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Dr. Crippen (1963)
The Worm Turns
Hawley Harvey Crippen has gone down in history as one of the most notorious murderers in British history, although he was neither a serial killer like Jack the Ripper or the Moors Murderers nor a powerful crime lord like the Kray brothers. He was hanged for the murder of his wife whom he poisoned so that he could be with his attractive, much younger, mistress Ethel Le Neve. There were probably many similar domestic murders in Victorian and Edwardian Britain; what made Crippen so famous was probably his dramatic attempt to escape to his native America with Ethel and the part modern technology (or what was then modern technology) played in their arrest aboard a ship in Canadian waters. (Crippen had been recognised from newspaper photographs by the ship's captain, who telegraphed his suspicions by wireless to Scotland Yard).
Mrs Crippen's real name was Kunigunde Mackamotski, but she later changed this to Corrine or Cora Henrietta Turner and also used the stage name Belle Elmore. (She was a music hall artiste). In the film she is always referred to as "Belle", although in private life she seems to have preferred "Cora". Her husband has gone down in history as "Dr Crippen", although this is not strictly correct, as his qualifications from the Cleveland Homeopathic Medical College did not allow him to practise medicine in Britain, where he worked, among other things, as a distributor of patent medicines. In the film, however, it is implied that he is a GP.
The film follows the facts of the case fairly closely, although there are occasional divergences; Crippen and Ethel are shown as being tried together but in reality they were tried separately, Ethel's trial taking place after Crippen's had been concluded. (She was charged with being an "accessory after the facts" to murder, so it made sense to hold two separate trials. Had Crippen been acquitted, there would have been no charge for Ethel to answer). Crippen and his wife were both American by birth, but they are played here with British accents; unlike many British film-makers from this period the producers were clearly not interested in bringing in Hollywood stars to increase the film's appeal at the American box-office. Or perhaps they could not find Hollywood stars who were interested in playing a notorious murderer and his shrewish wife.
There are two excellent performances from Donald Pleasence as Crippen and Coral Browne as Belle, who combine to provide a striking portrait of a disastrously unsuccessful marriage. Browne plays Belle as a crude, vulgar and sexually promiscuous middle-aged woman, no longer attractive although she may have been so in the past. We get some idea of her character when she sings one of her music hall songs in which she declares that, although she is not a "one-man woman", anyone who loves her must be a "one-woman man", and it is quite obvious that this applies as much to the real Belle as it does to her stage persona. She delights in insulting and humiliating her husband, often in front of friends and acquaintances, and cuckolds him with their lodgers and with her music-hall colleagues. Despite her own infidelities she is offended by her husband's affair with Ethel and by the fact that he no longer wishes to sleep with her- not because she is sexually attracted to him but because she cannot bear the idea of any man not being sexually attracted to the great Belle Elmore. (For some reason, Belle always calls her husband "Peter", but Ethel calls him by his real name, Hawley).
Pleasence's Crippen is outwardly a quiet little worm of a man who will meekly accept all the humiliations which his overbearing wife loads upon him, but, as they say, even a worm will turn, and Crippen gradually begins to stand up to Belle's bluster. The one acting contribution I felt was weak came from Samantha Eggar as Ethel, as she did little to suggest just why such a beautiful young woman should have fallen so deeply in love with such an unprepossessing and physically unattractive older man. Although Ethel Le Neve was found not guilty of being an accessory to Belle's murder, I suspect that in real life she was not as sweet and innocent as Eggar makes her seem here.
At the end of the film Crippen claims that he did not intend to kill Belle but accidentally gave her an overdose of a sedative he was using (without her knowledge or consent) to calm her aggressive nature. Similar claims have been made on his behalf by commentators on the case, but he never raised this claim at the trial. Perhaps preferred to gamble on the possibility of being acquitted altogether than to raise what would effectively have been a defence of "not guilty to murder, guilty to manslaughter". Although manslaughter did not carry the death penalty, it carried the possibility of a long prison sentence which would have separated Crippen from his beloved Ethel.
Unlike most crime movies, films like this one which recreate real-life crimes from the past are not really "thrillers"; most of the audience will be well aware of Crippen's story so his eventual conviction and execution will come as no surprise. Such films can, however, shed light on the underlying pressures and psychological factors which lead to crime. 7/10
First Name above the Title Gets the Boy
In the opening scene a young man named Johnny Case announces to his friends Nick and Susan Potter that he has fallen in love with a girl named Julia and that they are engaged to be married, although he admits that knows very little about her or her family background. In Scene 2 Johnny visits Julia's home and is astounded to discover that the address she has given him is a luxurious mansion and that her family are obviously extremely wealthy.
And then in Scene 3 we get to see Julia for the first time and we immediately realise (if we know something about the conventions of the Hollywood romantic comedy) exactly how the story is going to play out. The clue lies in those words in the opening credits, "starring Katharine Hepburn". And Hepburn does not play Julia. (She is played by a lesser-known actress called Doris Nolan).
