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The Gallant Men: Pilot (1962)
Director Robert Altman's final association with Warner Brothers' TV-production unit resulted in this successful pilot episode for the 1962-63 World War II series, which featured William Windom in a guest-starring role as an Army private with an interesting past. The episode begins with a beach assault at Salerno and ends as the Allies' drive inland to just within striking distance of San Pietro.
Though the action sequences for this premiere installment of "The Gallant Men" is marred with obvious stock footage from older WB war films -- most prominently William Wellman's "Darby's Rangers" (1958) and Michael Curtiz's "Force of Arms" (1951) -- the quieter scenes are handled deftly. Altman skillfully introduces the series' regular characters who will figure significantly in future episodes: battle-hardened veterans such as the romantic, crooning Italian-American lover-boy Private D'Angelo (Eddie Fontaine); the stocky, barrel-chested Private Lucavich (professional fighter Roland LaStarza); the wisecracking Private Hanson (Robert Gothie), and so forth.
Chic Satire, Done the Right Way!
"Kaleidoscope" drifts through like a pleasant breeze. Allow yourself five minutes with this light comedy, and you're hooked. Set in 1960's Swinging London and Europe, the film was directed by an American, Jack Smight, in an abstract style that deliberately calls attention to itself. The dialogue is amusing repartee; and the performers seem so offbeat they exist as near comic-book characters. If a viewer feels distanced, then the film's creators have succeeded. It's all pretty much at the same level as that quintessential Sixties caper, "Modesty Blaise" (1966), only a bit less refined and a tad more square.
Warren Beatty stars as a card-cheating playboy with romantic pretensions. Before "Kaleidoscope," Beatty had acted in only one other film comedy ("Promise Her Anything," with Leslie Caron). Here, he comes on a little heavy-handed at first, but he soon settles in with the other performers, including Eric Porter, a powerful presence in the role of a sociopathic Mr. Big with a dreadful Napoleon-complex.
The movie's high notes arrive on cue. The climax is a high-stakes, winner-take-all poker game, and it's a tight, suspenseful scene. Its resolution will leave you breathless, admiring the good, low-keyed humor of the whole affair. The film's denouement, a kidnap-and-rescue sequence, is almost as clever. This film is not High Art -- not by any stretch of our good will or imagination. But there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure from well-made fluff, especially if we realize the genre's built-in limitations. "Kaleidoscope" is great fun because, like its gambler/hero, it doesn't always play by the rules.
With Susannah York as Beatty's chic companion, a Carnaby Street shopowner, and Clive Revill as her Scotland Yard inspector/father.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
When "Tora! Tora! Tora!" premiered in late 1970, the critics went on a bomb-and-strafe mission. The movie was deemed an expensive dud, a costly waste of effort and money. Old-fashioned classical narratives were not in vogue during the Counterculture era in Hollywood. Indeed, when viewed within the historical context of the late '60s, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" does seem a throwback to a much earlier style of war-film. All that's missing is a rousing Max Steiner musical score to punctuate the action.
The veteran director, Richard Fleischer, does try to make the film seem "hip" and "anti-authoritarian." He exposes a laundry-list containing one diplomatic blunder after another, all of them leading up to a failure by America's power-structure to prevent the inevitable surprise air-attack the movie's big set-piece. As a result, generals, admirals, cabinet-officers - the entire elite - are made to appear as incompetent as those in "Dr. Strangelove." "Tora! Tora! Tora!" has that smug, cynical "what-if-this-had-happened-instead-of-that" appeal that can often cripple a historical film, especially one that purports to expose the Real Truth behind America's day of infamy.
In this movie, the Japanese fare much better. The actors impersonating Yamamoto and company don't play their parts completely straight. While they may pose as disciplined, dedicated, and spirited warriors, they're never fanatical, never too stiff, and always quick with a joke. Still, the clever competence of the Japanese makes their American counterparts resemble Keystone Kops in army drag. Even Fleisher's direction is bested by his Oriental opposite-numbers, Fukasaku and Masuda. (According to Fleischer's autobiography, Akira Kurosawa was originally hired to helm the Japanese scenes. He proved such a tyrannical boss on the set, however, that the producers let him go after only two days of shooting. This might explain the loose, relaxed attitude of the Japanese actors.)
