Chaplin, marrying him at the age of 17 when he was 29. They were divorced five years before this film. Her other chief claim to fame was to introduce Wallis Simpson to the future King Edward VIII when still the Prince of Wales, a powerful anecdote in conversation but perhaps a little unfair given her long career in film. Vivien Oakland is the delightful Miss D'Arcy, Lolita's best friend who lives across the hall and ends up falling for Jim, or at least she thinks so. This was only a couple of years into her real screen career, discounting a single appearance back in 1915, but she'd go on to five decades of films, all the way into the fifties.

As a Charley Chase short, this one's a good one, certainly better than The Uneasy Three. The gags are funnier, the sets better and the choreography more astute. In short, it's much more professionally put together and it stands the test of time, raising laughs over eighty years after it was made. One day I'll get to sit down and watch a slew of Chase films in order to see how he progressed and whether the gems are just dotted here and there because they were due entirely to the law of averages or to whether he had distinguishable peaks and troughs in his career. This makes 28 of his pictures for me, but that's still a drop in the ocean: IMDb credits him with appearances in 277 films.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

The Uneasy Three (1925)

Director: Leo McCarey
Star: Charley Chase
Basing its title on the Lon Chaney/Tod Browning feature of 1925 called The Unholy Three, this is a Charley Chase comedy short for Hal Roach Studios that spoofed the Browning formula: crooks seeking expensive jewels but seeing the error of their ways in the finale. It only really resembles The Unholy Three in two other ways, in the fact that there are three crooks and that Bull Montana, an unlikely screen name for an Italian actor, actually looks a little like Chaney. That certainly doesn't hurt proceedings.

The valuable jewellery here is the famous Kadir brooch, which Mrs Van Courtland has brought back from Europe as a gift for her daughter's birthday. It's a gaudy thing but naturally it's priceless so Mrs Courtland hires a private detective to take care of it. You'd have thought the best way to protect it was to keep it away from a silent comedy short but Mrs Courtland hasn't thought that far ahead, so she has to contend instead with inept crook Charley Chase, whose show this is, however much Bull Montana's antics with a toddler attempt to outstage him to we viewers watching from a child safe future era.

He has help of course, given that he leads the Uneasy Three, not just Bull Montana but the lovely Katherine Grant too as his moll. Grant, Miss Los Angeles of 1922, managed to pack in 49 shorts in a surprisingly brief five year career, and I've seen a surprising number: not just Chase shorts like Innocent Husbands, The Caretaker's Daughter and What Price Goofy? but also solo Stan Laurel pictures like Oranges and Lemons. Montana made surprisingly few films for the silent era, a mere 84 over a full two decades, but he had a habit of making it into the big ones, things like Treasure Island, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Lost World.

Anyway, the crooked crew start casing the joint only to be chased off by the private dick, played by the prolific Fred Kelsey, but as luck would have it, they literally run into another car, which conveniently contains the Metropolitan Trio on their way to entertain at the Courtland's party. This is a 22 minute short, after all, and we don't have much time to build up stories. Needless to say, they commit an early version of identity theft to get into the house, only to flounder round like any self respecting inept crooks trying to find the brooch. Their chief adversary isn't Kelsey but an uncredited toddler who apparently swallows the brooch and steals a number of scenes. I could swear I recognise it too but I can't place the face.

Chase was never a huge star but he was a star nonetheless and it's easy to see why. He was a capable comedian, one who could always raise a chuckle if not amaze us and leave us in stitches like the big three slapstick comedians of the era. His best silent comedies, such as Mighty Like a Moose, are well worth seeing, and most were made for capable director Leo McCarey, who went on to a top notch career in the sound era. Inevitably with such a prolific schedule of filmmaking, there are as many duds as hits but he's always worth watching. This one falls in the middle, not a dud and not a hit but not a bad way to spend twenty minutes of your time.

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, José Ferrer, Julie Hagerty, Tony Roberts and Mary Steenburgen
It's been too long since I've seen a Woody Allen movie, that paradigm of neurosis who initially drove me batty but eventually won me over with his style. This is a gap filler for me, meaning that I've now seen everything from moment one with his 1966 redubbing of Senkichi Taniguchi's Key of Keys into What's Up, Tiger Lily?, all the way up to Radio Days in 1987, with one sole exception. One day I'll find his most elusive film, a 25 minute PBS special from 1971 called Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story that Henry Kissinger, the obvious influence, had pulled from broadcast.

TCM's Robert Osborne nailed this one with his highlighting two extremely diverse influences of Allen as the basis for the film: Ingmar Bergman and Groucho Marx. If you can imagine a film made by that pair, this could well be it: loosely influenced by Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, there are no Counts and Countesses here, instead being replaced by eccentric inventor Andrew attempting to take flight with a pair of homemade wings. Needless to say he's played by Woody Allen, and he actually has more success than you'd think. His helicopter bicycle gadget works surprisingly well and he managed to land Mary Steenburgen as a wife, even though she's called Adrian.

They're far from the only stars in the film, which focuses around a weekend at Andrew and Adrian's with two couples as guests. Professor Leopold Sturges, Adrian's cousin, brings his fiancée Ariel who he'll marry the next day. He's a vast intellect who has a habit of demonstrating it. 'I did not create the cosmos,' he tells his students, 'I merely explain it,' and in the form and voice of José Ferrer you can believe it. Ariel is Mia Farrow, a lovely young thing who Andrew had once brought back to his house years ago and still regrets not acting on his animal lust. Tony Roberts is Dr Maxwell Jordan, who gets over having to work with tumours and brain damage by seducing every woman he can find. In the absence of anyone else, he brings his new nurse Dulcy, played by Julie Hagerty, whose only been with him for five days.

The whole point is encapsulated by the title. Everyone seems to want to sleep with everyone else, though given that this is set way back in the day we do at least keep it across the sexes. There's no Gene Wilder and a sheep here. Andrew still lusts after Ariel, but now Maxwell has fallen in love with her too; Leopold wants to end his bachelorhood with Dulcy in the woods; and Adrian wants her anatomical knowledge to learn how to please her husband in bed as they haven't successfully slept together in six months. Beyond the gags, which of course pepper the entire story like buckshot, the comedy is in trying to work out who's going to end up with whom.

When it comes to Woody Allen movies from the eighties, it's often difficult to write a review. The cast are top notch, but they always were. The script is top notch, but it always was. There are quotable gags littered throughout, but merely quoting them is a cop out. Anyway, much of the genius is in the delivery and the repartee, and I could never put that over by throwing a line or two into this paragraph. Allen is far less neurotic than usual, far more an equal player in the story and a fine foil for Roberts, Farrow and Steenburgen. This was the first of nine films he would make with Mia Farrow as an actor and the first of thirteen as her director. It's easy to see him as an egotist, given that he writes all his films and generally stars in them too, but he's actually a pretty modest actor who spends much of his performance giving opportunities to the others in his scenes. In fact nobody really gets time to themselves here, almost everything being about interaction, but then it is a sex comedy, after all.

Surprisingly what leapt out most here, given such wonderful interaction, is the cinematography by Gordon Willis. Andrew's house is out in the countryside, which is emphasised as a character all of its own. There's deliberate use of magic here in Andrew's spirit ball and there's suggestion that the countryside is the magic that puts the spark in both romance and sex comedy. There are scenes that just flit from one countryside vista to another, with all sorts of fluffy animals leaping about demonstrating how alive the place is, and frequent long shots too, so long that the characters are dwarfed by their surroundings, again emphasising that they merely pick up on the magic around them, they don't bring it. Whatever the reason, this does feel like one of the more magical Woody Allen films, however fluffy it may be. His next two films, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, are certainly better, both up there with his best work, but neither are anywhere near as magical.

Monday 28 September 2009

Blind Terror (1971)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Star: Mia Farrow
Our protagonist watches double bills like The Convent Murders and Rapist Cult, which sounds promising, though given that we're in Wokingham I'm pretty sure the BBFC would have cut the crap out of them if they were real films. Ever watched a porn movie with the sex cut out? That's what the BBFC tended to do to movies. So maybe the frustration of watching a couple of lurid movies with everything lurid cut out is what turns him into a psycho nutjob. That really isn't a spoiler, by the way, because this is a psycho nutjob movie. Our psycho nutjob wears brown cowboy boots with a lone star on the front, he snaps his fingers when he's walking down the street and he reads porn in the pub, but we don't see who he is. We just see those boots a-walkin'.