Big-name movie stars have always disliked playing losers in love, so the general rule in all romantic comedies involving a love triangle is "First name above the title gets the girl". Or, in this case, the boy. If a rom-com stars two actors of the magnitude of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant we know that they are going to end up together. Nobody was ever going to make a film in which Kate loses her man to the milk-and-water Doris Nolan, so we just know that Johnny and Julia are going to split up for some reason so that he can get together with Hepburn's character, who is soon revealed to be Julia's sister, Linda. We just have to wait and see how this is going to be accomplished.
The title "Holiday" has two meanings. It refers to the fact that the action takes place over the Christmas/New Year holiday season. On the other hand it also refers to Johnny's plans for his future. He is a self-made man from relatively humble origins who has done well in business and made a considerable amount of money for himself, although he is nowhere near as rich as Julia's family. He intends to take a "holiday" from work after his marriage so that he can decide what he really wants to do with his life (which may not involve making money). Julia's autocratic banker father Edward is impressed with Johnny's success, so much so that he is prepared to overlook Johnny's humble background, something which under normal circumstances would have ruled him out as Edward's son-in-law. He is not, however, impressed by Johnny's plan for a "holiday from work". To Edward nothing is more important than making money, and he already has plans to use Johnny's talents in the services of his banking business.
More importantly, Julia is not impressed by Johnny's plans either, as she is a conformist who sees eye-to-eye with her father about most matters, especially the importance of money as the be-all and end-all of life. Linda, however, is portrayed as a free spirit and a rebel against her privileged background, a girl who instinctively sees Johnny as a kindred soul. No prizes for guessing who he ends up with.
Although the film was generally well received by the critics when it came out in 1938, it did not do well at the box-office, probably because America was only just starting to emerge from the Great Depression, and in a period of widespread poverty and unemployment audiences found it difficult to understand or sympathise with a man who would voluntarily walk away from a job which would assure him wealth and security for life. The movie was a remake of one from 1930, and both were based upon a stage play from the pre-Depression boom era of the Roaring Twenties. (As, however, Johnny gives his date of birth as July 1908 and his age as 30, we can date the action of the film to December 1938 and January 1939).
This was one of four films Hepburn and Grant made together, the others being "Sylvia Scarlett", "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Philadelphia Story". All of these, apart from "Bringing Up Baby", were directed by George Cukor. Hepburn and Grant were practised romantic comedy stars and do enough to make "Holiday" still worth watching nearly eighty years on, but it lacks the depth of "The Philadelphia Story" or the screwball zaniness of "Bringing Up Baby". (I have never seen "Sylvia Scarlett"). It relies too much on a predictable plot and well-worn clichés about how wealth does not lead to happiness and how money can't buy me love. And, yes, that was a cliché long before the Beatles pressed it into service as a song title. 6/10
Like "My Fair Lady", "Gigi" is a musical with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. The two films are set in major European capitals (Paris and London) at around the same period in history (1900 and circa 1910). Both feature an older man/younger woman romance set against the background of high society. In "My Fair Lady" the female lead is played by Audrey Hepburn and in "Gigi" by the nearest thing Hollywood possessed to a Hepburn clone, Leslie Caron. (Hepburn herself, who had played Gigi in a non-musical stage adaptation of Colette's novella, was offered the role but turned it down). In both films the leading lady's voice is dubbed by a professional singer but the leading man's is not, although neither Rex Harrison nor Louis Jourdan had a great singing voice; both essentially recite their songs rather than singing them. One difference is that "My Fair Lady" is based on a Broadway musical whereas "Gigi" (like "Calamity Jane" and some other musicals) started life as a film and became a stage production later.
The film opens with Honoré Lachaille, an elderly upper-class roué, drooling over the charms of "leetle girls" who "get beeger every day". One of those "leetle girls" is Gigi, who is being trained by her terrible old grandmother Madame Alvarez and her even more terrible Great Aunt Alicia to become a courtesan, a word which in this context doesn't quite mean "high-class call girl" but certainly means "gold-digging professional mistress". The man they have lined up as Gigi's lover is Honoré's wealthy nephew Gaston, a sugar-daddy in the most literal sense as his fortune derives from his family's sugar-refining business. (In the original novella Gigi's full name was "Gilberte", but this is never used in the film). Gigi's parents don't seem to have much say in their daughter's future; we learn that her mother, who is heard but never seen, is a not-very-successful opera singer and never see or hear anything of her father.
Yes, I know what you're thinking. Given that the Production Code was still in force in 1958, what on earth were the American censors thinking of when they allowed this sleazy story onto the silver screen? The producer Arthur Freed apparently managed to persuade the Hays Office that the story condemned sexual exploitation, something that would probably have come as news to Colette, never first in to bat for the Moral Majority and never in a hurry to condemn anything of a sexual nature, had she still been alive in 1958. The story seems even tawdrier when you consider that most of the characters are completely amoral; when Gaston learns that one of his discarded mistresses has attempted suicide he and Honoré regard this as grounds for celebration rather than regret. Gigi herself, who manages to preserve a belief in true love, is a partial exception, but even she sees true love in terms of becoming Gaston's gold-digging professional wife rather than his mistress. (It might have been more interesting had she found true love with a worker in Gaston's factory).