And then there's the surprise raid itself. Certainly, it's an impressive staging. But to what purpose? Why did Richard Zanuck find it necessary to back this film and almost take Daddy's Fox Studios into bankruptcy? Besides, when compared to John Ford's documentary, "The Battle of Midway" (1942) -- a movie that's an act of bravery in itself -- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" is an emotional blank. It piles on its points of irony effectively; yet in the end, it conveys all the excitement of a burial detail with just as much panache.
Dead of Night (1945)
Horror Quintet: One Out of Five Ain't Bad
Ealing Studios' collection of five short stories, all designed to frighten and amuse, would not deserve mention almost 60 years later if it were not for its fifth and final episode. The first four, by comparison, are negligible.
Alberto Cavalcanti, who three years prior had directed one of the better British war films, "Went the Day Well," is responsible for both the worst and the best of this anthology. In fact, it's better not to mention his "Christmas Party" segment at all, except to say that the young actress Sally Ann Howes does the best she can with what little she's given to work with. Again, the chief reason for seeing "Dead of Night" is Cavalcanti's powerful "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," the episode that closes out the quintet. It retains its dramatic impact over these years mainly through the presence of Michael Redgrave.
Redgrave plays Maxwell Frere, the ventriloquist of the episode-title, a genius at throwing his voice and inventing clever one-liners for his partner, a Charlie McCarthy-style dummy. Frere, however, is also a schizoid personality with an extremely overprotective fondness for his wooden partner. Frere's identification with his creation is so all-consuming that soon the identities of both actor and dummy merge. The chilling conclusion must surely have been the inspiration for the ending of Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).
In fact, the entire episode was the chief inspiration for many future horror-melodramas, including "Devil Doll" (1964), with Bryant Halliday; "Magic" (1978), with Anthony Hopkins; and the "Child's Play" movies of the '80's and '90's.
Fredrick Valk appears as Frere's psychiatrist and Elisabeth Welch, as a Parisian nightclub singer, belts out the memorable 'Hulla-looba.'
'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)
Love and Economics in the Highlands
The title, "I Know Where I'm Going," refers to a declaration made by the film's heroine, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a middle-class English girl who's determined to get to the top of the social rung by any means legal. Thus, at the story's outset, we learn she has just become engaged to Sir Robert Bellinger, one of the richest industrialists in Britain. She knows where she's going all right: To the Scottish isle of Killoran, by train and by boat, where her future as Lady Bellinger is to be confirmed in matrimony.
Yet as far as Joan is concerned, Killoran may as well be a distant planet, for either thick fog or a high wind makes it impossible for her to ferry across to Gretna Green. It's as if the atmosphere, something in the climate, or perhaps the old legends and superstitions that proliferate the Highlands are conspiring to keep her from obtaining everything she's ever wanted from the time she was a child.
It's obvious to the Scottish locals that the island of Killoran is highly suspect as the key to Joan's future happiness. Yet she is stubborn, even bribing a boy to pilot a small boat to Killoran in the midst of a huge squall a move that proves nearly fatal. She's determined to get "where she is going," but she's turned away -- by the elements as well as by a slow realization that she has become emotionally attached to a naval officer on leave (Roger Livesey) who she has just encountered.
Michael Powell, the director, keeps things moving at an agreeable pace. There isn't a single wasted motion in this modest little film. The minor characters are memorable: Pamela Brown, as Catriona, who is introduced silhouetted against the gray Northern sky, her hand tethered to a leash restraining dogs as they make their way up a brae; Finley Curray, whose weather-beaten face says more about his salty character than the terse, excellent dialogue he is given; and there's a cameo by a pre-teen Petula Clark.