He also seems to have a vendetta against Sarah, the heroine of our story, who is played by Mia Farrow. It starts with dumb things like standing in front of her uncle George's car as he picks her up from the train station, or keying the side of the car later when George has taken his wife Betty into town to pick up groceries. George and Betty Rexton are pretty well to do judging from their large house with its large grounds and the servants they keep around to take care of things. I don't just mean large, I mean really large, country manor large and lavishly furnished too. It's called Manor Farm and that seems highly appropriate.

Sarah, who has travelled to Wokingham to stay with them, can't see any of this though, as she's blind, making both titles of the film a pun: it was called Blind Terror in the UK where it was made and See No Evil in the US. She wasn't born blind, having lost her sight in a horseriding accident, so she knows the house pretty well and they've left it much as she remembers it, so she can get around pretty well. She's game too, not wanting to be a burden to anyone, so she fumbles around as best she can doing as much as she possibly can. She does pretty well too, just as Mia Farrow does pretty well at making us believe she's a blind go getter.

What she can't possibly notice though is that when she gets up early one morning, the house isn't quiet because everyone else is asleep, it's because they're dead. Our psycho nutjob has murdered them all: the Rextons, the servants, everyone but Sarah. She finds out eventually, of course, given that the killer left George in the bath she uses too. She also finds Barker, the stable boy, just before he dies from his wounds, which is how she ends up with the bracelet that the killer accidentally left behind. From then it's a cat and mouse game, well constructed and happy to go about its business slowly but surely, without the need for undue theatrics. After all, a blind girl being stalked by a mad killer has inherent theatrics.
The film was a British production, which is apparent throughout: shot in Berkshire, with a English cast and crew, some of whom I recognise from British television, like Paul Nicholas and Michael Elphick. It was financed by American money, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, but surprisingly the only American presences are the star and the director, the latter being Richard Fleischer, a versatile filmmaker probably best known for his science fiction films. He made Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green and the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. With horror thrillers like Compulsion, The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place behind him, not to mention this one, his genre credentials would be impeccable, but he went on to cement them with some late entries in his filmography like Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja.

Everyone else is British, not least the writer Brian Clemens, whose script really stamps the tone on the film. He's a perennial name on well established British TV series, turning out episode after episode of titles like The Professionals, The Avengers or The Protectors, even as far back as Danger Man. His many films didn't really compare in quality, or at least in lasting presence, but they did include a few notable titles like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter, the latter of which he also directed. Then again the fact that he contributed to Highlander II: The Quickening alone wipes out the top half of his career output all on its own just to restore some balance.

I'm guessing it was Clemens who was most responsible for the restraint here, which is admirable and powerful. In fact the power of the film, Farrow's excellent performance aside, really comes from the restraint shown throughout. We don't see who the killer is until the finale and we don't see him commit his crimes. We don't see any gruesome murders and in fact we're kept in the dark almost as long as Sarah. We come upon the victims almost as asides, sitting in chairs or lying on beds, as the camera pans across the room to follow Sarah. When we discover the identity of the killer when he isn't even on screen with most of the rest of the cast, only to realise where he must be. It really is textbook writing, aided by decent editing and cinematography.

Blind Terror may not make it to the top tier of thrillers, but it holds its own in the next tier down; those solid, very watchable films that succeeded despite the lack of star power, money and advertising that tend to get thrown at the greats. It stands up nearly forty years later as a tense, sure ride that I'd be happy to come back to again in the future.

Gold is Where You Find It (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: George Brent, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Margaret Lindsay
Having just watched a Michael Curtiz film that didn't really engage, the odds of seeing another one are slim, Curtiz being one of the most reliable workhorses Hollywood ever had. This one is a much more lavish affair than Stolen Holiday, made in Technicolor for a start, even though it's 1938. It hasn't aged too well technically, because the colour process makes it seem a little blurry and the dialogue is a little too easily lost in the mix. The opening narrative segment doesn't help either, being helpful but done in an old school rapid fire newsreel style. It points out that while we're in California seeking gold, we're not in the gold rush of 1849 but the later days of 1877, when it's done by companies with serious machinery.

What we're watching is a Californian conflict. One on side are these important companies with their power and influence, who hollow out the mountains above Sacramento with their high powered hoses to extract the gold within. On the other are the farmers who own the wheat fields below those mountains, who are on the receiving end of the deluge of water and muck from the gold companies above that pollute their wells and wash out their fields. Spanning the two worlds is newcomer Jared Whitney.

He's come to California to be a mining superintendent at the Golden Moon Mine at Tenspot, mushroom mining town above the quiet Sacramento Valley. He ends up tied up with the Ferris family who run a large ranch in that very valley. He meets them by saving young drunken idiot Lance Ferris from doing something dumb in a bar, but stays with them because he falls for Lance's younger sister Serena, also known as Sprat. Needless to say, this doesn't make her father happy, Col Chris Ferris, who is one of the most respected farmers in California and their voice in society.

Whitney is George Brent, who heads a pretty impressive cast. While I've seen him later than this, I don't think I've ever seen him in colour before and it looks wrong somehow. He was from a different era, the black and white era and he doesn't look right outside of it; even though his final film, the aptly titled Born Again, was released in 1978, that was a full 22 years after his previous one. He holds his own here, being an able and experienced lead and a very well spoken one. However it doesn't help that he was 39 and his romantic interest here was 22 and playing 17. Maybe Errol Flynn would have been more appropriate, especially given his connection to many of the cast.

That romantic interest is Olivia de Havilland, who looks as at home in colour as Brent doesn't, probably because she appeared in what seems like every great early Technicolor film Hollywood made. She went from this to The Adventures of Robin Hood and a year later she'd make both The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and, of course, Gone with the Wind. She's one of the best things about this film, not just a capable love interest but a forward thinker too, a society lady and a working woman. She gets plenty of screen time and she makes the most of it. Sprat Ferris is so much better a role than Melanie Wilkes that it's almost unreal.

There's a serious cast to back them up. Col Ferris is Claude Rains, looking as old as I've ever seen him in silver hair and Technicolor. His voice of authority over the farming community is powerful; he's precisely who we'd choose to represent us if we were farmers facing ruin. His family is entirely recognisable. Son Lance is Tim Holt, still new here but with only a year to go to Stagecoach. His brother Ralph is John Litel and his wife Rosanne is Margaret Lindsay, who also seems a little strange in colour too but its just another facet to her appeal, to go with her instantly recognisable and melodious voice.

Lindsay's father, Harrison McCooey, the arch villain of the piece who runs the mining company, is Sidney Toler, playing a white man, for a change. His foreman at Golden Moon Mine is a deliciously ruthless Barton MacLane. Backing them up are recognisable names like Gabby Hayes, Harry Davenport, Willie Best, Moroni Olsen and Marcia Ralston. The cast is universally solid and they get some good material to work with. I particularly liked the offhand remarks to place historical context. We're told in conversational asides about strange new inventions from Bell and Edison, and at a party, George Hearst, United States Senator, dismisses his son Willie's attempts to move into newspapers. Nobody's going to make money in newspapers, he suggests, though with hindsight we realise that William Randolph Hearst did pretty well at it.

There are problems with the story though, as this Technicolor film is black and white at heart: the good guys are good and the bad guys bad, with only Jared Whitney spanning the gap between the two. There's so much thrown in here that this rare mix of a whole slew of genres inevitably ends up a little unsure at what it really wants to be. It's a historical drama about the clash between two old industries and the growth of a new one; it's a western, of course, because of the setting and because of a conflict that turns physical; it's a love story between Jared and Sprat; it veers off at points into a courtroom drama and a thriller and there's even a special effects finale. Throwing all this into little over an hour and a half is a little ambitious and it does deliver pretty well but nowhere near the heights that its ambition aimed for. Maybe at twice the length with more background and depth it could try a little more at the shades of grey that were so sadly lacking. Maybe then it couldn't have been shot in Technicolor.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Stolen Holiday (1937)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Kay Francis, Claude Rains and Ian Hunter
Opening with the standard disclaimer that this is a story of fiction yaddah yaddah yaddah, it's really based on a true story, that of Serge Alexandre Stavisky. It never ceases to amaze me that golden era Hollywood had a habit of making utter fiction out of fact, but never being honest enough to admit it. This loose adaptation is at least honest up front. It's also apparently a woman's picture, as highlighted by the fact that it's Kay Francis's name above the title, co-stars Claude Rains and Ian Hunter. It never ceases to amaze me how often that happened at Warner Brothers, even though history has told us that real women's parts were so few and far between, Hollywood being reserved mostly for the men.

