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|21 reviews in total|
I viewed Spiral Staircase last night, for the first time since I saw it in its initial run, (1946). I have become much more literate in cinema since that time, and two points stood out to me. First, the film clearly embodies many techniques of 1920s German filmmakers such as Wiene and Murnau; for instance the distorted angle shots and the use of shadows. The second is related: namely, the effectiveness of black and white photography. The contrasts that were possible with black and white cannot be as effectively conveyed in color. It's no accident that Hitchcock chose black and white for Psycho. The blood in the shower scene might have been more shocking if shown in red, as in some of the contemporary slasher type films; but the director understood that his audience could supply the color as the "black blood" crept (not gushed) out from the shower. As far as the content of the film is concerned, one can say that the performances were more than adequate, with the exception of stony-faced George Brent, who clearly was not in his element in a film of this genre, and made me wonder why Bette Davis had had a crush on him for many years. Ethel Barrymore is outstanding; as an experienced actress she was able in very few scenes to catch the mood of helplessness in the face of horror that makes her final appearance the more striking. There is not actually much suspense in the working out of the plot. Even though several false hints are dropped as to the identity of the serial killer, his identity should be fairly obvious from the start, for an experienced moviegoer.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I viewed my videotape last night, for the first time in at least ten years. I found the work itself and the performances just as gripping as they were in my memory. George Hearn, of course,was the master of the role of Sweeney; there is never a touch of softness in his determination to wreak vengeance on those he believes caused his wife's death and his daughter's disappearance; at least not until the end, when he discovers that his thirst for revenge has led him to murder his wife. Angela Lansbury, on the other hand, creates a more complex portrayal, as Mrs. Lovett. She understood that Sondheim wanted that role to be something of a "comic" counterpart to Sweeney; and even brings some tenderness into her courtship of Sweeney and her nurture of the boy Tobias. For those with long memories, this performance takes one back to her debut performances in The Picture of Dorian Grey and Gaslight; long before Murder, She Wrote. Only a year ago I saw the musical at Lyric Opera of Chicago. with current opera superstar Brynn Terfel as Sweeney. Others have commented on the operatic quality of the score. My conclusion is that "Sweeney" works better with actors who can at least handle the vocal lines, than with opera performers who have limited acting skills. As a final note, I commend the performer who portrayed Tobias. with his mixed loyalties and confusion about what is going on around him. It seemed appropriate that he had virtually the last word.
Despite the technical achievements and the outstanding musical score, it is the performances that keep the film alive for me. Julie Andrews was right on target when she received her academy award and thanked Jack Warner for turning her down in the film version of My Fair Lady. She conveys both dignity and warmth as Mary. Dick van Dyke had the chance of a lifetime to demonstrate the breadth of his talents, especially his dancing, which could not be fully exploited on his TV series. Disney gave real depth to the film through his use of Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn and (especially) Jane Darwell (who is cited in the IMDb biography as best known for her cameo portrayal of the Bird Lady, despite her 1940 Academy Award for one of the great all-time performances in Grapes of Wrath). I computed the ages of the five as reaching 418 years when the film was released; their film careers covered 193 combined years, with stage careers going back as far as 1905. Disney's casting of these, as well as a group of accomplished British actors of stage and film demonstrated what should be meant by "supporting cast": it gave strong support against which Andrews and Van Dyke could perform without being under to carry the entire film. Finally: If someone wants to appreciate the care that went into the film, s/he should purchase the new 40th anniversary DVD. Viewing the interviews and other documents enabled me to increase my already great enjoyment. They do not "murder to dissect"; quite the contrary.
Even when one watches this film on television, it would be almost impossible not to become involved in the exploits and dangers encountered by the two young men. No fictional narrative could be any more gripping than that of watching the man left behind find his way down off the mountain. I have only one qualification about the film. Perhaps I missed it in the titles, but I was not aware that we were seeing a re-enactment using stand-ins for the leads, and being filmed at a later time. Call me naive, but throughout the film I was wondering about how a camera was able to document the action as it occurred. I'm not sure whether I would have enjoyed the film more or less if that had been made clear from the start. In light of the process actually employed, does this qualify as a true documentary, when it uses actors and follows a script? Do we know whether anything was added to the actual exploits in order to make the action even more exciting?
Last night I viewed 42nd Street for the first time in many years. How do you evaluate a film that has become almost an icon, or prototype? When looked at objectively, the whole business seems pretty silly. Warner Baxter chews up the scenery. The Bebe Daniels/George Brent love affair is apparently the main sub-plot, but certainly doesn't generate any sparks. Ruby Keeler couldn't act or sing (the scene where Baxter is trying to get her to do both - a couple of hours before opening night! -shows that quite clearly.) She was a good tap dancer, but certainly did not set the screen on fire as did Eleanor Powell in her best sequences. Would she have been there if she had not been Mrs. Al Jolson at the time? Dick Powell does show why he became a major star; and not only in musicals. The most interesting part for me came when Berkeley did the Shuffle Off to Buffalo as it might reasonably have appeared on a stage, then breaks out of those confines with the 42nd Street sequence: the first of a series of many more inventive pseudo-"stage" numbers in his later films. But above all,the film has become iconic because of the numerous appearances of the "you'll come out a star" line in film anthologies. I gave this an "8" because of its historical standing, but I've seldom had more difficulty in deciding on the appropriate rating.