In his autobiography, "A Life in Movies" (published 1987), director Michael Powell recalled that he and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger sharply disagreed as to their best collaborative film work. The former argued in favor of their satirical vision of Heaven, the phantasmagoric "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946). The latter preferred the romantic world of international ballet as presented in the opulent backstage musical/dance-athon, "The Red Shoes" (1948). In my opinion, both were mistaken.
"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943) is their masterpiece. It was the film in which Powell finally fulfilled the promise that he had shown sporadically in his earlier films in scenes such as Conrad Veidt's darkly comic encounter with a mountain-goat while trailing a bicycle up a cliff in "The Spy in Black" (1939); the opening shot of "Thief of Bagdad" (1940) as the camera tracks closer to Jaffar's ship and reveals a painted eye on the boat's prow; or in the eerie opening sequence of "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942), where, without a crew to guide it, a Wellington bomber, flying over the southern coast of Britain, suddenly smashes into a power line and implodes in a blazing white ball of flame. Here, in "Colonel Blimp," based on the stuffy, elitist character created by David Low, director Powell found a unifying style that encompassed the other-worldly vision that is sustained throughout the film's lengthy running time (2 hours, 43 minutes) a style that is, at once, austere yet elegant; moody but curiously euphoric; hard at its core but sentimental around the edges.
As evidenced by the film's title, Pressburger's script does deal in a very generalized way with issues of Life and Death, but he carries his vision into the realm of the abstract, and he does so in circular fashion. More specifically, he explores a younger generation's brash, rebellious attitude towards their elders; and then examines how that attitude becomes more restrained, more conservative with the passage of time until, as that generation ages, they become so "traditional" that, in the end, when their notions of honor and ethics have become obsolete in relation to the dominant society, they abstain from collaborating with community and, in a sense, they cease to really exist at all. And in the end, Death is all there is.
In keeping with Pressburger's theme, the film is structured in circular fashion, beginning in 1943, flashing back to 1903 and progressing all the way up to 1943 again, where it ends: Life as a universal loop, so to speak. Pictorially, the movie begins with an image of speed British military messengers motorcycling across the English highways to their respective units with orders regarding war-game maneuvers. But the film ends with a sharply contrasting image a yellowish-brown leaf floating down a small waterway, its slowness of passage suggesting a funeral dirge and procession.
The story's main concern is of the deep friendship and camaraderie between the film's hero, Major John Candy, V.C. (Roger Livesey), and German Lieutenant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who meet one another as participants in a duel that has been arranged for the two in order to solve a peacetime diplomatic dispute. Afterwards, while nursing their wounds in a hospital, they become close friends so much so that when it is discovered that they are unacknowledged suitors to the same girl, an English governess (one of three women played by Deborah Kerr), there is no dispute whatsoever: a coy suggestion by the filmmakers that two individuals can often solve disputes more efficiently than two nations. There is a temporary row between Candy and Theo at the end of the First World War, as indeed there can be little other than animosity between two uneasy nation/signatories of a peace treaty. But 20 years later, when Theo flees Nazi Germany and begs political asylum in England, it is Candy (now a general) who gladly uses his enormous influence to save Theo from either internment or deportation. This last episode is particularly affecting: Theo recites for British immigration officials a long, sad story of his life from 1919 on, relating the death of his wife and the indoctrination of his sons into the Hitler Youth.
From there, the film completes its flashback "loop" to 1943, where we witness Candy's old-fashioned Victorian adherence to "good sportsmanship" his single failing as a military tactician and leader that costs his Home Guard unit a war-games competition. David Low sought to satirize the Blimp character as a ridiculous facsimile of grandiose pomposity; Powell and Pressburger, however, seek to humanize him by tracing the process that finally made "Colonel Blimp" what he was, at least externally. Roger Livesey's performance is an outstanding, sympathetic tour-de-force he was one of the most transparently gifted film actors of his generation. And Deborah Kerr's triple-performance confirmed her stardom for decades to come.
Powell references one of his favorite films "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) throughout even down to the naming of Candy's aunt as the Lady Margaret Hamilton. Candy is referred to as "the Wizard" by his driver's fiancée, even while humming and dancing to the tune "We're Off to See the Wizard." (Three years later, Powell would use "Oz's" technique of alternating between monochrome and Technicolor for his fantasy, "A Matter of Life and Death.")