It's 1931 and we're in Paris for the Delphine Summer Fashion Show, where Francis is a model apparently trying to show us how masculine she can be. With her lack of bust and a deliberately mannish haircut, she looks more like Servalan from Blake's 7. She's picked out of a lineup by Stefan Orloff because of her air of confidence though, ostensibly to model for a lady who is sick and so can't come to the salon. There is no such woman though, as she soon finds out. As she suggests, he's cwooked and his story is vewy fantastic. He merely has 500 francs and a whole heap of ambition. What he needs is her confidence to match his own and prop up his confidence games.

Sure enough, they grow in importance as five years whizzes by, until she's running the Maison Picot, a premier Paris fashion house, and he's running investment brokerages, strings of pawnbrokers and benefit events for crippled children. How much is built on a sound foundation and how much on sand is hard to tell, but it would seem to be biased towards the latter, with Orloff constantly building a new scam to firm up the failings of the last one. Everything escalates, though Orloff is never fearful of building his scams higher.

Picot doesn't seem to be actively involved in any way other than knowingly lending an air of respectability to Orloff's shenanigans, but that's still involved, however unwittingly. Also involved to a similar extent is Suzanne, Picot's assistant, played by the joyous Alison Skipworth who sounds more like Edward G Robinson than ever. She tells fortunes with cards and knows from moment one that Orloff is the King of Spades. She also knows that when Tony Wayne enters the picture in the romantic form of Ian Hunter and captures Picot's attention that he's the Jack of Hearts. The symbolism is hardly opaque.

Stolen Holiday is an interesting story, which builds slowly but surely, but it contains no surprises and will be easily forgettable. Orloff's empire is a house of cards and it inevitably begins to tumble, card by card, prompting him to enact countermeasure after countermeasure, which only get lower as time goes by. Rains plays Orloff as a villain but not an overt one, merely a charming one with no scruples, someone you'd like to know and hang out with but never trust. Unsurprisingly he's spot on.

Francis is decent in the lead, though she can't carry many of the more fashionable dresses that Mme Picot is naturally seen in. Hunter is a worthy romantic lead but we get to see far too little of him. There are worthy supporting actors like Walter Kingsford and Charles Halton to prop up the story but they're infrequent too, never being given much of a chance to be anything except another card in Orloff's house. Skipworth may just be the best of the bunch as Nicky's knowing assistant, but while there's naturally more of her than anyone else, not being a small lady, there's far too little of Suzanne which is not a good thing. She could have been the narrator from the inside.

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

Director: William Keighley
Stars: Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Henry Stephenson, Barton MacLane and The Mauch Brothers
As if to counter Hollywood's preponderance for massacring history, this story begins with this disclaimer: 'It may have happened. It may not have happened. But it could have happened.' If only most Hollywood historical pictures carried the same disclaimer. Many could well have benefitted from those words. The story is courtesy of Mark Twain, via a screenplay by Laird Doyle, who died before the film was released. The film's release was delayed from 1936 to 1937 to coincide with the coronation of King George VI, premiering four days before that event.

We're in London in 1537 and two boys are being born. One is the son of a king, Jane Seymour finally providing Henry VIII with an heir, the future Edward VI. The other is at the other end of the social scale, an urchin born to a beggar in the slums known as the Offal Court, Tom Canty by name. They meet ten years later. Young Tom has found his way into the grounds of the palace past napping guards to hide from the rain under a stone bench, only to be hauled out by the palace guard. The young prince discovered the resulting affray by leaving quarters via a secret passage and promptly sneaks him in to play with him.

Of course they discover that they look notably alike, something apparently hidden previously by the dirt, their respective clothes and the fact that there can't be too many mirrors around. It's helped by the fact that they're played by the Mauch brothers, Billy and Bobby, who I know best from the Penrod and Sam movies, instead of the original choice of using Freddie Bartholomew from David Copperfield in a double role, presumably using dubious early split screen technology. Bobby is Prince Edward and his screen father here is Montagu Love, who looks fine as Henry VIII when dressed and dining, but perhaps a little less convincing on his deathbed. Billy, as Tom Canty, gets a suitably thuggish father in Barton MacLane, who is a thoroughly believable lout.
Of course you can see the potential for confusion here, and it does provide the key to our story. The prince sneaks back out via his secret passage to fetch his dog and the palace guard promptly send him packing. So in the morning, when Tom wakes up in the palace, he's Prince Edward, and only a day later he's King Edward VI of England, albeit an apparently addlepated one who thinks he's a beggar. And so the intrigue begins, aided by a number of Hollywood greats, often fortunately ones who have believable English accents, some even through being English.

Claude Rains, born in London, is the Earl of Hertford, a suitably conniving soul who King Henry calls a 'palace rat'. The initial intrigue is to ensure that he can become Lord Protector to Edward VI, instead of the Duke of Norfolk, played by Henry Stephenson, born in the British West Indies. Hertford is the only one at the palace who ends up believing the beggar story and he naturally uses it for his own nefarious ends. Rains was a great villain, something he didn't play often enough, and he doesn't have a redeemable bone in his body here. Also in the palace is Leo White as the prince's jester, who plays no great part in this film but surely has to be one of Marty Feldman's chief inspirations for his role in Young Frankenstein.
Top credited is Errol Flynn, who doesn't even appear until well over fifty minutes in. He's Miles Hendon, a dashing and enthusiastic but poor swordsman, who is thrust into the story in its other strand, rescuing the real king from no end of bad ends. Initially it's just from a rabble who take umbrage after the news of the death of King Henry when an apparent beggar announces that he's now their king. As the film runs on, he gets plenty more opportunity to do so, all the way up to the highly improbable but nonetheless fascinating finale.

The film is quintessentially classic Hollywood, with all the positive and negative connotations that suggests. It's nonsense, of course, but it's told with such relish that it's irresistible. The acting is top notch, however much neither Mauch brother is truly believable as the king of England. Claude Rains dominates with his subtle villainy, again true golden age Hollywood villainy that is unmistakeable to us but apparently invisible to every other character in the film. Barton MacLane is superb as John Canty and Errol Flynn is, well, precisely what you'd expect Errol Flynn to be. Alan Hale appears here as the captain of the royal guard in the first of thirteen films he made with Flynn and, sure enough, they get a swordfight. Further down the credits are recognisable faces like Halliwell Hobbes, Fritz Leiber and Ian Wolfe.

Friday 25 September 2009

Ann Carver's Profession (1933)

Director: Edward Buzzell
Stars: Fay Wray and Gene Raymond
I haven't seen Gene Raymond in a while and here he is as the most popular man on campus at Hampden University. He's Billy Graham, not the preacher but the college football star, and the only opinion he cares about is the one who can't vote because she just works at the local cafe. She's the Ann Carver of the title, played by Fay Wray, still riding high after her launch to fame opposite King Kong. She's riding high here, studying hard and passing her bar exam. They settle down into married life with Bill trying to put his football days behind him by becoming an architect. He plans to earn her a million bucks and rebuild the cityscape but then it isn't his name in the title.

You can't imagine that a film called Ann Carver's Profession is all about the trials and tribulations of being a housewife, which is what she initially becomes. Sure enough, she impresses Judge Bingham at a party by her free thinking and Bill is enthused to let her know that he wants to hire her. She's been driving herself nuts doing nothing at home and leaps at the chance, thus setting up the story. Graham moves up slowly but surely, getting a raise here or a paragraph at the bottom of a column in the paper because he's going to umpire some game or other. Meanwhile his wife leaps from strength to strength as an attorney.

