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The Death Ship (1928)
Notable only for Jason Robards Sr.
This heavy-handed bit of trivia serves only to let us see what Jason Robards Jr.'s father looked like.
The son gave us many memorable performances, but on the evidence of this film, the father was mired in the stagger-and-clutch school that we can't connect with.
The short as a whole is stagy, obvious and unrewarding.
The Warners special effects unit brews up a fine storm at sea, but the human interaction remains stiff and lumbering,intense but clumsy.
To its credit, the film is short.
For collectors only.
Secret Beyond the Door... (1947)
Lang was the Teacher; Hitchcock the Disciple
Yes, "Rebecca" is a more successful film, and is certainly a more conventional one. "Rebecca's" story is every bit as tripe-y as this one. However "Rebecca" was an A-film, and this one a B+, and that makes a huge difference. Also "Rebecca" is more familiar to movie buffs, and that makes us like it more as an old friend.
Watching "Secret Beyond the Door" is like watching a Douglas Sirk melodrama (also from Universal). The soapy story is not what counts, it's what the director does with it.
Fritz Lang was a superstar director in Berlin when Alfred Hitchcock was an apprentice set designer over from England to learn his craft. The annoyingly familiar elements in the story of this film (Rebecca, Spellbound, Dragonwyck, Bluebeard, Pandora, Masque of the Red Death, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre) are the fault of the producer who bought and shaped the material. David Selznick produced "Rebecca." Can you imagine Walter Wanger producing "Gone with the Wind?" No, neither can I.
In this film, what Fritz Lang brings to a second-rate script is fascinating and unique, and it's no use complaining that he's not Hitchcock.
Joan Bennett gives her usual performance. She seems to have done her best work for émigré directors rather than native-born. She did good work for Max Ophuls as well, sort of like Hedy Lamarr but more "street."
Michael Redgrave is interesting here precisely because he is so ambiguous. It's easy to imagine Laurence Olivier on screen courting and seducing an innocent girl. Maxim de Winter is a very familiar character in romantic fiction, from Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre" all the way down to the brooding studs of today's Harlequin romances.
Redgrave, by contrast, has a much more elusive character to portray, attracted to a self-possessed woman of the world, but in unbearable pain and unable to give for reasons he does not understand himself. Maxim de Winter knows what his problem is. Mark Lamphere does not.
Redgrave's usual persona is peevish, someone with a private grievance on the verge of meltdown, and that works very well here. So let's not complain that he's not Olivier. Olivier couldn't have played this part so well.
Quick reminder: no director had final cut in those days. A film was cut by the producer and editor while the director had already moved onto other projects. The uneven pacing of this movie is more characteristic of Universal Studios than it is of Lang.
Stanley Cortez deserves full credit for the cinematography, and Miklos Rosza for keeping the story flowing even when the editing lags. At one particularly eerie point, Rosza recorded the music with the orchestra playing the notes in reverse order, then had the soundtrack itself reversed so the notes come out in proper sequence but with unnatural attacks and releases. This is very advanced stuff and works beautifully.
BTW, it was nice to see Joan Bennett flee at night into the thickly foggy countryside. That set was from "The Wolf Man" and she was darned lucky Lon Chaney didn't leap out from behind the tree.
So rather than complain about what this picture isn't, let's celebrate it for what it is. It's not a masterpiece, but no director but Lang could have put together this film with so little sentimentality. His precision makes us uncomfortable and off-balance, but we don't always appreciate dry and cold.
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
The BBC has announced a DVD issue in 2011
It's funny that so many people remember this telecast from almost 50 years ago. And with such uniformly positive feelings.
I remember the pounding waves and the Long Hall. I remember Robert Shaw as the first Claudius I ever saw who was not only sonorous and regal, but violent, and sexy enough to seduce the Queen and make her agree to kill her husband. I remember Donald Sutherland coming in at the end as Fortinbras, and for once saving the character from being a wimpy, pompous letdown.
Until recently, the film could only be seen in America at the Paley Media Centers in New York and Los Angeles.
However Sir Michael Caine was recently reminded of his participation in this long-forgotten film, and he asked the BBC to resurrect it.
We'll all have a chance to check our memories soon.