Something which might trouble modern viewers more than it did audiences in 1958 is that we never learn exactly how old Gigi is. Caron was 27 at the time, and Hepburn would have been 29, but I think we can assume that Gigi is much younger than this, probably still a teenager. (A would-be courtesan who is still a virgin in her late twenties is definitely a slow starter). At times, indeed, particularly in the early scenes, Gigi comes across as being more thirteen-going-on-fourteen than sixteen-going-on-seventeen, which makes her romance with the thirty-something Gaston seem decidedly creepy. Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle may have been considerably younger than Harrison's Professor Higgins, but at least she was an adult woman capable of knowing her own mind.
And what were the Academy thinking of when they showered this film with so many Oscars? It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won all of them, although it was not nominated in any acting categories. (Nine Oscars for one film was a record at the time, but one which only lasted a single year until it was beaten by "Ben-Hur"). Admittedly, some of these were well-deserved, such as "Best Costume Design"; Cecil Beaton's costumes are certainly sumptuous. "Best Musical Score" for Andre Previn also seems fair enough, and some of the songs are pretty good. I have always hated "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"; Lerner's only excuse is that in 1958 it probably sounded more innocent, and less like the Official Anthem of the Paedophile Liberation Front, than it does today. I liked, however, the gay and vivacious "The Night They Invented Champagne" and "I Remember It Well" is not only amusing but also surprisingly touching as Honoré and Madame Alvarez recall- in his case not always accurately- their long-ago love affair. (Honoré may be an old rogue, but at least Maurice Chevalier makes him a lovable rogue).
But "Best Picture" and "Best Director" for Vincente Minnelli? There were, in fact, some excellent films made in 1958. My own vote for "Best Picture" would have gone to William Wyler's masterful "The Big Country", but there was also Hitchcock's "Vertigo", "The Defiant Ones" and the British-made "Ice Cold in Alex". I know that in the fifties the Academy looked down on Westerns, didn't understand Hitch, disliked anything with an anti-racist message and overlooked anything British, but compared to films of this calibre- or for that matter to the far superior "My Fair Lady"- "Gigi" just looks like frothy trivia. 6/10
A goof. Honoré says that he was "not born in this century". As the year is 1900, which was the last year of the nineteenth century, not the first year of the twentieth, he almost certainly was "born in this century"- unless he is supposed to be over 100 years old.
The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016)
Snow White without the Princess
You've heard of "Hamlet" without the Prince. Now we have "Snow White" without the Princess. "The Huntsman: Winter's War" is, officially, both a prequel and sequel to "Snow White and the Huntsman"- the action takes place both before and after the events of the first film- but Snow White does not actually appear in it, even though she is mentioned on a couple of occasions. The film also borrows a few ideas from "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen, or possibly from "Frozen", the Disney adaptation of Andersen's story.
Although Snow White does not appear, Charlize Theron's evil Queen Ravenna returns from the earlier film. The main villainess, however, is Ravenna's younger sister Freya, who rules her own kingdom, a land of ice and snow, in the far north, and who remains in power even after Ravenna has been overthrown. As the title implies, Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman also returns. We learn that, in this context, the word "Huntsman" does not necessarily mean "man who hunts animals". The Huntsmen are the elite troops of Freya's army, trained in the arts of war from childhood, and Hemsworth's character, Eric, is one of these. He incurs Freya's displeasure, however, when he falls in love with a female Huntsman, Sara. (Freya's army is an equal opportunities employer). As Freya has replaced the Ten Commandments with one of her own, "thou shalt not love", Eric is banished from the kingdom and Sara put to death.
I won't set out the rest of the plot because it is essentially a mish-mash of clichés drawn from every sword-and-sorcery adventure you've ever seen. I said above that the film borrows from "The Snow Queen"; it also borrows heavily- as do most modern sword-and-sorceries- from "Lord of the Rings", both Tolkien's novel and Peter Jackson's three films. Like "Lord of the Rings" it revolves around an evil ruler trying to get his/her hands on a magical artefact, in this case Ravenna's magic mirror, which will give him/her immense power. In both cases the aforesaid evil ruler is opposed by an assorted group of good guys, in this case Eric and a few dwarfs, both male and female. (It is a general rule of the fantasy genre that dwarfs and elves are good, trolls and goblins evil). Besides the dwarfs, Eric also has the assistance of Sara, rumours of whose death prove to have been much exaggerated. (That's not a spoiler. No film company is going to hire a major star like Jessica Chastain and kill her off in the first reel).
Although this is officially an American film, only one of the actors playing the main characters is American; Hemsworth is Australian, Theron South African and Emily Blunt (Freya) British. The one exception is Chastain, and even she does not sound American. Like a number of the other characters she speaks her lines in what is supposed to be a Scottish accent. Now I was not worried that some of these accents were not completely accurate- the action takes place in a fairy-tale fantasy world, not in the real Scotland- but I did wonder why an American studio were making a film using accents that many American viewers would have difficulty with.
I never really thought of Blunt as being a Charlize Theron look-alike, but here the two actresses are made up to look convincingly similar; you could certainly take them for sisters. Where Blunt has difficulty is in trying to suggest a difference in personality. The script suggests that, unlike the bad-through-and-through Ravenna, Freya may not be completely evil and that she may have a softer side to her character, although she keeps it well hidden. (Ravenna, for example, would probably have killed both Eric and Sara outright rather than letting them live). Blunt never, however, really suggests this in her portrayal; the most that comes across is that Freya is only 99% evil, which is not such a big improvement on the full hundred. Theron herself was rather splendid in "Snow White and the Huntsman", but does not make the same impression here.