It's pretty impossible to miss that this is a precode, even if you miss the bedroom with only a double bed in it. The lead character is a woman, she's a capable lady who rises high in her profession and does it on her own terms. She even does it under her maiden name, not that of her husband. When her husband decides he's had enough of playing second fiddle in their marriage, not least because he discovers that his salary isn't even enough to pay the servants' wages, he goes with his heart and becomes a singer, crooning in a club, and the rift starts growing on both sides. He resents her ability to earn so much more than he can, she resents his choice of career. Of course there has to be a split and a reconciliation, but being a precode, that's a bit more extreme than you may have expected.

There's a little here for Gene Raymond, but the film is all about Fay Wray, who was being called upon to carry the whole story. I'm a fan of hers so I relish each opportunity to see her carry a film while wondering about her ability to do so. It's not a lack of a talent that hinders her, as she had plenty of that, it's the fact that her nature was supportive and comfortable and empathetic. She was great as the scream queen and she was great in supporting roles in non-genre films too. She enunciated well enough to play society girl roles but she was down to earth to play tomboys. The only task she didn't really fit was the one she has here, to carry everything on her own shoulders.

She does a variable job. Every now and then there's a scene that just doesn't work, such as one early on that has her listening to a conversation from the side and giggling terribly. Every now and again there's a peach of a scene, like the one that has her seething at her husband from the audience at the Club Mirador as a girl kisses him before heading on stage. She's blistering in that scene, every bit the star as the shamed wife, but she spends most of the film a little less confident than Ann Carver should be and just about right for Fay Wray.

It's an easy film to rate. It's OK as a thirties film, with some great scenes for Wray and a fast paced script but one with more than a few conveniences. It's OK as a precode too, striking an early blow for feminism but then sadly copping out at the end. It's a great opportunity for Wray fans to see her flex her acting muscles. It's less of an opportunity for Gene Raymond fans, as his character isn't much to write home about and his crooning is not particularly impressive. Nobody else really gets any opportunities at all. So, it's a welcome picture but utterly average.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Sealed Cargo (1951)

Director: Alfred Werker
Stars: Dana Andrews, Carla Balenda and Claude Rains
Sealed Cargo, made six years after World War II ended, is a story of one small victory during that conflict, small victories being described as 'acts of great personal courage by little people'. Chief among the little people is Pat Bannion, the captain of the Daniel Webster, a fishing trawler out of Gloucester, MA. It's 1943 so even the Americans have turned up for World War II and there's plenty of fear around. Crew are hard to find and when Margaret McLean turns up wanting to book passage to a small town called Trebo on the Newfoundland coast, he's wary because the U-boats are patrolling the shore. He ends up taking the job, but it's a dangerous one as he soon discovers.

By the time he hears machine gun fire out on the Grand Banks, like the U-boats use to communicate when they need to keep radio silence, someone has sabotaged the Daniel Webster's radio. The next noise is bigger guns than machine guns and in the aftermath they come upon a schooner, one that has apparently been weathered, shelled and abandoned. It's a Danish ship, or so says one of the two Danes he has on board, but he's not sure how much he can trust them. Konrad is the most obviously suspicious as he's brand new to his crew but then Holger has only sailed with Bannion once before and suspicion is easily diverted over to him. Konrad turns out to be right: the ship is Danish, the Gaunt Woman out of Copenhagen, full of an opportunistic cargo of Jamaican rum.
There's only one live man on board: the ship's captain, Henrik Skalder, played by Claude Rains. He meets them with a gun drawn but quickly faints away into exhaustion, and as the ship is damaged but seaworthy and full of valuable cargo, Bannion tows her to Trebo. Given the circumstances, there's suspicion everywhere, powerful suspicion as to what this ship means, what else she might be carrying and whether this was all a Nazi plan. I'm not going to spoil what's coming but the opening blurb about small victories can hardly suggest that there's aything but a happy ending coming. In any case, 1951 was right in the middle of the era of the Production Code, which mandated that villains could never get away with their villainy without getting their comeuppance.

It's an RKO picture but the star is Dana Andrews, on loan from Samuel Goldwyn, as the opening screen is careful to tell us. He'd had some major films to his name by 1951, not least The Ox-Bow Incident, Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives, but I haven't even heard of any of his films from 1946 through to Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps a decade later. Claude Rains I know very well and he's a fine Nazi captain though he has too little to do here. The leading lady is Carla Balenda, formerly known as Sally Bliss, who doesn't get much to do either. She reminds often of Jean Arthur, though without the memorable voice, and it's surprising to find she made so few movies, just twelve in the decade from 1944 to 1954, many of them what look like B westerns. She may well be best known for a recurring role on the June Lockhart version of Lassie as Timmy's teacher, Miss Hazlit.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Lady with Red Hair (1940)

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Star: Miriam Hopkins

Mrs Leslie Carter is getting divorced, which would be nothing to speak at today, but this is 1889 and ethics and morals were a little different back then. She had married into riches in 1880 but seven years later sought a divorce on grounds of 'physical assault and abandonment'. The tables are quickly turned though. Her husband names a correspondent and Mrs Carter herself plays into his hands with a string of theatrical outbursts in the courtroom, so many months later she finds herself on the losing side, Chicago society turned against her as an adultress and a prohibition against seeing her son Dudley any more than once every two weeks, at Miss Humbert's School for Young Boys & Girls.

While she's far from poor she doesn't have the money to fight her rich husband on appeal, so she heads off to New York to raise the funds by becoming an actress. After all everyone's been suggesting that she's something of an actress all through the court case and she's played by Miriam Hopkins, so it can't be too hard. She has plenty of arrogance and presumption and while she moves into a theatrical boarding house full of struggling actors, he's blissfully happy to start at the top. She walks into no less a theatrical producer's office than that of David Belasco with a letter of reference expecting him to write a play for her. Needless to say it takes a little longer than that, especially as Belasco gives Claude Rains plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his talents, but she makes it. It takes her two years to get back to play Chicago where she conquers the boos and hisses and achieves everything except to win her son back.

This is based on a true story, adapted from the real Mrs Leslie Carter's memoirs and a story called Portrait of a Lady with Red Hair. However being Hollywood it doesn't bear a heck of a lot of resemblance to reality. Half the film ties to Mrs Carter's attempts to make the money to fight for her son who the courts and society have effectively taken from her, but in reality he chose to live with his mother right after the trial and was thus written out of his father's will. There's a struggle to make Belasco notice her, though in real life he was struck from the moment he met her. Then she has to learn to act though apparently the first thing Belasco noticed was her poise. When she finally marries again, it's to Lou Payne, a failed actor who leaves for a career in the stock companies as she prepares for success in New York. She did marry him in real life, but he was hardly relegated to the minor stages, having played opposite her often enough as his leading man.

It's almost easy to overlook Hollywood departures from the truth when making biopics because once you've seen enough of them, you don't expect the truth because it's so rare that its presence is more surprising than its absence. What mattered were the performances and the scenes, Hollywood paying a lot of attention to Samuel Goldwyn's famous line about a good film having three good scenes and no bad ones. This has a number of good scenes, mostly through good performances. The best has Claude Rains flouncing about outside the theatre on the first night of her second play, the one that succeeds and makes her a star. While he knows precisely how his players should act and drives them ruthlessly to get there, he's utterly terrified of walking out onto the stage himself and he's full of pessimism about whether the applause is real or just politeness.

While Claude Rains could never just be a supporting actor and he's excellent here in yet another hairstyle and with some powerfully bold eyebrows, this film belongs to Miriam Hopkins as the lead. There are some sharp supporting turns to help her. Mona Barrie is a deliciously polite yet vicious society lady who causes Mrs Carter so much trouble in Chicago. Helen Westley is even better as the proprietress of the theatrical boarding house Mrs Carter finds in New York. Richard Ainley and Laura Hope Crews are decent but mostly just there. The film doesn't do much more than that, telling the story of its leading character with capability but not too much style. 'David Belasco can make an actress out of a telegraph pole,' says David Belasco, a real producer with a talent for making hits. I wonder what he'd have done with this film.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

The Long Night (1947)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Stars: Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak
The Long Night seems like a pretty appropriate title for a film noir, especially when that has Vincent Price in it. It's an RKO picture directed by Anatole Litvak, with music by Dmitri Tiomkin and the inevitable but welcome presence of film noir veteran Elisha Cook Jr, it has all the credentials, and it starts as it means to go on with the corpse of Maximilian the Great tumbling down the stairs from the top floor where the only witness is a blind former serviceman called Frank Dunlap. That's Price and Cook respectively, and when the cops go up to the top floor to talk to the only man who he could have gone to see, Henry Fonda shoots at them through the door.