Dunces and Dangers (1918)
A Skyscraper Thrill Comedy a Year Before Harold Lloyd's First
This one-reel comedy will have you screaming and sweating, as Larry Semon and his girl are chased up and down the sides of buildings, fighting heavies on rooftop ledges, skittering across rickety bridges in mid-air and see-sawing on ladders over the city far below.
Hans Koenekamp was the cinematographer, and he later became senior visual effects wizard at Warner Brothers. This short will help show you why.
And it's all a full year before Harold Lloyd stepped out on a ledge for the first time.
Beautiful Images, Limp Storytelling
The riot at the premiere of "The Rite of Spring" was much more raucous than this film depicts. The accompanying "Making of" featurette on the DVD shows much more violent action than made it into the final film.
All of Stravinsky's music throughout the movie is played slowly and sentimentally, which is not what this composer was all about.
We can only conclude that the director is more interested in baroque visuals than telling his story. In fact, it's impossible to believe that a blank stick like Mads Mikkelsen wrote such violent music. The lens is much kinder to Anna Mouglalis, who effortlessly steals all their scenes together, except for the bloodless sex scenes, in which neither are interesting.
But I can't believe we'd be talking about either of these personalities today if they'd been as boring and cataleptic in real life as they are in this film. If you want to see character in action, watch Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad" which compared to this is one long firecracker display.
War & Peace (1972)
Staggeringly uneven - the BBC bit off more than they could chew.
British television has a mystique among some American viewers. This version of "War and Peace" is a useful corrective. Parts of it are quite good, but much of it is barely competent, and some is even less than that.
Many scenes combine lackadaisical pace with yelling and over-acting, a lethal combination. Some of the acting would be OK on the stage, but the camera is merciless in revealing miscalculations. "Faster and softer" across the board would have helped a lot.
It is not always the actors' fault. Sometimes the players look like some firm guidance from the director might help a scene, but that help often doesn't come. I suspect the director had his hands full just getting stuff in the can on schedule and under budget.
"Excuse me, can we do that again? I think I can do it better." "Sorry, we haven't the time. That take was good enough." Over and over again.
The one actor who covers himself with glory is Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. Hopkins could be awful elsewhere ("Legends of the Fall"), but here he rarely puts a foot wrong. He is what you will remember from all this.
Alan Dobie fails to convey Prince Andrei's aristocratic bearing, and looks lumpish and unattractive at the Great Ball where he is supposed to dazzle Natasha. But after fitful attention earlier, Dobie focuses wonderfully in his deathbed scenes, and winds up quite moving.
Angela Down makes an unexpectedly effective Maria, making the most of a part that often recedes into the woodwork.
Morag Hood is unbearable as the young Natasha. As the character ages, she quiets down considerably, and by the end she is merely annoying. But the giant shadow of Audrey Hepburn has stunted her growth, and Hood's inadequacy is a central concern.
Faith Brook is generally good as Mama, though she goes seriously off the rails when the Rostov house is emptied out ahead of Napoleon's occupation. Rupert Davies as Papa seems to think he's playing Dickens, not Tolstoy. When the Rostov family gathers noisily, I wind up looking for Tiny Tim.
David Swift's Napoleon is neither charismatic nor evil, just baleful. Frank Middlemass buries Kutuzov's humanity in a welter of eccentricities, in a performance that never quite adds up. Harry Locke is a blessedly underplayed Platon Karateyev - perhaps the best in that part that I've seen, but that doesn't make up for the other 12 hours.
The filmed Serbian exteriors are dreary without being impressive, and the muddy color doesn't help. The battle scenes boast a cast of hundreds rather than thousands, but they are sabotaged by clumsy staging and the lack of background music. Somebody's decision to restrict music to balls and salons was a major mistake - the dramatic scenes are rarely good enough to survive without orchestral support.
The sense of strain never leaves this enterprise. Actors force some encounters and trudge through others. All too often, we look at something that is one take short of merely OK.
You're far better off with the Vidor or Bondarchuk versions. This second-rate attempt is for completists only.
Arn: Tempelriddaren (2007)
A Limp Dishrag
Gosh, things were clean in 1100! Here I thought people were living in a certain degree of squalor, and now we find out they were all as perfectly spotless as fashion models.
The landscapes and cinematography are pretty. Some of the character actors, notably Skarsgard and Callow, are effective. But most are wooden megaphones for not-terribly-good dialog. The Cecilia enjoys her own acting entirely too much, and the Arn looks constipated most of the time, as if he didn't want to soil his costume.
