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Keeper of the Flame (1942)
An (unintentionally) amusing Gothic political thriller
I recently watched "Keeper" on TCM. It was one of two Tracy-Hepburn films I had never seen, and I would rank it as the least successful of their films together. Director George Cukor and cinematographer William Daniels give this movie the full-out Gothic treatment, with obvious allusions to both "Citizen Kane" and "Rebecca." With its dark, "Citizen Kane" lighting, its heavy-handedly sinister atmosphere, its creepy Xanadu/Manderly-like fortress-mansion, its mad mother in the dower house (an interesting variation on "Jane Eyre"), its inexplicably hostile and secretive characters (including Richard Whorf as a worshipful male equivalent of Mrs. Danvers), its bizarrely ambiguous performance by Hepburn (is she mad, evil, a murderess, a faithful grieving widow, part of a cover-up conspiracy, a dupe?), it is certainly something to behold. But lacking any subtlety, it's just not that good. Hepburn's first appearance, dressed in white from head to toe and bearing an enormous bouquet of white flowers--more like a bride or vestal virgin than a grieving widow--as she glides toward an idealized portrait of her dead husband, borders on the camp. Only Tracy's consistently understated performance as the reporter and Percy Kilbride's incongruously comic turn as the skeptical Yankee cab driver withstand this ponderous approach. Hepburn's long final monologue, in which she reveals the truth about her dead husband to Tracy, is awkwardly declamatory and politically vague. I would recommend the movie for Hepburn-Tracy completists; just don't expect a very good film. For the record, to me the top Hepburn-Tracy movies are 1)"Adam's Rib," 2) "Woman of the Year," and 3) "Pat and Mike." The first and last of these were also directed by Cukor, but with a decidedly lighter touch.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
A good but not great version of a great novel
Having just watched the most recent version of "Pride and Prejudice," I must say that although a respectable effort, this version is in every way inferior to the 1995 mini-series. The only element that measures up to that landmark version is Keira Knightley's performance as Elizabeth, and I couldn't help noticing how closely her features, gestures, facial expressions, and line readings resembled those of Jennifer Ehle. One problem is that the movie is just too short to adequately capture the atmosphere of the book. The first third of the movie is particularly irritating. It seems to have been constructed for viewers with the attention spans of ten-year olds. Thus we have a series of overly condensed, hyperactive, almost "short-hand-like" scenes that completely fail to engage the emotions. The rushed, clipped line readings are especially annoying, and both they and the frenzied pacing prevent any significant interaction between the characters. The movie improves when the pace finally relaxes, about one-third of the way through. Brenda Blethyn and Judi Dench are well cast, although both of these actresses seem obvious choices who could play these roles in their sleep. And there are other more serious problems. Aside from Elizabeth, the Bennet girls are only sketchily defined. (At least the incessant coughing of Kitty has been eliminated, about the only improvement on the source material.) I particularly missed the close, confidential relationship between the two oldest sisters. Donald Sutherland seems a poor choice to play Mr. Bennet; his wonderfully written dialogue never once sounds natural, and his close relationship with Elizabeth and respect for her good sense and intelligence are not adequately conveyed. The Bennets are far too countrified and peasant-like, and their house too much a mucky working farm, not the shabby-genteel urban home it should be. Why would Mr. Collins covet such a run-down, undesirable property? Matthew MacFadyen is never more than adequate as Mr. Darcy, a result largely of the sketchy writing, not the performance. He looks right for the role (although probably too young--Austen heroines always seem attracted to older, more mature men), but he is never on screen long enough to make much of an impression. Thus his actions seem to be the result of arbitrary mood swings, not those of a complete but mysteriously contradictory person, as they should be. Elizabeth's rejection of Mr. Collins' proposal comes off as unnecessarily brusque and cruel; it almost makes Mr. Collins the more sympathetic of the two. The scene with Elizabeth on the precipice seems to belong in another movie altogether, perhaps a later David Lean spectacular, not the intimate, house-bound chamber piece that "Pride and Prejudice" should be. The scene with the nude statues at Pemberley introduces an overtly erotic element that seems incongruous with the tone of Austen; isn't her persistent theme the superiority of sense over sensuality? And really, Burghley House as Netherfield? Altogether too grand for an unoccupied county residence let for the summer. Despite its shortcomings, worth watching for fans of the novel. Just don't expect it to measure up in any way to the still-definitive 1995 version.
An underrated thriller that shouldn't be missed.
"Homicidal" is playing on TCM this September, and my advice is Don't Miss This One! For sheer entertainment value, the movie probably deserves a rating of 10. The often commented upon resemblances to "Psycho," although clear, are superficial and none of them were new to the genre when Hitchcock used them, although admittedly in a less conventional way. In fact, Castle uses the similarities to "Psycho" as an element of misdirection. "Homicidal" has many things to recommend it. The central mystery came as a complete surprise to me, although I realized afterward that, as in all the best mysteries, the vital clues had been carefully planted but in such a matter-of-fact way, and with such clever misdirection to non-essential details, that their connection was thoroughly disguised. The movie makes excellent use of Solvang, California, when it was still a kitschy theme village (pre-"Sideways"). The photography by the masterful Burnett Guffey (with "From Here to Eternity," "King Rat," "Bonnie and Clyde," and two Oscars to his credit) is first-rate. The performances by Jean Arless and Eugenie Leontovich (in a mute role) are outstanding, and TV stalwarts Glenn Corbett and Patricia Breslin are well-cast as the "normal" young couple drawn into the perverse situation. This is clearly the best William Castle movie I've seen and well worth watching or recording for later, when you want to watch something effortlessly enjoyable solely for its value as successful entertainment.
This is a remarkable episode for a couple of reasons.
One is the clearly homoerotic subtext of the plot. Several plot details point in this direction: the languid, chain-smoking, flower-tending portrayal by George Macready of the crime boss; his succession of boyish favorites, each eventually replaced by a younger version; his demand that Dick York kill his own girlfriend; and especially the choice of a black leather jacket as the present to be given to the new "favorite boy" after completing his first hit job, which is always to assassinate the previous "favorite."
Another noteworthy thing about "Vicious Circle" is that it is one of only two TV episodes credited to the noted (and frequent Academy Award nominee and one-time winner for "Laura") cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who gives the episode a high-contrast film noir look very different from the typical episode of this series. The other TV episode he shot is the first "Twilight Zone" ever broadcast, called "Where Is Everybody?"