He's Joe Adams and he's a trapped rat who really has no idea what to do, so decides to stay put even though he has no way out of his apartment and the cops are more than happy to kill him if they can't get him out. It seems highly unlikely that he isn't the killer but he's set up as the hero and the gathering crowd want to give him the benefit of the doubt. He won't come out though because he doesn't know what to tell the cops. As he says, how can he explain what he doesn't understand? Of course the only way we can understand is to head off into a flashback, which we promptly do after the cops litter his room with gunfire shot from across Allegheny Square.

He works at the plant, doing some sort of sandblasting, and falls for a fellow orphan called Jo Ann who turns up one day to deliver flowers for the assistant manager's birthday and takes a wrong turn into his part of the plant. She doesn't look like a femme fatale, given that she's played by Barbara Bel Geddes in her film debut, a full eleven years before Vertigo. If anything she comes across as a professional victim but Joe is smitten, so much so that he proposes marriage after three weeks. Unfortunately there's something she's not telling him. She has someone else's picture on her mirror and a string of postcards and on the night Joe proposes she almost breaks his heart by heading out to keep an appointment, one that she won't tell him anything about.
Of course he follows her, given that she's on the bus and he has a car, and she leads him all the way to the capable stage magician Maximilian the Great, who Price plays like a game show host. He's good at what he does and everyone seems to respect him, even though he has dark hair on top and blonde at the sides, making him look somewhat look a stretched version of the Comedian from Watchmen. He's just as sleazy, as we soon find out, with a flair for the theatrical that he doesn't keep for the stage and a convincing line in fabrication. He's not even repentant about it. 'Good heavens, do I have to apologize for superior imagination?' he cries.

And he's telling the truth. Manual worker Joe Adams can't compete, so gets caught up in every little game until he doesn't know which way is up. Tiomkin's striking score aids that, as does the way that Fonda and Price play off each other, one all basic and down to earth and the other high faluting and weaving his webs. Quite a few scenes between the two were shot as if they weren't in the same room to highlight that distance, every line of dialogue followed by a cut to the other character. It's obviously deliberate but I wonder if the web would have drawn tighter if the scenes had become closer and more claustrophobic as Adams loses his grip.
Fonda is OK as Adams but while Price should run rings round him mentally, he seems a little weak in other attributes, especially for a manual labourer. He'd only had one role since the war, as Wyatt Earp in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, but obviously had a way to go to get back to what he did before it: his last film before he enlisted in the Navy was the stunning The Ox-Bow Incident. Bel Geddes is fine as the young lady both men are in love with but she got better roles later in her career. It would be another 31 years before Dallas. Ann Dvorak is suitably sassy as Maximilian's former assistant who quit him and fell for Adams, but is left on the sidelines both as a character and an actor. Cook gets even less to do, which is a shame.

My only problem was that I could see the next couple of twists that never came, though I don't believe it's from memory. I think they just weren't in the story and should have been. I have seen Daybreak, the French film made by Marcel Carné six years earlier with Jean Gabin and Arletty, among others, but it was back in 2005 and I honestly can't remember how it went. I rated it good but not excellent, but that still leaves it a notch above this American remake, regardless of the cast.

Sunday 20 September 2009

No Man's Land (2001)

Director: Danis Tanović
Stars: Branko Đurić, Rene Bitorajac and Filip Šovagović
It's 1993 and we're in the middle of the Bosnian war, literally. The fog is intense and an inept guide unwittingly walks a Bosniak (or Bosnian Muslim) relief squad right up to the Serbian lines before stopping for the night. When daylight arrives it's a turkey shoot and they're quickly massacred, but of course the Serbs have to know for sure. They send out an experienced soldier and a bespectacled rookie to check and they end up in the same abandoned trench. The Bosniak gets the drop on the Serbs, taking down the one who knows what he's doing and leaving a great setup for a human story in the midst of war.

The Bosniak is Čiki and he's been shot in the shoulder. The rookie Serb is Nino and Čiki has shot him in the stomach. Because Čiki's the one with the gun, it's Nino who gets to strip and parade up and down above the trench waving a makeshift white flag. Unfortunately the response is that nobody can tell whose side he belongs to, so they shell the trench just to be sure. It's while they're sheltering from the onslaught that they find that they can't agree on anything, not even on who started the war. They're both used to the beliefs of their own side and have even witnessed atrocities committed by the others.

There is a third live man in the trench too, one of Čiki's relief squad called Cera, not that anyone knew that for a while. He'd been knocked senseless by the Serbian assault and, believing that he's a corpse, the experienced Serb soldier sets him up as a booby trap on top of a bouncing mine. Bouncing mines don't explode when they're depressed, they explode when the weight is lifted off them, at which point they bounce into the air and fire off ball bearings at great speed to shred apart anything within a radius of fifty yards. The catch is that Tsera isn't dead, but all three of them will be, very quickly indeed, if he gets up.

This is a great way to tell a war story and Danis Tanović, who wrote and directed, demonstrated an astute talent for cutting through the crap. The trench is a tiny encapsulation of the country as a whole, with both sides working through the same old cycle. Čiki and Nino hate and distrust each other from moment one, but when stuck in the same place can't help but find common ground: it turns out that Nino went to school with one of Čiki's old girlfriends. Yet this doesn't suddenly make them the best of friends, far from it. While they hint at it on occasion, they're unable to see above their own level and can't let things lie.

Tanović also resists taking sides. He was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina but he isn't trying to poke blame at either side in isolation. He has no love lost for the leaders of either side, of course, but that's hardly surprising. Radovan Karadžić, currently being tried as a war criminal, gets some screen time in British news footage, but surprisingly French President François Mitterrand isn't seen in much better light. Through his film Tanović suggests that Mitterand personifies the policies that made the war worse: humanitarian aid, a prohibition on further weapons and inaction in situations like the one at the heart of this film.
If anything, beyond the obvious anti-war sentiment, the real message here is one espoused by the closest thing we have here to a real hero, a French UN sergeant called Marchand who is fed up of sitting by and doing nothing while men kill each other. 'Neutrality does not exist in the face of murder,' he says. 'Doing nothing to stop it is, in fact, choosing. It is not being neutral.' So, while people like Karadžić are easy targets, Tanovic takes a deeper and more thoughtful approach to his barbs, suggesting not just that the UN forces made the situation worse but that the UN soldiers on the ground didn't like it any more than he did. Marchand becomes a hero because he's the only one who steps outside the rulebook but in the end he doesn't change the outcome, merely causes far more money to be spent in getting to the same place.

It's a powerful and thoughtful film. No wonder it won awards for the Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, where it beat no less a film than Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. The more the years go by the more having this separate category seems to make no sense. I'd take both Amélie and No Man's Land over the Best Picture winner, A Beautiful Mind, any day, and that's not to suggest that that was anything less than a great movie itself. Of course I understand how much of an audience the Oscars would lose if they were honest enough to just reward the best films of the year, many of which would not be in English.

While the story is enough to succeed on its own, and it won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, there's much more here. Technically it's excellent, the cinematography and the music standing out for special attention. The acting is universally good, not just that of Branko Đurić and Rene Bitorajac as Čiki and Nino respectively, but trickling all the way down to the one actor I recognise, Simon Callow, who is blissfully bureaucratic as UN Col Soft, as if he were appearing in an episode of Yes, Minister. Filip Šovagović has the most thankless task as Cera, spending almost the entire film on his back and unable to move. Katrin Cartlidge is excellent as a British journalist, continuing a trend of challenging films, perhaps to make up for her start in Liverpool soap opera Brookside. Georges Siatidis brings much depth to his role as UN Sgt Marchand.