I am old enough to remember just how bad fantasy films could be in the pre-Jackson era. (Think, if you can bear to, of "Conan the Barbarian" or "Prince Valiant"). Even otherwise distinguished directors could make fools of themselves when they ventured into this territory, Ridley Scott's "Legend" and Richard Fleischer's spectacularly awful "Red Sonja" being cases in point Admittedly, in the 2010s no film could get away with special effects as inadequate as those used in "Red Sonja" and other eighties adventures, and those in "The Huntsman: Winter's War" are generally well done, but that is no more than we have come to expect from the genre in recent years. Visual effects alone, however, are not enough; those film-makers who want to emulate Jackson's achievement need a story as good as Tolkien's, a literate script and first-class acting, and those are all qualities in which this film is deficient. "Snow White and the Huntsman" is not in the "Lord of the Rings" class, but it still has plenty to enjoy. Not so its successor. 4/10
Flingers on Blonce
The title "The Long and the Short and the Tall" is taken from the lyrics of "Bless 'Em All", a rather nonsensical soldiers' song from the First World War which enjoyed fresh popularity during the Second. It would appear that the song is not well-known across the Atlantic, as it was released as "Jungle Fighters" in both the USA and Canada.
The action takes place during the Burmese Campaign of 1942. Seven British soldiers on patrol in the jungle capture a Japanese prisoner whom they nickname "Tojo". Much of the action revolves around their arguments over what to do with him. Their commander, Sergeant Mitchem wants to take the prisoner back to headquarters for interrogation. Several others, especially Mitchem's second-in-command Corporal Johnstone, want to kill him, but one man, Private Bamforth, argues strongly that they should spare his life and that killing a prisoner would be a war crime.
The film was based on a stage play by Willis Hall. In the play Bamforth had been played by Peter O'Toole, and the director Leslie Norman (father of the well-known critic Barry) wanted to cast O'Toole in the film as well. The producers, however, wanted to go for a "big name"- apparently O'Toole did not count as such in 1961- and insisted upon Laurence Harvey. This proved to be a mistake, and not only because Harvey quarrelled not only with Norman but also with his co-stars Richard Todd and Richard Harris. Harvey's performance is the main reason why I disliked the film.
In the opening scenes Harvey is not too bad, if you can overlook his rather dodgy Cockney accent. Bamforth is, to put it mildly, a difficult customer. He is the sort of barrack-room lawyer who knows the King's Regulations inside-out except the parts which state that insubordination and disobedience to orders are offences against military discipline. He takes a great delight in baiting his superiors Mitchem and Johnstone, but he does not just have a problem with authority. He has a problem with the rest of the human race, and dislikes his fellow privates as much as he dislikes the NCOs. He makes no effort to conceal his prejudices against people from other parts of Britain- he himself is a Londoner- and his constant taunting of his colleagues Lance-Corporal Macleish (a Scot), Private Evans (a Welshman) and Private Whitaker (a Northerner) is mean-spirited stuff, not mere friendly banter.
The trouble is, Harvey works so hard to establish his character in the audience's mind as a complete bastard that we do not believe him when Bamforth suddenly and unexpectedly emerges as the conscience of the detachment, especially as he originally tries to humiliate Tojo by addressing him in a patronising pidgin English. ("Flingers on Blonce!"- this being how Bamforth imagines the Japanese would pronounce "Fingers on Bonce!" He is evidently unaware that the Japanese have difficulty with pronouncing the letter "L", which does not exist in their language, and certainly would not try to insert it into English words where it does not belong). Now Hall, Norman and Harvey probably intended us to accept Bamforth's attempts to do the decent thing as quite sincerely meant, but I was left with the impression that this was only part of his ongoing campaign against authority and that if the rest of the detachment had wanted to spare Tojo, Bamforth would have voted to kill him.
Of the other actors, the best is probably Harris as Johnstone, a man who finds it difficult to keep his violent emotions under control. Todd was something of a specialist in war films (as were some other British actors of the period, such as John Mills and Kenneth More), but he makes Mitchem a rather anonymous figure and this is not his best performance.
Norman would have preferred to shoot the film on location, but during this period the British film industry rarely had the financial resources to travel abroad for filming, and the jungles of South-East Asia were definitely off-limits. ("Bridge on the River Kwai", although many of its stars were British, was actually an American film). The film, therefore, had to be made in a studio, and it shows. The budget for creating realistic scenery was obviously limited.