Shakespeare As Poetic Pageant
"Henry V" is poetry within the historical context of English patriotic pageantry. As Shakespearean scholar J. Dover Wilson observed in a 1943 critique, it justifies and celebrates a well-ordered vision of British conservative values respect for the monarchy and a rigid feudal class-system. And as Pauline Kael asserted in 1989, Shakespeare's text "is perhaps the greatest jingo play ever conceived."
At the beginning, a Prologue asks us to imagine "a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene" rather than "the flat unraised spirits...on this unworthy scaffold." Laurence Olivier, who directed this 1944 film version, heeds the misgivings expressed in that Prologue. While his staging of "Henry V" begins within the enclosed intimacy of a studio-created Globe Theatre, acted before an appropriately attired Elizabethan audience, Olivier uses the medium of Cinema to physically "open up" the play as it progresses from scene to scene, increasingly taking advantage of elaborate studio scenery and lighting and mattes, ultimately using vast exterior locations for the climactic Battle of Agincourt.
Olivier, in the lead role, is a forceful King Harry, but his work and imagination behind the camera are stunning, especially for a first-time director. The humor of the fumbling "unraised spirits" who impersonate the roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) and the Bishop of Ely (Robert Helpmann) is an early surprise, as is the coarse high-jinks of Robert Newton's interpretation of Pistol, chewing up the scenery and everyone in sight. As a director, Olivier borrows from the conventions of the stage, but it isn't so much that he copies them; he transforms them. Thus, he shows us a fleet of miniature warships engulfed in an English Channel fog, a "narrator" superimposed against painted, moving backdrops, and (at the end) the bleak French postwar countryside a zone of pillage, poverty, and heartbreak in the aftermath of battle.
This version of "Henry V" was made with a wartime audience in mind. (The 'V' in the title is a perfect symbolic reference to the times.) Here, the effete, overconfident Dauphin (Max Adrian) and other French nobles stand in for the Axis alliance; the common men who make up the motley army of archers and infantry are a parallel to the agents of 20th-century anti-authoritarianism. The French losses total about ten thousand 8,400 of which are "princes, barons, lords, knights, squires,/And gentlemen of blood and quality." The English fatalities: only "five and twenty score." An overwhelming victory for the forces of medieval anti-Fascism.
Jungle Book (1942)
Kipling, Via the Kordas
When the Blitz began taking its toll on London, producer Alexander Korda picked up stakes and headed for Hollywood, with his two brothers, Zoltan and Vincent, in tow. There, they finished "Thief of Bagdad" (1940) and then began this elaborate Technicolor version of Kipling's Mowgli stories, originally titled "The Jungle Books," (published in 1894 and 1895). The film focuses on three of the volume's stories - "Mowgli's Brothers," "Tiger, Tiger" and "The King's Ankus." It's a fairly interesting screen translation of Kipling's attempt to provide young readers with the stories he was told by his Indian ayah when he was a child growing up in the Far East.
When a big-spending movie producer like Korda acquires the rights to a classic, there are inevitable changes. Someone hit upon the cute idea of giving Mowgli (played by Sabu) a "love interest." She appears here in the person of Mahala (Patricia O'Rourke), but after she passively lends impetus to an ill-fated search for lost treasure, her character becomes inconsequential to the rest of the picture.
The film begins as Mowgli's mother, Messua (Rosemary de Camp) is widowed one morning when her husband becomes breakfast for a hungry tiger. We later learn that the tiger is the vicious Shere Khan, who during Mowgli's childhood has become his arch-enemy. Unfortunately, when Mowgli and Shere Khan square off for a climactic battle to the end, the dated special-effects are a disappointment. Perhaps Kipling's original version of Khan's death in the book, he is trampled lifeless by Mowgli's animal/allies would have better suited the film.