It always comes back to the story though, which is universal in its reach but joyfully astute in the little details. We get little digs at the German habit for extreme punctuality; Col Soft's habit of taking his secretary everywhere with him, even to the trench; and the UN getting upset at journalist for daring to listening in on their radio frequencies. There's the fact that English is the fall back language for most in a world of many tongues, though one Serbian soldier simply and memorably answers Yes to every question thrown his way when it's in English. There's insight into life as a soldier; when Čiki finds himself in the trench with cigarettes but no lighter, he rolls back up over the ledge to get one even though it could easily cost him his life. There's solidarity among soldiers, nobody volunteers and everyone resists the media. Best and most telling of all though is a single line, spoken by UN Capt Dubois to Col Soft: 'It's the first time that both sides have asked me for the same thing and I don't know what to do.' Great stuff.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Sword of the Beast (1965)

Director: Hideo Gosha
Stars: Mikijiro Hira and Go Kato
Sword of the Beast sounds like a horror movie and Samurai Gold Seekers sounds like the most obvious Japanese inspiration for a spaghetti western ever, but this film, which has carried both titles, is really a deep samurai story with lush black and white cinematography. It's a chase movie to boot, one that we're thrown straight into, and the depth comes from the fact that the man being chased and those chasing him are far from stereotypical good guys and bad guys. We're in 1857, four years after Commodore Perry's Black Ships had sailed into Uraga Harbor and forced Japan to open up from their self imposed isolation from the rest of the world and the film addresses the use and abuse of the samurai code, using Perry's visit as a catalyst.

The man being chased is the forward thinker of the story, Gennosuke Yuuki by name, who realises that things must change and so petitions his Kakegawa clan to that end, but those petitions are ignored and the samurai code of utter obedience is such that he has no other recourse. After all, a samurai is blindly obedient even up to committing suicide at the word of their master, so the only way to resist is to effectively renounce everything that he stands for. So when Counselor Kenmotsu Yamaoka rejects Gennosuke's petition and orders him to be confined, he reacts by killing him.

After the opening battle scene, he tells those chasing him, 'To hell with name and pride, I'll run and never stop.' Coming to terms with this single line of dialogue is to come to terms with the film. There's selfishness in Gennosuke's actions but also inevitability. By killing the Counselor he expects to further the cause of reform but also to progress upward in rank, only to find himself instead a ronin running for his life because the honour that the samurai code epitomises is easily and casually abused by those ranked higher, like the deputy counselor who set the whole thing up for his own ends.

In the language of the title, Gennosuke has become a beast, a masterless samurai roaming the land without any purpose, yet in another sense, his actions freed him from being a beast, there to be nothing except what the every whim of his masters who run the clan make him, whether the commands lead to dishonourable acts, criminal acts or even seppuku. Those masters could easily be seen as the real beasts, willing to use the lives of their samurai in ways that have none of the honour that they cling to, but there's such a depth of grey here that a thesis could easily be written on the film.
Gennosuke's pursuers begin honourable because they follow the rules, so much so that they pay a lot of attention to precedent on how to conduct a vendetta. They're led by Kenmotsu's only daughter, Misa, and her Daizaburo Torio, and they take along a master swordsman called Gundayu Katori and four of his best men for good measure. Yet as time runs on, their numbers decrease and further events take place, their dedication to the vendetta is shaken. They find themselves paying others for assistance, something that samurai would not usually do, and in some instances end up becoming dishonourable in their own eyes.

Our hero ends up teaming up with a panhandler in the mountains, which are owned by the shogunate and so officially not free to all and sundry to search for gold. They find that another samurai, Yamane Jurota, has stolen the government's gold and is defending it against all comers, up to and including killing officers who turn up to deal with him. While they're obvious antagonists, Yamane wanting to keep the gold he's stolen and Gennusoke wanting to steal it, they're very much the same thing: of low birth and low in the ranking of samurai without much opportunity to rise, forced to commit an act that would typically be anathema to further themselves, only to find themselves betrayed by their superiors.

So there are plenty of characters here, with many similarities and contrasts, along with believable and changing motivations. It's one of the deepest samurai stories I've seen, written by Eizaburo Shiba and the film's director Hideo Gosha. Shiba had already written the three part Sword of Doom in the late fifties, though not the version I've seen, and 1964's excellent Three Outlaw Samurai, again with Gosha who was also debuting as a director. Gosha would go onto make more samurai films including two Samurai Wolf movies, but they apparently didn't work together again. Given how great both Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast are, that's not a good thing, but I'd be interested to see more Gosha chambara, as well as his gangster films. His next, a film noir called Cash Calls Hell, looks as deep as this one.

The stories are definitely the thing, in both instances and apparently throughout Gosha's career, but the acting is solid and the action is superb. Here there's very little one on one fighting, but plenty of great and very believable melees. It's always strange to watch one man take on many with a sword but it's handled about as well here as I may ever have seen. As Gennosuke Mikijiro Hara weaves through the crowds of attacking swordsmen as if this is what he'd always done. No wonder he played in so many such films at the time, including Three Outlaw Samurai, a couple of Toshiro Mifune's Miyamoto Musashi movies and the first Zatoichi film. He was also the psychiatrist in Hiroshi Teshigahara's superb The Face of Another. He's still working today.

Hearts Divided (1936)

Director: Frank Borzage
Star: Marion Davies
Thomas Jefferson wants the million square miles of the Louisiana territory but Napoleon Bonaparte doesn't want to give it up, at least not for anything less than the $20m he needs to fight his wars back in Europe. Of course being a Hollywood production, Jefferson and Bonaparte are astute and sophisticated leaders while the British consuls are outmanoeuvered at every step. After all, if this film is to be believed it's never cold in Baltimore. But this isn't a serious film, not in the slightest. The main thrust of the film is a romance between young Betsy Patterson and Napoleon's younger brother Jerome, who's representing the French leader on a goodwill tour. Backing that up is an attempt to expand on the success of the Charlie Ruggles/Edward Everett Horton double act from Trouble in Paradise by adding Arthur Treacher to make it three.

Treacher plays one of the most racist characters I've ever seen in film, and there are quite a few here to contend with. He's Sir Harry, a knighted English gentleman who exclaims that 'His Majesty would be most displeased' to find out that the United States is no longer a British colony. In other words he's a pompous moron in the worst stereotypical way. His chortling is painful. To be fair Ruggles and Horton aren't exactly the pride of America either, which is unfortunate as they're both United States senators. All three of them are only in the picture to make us laugh by courting Betsy Patterson in the most inept way possible, as none of them apparently have anything better to do.

Betsy is Marion Davies, decent as a Baltimore society girl who everyone and his dog seems to think the world of, but outshone by her courters. She's the darling of the races, the negro washerwomen love her to bits and even Jefferson observes that seeking her has become something of an American pastime. She's at once respectable and down to earth, hardly surprising given that her father is played by respectable Henry Stephenson and her aunt by down to earth Clara Blandick. Only her new French instructor/singing coach/fencing teacher can fluster her, which is hardly surprising given that he's Capt Jerome Bonaparte having fun on an idyllic interlude, incognito of course, having fallen for Betsy at the races while pretending he's not himself to avoid the fuss.

And that's the story, if you can call it that. Captain Jerome is played by Dick Powell, hand picked for the role by Marion Davies herself, so we get a couple of songs to sit through, even though the film is only 76 minutes longn to begin with. Apparently it used to be 11 minutes longer so I wonder what William Randolph Hearst had cut out to better highlight his mistress. He had a habit of doing that, which makes it all the more surprising that he'd allow a cast like this to even be in the same film. Why hire professional scene stealers like Ruggles, Horton and Treacher, not to mention Claude Rains as the Emperor Napoleon, if you're not going to let them do what they do.

Rains looks notably different here than I've ever seen him before. Partly, and most obviously, it's because he has a cunningly enhanced prosthetic nose and a pronounced and lopsided widow's peak. Partly it's because he's cleverly made to look even smaller than his 5'6½" height by the careful use of clothes that are too big for him. Partly it's because one scene has him sitting in a bath and somehow it seems wrong to see Claude Rains topless. Partly though it's because he has a wicked grin and a presence that is far bigger than his body. This Napoleon is an utter Hollywood invention that doesn't bear much of a similarity to the real one, but the magnanimous, grateful, patriotic character Rains is given to play here he plays superbly. Only in his last scene does he become petty and blindly ambitious, yet still willing to do whatever his mother asks. Give me a break.