Both play and film were controversial when they came out. They were particularly unpopular among British veterans who had fought in Burma, partly because of the implication that British soldiers might kill an unarmed prisoner, but also because the patrol are portrayed as an incompetent and undisciplined rabble. The play was at one time popular as a set text for English Literature O-Levels, although (as with many set texts) this may be a reflection not of its literary merits but of the fact that it is an easy work to write an essay about. I have never seen the play on stage, but then it is rarely performed these days. As for the film, it comes across as very dated today. Its main point of interest is that it represents a move away from the gung-ho, patriotic war films of the fifties towards the more questioning, sceptical world view of the sixties, but it does not represent a very interesting treatment of its theme. 4/10
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Philistinism Raised to the Level of Fascist Dogma
Most dictatorships have forbidden the publication, or even the possession, of books which they consider repugnant to their particular world view and some- most notoriously Nazi Germany- have organised public burnings of banned literature. The dictatorship described in "Fahrenheit 451", however, has taken matters one stage further. The government have not merely banned books which offer support to their political opponents or to alternative ideologies. They have banned all books, without exception. In our society firemen put out fires- in this society they start them, as the government employs the fire brigade to seek out and burn those illegal books which a few criminal elements still persist in concealing.
Ray Bradbury's novel has many similarities with two other dystopian stories, George Orwell's "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World". The relationships between the characters are particularly reminiscent of those in Orwell's book. Guy Montag, the Fireman who begins reading the very books which it is his duty to burn, equates to Orwell's Winston Smith, another minor functionary who comes to hate the regime he serves. Montag's friend Clarisse, who shares his dissident views and love of literature, is the equivalent of Winston's girlfriend Julia. And the Captain is, like O'Brien in "1984" or Mustapha Mond in "Brave New World", the "raisonneur", the defender of the system who tries to persuade the dissident of the wrongness of his views. Bradbury also introduces a fourth major character with no equivalent in "1984", Montag's wife, called Mildred in the original novel and Linda in the film.
The arguments put forward by the Captain are those which all book-lovers will have all heard many times from book-haters- novels are pointless because they deal with imaginary people who never existed, philosophy is pointless because philosophers frequently disagree with one another, books make people unhappy or discontented with their lot, people who are well-read tend to look down on those who are not, blah, blah, blah . In the real world, however, such opinions are merely Philistine and crass. In the world of "Fahrenheit 451" they have become the official doctrine of a Fascist state and its justification for persecuting its opponents, by which it means not only those who want to overthrow the regime but also those who refuse to conform to accepted social conventions.
Bradbury's book was set in his native America, but the film switches the action to Britain, even though it had a French director, François Truffaut. (This was his only English-language film, and also his first colour film). The action is supposed to take place at some unspecified future date, but Truffaut makes little attempt to give it a futuristic look. The architecture, clothes and interior design are all very much those of the late sixties. The only futuristic elements are the monorail- one of those oft-made predictions for the future which in most parts of the world has stubbornly refused to come true- and the large wall-mounted colour television sets, a surprisingly accurate prediction. From the viewpoint of 2017 they look very modern, but in 1966 British television was still in black-and-white and people only had small, free-standing sets.
When I first saw this film a number of years ago, I did not care much for the casting of Oskar Werner as Montag or for the double-casting of Julie Christie as both Clarisse and Linda. Having recently seen the film again I am inclined to change my mind about these matters. (Truffaut certainly came to regret using Werner- the two had a massive falling-out while working on this movie, despite having previously worked together on "Jules et Jim"). Certainly, Werner's English is not good, and he speaks with a heavy Germanic accent, but then Montag does have a German surname, something much less common in Britain than it would be in America, where a large number of people are of German descent. The casting of an Austrian actor in the role, after his original choice Terence Stamp dropped out, may have been a deliberate move on Truffaut's part to suggest that Montag is an outsider in this society and does not wholly share its values. It is notable that in the film he is never referred to as "Guy", the very Anglo-Saxon Christian name he has in the novel; even Linda just calls him "Montag".
Christie was originally cast only as Linda, and it was intended that Jean Seberg should play Clarisse. Truffaut, however, changed his mind and decided to cast the same actress as both women, who are never on screen together. (Christie wears different hairstyles in each role, and the short, boyish cut she wears for Clarisse makes her look rather like Seberg, who favoured closely cropped styles). HIs idea, I think, was to imply that the two women are not polar opposites but two sides of the same coin. We sense that both are highly intelligent, but Linda is too lazy, or too frightened, to make full use of her intelligence, and whereas Clarisse is prepared to question the regime and its values, Linda takes refuge in conformism and an unthinking acceptance of the status quo.
The other very effective feature of this film is the strangely poetic ending- not the same as the one in Bradbury's novel- in which Montag and the "book people" are seen wandering through a snowy landscape. The look of this scene was entirely fortuitous- it was shot in April, but an unseasonable cold spell meant that the ground was covered in snow. This detail adds a certain bleakness to Truffaut's chilling vision of the future; had the scene been shot in cheery April sunshine that might have made the ending a bit too optimistic. 8/10
A Room with a View (1985)
Intellectual about Emotions
"A Room with a View" was part of the great E. M. Forster cycle of the eighties and early nineties when, starting with David Lean's "A Passage to India" from 1984, five of his six novels were turned into films. Three of these- this one, "Maurice" and "Howard's End"- were directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant. Some films bear little resemblance to the books on which they are ostensibly based, but Merchant and Ivory follow their literary source quite closely, even dividing the film into sections corresponding to Forster's chapters.
The film is set in during the Edwardian period in England and Italy, although all the major characters are English. The plot can be summarised as "two boys love one girl". The girl is Lucy Honeychurch, daughter of a wealthy upper-middle class English family. The boys are her fiancé Cecil Vyse and George Emerson, a handsome young man whom she meets on holiday in Italy.