Three of the village's leading citizens have been thrown together as a sort of Hindu vaudeville act: Buldeo, the blowhard hunter (the good, underrated Joseph Calleia); the greedy barber (John Qualen); and the "pundit" (Frank Puglia). Their lust for a dead king's treasure is given appropriate levity. The predatory Buldeo, Shere Khan's human counterpart, represents the single most dangerous threat to the jungle and the sense of community held sacred by the animals who live there. Ideologically, therefore, the fire that purges the jungle of all human sins seems an appropriate climax.
In the end, we see Buldeo, now aged and wiser, confessing his past sins to all who will pay a rupee to listen to his story of Mowgli and the jungle. As we see, he ultimately earns his money and reputation honestly as not only a story-teller, but as the narrator of this charming spectacle.
An Anglo-Dutch Treat
Following up on their first three collaborative successes ("The Spy in Black," "Contraband," and "The 49th Parallel"), director Michael Powell and scenarist Emeric Pressburger formed their own production company, The Archers, and "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942) was the firm's first project.
This World War II-drama is a clever reworking of "The 49th Parallel" (1941), a story of six German sailors marooned in Canada when their submarine is bombed by Allied pilots; the rest of the movie depicted their attempts to cross over into then-neutral U.S of A. This time around, in "One of Our Aircraft...," the heroes are six members of a British RAF bombing crew. We watch as they take off for the Continent one evening on a bombing raid and sample their conversation before they reach the target. After dropping their bombs on a Stuttgart industrial plant, their Wellington aircraft suffers a direct hit from German flak. The crippled airplane flies as far as Nazi-occupied Holland before the crew decide to bail. The rest of the film chronicles their efforts to return to England while avoiding capture, with the assistance of various Dutch civilians.
Just as "The 49th Parallel" was Powell's wartime love-letter to Canada, "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" serves the same purposes for his locale here the Netherlands. The film opens with a close-up of a document, signed by leaders of the Dutch government-in-exile, informing us of the names of a half-dozen Dutch citizens who were caught, tried, and executed for performing acts against Germany's Occupation Forces i.e., helping downed Allied fliers return to their bases in England. This visual device, the close-up of official paperwork, is repeated throughout the film. At certain intervals between episodes, Powell fills the screen with other documents and examples of bureaucratic red tape mostly applications to Nazi officialdom by the Dutch, asking permission for such mundane matters as attending churches, visiting relatives in other villages, viewing football(soccer) matches. Off- screen, we hear the rude commentary of a German Commandant as he stamps his reluctant approval on each application. The purpose of this motif is clear: to establish to British audiences what life in England would be, should it be overrun and occupied by an enemy who insist on running the world with "an orderly mind." The whole film is a wartime morale-poster: "Keep a Stiff Upper Lip" and "We Can Take It," etc. (This last slogan, we are clued by one of the movie's Dutch characters, was actually first used by Holland 150 years prior.)
The crew represents an interesting cross-section of England: Sir George Corbett (played by Godfrey Tearle, who was the treasonous villain in Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps"), the "old man" of the half-dozen, a WWI vet who wants to have another go at the Hun; Geof Hickman (Bernard Miles), the amiable Cockney; Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams), a tragedian who never passes up the chance to boast of his wife's impending BBC singing performance; Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman), a Midlands farmer, gloating over pictures of his prize-winning sheep; Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones), the professional soccer-player who is temporarily separated from the other five and accidentally falls in with a Dutch football team after the crew's bailout; and the pilot, John Haggard (Hugh Burden), who bears a coincidental resemblance to a younger version of the film's director, Powell. (Powell himself appears early in the film as an air-traffic controller or "director" reciting such lines as "Q for Queenie, you are now clear for takeoff.")
The Dutch patriots are a fine, spirited lot: Pamela Brown and Googie Withers (a serious actress, despite the name, and a good one too) play two women who in large part are responsible for the downed fliers' safekeeping. Robert Helpmann, appears as a leering Nazi collaborator. And a very young Peter Ustinov has a small role as a Catholic priest.
Major Barbara (1941)
"What Price Salvation Now..."