The film's handling of time and space, flashbacks and intercutting among various plot lines, was simply incompetent. The opening narration was out of a Bronston epic, which worked well in "King of Kings," "55 Days at Peking" and "El Cid" but not here.
For all the money and ambition involved, this film was strangely muted and small, as if being boring was a virtue. Hollywood pictures, for all their faults, try not to be as spineless as this one. Here the size of their budget apparently frightened them. This picture goes on for hours muttering softly to itself, while the subject matter cries out for occasional therapeutic yelling.
I haven't read the books by Guillou, a psychotic anti-Semite who drank himself to death. He doesn't sell outside Sweden, which is probably a good thing. But the plot as presented here was cliché'd and predictable every step of the way, with the dreary superficiality of an airplane paperback. This film does not make me curious to explore any further.
Rent "El Cid."
America's Sweethearts (2001)
If You Have to Deal with Crazy People, This Comedy is Great Therapy
OK, it's an 8, but I voted 10 to raise the average a little bit.
The script is funny, and the one-liners are vintage Crystal.
The actors are uniformly fine, with Catherine Zeta Jones and Hank Azaria having the most fun, Alan Arkin showing the most restraint and John Cusack doing well with the toughest assignment. He is a national treasure.
Joe Roth, the director, gets good performances out of the cast, and keeps things moving.
If you have to put up with BS from impossible people on a regular basis, you'll laugh twice as hard. Go ahead and laugh.
Playhouse 90: Heart of Darkness (1958)
A Lot Less Interesting Than It Looks
Conrad's short story was very short, and deliberately unspecific in order to avoid lawsuits.
This 90-minute telecast features writer Stewart Stern's free variations on Conrad's story skeleton, filling out the narrative in a way that is wholly inadequate when compared to Michael Herr's Vietnam fantasy in "Apocalypse Now."
Roddy McDowell gets most of the screen time, and wears out his welcome quickly. The rest of the cast looks great on paper, but they're at far from their best and are pretty much wasted. Karloff completists will be frustrated by a brief appearance as Mr. Kurtz that is wholly lacking in power or magic. Overall, the studio-bound production strains to a poetic level that is more embarrassing than inspiring.
Sterling Hayden's introductions are stiff and uncomfortable, and the commercials included in the version I saw were far more engaging than the show itself.
Not one of Playhouse 90's better evenings.
Marjorie Morningstar (1958)
Gone Rancid in the Can
I saw this film as a kid in its initial release, and was very moved. I just watched it again tonight, and was very annoyed. There is not a genuine note in this film from beginning to end.
Hollywood had dealt before with cultural assimilation and and the complexities of mixed marriage, but with the introduction of the Production Code in 1934, a lot of the old ethnic clichés became out of bounds. Identifiably Jewish character actors like Benny Rubin suddenly couldn't find work. Ed Wynn, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers prospered, but without the Jewish jokes.
This film was one of the major entries in a renewed attempt by Hollywood to deal with the old stories. I can't review the book, as I have no plans to seek it out for the purposes of "compare and contrast." But the film is so thoroughly confused about who and what it is about, that it winds up being about nothing.
I believe Herman Wouk was a party to the compromises. The film credits Beachwold Productions, which points directly to Wouk's summer house at the time.
Natalie Wood can do everything she is asked to do, which is a relief - that wasn't always the case. Gene Kelly is a bit stiff and heavy, as he always was in non-musical roles. By casting him, the film gives up on any more subtle characterization of Noel Airman, and turns into the umpteenth remake of "Abie's Irish Rose." I don't buy Kelly as a renegade anything and neither did the original audience. The film becomes just another story of the princess and shaygetz dancing around each other for two long hours, and never rises above dreariness. Even Ed Wynn is dreary.
I suppose someone at Warner Brothers saw the business Universal was doing with Ross Hunter's hyperventilating melodramas, but I hate to say this: Natalie Wood is no Lana Turner. Director Irving Rapper takes part of the blame: he's no Douglas Sirk. Rapper was a weak, compliant, flabby director who needed a strong producer and editor to assemble his takes into something watchable. Unfortunately this film just flails around like a dying fish on a dock. It doesn't begin to succeed on any level.
I hope no one is ever crazy enough to try a remake. This one is really over.