Forster was touching on a theme with which he was to deal at greater length in his next novel, "Howard's End", a theme which was also a preoccupation of his German contemporary Thomas Mann, namely the contrast between the "artistic" and "bourgeois" attitudes to life. In "Howard's End" the two sides are represented by the cultured Schlegel family (with whom Forster's sympathies clearly lie) and the solidly Philistine Wilcoxes. Here, however, the emphasis is rather different. The artistic side is represented by Cecil, a supercilious cultural snob whom Forster may have been using to satirise the pretensions of the Aesthetic Movement. Although the bourgeois Honeychurches can also be snobbish, they are less pretentious, and Lucy herself, a gifted pianist with a passion for classical music, is far from uncultured. (The same cannot, however, be said for her mother Marion and her loud, brash brother Freddy).
Another important theme is the way in which the values of the old century are giving way to those of the new. The old Victorian era is associated with adherence to social convention and emotional repression, the new Edwardian one with a more free-spirited and emotionally liberated attitude. This distinction is not, however, necessarily the same as the difference between old and young. There are free-thinking, unconstrained older people, such as George's eccentric father, and more emotionally reticent younger ones, such as Lucy who finds it difficult to give free expression to her feelings, at least in words. (She has no problem in expressing them through her music).
The two performances I liked least came from Denholm Elliott and Julian Sands as the two Emersons, father and son. I know that Elliott tried hard to make old Mr Emerson lovably unconventional, but I was left with the impression that he would have been unbearably irritating in real life. Sands came across as pleasant but a bit too bland for the hero of a romantic drama. I certainly could have done without that scene in which George, Freddy and the local vicar all splash about naked in a pool, a heavy-handed way of emphasising the young men's boisterousness and free spirits.
On the positive side, I liked Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy, Maggie Smith as Marion's uptight cousin Charlotte who acts as Lucy's companion and chaperone in Italy, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil. Bonham-Carter was at the start of her acting career, but she gave great promise for the future. (She was to become something of a specialist in period dramas and appeared in two more Forster adaptations, "Where Angels Fear to Tread" and "Howard's End"). On the surface, Cecil seems to be a one-dimensional character, a caricature of the self-satisfied and opinionated culture-vulture, but Day-Lewis is able to suggest that this surface may be a mere façade. Cecil's aestheticism may be just another form of emotional repression. He has no problem with expressing his views on art or literature, but expressing his deeper feelings is another matter. When Lucy breaks off her engagement to him on the grounds that he has no deeper feelings, at least for people as opposed to objects, I felt she may have been doing him an injustice.
As one might expect from Merchant/Ivory, the film is visually beautiful and makes good use of its location settings, whether in Florence or in the Kent countryside. (Lucy's home village, Summer Street, is supposedly in Surrey but these scenes were actually shot in Chiddingstone, Kent). It also makes good use of music, especially Puccini's aria "O My Beloved Father" (perhaps less over-familiar in the mid-eighties than it is today) which sounds wonderfully appropriate to the Italian settings, even if it was not written until a decade after Forster's novel.
One criticism I have heard of the film is that "nothing happens". Although it is certainly true that there is little in the way of physical action, and fewer dramatic developments than in, say, "A Passage to India" or "Howard's End", this is not a criticism I accept. On an emotional level there is actually a lot going on. As roger Ebert pointed out, "It is an intellectual film, but intellectual about emotions: It encourages us to think about how we feel, instead of simply acting on our feelings". This sort of emotional intelligence is not always easy to convey in the cinema- it is probably easier to do it via the written word- but I think that Merchant and Ivory succeed in doing it here. 8/10 A goof. There is a curious inconsistency about the pronunciation of Cecil's name. Most of the characters pronounce it as "Sissil", but George insists on "Sessil", even though he knows Cecil personally. Also, "Powell" (the name of one of the servants) is pronounced by some characters to rhyme with "Cole" and by others to rhyme with "Cowell".
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Requiem for the Silent Tradition
During my childhood in the sixties and seventies silent films were often shown on British television. These were invariably comedy shorts starring the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or the Keystone Kops and I was left with the impression that my grandparents' generation only ever went to the cinema to be entertained by slapstick comedy. This impression was, of course, quite erroneous and there were plenty of full-length feature films on serious subjects made during the silent era. "A Cottage on Dartmoor" was one of these. It was, in fact, one of the last silents to be made in Britain, coming out in 1929, two years after "The Jazz Singer" had launched the talking picture revolution. The film actually makes reference to the coming of sound and a key scene takes place when two characters go to the local cinema to watch a "talkie".
The film opens with an escaped convict making his way across the bleak Dartmoor landscape. (The film is also known by the alternative title "Escape from Dartmoor"). He meets a young woman outside an isolated farmhouse and she, evidently taking pity on him, allows him into her home and offers him a hiding place. She exclaims his name, "Joe!" from which it is clear that these two already know each other. Their back-story is then told in flashback.