George Bernard Shaw's 1905 satirical examination of salvation, "Major Barbara," is updated in this 1941 screen translation, but the story is basically the same. Munitions industrialist Andrew Undershaft, who has not seen his family in almost 20 years, returns to find that: (a) his son Stephen, at 25, has not discovered a suitable vocation; (b) his daughter Sarah has engaged herself to a pretentious but unoffending young fool, Charles Lomax; and (c) his other daughter Barbara has adopted the Salvation Army as a career toward moral self-fulfillment and social enlightenment.
The essential question in "Major Barbara" concerns the root of the Industrial Age's social ills. Barbara (well-acted by Wendy Hiller) would argue that the greed of whiskey manufacturers and the social rapacity of the ruling classes are the culprits. Her father, on the other hand, maintains that civilization's greatest sin is the existence of poverty. Further, he deplores the shameless glorification of the "meek, honest, and downtrodden" poor and the empty condescension that is offered to those who live in filth, disease, and constant hunger. And since Andrew Undershaft is the play's hero and Shaw's philosophical stand-in (Robert Morley, the actor who plays him, is even made up to resemble Shaw), there can be little doubt as to which character, father or daughter, will ultimately triumph.
Since Shaw was directly involved in this project, it's doubtful that purists will object to the fact that the film includes additional scenes that did not appear in the play's original text. A new prologue introduces us to Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison), the professor of Greek classics who is a dismal failure as a Hyde Park lecturer. When his speeches fail to hold or entrance an audience, he is advised by a sympathetic street patrolman (Stanley Holloway) to sample the "religious" speaking-circuit. Deciding he has nothing to lose, Adolphus heeds the policeman's advice, and while doing so, he encounters Barbara speaking to a crowd with incredibly religious fervor, and he is instantly smitten. From there, the movie segues into Shaw's original First Act.
Another important addition is the mock religious conversion of the drunken Bill Walker by wrestler-turned-Salvation-Army-sergeant Todger Fairmile, a scene only described in Shaw's original transcript. Robert Newton, a very fine actor who was especially memorable in Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" (1939), here plays Walker as an unbridled, unapologetic savage of a bully. His profane dismissals of the aged Miss Mitchens and the quickness of his physical abuse of the docile Army volunteer Jenny Hill provide the film's most shocking moments. But Walker's more lethal ammunition is used in his verbal taunting of Barbara ("What price Salvation, now?") after her disillusionment with and ultimate resignation from the Army of Good Samaritans. So deep is her despair that she almost commits suicide.
Her abandonment of the Army occurs after her superior accepts a large gift of money in the form of a check signed by her own father. Barbara insists that the money is tainted, that its blood money, gleaned from her father with the sweat of his underpaid workers and by the misery suffered by the victims of Undershaft's armaments industry. However, when reluctantly following up on her father's invitation to visit his munitions plant, she discovers that Undershaft's company town is a working-man's suburban paradise of modern architecture and schools and churches; and she then understands that it is not her father who drives the hellish multimillion-dollar business that makes this Eden possible. It drives him. And the film's concluding shot of Cusins, Walker, and Barbara, marching arm-in-arm with the rest of Undershaft's proletariat, is a celebration of the playwright's ironic vision.
Shaw is primarily enjoyed for the intelligent wit of his dialogue, but he had a serious purpose here. As the playwright himself reflected in 1906, a year after the play's premiere, "Undershaft...is simply a man who, having grasped the fact that poverty is a crime, knows that when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him (a choice) between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy."
Gabriel Pascal produced and directed adequately. Here, his style is very understated and completely serviceable to the film's source. The scenes are paced briskly, even by modern standards. And the casting is superb, particularly Emlyn Williams's two-faced cynic/beggar, Snobby Price (the name says it all); Deborah Kerr is an affecting Jenny Hill (she obtained this film role by reciting the Lord's Prayer for producer Pascal); Torin Thatcher is in fine comic form as Todger Fairmile; and Marie Lohr manages to quietly hit all the right notes as Undershaft's priggish wife, Lady Britomart.