Davies isn't bad but she's been far better elsewhere. Even the comedic scenes are below than her usual standards and that's disappointing. She's best here at the teary heartbroken ones and that's surprising, given that she was always a better comedienne than a dramatic actress. What I'm finding is that while her voice was a great asset, especially when doing impressions, her greatest roles were in silent films. I'm now only missing one of her sound films and can say that of her final ten films only one could be called great: Page Miss Glory, the one she made before this. Hearts Divided doesn't even come close to coming close.

Dick Powell does everything that's expected of him but a few dramatic scenes and an idiotically happy ending aren't enough to give the part any substance. He's there to look charming and sing well and hed does fine at both. For my part I was watching Rains and the triple whammy of Ruggles, Horton and Treacher. As criminally wasted as as they are, especially when compared to the genius of Trouble in Paradise, they're the best thing about the movie.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Paris Blues (1961)

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Sidney Poitier
Paul Newman plays the trombone and Sidney Poitier the sax or at least they pretend to and they do a pretty good job of it, for all I know about jazz. They're Ram Bowen and Eddie Cook and they're Americans in Paris, a decade after Gene Kelly's take on the subject took home the Best Picture Oscar. There's a different take here, for sure: An American in Paris featured music by George Gershwin, Paris Blues is full of Duke Ellington and there's more than a little difference between those major names. Add into the mix a character called Wild Man Moore, little more than a pseudonym for the man playing him, no less a name than Louis Armstrong.

Beyond the music and the sights of Paris, this impressed from moment one because of the subtle, almost carefree way that the film deals with race, and you can be sure, this being a Sidney Poitier film, it has to do with race. Bowen and Cook are in Paris to play because nobody cares about their colour, they just care about how what they can do. Marie Seoul certainly doesn't care and she runs the Club 33 where they play on the same stage. Their audiences don't care either and neither do the sassy couple of American girls who meet Ram at the train station and become a firm fixture in their lives, even though they're only in Paris for a two week holiday.
The interesting thing here is that they're a white girl and a black girl which is convenient, but while the couples do soon end up in strict accordance to race, Ram's initial interest is in the black girl. Nobody thinks twice about it, except maybe us given that we know the white girl, Lillian Corning, is played by Paul Newman's real life wife Joanne Woodward. Connie Lampson, the black girl, is Diahann Carroll, no stranger to films full of music given that her first two films were Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess.

Before long, as she and Eddie walk by the Seine it comes up. 'You want to have fun or you want to discuss the race issue?' he asks. She's talking about the race issue back home, of course, not in Paris where there isn't one. Eddie is happy to be there, where he's known as 'Eddie Cook, musician' not 'Eddie Cook, negro musician', but Connie sees it a little differently. She sees the situation back in the States as bad but improving and it can only improve further if there are black people there to improve it, rather than skipping off to Paris to live the easy life where there are no battles to fight. This is the main thrust of the film, however subtly it's played. I know intercontinental love stories, having lived one, but this goes well beyond the more obvious one about which country a couple would stay in if they got together.
The success of this approach is variable. Some scenes are impeccably crafted, others are a little more obvious, though I can't say whether the fault is with the source novel by Harold Flender, or the adaptation by a string of screenwriters. The acting is solid, not the best thing any of these actors has ever done but solid nonetheless and there are scenes where everyone shines. The best is a truly joyous musical faceoff where Louis Armstrong turns up to stir it up in a jovial way, as only he could, and while Newman and Poitier's fake musicianship can't keep up in the slightest, they have a ball trying.

The film was shot in Paris, which adds plenty of flavour and authenticity, and the use of a number of French actors and musicians helps too. Serge Reggiani was both. He didn't get a huge part in La Ronde as Franz the soldier so it's great to see him in a more substantial role as a gypsy guitarist called Michel Duvigne with a serious drug habit. Barbara Laage is great as the clubowner Marie Seoul and it's not surprising to find that Orson Welles originally wrote the Rita Hayworth role in The Lady from Shanghai for her. Most experienced of all is André Luguet, whose screen career went back to 1910, far enough back that he was in at least one of the original Fantômas serials. I've seen him in American movies before, precodes like The Mad Genius, Love is a Racket and Jewel Robbery, but I don't think I've seen a single one of his French films. I definitely still have plenty of catchup to do.

Monday 14 September 2009

The Brothers Karamazov (1958)

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, Claire Bloom, Lee J Cobb, Albert Salmi and William Shatner
There are probably a lot of reasons to watch The Brothers Karamazov. It's the screen adaptation of one of the great novels of world literature, by all accounts, though I haven't read it or anything except short work by Dostoyevsky. Yet I'm watching for William Shatner and not because I'm a Star Trek nut either (I'm a fan but not a nut). I'm fascinated by his film career, which until Star Trek hit the big screen and he became a highly successful caricature of himself, was an amazing thing, including everything you wouldn't expect him to appear in. This is the youngest I've ever seen him, three years before The Explosive Generation and eight before Star Trek. He doesn't look quite right here, as if he hasn't grown into his own face yet. He's also the first person we see, though he's far from the star as young Alexi Karamazov, going home to see his father.

It's 1870 and we're in Ryevsk, a town in Tsarist Russia, where Fyodor Karamazov is a dirty old man in the able form of Lee J Cobb who could do this in his sleep. It's amazing to realise that he's only a year old here than he was in 12 Angry Men. We first meet him pouring wine down the throat of a gorgeous young thing that he's tied to his bed, smothering her with kisses as a gypsy band plays. It's hardly the vision that his son Alexi wants to see, given that Alexi is a monk, but Alexi leaves the judgement to God. He doesn't judge any of his brothers, which would be a very easy thing to do given what a mess the family is.

He's there to collect some money to bail his elder brother Dmitri out of trouble, Dmitri always being in trouble, though as he's played by Yul Brynner he's generally charming enough to keep getting himself back out of it. We meet him in an inn, losing money at cards and starting a fight. He quickly ends up in an army prison because he gave the 5,000 rubles that Alexi brought him to Katya, his commanding officer's daughter, to save him from a scandal, but he owes money everywhere. Only when Katya comes back to marry him with an 80,000 ruble dowry can he get himself back on his feet, but he's too proud to let her pay his debts.
We have something of a tangled web here. Katya loves Dmitri, but her love isn't returned, instead being his brother Ivan who loves Katya. Dmitri soon falls for Grushenka, a lovely and enchanting innkeeper who has bought up his debts because she's also his father's mistress and Fyodor doesn't want to pay his son the 25,000 rubles his mother left him when she died. Grushenka plays up to Dmitri like she falls as hard for him as he for her, but she's a conniving little imp if ever there was one so all we know for sure is to distrust anything she says or does. Every time Lee J Cobb steals the whole show, Maria Schell promptly steals it right back.

What surprises most is how alive this film is. It's full of lust and violence and love and death, its characters so full of life that sometimes they're bursting at the seams with it. Yet it's based on the last work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky before he died in 1881, a nineteenth century Russian novel that takes up about a zillion pages with dry ethics and morality. So I thought. While philosophical notions of free will and destiny are rife in this film, it's hardly dry and its nearly two and a half hour running time zips by like it was half as much. It's not even in black and white, as I expected it to be.

It's a complex web but a believable one, involving not just the characters I've already mentioned: Fyodor Karamazov; his sons Dmitri and Alexi; and the ladies, Grushenka and Katya; but the other two brothers too. Richard Basehart plays Ivan Karamazov, a Moscow journalist, who causes much here not through his actions but by his inactions. Lastly there's Albert Salmi as Fyodor's epileptic bastard son Smerdyakov, who hangs on and around and waits. As Dmitri and his father head towards a violent showdown over Grushenka, the others start to plot and plan, something that's fascinating to watch, not just because Salmi often slips into a Peter Lorre accent.
The only flaws really are ones that the film can't be held responsible for, namely that the Metrocolor used in 1958 has lasted inconsistently. Some scenes are lush in their colour, colour often used for deliberate purpose, but others are faded to varying degrees, so that as scenes cut to other scenes, it sometimes looks more like formerly deleted scenes cut back in. The successes are numerous and include the acting across the board, the fast paced story and the way that so many little subplots work so well. Characters redeem themselves, others doom themselves, and all believably. It's a riot, one that utterly surprised me, but in all the right ways, even if there are Hollywood touches here and there. How many, I can't say, but a few are pretty obvious.