We learn that Joe was originally a barber and that the girl, whose name is Sally, worked alongside him as a manicurist in the same salon. At one time the two were dating one another, but Joe had a rival for Sally's affections in the shape of Harry, a local farmer and regular customer at the salon. During the above-mentioned scene in the cinema it becomes clear that Sally prefers Harry to Joe, and when Harry comes into the shop the following day an altercation between them leads to Harry being slashed by Joe's cut-throat razor. Joe is arrested, convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to imprisonment. The action then switches back to that Dartmoor cottage.
The silent cinema did have some advantages over the sound cinema; it could, for example, be more international. It seems that this was Chaplin's motivation for staying faithful to the silent medium; he wanted his films to be understood across the world, not just in English-speaking countries. Here only one of the three leads, Norah Baring, is British; Joe is played by the Swedish actor Uno Henning and Harry by the German Hans Schlettow. All three, in fact, are very good, having mastered the art of silent acting, which is something very different from conventional acting.
And yet, despite all the talents involved- not only the talents of the actors but also those of director Anthony Asquith and cameraman Stanley Rodwell- I could, watching the film, understand one of the reasons why silent and sound films could not coexist for long in the way in which, say, black-and-white movies managed to coexist with colour for around thirty years. Unlike physical comedy, strong emotions like love and jealousy are not really an ideal subject for silent film. When most people want to express their emotions they do so through speech. They do not act them out in dumb show. This applies even more strongly to actions motivated by mental reasoning than to those motivated by raw emotion. Emotions can to some extent be expressed though gestures and facial expressions- the cinema scene is a good example of this- but rational thoughts cannot.
Watching this film we are always aware that the actors and film-makers were working to overcome the limitations inherent in the silent form, and perhaps not always successfully. There are a number of points at which the meaning of the action is unclear. To what extent is Sally torn between her feelings for Joe and those for Harry? Does Joe deliberately try to kill Harry? Why do Sally and Harry attempt to assist Joe's escape from prison, even though one might have thought they have good reason to hate him? All of these matters could have been clarified by spoken dialogue.
It often happens that a particular class of object reaches its pinnacle of design just at the point where it is about to be made obsolete by technological change. Clipper ships like the "Cutty Sark" were masterpieces of design, as were Nigel Gresley's A4 Pacific railway engines, but all the skill which went into creating these objects could not prevent the sailing ship from giving way to the steamship or the steam locomotive to diesel and electric traction.
As it was in transport, so it was in the entertainment industry. A lot of skill went into creating films like "A Cottage on Dartmoor", and yet the silent film was doomed to give way to the talkie. (Asquith was to become one of Britain's leading directors of talking pictures). The critic Simon McCallum described the film as "a final, passionate cry in defence of the silent aesthetic in British cinema". I see it more as a requiem for the silent tradition. 7/10
Fine Gainsborough Melodrama
"Jassy" was one of a number of historical melodramas made in Britain by Gainsborough Pictures during the 1940s. ("The Wicked Lady" is another well-known example). The action takes place in the early nineteenth century. The main characters are Christopher Hatton, a country squire, Nicholas Helmar, another wealthy gentleman, Hatton's son Barney, Helmar's attractive but flighty daughter Dilys and the title character Jassy Woodroffe, a beautiful gypsy girl. Jassy has the gift of second sight, something which causes her to be regarded as a witch by local people, who want to throw her into the village duckpond to see if she floats or not. (Witchcraft had officially ceased to be regarded as a crime in Britain in 1735, but folk-superstitions like this died hard. The last extra-judicial killing of a suspected witch took place, according to some accounts, as recently as 1945).
The name "Jassy" is short for "Jacinth"; it is not a corruption of "Jessie". She claims that her name is taken from the Bible, and although there is no Biblical character named Jacinth the word is used in the Bible, at least in some translations, to mean a type of jewel.
The plot goes though too many twists and turns for me to set out anything like a full synopsis here. The film opens with Hatton, an obsessive gambler, losing his stately home, Moderlaine, to Helmar while gambling. Much of the story revolves around Barney Hatton's attempts to regain Moderlaine for his family, as well as his romantic liaisons with both Jassy and Dilys Helmar. Along the way there is also a suicide, an attempted elopement, an unexpected marriage, a murder, another killing (which could be either murder or manslaughter but in respect of which the perpetrator is never prosecuted) and a dramatic trial scene.
As was normal with Gainsborough melodramas (indeed, with melodramas in general), the acting is exaggerated and stylised. In some contexts over-acting can be a vice, but in a film like this one it is what we have come to expect- so much so that anyone attempting to give a naturalistic performance would look out-of-place. Margaret Lockwood, who also starred in "The Wicked Lady", makes Jassy an appealing heroine, not only beautiful but also spirited, intelligent and capable. Perhaps the best performance comes from Basil Sydney as Nicholas Helmar, a wicked Squire Jasper in the best melodramatic tradition.
Most Gainsborough films were made in black-and-white, as were some American historical melodramas, such as "Dragonwyck", from the same period. The use of monochrome for costume dramas, a genre which seems to cry out for bold colours, must seem very strange to the modern viewer, but in the 1940s the economics of film production was very different to what it is now. The use of expensive colour film could add a considerable amount to the cost of a movie, a cost which could not always be recouped at the box office. Although there were some notable exceptions, such as Olivier's "Henry V", this was particularly true of Britain during the economic privations of the wartime years.