I saw Nashville when it was first shown, billed as Altman's "birthday card" to America on the occasion of the bicentennial. The greatest tribute I can pay is that, despite its frequent shifts of location, many individual scenes and characterizations, as well as the overarching story line, remained vivid in my mind over the years before I was able to purchase the film on video. When I taught Film History at my college I used Nashville as the final examination for the course. After having viewed the film, students were instructed to identify the elements of film technique previously studied(such as overlapping dialogue, jump shots, widescreen, etc) in order to forward the narrative, as they were employed by Altman. In general, they did very well; even those who disliked the film. There are too many admirable performances for me to mention; however, those that remained most vivid in my mind over the years were those of Gwen Welles, Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, and Lily Tomlin. One last note of appreciation regards the fact that all the characters were introduced within the first twenty minutes at the airport; their personalities brought out in the highway scene;and their being brought together again, cyclically, during the last twenty minutes at the "Parthenon". It has been several years since I used Nashville for pedagogical purposes. When I purchased the DVD recently I found that, despite my numerous viewings and classroom analysis, the impact was virtually the same as when I first saw it in 1976. For me, it did not "murder to dissect" this personal milestone.
I am a "true believer" in Woody Allen, and frequently replay five or six of the earlier films. I found the premise of this latest effort potentially promising: an older (and presumably wiser) comedy writer, (who doesn't have enough confidence in his ability to quit his teaching job) seems to be living vicariously through a young writer, (who though he does not seem to be very successful has a terrific New York apartment and spends money lavishly.) As many have noted, there seems to be an effort to re-create the mood of Annie Hall with the younger man and his on-and-off girl friend. It doesn't work: not only because Biggs and Ricci lack the chemistry of Allen and Keaton (not to mention their acting skill), but because relationships in the 2000s can not be the same as those in the 1960s. As a "believer" I don't expect a smash with each film, or each Shakespeare play, and went along with this one as second-rate Woody throughout most of the film, but became almost resentful at the ludicrous and completely unbelievable wrap-up (not a resolution). There will always be a few bright moments in an Allen film, but not enough to compensate for an increasing loss of energy until the unfocused and unsatisfactory close.
I was in my mid-thirties when the Beatles came to America, and appeared at
Shea Stadium and (famously) on the Ed Sullivan. I saw their success, with
the screaming girls, as just another teen-age phenomenon. I must have read
in some column that this film was interesting for its direction and
photography. That was true. What I did not expect was that I would be caught
up by the Beatles themselves, both as personalities and as musicians. Those
who comment adversely on their lack of acting ability are way off base,
because neither they nor the director were looking for dramatic skill; only
for a degree of naturalness, which was achieved. Those who criticize the
technical aspects are not well-acquainted with new developments in film
technique especially in France; for instance, the jump shot. Those who
criticize lack of plot must be interested only in straight narrative. I
suggest that all the previously mentioned critics see the documentary
materials on the making of the film, particularly those contained in the DVD
They will see, for better or worse, that the creators and performers
achieved what they wanted, allowing room for the unexpected. For forty years
now I have been an admirer, own all their recordings, etc.; and taught this
movie in my history of film class regularly. Don't believe the nay-sayers;
see for yourself.
Many contemporary viewers will find the dialogue here hard going, for the film shows its stage origins; the heightened rhetoric and often extended speeches that have the characters speaking at, rather than to one another, create a rather wooden effect on the screen. This film could not have come from any studio other than Paramount during the 1930s: the only studio that produced what might be called today art films, including this one. From Mae West, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers; to the Lubitsch musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald and his European-like sophisticated romantic comedies; to an occasional deMille spectacular; Paramount provided the most diversified output of the early studio era. Yet,with the exception of the occasional action costume drama, most Paramount films seem to have been made on a relatively low budget, with only one or two sets, including this film. However, since set design was always done with some elegance, economy is not as noticeable as with the Warner films. (Where a devotee has seen the same apartment set so often that s/he feels right at home).I notice that most IMDB reviewers give positive comments. Perhaps I was just not ready for this one last night (I recall having enjoyed it more years ago); but for me the components never jelled so as to provide a consistent development of plot or characterizations.
As she sang in a Hardy Family movie, Judy was just an "in-between" when her first few movies were made: "too old for toys, not old enough for boys". What plot there is, is an excuse for the musical numbers, most of which are rather lifeless. MGM seemed to be trying to find some place for players under contract, such as Alan Jones and Fannie Brice. Jones is as wooden here as in every other one of his MGMs, this time without the Marx Brothers to detract attention. Fannie Brice was just not a film personality. For someone who remembers her Baby Snooks radio show as quite entertaining, the Snooks routine here is almost embarrassing. Judy was not given any songs in which she could reveal her personality. The last scene was (unintentionally, I suppose) comical, when the entire cast, including Reginald Owen and Billie Burke. simulate a group dance number. This one is only for Garland die-hards interested in her early work. (Actually, she is much more natural in her first feature: Pigskin Parade, since not all the weight is on her shoulders.
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