Even Shatner avoids overacting, but then this was early for him. It was his first real role, after a couple of minor parts in earlier Canadian films. He played 'a crook' in The Butler's Night Off in 1951, at the age of twenty, then in 1957 appeared in the chorus of Oedipus Rex. I haven't found either film yet so can't even suggest how much or how little he even appears in them. Here though he's an integral part of the film, so really beginning a unique screen career that really runs through another couple of decades to 1978, at which point he started only playing a caricature of himself. These two decades though are becoming a real fascination to me, and each film I find merely enhances that feeling.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Samurai Saga (1959)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Star: Toshiro Mifune

It's well known of course that classic Japanese cinema intersects with its western counterpart in strange ways that seem to make no sense but still work wonderfully, as most of us have now experienced. No less a name than Sam Peckinpah wished he could make westerns the way Akira Kurosawa made westerns. He channelled John Ford into his samurai films, which the Italians turned into spaghetti westerns, which in turn influenced the Americans who began the cycle. As I learned yesterday, the French would call that La Ronde.

Meanwhile back in Japan, Kurosawa was translating Shakespeare into period Japanese drama, turning Macbeth into Throne of Blood and infusing King Lear into Ran. Yet somehow it seems surprising that Hiroshi Inagaki, after making his Musashi Miyamoto trilogy and the Yagyu Secret Scrolls films, all with Toshiro Mifune, should choose to adapt something as quintessentially French as Edmund Rostand's nineteenth century French play Cyrano de Bergerac into a samurai film. Surprisingly it works pretty well.

It's 1599 and we're in Kyoto, which looks like nothing less than a Japanese version of a Renaissance Faire. The kabuki actress Okuni is performing and she's a major draw, given that she really began the art of kabuki, though a few years later in reality. She's the object of a lot of attention: Tokugawa samurai working for Lord Nagashima want to breeze on in without paying, but others working for Lord Oshida take offence. Worst of all, Heihachiro Komaki, a renowned samurai, interrupts the performance with arrogance. He's offended at Okuni herself, who has promised to stay off the stage for two weeks, a promise she's now broken.

Komaki, like the character he's based on, has a huge nose, though being Japanese it's more spread across his face than sticking out from it. Where someone like Gerard Depardieu was totally recognisable with a prosthetic nose, Toshiro Mifune is almost unrecognisable with his. His deep and resonant voice is unmistakable though, as is the authority by which he clears the stage of Lord Nagashima's insolent samurai who try to take him on after he chases Okuni off stage. He even does it with a song that he composes on the spot, giving the crowd a show after all. It can't hurt that the Oshida uniform includes an orange and black striped shirt and blue trousers with what look like clouds on them. He looks like nothing less than a pirate.

Of course, he has to be tough, given that his nose would prompt everyone to make fun of him, if only they dared. He also has the sad task to love someone who doesn't love him back, his childhood companion who has grown up to be the Lady Ochii, Princess Chiyo. Worse yet, the princess loves another man, Jutaro Karibe, a country samurai who's a newcomer to the Oshida force and who loves her in return. Unfortunately for her, while Jutaro is a superb swordsman, his skills don't extend beyond that and the princess is eager for the sort of eloquence only Komaki can provide. So Komaki becomes his words, romancing the woman he loves for another.

While Akira Takarada is decent as Jutaro Karibe, this is really a story custom made for Mifune. It's hard to even watch anyone else, except when the Battle of Sekigahara briefly erupts out of nowhere or on the few occasions that the delectable Yoko Tsukasa and Keiko Awaji are on the screen. Tsukasa is Princess Chiyo, eager for praise but not wanting the simply repeated 'I love you' that's all that Karibe can offer on his own. Awaji is Nanae, a simple yet beautiful girl in the neighbourhood whose part is sadly tiny.

Mifune dominates this film though, partly through his character being utterly the focus and partly through his acting, as always, being literally a tour de force. Perhaps it's also partly through the fact that he must have known writer/director Hiroshi Inagaki well. This was the eleventh of their twenty films together, all made in the twenty years between 1951 and 1970. Amazingly this was roughly the same period that he made so many memorable films for Akira Kurosawa (sixteen between 1948 and 1965) that made him the most famous and recognisable Japanese actor in the world. Films like this couldn't hurt: the worst thing about it is its pointlessly generic title.

Dumplings (2004)

Director: Fruit Chan
Star: Bai Ling

Three... Extremes was a fascinating trilogy of horror shorts, but above the contributions of Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook, Fruit Chan's segment called Dumplings was instantly memorable and frequently quoted by family members, especially when eating out. It seems wrong to call a film about eating 'bad taste' but it is, albeit constructed impeccably with the superb cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the growing desperation shown by actress Miriam Leung and the utter matter-of-factness exhibited by Bai Ling. No wonder it was quickly expanded into this feature length film.

Bai Ling was perfectly cast as Aunt Mei, the maker of the most expensive dumplings in town. When Qing Li, a former television actress eager to stay young and beautiful comes to visit her, because cost is no object, Aunt Mei asks her to guess her age. Ling was 38 at the time but could easily be taken for a decade younger; Mrs Li guesses thirties at the most. The character is far older, as we discover later, and what keeps Aunt Mei young are the dumplings which she eats regularly. The reason they're so expensive is because they contain Aunt Mei's secret ingredient and while I didn't want to spoil that in my review of Three... Extremes, director Fruit Chan and writer Lillian Lee don't try to hide it here in the slightest: it's aborted human foetuses.

Of course the point of the story is to ask just how far people are willing to go in their quest to stay young, beautiful and desirable and fight back our common enemies, time, age and death. Mrs Li is willing to go a long way, given that her husband of fifteen years, Sije Lee, is cheating on her with his masseuse, a girl the age Qing was when she married him. She feels that her age is at least a large part of the cause and she doesn't want to be an ex-wife, so the only option she sees is to appear young enough again to win him back. That's what leads her to Aunt Mei and what leads her to escalate to a need for more and more potent dumplings, culminating with the most potent of all, the ones made from five month old foetuses.

Needless to say, this isn't something that's easy to supply, but fortunately along comes Kate, a fifteen year old girl in her fifth month of pregnancy, in need of an illegal backstreet abortion because she was apparently knocked up by her own father. So Aunt Mei gets to kill two birds with one stone, though that is a truly unforgivable phrase to use in the circumstances, especially as Mr Li's own delicacy of choice is raw bird's eggs, with crunchy little foetuses of their own. But with a film like this, what could be seen as forgivable? The entire thing is beyond the pale for many viewers from moment one and this is hardly something to recommend to all and sundry.

For horror aficionados, Dumplings is really a rare entity: a horror story for woman, in the same way as almost all horror movies are horror stories for men. There are obvious classic influences; stories like The Monkey's Paw or The Picture of Dorian Gray that speak to the quest for immortality, the tragedy of getting what you wished for and the escalating price that needs to be paid to keep it. Yet it's told with an unmistakable feminine slant, so much so that to men this appears less of a horror story and more of an exercise in icky bad taste.

I'm not sure if I should be surprised or not that it was written by a woman, Lillian Lee, a highly respected writer who also wrote the source novel for Rouge and both the novel and screenplay for Farewell My Concubine, among others. It's definitely surprising that Miriam Yeung, who plays Mrs Li, was a registered nurse before becoming an actress and that the television series she first appeared in, presumably the one that keeps coming up as a reminder of how young she used to look, was called A Recipe for the Heart.

Moreover, we rarely see a man on screen, though Sije Li is played by no less a star than a silver haired Tony Leung Ka Fai. We spend almost the entire film in the company of either Bai Ling, Miriam Yeung or both, with the rest of the cast mostly feminine, Kate and her mother the next most obvious along with Mr Li's mistress/masseuse. The men are almost always at a distance, as if all life is spent preparing for when they're going to be on screen next, precisely what Qing Li does with her life. Beyond the obvious focus on cannibalism, abortion and babies, the film also covers spousal neglect, adultery and the difference between a house and a home, all very much feminine concerns that men might find it easy to overlook. At the end of the day though, whether you watch this for meaning or for ick, it'll deliver. And that's my last pun, I promise.