By 1947, however, the war was over and, although complete economic recovery was still a long way off, some film-makers felt they could be more adventurous. Jassy" was made in Technicolor, which on this occasion did pay off, both economically- the film was a box-office hit- and artistically because the use of colour really does add a dimension to the film which it would otherwise have lacked. With its exciting, incident-packed plot, its lovely heroine, its detestable villain and a happy ending "Jassy" is a fine example of the historical melodrama. 7/10
Some goofs. To judge from the costumes the action of this film would appear to take place during the 1820s or 1830s. Before the passing of the Married Women's Property Acts or 1870 and 1882 married women could not own property in their own right, so one of the key plot points- Jassy's agreement to marry Helmar if he will make Moderlaine over to her- just does not work in a legal sense. Even if he had transferred the land to her while she was still single, it would have reverted to him as soon as they married. The version of the Royal Arms we see displayed in court during the trial scene was one which had ceased to be used in 1801.
Odd Man Out (1947)
I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal
This is the first of three films noirs, all containing the word "man" in their title, made by Carol Reed during the forties and fifties; the others are "The Third Man" and "The Man Between". It is the only one of the trilogy to be set in the UK, the other two taking place in continental Europe. The action takes place in an unnamed "Northern Irish city" (for which read Belfast) and features an unnamed "illegal organisation" (for which read the IRA). We may think of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" as something dating only from the late sixties, but the province was never entirely free of political violence after partition in the early twenties. It was a brave move to make a film about this subject in 1947, especially one which does not take sides politically, as the IRA were cordially loathed in Britain, not only for their terrorist activities but also for their openly pro-Nazi stance during the recent war.
Johnny McQueen is a leading member of the organisation who has recently escaped from prison. He and his cell are ordered to rob a factory to obtain funds. The raid, however, is bungled and a cashier is killed and Johnny injured. He is forced to go on the run, while the police organise a manhunt. Various people, including members of his own organisation and his girlfriend Kathleen are also trying to find him, for various reasons.
James Mason (who also starred in "The Man Between") is said to have regarded this as his best film, and others have held it in high esteem, Roman Polanski going so far as to call it his favourite film. It certainly has its virtues, but I have always felt that it also has its faults and I have never rated it as highly as "The Man Between" or Reed's masterpiece, "The Third Man".
Most of these faults come in the second half of the film in which a number of people are searching for Johnny, and not always for the obvious reasons. Kathleen is looking for him because she loves him. A priest, Father Tom, wants to save his soul. A painter, Lukey, wants to paint him because of what he "sees in his eyes". Lukey's friend, Shell, is hoping for a financial reward, either from the authorities or from the organisation, for information about Johnny's whereabouts. Two old ladies take pity on him, but throw him out of their house when they discover who he is and what he has done, although they do not hand him over to the police. A barman takes a similar attitude. From around the halfway mark onwards Johnny, the dominant figure in the first half, fades out of the film, becoming a passive symbol- a symbol of whatever the other characters want to make of him- rather than an active participant in the drama. As a result, the film seems structurally unbalanced, a union of two halves which do not fit neatly together.
Moreover, the acting is variable in quality. Robert Newton plays Lukey as the standard caricature of the artist as an eccentric, possibly mad, Bohemian starving in a garret. F. J. McCormick plays Shell as the standard caricature of the stage Irishman, full of the blarney and speaking little that makes any sense. And, like most stage Irishman, he has a Southern Irish accent. In fact, most of the cast sound as if they come from either England or Southern Ireland. Virtually nobody manages - or even attempts a genuine Ulster accent.
On a more positive note, some of the cast are better; I am thinking particularly of Kathleen Ryan as the faithful Kathleen and Denis O'Dea as a sympathetic policeman. The cinematography is excellent. Reed is able to conjure up a vision of Belfast- many scenes were shot on location in the city- as memorable as the visions of New York or Los Angeles conjured up by the great masters of American noir. We see the city in all its moods- the robbery takes place in bright sunlight, but later scenes were shot in shrouding fog or driving rain. The closing scene takes place in a snowstorm. There is also a fine dramatic musical score from William Alwyn.
When I said that the film does not take sides politically, I meant that it is neutral on the question of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or be united with the Irish Free State (as it was in 1947). On the question of political violence I think it does take sides. Even early in the film Johnny finds himself at odds with his organisation- a possible explanation of the title- because he has come to believe that non-violent political action might achieve more than armed struggle. Although Johnny tends to fade out in the middle of the film, he returns to prominence at the end. He knows he is dying; if he does not receive medical treatment his wounds are likely to prove fatal, but if he goes to the hospital he will be arrested and hanged for the murder of the cashier.
He begins to quote from that famous passage in St Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, including the words "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal". He may be delirious, but in his delirium he gives voice to an idea which he has instinctively known, and has been struggling to express, since the beginning of the film, namely that the rhetoric of men of violence, including members of his own organisation, who lack charity in their hearts is hollow and worthless, of no more significance than a tinkling cymbal. Although this is not, in my view, Mason's finest film, it is nevertheless a fine, highly expressive, individual performance. 7/10